Some of my
journalism

Quite the World, Isn't It?


On Stephen Dobyns's The Burn Palace

March 8, 2013

Tags: books, writing, fiction

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.


On Nick Dybek and his debut novel

May 29, 2012

Tags: fiction

I've had a series of reviews published in the Los Angeles Times recently (a more or less up to date list of links to my journalism is at the left), and this morning's edition carries my look at Nick Dybek's debut novel, When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man, which I liked despite some reservations.

Dybek, son of award-winning writer Stuart Dybek, went through the modern steps to becoming a writer, studying at the University of Michigan then going through the Iowa Writer's Workshop. A lot of times first novels by writers who've gone that route feel a bit too studied, as though they are assembling a novel, not writing one. And there is a touch of that in Dybek's book. But he manages to move beyond it and create something that works. It's a good debut, good enough that I'd happily read a second novel by him.

From my review:
The sharpest evidence of Dybek's skills is that he has taken a story line that could easily have veered into film cliché, a mix of "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and the basic secret-in-the-basement plot, and turned it into a taut novel juggling the sometimes conflicting impulses to do the moral thing, and to protect those we love.

At the same time, Dybek steps beyond what could have been a tired coming-of-age story to write about memory, and about the repercussions of making a choice, whether it's right or wrong. In fact, making the right choice can often lose us more than making the wrong choice.

The choices Cal and his father make reveal facets of themselves they had not before contemplated. In the austere world of controlled emotions in which they live, the revelations are salted away like a catch at sea.

And we're left to wonder whether Flint ever was, indeed, a good man.


Cheering on an old friend's new book, and re-invented life

May 27, 2012

Tags: personal, books, fiction

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 couple of reviews of a couple of good books

May 18, 2012

Tags: fiction, nonfiction, reviews

Looking at the Los Angeles Times book coverage this week, you'd think I've been busy. And you'd be right.

Thursday's paper carried a review of a newly translated novel by Sayed Kashua, Second Person Singular, which as I write in the review explores "themes [that are] are universal in a world in which every culture, it seems, has an 'other' against which to play out prejudice, and feelings of supremacy." Kashua, an Arab living in Israel, writes in Hebrew, and he has produced a very good novel exploring the lives of two Arabs who grew up in the occupied territories but moved to Jerusalem to forge futures. And the key to the future, they decide, lies in freeing themselves from their personal and ethnic histories. But can they? Can anyone?

The second review, which is online now but I believe will be in the paper Sunday, is of historian Geoffrey C. Ward's A Disposition to be Rich. The subtitle tells you pretty much all you need to know: How a Small-Town Pastor's Son Ruined an American President, Brought on a Wall Street Crash, and Made himself the Best-Hated Man in the United States. And no, it's not about Bernie Madoff. The "best-hated" man is Ferdie Ward, a 19th century Wall Street investor who stole millions using the classic Ponzi scheme years before Charles Ponzi invented it.

What I didn't mention in the review are the coincidental overlaps with my own life and work. Ward grew up near Rochester, N.Y., where I lived and worked from 1983-86 (my wife's extended family still lives in the area and I visit often). So the geography was fun to read. And the presidential victim was Ulysses S. Grant, for whom Horace Porter served as a top aide during the Civil War, and as private secretary when Grant was president. They were so close that Porter became the key figure in raising money to build Grant's Tomb in Manhattan.

Porter also is the man who found John Paul Jones's body. Small world among all those books.


Books, books, and more books; my friends have been busy

March 2, 2012

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, fiction

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:

- Julia Heaberlin's debut novel Playing Dead (in galley; out in May)
- Adam Hochschild's World War One-era history,To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918
- Domenica Marchetti's most recent cookbook, The Glorious Pasta of Italy
- Robin Mather's 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)
- Terry McDermott and Josh Meyer's The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
- Maile Meloy's children's book, - Lisa See's Dreams of Joy
- Julia Flynn Siler's Lost Kingdom: Hawaii's Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America's First Imperial Adventure

That's a lot of busy writers.


Watergate: When the truth was stranger than fiction

February 19, 2012

Tags: history, current events, novel, fiction

Today's Los Angeles Times carries my review of Thomas Mallon's Watergate, a book that was a lot of fun to read for someone whose formative years were dominated by Watergate. I remember poring over every story in the daily paper as the scandal unfolded, and watching the hearings on TV when I got home from school. Names like Fred LaRue, John Dean, and Rose Mary Woods were as familiar to me as the starting lineup of my beloved Baltimore Orioles.

