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 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.
If so, that’s because Detroit is vested suddenly with what ad men call “branding power.” Already a contested territory, this new “Detroit” is more up for grabs than ever. Now it’s besieged by media folks hoping to make a buck off it. All year, we’ve seen accounts of Detroit by carpetbagging feature writers, TV clowns, drive-by documentarians and so many other hucksters that it makes you long for the days when journalists only flew in for the Detroit Auto Show.
The only truly insightful book of the last year, based on decades of experience here, was Scott Martelle’s achievement Detroit: A Biography, which should be required reading for all earnest people trying to understand the Detroit of today. Published last year, it accurately tells the story of how Detroit pivoted from the glorious model city of the (mostly white) working class into a hellhole of largely black poverty. For too many metro Detroiters, this is an uncomfortable topic, which is likely why it has been so ignored hereabouts. And Martelle knows what he’s writing about. He worked for a Detroit daily paper for years until his participation in the Detroit newspaper strike and wound up working elsewhere. No doubt today’s dailies would rather happily burble on about books by writers who crossed the picket line that Martelle walked.
Now, go watch some football and eat some turkey....
There are many stages in the book writing process that carry twinges of excitement, but only a few that really make the heart race. The biggest moment for me is when I open up that box from the publisher and find a stack of the newest book inside. There the abstract - the idea behind the book - finally becomes concrete.
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).
Well, I've been keeping this under wraps for a few weeks as we go through the production part of publishing my forthcoming book, The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man's Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones. But Chicago Review Press is revamping its website, and it's posted over there so I guess it makes sense to post it here, as well.
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.
I know, I know, the blog's been quiet for too long. But I have the usual excuse firmly in grasp: I've been busy. Today I could be busier, but a certain faction of political loons (yes, I mean you, Tea Partiers) seems to have shut down the federal government right as I'm researching a new book topic.
So work I was planning to do today I now can't because the Library of Congress website is shut down, one of many bits of evidence that puts the lie to right-wing claims that a federal government shutdown doesn't have much effect. Hundreds of thousands of federal workers out of work indefinitely - and likely now hoarding cash amid the uncertainty - is a big deal for a sputtering economy, not to mention family budgets. Bureaucracy, as much as we might hate it, keeps the country moving. But now that's stalled.
And researchers like me find ourselves at loose ends. So yeah, there's an effect.
One of the reasons posting has been light here is that I've recently signed on as a contributor to the Truthdig online news site, where, not coincidentally, I blogged this morning about the shutdown, and the failed political system that made it possible. Who's really to blame? We all are, for putting up with this garbage:
And this is where the real blame lies—in ourselves, and in our failure as a body politic to end gerrymandering. With the major political parties setting the ground rules for the geographical shape of congressional districts (the process follows each decennial census), they ensure that incumbents face easy re-election by gaming the system through amoeba-shaped districts that collect the optimum number of voters for each respective party. So the only real elections at the congressional level are often the party primary, in which very few people vote. Which means minority extremists like the tea party, with some organization and the help of a compliant media that fails to call out lunacy when it sees it, can seize control of the U.S. Congress. Or at least enough of it to shut down the U.S. government.
Well, for those of you expecting to read Jones’s Bones: The Search for an American Hero in the spring, it ain’t going to happen. Oh, the book is still being published, but after some back-and-forth and input from the folks who actually have to market and sell it, we’ve changed the name.
The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man’s Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones
I hear your communal sigh, and “but, I LOVED the Jones’s Bones title!” Truth be told, I loved that title, too. But my loyalty to it was eroded by some pretty compelling arguments, and I’m trotting them out here because I think it’s probably interesting to book lovers to see some of the thinking that goes into these decisions.
First, the folks at Chicago Review Press, who are publishing the book (they did Detroit: A Biography, as well), had the same initial reaction to the original title as we all did. They loved it. But they knew the book was coming, and what it was about. They showed the title to some folks who didn’t know what the book was about. And after reading the title, they still didn’t. Because it doesn’t say which Jones, and old John Paul just doesn’t have the instant recognition of, say, Miley. Even adding a picture of Jones in his admiral’s hat didn’t help much. But getting the John Paul in there, well, that was instant recognition.
Most significant, though, was that without John Paul Jones in the title, we feared search engines looking for his name would not find the book. And in this era of digital existence, if Amazon’s title search engine can’t find it, let alone Google, the book may as well not exist.
So we bounced around constructs along the lines of Jones’s Bones: One Man’s Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones. But the double Jones just felt odd, as though a line in a poem had slid off rhythm. We played with some others, all of which fell short either because of redundancy, or imprecision.
So we finally hit on The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man’s Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones. Doesn’t grab like Jones’s Bones, to be sure, but it could help me sell more books. Which would be really nice. Because as much fun as working on these projects might be, writers still need to eat. And I don’t like cheap beer.
Oh, and I’ve seen mockups of the cover. Verrrry nice. I’ll share it when I can.
Gerald Lippiatt, with mustache, in undated family photo, courtesy of Gerald Lippiatt, a descendant.
Forgive yourselves for not having this day marked down on your calendars. But it was the beginning of unprecedented violence here in the U.S., as Gerald Lippiatt, an organizer for the United Mine Workers, was shot and killed in a confrontation in Trinidad, Colorado. His death was the first in at least 75 killings over the next seven months or so, including the 11 children and two mothers who died in the Ludlow Massacre.
These events were the focus of my first book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West. It remains a significant event in American history - not just labor history - as a strike in Colorado's coal mines escalated into open guerrilla war between union supporters and the mine owners, with the Colorado National Guard aligned with the corporations.
I thought I'd mark the day by posting the a few paragraphs from my book about Lippiatt and his final hours. And, of course, encourage you to buy a copy through your favorite or local independent bookstore, or through the link above.
August 16, 1913
Gerald Lippiatt , a stocky man with a bushy mustache, worked his way up North Commercial Street, his feet scuffing puffs of dust from the dirt roadway as he climbed the slight rise between the bridge over the Purgatoire River and downtown Trinidad. A full moon bathed the prairie-edge city in gentle light and a dry evening breeze wafted easterly from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to swirl among Trinidad’s two and three-story wood and red-brick buildings. The Saturday night crowd thickened as Lippiatt neared the city center, passing the Colorado Supply Co., the Isis Theater, the Trinidad Hotel, the Sherman-Cosner grocery store, the Quilitch Brothers’ grain and farm-implements businesses. Ahead, just before the busy intersection with Main Street, a Salvation Army minister exhorted sinners to repent, his message stopping at the doors of busy first-floor saloons, pawnshops and narrow gambling halls. Trolleys rumbled along brick-lined tracks, blue flashes from overhead wires adding to the festive energy of a crowd shaking off the exacting drudgery of a week on the ranch, or of mining coal deep below ground.
Lippiatt, an organizer for the United Mine Workers of America, had been working in Trinidad for more than a week, and was helping prepare for a state Federation of Labor convention two days later at Trinidad’s new Toltec Hotel, a three-story brick building just down North Commercial Street from the city’s established gem, the (more…)
In late July 1913 – 100 years ago today – union organizers in Colorado were laying plans to extend an ineffective three-year-old strike in the northern coal fields to the southern district, hoping that in broadening the strike they could force the coal operators to the negotiating table. Leaders of 20 different unions rallied in Trinidad 100 years ago this weekend to demand the coal operators fire the brutal Baldwin-Felts detective agency they had hired to infiltrate the union, and to keep organizers out of the mines. The coal operators, not surprisingly, ignored the demand.
Everyone expected violence, but none could have seen the future: Beginning in late September, seven months of gunfire, arson, beatings and deprivations in which at least 75 people were killed, and in which at its peak the striking coal miners held military control of the Front Range from just south of Denver to the New Mexico border.
It was guerrilla warfare between the miners and the Colorado National Guard, which had been taken over by the coal operators’ private guards. The miners were winning the insurrection, which didn't end until President Wilson sent in the U.S. Army as a peacekeeping force. Yet few history books include much in the way of details on what was likely the nation’s bloodiest labor struggle (several showdowns that began as labor actions morphed into white-on-black race riots, with, in some estimates, higher death tolls). The central moment of the Colorado strike was the Ludlow Massacre when, after a daylong gun battle between strikers and the militia, a strikers' tent colony was torched by the soldiers. Eleven children and two mother suffocated in their hiding spot beneath a tent. Their deaths became a rallying cause for union sympathizers, and launched ten days of brutal reprisals. It was class war, and the subject of my first book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West.
You’ll be seeing more posts from me over the coming months about these events, as that long-ago strike reaches its 100th birthday. I know there are commemorations being planned in Colorado, and I'm hoping the centennial will bring fresh - and national - attention to this forgotten moment in American history.
As I finish writing Jones's Bones: The Search for an American Hero - due to my publisher at the end of May - the Los Angeles Times has this review I wrote about a book that meshes nicely with the last project, Detroit: A Biography.
While my book drilled into the rise and fall of Detroit, McClelland casts a wider geographic net. Some of the material feels dated (as I pointed out in the review), but this is a solid addition to the current collection of books about the nation's faded industrial core. From the review:
Engagingly written, the book covers some of the emblematic stories of the past few decades, from the 1994 A.E. Staley labor lockout in Decatur, Ill., an underappreciated example of the uneven playing field on which organized labor fights these days, to the creation of a shoppers' paradise out of old steel property in Homestead, Pa., near Pittsburgh, a "microcosm of what America had become: a nation of shopkeepers who sold each other things, instead of making things."
In many ways, "Nothin' but Blue Skies" is a personal travelogue. The book begins with McClelland dropping into a blue-collar bar across the street from a closed auto plant in his native Lansing, Mich., where he entered high school as the bottom was falling out of the auto industry with the 1981-82 recession. McClelland also was a newspaper reporter in Decatur during the Staley lockout, and now lives in Chicago, which also gets some play in the book.
The author is fully present in these scenes, though the tales are predominantly those of others: Steelworkers laid off in their 50s, never to work again; autoworkers in their 40s moving into service jobs at a fraction of their former pay; chronically poor urban scavengers; young men who will never have a shot at a factory job rolling drugs in urban underground economies. Or economies in which nothing is produced.
"Young people who were born after the manufacturing base was destroyed, I don't think they have a clue about what this place was like," Homestead Mayor Betty Esper tells McClelland. "All they know is there's no jobs out there. They don't know why … you can't grow an economy, grow a middle class, without making things."
And like most things historical, the subtleties tell us a different story from the commonly held beliefs of what was going on in the minds of the revolutionaries.
As I quote Philbrick in the review:
"To say that a love of democratic ideals had inspired these country people to take up arms against the [British] regulars is to misrepresent the reality of the revolutionary movement," Philbrick writes. "The patriots had refused to respect the rights of those with whom they did not agree, and loyalists had been sometimes brutally suppressed throughout Massachusetts."
In fact, the "revolution had begun as a profoundly conservative movement," he writes. "The patriots had not wanted to create something new: They had wanted to preserve the status quo — the essentially autonomous community they had inherited from their ancestors — in the face of British attempts to forge a modern empire."
Only as they resisted did talk of freedom gain traction. Even as the first bullets flew, Philbrick writes, many of the fighters still hoped for a negotiated peace that would keep them under British rule.
Backing up those conclusions is a deeply researched and well-spun set of stories about the key players and events in and around Boston all those years ago. Well worth your time....
It was just about a year ago that copies of Detroit: A Biography began showing up in bookstores, always an exciting time for a writer, but fraught with uncertainty. Will people like the book? Will it get the attention of critics? Will it sell? And, perhaps most unsettling of all, did I screw something up?
I’m very pleased, and gratified, to be able to say that the book has done well. It’s in its third printing, reader reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, and I continue to get feedback from folks who say they learned a lot of unexpected things about Detroit, and how it has come to be what it is. The professional critical reviews were light, but except for one culture critic who dismissed the book for not being about culture (?), they have been overwhelmingly positive. And they keep trickling in. This essay-review ran recently in TriQuarterly.
It turns out my book was at the head of a surge of mass media interest in Detroit, from other books about the state of the city to the national media coverage of the installation of an emergency financial manager (you all know what I think of that) to some movies that have touched on the city (from “Detropia” to ”Searching for Sugarman”). I like to think that, among all these projects, my book offers the broadest foundation for understanding the place.
And from the assembly line of book writing, I’m pleased to report solid progress on Jones’s Bones: The Search for an American Hero, which is due to the publisher at the end of next month, with a tentative publication date of next Spring. In a touch of inadvertent timing that will coincide (roughly) with the centennial of the Ludlow Massacre, the central event in my first book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West, which came out in August 2007.
