Quite the World, Isn't It?
June 14, 2013
Well, a couple of weeks ago I sent off the manuscript for Jones's Bones: The Search for an American Hero (which I should emphasize is the working title and could change). That's always a good feeling, but it also leaves me feeling a bit at loose ends. Margaret tells me I am incapable of relaxing, and I can't argue - I always feel better when I have a project stretching before me.
So yes, I've already been scratching around for the next book idea. I have a couple of ideas I'm wrestling with, and one for which I'm already working up a proposal, an idea that has me as excited as Horace Porter finding a lead coffin (you'll have to wait for Jones's Bones to get that reference).
Meanwhile, I drove out to Rancho Mirage (Palms Springs area) this week to lead a seminar Thursday at the University of California-Riverside's Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts program. The subject was "Research: Pain in the Ass, or Pearl Diving?" As you might guess, I land on the pearl-diving side myself. It was a fun session, a lot of bright, enthusiastic students, and I had some good one-on-one sessions with several of them over the course of the day. There are some very good projects in gestation, and I wish them all luck.
And a little for myself, too, as this next idea takes root.
May 24, 2013
has this review I wrote about a book that meshes nicely with the last project, Detroit: A Biography.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
The book is Edward McClelland's Nothin' but Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America's Industrial Heartland, the latest in a series of books about the beat up heart of America - includng my Detroit book.
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."
May 10, 2013
carries my review of Nathaniel Philbrick's new "Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution, a very good and, as the headline says, "on the ground" recreation of the start of the American Revolution.The Los Angeles Times today
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."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....
April 8, 2013
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.
March 20, 2013
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....
March 8, 2013
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) ...The Los Angeles Times has
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.
January 4, 2013
a sub-radar dining fad: Chef Craig Thornton and his private dinners.Regular readers of The New Yorker will recognize Dana Goodyear as the Los Angeles-based correspondent who keeps trying to explain us to the Manhattanites who think the West Coast is somewhere over there on the other side of Tenth Avenue. And she's done some very nice work in that regard, including this recent piece on
But Goodyear also is a poet, and the Los Angeles Times has a short profile I did of Goodyear tied to the release of her second collection of poems, The Oracle of Hollywood Boulevard. From the piece:
Poet and journalist Dana Goodyear perches on a swivel chair in the second-floor writing studio behind her Venice home, the windows cranked open to a gentle ocean breeze. Low rooftops and tall palm trees stretch to the horizon, and Goodyear points to an anomaly just across the alley — a faded surfboard tossed up and forgotten atop a neighbor's single-story house.It was a fun piece to do. Any time a writer gets to spend a couple of hours with another writer talking about writing, well, you get the point.
Oh, and she's working on her first nonfiction book, too. It's on American foodie culture. And I suspect her piece on the private dining fad will be a part of it.
December 20, 2012
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.
September 10, 2012
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.
August 15, 2012
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.The woman sat with a friend to my left as I stood last night discussing Detroit: A Biography at
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.
Maybe things have improved, but not enough, when black urban poverty is taken as a given, churches refuse to let blacks marry, and presidential politics comes shrouded in a racial mantle.
Some things to think about as we hit the I-75 freeway and head south for a couple of days in Detroit.
August 14, 2012
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.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
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.
July 12, 2012
But that's the nature of this process. And while it's forcing me to rethink how to approach some parts of the story of the search for John Paul Jones's body, it also is letting me add some historical nuance that in many ways makes the story even more compelling. I've already made good progress in writing the early part of the story. Now it's time to hunker down for the main body of writing. Which means even lighter posting here than you've been seeing, unfortunately.
The trip has had some challenges of its own. This part of the country was battered by intense thunderstorms two days before we arrived, and the power was only restored at the rental we're calling home a few hours before we arrived. Then there was the heat - over 100 degrees for the first few days, continuing the onslaught we first encountered in Austin, Texas, (107 degrees) and that continued through New Orleans.
