Quite the World, Isn't It?

Pat Conroy, Richard Russo and other authors to look for

May 31, 2009

Tags: books, writing, fiction, literature

One of the many benefits of spending a few days at BEA is the chance to mingle with sorts of folks, from buyers for libraries to authors to behind-the-scenes publishing folks. The whole point, of course, is to see what's coming out over the next nine months or so. So here's a highly distilled list of things -- mostly big books -- I'm looking forward to. I'll add more later.

-- Pat Conroy's South of Broad, which I've just finished reading (it's out in September). I've always liked Conroy's narrative power, and the lyrical embrace of language. He's a true southern storyteller and writes, in fact, the way he speaks (I interviewed him years ago for The Detroit News). I don't want to say too much about the new book, his first in 14 years, because I'm reviewing it for the LA Times. But I'll link when the review runs.

-- Richard Russo's That Old Cape Magic, due out in August. I've enjoyed most of his books, which are infused with an affectionate but skeptical look at the joys of smalltown life, and about the pervasiveness of the past. That said, I didn't think he carried off his last novel, . I have higher hopes for this one, which he sasy began as a short story and then just took off.

-- Margaret Atwood's Year of the Flood, unfortunately, wasn't available here as a galley, so I'll have to try to wrest one out of the publisher before it comes out in September. It looks to be an interesting take on human nature, part sci-fi, part fantasy.

-- Michael J. Sandel's Justice: What's The Right Thing To Do?, based on his hugely popular lecture at Harvard. I suspect this will hit a few bestsellers lists. It doesn't have the drama of The Last Lecture, but in an era in which our national sense of justice has been sorely tested -- from Guantanamo Bay to the Wall Street and banking bailouts -- this is a subject of great interest.

Interviewus Interruptus

May 30, 2009

Tags: writing, books, weird

Video proof that I am, indeed, here in New York at Book Expo America, and trying not to be perturbed when the guy who organized it, Lance Fensterman, interrupted my interview with Rick Joyce of Perseus Books Group, who led their effort to create a multi-platform instant book during the convention (I'm on camera a bit for the last third of it).

Clarence Clemons, Bruce Springsteen and 'Jungleland'

May 30, 2009

Tags: LA Times, books, history, music

I posted this over at the LA Times' Jacket Copy blog yesterday, but thought I'd share it here, too. Thursday night's keynote start to the Book Expo America included a sitdown between author Chuck Klosterman and Bruce Springsteen's sax-playing sideman Clarence Clemons and Don Reo, Clemons' co-author on his upcoming memoir, Big Man.

The highlight was listening to Clemons play the sax solo for "Jungleland" a few measures at a time, and then talk about how he and Springsteen forged it during a nonstop, 16-hour all-nighter. Clemons explained how he and Springsteen experimented by "playing this solo every way that it was possible to take those notes and put them together."

I had my digital recorder running, but given the size of the hall the recording isn't very good, unfortunately. So we'll just have to settle for this:

Nieman makes it official, suspends narrative conferences

May 30, 2009

Tags: journalism, writing

Well, the Nieman Foundation made it official yesterday (I would have updated sooner but am running ragged here in New York at the Book Expo America). As I reported the other day, this killing economy is claiming another victim -- the nation's best gathering for practitioners of narrative journalism.

Nieman Curator Bob Giles announced that the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism is suspended, as well as its smaller narrative conference for editors:
This will disappoint those who have participated in the conferences in the past and who anticipated attending another narrative gathering in the spring of 2010. This difficult step reflects the foundation's need to make a major reduction in spending for the next fiscal year, beginning in July.

For the time being, it looks like they'll be keeping the Narrative Digest alive -- a thin silver lining, that. As I posted before, this is another blast of bad news for a craft that is getting pummeled from all directions. Let's hope the suspension is really just that, and Nieman will find a way to resurrect the program in 2011.

It's the headline that makes this work

May 28, 2009

Tags: media

No big news here, but the headline on this Romenesko item is at least worth a (okay, sophomoric) giggle.