The publication of Jones’s Bones will be my fourth book to hit the bookstands in seven years. And I have a couple of unpublished novels I’ve written in between those nonfiction projects. It’s a very gratifying way to live, and work, and I thank you all for your readership and support. It’s an overworked and often ill-used word, but, literally, I couldn’t do this without you.
I'm pleased to report that the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books has invited me back for another go-around, this time as a panel moderator. For you book-lovers who don't live in the Los Angeles area, the Festival of Books is one of the prime events of its kind in the country. The two-day gathering of authors and readers covers a large chunk of the University of Southern California, and is an exhausting blast.
The panel I'm moderating is called "Nonfiction: Landscapes Real & Imagined," and is slotted for 2 p.m. Sunday, April 21. The panelists are T.D. Allman (whose new book is about Florida), Greg Goldin (co-author of a book about Los Angeles), and Julia Flynn Siler (whose latest book is about Hawaii). I don't know Allman or Goldin but have known Siler for a number of years, and moderated a panel with her once at the Nieman Conference of Narrative Journalism. Very bright, and a very good writer (her House of Mondavi is a must-read for wine-lovers everywhere).
I'm anxious to start preparing for the panel by diving into the works of all three panelists. And the subject is of personal interest to me. In my Blood Passion and Detroit books, the landscape served almost as another character, as it does in my still in-vitro novel. So it should be a fun and interesting talk. I'll post more details - like building and room number - when I get them. Hope to see some of you there....
The Los Angeles Times has posted my review of Stephen Dobyns's The Burn Palace, which I picked up with great anticipation and put down at the end feeling a bit dissatisfied. It's a good book, and he does a fine job creating a sense of place, and gently satirizing small-town life. But (from the review) ...
For all of Dobyns' skills in creating characters and place, the central plot line becomes transparent early. The subplots resonate better than the main plot, and the writing is strongest in the action scenes, which erupt with cinematic clarity.
Dobyns is sharp too, portraying people under stress. Some of the characters, though, never break out of single dimensions, a weakness of the novel. The gossipy coffee shop owner. The spunky old lady in the assisted-living home. The stoned war vet. State police Det. Bobby Anderson — "Hey, I'm their token black guy." — has potential as a nuanced character, but Dobyns doesn't break him out of the predictable either.
Anderson cracks wise with his white peers, drives a "magnetic black Nissan 370Z coupe with a rear deck spoiler," and, as Woody points out, keeps himself "hidden behind the jive mask." Which is fine if that's the public persona Dobyns wants to give him, but as a novelist Dobyns can, and should, create a more deeply developed and nuanced character, even if only the reader can see that particular interior landscape.
But those are wrinkles in an otherwise enjoyable work of popular fiction.
So in writing Jones's Bones: The Search for an American Hero, I've been buried deeply in old maps and descriptions, and not so old photographs of where John Paul Jones lived and died in Paris, and where he was buried. A natural point of curiosity, of course, is what do these places look like now?
To the left is a photo of the buildings that were erected over the cemetery in which Jones was buried in 1792 - the row, including the hotel, across the street, to the right in the frame. The picture was taken in 1905 from the street corner, and accompanied reports from the U.S. Embassy in Paris to the State Department in Washington.
Here, to the left and through the magic of Google maps street view, is what it looks like today. All the buildings over the cemetery have been replaced. But the cafe on the corner, left foreground, is still a cafe, modernized a bit.
Obviously, looking at photos and Google maps street view isn't the same as being there, but it's an easy way to find out whether anything would be gained by visiting in person. In this case, other than a good meal, visiting the scene wouldn't give me any insights or perspectives - which I'm glad to discover without the expense of a trip to Paris.
Though that would be fun - I haven't been there in decades.
It feels like I just left Detroit after a whirlwind visit on the summer-end return trip to the West Coast, but here I come again.
The Detroit Public Library has invited me to talk about Detroit: A Biography at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, October 17, in the Friends Auditorium of the Main Library. It's free and open to the public (Marwil Books will be selling books for signing).
I'm looking forward to this for a lot of reasons, not the least of which were the hours I spent in the DPL's Burton Historical Collection looking through archives and records to help bring to life some of the myriad stories included in Detroit. The Main Library is a beautiful building between the Detroit Institute of Arts and Wayne State University, making it a prime component of Detroit's urban intellectual core. And it is a gem of a place, though, like much of Detroit, the library has been fighting some significant budget problems.
The evening should be fascinating. I'll talk a bit about the genesis of the book, why I wrote it, some broad conclusions about how the city got to be in the shape it's in, and then open it up for questions and discussion. That, to me, is usually the most fascinating part of any talk, hearing the stories of people directly connected to the historical things I write about. I invariably learn something new, pick up a sliver of nuance I missed before, and often discover things that I wish had included in the book. I look at the sessions as an organic "afterword" to the book, told in real time, and through living voices.
I hope to see my Michigan readers -- and I'm gratified by how many of you there are -- at the talk and signing.
Incidentally, the talk occurs on the eve of the annual North American Labor History Conference (program director Fran Shor helped set up the library talk; thanks, Fran) at Wayne State University, where I'll be part of three different events. I'll post more about those as it gets closer.
Oh, and if you want a Word copy of the library flyer pictured here for posting or sharing, email me through the link in the column to the right and I'll send one out to by return email.
The woman sat with a friend to my left as I stood last night discussing Detroit: A Biography at Saturn Booksellers in Gaylord, Michigan (a wonderful little store and a wonderful event). I talked about the propelling role that race and racism has played in the evolution of the city, and she raised her hand and offered, paraphrasing here, that the racist attitudes of white Detroiters toward their black neighbors have changed since the crucial days of the 1950s and 1960s, as Detroit careened toward collapse.
Not so, unfortunately, I responded. As I write in the book, racism among suburban whites is still a driving force in the region. The book quotes a Facebook discussion about Detroit, which I cite as evidence of the private sentiments of some whites. And I noted to the woman that suburban Southfield and Oak Park - once white-majority cities to which black middle class families had fled to escape Detroit's violence and the abysmal school system - are now majority black cities as whites once again ran away from growing numbers of black neighbors.
Which got me thinking last night as I drifted off to sleep: If people think this is a post-racial society, can we ever truly get there? If people believe the struggle for equality has been won, when all evidence points to the contrary, has the fight ended?
After I responded and turned to another questioner, the woman and her friend were heard to say that the Facebook example in the book was just one person, and that it was an outlier. Society has gotten better.
Erie Canal bridges, Rochester, New York. Photo: Scott Martelle
Well, we've begun the slow trek back West, and after overnighting in Port Huron we're off to northern Michigan today for a 6:30 p.m. reading at Saturn Booksellers in Gaylord, Michigan (see the Events page). I've never visited the shop before (I recall only being in Gaylord once, more than 25 years ago, while working for The Detroit News) but where I'm very much looking forward to talking about Detroit: A Biography, because of the high recommendation my old friend Bryan Gruley gives the store.
We made a brief detour as we drove west from Rochester, New York, through southern Ontario, and stopped in at Niagara Falls, which I haven't visited in more than a decade. It never fails to impress with the sheer volume of water that tumbles over the edge of the Niagara escarpment, and the beautiful attention to the grounds, particularly on the Canadian side, where we stopped.
But history is never far from mind, and as we watched the water tumble and roar, I couldn't help wondering what it looked like in the early 1800s when it was the impassable barrier between the upper Great Lakes and Lake Ontario, and the ocean beyond via the St. Lawrence River. The opening of the Erie Canal, a mind-boggling project in itself, in 1825, took Niagara Falls out of play as a navigation barrier, and, as I wrote in Detroit: A Biography, that was a crucial turning point in the development of Detroit as a trading hub, and as an economic lifeline for the upper midwest.
The canal eventually was superseded by the railroads, of course, but I like how this summer trip of ours has both inadvertently and purposefully touched on some of the elements of the book. The photo inserted in this blog post was taken from the deck of the Mary Jemison during a two-hour trip we took on the Genesee River and the Erie Canal while in Rochester, another place that found riches with the opening of Clinton's Ditch, as it was called. Today we head into the heart of what was Michigan's first major industry, logging.
And on Wednesday, we head to Detroit for a couple of days. That stop will be purely social, with no readings planned. And then, like the western expansion itself, we point the nose of the Fusion toward the Pacific and head home.Video by Margaret Mercier-Martelle.
Posting has been light around here for a variety of reasons, most deriving from being on the road. I'm in Western New York now, bouncing between my parents' house in Wellsville and my in-laws in Rochester. Lotta labor on the Wellsville end as my brothers and I have been digging out old rotted lilacs, scrub brush, railroad ties and the occasional yellow-jacket nest (I won't show you the welts from the stings).
The picture at left is a mass of lilacs (one of many) that we dug out with a backhoe and are taking to a gully on land one of my brothers owns that needs fill. The lilacs haven't been thinned in decades, and the trunks and roots were too rotted to save. We're thinking of replanting with new, healthy lilacs, but may just leave the open space.
And, every morning, I'm working on the manuscript for Jones's Bones, at a pace of at least 1,000 words a day. It may please you to know that I've just polished off the Battle of Manila Bay. As for why, you'll have to wait for the book to find out (I'm such a tease, I know).
We begin the drive back to California in a little more than a week, with a stop at Saturn Booksellers in Gaylord, Michigan, on August 14 for a talk and signing. I'm really looking forward to that - I imagine there will be a lot of interested folks turning out, most with personal Detroit stories to tell. It should be a very engaged conversation. I hope to see some of you there....
Words an author loves to hear from his editor: We're going back to press to print more copies of your book.
It doesn't mean the first printing of Detroit: A Biography sold out, but it does mean my publisher, Chicago Review Press, feels it needs more copies to fill the demand (and technically, this is the third printing - CRP went back to press for more copies before the first printing reached the warehouse).
So from somewhere deep in New Mexico - actually Las Cruces, which is just north of El Paso, Texas - my thanks for the interest, and the support. Folks like me tend to write by compulsion; it's very nice to know that people are reading the work, liking it - nearly unanimous positive reviews - and, most importantly, buying the book. It is, in the end, how we get paid for our labor.
Now back to the road trip: After a slow cruise through Saguaro National Park near Tucson, we put in for the night at Las Cruces. Tomorrow: Way too much of Texas, but with a couple of days in Austin looming.
And it looks like Tropical Storm Debby is being nice and heading east and out of our way. Sorry about that, Florida ....
So Margaret and I leave tomorrow for an eight-week road trip, part business, part pleasure (note to would-be burglars: We're leaving behind the two strapping, lacrosse-playing sons and the dog). The main focus for me is two weeks in Washington diving into the Library of Congress and National Archives for research for the Jones's Bones book project. We'll also be reconnecting with a lot of friends while we're there.
Assuming we get there.
The plan is to take the southern route because Margaret has never been to Austin or New Orleans. And if the National Hurricane Center's current prediction pans out, we and Hurricane Debby should both be in Louisiana on Thursday. So far the prediction is for the storm to slide westward along the Gulf Coast, missing New Orleans itself, so we're forging ahead with the plans.
But if the storm cuts north, so will we. Not as exciting as the adventure our friends Jeremy and Paula Dear are on - a couple of years traveling the Americas in a sleeper van - but Debby is putting a little edge on our plans.
Well, this is an achievement in timing: Two book reviews published the same day, one in the Los Angeles Times, and the other in the Washington Post. Happy Father's Day to me!
I'll start in the east, with the Post review of Peter Pagnamenta's "entertaining new book, Prairie Fever, a deeply researched and finely delivered look" at a slice of American I wasn't familiar with: The Great Plains and intermountain west as a 19th century adventure tourism destination for England's idle rich young men.
From my review:
The tourism invasion began, in part, because of James Fenimore Cooper and his Leatherstocking Tales, Pagnamenta reports. Natty Bumppo and his fellow travelers were popular among English readers, and the stories of life on the frontier whetted the appetites of young British men who found themselves in unusual straits. In that era, the eldest son stood to inherit the family estate, while younger male siblings received allowances but few responsibilities. What to do with the indolent rich was a conundrum, since working for a living was outside the sphere of social respectability. One solution was to send them packing to America, lured by the tales of buffalo hunts, Indian skirmishes and the taste of hardy adventure. Some sought to blend in; most did not.
It was a fun book to read. In my own books I like to focus on overlooked slices of American history, and this is one I wish I had found before Pagnamenta did.
The second review in the LA Times was of Buzz Bissinger's Father's Day: A Journey into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son, a much different and more difficult book.
The book, Bissinger confesses at the end, "was difficult and painful" to write. Much more so than he anticipated when they hit the road in 2007. Bissinger thought it would take another year to finish the manuscript, but the pain of the process lengthened the calendar, as did the perhaps subconscious shift of focus from Zach, an utterly charming person in his father's portrayal, to Bissinger himself.