There have been a lot of long days in archives but we've squeezed in some fun along the way (see above references to Austin and New Orleans), including a stop at the reading room of the Library of Congress, where I hoped to have my picture taken with all three of my books. Turns out the Library filed The Fear Within in the law library, rather than the general collection, classifying it as a law book (???) rather than a history book. And when I arrived at the library to pick up the other two books, which I'd ordered earlier that morning, I found someone else had picked up Detroit: A Biography from the counter, and the librarian working the circulation desk couldn't find it in the stacks of books being used by researchers. It's good to be in demand, I guess.
So above you see me at one of the study desks in the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress with Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West, which is fitting since that's the book that first got me added to the collection that began with Thomas Jefferson's personal library. That's about as close to immortality as one can hope for.
June 17, 2012
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.
May 25, 2012
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....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."
March 21, 2012
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.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
If you go to the Blackstone site for
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.
March 2, 2012
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.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,
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.
January 26, 2012
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.”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.
January 10, 2012
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.
November 29, 2011
The cover is the view of Detroit from the Windsor, Canada, side of the Detroit River, looking, oddly, north. Not many people realize that Detroit sits north of Canada, a wrinkle of local geography (for a few miles the Detroit River flows mostly east to west before resuming its north to south route). The photo was taken in 1929, when Detroit was full of cash and energy, with a population of around 1.6 million - more than twice the current population.
Note the ferries and other boats docked along piers on the Detroit riverfront. It was an entirely different city then, though the skyline is clearly recognizable and quite similar to today's.
I'm looking forward to the book's launch in the spring. We're mappng out some talks and signings in Michigan, and also contemplating appearaces in other cities where it makes sense (where there'd be the highest interest in the book). Once that all gets settled, I'll post here and add it to the events tab.
And Detroit: A Biography is already showing up at online booksellers for pre-orders, so feel free to reserve yours ahead of time.
November 20, 2011
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.
November 17, 2011
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.Those linked to me on
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.
November 5, 2011
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.
October 13, 2011
tapped to review his latest, Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes for the Los Angeles Times.I've been reading William Kennedy's novels for almost as long as he's been writing them, and was
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.Tweet
September 26, 2011
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.
June 15, 2011
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.So with
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?
May 14, 2011
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.A couple of years ago a close friend, food writer
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,
The result 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 $40 a week), which is due out in a couple of weeks. I have an early copy, and finished reading it last night, coincidentally the eve of my own party to launch The Fear Within.
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.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.
May 11, 2011
my review of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James B. Stewart's new book, Tangled Webs: How False Statements Are Undermining America: From Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff, which is a detailed look at some notable cases of high-profile lying scandals from the 2000s. The review begins:Today's Los Angeles Times carries
"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.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.
May 4, 2011
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.Now that the buzz-saw of writing and researching
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.
May 2, 2011
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.
April 30, 2011
science and belief, and the other on maps.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
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?
April 29, 2011
Well, it's been a couple days of good news around here. First came word that Book TV would be airing live my Sunday panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Now comes the first major-media review of The Fear With: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial.
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.
April 26, 2011
Well, I better be. And in a good way. Book TV has posted its schedule for coverage of the 2011 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, and it lists my panel for live airing at 2 p.m. (5 p.m. eastern time) on Sunday.
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.
April 19, 2011
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.
March 31, 2011
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.
March 23, 2011
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.I should note that while Meisler and I both worked at the Times, we've never met.
March 13, 2011
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.
March 12, 2011
Publishers Weekly, the leading trade journal in the book industy:From the forthcoming
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
February 28, 2011
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.
February 13, 2011
rendition of William Boyd's spectacular Any Human Heart. Lord, I hope they don't screw it up.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
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.
January 24, 2011
I'm still in Detroit (for one more day) finishing up research for Detroit: A Biograhy, and received a nice email from the publicity folks at Rutgers University Press: the first advance review for The Fear Within from Kirkus Reviews. They seem to like it, which is always reassuring for a writer. It's in the February 1 issue, limited to subscribers, but I was lucky enough to get a copy of it.
An evenhanded revisiting of the trial of the U.S. Communist Party leaders that tested the pernicious efficacy of the Smith Act.
January 4, 2011
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.
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  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.