Clarence Clemons, Steven Tyler and a bunch of book people

May 28, 2009

Tags: writing, books

I'm in the Javits Center in New York City, in the small, windowed press room overlooking one of the convention floors. The trade-show aspect of Book Expo America all starts tomorrow, so the view is of scores of workers building display areas, publishers arranging their shelves, etc.

On tap today are a bunch of sessions for the business side of publishing with names like, "Today's New Media Investments: A Discussion with Softbank Capital's Eric Hippeau on where VC Dollars are Flowing and What it Means for Publishers" and "XML for Editors: What You Need to Know and Why You Should Care."

But tonight the opening reception features Clarence Clemons and Steven Tyler talking about their pending memoirs, which should be interesting. You have to wonder what Tyler will admit to as the lead singer for the legendary partiers in Aerosmith, and what fresh details Clemons can offer about Bruce Springsteen, his "boss" in the E Street Band.

Nieman to suspend* annual narrative journalism confab

May 27, 2009

Tags: journalism, writing

Well, here's some distressing news out of the East Coast. Connie Hale, a friend and editor of the Nieman Narrative Digest, tells me the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University is suspending the annual Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism (and, yes, putting her out of work). This is the pre-eminent conference for people interested in using literary devices in journalism -- both short pieces and long-form. (*My initial post phrased this as "shutting down," but Connie says it's being described as a suspension).

So far there's no formal announcement, and it's unclear what the reasoning is -- I've emailed Bob Giles,** the curator of the Nieman Foundation, and will add his comments if I get them. ADDED HERE: "There is nothing to say at the moment. We are still reviewing options relative to budget cuts required by Harvard."

This past March, attendance was relatively light, and few of the name tags listed newspapers under the attendees' names. It's an expensive conference to put on, and given the economic meltdown, my guess is money was the issue. The Nieman Journalism Lab seems to be unaffected, which suggests the Nieman Foundation is putting its eggs in the online basket.

Fair enough. But there is plenty of work to be done to enhance online narrative. The solution isn't to kill the narrative conference, but to broaden it. Lately I've been trying to envision alternative ways of using narrative online, taking advantage of its interactive nature to let readers pursue angles on their own. For example, in a story about a car crash there could be a drop-down box for people who want more details on the life of the victim. It can also be used to track simultaneous actions (the two cars coming together). The potential for experimentation is massive.

I have a personal take on this. I moderated a couple of panels at the most recent conference this past March, and every time I've gone I've come away with a deeper understanding of how to make narrative work, and a broader appreciation for the folks who do it, and teach it, exceedingly well (Adam Hochschild, a friend and regular panelist, comes to mind).

This really is a loss to the art of journalism.

** Full disclosure: I worked for Giles at two newspapers, and he was the editor of The Detroit News when I joined fellow union members to walk out on strike there in 1995.

Some kind words about Blood Passion in Dissent

May 27, 2009

Tags: books, history, writing

My first book -- I love that phrase, with its implied list of books that follow -- has been out for almost two years, but still occasionally gets some nice notice. A few months back it received a positive mention in a review/essay in The New Yorker (a rush for any author). And a reviewer in the newest issue of Dissent also has some nice things to say about it.

The review is only available online to subscribers, but here are a few salient graphs:

Scott Martelle is the latest journalist to tackle one of the epic
stories of bloody conflict in labor history—stories passed over by
academic historians who assumed they “had been done before.” But
newspaper writers who wrote history knew these were great American
dramas and jumped on them. Top New York Times journalists William
Serrin and J. Anthony Lukas were the first out of the gate with big
books on the Homestead steel workers and the Idaho mine wars—both
published in the 1990s. Other journalists followed with popular
histories of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: the Lawrence,
Massachusetts, Bread and Roses strike; and the Los Angeles Times
bombing of 1910, which was blamed on the McNamara brothers, two
militant iron workers whose case became a cause célèbre for the labor

Martelle’s account of the Ludlow affair is the best of these labor
history books by journalists. The author’s research is extremely
impressive, because he combines the skills of an investigative
reporter and a well-read historian. No previous account of the (more…)

Some kind words about Blood Passion in

May 27, 2009

Tags: books, history, writing

My first book -- I love that phrase, with its implied list of books that follow -- has been out for almost two years, but still occasionally gets some nice notice. A few months back it received a positive mention in a review/essay in The New Yorker (a rush for any author). And a reviewer in the newest issue of Dissent also has some nice things to say about it.