It is not a flattering self-portrait, and that's the biggest problem with what is a frank yet disquieting book. Father's Day isn't compelling so much as it's revelatory about Bissinger's struggle to reconcile the son he thought he deserved with the one he has. It's a human reaction to uncontrollable events, but by the end, if you had to choose a cross-country traveling companion, you'd go for the son, with all his mental deficiencies, over the narrating father with his rages and insecurities.
There was a nice piece in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram the other day by Julia "Julie" Heaberlin, an old friend and former colleague (at the Rochester Times-Union and The Detroit News), on this process of re-invention. In her case, it's as a thriller writer with a debut novel, Playing Dead, hitting shelves next week.
It's a very good book, especially for a first-timer, with a sharply drawn plot, a likable and unusual central character (Tommie McCloud, who makes a tomboy seem prissy), and some lovely stretches of writing. The novel is set mainly in Texas, where Julie was raised and now lives, and I told her after reading the galley that she shouldn't have wasted all those years as an editor for newspapers (an honorable profession, but still...). She took it the way it was intended, as a compliment.
In her piece for the Star-Telegram, Julie writes about the decision she and her husband, Steve Kaskovich (another old friend and former golfing buddy), made to live on his income as a newspaper editor while she pursued her dream. No easy decision, that, and one that was complicated by timing: She quit her upper-management job at the Star-Telegram just before the Great Recession hit both the economy, and the newspaper industry.
So a deeper layer of uncertainty was tossed over the endeavor. It took a lot of work, and a lot of tears from Julie, she writes, but she finally sold a book - two, actually - achieving a dream nurtured since childhood:
When people ask me about the process of writing a book, I think they are expecting the romantic version about the magical place where ideas come from. So I generally don't tell them about the bitterly cold Wednesday morning that I sat crying in the middle of my empty street with dog poop all over my gloves.
I'd already cried once that morning, as soon as I woke up. I muffled it into my pillow as my son and husband got ready for school and work. I was vaguely wondering whether I needed a therapist. Mostly, I was wondering whether, after 31/2 years of writing and trying to get a book published, I should just admit that the dream wasn't going to happen. Whether I should go back and get a real job, if there was one to be had.
Not so long ago, I had been a newspaper editor with a successful career and a decent ego, not this sniveling mess.
The difference between Julie's writing carrer and mine is that she made the conscious leap to leave a lifelong career, while I was pushed. But we're in similar places now. I've published three nonfiction books, and still relish the sense of accomplishment, and semi-permanence, that comes with seeing my name in the Library of Congress.
I've also written a crime novel (and the first draft of the sequel), and am now enduring the ego-slaps that Julie went through as book editors initially rejected her first novel as not being enough XXX. In my case, the rejections, couched in supportive words about the writing, changed by the editor, sometimes contradictorily so. One reported that the novel moved too quickly, another too leisurely. It can be maddening if you take it too personally, something I learned long ago not to do with the criticism others have for my work.
So as I slog on hoping my hardworking agent can get the manuscript in front of the right editor, one for whom my Detroit-based story and characters will resonate, I'm excited for Julie that she's achieved the dream, and wish her great luck and success in these reinvented lives of ours.
A half-century ago Michael Harrington published a fairly slim book, The Other America, that focused the nation's attention on what life was like for impoverished Americans, from urban cores to the hollows of Appalachia. It was an important book then; sadly, it remains an important book now.
The Los Angeles Times asked me to write a short appreciation of the book for this Sunday's paper (already available online here). I was happy to do it. I was four years old when the book came out, and as I write in the piece, I read it for the first time in the early 1980s, early in my career as a journalist.
I grew up about 90 miles to the east of Jamestown, part of a conservative family in a small conservative village in the northern reaches of Appalachia. The area had forests, deer and poverty in abundance, so I found much to identify with in Harrington's book, which could well stand as the last hurrah for any pretense that we lived in a nation of compassion....
Harrington's work didn't move me to a life of journalism — I was already there, propelled by genetics (my father and grandfather were newspapermen) and by the mixed impulses to explore and to challenge. But Harrington's book affirmed those impulses and helped mold my world view, an evolution from small-town conservatism to a believer in the power of government and collective action to effect good in the world.
Unfortunately, despite decades of national policies that place the health of corporations ahead of the health of communities, poverty is just as intractable today as it was then (programs that support the poor are necessary and humane, but only temporary solutions to what in the end is a structural problem).
But in these days of ostracism and greed, with a religious embrace of free-market economics and paying the lowest price for everything, don't expect anything to change. As I wrote in the piece, Harrington's book "could well stand as the last hurrah for any pretense that we lived in a nation of compassion."
This weekend I'm taking part in the annual conference of Biographers International, a fairly new and quite interesting organization of writers who focus on biographies (the conference is at the University of Southern California). I'm involved with two panels on Saturday, which I'll get to momentarily. But first let me address a question: What is a journalist writing about history doing at a conference for biographers?
It's more than just throwing the word "biography" in the title of a book. Writing history is writing biography, though not in the David McCullough vein. To write about historic events for a general audience, as I do, it's imperative to tell stories, not just string together facts. And to make these moments in time resonate with readers, you have to bring to life the people involved. That means dipping into the biography pool so you can explain how and why people acted as they did. The research that I do in learning about the characters in my books is not as deep, or time-consuming, as required by a full biography. But it covers much of the same ground, and requires the same discipline.
So having said all that, my role at the conference will be two-fold - and has nothing to do with writing biographies. At 9 a.m. Saturday I'm moderating a panel, "Show Me the Money," in which I'll lead a conversation with Elizabeth Hoover and Robin Rauch on financing big projects (it isn't easy), and at 10:45 a.m. I'm on a panel about "Blogging to Boost Sales" with Beverly Gray and Mark Sarvas to talk about, well, this blog and other ways of connecting with readers.
Cover of the audio version of Detroit: A Biography
This is lot of fun for me. A few months back, Blackstone Audiobooks bought the rights to Detroit: A Biography, and it looks like their version is already available. The cover is different from the print version, and the narrator is William Hughes, who, I noticed, also read The Soloist, by columnist and former Los Angeles Times colleague Steve Lopez. The book is based on Lopez's columns about a homeless classical musician, and was also made into a movie. So here's hoping some of that success rubs off via Hughes.
If you go to the Blackstone site for , there's a button to click that plays a short sample from the book. They selected a snippet from the chapter about the onset of the Great Depression in Detroit. It begins:
The “Roaring Twenties” party in Detroit – and elsewhere – ended less abruptly than we think. In retrospect, we tend to look at the stock market meltdown of late October 1929 as the economic collapse that sank into the Great Depression. In truth, signs of the bursting bubble began emerging well before then (and this is a bit of an historical mine field, with debates still ongoing over what really happened to spur the worldwide depression). In February of 1929, concerned over the vast amounts of money the nation’s private banks were lending to speculators investing in the stock market, the Federal Reserve asked member banks to “restrain the use, either directly or indirectly, of Federal Reserve credit facilities in aid of the growth of speculative credit.” It didn’t do much good. Broad consumer faith in the economic boom began to falter, and then turned into a financial panic with the Wall Street selloff, likely sparked by a mix of scandals and feared regulation of public utilities, and criticism at home and abroad of the “speculative orgy” on Wall Street. News stories detailed the first hemorrhages, which helped fuel the panic. In rapid order, several million people lost their jobs, their life savings, and their homes. Banks failed across the nation, and personal fortunes large and small evaporated. Small businesses withered and died; homeowners were evicted; farmers were booted off land they could no longer afford to tend. In an era of unregulated banking, thousands of small banks shut their doors, never to re-open, the deposits of their customers gone. By the end of 1931, the Great Depression was on. Billions of dollars of equity evaporated as the nation’s publicly traded companies lost 73 percent of their value through 1932 (ultimately the market would lose 90 percent of its value).
So go ahead, all you commuters, buy a copy of the audiobook and for a few days, anyway, start your workdays with my words - and Hughes's voice - in your ears.
My wife and I wandered over to the UC Irvine Bookstore last night for a talk and signing by Anne-Marie O'Connor, a former colleague at the Los Angeles Times, who has just published her first book, The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. Good talk about a valuable painting done in fin de siecle Vienna, stolen by Nazis, and finally recovered by descendants of the true owner a few years ago. It should be a great read; I remember Annie's journalism about the legal battle when she was at the LA Times.
But it has me thinking also about the other books I've recently read, or have on my "to read" stack, which is beginning to resemble that tower in Pisa. All by friends and acquaintances published this spring or in the previous few months, alphabetically:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Longer version: Racial divisions propel the novel much more heavily than the earlier books in his famous "Albany cycle," which includes Ironweed, Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, and Legs, among others. And it could also be the farthest Kennedy has strayed from Albany, with a large segment set in revolutionary Cuba (which Kennedy covered as a journalist). But it fits right in with Kennedy's body of work. And that's a good thing.
It's been a while since Kennedy has published a novel - Roscoe, in 2002 - was his most recent. So it's been a while since I've read him. Chango's Beads makes me want to dive into the stacks to revisit some of those old works, which is about as good of an endorsement as a writer can hope for - the new novel both emulating and reminding of the great work he has produced. And, with Kennedy in his early 80s, you also have to wonder how many more novels he has in him.
From my review ....
And "Changó's Beads" (which refers to the protection offered by a Santería god) carries its own internal cycles. The novel that begins with Cody and [Bing] Crosby singing "Shine" ends after a racially charged performance of the song by Cody, alone, transforming the piece from self-mocking minstrelsy into soul-baring jazz as the streets outside explode in racial violence.
That really is what Kennedy has been writing about all along. Memory, conflict and redemption. Love, loss and betrayal. Small lives caught up with the big ones. The tastes and tones of neighborhoods, and the human stories that do a much better job of defining place than any map ever could.
And, throughout the novel, how failure can be pursued as madly as success.
So last week I sent back the answers to copy-editing questions on the manuscript for Detroit: A Biography, and am now awaiting the arrival of some photos to pass along to the designers at Chicago Review Press as they move onto laying out the book. Next up: Page proofs, where I get to see what the book will look like when it comes out.
Meanwhile, when not teaching and writing freelance pieces, I've been looking around for the next project, which is both fun and vexing. The fun is obvious - I spend time diving down rabbit holes in search of something that will fascinate me enough to devote large chunks of the foreseeable future, and that will fascinate enough of you to attract a publisher.
There, as the saying goes, lies the rub. And the vexation. I dug into one story that I loved, about a collection of some two dozen European displaced persons who, in the years after WWII, slipped out of the Soviet-occupied Baltics to Sweden, worked to pool their money, bought a small sailing ship and then, with only the captain and one other person having ever spent any time at sea, sailed to America using a sextant and a wristwatch. Great story; minimal historic record from which to craft a narrative. Next.
I looked at the searing drought in Texas, and the parallels to the Dust Bowl years, tipped to the idea by a New York Times piece. Alas, the parallels weren't quite so parallel. Next.
I still have hopes that a narrative can be built out of a story about the collapse of a single bank in the Great Depression, but again, finding sufficient and specific historical records from which to build a human narrative is proving to be elusive. Next.
I looked at a rural suicide in the midst of the Great Recession: Too depressing, I was told. Few readers would buy a book about that. I thought about a book exploring how our near-religious quest as a society for the lowest possible price was cheap-skating ourselves out of economic existence (the money we save as consumers means domestic jobs lost, which means less money spent to push the economy, in a vicious downward cycle). No traction there, either. Spent last night exploring the birth of the first transcontinental telegraph, which in many ways also signaled the birth of modern America. Nice, my wife said, but where's the drama? Where, indeed.
So, next? Wish I knew. Now if you'll excuse me, I think I see a couple of rabbit holes over there that need some exploring....
We're at that crucial stage of book production - editing and copy editing - which is both grueling and fun. Grueling because a couple of sharp-eyed editors are plying me with questions about facts, word choice and writing style. Fun because this makes the publication of the book, due out in April, feel even closer.
The next step will be proofreading the pages, which is when the book begins to feel real in a physical sense. And I've already had a sneak peak at the cover, and am very pleased with the way it's turning out. I'll post a copy of it once we have the final version.
Meanwhile I'm slogging along with a little teaching and some freelance work while trying to figure out a next project. It's an odd process, trying to zero in one something that will bear two or three years of obsession, and that would be of sufficiently wide interest to make doing the project worth the time and effort.
For the past week I've been out of reach of handy Internet access, aboard a cruise ship sailing the Inland Passage through British Columbia and southeastern Alaska. Friends over the years have reported back on the inexpressible beauty of the place, so our expectations were high. And they were exceeded. It really is spectacular.
Part of the trip was a side run up a fjord called the Tracy Arm, near Juneau. The deeper into the fjord we went, the more mesmerizing the scenery became, until we stopped within view of the face of the Sawyer Glacier - and in front of a field of ice floes. The captain of our ship, the Norwegian Star, explained later that he decided not to move closer because he feared he wouldn't be able to turn the ship around. It was windy and cold and wet - and beautiful.