December 26, 2010
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.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.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.
November 27, 2010
Actually, there are two books mentioned here I'd have loved to have done myself, both by Bill Barich, a former New Yorker writer who now works in television. The first is his new Long Way Home: On the Trail of Steinbeck's America, a look at Americans during the 2008 election following the template of John Steinbeck's Travels With Charley (my profile of Barich, which ran in the Los Angeles Times today, is here).
It's an interesting, and intricately drawn, portrait of Americans as they wrestled with a souring economy, the stresses of a nation engaged in two wars, and a viciously split electorate masked somewhat by the ordinariness of everyday lives.
The other is one of Barich's earlier books, A Pint of Plain: Tradition, Change and the Fate of the Irish Pub, in which he rambled around Ireland (where he was living at the time) looking for a pub that would stand as the perfect Irish watering hole. In both cases, Barich approaches the projects in a way that I've long found appealing - using a somewhat thin template around which to build a detailed and meandering view of a people, and a place. In the case of Long Way Home, the model is revisiting Steinbeck's tour with his dog, detailed in Travels With Charley. In the latter, it is using a subjective quest as an excuse to take a close look at a cultural institution.
In both, the tack gives a writer an excuse to poke around in places one might otherwise not write about, let alone visit. Within that forced relevance, you can learn a lot about people, and place. And, occasionally, get a nice pint of ale.
November 16, 2010
Last week I sent back to the publisher my edits of the page proofs for The Fear Within, lending a nice sense of finality to my end of the production process. Well, not quite final. Still awaiting the index pages to proofread, but we're almost there.
I have to say I like the design and the feel of the pages. Looks like you'll have a chance to see them for yourselves come May, or even mid April (earlier, I was told the pub date would be March). This is one of the harder adjustments to make from a career in daily newspapers, and even doing this kind of blogging. Book publishing moves very slowly. Frustratingly slow, at times. But then, the books last a lot longer than newsprint.
But the odd part is that we'll be fully into the marketing phase of The Fear Within while I'll be finishing off the manuscript for the third book, Detroit: A Biography. So I feel like I'll be lapping myself, which is an odd sensation.
That means I'll soon be contemplating what to tackle next. And yes, I have some ideas, but I'm keeping them to myself for now. Those seeds need a little more germination time.
November 5, 2010
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...
October 30, 2010
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.
October 25, 2010
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.
October 22, 2010
So we had our panel chat yesterday at the North American Labor History Conference, looking at the Detroit newspaper strike some 15 years after the fact. It was two hours, and while that seems long it zipped by quickly, and we barely scratched the surface. A friend taped the session and I'll post a link to the video once it's online.
If you're not familiar with it, the Detroit newspaper strike lasted five and a half years (19 months of strike, the rest as a lockout), cost the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press' corporate parents, Gannett and Knight-Ridder, more than $300 million, and was such a divisive event that Detroit, in many ways, has yet to recover from it. But it also helped create a new generation of community activists and local labor leaders (and set in motion the events that moved my family to Los Angeles after 18 months of walking the picket line).
The title of the panel, "Lessons and Legacies," aptly captured what we were trying to get at. The genesis of the panel was my hope that sufficient time has past for the hottest flames of passion to have died down so we can have reasonable conversations about what happened, and why. As it turns out there's still a lot of passion, and pain, judging by the audience comments (about 50 people showed up). I conceived of this panel as something of a conversation starter, and I'm hoping it will spur more discussions and dissections of the strike, including union leaders, activists and even management people, so we can get a better sense of what transpired. And what we can learn from it.
And lessons were learned, both good and bad. The upshot: Workers have to take responsibility for their own fates, even when represented by a union. And without real solidarity -- not, as one of the panelists, waving a sign and singing a song -- little can be gained.
Thanks to the panelists: Steve Babson, longtime professor in Wayne State’s Labor Studies Center (and an active strike supporter); Chris Rhomberg, a Visiting Associate Professor of Sociology at Fordham University in the Bronx, who is working on a book about the strike; and Donald Boggs, former president of the Metro Detroit AFL-CIO from 2000 to 2006, who weighed in on the impact of the strike on Detroit labor, and the community at large.