So it was entertaining to read Mallon's novelization of those events. From the review:
It's been nearly 40 years since Watergate, a chain of events that did, in fact, carry the echoes of a bad novel. Imagine the overview: People working for a powerful president get caught breaking into the headquarters of the opposition political party, setting off a scandal that reaches the highest level of power and threatens the very foundations of the government itself.

Preposterously melodramatic. Except it really happened.

In "Watergate," Mallon adeptly converts the real into fiction. This is Mallon's eighth novel, including 1994's "Henry and Clara," about a couple that President Abraham Lincoln invited to sit in the presidential box at Ford Theater that fateful night he was assassinated, and 2007's "Fellow Travelers," about a gay romance in McCarthy-era Washington.

So Mallon has the experience, both in fictionalizing history and in plumbing the depths of Washington, where he lives. In "Watergate," he adroitly captures the banal venality of Nixon, the loyal scheming of his political intimates and the complex interactions among shadowy ex-CIA agents and others that ended in criminal acts.


Writing, and beating the long odds

January 26, 2012

Tags: writing, authors, fiction

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

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

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


So this is what I've been up to

January 10, 2012

Tags: writing, authors, fiction

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

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


On holiday gifts and supporting authors

November 20, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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


It's William Kennedy's world; Albany just lives in it

October 13, 2011

Tags: books, writing, fiction, review

I've been reading William Kennedy's novels for almost as long as he's been writing them, and was tapped to review his latest, Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes for the Los Angeles Times.

Short review: Very good.

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.


A different way of writing

June 15, 2011

Tags: writing, history, nonfiction, fiction

So with The Fear Within launched and Detroit: A Biography safely in my editor's hands, I've been poking around for the next project while catching up on my general reading. I have a couple of ideas and am researching whether there's enough material available to make a book out of them, though at this stage I'm not too optimistic. Neither involves people who left much of a paper trail, which makes it nearly impossible to put flesh on the skeletons of their compelling stories. But we'll see.

Meanwhile, I've dusted off a mystery I've been nibbling away at for a number of years now, which is fun to work with, and has me contemplating the different requirements of writing history, and writing fiction. I was at a dinner party a couple of weeks ago for the launch of Adam Hochschild's new book, To End All Wars, his history of the antiwar movement in England surrounding The Great War, and he made a comment to the effect that fiction writing differs from history writing in that with a novel, what you write only has to be plausible. With history, what you write has to be true.

Adam was talking about some of the characters in his book, including a brother and sister who found themselves in key positions on opposite sides of the war, the kind of dramatic tension that would make you roll your eyes if it appeared in a novel. Yet here they were in real life. In the novel I'm working on, I keep encountering a similar friction. Not between plausibility and truth, but between what a character would do, and what a character should do.

It's a subtle, yet crucial, distinction. Making sure actions are true to character is obvious. But as I frame a scene, I keep stumbling over the issue of should my character do this? Is this action necessary? Does it help the reader understand the story, or reveal a subtle dynamic? Or am I just indulging my imagination?

So 40,000 words in, with the victims dead, the two main plot lines firmly established, and the characters in full dress, I find myself becalmed by second-guessing. I know where the story lines go, and how the threads come together at the end. I just don't know where the characters go in the next few thousand words. It is the difference between writing what happened, and creating what happened.

Ah, writer's block. Nice of you stop by unannounced. A short visit, I hope?


Day Two at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

May 2, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, fiction

The 2011 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books
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.


Day One at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

April 30, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, fiction

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?


Los Angeles Times Festival of Books details

April 19, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, fiction

Well, there's less than two weeks to go before the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which I mentioned before, but I've been remiss in passing along details of my appearance.

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.


Wanna buy a bookstore?

April 13, 2011

Tags: books, nonfiction, fiction

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.


The moment we've all been waiting for

March 31, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, fiction

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.


On a (short) look at the Peace Corps' (long) history

March 23, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, fiction

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.


The 2011 LA Times Festival of Books, and me

March 13, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, fiction

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.


