Quite the World, Isn't It?
February 28, 2014
The Post Office was good to me twice this week (I already posted about the box of paperbacks): The 25th anniversary remaster of Bob Mould’s “Workbook” album, with a second disk of a live recording of the album and some other songs, as well.
Music comes and goes, especially pop and rock, but this is one of those albums that has stuck with me over the years. I was a middling fan of Husker Du, Mould’s first band, simultaneously drawn and repelled by the sheer mass of noise they created. Maybe not repelled – challenged is a better word. It was music that took work to listen to, to find the threads of melody through the controlled chaos and remarkably dense sound created by a three-man band. Cathartic, yes, but catharsis is never easy now, is it?
Then Husker Du broke up – atomized, really – and Mould disappeared for a few months and suddenly “Workbook” was out. I remember tossing the album on the turntable and hearing the first few notes of acoustic guitar on the opening track, ”Sunspots,” repeat and build at the same time into a mesmerizing solo display that Mould never would have done with Husker Du. This was new, and different, and he was clearly making a musical break from the past. It was transition as statement.
Then came the other tracks, harder-edged, plugged-in, driving and evocative at the same time. And intimate, as in “I See A Little Light,” which her performs in the video below:
As I said, pop and rock music fades quickly. But not this album. It remains as strong and fresh as when Mould first recorded it, and is still on my high rotation” list. It should be on your, too.
February 28, 2014
Yes, that’s the paperback edition of Detroit: A Biography, shipping now and available in stores (I hope; if your local is a smaller shop you might need to have them owner order it). It looks very nice – they kept the design from the hardcover, which is that great metallic-sheen finish over the 1929 photo of Detroit from Windsor, across the river.
The book also has a new Afterword, my attempt to wrap my arms around all the developments since I finished writing Detroit: A Biography in late 2011 (it was published in April 2012, nearly two years ago). I’ve pasted the first few paragraphs of the new Afterword below to give you a sense of it.
Overall, for all of Detroit’s troubles, strong flickers of life remain there that deserve nurturing, and hundreds of thousands of Detroiters need help from their fellow citizens.
As for the bankruptcy, I find myself in a lot of discussions about that. One recurring point: Pensioners and investors should not be on equal footing. The workers did their jobs for wages and promises of future support, and the city – bankrupt or not – has a moral obligation to them. The bondholders invested knowing – it’s the nature of investing – that there was risk, and many bond buyers received inflated interest rates reflecting Detroit’s shaky financial underpinnings. I have problems at a fundamental level with much of capitalism, but if people are going to play to play the investment game knowing they are putting assets at risk, they don’t have much room to cry for special consideration when they lose the gamble. Keep the pensions whole; let the gamblers ruminate on their losses.
Seats on the second tier of Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers professional baseball team, offer an impressive view of the downtown Detroit skyline. Tall buildings shoulder their way skyward beyond the center field fence. Some have the clean lines of modern architecture, but most are much older, dating back to the 1920s, and have been dirtied by time, with a patina of gray covering ornate cornices and other architectural details that exude a sense of history. And despite a surge in purchases in recent years, many remain shuttered and empty.
This is the cradle for the potential rebirth of Detroit, which ... (more…)
February 6, 2014
So I jumped at the chance to review Joshua Zeitz's fine new book, Lincoln's Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln's Image, a review that just went live on the Los Angeles Times website and should be in the print edition this Sunday. From the review:
Sometimes political careers are born of chance.It's a fascinating work, a hybrid of traditional biography and historical storytelling. And with the sesquicentennial of Lincoln's death coming up in 2015, there will be a lot more books on that era popping up in bookstores.
Including one by me. But I don't want to get ahead of myself. First let's get The Admiral and the Ambassador launched in May ...
January 18, 2014
available online here).This weekend's Los Angeles Times carries my review of Greg Grandin's very good new book, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, which builds off the story of a single repressed slave revolt into a thoughtful revisitation to the spread of slavery in South America. The review runs in the Sunday paper (already
The timing is coincidental, but it's fun that the review appears in the newspaper the day before I start my new job as an editorial writer for the LA Times, returning to the paper and full-time work for the first time since 2008. More about that momentarily.