The review is only available online to subscribers, but here are a couple of salient graphs:

Scott Martelle is the latest journalist to tackle one of the epic
stories of bloody conflict in labor history—stories passed over by
academic historians who assumed they “had been done before.” But
newspaper writers who wrote history knew these were great American
dramas and jumped on them. Top New York Times journalists William
Serrin and J. Anthony Lukas were the first out of the gate with big
books on the Homestead steel workers and the Idaho mine wars—both
published in the 1990s. Other journalists followed with popular
histories of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: the Lawrence,
Massachusetts, Bread and Roses strike; and the Los Angeles Times
bombing of 1910, which was blamed on the McNamara brothers, two
militant iron workers whose case became a cause célèbre for the labor

Martelle’s account of the Ludlow affair is the best of these labor
history books by journalists. The author’s research is extremely
impressive, because he combines the skills of an investigative
reporter and a well-read historian. No previous account of the

Road trip -- NYC

May 27, 2009

Tags: culture, freelance, literature, journalism

I'm in New York City for a few days, staying with a friend in Brooklyn and then moving to a hotel in Manhattan while attending/covering the annual Book Expo America (BEA), the trade show for the publishing industry.

It's a massive gathering of book publishers and book buyers (mostly commercial and for libraries) focusing on books to be published late summer trhough the fall/winter season. This is my fourth or fifth time -- I lose track -- and it's always a lot of fun, if a bit overwhelming. Among the notable authors on tap: Joyce Carol Oates, Francine Prose, Pat Conroy, Tracy Kidder and rockers Steven Tyler (Aerosmith) and Clarence Clemons ("The Big Man" sax player from Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band).

I'll be posting a bit while here, and will also be contributing to the Los Angeles Times' book blog, Jacket Copy.

Prop. 8 stands. Civil rights, not so much.

May 26, 2009

Tags: California, politics, initiatives, culture

Well, the California Supreme Court did the expected this morning and upheld Prop. 8, which bans gay marriage in California. With no legal background, I'm not going to try to parse the details of it -- I'll leave that to Maura Dolan, a former LA Times colleague.

But given how each state has a different take on this issue, it's clear this needs to get to the Supreme Court -- where, admittedly, the deck seems stacked against gay marriage. But I would hope the Loving v. Virginia case would be precedent here. In that case, from 1967, the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional a state ban on interracial marriage.

That decision held that marriage is a basic civil right and thus eligible for federal protection. A civil right is a civil right, and it defies logic that the federal protections would be limited to opposite-sex marriages. At its heart a legal marriage license, which grants all the perks (tax, survivorship, etc.) is a contract, and such it should be available to all.

And if, instead, it is deemed to be a function of religion -- which is the undercurrent of the anti-gay marriage argument -- then you have to wonder what business any level of U.S. government has in sanctioning a religious rite.

Tall tales, Jared Diamond and The New Yorker

May 26, 2009

Tags: journalism, writing

So you travel to a remote corner of the world, one of many trips you've made to the region, and stumble across a man with some bold and self-indicting stories about tribal feuds, vengeance and mass murder. What do you do?

Well, if you're Jared Diamond, you write the story up for The New Yorker. But now Diamond, the UCLA professor and author of the best-selling Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, and The New Yorker are being sued by the source for the story -- who says none of it is true.

The New Yorker has taken the story down from its public access layer (we subscribers can still get at it): “Annals of Anthropology: Vengeance Is Ours: What can tribal societies tell us about our need to get even?” in the April 21, 2008 issue. And it's a good story about old ways persisting into modern times, with perhaps a bit too much gullibility born of a Western view of the world. Maybe Diamond bought the guy's story because it fit within his view of tribalism in Papua New Guinea, where he has made many trips researching birds. Or maybe it just fit his overarching point about vengeance.