The kind of thing that makes an author very happy

March 12, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, fiction

Two of the defendants among supporters at a rally. Library of Congress photo.
From the forthcoming Publishers Weekly, the leading trade journal in the book industy:

The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial
Scott Martelle. Rutgers Univ., $26.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-8135-4938-5

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


Jonathan Lethem and an enviable gig

February 28, 2011

Tags: writing, authors, fiction

A couple months ago I drove up to Pomona College near Los Angeles and sat down with author Jonathan Lethem in his new office, where he's now teaching (the resulting profile is here at Pomona College Magazine).

I have to admit to a stream of jealousy. Lethem has a great gig as the tenured Roy Edward Disney Professor in Creative Writing, where he teaches a couple of courses a semester to students who are serious about writing and literature, and has time carved out to pursue his own writing. In this environment, a steady gig for ANY writer is a Godsend (note to hiring committees: I'm available).

Lethem is a smart guy, self-aware and but not overly self-promoting, striking the right balance. We talked a lot about the writing process, and he made a point that syncs with one I make to aspiring writers when they ask about the actual process of sitting down to write. “Nobody is trying to stop you from writing," Lethem said about the distractions he's had to overcome throughout his career. "You just have to structure your day so that you get to it.”

And that is the process in a nutshell. If you're waiting for the muse to strike, you'll never write. If you're waiting for a big commission to come along, you'll never write. To be a writer, obviously enough, you have to write. There is always time; it's just a matter of where writing fits in on your list of daily priorities.

Chris Offutt once wrote something about his own early adulthood that he was an actor who never acted, a painter who never painted, and a poet who never wrote poetry, though he had pretensions to being all those things. He did, eventually, become a writer - by writing.

To be it, you have to do it. So what are you doing wasting you time reading blogs? Disconnect from the electronic world, and write.


Any Human Heart and the little screen

February 13, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, fiction

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 Theatre rendition 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.


The Library of America's Greatest Hits

January 4, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, fiction

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.

Thomas JeffersonThere 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.

Similarly, the Everyman's Library offers John Updike's series of four Rabbit Angstrom novels for $35

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 [1984] 217,518 copies
Mark Twain: Mississippi Writings [1982] 150,973
Abraham Lincoln: Speeches 1859–1865 [1989] 120,589
Abraham Lincoln: Speeches 1832–1858 [1989] 118,284
Walt Whitman: Poetry & Prose [1982] 114,790
Henry David Thoreau: A Week, Walden, etc. [1985] 114,367
Debate on the Constitution: Part One [1993] 112,273
Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays & Lectures [1983] 108,781
Robert Frost: Poems, Plays, & Prose [1995] 106,772
Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works [1988] 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.


A couple of my favorite books from the past year

December 26, 2010

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, fiction

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.
The other book that stood out for me was Elif Batuman's highly enjoyable The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, a look at just what the title says. But like all great essay collections, the power here lies in the voice. From my review for the Cleveland Plain-Dealer:
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.


On Scott Turow, and Innocent

May 2, 2010

Tags: books, writing, fiction, literature

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.


Literary Orange, and other spring events

March 30, 2010

Tags: books, history, writing, fiction, nonfiction

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.

A few weeks later, I'm moderating a panel at the LA Times Festival of Books, where we'll be discussing literary biography (details in this earlier post). And I'm talking about the Ludlow Massacre as part of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute through UCI. I did a two-part talk this winter for the same organization, dissecting what's happened to newspapers. It was a lot of fun - a smart, caring audience. This session will be built around my book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West. I'm looking forward to it - love talking history with people who care about it.

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....


On Salinger, eco-terror and The Onion Field killer

January 28, 2010

Tags: books, history, writing, fiction, nonfiction

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.

Then I co-wrote a piece with my old friend and former Detroit News colleague Allan Lengel on domestic eco-terrorism.

And a little bit ago I posted a shortish look at the death of J.D. Salinger - and the continued life of teen-age angst.

Yes, I'm ready for a nap.


Bruce Chatwin's On The Black Hill

January 17, 2010

Tags: books, writing, fiction, literature

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.


Last-minute gift suggestions - books, of course

December 19, 2009

Tags: books, history, writing, fiction, nonfiction

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).

Allison Hoover Bartlett’s The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession is a compelling look at book thief, and the way he plies his trade.

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.