In Seattle now, with a talk and signing set for this afternoon at Elliott Bay Books. It will be hard not to talk about Alaska, too....
(This is a slide show and could take a bit to load depending on your browser and Internet link).
The Ludlow Monument. Photo: Margaret Mercier-Martelle.
I leave tomorrow to spend a week or so on the road doing some freelance stories during a trip framed around a tragedy - the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, the event that launched me on the path to writing books.
Regular readers here know the basics. During the 1913-1914 Colorado coal strike, 11 children and two mothers died when, at the end of a daylong gun battle, Colorado National Guardsmen torched the Ludlow tent colony. The women and children were hiding from the bullets in a hole dig beneath the floorboards of a tent; as the fire raged above them, it sucked the oxygen out of the air. As tragic as the deaths were, they were only a fraction of the 75 people who were killed during that strike, most of them shot to death in the most violent showdown between labor and capital in U.S. history.
Yet few remember this moment. A few years after the Ludlow Massacre, the United Mine Workers union bought the site of the tent colony and have managed it as a roadside spot of reflection, and homage. In recent years, at the end of June, the union has hosted a memorial service to try to keep alive the memory of the dead from that day. It begins at 10 a.m. Sunday at the Ludlow Memorial site a short drive north of Trinidad along Interstate 25. I'm honored to be part of the line up of speakers this year.
Despite winning designation as a National Landmark a couple of years ago, the Ludlow Massacre remains a forgotten moment in U.S. history. That's partly, I think, because it happened here in the West, while our collective national memory is East Coast-centric. And I say that as someone born in Maine and raised and educated there and in Western New York. I came with an east Coast bias, in other words, but after more than a dozen years living in California I’ve come to recognize that, in a historical sense, the nation tips eastward. Which makes sense. The United States began in the East, and the bulk of our formative history lies in the East, so that’s where our memory is focused.
But more significantly, Ludlow is forgotten because it involved labor. And that's a dark hole in our collective memory. Workplace safety, the eight-hour workday and the 40-hour week, health insurance and retirement plans and everything else that we find ourselves once again fighting to protect, those all began with the labor movement. And as the strength of labor has faded, so have those hard-won benefits - and the middle class along with them.
That old maxim seems to be coming true, that those who forget the past are destined to repeat it. Let's hope we don't wind up repeating tragedies like Ludlow. Let's hope all this national anger, frustration and class division builds into something positive.
A couple of years ago a close friend, food writer Robin Mather, already suffering from some health problems, hit a buzz saw of personal crises: Her husband told her he wanted a divorce, and she lost her job writing for the Chicago Tribune (part of the same corporate convulsion that cast me off from the Los Angeles Times). She wound up retreating to the small lakeside cottage in a remote part of western Michigan that she and her husband had bought anticipating a retirement home some years down the road.
We spent a lot of time on Skype talking, me from my desk in sunny Irvine, Robin from the metaphorical morass of gray clouds at the edge of the Michigan lake. Neither of us is suited to wallowing in our own miseries, and Robin's plan quickly took shape. We're writers, after all, and the best thing a writer can do is write, So she proceeded, with the help of some friends and the irreplaceable agent we share, Jane Dystel, to write her way out of the clouds,
Robin's done a splendid job. The concept of the book was to write about her year trying to piece her life back together, while also trying to live within a severely diminished budget while patronizing and supporting local food producers, from truck farmers to butchers. Organized seasonally, it is a collection of essays, accented by recipes, of engaging with life, knitting together a fresh network of new friends, enjoying the benefits of relationships with geographic neighbors (not just our new communities here in the Internet), and even the restorative powers of a walk through untrammeled woods. In the end, she writes, the clouds began clearing:
The good food that I found near my home strengthened and nourished me and, together with the work of my own hands, gave me a sense of pride, security, and peace that I have never known before. The search for it led me to new friends and new ways of thinking about myself and the world in which I live. It provided me with the luxury of having enough to share, even on the spur of the moment, when money was tight and the future uncertain.
My life is newly deep and full of riches. I hope yours is as well.
Great writing. And a wonderfully evocative look at getting your feet back under you when you've been knocked astride. Pick up a copy.
Oh, and Robin's recently moved on from the solitary life on the lake. She's now an editor of Mother Earth News.
"For a nation whose romanticized history includes a young George Washington confessing to chopping down a cherry tree because he 'cannot tell a lie,' we seem to do an awful lot of lying. But then, the story about Washington is a lie itself, so maybe we're just being true to our national character.
"In his new book, 'Tangled Webs,' Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James B. Stewart dives deeply into four recent cases of high-profile conspiracies of lies. What he finds does not say good things about us.
As I mention in the review, the book almost chokes on the amount of detail Stewart has dug up from inside each of the scandals: Martha Stewart, the role of White House officials in outing Valerie Plame as an undercover CIA operative; Barry Bonds; and Bernie Madoff.
Yet the details are worth wading through. Stewart does a good job at looking at how the powerful (and the powerless) react in times of stress, and challenge. In the end, it is the ease with which so many choose to lie, and the myriad reasons, that is most sobering. And before readers cheer over clear evidence that seems to confirm the belief that top figures in the Bush II White House saw the truth as a malleable thing, remember Bill Clinton's wriggling when caught with his pants down. Lying to the American people is not the hallmark of one political party or another. And, as Stewart makes clear, it's hardly limited to politics.
So why is it so prevalent in American life? Because people keep getting away with it. And nothing breeds success like success. Leavened, apparently, by a few well-told lies.
Patti Smith signing Just Kids for a fan at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Photo credit: Scott Martelle.
Now that the buzz-saw of writing and researching the Detroit project has died away, I've started chipping away at an embarrassingly high stack of books that I really should have read by now, some by friends, some that have just struck my curiosity. And since it's too late to review the books for publications (and I couldn't review many of them because of personal conflicts), I'll be sprinkling some short takes into the blog mix over the next few weeks.
I finished Patti Smith's Just Kids the other day, her National Book Award-winning memoir of living and trying break through as an artist in Manhattan in the late 1960-early 1970s. The book couldn't live up to its advance buzz, and true to form, I liked it, but also was disappointed by it.
Manhattan was defined by creative counter-cultural energy in that era, and Smith and her lover/friend Robert Mapplethorpe hovered near the center of it. To read Smith's take on the time was interesting, and valuable, but it also fell short of full truth, I feel. I was talking about the book with some other reviewers at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books over the weekend, and we agreed that she over-romanticized what were nearly impossible living conditions in sections of Manhattan - heatless flats, hustling sex for food money, drug deaths of those who experimented too wildly.
And Smith's depiction of her relationship with Mapplethorpe, who became one of the most divisive photographic artists of the era, was remarkably thin on two levels. First was their romantic relationship, which transformed radically as Mapplethorpe began embracing his homosexuality - a revelation that would cause deep emotional turmoil for most women, but that Smith all but shrugs off. And despite her closeness to Mapplethorpe, and her descriptions of the different art forms he was experimenting with before he shifted fully into photography, by the end of the book you have little sense of what was driving his - or her - art beyond Mapplethorpe's lust for fame.
There's plenty of name-dropping in the book, and one charming anecdote of the poet Allen Ginsberg, who was gay, mistaking the rail-thin Smith for a young man and trying to pick her up at a food automat. But mostly it is a thin revisit to an era. By definition Smith limited the book to the New York/Mapplethorpe years, but one wonders about her emotional reaction to the death of her husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, five years after Mapplethorpe died of AIDS. The deaths of two significant players in the emotional life of a poet are worth exploring, and reading about. But Smith doesn't touch on it.
In the end, I suspect the book received such critical acclaim, and strong sales, because it serves less as an informative memoir of two influential artists than as a generational touchstone. For those who lived through that era, Smith's book is something of a vicarious trip down memory lane. For those too young to have tasted New York in the 1960s and 1970s, Just Kids offers a small, if somewhat romanticized, window into an era. But for a memoir by a poet, Just Kids lacks significant emotional punch.
It was a little warmer, felt a little less crowded, and was a lot of fun for the second day in a row. And oh, yeah, I was on a panel.
The theme was "History: Democracy and its Discontents," moderated by Celeste Fremon, who came incredibly well-prepared, and included Barry Siegel and Thaddeus Russell. It made for an interesting conversation, with Russell talking about his A Renegade History of the United States, a "ground up" look at influential but ignored sectors of American history with some iconoclastic takes on such things as prostitutes as early feminists.
Siegel, a friend and former Los Angeles Times colleague, as well as a Pulitzer Prize-winner, talked about his Claim of Privilege, and the lie that stands behind the U.S. government's ability to evade court disclosures of uncomfortable information by claiming to do so would violate a state secret. And I talked about The Fear Within, which has a nice overlap with Siegel's book (both of our subjects turned on decisions by the same Vinson Supreme Court).
The session was aired live on Book TV over CSPAN-2, and via its website, and is now safely lodged in its archives. So if you missed it, you can watch it at your leisure here. And yeah, it's true, a TV camera adds a few pounds (but then, so did the dinner at El Cholo afterward with my wife). The program begins with the tail end of a prior, unrelated interview, but you can move beyond that). Unfortunately, there was no link for embedding the program on my site.
Patti Smith signing for fans after her panel discussion with Dave Eggers, moderated by David Ulin.
The first day of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at the new place -- University of Southern California instead of UCLA -- went pretty well. I blogged about a couple of panels for the LA Times' Jacket Copy, one on science and belief, and the other on maps.
Also got a picture of Patti Smith as she was signing books and talking with fans. Which is really all the reason you need to do a fresh blog post over here.
My panel is tomorrow at 2 p.m. West Coast time (5 p.m. in the East). It's being carried live by Book TV, on CSPN2. Which makes me wonder whether I need to go, or can I just stay home and watch myself from my living room?
The review runs in the Los Angeles Times this Sunday, but is already available online. And I'm very pleased that the reviewer, Wendy Smith, likes the book, calling it a "cogent, nuanced account." She concludes:
Writing in the 21st century, when the passions of the Cold War era have faded, Martelle does not pretend that all communists persecuted in the postwar years were blameless victims. The defendants in Dennis were tough political activists, and they did believe that socialism should replace the capitalist economic system whose injustices had led them to the Communist Party. But they were not spies, and they had taken no direct action to overthrow the U.S. government; they were tried for their beliefs under a law that violated the United States' first and most vital amendment. Martelle's scrupulous, lucid history resonates with contemporary relevance because it reminds us that freedom of speech and thought are most essential, not when we are feeling most confident, but when we are most afraid.
Beyond saying nice things about the caliber of the work, Smith did a very nice job summarizing the details of what it's about. Let's hope it's the first of many such reviews. Oh, and if it is, don't worry, I won't be blogging about them all. But I will be adding them to the "Reviews etc." tab above, where you can also find past reviews of Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and American Democracy on Trial.
So if you can't make it to the festival in person, you can join us virtually.
The panel, as I've posted before, is called "Democracy and Its Discontents,' and it should be an interesting discussion. I've known co-panelist (and Pulitzer-winning journalist) Barry Siegel for a number of years, and his book, Claim of Privilege, is a tremendous and engaging story of the lie that sits at the heart of the government's legal right to claim a "state secrets" exemption from court actions. My book looks at the court case that, for a time, effectively outlawed communism here in the land of the free, and in defiance of the First Amendment. I haven't read Thaddeus Russell's work, so am looking forward to hearing about his A Renegade History of the United States.
I hope you all can join us, either in person or over the tube.
The panel is called "History: Democracy and its Discontents," and will be at 2 p.m. May 1 in Room 101 Taper Hall. Since my book is a narrative retelling of the trial of the leaders of the American Communist Party, I'm taking the May Day schedule as a good omen.
If you've never been, the Festival of Books is a great two-day literary orgy. This year it moves to the University of Southern California campus (used to be at UCLA), so I don't know what to expect in terms of fresh logistical challenges. But it is a great chance to spend time with a lot of authors and fellow book lovers. I'll be hanging around both days, and signing books after our panel. So look me up.
There aren't very many independent bookstores in Orange County, California, where I live, so I was sad to get an e-newsletter earlier this week from Tom Ahern, owner of Latitude 33 Bookshop in Laguna Beach, that he is planning to retire, which casts the future of his great little bookshop in some doubt. But he's hoping to find a buyer.
The store is a couple of blocks from the beach itself, a welcome part of the mix of art galleries, clothing boutiques and other high-end retail shops in downtown Laguna. It's just a bit too far from my house to be a regular stop, but when I've been in there the staff has been friendly and helpful. And while the size of the store limits the breadth of the offerings, it is pleasantly diverse.
