Some of my
journalism

Quite the World, Isn't It?


Coolest video you'll see this week: Legoman (almost) in space

January 27, 2012

Tags: current events

This is just too cool not to share. Some high school students in Ontario, Canada, rigged up a helium weather balloon, some cameras, and a Legoman, and let it fly ....


On Egypt, and one man's view from the inside

January 27, 2012

Tags: current events, history

Sunday's Los Angeles Times carries my review of Wael Ghonim's book, Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People Is Greater Than the People in Power: A Memoir, his detailed view from the inside of the Egyptian uprising. I liked the book, as you'll see in the review (online already here), and it's one of those books that makes me interested in reading other accounts, as well.

Ghonim, you may recall, was the Google executive and Egyptian native behind a website that became a key rallying place for myriad opposition groups challenging Hosni Mubarak's grip on power. There had been opposition groups in Egyptian for a while, and labor unions had already been pressuring the regime for change.

But revolutions often turn on timing, and Ghonim's Facebook page arrived as the opposition to Mubarak was catchng fire. From the review:
If there is a weakness to "Revolution 2.0," it lies in the narrow focus. These were days of sweeping change across North Africa and the Middle East, and while Ghonim cites the Tunisian uprising as a spark to the Egyptians' sense of hope, the book doesn't offer much in the way of step-back analysis.

But that is also a strength — Ghonim doesn't overreach in this deeply personal account. His words ring with an authentic tone, and other than a few broad comments about the character of his fellow Egyptians, Ghonim avoids sweeping generalizations during those heady and tumultuous days.

Ghonim, frustrated with life under the Mubarak regime, entered politics by launching a Facebook page supporting Nobel Peace Prize-winning nuclear-proliferation expert Mohamed El Baradei, who in 2009 began criticizing the Mubarak regime and intimating he might run for president. Ghonim then launched another page — anonymously — responding to the beating death of Khaled Mohamed Said, a fellow young Egyptian, at the hands of two Egyptian State Security officers.


Writing, and beating the long odds

January 26, 2012

Tags: writing, authors, fiction

The new Orange Coast magazine has a short piece I wrote on Thanhha Lai, a former journalist and a Vietnamese American teacher who recently won the National Book Award in the Young People's Literature category for her verse novel, Inside Out & Back Again. It's a wonderfully done book in which Lai novelizes her real-life experiences as a sudden transplant in America.

The part I love about her story is that she spent 15 years working on a novel that she finally gave up on, then turned her attention to the Inside Out & Back Again -- and won one of the most coveted awards in American letters. From my story:
She focused her writing passion on her arrival in Alabama as a 10-year-old who spoke no English. “I was standing in this playground, not knowing what the kids were saying to me,” Lai says. “For the first time the words were taken from me. I was beyond frustration, and there was nothing I could do. Those feelings never go away.”

Her novel deals with her alienation and fear, family love and obligation, all propelled by the loss of her father, who served in the South Vietnamese navy and remains missing in action. As the south fell to the Communist north in 1975, Lai says her mother faced an impossible choice for herself and her nine children: “It was heartbreaking. Wait for her husband and risk nine lives ... or just go and believe, if he were alive, he would find his way to us. In the end, her children won.”
The book targets young adults, but the knife-sharp writing and her themes of overcoming alienation work across age levels. Pick up a copy. You won't regret it.


Roger Williams and the U.S. as a 'Christian' nation

January 22, 2012

Tags: history, current events, nonfiction

The timing of this was inadvertent, yet still telling. I have a book review in this morning's Los Angeles Times of a new look at Roger Williams and the concept of the separation of church and state, at the same time the political world is digesting New Gingrich's win amid the conservative Christians in South Carolina (my friend and former colleague Mark Z. Barabak puts that into clear context here).

The book is John Barry's Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty, and it is a fascinating read. From my review:
Barry, whose earlier books include "The Great Influenza" on the 1918 pandemic and "Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America," writes with absorbing detail and quotes extensively from 17th century English, a version of the language hard on modern eyes. For instance, there's this from John Winthrop's famous "City Upon a Hill" speech to his fellow Puritans as they fled England for the New World:

"But if our heartes shall turne away, soe that wee will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship and serue other Gods, our pleasure and proffits, and serue them; it is propounded unto us this day, wee shall surely perishe out of the good land whither wee passe over this vast sea to possesse it."

But patient readers are rewarded. Williams' views on the relationship between the individual and the state carved out the path to the American future. Most of the early settlers may have been Christians, but by the time the nation was born, the focus was on preserving civil liberties, not faith — establishing a place in which people could, indeed, pursue life, liberty and happiness. And where individuals could define for themselves what that meant.


So this is what I've been up to

January 10, 2012

Tags: writing, authors, fiction

More than a decade ago I began writing a crime novel and then tucked it away for the best of reasons: My agent, Jane Dystel, sold the first of my history projects, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West. But after I finished the third nonfiction book, Detroit: A Biography, I found myself with time on my hands, and unsettled about the next nonfiction project.

So I dusted off the crime novel, tentatively titled Buried, which Jane this week begins shopping around to publishing houses. This is the description from her online newsletter:
Adam Becklund’s world was humming along nicely. Drawn from his small western Michigan hometown to Detroit, Becklund was writing a popular street-oriented column for a Detroit newspaper, had a beautiful girlfriend, an apartment with a killer view, and a life defined by daily routines that left him deeply satisfied. And then his world blew up. In this debut crime novel, BURIED, critically acclaimed nonfiction author Scott Martelle weaves overlapping stories of murder and suspicion against the backdrop of the streets of Detroit. In a matter of days, Becklund finds himself the leading suspect in the murder of his girlfriend, struggling with a sense of grief and guilt over her killing and retaliatory journalism by his rivals, and serving as the best hope his bar-owning friend Tanker has for eluding an elaborate frame job for a second killing rooted in Detroit’s criminal past. The contemporary tale of fear, intimidation and mystery merges Martelle’s gifts as a storyteller, his eye for dramatic details and his grasp of the nuances of history. BURIED is the first in a new series starring reluctant detective Adam Becklund, who finds the balm for his grief in helping others.
So friends in the publishing industry, if you're interested, get in touch with Jane. We now return you to your regularly scheduled day.


We knew this was coming, but didn't listen

January 3, 2012

Tags: current events, history

This analysis seems spot on:
"Let's suppose, for a moment, there was a country where the people in charge charted a course that eliminated millions of good-paying jobs.

"Suppose they gave away several million more jobs to other nations.

"Finally, imagine that the people running this country implemented economic policies that enabled those at the very top to grow ever richer while most others grew poorer.

"You wouldn't want to live in such a place, would you?

"Too bad.

"You already do.

"These are some of the consequences of failed U.S. government policies that have been building over the last three decades — the same policies that people in Washington today are intent on keeping or expanding. Under them, 140 million Americans, mostly working families and individuals — blue-collar, white-collar and professional — are being treated as though they were expendable.

"Most significant of all, the American dream of the last half-century has been revoked for millions of people — a dream rooted in a secure job, a home in the suburbs, the option for families to live on one income rather than two, a better life than your parents had and a still better life for your children.

"U.S. government policies consistently have failed to protect that dream in the face of growing international competition. Instead they've favored the very forces that shift jobs, money and influence abroad."
Remarkably, those paragraphs are from a package of stories by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele for the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1996.

Yes, more than 15 years ago.

Did we listen? Maybe we need to occupy history.

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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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