Toby Lester’s The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map That Gave America Its Name, which I reviewed for The Washington Post. A great slice of history that turns into a survey course of cartography.

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.

Nick Reding’s Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town is a chilling yet compassionate look at the effects of the meth epidemic on a single town.

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.


Random House and the rights grab

December 15, 2009

Tags: books, history, writing, fiction, nonfiction

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…)


On Elif Batuman and lovers of Russian literature

December 14, 2009

Tags: books, history, writing, fiction, nonfiction

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.


National Book Award finalists named

October 14, 2009

Tags: books, writing, fiction, literature

Ladies and gentlemen, your 2009 National Book Awards finalists (see any of your personal favorites on there?):

FICTION
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 &
Co.)
Jayne Anne Phillips, Lark and Termite (Alfred A. Knopf)
Marcel Theroux, Far North (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

NONFICTION
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)

POETRY
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)


On Ishiguro, and the pitfalls of unresolved fiction

October 11, 2009

Tags: Writing, books, fiction

My review of Kazuo Ishiguro's collection of short stories, Nocturnes ran in the Cleveland Plain Dealer today, and I ended up disappointed with the book.

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.


Celebrate Banned Books Week: Read something radical

September 26, 2009

Tags: books, writing, fiction, literature

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.


New piece on Maile Meloy's collection of short stories

August 25, 2009

Tags: books, writing, fiction, literature

Today's LA Times carries my profile of author Maile Meloy, and her new collection of short stories, Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, which has been getting rave - and deserved - reviews from all quarters.

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.


Pat Conroy's South of Broad

August 11, 2009

Tags: books, writing, fiction, literature

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.


Past as present: Hemingway on his newspaper years

July 3, 2009

Tags: writing, books, fiction

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."
Sounds like every newsroom I ever worked in...


So, you think you want to write a novel ...

June 18, 2009

Tags: writing, books, friends, fiction, nonfiction, bookstores

My friend Frances Dinkelspiel -- another journalist-turned-historian -- has a nice Q&A on her blog today with Andy Ross, the former owner of Cody's Books in Berkeley. After he closed the shop a couple of years ago, he turned himself into a literary agent, with some pretty good results.

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....


Solid NY Times review for Laila Lalami's Secret Son

June 6, 2009

Tags: writing, books, friends, fiction

It's always nice to see friends get good play and reception for their creative works. This time it's Laila Lalami's turn, with this solid review in The New York Times for her novel, Secret Son.

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.




Ludlow verse-novel author wins $40,000 prize

June 3, 2009

Tags: writing, books, friends, history, fiction, Ludlow Massacre

I'm tickled to see that my friend, David Mason, has won the 2009 Thatcher Hoffman Smith Creativity in Motion Prize -- $40,000 to convert his wonderful verse-novel Ludlow in a libretto.

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.


Pat Conroy, Richard Russo and other authors to look for

May 31, 2009

Tags: books, writing, fiction, literature

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

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

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

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

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

Eugenides and Herzog

May 19, 2009

Tags: fiction, books

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

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

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

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


A third-generation journalist, I was born in Scarborough, Maine, and grew up there and in Wellsville, New York, about two hours south of Buffalo. My first newspaper job came at age 16, writing a high school sports column for the Wellsville Patriot, a weekly (defunct), then covering local news part-time for the Wellsville Daily Reporter.

After attending Fredonia State, where I was editor of The Leader newspaper and news director for WCVF campus radio, I worked in succession for the Jamestown Post-Journal, Rochester Times-Union (defunct), The Detroit News and the Los Angeles Times, where I covered presidential and other political campaigns, books, local news and features, including several Sunday magazine pieces.

An active freelancer, my work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Sierra Magazine, Los Angeles magazine, Orange Coast magazine, New York Times Book Review (books in brief), Buffalo News, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Teaching Tolerance (Southern Poverty Law Center), Solidarity (United Auto Workers) and elsewhere. I teach or have taught journalism courses at Chapman University and UC Irvine, and speak occasionally at school and college classes about journalism, politics and writing. I've appeared on panels at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and the Literary Orange festival, moderated panels at the Nieman Conference in Narrative Journalism and the North American Labor History Conference, among others, and been featured on C-SPAN's Book TV.

I'm also a co-founder of The Journalism Shop, a group of journalists (most fellow former Los Angeles Times staffers) available for freelance assignments.



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