All communities need a good (independent) bookstore, and a place like Laguna Beach, with it's upper-income households and artistic bent, should be able to support the place. I hope someone comes forward to buy it. If writing books about obscure moments in history paid a little better, I'd consider it myself.
From Ahern's newsletter announcing his pending retirement:
My reasons: I turn seventy this year and my wife has health problems that require more attention than I can give while still running the store. I don't want to shut the doors: hopefully, a book lover or group of book lovers will take over and keep Latitude 33 running.
I have the best staff ever: two former Barnes & Noble branch managers and three incredible book lovers. A new owner will be able to take over the portion of the store now occupied by Silver Images. There is a future for service-intensive independent bookstores, as the megastore chains decline. Much can be done to help Latitude 33 do even better, but recently, I have not had the time and energy to implement them.
Well, at least I have. Came home to find in the mail a copy from the advance shipment of The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial. Handsome little bugger, if I do say so myself. And the folks at Rutgers University Press tell me that the books are on their way to distributing warehouses, so should start showing up in stores (and fulfilling advance orders) in a few weeks.
At the same time, the manuscript for Detroit: A Biography, gets shipped off in the next few days (cleaning up a couple of details, but it's for all intents and purposes done). I'm looking forward to a taking a couple of weeks to catch up with some freelance articles and then start forming the next project. I have a couple of things I'm looking into, but am a long way from committing - or getting a commitment.
Oh, and it's a beautiful 80 degrees here today with a brilliant washed blue sky. I suspect a beer on the patio will be in my near future.
The Los Angeles Times today carries a review I wrote of its former foreign correspondent Stanley Meisler's history of the Peace Corps. The book is When the World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years, and as I say in the review it's a pretty good overview. Look at it as taking a survey course in the history of the institution.
From my review:
Despite his clear affinity for the Corps, Meisler doesn't gloss over the problems, from ineffective volunteers to wrong-headed staffing goals and policies. His final chapter asks, "Does the Peace Corps Do Any Good?," and it's a good question to ponder. Statistically, much of the work done by volunteers has had limited effect on making broad changes in the quality of life for the world's impoverished.
But, as Meisler argues, some gains can't be measured by a bureaucrat's spreadsheet. And in many ways, the Peace Corps' gains might have come to the U.S., as legions of former volunteers used their experiences as springboards to public service careers, including such political figures as former Sen. Christopher Dodd, Carol Bellamy (who went from New York City politics to lead the agency for a time) and Donna Shalala, the former secretary of Health and Human Services.
I should note that while Meisler and I both worked at the Times, we've never met.
Some more good news to announce: I'll be appearing at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books again this Spring, this time at the new venue at the University of Southern California (Used to be held at UCLA).
Details can still change but at this point I'll be talking about The Fear Within on a panel called "History: Democracy and Its Discontents," at 12:30 p.m. on May 1 (May Day, fittingly enough - I'll have to remember to wear red). The moderator will be author/journalist Celeste Fremon. So far, only one fellow panelist has been lined up - my former LA Times colleague Barry Siegel, author most recently of Claim of Privilege: A Mysterious Plane crash, A Landmark Supreme Court Case and the Rise of State Secrets, a riveting look at the sketchy legal case behind the legal precedent that gives the federal government the right to not respond to subpoenas if it invokes a "state secret" excuse. (Barry also offered a wonderful blurb for my book, so I owe him lunch). The third panelist is to be named later.
I'll update the blog when more details, including the specific site for the panel, are available. It will be followed by a book-signing, so if you plan to attend the Festival of Books please bring (or buy there) your copy of The Fear Within (available for pre-order at online sites and independent bookstores) and I'll be happy to sign it for you.
In this illuminating examination of a troubling episode in America's past, veteran journalist (and PW contributor) Martelle (Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West) recounts the celebrated 1949 trial of 11 American Communists for violating the Smith Act, which outlawed advocating overthrow of the government by force. All were public spokesmen of the minuscule American Communist Party. During nine stormy months, the prosecution was reduced to quoting Karl Marx and obscure Communist texts to prove that the defendants had advocated violent revolution. Martelle presents convincing evidence that the judge favored the prosecution, goaded by defense lawyers who the author admits were tactless and quarrelsome. In the end the judge sent every defendant and many of the lawyers to prison. Few readers of this gripping history will quarrel with Martelle's conclusion that the defendants suffered for expressing unpopular opinions. Further, says Martelle, many Americans, including political leaders, continue to proclaim that those who want to destroy America should not be permitted to "hide behind" the Constitution. Photos. (May)
Reviewed on: 03/14/2011
Matthew MacFadyen as Logan Mountstuart and Hayley Atwella as Freya Deverell. Credit: Joss Barratt, PBS
It's not often I look forward to a televised dramatization of a novel, but I'm setting the DVR for tonight's Masterpiece Theatrerendition of William Boyd's spectacular Any Human Heart. Lord, I hope they don't screw it up.
Any Human Heart is one of my favorite books of the past decade or so, a Zelig-style novel (think Forrest Gump) that traces the evolution of art and war through 20th Century Europe, with just enough United States tossed in to give it cross-Atlantic appeal. There are plenty of flaws to it, but as a broad piece of work, it stands up well. Incidentally, I missed Any Human Heart when it first came out, and turned to it after Kinky Friedman told me it was his favorite book. When a serious book draws a clown's interest, it never hurts to give it a read.
In truth, I've never had much faith in adaptations of complicated novels. Too much of the power of the novel lies in the intricacies of plot and character, and television by its nature elides the intricacies for the grand and the obvious. But enough adaptations have worked over the years -- Timothy Hutton's televised Nero Wolfe novels leap to mind -- that I'll enter this one with an open mind. And the early reviews give hope.
I'll be curious to see what you all think about it.
There's a bookshelf here in the home library* given over to the distinctive-looking spines of twenty or so editions from the Library of America, of which I am an unabashed fan. So it was warming to see the nonprofit publishing house's blog list its all-time bestsellers. And even more warming to see the titles, which I've pasted below.
There are three series of what I'll call, for lack of a better phrase, archival re-issues that have done stellar work over the years. The Library of America, obviously, but also Modern Library and Everyman's Library (both for profit and part of Random House).
Since much of reviewing and current coverage of books and publishing necessarily focuses on the new and the now, reissues by these houses often get overlooked. Which is a pity. All three help keep American literary culture alive and available, and relatively cheaply. The Library of America's top-seller, Thomas Jefferson: Writings, is 1,600 pages of essays, books and letters for $32.
One of my favorite reading experiences was devouring that collection cover to cover, which reinforced for me what a remarkable thing Updike had achieved over the span of decades. And that's the beauty of these editions - that chance for discovery, or rediscovery, of significant writers of the past and, occasionally, the present.
The Library of America list:
Thomas Jefferson: Writings  217,518 copies Mark Twain: Mississippi Writings  150,973 Abraham Lincoln: Speeches 1859–1865  120,589 Abraham Lincoln: Speeches 1832–1858  118,284 Walt Whitman: Poetry & Prose  114,790 Henry David Thoreau: A Week, Walden, etc.  114,367 Debate on the Constitution: Part One  112,273 Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays & Lectures  108,781 Robert Frost: Poems, Plays, & Prose  106,772 Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works  105,753
* "Home library" misstates it. The only two places without bookshelves are the kitchen (cookbooks are in the dining room) and the bathrooms. Even the garage has been pressed into service with six over-stuffed bookcases of the less-consulted, but too good to donate.
It seems fitting that I'm starting off a year on the binary date of 1/1/11 waiting for files to write to my new wireless backup drive, which makes me sound a whole lot more tech-savvy than I really am (no installation comes without sputtered adjectives of the impolite kind; good thing computers don't have feelings). But while I'm watching the little loading bar click from left to right, I'm also looking ahead to what should be an interesting year.
My second book, The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial, is due out in May, though it likely will be available in mid-April. My third book, Detroit: A Biography, is due to the publisher April 1 (likely out in the spring of 2012). And I've already begun poking into a possible topic for the fourth book. Meanwhile, I'm off to Detroit next week for three more weeks of research and writing, then am signed up to teach two journalism courses during the Spring semester at Chapman University here in Orange County, which is a lot of fun (anyone interested in hiring a full-time journalism and nonfiction writing instructor, let me know).
I've already signed up for two book festivals, the Literary Orange on April 9 at UC Irvine, and, April 30-May 1, the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, moving this year to the University of Southern California campus (used to be at UCLA). Still forming plans for the launch of The Fear Within, which may involve some New York City appearances. And Margaret and I, looking ahead to our 25th wedding anniversary in August, are planning a summer trip to Alaska.
So it's a busy year ahead, and it was a busy year in the rearview mirror. I hope you all have a lot to look forward to this year, too.
Well, since so many other folks are posting lists of their favorite books from the past year, I figured I might as well join in. Unfortunately, I haven't read that many new books this year since my nose has been buried deeply in Detroit history for my own book project. So this is a short list. In fact, I'm limiting it to two books, one a novel and the other an essay collection.
The novel is Jon Clinch's The Kings of the Earth, a book I found myself contemplating long after my review ran in the Los Angeles Times. An excerpt from that piece:
The power of "Kings of the Earth" lies in the intricacies of the relationships among the Proctors; neighbor and childhood friend Preston, who serves as something of a guardian angel; the drug-dealing nephew and the police. Clinch is canny enough to move his characters through their own understated lives, hinting where he needs to as he skirts the obvious, and refusing to overlay a sense of morality on their actions. The reader is the jury.
And Clinch knows his territory, both psychologically and geographically, as in this snowless winter scene:
"The drive from town was one hill after another and the view from the top was always the same. Muted shades of brown and gray. Shorn fields encroaching on wind-ravaged farmhouses, not so much as a chained dog visible. A countryside full of that same old homegrown desolation…. They climbed the last hill to the farm and saw smoke coming not just from the chimney but from a big fire in the yard. Wind yanked at the smoke, and they turned up the dirt lane and went toward the fire."
The landscape informs the story as much as the internal terrain of the characters does, giving "Kings of the Earth" a grounding that is missing from many modern novels. We know the events that lie behind Clinch's novel were real, and that the novel is not. But the realism here is no less, with writing so vibrant that you feel the bite of a northern wind, smell the rankness of dissipated lives and experience the heart-tug of watching tenuous lives play out their last inches of thread.
If you're honest with yourself, you'll admit that when you hear "Russian literature," you think of college classes you wish you'd cut - and books that can seem as long as a Siberian winter.
But in this delightful debut, Elif Batuman makes you look at Russian literature from a fresh perspective, using an unusual blend of memoir and travelogue as she delves into the lives and personalities of such Russian literary giants as Isaac Babel, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy.
Many of the chapters are extensions of pieces Batuman first wrote for The New Yorker and n+1 and range geographically from Palo Alto, Calif., where Batuman managed to lose one of Babel's daughters at the local airport, to Uzbekistan, where Batuman spent a few months studying Uzbek.
In a sense, the details of Batuman's essays are less significant than the tone. She cruises through minor crises with an air of detached amusement, eye focused on the little absurdities that make travel -- and people -- fun.
So there you have it, my favorites of the year, though I should also mention my friend Bryan Gruley's second mystery, The Hanging Tree, which does just what you want a mystery to do -- creates a world in which you get to rummage around for a while. So now you have some ideas for what to do with all those gift cards you got for the holidays.
In recent days two old friends have revamped a website and kick-started a blog as they look ahead to the publication of books. Both books are about food -- cookbooks, yes, but also about how we use food to engage with the world, and with others. And I have to admit, if I wasn't so deep into these history projects, I'd love to write a book along those lines.
But I'd fail. I can cook, and reasonably well, but for me cooking is a diversion, a chance to get creative in another venue. And never under-estimate the therapeutic value of a cold beer, a sharp knife and a bunch of veggies that need chopping. But writing about cooking just isn't something that comes naturally to me.
It does, though, for my friends Robin Mather and Domenica Marchetti. Robin's first book, The Garden of Unearthly Delights: Bioengineering and the Future of Food, was way ahead of the Michael Pollan/food integrity folks when it came out in 1995. Her upcoming book is The Feast Nearby: How I lost my job, buried a marriage and found my way by keeping chickens, foraging, preserving, bartering and eating locally (all on forty dollars a week), which I've had the pleasure of watching her conceive and execute from afar, and can't wait to read when it's out in May (the subtitle pretty much covers it all). Her blog is here.
And I'm also anxiously awaiting Domenica's new book, The Glorious Pasta of Italy, also due out next year, and am keeping up with her blog in the interim. I have both of her earlier works - The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy and Big Night In: More Than 100 Wonderful Recipes for Feeding Family and Friends Italian-Style - on the "heavy use" shelves near the kitchen. But a warning: Don't try making the risotto without checking with your cardiologist first (who knew arborio rice could absorb that much cheese?).