There are many other interesting facets to how the story was handled, and the source's very modern and Western response -- filing a lawsuit. Diamond is a respected researcher, public intellectual and author -- I once profiled him for the Los Angeles Times -- and he can tell a good story. But the vetting of the article seems to have been very weak, both by Diamond and by The New Yorker. Columbia Journalism Review has a nice overview here, and over here you'll find the initial takedown of the piece by Stinkyjournalism.com.

My money would be on an eventual out-of-court settlement with no admission of fault. But that the story was written and published in the first place is troubling, to say the least. As the linked pieces point out, this was essentially a single-source story in which the source implicated himself in heinous criminal acts. I can't count the number of red flags that should have raised. And, if it turns out Diamond was wrong, or was lied to by the source, I wonder if the lure of an intriguing story about savage acts in a third-world jungle blinded him and The New Yorker to their core responsibility to verify the story.

Smear campaign allegation leads to poet's resignation

May 25, 2009

Tags: literature, culture, weird

UPDATE: Ruth Padel now says she tipped off journalists to the old harassment complaint. So much for the early denial ....

Ruth Padel, the first woman to ever be elected Oxford Professor of Poetry, has resigned the post over allegations she was involved in a smear campaign that earlier led fellow poet Derek Wolcott, a Nobel Prize winner, to withdraw from consideration.

The smear campaign involved anonymous letters detailing a sexual-harassment allegation against him from 1982, while he was teaching at Harvard. Padel denied involvement in the letter campaign, but stepped down anyway.

And I thought presidential politics was a full-contact sport.

Jay Bennett dies

May 25, 2009

Tags: music

I was saddened to see that Jay Bennett died yesterday. I still listen to old Wilco albums, and this morning tossed on Bennett's "Bigger than Blue." Great songwriter with a voice that can haunt.

Here he is with Jeff Tweedy in better days (they had a rather acrimonious fall out).

Lisa See in The O.C.

May 24, 2009

Tags: writing

Lord I hate that "The O.C." stuff, but that's the price you pay for a cheap rhyme ...

Lisa See, who has built up a solid body of fiction over the past decade or so, has a new book coming out this week, Shanghai Girls, exploring the lives of two sisters in 1937 Shanghai as the region is consumed by war. I have yet to read it (hint to the Random House publicity team), but loved her earlier works, including Peony in Love and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

See is breaching the Orange Curtain on June 6, taking part in Barbara DeMarco-Barrett's new Pen on Fire Speaker Series. This event will be at the Scape Gallery, 2859 East Coast Highway in Corona del Mar. Barbara, among other things, is co-host of "Writers on Writing," aired on KUCI and available by podcast. Earlier, Barbara hosted Carolyn See, Lisa's mother, and Merrill Markoe, as well as a session with Martin J. Smith, author and editor of Orange Coast magazine (I do freelance for him).

I have yet to attend one of these sessions -- due in no small part because they keep selling out too fast. But maybe I'll some of you at this one.

Verbs. I need more verbs ...

May 24, 2009

Tags: writing

Well, the desk is clean, a freelance assignment is just about done, and it's back to the book. At least in theory. You writers out there will understand this -- I'm looking at a stretch of time that has to be written about, but that at its core is as dull as a sidewalk. I have to find some way to bring it to life against the much more scintillating context of the story itself, the trial of the Communist Party leaders.

But, well, this part is just plain boring.

Part of the defense strategy in the trial was to delay and drag things out. At the opening of the trial they launched into a weeks-long attack on the jury-selection system, in which they paraded dozens of witnesses through the court room. The judge was indulgent. The witnesses were redundant. The challenge failed. The days dragged on ...

I'll make this work and by the time I'm done it will all sing and make sense. But for now, I come out to the desk and, instead of rubbing my hands together in excitement to get launched on the day's work, sit down with a groan. And straighten the papers on my desk. And check Facebook. And check the weather. And check a friend's blog. And check Facebook. And make the coffee. And check Facebook. And pour a cup of the freshly made coffee. And check Facebook.

And update my blog.

Knock it off, Scott, and get back to work...

The cliche photograph of the work space

May 23, 2009

UPDATE: There, it took a while but I can confirm the desk is indeed made of wood.