Grandin's book, I note in the review, is more than a simple history:
He also uses it as a spark for rumination on paradox: an antislavery ship's captain re-enslaving Africans; an "age of liberty" coinciding with "the Age of Slavery"; and the transition of an economic system based on chattel slavery to one of wages, a different kind of bondage. As Herman Melville's Ishmael asked in the beginning of "Moby-Dick," "Who ain't a slave?"
The review is the last I've done as a freelance writer, though I expect to continue reviewing after I start back at the LA Times, a move that I'm looking forward to. As much as I enjoy the freelance life - particularly the control over my own time and projects - I'm drawn to this fresh challenge of writing editorials. It is one of the few things in newspapers I haven't tried yet, and after working in near-solitude for so long it will be an interesting change of pace to become part of an editorial board, and join in the give-and-take of coming to a consensus on some of the key issues of the day.
And I also expect to keep writing books, though at a slower pace. My The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man's Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones comes out in May, and I'm coming up on the midway point of another book I'm keeping under wraps for the moment, which will come out in 2015. When it does, that will make five books of history published in a span of eight years. So expect a gap after the fifth book comes out.
Meanwhile, I hope to announce in a few weeks book tour plans for Th Admiral and the Ambassador come May, a story I'm very excited to have written about.
November 28, 2013
That's about as succinct as I can get. Over the past six years I've published three books - the fourth will be out in the Spring and I'm working on a fifth - and there isn't a day that goes by that I'm not thankful that I'm able to do this work. ... Well, some days I'm more thankful than others (when the words are plopping lifelessly on the page, not so much). But it is a very satisfying way to live, and for that freedom I'm thankful to my wife, Margaret, and, of course, to you readers, without whom these books would just be trees falling in the forest.
And I'm also thankful for my agent, Jane Dystel at Dystel & Goderich, and the editors and production staffs at Chicago Review Press, my current publisher, and Rutgers University Press, which brought out my first two books.
And archivists. And librarians. And bookstore owners and clerks.
And critics (well, most of them). So let me finish with a very pleasing snippet from a "year in books" article this week in Detroit's alternative weekly, the Metro Times:
But judging by this year’s Detroitica, publishing has brought out a line of books trading off Detroit’s unchallenged status as poster child for the Rust Belt. Call it literary ruin porn, call it paratrooper journalism, call it what you will, but all the book deals have landed on doorsteps outside the city proper. And unlike yesteryear’s chroniclers of the Detroit experience — with their limited talents but warm fondess for the city — these authors seem more opportunistic.Now, go watch some football and eat some turkey....
November 22, 2013
It's there, as a physical thing.
The next closest stage to that is getting the page proofs, and the set for The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man's Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones, arrived by UPS delivery late yesterday. I'd seen a mockup of the cover, which I posted about a few weeks ago, but pulling that stack of paper out of the shipping box was the first time I had seen the design for the book. And I like it very much. It's clean, no gimmicks or frills, easy on the eye, and fitting for the subject matter.
Now to dive in and double-check the final proofs. Since I've been immersed in another project (details soon, I promise), this process is something akin to reading the book with fresh eyes. I finished the manuscript back in April, and except for quick-reading to answer copy-editor queries, I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about the book.
I started on the first few pages late last night, and I'm still happy with it, which is nice (Lord help me if I looked at it and thought, yechh). As soon as I shake this head cold, I'll dive into it fully.
You get to dive in sometime in mid-April (pre-orders are already being taken at Amazon, though it's better if you order it through your local independent bookseller).
November 8, 2013
my review of Doris Kearns Goodwin's new history, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism It's Goodwin's usual solid job of richly detailed lives at crossroads that had significant effects on the nation. My only quibble with it is the length - 750 pages before the notes and index. As I wrote in the review:The Los Angeles Times this weekend carries
[T]hat's because this really is three overlapping books stitched together. There's a bio of Roosevelt (president from 1901-09), a bio of Taft (president, 1909-13), and a history of the muckraker era, with shorter bios of such seminal figures as Samuel L. McClure and the stable of writers (including Ida M. Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker and Lincoln Steffens) he brought together at his eponymous magazine.I took particular interest in the work because it overlaps in time and in some characters with my forthcoming The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man's Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones, due out in the Spring. Jones's body was recovered by Horace Porter, ambassador to France under President McKinley and then Roosevelt, during Roosevelt's first term, so I was already attuned to the era. And Goodwin gets it right.