Both are updating their blogs with essays and recipes, and both are natural and engaging writers. So jog on over to see what they're up to, and what they're cooking, and find some news ways of engaging the world through your own kitchen. As for me, I'm diving back into 1920s Detroit...
It's a nice fall day in Southern California, a little rain overnight and mixed clouds and sunshine this morning. Sitting at my desk in front of the open patio door I just finished proofreading the printed pages for The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial, which left me with a tremendous sense of satisfaction.
As you all know, I've been deep into researching and writing Detroit: A Biography, which has become (as you might imagine) an all-consuming project. I haven't read or thought much about The Fear Within in months as it has worked its slow way through the pre-publishing process. So it was with a fresh eye that I went through the page proofs over the past couple of days. And you know what? It's not a bad bit of work (there are a few passages for which I wouldn't mind a do-over, but it's a bit late for that now).
Can't wait for you all to be able to read it in March.
One of the finalists in the current crop of National Book Award contenders is John W. Dower's The Cultures of War, which I was lucky enough to review this weekend for the Los Angeles Times.
Dower, a Pulitzer-winner for his earlier work examining Japan in the wake of World War Two, has put together a compelling set of case studies about what happens when a nation plans for war -- and the inevitability of it happening. He makes the case that the U.S. reaction to the 9/11 terror attacks more closely resembled the Japanese thinking that led up to the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor than to the American response. In both cases, the ensuing wars were conscious choices, rather than defensive acts.
One of the more chilling bits is Dower's depiction of the bomb-makers in the Manhattan Project and their rush to complete their work before Japan decided to surrender. They were positively itching to use the "device," as they called it, to measure its impact, a sordid example of the dehumanization that comes with war. In another vein, policy decisions were made to rain firebombs on Japanese and German cities, intentionally targeting civilian neighborhoods, which amounts to acts of terror.
I'll leave the argument of whether those were the proper policy decisions within the context of their time to others. But the decisions by government, not just military, officials do provide further evidence that not all the savagery of war happens on the battlefield.
This is kind of a journalistic trifecta. In the past couple of weeks I've had a few freelance articles pop up, one on singer/songwriter Peter Case, another on author Jon Clnch and the third on the city of Gilroy, California, the self-anointed Garlic Capital of the World.
The Case profile was a lot of fun. I took along my son Michael, a guitar player, in part to hear what Case had to say about his music, and in part to use the car-pool lane for the long drive from Irvine to Santa Monica. It's all about the traffic out here. And the occasion for the Case profile was the release of his new album, "Wig!" Some of his strongest work in years. There's a video embedded below from his show at McCabe's Guitar Shop the other day in Santa Monica -- same place where I interviewed him.
I also loved Clinch's new novel, his second. Kings of the Earth: A Novel is a fictionalized look at a bizarre death and murder case in Central New York. He nails the terrain, and it serves as a great follow up to his debut, Finn, picking up the story of Huck Finn's father where Mark Twain left off.
As for the Gilroy travel piece, well, how can you not like a place that smells like an Italisn restaurant?
I had a chance a few weeks back to interview Scott Turow via Skype (great invention, that) about his new novel, Innocent, his resumption of the life of Rusty Sabich, the main character in 1987's breakthrough legal thriller, Presumed Innocent. My story is in today's Los Angeles Times, so I won't get redundant here.
But what i found most appealing about the new novel was Turow's ability to resume Sabich's life without seeming to have missed a beat. It helped, no doubt, that all of Turow's novels are set in fictional Kindle County, and that he has used Sabich as a side character in some of those works.
But it was the consistency of both style and character that really stood out for me, which I wrote about in a review for the Cleveland Plain Dealer (not online yet). The book is worth picking up.
We're spending a couple of days at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, where I'm doing some blog coverage for the LAT and hosted a panel yesterday -- which was interesting, and great fun.
The topic of my panel was Literary Biography, and the panelists authored works on Raymond Carver, Arthur Koestler and Mark Twain, though the Twain book is as much about personal assistant Isabel Lyon as it is about the last years of the venerated American icon.
The challenge was finding common ground among the subjects so that the authors -- Carol Sklenicka (Carver), Michael Scammell (Koestler) and Laura Skandera Trombley (Twain) -- could engage with each other. They managed quite nicely, offering some fine insights into their work, and their subjects, to an audience that filled about two-thirds of the seats and an auditorium in the Humanities Building at UCLA. And it was a gorgeous day for it, too, in the upper 60s with blue skies and a nice breeze.
We talked a bit about the struggles to find the truth in the letters and journals of people who are very conscious -- and concerned -- about their places in literary history. Trombley said she had to be particularly careful because Twain was such an unabashed liar. Sklenicka had to sweet-talk still-protective friends and relatives of Carver, who died at age 50 in 1988, into sharing memories and material. For Scammell, it was a matter of vetting the details in Koestler's two autobiographies. I wasn't taking notes so can't quote, but Scammell said he was surprised to learn how truthful Koestler's works were, good bad and ugly (though Koestler had a propensity for not including some of the uglier stuff).
You may remember that I profiled Trombley for the LA Times a few weeks back, and it was a great pleasure to see and talk with her again -- smart, poised and interesting (traits that likely helped her ascend to the president's office at Pitzer College).
Key highlight of taking part in the Festival -- meeting and chatting with so many smart, intelligent lovers of books. And the people who write them.
Spring, it seems, is the season for speaking gigs. I'm on a panel April 10 at UC Irvine - conveniently near my house - as part of the Literary Orange program. It's a limited-access event, with day-long tickets $60 ($25 for students with IDs) and capped at 500 participants. My session is "History: True Stories, True Lives," with fellow authors Catherine Irwin and Vicki L. Ruiz, moderated by Mary Menzel.
The day's other panelists include Maile Meloy, whom I profiled for the LA Times a few months back, as well as former colleagues William Lobdell and Martin J. Smith (for whom I write occassionally at Orange Coast Magazine). So it should be an interesting day of engaging with committed readers and catching up with folks.
Speaking of which, in May I'm on a panel in Santa Cruz at the Southwest Labor Studies Association, "The Lessons of Ludlow: Interethnic solidarity during the Great Colorado Coalfield War," built around a documentary-in-progress by Alex Johnston. The panel also will include Zeese Papanikolas, author of Buried Unsung: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre, a smart and dedicated scholar I met for the first time at another conference last year in Colorado. I'm looking forward to seeing and talking on a panel with him again.
If you make ay of these events, be sure to track me down and say hello....
Those of you who know me understand that I'm not one to sit around. I like having several projects bubbling at the same time, and so, as Rutgers University Press works at publishing The Fear Within, I'm already off and running on the next project.
The working title is Detroit: A Biography, and I'll just crib the description my agent, Jane Dystel, sent over to Publisher's Marketplace: "DETROIT: A BIOGRAPHY, a sweeping look at the disintegration of a once great city, in which the author describes how collapse came about through a mix of corporate hubris, globalization and ill-conceived government policies overlaid with racial and class divides, to Jerome Pohlen, by Jane Dystel of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management."
And after publishing two books through Rutgers, this one is going to be published by Chicago Review Press. I've been very happy with the folks at Rutgers, especially editor Leslie Mitchner, who have been wonderful partners in these first two books. But I felt this book would be better-suited with Chicago Review Press, primarily because some of the key people there have Detroit roots and, in a sense, speak the language of Detroit.
As you can imagine, I'm pretty excited about this. And I hope to see some of you in Detroit this summer....
I'm a little slow in posting this piece from this past weekend, which ran on the cover of the Los Angeles Times Calendar section. I sat down with Laura Trombley, president of Pitzer College, to talk about her new bio of the last decade or so of Mark Twain's life.
Samuel Clemens, who carefully crafted the Twain image into a brand, was afraid that revelations about his daughter's affair with a married man might cut into his sales and royalties. So he turned to his best weapon, his pen, and wrote a secret manuscript as a bludgeon to silence his longtime personal aide -- whom he feared would spill the beans. If she talked, his orders were to publish his 450-page screed against her.
That manuscript, never published but well known to Twain scholars, had little in common with "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and the other books that made Twain one of the nation's first celebrities. At its heart, Trombley believes, the manuscript was a blackmail tool, a libelous screed against Lyon, whose life Twain was fully prepared to ruin to protect family secrets and his place in American history.
Early biographers believed the manuscript's details, including Twain's charge that Lyon tried to seduce him, to be true and that Lyon's role in Twain's life was too minute to bother with. But Trombley saw the work as an elaborate lie and wondered why Twain would bother. Her speculation turned into obsession, and eventually into "Mark Twain's Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years" (Alfred A. Knopf: 332 pp., $27.95), her third book dealing with Twain's life and legacy.
This morning's inbox held an email from the organizers of the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books - the top book festival in the country - firming up my role there this Spring, and I'm quite pleased.
In each of the last two years I was invited to take part as a panelist, discussing themes related to my first book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West. This time I get to sit in the moderator's chair (full disclosure: I "suggested" the role and they took me up on it). The panel they've assigned me to looks incredibly interesting - the kind of thing I;d sit in on even if I wasn't moderating it.
Called "Biography: Literary Masters," I'll be leading a discussion with three authors of well-received works on Raymond Carver, Arthur Koestler and Mark Twain. The authors are Michael Scammell (Koestler), Carol Sklenicka (Carver) and Laura Trombley, whose new Mark Twain's Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years is due out next week. And, coincidentally, I profiled Trombley for the LA Times - the piece is supposed to run this weekend, I believe.
I'll post more details as I get them. The session is slated for 1:30 p.m. Saturday, April 24. Hope to see a bunch of you there.
I had a lot of fun working on this story, a short profile of a local historian named Jim Sleeper -- himself a former newspaper reporter. The piece runs in the current issue of Orange Coast magazine. From the story:
After 82 years of life and some 60 years of collecting other people’s stories, Jim Sleeper’s memories can be a little hard to follow. What starts out as a single thought morphs into a 20-minute digression spinning across decades, like a series of hyperlinks. Or footnotes tacked to footnotes. It’s the storyteller’s curse, this meandering mind, but even if some of the details occasionally elude Sleeper—“The tape’s running a little slower these days,” he says—the stories always come to a point.
Sorry for being AWOL -- been a busy three weeks. Been filing regularly for Aol News, including this piece trying to set the Joe Stack suicide-pilot story into context, as well as finishing up some freelance articles, teaching, giving a two-part lecture on the state of newspapers and journalism, and trying to resurrect a dormant murder mystery while my agent shops my next book proposal.
Oh, and nailing down photographs and making final revisions to The Fear Within. No wonder I'm tired.
Unrelated, I'm guessing most of you saw the Esquirepiece on Roger Ebert by Chris Jones. I'm not a movie-goer but have a professional -- and human -- interest in Ebert and his disfiguring struggle with cancer. I ran through the piece quickly and thought it well done, and up to the magazine's standards as one of the few places where writers have the space to give a subject, and a story line, its due.
But a piece about the story caught me up a bit short. Jones, in an interview at About.com, reveals that he wrote while being acutely concerned about what his subject would think of the piece. That's a dangerous way to write journalism. I teach my students that a journalist's primary responsibility is to the truth, and to the reader, while being faithful to the subject and the results of the reporting. But I also tell them to NOT be concerned with what the subject of the story might think, because the subject of the story will inevitably look at things differently than the reporter. You have to write from a vantage point of detached independence.
Makes me wonder how this profile might have differed if Jones had been less concerned about what the subject of his piece thought about it.
It's been a busy week, with a couple of wrinkles. First, I posted earlier about becoming the Los Angeles correspondent for Sphere.com. Well, AOL decided to kill the page and roll it into Aol News. So now I'm the Los Angeles correspondent for Aol News, which my editor tells me means nothing n terms of what I'll be doing -- and getting paid.
Good news, that.
But the gig has kept me firing this week. First I had a piece on the parole hearing Wednesday of Gregory Powell, the main gunman in the cop-killing that formed the basis of Jopseph Wambauigh's The Onion Field, a classic in the true-crime genre (and a bit of an intentional echo of Truman Capote's In Cold Blodd). Ironically, he's the only involv ed in the crime who is still alive. And his parole was turned down.
Margaret is out of town for a few days - she and two friends took a short cruise down to Ensenada, Mexico - and the boys were both out at theater events Friday night. So it was me, the dog, a cold beer, and Bruce Chatwin's acclaimed On The Black Hill, a novel I'd tucked away long ago and never got around to cracking.
I'm very glad I finally got around to it. The novel is set in rural Great Britain, on a farm that straddles the British and Welsh border. It traces the lives of two main characters, twin brothers Lewis and Benjamin who, for a variety of reasons, make their farm their de facto Elba (there's a lovely set piece in the plot about their refusal to serve in World War One, part of an important but largely forgotten aspect of that era).