Running out of things to procrastinate over...

I've been looking at this mess on my desk for the better part of a week now (okay, several weeks). It's on the daily list of things to get to but, obviously, hasn't quite been accomplished. Today, for sure, after the farmer's market this morning.


The row of books is part of the research material for the current book project, The Fear Within, which has had me buried in the immediate postwar years. It's a fascinating era in which national fear of foreign enemies -- communists, in this case -- had a major impact on government policy and led to an erosion of basic civil rights.

Sound familiar?

Any Nero Wolfe fans in the house?

May 22, 2009

Tags: literature, culture, politics

I have to admit to a certain fascination with the trial underway in Manhattan over the alleged plundering of the late Brooke Astor's estate. The drama falls somewhere between Tom Wolfe and Rex Stout, the creator of the one-seventh of a ton genius detective Nero Wolfe.

At its heart it's a throwback story, drawing in the top layers of Manhattan's high society, beginning with Astor, at one point the hostess in New York City. Graydon Carter, Vanity Fair's legendary editor, and Henry Kissinger (a war criminal in some quarters; the hero of American diplomacy in others).

But it's also a deeper tale of crumbling families, greed, probably a little jealousy and, deepest of all, betrayal. And that the victim was elderly and infirm takes the story out of all those zones and places it in the heart of nearly every American family that has dealt with a matriarch or patriarch reaching such advanced, and debilitated years.

Damn, it should be a novel.

Garry Wills on Henry Louis Gates, Lincoln and racism

May 22, 2009

Tags: history

The upcoming issue of The New York Review of Books (to my mind the best journal in the country) has an essay/review by the incomparable Garry Wills of Lincoln on Race and Slavery, edited and with an introduction by Henry Louis Gates Jr., and coedited by Donald Yacovone. The book is touted as a collection of all of Abraham Lincoln's writings on race.

There has been recurrent work done on Lincoln and race and his stance on slavery, and like most historical perspectives that have become part of the national fabric, the reality of Lincoln on race is much more nuanced and volatile than the myth. Wills zeroes in on Lincoln's economic, rather than moral, argument for ending slavery. Part of it sounds pre-Marxist, arguing that the slaves had a right to the fruit of their own labor. But Lincoln also believed that slavery hurt white laborers by driving down wages and giving slave-owners an unfair economic advantage:

"So deep was Lincoln's belief in a free market of labor that he condemned slavery for impinging on the free whites' right to the fruits of their work. The slave owners' profits from the unrequited toil of their slaves gave them an advantage over those who paid their workers, making the latter less competitive than they would otherwise be. One of the reasons Lincoln wanted to keep slavery from the territories was to protect the opportunities of free white workers (another was to decrease opportunities for miscegenation). Speaking at Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1856, he said that the territories "should be kept open for the homes of free white people." Even his cherished plan of sending freed blacks to Liberia was looked at from the economic vantage of free white labor. In his 1862 annual address to Congress, he said: "With deportation, even to a limited extent, enhanced wages to white labor is mathematically certain."

There's much more to the essay, obviously, and I encourage you to click through to it (and for that matter, to subscribe). It's a thought-provoking essay, and gets at a point I make repeatedly to my journalism students: Always question how you know what you think you know. And then start peeling back the layers.

Unbashed shilling for a friend

May 21, 2009

Tags: friends, literature, politics

My friend and soccer mate Scott Laumann is on a three-month sabbatical in Minnesota with his wife and their young daughter (we're hoping the mosquitoes and black flies are merciful).

But that's not why I'm posting. He's a wonderful artist and remarkable illustrator, with works getting play in the LA Times, Rolling Stone and slew of other places. Below are a couple of samples, but check out his web site for the full array. We have a couple of his pieces (prints) in the living room, part of his giants-of-jazz series.

Great stuff.

WiFi + FCC = Warrantless Search?

May 21, 2009

Tags: civil rights, politics, weird

There's a bizarre story over at Wired that explores something I hadn't seen before. If you have a wireless system in your house, the FCC asserts, then federal inspectors have the right to warrantless entry.

