Some of my
journalism

Quite the World, Isn't It?


The face of Detroit: A Biography

November 29, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history

I've been sitting on this for awhile, waiting for the designers and sales people at Chicago Review Press to give their final approval, which apparently they've done. So here is the cover for my new book, Detroit: A Biography.

The cover is the view of Detroit from the Windsor, Canada, side of the Detroit River, looking, oddly, north. Not many people realize that Detroit sits north of Canada, a wrinkle of local geography (for a few miles the Detroit River flows mostly east to west before resuming its north to south route). The photo was taken in 1929, when Detroit was full of cash and energy, with a population of around 1.6 million - more than twice the current population.

Note the ferries and other boats docked along piers on the Detroit riverfront. It was an entirely different city then, though the skyline is clearly recognizable and quite similar to today's.

I'm looking forward to the book's launch in the spring. We're mappng out some talks and signings in Michigan, and also contemplating appearaces in other cities where it makes sense (where there'd be the highest interest in the book). Once that all gets settled, I'll post here and add it to the events tab.

And Detroit: A Biography is already showing up at online booksellers for pre-orders, so feel free to reserve yours ahead of time.


Thanksgiving

November 24, 2011

Tags: personal

"The First Thanksgiving," Jean Leon Gerome Ferris
There's been a lot of sadness in the neighborhood recently. A couple of weeks ago a neighbor two doors away died after a short and furious battle with cancer at the age of 86. A close friend of our next-door neighbor to the east dropped dead at age 37 (the same week, the neighbor says, that his family lost a longtime friend to cancer). Then yesterday, one of two sisters (in her 50s, I believe) who live next door to us to the west died after a long and particularly brutal fight against cancer.

Like I said, there's been a lot of sadness in the neighborhood.

There's a tendency amid such sadness to do the Pollyanna thing, and to mouth words that do little more than touch the surface. It's not a religious rite but it's a ritual all the same, this passing of condolences. And as heartfelt as it might be, I suspect it offers very little in the way of balm. Time, as we know, is the only healing agent that works. Though having people recognize your grief means something, I suspect, to the grieving. As does a hug. And a glass of wine.

So on this Thanksgiving, be thankful for the time you've had with those you've lost, and for the life you have. It's more fragile than you might think.

And recognize that the legend of the Native Americans whose generosity saved the early European settlers carries a significant lesson about helping those in need. This nation was founded on a wide range of personal impulses, from the desire for religious freedom to base greed.

But it survived because of the help of others - even those who had good reason to fear us. It's a human impulse we should embrace more often.


On holiday gifts and supporting authors

November 20, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, fiction

Like most people, I cringe when I see ads for holiday gift shopping when the Halloween candy bowl is still full and no one's even figured out the Thanksgiving menu and guest list. Yet, here I go ...

Over the past few days I've made arrangements with writer friends to buy their books and have the writers sign them as gifts for people. It's early, I know, but it's easy and relatively cheap to do when there's time to get the books delivered, signed, and then shipped to me for re-shipping to the recipients (good news for the U.S. Post Office, that).

Which got me thinking that I really should be urging all of you to think about doing something similar. Most authors like to interact with readers, and many are willing to sign and ship out copies of their books (well, at least those not lucky enough to have a mass audience). So if you have a favorite author, or are the friend of an author that you think someone on your list would enjoy, now's the time to begin making those arrangements. And the knowledge that you went to such trouble will resonate with the recipient.

Two caveats: If you're buying the book directly from the author, make sure the check (plus postage) gets there before the author sends out the book. If you're having it shipped from an online seller to the author for re-posting to you, offer to send the author a check to cover the postage. For the author, such costs add up fast, and likely would exceed per-unit what the author will make in royalties.

Of course, this is a bit self-serving (my books, ahem, make wonderful gifts for the history buffs on your list). But it's at heart a plea for broader support for writers. In this era of Kindles and ebooks, and the subsequent squabbles over pricing, the work of writers and publishers is becoming devalued. I've even seen posts by friends that they refuse to spend more than $9.99 for a Kindle version of a book, seemingly forgetting that there's labor behind that product.

As I've written here in other contexts, that insistence on the lowest possible price for the consumer, and the near-religious pursuit of a bargain, is one of the things that has helped kill millions of American jobs. Be ready to pay a fair price, not the cheapest possible price, especially if you know the people creating the product are getting their fair share. In the case of publishing, that's what will keep the industry vibrant.