The novel, Chatwin's debut (it won the 1982 Whitbread First Novel Award), dissolves a bit at the end as Chatwin brings the characters into contemporary times, and it reads as though he just ran out of ideas of what to do with them. But it's not a fatal flaw, so rich is the rest of the book as it delves into class (and a bit of race), dreams and the reality of hard lives. Chatwin always had a keen eye for details, and for description, as in this bit about a walk up craggy Black Hill with their grandfather:
Lewis and Benjamin gambolled ahead, put up grouse, played finger-football with rabbit droppings, peered over the precipice onto the backs of kestrels and ravens and, every no and then, crept off into the bracken, and hid.
They liked to pretend that they were lost in a forest, like the Twins in Grimms' fairy-tale, and that each stalk of bracken was the trunk of a forest tree. Everything was calm and damp and cool in the green shade. Toadstools reared their caps through the dross of last year's growth; and the wind whistled far above their heads.
They lay on their backs and gazed at the clouds that crossed the fretted patches of sky; at the zig-zagging dots which were flies; and, way above, the other black dots which were the swallows wheeling.
Well, after the madness of the holiday season, I've heard back from my editor on my The Fear Within manuscript, and she likes it. She has a couple of suggestions that will make it stronger, we both think, but I should have it cleaned up and ready to go to the copy editor by March. Still looking at a likely Fall 2010 publication date, and I'll update when I know more.
Still lagging a bit on the photos - having trouble getting some help on the ground in New York City. But I expect to have that straightened out in short order. There are also some old newsreels available that I hope to use here or on another website to offer am online component of the book, and the events that I'm writing about. With the proposal for a third book in my agent's hands, I'm in a very good spot.
This is one of the photos I expect to use in The Fear Within- Eugene Dennis and his longtime companion, Peggy, arriving at court to start his prison term. I like the massing of supporters on the park across this street - Foley Square in Manhattan -- as the couple climbs the steps to the U.S. Courthouse.
The picture is from the Library of Congress, which holds the old New York World-Telegram photo archives, now in the public domain.
It really is a remarkably well-done bit of journalism, and reconstruction. And I've been thinking since writing these two pieces that this is the kind of journalism that we are at risk of losing in the continuing crisis in the business model for newspapers. So much of what we know about the world begins with reporters on the ground. And as much as we all love what we do, we do need to eat. I can continue to do piecemeal bits of freelance but the kind of stuff I've been doing isn't in the same range of what I was doing before (author profiles versus presidential campaign coverage).
Magnify that across the thousands of journalism jobs that have gone away in the past two years, and the yawning gap in what we know about our world, both home and abroad, becomes dangerously wide and deep.
I really should keep a list of the books I read that I like, something I can refer to at times like this when I'm trying to put together a recap of recommendations.
Sadly, I don't keep such a list. So I'm going to have to wing this. And the scope of my reading this past year was unusually limited this year. Writing a book, freelancing and teaching didn't leave much time for reading on my own. So this is even more subjective than the usual kind of list - books I read that left an impression, and that would make great holiday figts for the readers on your lists (assuming, of course, you already got them Blood Passion last year).
Bryan Gruley’s Starvation Lake is a great debut mystery that manages to mix small town Michigan, hockey and scandalized journalist into a fun read. Bryan is a friend and former colleague, but I’d have recommended this book even if he wasn’t.
Laila Lalami’s Secret Son doesn’t have the power of her first book, Hope And Other Dangerous Pursuits, but still warrants a read as she explores life in a Moroccan ghetto and the petri dish it provides for radicalism.
Maile Meloy’s Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It, a collection of stories set in the West that has you contemplating characters long after you’ve finished it. It’s made a lot of “best of “ lists this year, and for good read reason. The book is so good, in fact, it will likely send you looking for some of her earlier works. Read Liars and Saints first, then A Family Daughter – for reasons that will become apparent as you read.
Terry Teachout’s Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, is a deeply researched look at the life and influence of the jazz legend. As I mentioned in my post a couple of weeks ago, who knew Pops was a pothead?
Finally, Barbara’s Demick’s mesmerizing Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, isn’t out until later this month, but get it on your pre-order list. A remarkable look at life under one of the world’s most isolated regimes.
I'm a member of the Authors Guild - which, in fact, hosts this web site - and received an email this morning staking out its position on the news the other day that Random House was asserting it holds the e-book rights rights to books it published before the onset of the e-generation.
Random House's argument seems to be that it asserted a claim to all rights of publication in those old contracts, which is broad enough to include e-books. Not so fast, says the Authors Guild, in a pretty cogent argument. The Guild's statement is after the jump (and no, it's not a lot of legalistic "whereases" and "therefors"). This comes down to grabbing rights from authors without paying for them. (more…)
A few weeks back an editor at Publishers Weekly emailed and asked if I'd be interested in profiling Elif Batuman, whose name I knew from The New Yorker. Beyond that I knew nothing about Batuman, but the editor's description of her book, The Possessed, intrigued me: "Unlike any other book I've ever read about literature. Think: Mary Roach meets Dostoevsky."
I took on the assignment, and the editor was right - very unusual book, mixing travelogue with personal essay with literary discourse. And all much more accessible than what you think when you hear "Stanford prof" and "Russian literature." From my PW piece:
"In a world defined by categories, Elif Batuman and Lorin Stein, her editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, had a problem positioning Batuman's debut book, The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, due out February 23.
"They couldn't figure out exactly where the book fit. Part literary criticism, part travel writing, part memoir, Batuman's collection of seven nonfiction pieces moves from the campus of Stanford University to Uzbekistan, contemplating everything from Isaac Babel to an overweight mathematician in Florence who confides in an e-mail to Batuman: “I haven't had sex with a woman.... Also I haven't done laundry in almost a month and all my underwear is dirty.” But, somehow, it all ties in with Russian literature."
The profile went live early today, and is available here. I'm also reviewing the book for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and will toss up a link when that runs.
Well, I managed to finish the new book this past week, just over 100,000 words, all printed out at Office Depot then mailed off to my editor at Rutgers University Press. A very satisfying feeling, I can tell you.
The book is called The Fear Within, and it's a retelling of the trial in 1949 under the Smith Act of 11 leaders of the Communist Party-USA, charging them with "teaching or advocating the necessity of overthrowing the United States government." They weren't charged with doing anything, just talking about it, without any specific plans for its actually happening. In essence, they were imprisoned by the United States government for their thoughts and beliefs.
I got launched on the project because I found the story fascinating, and relatively unexplored outside the realm of Cold War historians. I also found parallels to the USA Patriot Act, in that it and the Smith Act were enacted out of fear of the outside. It's a perverse phenomenon that in times of national crisis, the U.S. tends to undercut the principals it professes to be fighting to preserve -- in this case, freedom of speech and assembly, among others.
The 11 men's convictions were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court just after the Korean War broke out. But a change in the makeup of the court followed a lessening of the Red Scare passions, and the Court effectively reversed itself and gutted the Smith Act in a related case, But by then the men had each served five-year sentences (some more for going on the lam; some less for good behavior).
It's a fascinating story, complete with spies, riots, legal chicanery and intriguing characters. Can't wait for you all to be able to read it; plans are for a Fall 2010 publication date.
And now that it's done, I'll be posting here more regularly.
It's a good, solid bit of work, infused with insights Teachout gleaned from some 650 reels of tapes Armstrong made - many surreptitiously - on his home recorder. As I mentioned in the piece, that let Teachout eavesdrop on large portions of the last half of Armstrong's life.
The tapes didn't reveal any significant new details on an already well-chronicled jazz legend, but the book is likely to introduce Armstrong as a full character to a generation of people who only know him as the voice in "It's a Wonderful World." And yes, Armstrong enjoyed the occasional - okay, daily - joint. And behind that engaging smile there existed a complex man who was eager to please, saw himself as an entertainer first, and who was more than capable of flexing his ego.
The book is an engaging read, and worth picking up for yourself or the jazz lover on your holiday list.
Sunday's Washington Post carries my first freelance book review for them, a piece on Toby Lester's The Fourth Part of the World, a very good survey of Europe's quest for knowledge of the world, and the riches that came from the first forays into globalization.
Lester is a contributing editor at Atlantic Monthly, and this is his first book. It's a solid effort, if a little too European-focused. AS I mention in the review it would have been nice if he had touched on, for example, China's explorations around the same pre-Columbian time.
But that doesn't detract from the work. Well worth picking up for yourself (and we are all history buffs, now, aren't we?) or for the history reader on your holiday gift list.
I'm hoping to place more book reviews at the Washington Post, and elsewhere. As it is my reviews and author profiles have been appearing regularly in the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Publishers Weekly, which is a nice array (links are on the left). Very satisfying work, to say the least.
First a disclaimer: Though I spent a dozen years as a staff writer for the LA Times, I never met Demick nor, to the best of my recollection, did we ever work together or share a byline. But I've been reading her journalism since she moved from the Philadelphia Inquirer to become the Times' first Seoul bureau chief, a gig that led directly to this book.
As my piece says, there are certain hurdles to writing about North Korea, not the least of which is dreadfully thin and controlled access to the place. Demick found a way around that by diving into the lives of refugees from the same small city, and through their eyes and memories has been able to create a gripping portrayal of life in what is likely the world's most repressive regime.
So why is this book important? It helps us understand a bit about life in a country that has been a major influence on U.S. foreign policy in Asia since the end of World War Two. The government is a holdover from Stalinist totalitarianism, and the populace lives under intense poverty, famine and indoctrination.
The headlines these days are all about the push for nuclear weapons. But in the end, it is a nation of people shackled by mad men.
Bonnie Jo Campbell, American Salvage (Wayne State University Press)
Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin (Random House)
Daniyal Mueenuddin, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (W. W. Norton &
Jayne Anne Phillips, Lark and Termite (Alfred A. Knopf)
Marcel Theroux, Far North (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
David M. Carroll, Following the Water: A Hydromancer's Notebook (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Sean B. Carroll, Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search
for the Origins of Species (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt)
Adrienne Mayor, The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy (Princeton University Press)
T. J. Stiles, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (Alfred A. Knopf)
YOUNG PEOPLE'S LITERATURE
Deborah Heiligman, Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Henry Holt)
Phillip Hoose, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
David Small, Stitches (W. W. Norton & Co.)
Laini Taylor, Lips Touch: Three Times (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic)
Rita Williams-Garcia, Jumped (HarperTeen/HarperCollins)
Rae Armantrout, Versed (Wesleyan University Press)
Ann Lauterbach, Or to Begin Again (Viking Penguin)
Carl Phillips, Speak Low (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Open Interval (University of Pittsburgh Press)
Keith Waldrop, Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy (University of California Press)
Every now and then a nonfiction writer gets lucky and stumbles across a treasure trove previously unavailable to other writers on a topic. That happened to Terry Teachout, the (sometimescontroversial) culture critic for the Wall Street Journal and an inveterate blogger.
Teachout's trove? The private tape recordings of jazz legend Louis Armstrong, which imbue his new biography of "Satchmo" with an intimacy not available to earlier writers on Armstrong's life. He talked about it with me for a profile that went live yesterday at Publishers Weekly.
“To people who know about Armstrong in the general way that most of us know about Armstrong, I think they're going to be surprised by a lot of this book,” Teachout says, pointing to Armstrong's own underappreciated skills as a writer (he wrote two memoirs), his dealings with the Chicago mob, his pot smoking, or that his “career was short-circuited because of lip damage that caused him to withdraw from performing for years before he became famous.”
Armstrong led a fascinating life, and was one of the first African American artists to enter mainstream pop culture. The book is due out in December - PW targets the book industry, so these pieces are published before books go on sale. So plenty of time to put it on your holiday list.
A recurring theme in Ishiguro's work is the enigma of unresolved plots, and unresolved relationships. He takes slices of lives and weaves broader stories from them, most successfully in Remains of the Day. But reading a series of short stories that all end in various shades of ambiguity just gets tiring. Rather than waiting for a surprise, you just wait for the end, like the train getting into your local station. You know it will get there, and you know when, so it's awfully hard to get too fired up about it.
Postings, as you may have noticed, have been light around here lately. I have a little over two months to go before submitting The Fear Within to my publisher, Rutgers University Press, and so have been nose deep in communists, anti-communists and all sorts of post-World War Two dramas.
But I'm nearing the end of some non-research reading that is quite good - Anthony Everitt's Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome, which came out earlier this month. Ancient Rome is one of the gaps in my reading/knowledge bank, so I've found this to be quite illuminating. Relying heavily on primary sources, Everitt has written an engaging history depicting life in the Roman Empire leading up to Hadrian's rise, and then his leadership that brought about a rare period of stability - and some notable atrocities, particularly against Jews who were staging an uprising in the Middle East.