According to the piece, for years the FCC has used the Communications Act of 1934 to enter properties in search of rogue radio stations and other violators of federal communications licenses covering use of radio frequencies (RF). That used to be limited to pirate radio and ham operators, the only folks with radio transmitters in their homes. The reasoning is similar to that under which fire and health inspectors are allowed to make warrantless entries to businesses. But the FCC says we're all suspects, in a sense.

From Wired: “Anything using RF energy — we have the right to inspect it to make sure it is not causing interference,” says FCC spokesman David Fiske. That includes devices like wireless routers that use unlicensed spectrum, Fiske says.

The piece goes on to cite cases in which FCC inspectors entered properties without warrants, didn't find what they were looking for but did find evidence of unrelated illegal activity, and the Supreme Court upheld the convictions.

Book deals -- but not mine

May 20, 2009

Tags: books, journalism

Some good news for my former LA Times colleagues Chris Goffard and Sonia Nazario -- Publishers Lunch reports they both have new book deals.

"LA Times reporter and author of Snitch Jacket Chris Goffard's You Will See Fire, about an American priest in Kenya who takes on the country's brutal dictatorship as well as the Catholic church while fighting social injustice, only to die under mysterious circumstances, to Alane Mason at Norton, by Lydia Wills at Paradigm and Seth Jaret at Jaret Entertainment (NA). UK/Translation: Philip Patterson at Marjacq Scripts"

Snitch Jacket was a solid debut -- character-driven and evocative of the part of Orange County that falls far far outside the upscale image.

Nazario focuses next on women.

"Enrique's Journey author Sonia Nazario's book, intimately documenting five women as they deal with a major social issue, including poverty, hunger, prison reform, and gang violence, to David Ebershoff at Random House, by Bonnie Nadell of Frederick Hill Bonnie Nadell Agency (World English)."

Love to see this.

Getting crowded here on the outside

May 20, 2009

Tags: journalism

For a truly demoralizing look at the state of the newspaper meltdown -- we're all adults here, we can handle a little blood -- check out the Paper Cuts blog. In 2008 their map mashup detailed more than 15,970 jobs lost. So far this year,they count more than 9,564 jobs have been cut.

As bad as that is, the broad retrenchment in readership of the print editions, steep fall off of advertising because of the consumer shift to the internet, and this killing recession, have squeezed the freelance market nearly shut. This afternoon I had a travel piece rejected by a major newspaper, the editor saying his space and budget are shot for the year. In May. Maybe he was fibbing to let me down lightly, but other people are saying similar things. No space, and limited budget.

This is bad news for folks like me, obviously enough, but what the freelance conduit brought to newspapers was the outside set of eyes -- story pitches from people seeing the world a little differently than the set of desk editors running the budget meetings. The result is ever less inclusive news coverage.

I'm feeling more and more like my old autoworker buddies in Detroit, or the steelworkers in Pittsburgh, our industries collapsing around us and there's nothing we can do about it.

Except blog.

A troubled process for a troubled state

May 20, 2009

Tags: California, politics, initiatives, budget

I've got an idea. Why don't we have one more California ballot initiative -- a binding, non-reversible proposition that would bar more initiatives? Because, as the old saying goes, this is no way to run a railroad.

Voters yesterday rejected five proposals that Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Democratic legislative leaders said were necessary to close the state's $21 billion budget gap. Now that the measures have been shot down, look for some serious budgetary bloodletting -- not all of the dark-day scenarios the governor trotted out over the past few days were scare tactics.

But we also need to take a step back and look at how California got in such straits. And one of the biggest culprits is the initiative process itself. It began as a Progressive-era embrace of direct democracy, but has become so dominated by money-backed agendas that it has just added another mechanism for lobbyists to influence policy.

And I know it's heresy to say out here on the West Coast, but one of the biggest problems is Prop. 13, which has resulted in our absurd tax structure. A family that just bought the same size and design house as ours, a couple of blocks away, will pay more than double the property taxes. Why? Because we bought our houses at different times.

But back to the process itself. Over the past near-century the process has been used to do everything from trying to deny government service to illegal immigrants to taxing cigarettes to provide daycare. Between 1912, when the first initiatives began, to 2002, nearly 1,200 initiatives had been prepared, 290 made it to the ballot and 99 were passed. More, obviously, have been approved since then.