And beyond the weighty issues, it was great seeing and catching up with old friends. And Daymon Hartley brought in an array of photographs he took during the strike, many of which can be found at his website.
October 14, 2010
I wrote this a bit ago and submitted it to a few places to see if someone might be interested in publishing it. The short answer: No (though I did have one overture that would have involved recasting the piece, which I didn't feel like doing). But I think it's worth getting it out there anyway. So here it is:
More than two years ago an email popped up from the managing editor of the Los Angles Times, a couple of rungs above my editor, asking if I was available for a chat. I was working from home that morning, part of the team covering the 2008 presidential election, so sent him my phone number. But I already sensed what we’d be talking about. A half-hour later I was out of a job, effective in late September 2008, and out of newspapers after some 30 years. The Great Recession – the worst since World War II – was suddenly my personal recession.
There have been some adjustments as I’ve morphed from a career newspaper staff writer into my own “brand” as a freelance journalist, author and part-time college instructor. My wife says I seem less stressed – losing daily deadlines will do that. But other, less visible strains have moved in. It took a while to stop swearing softly when Facebook friends moaned about the encroaching start of the workweek. Impulse buys are smothered before they can rise. We’re hoarding cash like survivalists save cans of soup, and college options for our two sons have gone decidedly down market.
Yet I’ve been luckier than others. With my wife’s job as a first grade teacher we’ve been able to stay afloat (we bought our house before the housing bubble so are okay there). But the California state budget crisis has meant layoffs and other cutbacks in public education, too. This year she faces furlough days with an 8% cut in wages, and a classroom once capped at 20 students is nudging toward 30 (a significant hike when dealing with the noise and energy of 5- and 6-year olds). We still have health coverage with a manageable co-pay thanks to her union contract but have set aside virtually nothing for retirement since my job evaporated. Later, I tell myself, we (more…)
October 8, 2010
There are a couple of books that landed here recently, both by friends, that I'm looking forward to diving into once the current stack clears (writing history involves reading history, and my stack of "to-reads" is rather forbidding).
First is Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed, by former LA Times colleague Judy Pasternak. The book expands on her wonderful series for the LA Times on the radioactive legacy of uranium mining on the Southwest. The cover illustration tells it all: A skull drawn with yellow sands.
The second is Working Words: Punching the Clock and Kicking Out the Jams, a anthology of writing on work edited by my old Detroit friend -- and tireless award-winning advocate for poetry and writing -- M.L. Liebler. There are pieces, poetry and lyrics from Amiri Baraka to Woody Guthrie to Lolita Hernandez to Walt Whitman.
Incidentally, I'll be joining M.L. for a reading Friday, October 22, as part of the North American Labor History Conference in Detroit. The plan, I think, is for me to read from The Fear Within, which will be the first public airing of the book, due out this coming March. The gig will be in the Walter P. Reuther Library on Cass.
September 21, 2010
This is always a fun moment in the life of a writer: Getting to see the cover of the next book. The design folks at Rutgers University Press did a very nice job with a difficult art element, an array of mugshots. I think it works very neatly. Still awaiting word on official pub date but it's looking like sometime in March.
September 21, 2010
I have to admit, I laughed when this popped up the other day. And I assume it means my first book has cleared some sort of hurdle -- an online site that sells essays to college students has done one on Blood Passion.
Of course, these pre-packaged essays are crap, and I hope any professor who receives one fails the offending student (I've already failed two students and severely reprimanded a third for plagiarism issues, and I'm only on my fifth class).
But as a barometer, I guess this means enough labor and history profs have assigned the book (thank you very much) that these vultures think they can make a profit by selling essays about it.
August 18, 2010
Well, it's been a busy summer. Left home in late June and won't get back until next week through a combination of research for the Detroit book and some family time back East.
The Detroit book is progressing well, though it's a real challenge to distill such a broad amount of often disjointed history into a compelling narrative. But it's a good challenge to have, believe me. I hope I can do the topic justice.