The New Yorker found fault with Everitt's relatively limited details on Hadrian himself, though the brief review points out that there isn't much material available. Historians are inherently limited by the material, and it's hard to fault Everitt for the paucity of details preserved over the centuries. And the book is touted as the first in-depth look at Hadrian in some 80 years, which in itself makes it worth a look.
So if you're interested in ancient history, this would be a good book to pick up. If you're interested in history and, like me, don't have a grounding the Roman Empire, this can help fill a gap.
There are many anomalies in American life, but one that has always stymied me is the compulsion by some to try to ban books. Usually it's social conservatives fearing Little Johnny or Suzie might encounter some naughty bits in a novel. But sometimes it's progressives offended -- or fearing to offend -- by inappropriate depictions of minorities.
Neither is defensible. In fact, I can't envision any reason why any book should ever be banned by any entity. Culture thrives through the exchange of ideas, the good and the bad, and if a writer has penned objectionable material then attack the thinking behind it, don't just try to hide the idea away. We learn through discussion. We grow through peaceful resolution of conflict. We mature as a society by looking outside rather than walling off our minds -- and those of our children.
So celebrate Banned Books Week, which begins today, by buying and reading any of the books found in this rather chilling map of local fights over books. Then make sure your child reads it, and talk about why some might want that book banned. And, more importantly, why it shouldn't be.
The story doesn't get into all the conspiracy stuff and fanciful embrace of occasionally indicted history, but looks more at the state of publishing, and what The Da Vinci Code did.
It really was a remarkable mass-market cultural phenomenon. There are some 81 million copies of the book in circulation worldwide. That's not Harry Potter numbers, but it's still one hell of a hit.
Prime evidence that Brown has touched the central nerve of Middle America: Last week NBC's "TODAY Show" did a "Where's Matt Lauer" knock off, sending the co-host to different sites from the book and setting them up as clues. That was followed by a Q&A and excerpt Sunday in Parade magazine, the newspaper insert. It was the fist tome the magazine had excerpted a novel in its 68-year history.
Obviously, I need to find a way to include the Knights Templar and the Masons in my books ...
My part of the project was to take the book and rewrite and condense it into a more accessible report, taking the highlights and hopefully putting it in a form that would find wider distribution among policy makers. Here it is, free for the downloading.
It was an intriguing project to help out on. I was familiar with many of the conditions detailed in the book, but learned a lot about how these conditions came to be, and the repercussions of the declining power of unions, the surge in cheap immigrant labor, the steps being taken to organize and improve the lives of the lowest-wage earners, and strategies for leading businesses to realize that paying the lowest wage possible isn't always the best way to run a business. Or, more broadly, to contribute to society.
Give it a read. And feel free to post comments about it below.
It's been hot here in Southern California -- distractingly and hillside-burning hot, with four wildfires racing through the mountains above Los Angeles and on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
None of them are near us, but there's always a "there but the grace of God" feeling when these things start roaring to life. Our house is in the heart of suburbia, but we're close enough to a wildlife area - a very parched-looking wildlife area - to wonder whether some day it will be our turn. It has come close before, neighbors tell us.
It's hard to write when the temperature is in the mid-90s and the breeze feels like someone has just checked to see if the cookies are done (we don't have air conditioning). Add to that the desire to keep checking the TV for fire updates. But as an early riser, at the computer before the sun is up and the heat begins building, I'm still making good progress on The Fear Within. I'm about to get the prosecution rested (in May of 1949), and then I lurch into the defense, a five-month drawn-out attempt by the leaders of the Communist Party to persuade the jury that they were standing up for the common man, not fomenting revolution.
I'd read some of Meloy's short stories when they appeared in magazines, such as The New Yorker, but had never read any of her books. After barreling through the new collection, I went back and read her two novels, as well (I have yet to get through her first collection, Half in Love, but plan to). Here's a snippet from my profile:
"The strength of Meloy's stories lies in their touch of the familiar. She moves among sibling rivalry and adultery (several times), but also writes about a young woman's murder and her father's drive to learn the details, which become knives to his heart. Another story details a grandmother's drop-in visit to her grandson -- who believed the woman had died long ago. The stories share a rootedness, a sense that these could be real. And as in real life, sometimes endings are beginnings, certitude becomes tenuous and ambition can, on the cusp of attainment, turn out to be whim."
We met in the back yard of a friend of Meloy's in Beverly Hills, a wonderful space of mature trees, a small cluster of fruit trees, a pool and a pool house. Way out of both of our rent ranges but it was the perfect backdrop for some photos she was having taken to go with an article in another publication.
It was an enjoyable interview. Meloy is smart and understated - must be the Montana roots - and has a refreshingly direct way of discussing her work. The more time I spend talking with fellow writers the less I miss the gamesmanship that came with interviewing politicians.
So give the story, and Meloy's collection, a read. And check out her linked novels, too. Read them in chronological order - Liars and Saints first and then A Family Daughter - for the full effect.
Pretty ambitious. CNN counted it up: 2,300 pages in all. I bet he skips some parts. But I'm also heartened to see the range of interests. Though you have to wonder how much of these books he'll actually get through. Let's see, big plans, limited time, something has to give. Where have we heard this before?
My review of Pat Conroy's new novel, a long time in coming, is in today's Los Angeles Times. The short version: Disappointing.
The book is called South of Broad, for the upscale neighbor of mostly old money in Charleston, South Carolina. Conroy creates a network of characters who all serve a narrative function, but most of them feel more like cutouts than full=fledged people. And as I write in the review, Conroy's wonderful and powerful narrative voice seems to have lost its vigor.
Which is disappointing. Conroy, at his best, writes with a captivating sense of lyricism, a flow of language and rhythm that wraps you up and takes you, usually, to the Deep South.
But he's much drier here, his powerful muscle gone lax, as I note in the review. Part of the problem is the plot focus itself, which turns on the arrival of the devastating Hurricane Hugo, and a twist in which an AIDS patient draws the gaggle of friends to San Francisco for a rescue. Combined, it just feels like last decade's novel.
Loyal Conroy fans will likely quibble, but the book just doesn't hold up to The Prince of Tides or Beach Music, two of his more recent works. Even without comparing South of Broad to those bar-setting works, the new novel just doesn't engage as it should. Again, a point made in the review, Conroy doesn't propel you through his story so much as he drags you, and it takes some patience to get to the end.
That's never a good feeling when you're reading a novel by someone you know to be a gifted storyteller.
Sorry, a little slow to post this -- hard to juggle online responsibilities from the road. But the reading Wednesday at San Francisco's Modern Times Bookstore went very well. Some 25 to 30 people stopped in, and my part of it went for more than an hour, with lots of great questions from the audience. (Thanks to organizer Steve Zeltzer for the photo).
One theme that has come up since the book was published came up again: Whether there are plans for a movie. So far we've had a few inquiries but nothing has materialized, which is disappointing.
The Ludlow Massacre was part of the nation's most violent showdown between workers and their bosses. More than 75 people were killed in what became open insurrection by coal miners and their supporters, who routed the Colorado National Guard and controlled more than 200 miles of the Front Range before the U.S. Army moved in as peacekeepers. The story draws in everyone from the Rockefellers to Mother Jones to President Wilson. Some of the players involved here went on to play roles in the events behind John Sayles' movie, "Matewan." I think Ludlow and the coal war would make a great action/historical film. With luck, some day (the rights are still available, as they say in Hollywood).
Meantime, there were also a few questions about the current book project, which was nice to hear.
One of the highlights was the bookstore itself. It opened in the mid-70s as a co-op and though it's a tough model in a tough business, they're still making it work. Shows you what passion and dedication can do.
The talk, as I've posted before, was part of San Francisco's annual Laborfest, focused this summer on the 75th anniversary of the San Francisco general strike. The strike, like Ludlow, was a small moment against the backdrop of the sweep of American history -- but still important to learn and teach about. I hope you're able to take in some of the other planned events.
I love these little slices of history when they crop up -- in this case in the form of an obituary from the Toronto Star (thanks to Mark Sarvas' The Elegant Variation for the initial link). It seems Lloyd Lockhart, a Canadian reporter with the claim of being the last to interview Ernest Hemingway, has died.
It wasn't much of an interview -- more like tea and chat. And that only after Hemingway spotted Lockhart's wife waiting behind him at the door before he kicked the reporter off his property. This was near Havana during the last days of the Fulgencio Batista regime (Fidel Castro was still leading his band of rebels in the hills).
Hemingway worked for the Toronto Star in the 1920s, and Lockhart, then a Star reporter, had thought that might give him an in with the reclusive Nobel Prize-winning writer. It didn't -- Hemingway had a rather low opinion of his former bosses.
"He complained that the paper blew hot and cold on its newsroom people, that you were a king one day and a dog the next. He told me he had made friends there, had some interesting times but it still rankled him how the Star ebbed and flowed around (long-time editor) Harry Hindmarsh Sr."
Anderson copped to the problems in an email with VQR (the magazine was preparing a review of the book), blaming it on a last-minute decision to not use footnotes. Beyond the fact that nonfiction books without footnotes always make me suspicious, for the life of me I can't figure out why deciding late in the process to drop the footnotes makes a difference. Lifting passages verbatim and then footnoting is just as lazy -- and dishonest -- as cribbing them in the first place, as Ed Champion also notes on his blog.
But Wikipedia? I mean, if you're going to steal ...
The most interesting part of the piece is Ross' take on the state of publishing which squares with what I've been seeing. Things aren't as bad as in newspapers, but it's still pretty tough. Especially for fiction writers. Frances asked him what is easier to sell to editors, fiction or nonfiction:
"Uhh -- well -- non-fiction is easier by a mile. Look, I don't want to rain on the parade, but look at the numbers. Publishers will only look at fiction that has been submitted by an agent. These submissions have been heavily vetted. I would imagine that out of 100 queries received by agents for novels, they might select 1 for submission (probably less). I have spoken with a number of fiction editors. They inform me that of the submissions they receive, they may decide to publish (again) 1 in 100. Just looking at the numbers, selling a novel is like winning the lottery. Of course, if you are a published author with a good track record, you are in pretty good shape. It isn't very hard to sell a new novel by Philip Roth. But if you are a published novelist whose last book bombed, it is extremely difficult. Publishers are making decisions by the numbers now. They have a data base that tells them the sales of every book on the market. Refined taste in literature plays a very small role."
So I guess the good news is the novel I've got stashed away, half finished while I work on The Fear Within, is a mystery. Not much call for refined literary taste there....
I picked up this book out of a sense of curiosity, and found myself devouring it like, well, an addict.
Journalist Nick Reding spent a few years immersing himself in small-town Iowa, researching a book about the devastating effects of meth in rural America. I grew up in a small town (I can never say that without a John Mellencamp song bursting into my head) so read it with the eye of a familiar.
"In 'Methland,' Reding sets something that is known to most of us -- illicit meth labs and tweakers, violent hallucinations and destroyed families -- against a broad context of the decline of local economies, shattered dreams and a sense of fate-driven helplessness.
"This is a strong book, and it tells a complicated story in comprehensible, human dimensions. Like all good journalism, it's the hand holding up the mirror, the friend telling us to take a cold, hard look at ourselves."
The book's strength lies in the professional distance Reding maintains. He lays out people in full, the heroes with flaws, the tweakers as fully rounded people with crippling addictions. It's a complicated story, and it hasn't gone away, Reding argues. It's just faded from the headlines.
Truth be told (sorry, Laila), I have yet to crack the novel, which Laila signed for me when we both were speaking (separate panels) at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Just too many on the stack, though I hope to get to it soon. I loved her first book,Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, a wonderful collection of inter-connected short stories about the illegal flow of migrants from Lalami's native Morocco to Spain.
Laila's a wonderful work -- I recommended Hope to many friends, and none were disappointed. And it looks like Secret Son is just as compelling, and insightful. Below is the book trailer.
Dave's book and my Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West came out around the same time, and we've done readings and appeared in panels together. He also, coincidentally, is married to Annie Wells, a wonderful photographer with whom I worked at the late Rochester Times-Union in the mid-1980s.
Dave's award, combined with the recent Bancroft Prize to Thomas Andrews for Killing for Coal, a look at the Ludlow through the prism of environmental history, is beginning to bring more attention to the Ludlow Massacre and the Colorado coal war that spawned it -- more than 75 killed in seven months, with the striking coal miners and their supporters controlling 275 miles of the Front Range until President Wilson sent in the U.S. Army as a peacekeeping force.
I still think the story would make a wonderful movie. So far, I've had a few nibbles but nothing has panned out, unfortunately. Keep your fingers crossed.
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.
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).
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:
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.
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…)
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 (more…)
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)."
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.
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.