But this is why we have a Legislature, to handle these issues through the mediation of the legislative process. After years of covering politics I understand fully the cynicism with which most people view politicians and legislatures. But this initiative process has done little more than give people with money and an agenda a way to circumvent the legislative process and get their desires inserted into the law books. Instead of making government more responsible, it has, combined with term limits, made it less accountable -- and made it harder to govern.

So let's have one more initiative: End the process. And while we're at it, let's get aggressive about ending the role of money in the political process. That's the fire behind the smoke.

Eugenides and Herzog

May 19, 2009

Tags: fiction, books

A friend over on Facebook was wondering the other day whether she had maybe picked up the wrong book when she decided to read Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March, which, admittedly, can start a little slow. No, several of us advised, stick with it. You have to attune yourself to Bellow's pace. Give it time.

So today I stumbled across a link on Mark Sarvas' The Elegant Variation to a piece by Jeffrey Eugenides on Bellow's Humboldt's Gift, another wonderful novel that takes, in this age of gussied up novellas and skin-thin memoirs, a little more attention span to digest. I haven't read Humboldt's Gift in years, and the piece makes me want to dig it out of the stacks in the garage (yes, like a library, we have stacks). From Eugenides' piece:

"Of course, there is a danger, with a great stylist, that the sentences will outclass what the sentences are about. Not with Bellow. Bellow gets the mix between form and content about as right as possible. His sentences pack maximum sensual, emotional and intellectual information into minimum space — all the while generating an involving, deeply moving story."

What I like about this, beyond the nudge to go re-read Bellow, is that the appreciation is out there at all. So much of contemporary book coverage (scant as it is) is tied to the marketing juggernaut of what's new. That's the nature of the beast -- the new is the news, to state the obvious. But it's refreshing to be reminded of the arc of literature itself, and that it's not always about the latest writer from Brooklyn.

Helping ourselves

May 19, 2009

Tags: Tribune, LATimes, LAObserved, freelance, photography, journalism

One of the reassuring things that came after the mass layoffs across Tribune -- owner of the Los Angeles Times, my former employer -- is the way so many of us have come together with a sense of mutual aid. A flood of "what do we do now?" and "Anyone have any idea what that letter meant?" emails led me to launch a Yahoo group for ExLATers, now closing in on 100 members. It's been a great tool for pooling knowledge and unscrambling often contradictory bits of information -- especially after Tribune entered bankruptcy.

Elsewhere, folks have launched a web site to track where former Trib employees across the properties have moved to on the web. This one is fairly new and is a good and growing showcase of the breadth and depth of talent cut loose in this crisis (thanks to LAObserved for posting it, and ExLATer Saul Daniels for alerting our Yahoo group).

And now former photographers at the LAT are joining with former shooters for the Long Beach Press Telegram and Santa Clarita Signal in their own freelance photographer network. My former colleague Matt Randall put it together, and says he hopes to have a website live next week linking to all the photographers. It augments nicely the online work our fellow ExLATer Bret Levy has been doing with webinars at WriteThru.

These are all innovative ways to address the problems we face as individual journalists. The future is ours, kids, let's keep fighting for it ....

What the hell, may as well join them

May 19, 2009

I've resisted going the blog route for myriad reasons, the most significant of which was a belief that I didn't have that many opinions. "Yeah, right," I can hear you say. Fair enough. I have one or two. So, what the hell, I may as well join the 21st Century.

What can you expect in this space? Hopefully a regular flow of material. Updates on progress on my current book, The Fear Within, which is due at Rutgers University Press in (ulp) December. Appearances and developments related to Blood Passion (feel free to give one to any Hollywood producers and directors you know - it would make a damn fine film).

But I'll also talk about some of my journalism as it unfurls, post thoughts on current events that catch my eye, and link to a whole bunch of stuff, from politics to books to soccer (Go, Arsenal!) to whatever else crosses the screen. And I'll likely throw in some postings on my travels -- such as next week at Book Expo.

So stay tuned.
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About me

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.

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