Meantime, we're just finishing up the copy edits for The Fear Within: Spies, Commies and American Democracy on Trial, which should be out next Spring. I still get a kick out of typing my name into the Library of Congress catalog search engine and having it pop up two books. Great thrill for a writer and history buff to be included in the collection Thomas Jefferson started.
I'm hoping the designers at Rutgers University Press, who did such a wonderful job on the cover for Blood Passion, will have something for me to look at in the next month or two, Once we've settled on the cover, I'll post it here...
July 8, 2010
May 2, 2010
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.
April 25, 2010
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.
March 30, 2010
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....
March 26, 2010
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....
March 19, 2010
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.
Twain's fears are comically quaint in this era of Tiger Woods, John Edwards and Eliot Spitzer, but Twain's fears were real to him. From my story:
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.
March 10, 2010
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.
February 26, 2010
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.
February 21, 2010
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 Esquire piece 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.
January 28, 2010
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.
January 17, 2010
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.
January 10, 2010
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.
December 29, 2009
I posted earlier about my profile of Barbara Demick in Publishers Weekly, and promised a review of her book in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. It's live now and available here.
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.
December 19, 2009
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.
December 15, 2009
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…)
December 14, 2009
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.
December 13, 2009
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.
December 1, 2009
A little slow in posting on this - I have two weeks to finish off the current book project, so am under the gun - but I had this piece in the Los Angeles Times over the weekend on critic Terry Teachout's new biography, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.
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.
October 31, 2009
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.
October 30, 2009
My short profile of Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent Barbara Demick and her forthcoming book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, is live now at Publishers Weekly. It's a remarkable book, due out in December, and you ought to put it on your pre-order list.
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.
October 14, 2009
Ladies and gentlemen, your 2009 National Book Awards finalists (see any of your personal favorites on there?):
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)
October 13, 2009
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 (sometimes controversial) 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.
October 5, 2009
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.
September 26, 2009
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.
September 14, 2009
Today's Los Angeles Times carried a piece I wrote on Dan Brown and the impact of his The Da Vinci Code tied to the release tomorrow of his new novel The Lost Symbol.
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 ...
September 3, 2009
Last Winter and into the Spring I worked under a contract with four advocates/academics* who had written and/or co-edited a book called The Gloves-Off Economy: Labor Standards at the Bottom of America's Labor Market. It's a collection of articles by labor economists and others looking at how the low-wage sector of the economy had eroded or stagnated, and the forces that brought it about.
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.
* They are:
August 28, 2009
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.
We all know how that turned out.
August 25, 2009
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.
August 23, 2009
Back in July Margaret and I headed north to San Francisco for a few days primarily so I could give a talk at Modern Times Bookstore about Blood Passion, tied in with the annual Laborfest in the Bay Area.
We also took in some baseball, our first visit to SBC Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. It lived up to the advanced billing -- great ballpark, with a wonderful throwback design. Not a bad seat in the house, and if you are stuck way up in the cheap seats you're rewarded with a gorgeous view of San Francisco Bay. And it's easily accessible via mass transit. Now that's how you build a ballpark.
Then we headed to Fresno for comparison with another great little ballpark, home of the Giants' AAA affiliate the Fresno Grizzlies, and wrote about the experience in a Travel piece for the LA Times, which ran this morning.
It was a lot of fun. I'm trying to come with another little road trip that would make good fodder for another travel piece, a slice of journalism I'm coming to enjoy more and more with each outing. Among my favorites is one of the first travel pieces I did for the Times, visiting the desolate, and usually closed-to-the-public, Trinity Site - the spot where the first atomic bomb was detonated in New Mexico.
Often, a travel piece is about a lot more than a journey, a destination and a hotel.
August 11, 2009
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.
July 23, 2009
I missed this when it cropped up last week, but a judge in San Francisco has upheld that a freelance student journalist working a story without an outlet for it is still covered by California's Shield Law. Under the ruling, the reporter is not required to share notes and film with police investigating a murder witnessed in the course of covering a story.