One down, digging into another

November 17, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history

Those linked to me on Facebook already heard the other day that I've finished proofing the pages for Detroit: A Biography, and we're rolling along to an April release. We're still figuring out specifics but it will likely involve some appearances in Detroit, and I'll pop those details up on the events page when they get firmed up.

Meantime, I'm in the early stages of putting together a proposal for the next possible project. Too premature to post about it here, but I'm right at that precipice where idle curiosity tumbles me into obsession - the crucial first big step in writing a book. If you're not obsessed by it, chances are slim you'll be able to build up enough steam to finish the book. Or to write it with enough energy, and sense of engagement, to draw in readers.

It can be exhausting, but I'm looking forward to burying myself in another book. It's hard to describe the deep satisfaction that comes from diving into an ocean of material and detail, and then teasing a readable narrative out of what you find.

Plus, it gives you something to do during those insomnia-filled nights.

Oh, and if you're on Facebook, come friend me up over there.


On poverty, or counting those who don't count

November 8, 2011

Tags: current events, history

The U.S. Census released a new report Monday that tries to remedy structural problems with how the federal government counts the number of people living in poverty. The official measure was put together a half-century ago by a government official - and it's been the basic formula ever since.

I won't get wonkish here - you can read the report, which includes the background. But there are several problems. The official measure doesn't account for regional costs differences - rent here in Southern California, for example, versus where my parents live in rural Western New York. And while the official measure doesn't include income support from food stamps and other programs (something the New York Times found significant in this rather odd piece printed before the new report was available), it also doesn't measure health costs, child care costs, transportation - all the things that have significant impacts on family budgets.

So the new measure puts the number of Americans living in poverty at 49.1 million - in a nation of 315 million. That's nearly 3 million more people than the official measure estimated in September, and amounts to about 1.6 of every 10 Americans.

Yet the government still measures poverty at an indefensible threshold. The federal guidelines set the poverty line at $10,890 a year for a single person, and $22,350 a year for a family of four (two adults, two children). So a 70-year-old woman living on $15,000 a year is not considered to be living in poverty. Parents holding down minimum wage jobs to support their two children - making a combined $30,160 a year before taxes, Social Security payments, child care, health car, etc. - would not be considered living in poverty.

As we face protests from the left and the right about corporate excess, governmental ineptitude, and political gridlock, we again are missing what is in plain view. We are, with our religious embrace of federal policies that put global corporate profits ahead of American communities, building a wide and deep pool of poverty in this country.

And that is indefensible.


On Condoleezza Rice, and memoirs

November 5, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history, reviews

My review of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's memoir, No Higher Honor, is in the Los Angeles Times this morning. Lon-n-n-ng book, more than 700 pages, both exhaustive and exhausting.

My approach to the review was to leave politics out of it, which may or may not have been a good idea. I believe everyone has the right to be the star in his or her own memoir, and Rice gives herself her own due. Had I more patience I'd turn now to the memoirs of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush himself to try a little cross-tabulation, seeing if they included many of the same events, and their different takes on them. But, well, I don't have that much patience. Or curiosity.

But the point of the review was to assess the book, not the person or the policies. Here's the opening:
By now, of course, the key details of former national security advisor and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's "No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington" have already made it to public view. Among them: She clashed over policy with Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi had an unnerving fixation on his "African princess," which revealed itself in a bizarre private dinner in his kitchen. She regretted the timing of a vacation just as Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on New Orleans.

But there's a lot more to Rice's memoir. In fact, with more than 700 pages of reminiscences, there's an awful lot more than those headline moments, making "No Higher Honor" an exhausting walk in Rice's shoes as, arguably, President George W. Bush's most influential foreign policy advisor a role she stepped into in August 1998, more than two years before the 2000 election, when Bush was governor of Texas.

And given the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, policies of extreme renditions and the incarceration of suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, combating North Korean and Iranian nuclear ambitions well, it was a busy time.

It is a fact of American political life that after a presidential administration ends, key figures retire to write their versions of what they had seen and done. Each needs to be read with a bit of skepticism legacy more than enlightenment often is the driving force. And Rice's memoir is no different.
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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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