October 29, 2013
As you may recall, I was very pleased with the work CRP's designers did on Detroit: A Biography. They used a photo I suggested and crafted that stunning overlay of title and 90-year-old Detroit skyline, giving it a near-metallic sheen. It really captured the essence of the book, I thought.
And they've done it again here. They used a drawing of John Paul Jones for the top bit, and a photo I found of Ambassador Horace Potter and colleagues over the crushed leaden coffin in which they found Jones's body more than a century after he died. So we have images of both tracks of the book, and presented in a way that I hope will stand out on bookshelves.
I'll let you know when pre-sales are available. As it stands, CRP is looking at a May publication date, which means books should be available mid-April or so. As you might imagine, I'm pretty excited about that. This will be my fourth published book, and I'm already working on the fifth, another history I'm keeping under wraps for now. But it's very enjoyable and professionally rewarding work, and I thank you all for your support. Without readers, these things are just so many trees falling in the forest.
October 18, 2013
But in the aftermath of the Civil War, an era in which the poor had no safety net, pretenders to glory seemed to be everywhere - often to get a pension. Richard A. Serrano, a Los Angeles Times staff writer (we overlapped but I don't recall ever meeting him), has written about this odd slice of Americana in his new Last of the Blue and Gray: Old Men, Stolen Glory, and the Mystery that Outlived the Civil War, which I reviewed this week for the Los Angeles Times. From the review:
Serrano, a staff writer in the Los Angeles Times' Washington, D.C., bureau, starts with two main characters: former Union soldier Albert Woolson and onetime rebel soldier Walter Washington Williams. Each man forms a compelling story of becoming caught up in the nation's bloodiest war and its aftermath. By the late 1950s, as the United States neared the centennial of the start of the war, each was feted as the oldest living veteran of his respective army.It's a good quick read (if redundant in places), and worth the time. On a personal level, I was intrigued by the overlaps with my own projects. One of the main figures in The Admiral and the Ambassadoris Horace Porter, who rose to prominence as an aide to general and, eventually, president Ulysses S. Grant. Porter's support for honoring fellow veterans was a main catalyst in his decision as ambassador to France to find and recover the body of John Paul Jones (the book is due out in the spring).
And I've just begun a new project, which I'm keeping under wraps for the time being, which touches even more deeply on the Civil War. In fact, this very morning I'm revisiting a key battle in western Virginia. I should keep an eye out for some of the names in Serrano's book.
A third-generation journalist, I was born in Scarborough, Maine, and grew up there and in Wellsville, New York, about two hours south of Buffalo. My first newspaper job came at age 16, writing a high school sports column for the Wellsville Patriot, a weekly (defunct), then covering local news part-time for the Wellsville Daily Reporter.
After attending Fredonia State, where I was editor of The Leader newspaper and news director for WCVF campus radio, I worked in succession for the Jamestown Post-Journal, Rochester Times-Union (defunct), The Detroit News and the Los Angeles Times, where I covered presidential and other political campaigns, books, local news and features, including several Sunday magazine pieces.
An active freelancer, my work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Sierra Magazine, Los Angeles magazine, Orange Coast magazine, New York Times Book Review (books in brief), Buffalo News, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Teaching Tolerance (Southern Poverty Law Center), Solidarity (United Auto Workers) and elsewhere. I teach or have taught journalism courses at Chapman University and UC Irvine, and speak occasionally at school and college classes about journalism, politics and writing. I've appeared on panels at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and the Literary Orange festival, moderated panels at the Nieman Conference in Narrative Journalism and the North American Labor History Conference, among others, and been featured on C-SPAN's Book TV.
I'm also a co-founder of The Journalism Shop, a group of journalists (most fellow former Los Angeles Times staffers) available for freelance assignments.
Blogroll -- an
evolving list of
places I go
follow me on Twitter