Good decision, that, though I know folks less enamored with journalists and the work we do won't see it that way. But if people perceive that whatever they tell a reporter is tantamount to telling the cops, reporters will find it much harder to report stories involving crimes. And while witnessing a murder is an extreme case, the Shield Law also precludes prosecutors and police from going on fishing expeditions of journalists' notes from street demonstrations, political events and other less incendiary junctures of civic engagement and improper acts by law enforcement. It' a good law.
And this is where I'd tell you the student's name -- but I can't, because the court has sealed that part of the record and, at the request of his lawyer, the San Francisco Chronicle isn't publishing it. It's unclear from the bits I've seen, but the journalist apparently fears retaliation from people involved in the murder.
The fear is understandable, but the argument to keep private the name of the journalist is not. Instead of acceding to the student's lawyer's request for anonymity, the Chron should be fighting the court decision to seal the name. This is an open court proceeding involving a case of significant public interest -- the rights of journalists -- and all aspects of it should be completely open.
The student journalist can't have it both ways. Sometimes doing our work gets us into dangerous situations. But the principles of free speech and openness are our lifeblood. We can't fight for public access to the courts on the one hand, and hide ourselves on the other. Imagine how this story would be playing out if the witness in this case wasn't a journalist -- would the Bay Area media be granting him or her anonymity during court appearances?
July 11, 2009
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.
July 3, 2009
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...
June 24, 2009
A blogger at Virginia Quarterly Review (one of the best periodicals out there) dug into Chris Anderson, of Wired fame, and his book Free: The Future of a Radical Idea, and found Anderson had lifted portions of it from Wikipedia. (Ironically, I lifted this book jacket from Anderson's blog page).
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 ...
June 18, 2009
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....
June 12, 2009
I don't know why I find this story so funny when, in truth, it's pretty sad and pathetic. I've mentioned before the shenanigans that preceded the naming last month of the Oxford Professor of Poetry, won by Ruth Padel after persons then-unknown circulated details about a 1982 sexual harassment complaint about rival poet Derek Wolcott.
Wolcott withdrew from consideration and the gig went to Padel, who resigned shortly afterward and eventually confessed that she was involved in the smear campaign.
Now persons-unknown are at it again -- this time with an anonymous poem about it all. Wouldn't a few splashes of graffiti on High Street been easier?
June 11, 2009
The travel piece that ran the other day in the Los Angeles Times landed me a fun moment with San Diego radio station KBZT-FM 94.9 this morning, with hosts Hansen and Tommy.
Every Friday morning they do a session with folks from the Stone Brewing Co., which brews some great ales, with smart marketing, i.e., Arrogant Bastard Ale, with the label that warns, "You're not worthy."
After seeing the travel piece the other day, Tommy got in touch and they book me for a short chat about the story. So I got to relive -- briefly -- the road trip I took with Steve Dollar. This is the audio here.
Turns out Hansen and Tommy are doing a July 3 remote broadcast from the Stone brewery, and they suggested I stop down. Though 7 a.m. is a little early for an Arrogant Bastard -- read that any way you want -- I might just show up. Could be fun.
June 8, 2009
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.
This is from my review in today's Los Angeles Times:
"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.
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.
June 7, 2009
A couple of months ago my friend Steve Dollar emailed from NYC with a proposition. He had a freelance assignment to do a travel piece driving the California coast, following Rte. 1 from around Santa Barbara to where it ends near the redwoods in Humboldt State Park. As an urbanite, he let his driver's license lapse. Steve's at left in the picture here, chatting with my old friend Tony Lioce at Vesuvio bar in San Francisco. Not a brewpub, but a great bar nonetheless.
The began the journey of Driving Mr. Dollar. And here is my travel piece on the trip, which ran in today's Los Angeles Times. It was a fun trip, and I love doing travel writing.
I also used the trip to start experimenting with map mash-ups, this one using Zee Maps, which gives you a sense of the scope of the trip.
June 6, 2009
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.
June 3, 2009
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.
June 2, 2009
So on one of the legs of my trip home from New York City yesterday, I wound up sitting next to a senior journalism student at Northeastern, in Boston. She was taking a gallows-humor approach to landing in this job market (she will graduate in December) and I was taking a gallows-humor approach to trying to stay alive in the business.
There has been so much windy commentary about the future of journalism that there's little I can add, other than to note that I think we're beginning to see the first bits of clarity, and it comes in the form of dedicated online news outlets, often foundation-funded. There are inherent problems with that model, from the potential of the ubers to twist coverage to the questionable sustainability of running such an enterprise off grants.
But frankly, it's little different from corporate-owned media and the sometimes unsubtle influences over coverage areas (witness all the fashion and style coverage targeting upscale readers). And Lord knows there's nothing stable about the current business model-in-ashes.
So take a look at sites like Kaiser Health News, the politics-focused Politico (a for-profit site) and the invetigative Pro Publica. What do they have in common? They focus on specific subjects, like newspaper sections, or beats, spun off into their own little worlds.
If I was a betting man -- well, I am, but damned if I ever win anything -- I'd put money on these kinds of models as paving the way to the future. As our news-consuming habits continue to fragment, we tend to go to sites that tell us about things we want to know about -- either by subject or by geography, like Voice of San Diego, leaving the general-interest tradition of newspapers behind.
I think readers wind up with a shallower engagement with the world that way, but trying to stop it is like trying to stop the tide. Much more sensible to figure out how to make it more flexible with targeted cross-linking, etc. But I rue a news-consumption approach that leads Americans to focus more inwardly at a time when we need to be more engaged with the world around us.
Now excuse me while I step down from the soap box ...
May 31, 2009
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,
-- 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.
May 30, 2009
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).
May 30, 2009
Well, the Nieman Foundation made it official yesterday (I would have updated sooner but am running ragged here in New York at the Book Expo America). As I reported the other day, this killing economy is claiming another victim -- the nation's best gathering for practitioners of narrative journalism.
Nieman Curator Bob Giles announced that the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism is suspended, as well as its smaller narrative conference for editors:
This will disappoint those who have participated in the conferences in the past and who anticipated attending another narrative gathering in the spring of 2010. This difficult step reflects the foundation's need to make a major reduction in spending for the next fiscal year, beginning in July.
For the time being, it looks like they'll be keeping the Narrative Digest alive -- a thin silver lining, that. As I posted before, this is another blast of bad news for a craft that is getting pummeled from all directions. Let's hope the suspension is really just that, and Nieman will find a way to resurrect the program in 2011.
May 28, 2009
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.
May 27, 2009
Well, here's some distressing news out of the East Coast. Connie Hale, a friend and editor of the Nieman Narrative Digest, tells me the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University is suspending the annual Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism (and, yes, putting her out of work). This is the pre-eminent conference for people interested in using literary devices in journalism -- both short pieces and long-form. (*My initial post phrased this as "shutting down," but Connie says it's being described as a suspension).
So far there's no formal announcement, and it's unclear what the reasoning is -- I've emailed Bob Giles,** the curator of the Nieman Foundation, and will add his comments if I get them. ADDED HERE: "There is nothing to say at the moment. We are still reviewing options relative to budget cuts required by Harvard."
This past March, attendance was relatively light, and few of the name tags listed newspapers under the attendees' names. It's an expensive conference to put on, and given the economic meltdown, my guess is money was the issue. The Nieman Journalism Lab seems to be unaffected, which suggests the Nieman Foundation is putting its eggs in the online basket.
Fair enough. But there is plenty of work to be done to enhance online narrative. The solution isn't to kill the narrative conference, but to broaden it. Lately I've been trying to envision alternative ways of using narrative online, taking advantage of its interactive nature to let readers pursue angles on their own. For example, in a story about a car crash there could be a drop-down box for people who want more details on the life of the victim. It can also be used to track simultaneous actions (the two cars coming together). The potential for experimentation is massive.
I have a personal take on this. I moderated a couple of panels at the most recent conference this past March, and every time I've gone I've come away with a deeper understanding of how to make narrative work, and a broader appreciation for the folks who do it, and teach it, exceedingly well (Adam Hochschild, a friend and regular panelist, comes to mind).
This really is a loss to the art of journalism.
** Full disclosure: I worked for Giles at two newspapers, and he was the editor of The Detroit News when I joined fellow union members to walk out on strike there in 1995.
May 27, 2009
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
May 27, 2009
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
May 26, 2009
So you travel to a remote corner of the world, one of many trips you've made to the region, and stumble across a man with some bold and self-indicting stories about tribal feuds, vengeance and mass murder. What do you do?
Well, if you're Jared Diamond, you write the story up for The New Yorker. But now Diamond, the UCLA professor and author of the best-selling Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, and The New Yorker are being sued by the source for the story -- who says none of it is true.
The New Yorker has taken the story down from its public access layer (we subscribers can still get at it): “Annals of Anthropology: Vengeance Is Ours: What can tribal societies tell us about our need to get even?” in the April 21, 2008 issue. And it's a good story about old ways persisting into modern times, with perhaps a bit too much gullibility born of a Western view of the world. Maybe Diamond bought the guy's story because it fit within his view of tribalism in Papua New Guinea, where he has made many trips researching birds. Or maybe it just fit his overarching point about vengeance.
There are many other interesting facets to how the story was handled, and the source's very modern and Western response -- filing a lawsuit. Diamond is a respected researcher, public intellectual and author -- I once profiled him for the Los Angeles Times -- and he can tell a good story. But the vetting of the article seems to have been very weak, both by Diamond and by The New Yorker. Columbia Journalism Review has a nice overview here, and over here you'll find the initial takedown of the piece by Stinkyjournalism.com.
My money would be on an eventual out-of-court settlement with no admission of fault. But that the story was written and published in the first place is troubling, to say the least. As the linked pieces point out, this was essentially a single-source story in which the source implicated himself in heinous criminal acts. I can't count the number of red flags that should have raised. And, if it turns out Diamond was wrong, or was lied to by the source, I wonder if the lure of an intriguing story about savage acts in a third-world jungle blinded him and The New Yorker to their core responsibility to verify the story.
May 24, 2009
Lord I hate that "The O.C." stuff, but that's the price you pay for a cheap rhyme ...
Lisa See, who has built up a solid body of fiction over the past decade or so, has a new book coming out this week, Shanghai Girls, exploring the lives of two sisters in 1937 Shanghai as the region is consumed by war. I have yet to read it (hint to the Random House publicity team), but loved her earlier works, including Peony in Love and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.
See is breaching the Orange Curtain on June 6, taking part in Barbara DeMarco-Barrett's new Pen on Fire Speaker Series. This event will be at the Scape Gallery, 2859 East Coast Highway in Corona del Mar. Barbara, among other things, is co-host of "Writers on Writing," aired on KUCI and available by podcast. Earlier, Barbara hosted Carolyn See, Lisa's mother, and Merrill Markoe, as well as a session with Martin J. Smith, author and editor of Orange Coast magazine (I do freelance for him).
I have yet to attend one of these sessions -- due in no small part because they keep selling out too fast. But maybe I'll some of you at this one.
May 24, 2009
Well, the desk is clean, a freelance assignment is just about done, and it's back to the book. At least in theory. You writers out there will understand this -- I'm looking at a stretch of time that has to be written about, but that at its core is as dull as a sidewalk. I have to find some way to bring it to life against the much more scintillating context of the story itself, the trial of the Communist Party leaders.
But, well, this part is just plain boring.
Part of the defense strategy in the trial was to delay and drag things out. At the opening of the trial they launched into a weeks-long attack on the jury-selection system, in which they paraded dozens of witnesses through the court room. The judge was indulgent. The witnesses were redundant. The challenge failed. The days dragged on ...
I'll make this work and by the time I'm done it will all sing and make sense. But for now, I come out to the desk and, instead of rubbing my hands together in excitement to get launched on the day's work, sit down with a groan. And straighten the papers on my desk. And check Facebook. And check the weather. And check a friend's blog. And check Facebook. And make the coffee. And check Facebook. And pour a cup of the freshly made coffee. And check Facebook.
And update my blog.
Knock it off, Scott, and get back to work...