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Quite the World, Isn't It?

The mountains are burning

As of right now more than 32,000 acres have burned in the foothills above La Canada/Flintridge, just about due north of downtown Los Angeles. There have been many great photographs of the fires by both the pros - many of them my friends - at the LA Times, and by amateurs.

This is my favorite - and in a sense, it's robotic.I grabbed this before 6 a.m. today from the web cam at the Mt Wilson Observatory, which usually shows lovely expanses of mountaintops or star-filled nights.

The Station Fire, as its being called (it began about a mile from a fire station in the Angeles National Forest) lapped up to the top of the ridge that holds a bunch of communications towers, and threatened the observatory itself before apparently veering off in another direction. In this photo you can see the flames seeming to touch the base of the towers.

I've covered wildfires and they are fearsome, remarkable and unpredictable things. And the further they are from me, the happier I am.

UPDATE: Fire officials are warning at dinnertime Sunday that Mt. Wilson will likely be overrun by flames sometime tonight. And in the picture above from this morning, the flames were not as close to the towers as the camera makes it seem. But then, maybe it was just prescient. Read More 
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Up to my elbows in Communists

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. Read More 
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New piece on Maile Meloy's collection of short stories

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.  Read More 
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Obama's beach reads - not so trashy

The Obamas are on Martha's Vineyard - summer camp for the rich and famous - and spokesman Bill Burton earlier today gave reporters the list of books Obama brought along to read during the week.

We'll skip right past the blatant omission of Blood Passion - we can be adult about this - and look at the list itself:

- Tom Friedman's Hot, Flat and Crowded
- David McCullough's John Adams
- Richard Price's Lush Life
- Kent Haruf's Plain Song
- George Pelecanos's The Way Home

Pretty ambitious. CNN counted it up: 2,300 pages in all. I bet he skips some parts. But I'm also heartened to see the range of interests. Though you have to wonder how much of these books he'll actually get through. Let's see, big plans, limited time, something has to give. Where have we heard this before? Read More 
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Summertime, baseball and ... Fresno

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. Read More 
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Finally Time for a serious journalistic look at Detroit

Here's hoping that a rumble of interest in Detroit could lead to some serious journalistic inquiry about the city.

Bill McGraw, an old acquaintance in Detroit, reported in the Free Press this week that Time magazine has spent $99,000 for a house in the West Indian Village neighborhood, a cluster of gems on Detroit's east side. It's one of the last of the city's grand old neighborhoods still standing.

Time's plan: To use the house as a base of operations for a year or better to spotlight Detroit across its publications. When the project is over, McGraw reports, Time will donate the house to charity. That may not be so altruistic as it sounds - the house was vacant for two years when Time bought it, and real estate in Detroit is even harder to sell these days than cars.

Still, Detroit (above in better days, from the Library of Congress's American Memory archive) is a compelling and intimately American story, the tale of a city that rose on industrial innovation and shrewd marketing of the American Dream of the open road, and is now in collapse -- after 40 years of decline -- into a shell. It has been ravaged by globalization, drugs, unstable tax base and epic political corruption.Tom Wolfe couldn't have invented the place.

Yet it survives. Detroiters are some of the most resilient people I've ever met (Margaret and I lived there for a decade, and our sons were born there). It really deserves broader examination and exposure - far beyond the local papers' solid jobs of presenting the city to itself (even with their limited circulations). Now if I could only persuade my agent there's a book in it: Detroit: The Rise and Fall of a Great American CityRead More 
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Can taking newspapers off line save them?

Paul Farhi, a friend and staffer at the Washington Post, has a piece online, ironically enough, at American Journalism Review arguing that the way to save newspapers could be to take them off line, or to build a prohibitively high subscription wall.

The short argument - and please do read his article - is that newspapers have failed to find a way to make online enterprises work, and rather than continuing to eviscerate their news gathering operations in pursuit of the elusive, they ought to re-dedicate themselves to the print edition and not give the news away for free. So if you want to read a story in The Hometown Gazette - print or online - you have to buy the Hometown Gazette.

There's been a lot of backlash and pooh-poohing of the idea, but it bears a serious look. Yes, millions of people now get their news online. But do we know what percentage of them - not anecdotally, but hard numbers - dropped subscriptions to go online? The hard numbers we do have show a steep drop in circulation and a steep drop in advertising - classifieds have dried up, and the recession as well as retail consolidation have shriveled ad budgets.

But newspapers still sell. My former employer, the LA Times, still publishes around 700,000 copies a day. Following Farhi's reasoning, it ought to end its move online, where no one pays for content and advertising hasn't matched expenses, and refocus on making a profit with the core print product. Key here is that what once was will not be again, but that doesn't mean all of our print newspapers are going to die. The trick here is to make newspapers work as they are. And giving away the content puts a zero price tag on the very thing the papers should be selling.

I think Farhi is spot on. There is room for online-only journalism, especially hyperlocal (which has great ad-revenue potential), broadly national or topic-specific. It may, in fact, flourish eventually. Right now that's far from happening - where would these sites be without the deep pockets of benefactors? But that journalism doesn't have to be done by newspapers. They have a heft that online-only ventures generally can't replicate, and a stronger relationship with readers than the vast majority of online sites. That means something to advertisers.

I probably get most of my news from online sources, and newspapers' abandonment of the internet would affect my consumption severely. That's one of the arguments against a pay wall - people like me would stop clicking. But right now newspapers are losing money on clicks like mine. It doesn't make sense for newspapers to continue to invest scarce resources in an experiment whose biggest supporters are those engaged in it (the online news advocates).

I'd like to see some experiments, and see some newspapers realize that the barometer of their success will be long-term financial viability, not money-losing clicks. Read More 
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The Journalism Shop gets some play

A couple of weeks ago a bunch of us former Los Angeles Times staffers launched The Journalism Shop, an online resource for assigning editors, project managers at nonprofits and businesses to find veteran journalism talent for freelance projects.

Bill Mitchell at Poynter this morning did a nice Q&A with me and Brett Levy (we've been the propellants in the project). It's a good overview of what we're up to. Check it out -- and pass it along to the hiring folks wherever you work. Read More 
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Big Sur: Part Two

Things have been a little quiet here on the blog because things have been a little busy on the home front. My in-laws leave today for their home in Rochester, N.Y., after a two-week visit that has been, as usual, a lot of fun. The centerpiece was a three-day trip up the coast -- my second drive of the Big Sur this year.

The Big Sur has to be my favorite slice of California, a state with a lot of beautiful slices, from the High Sierra to Death Valley, the redwoods of Humboldt County, and the singular Mount Shasta. This really is a remarkable state. And huge.

These trips have me thinking I need to go back and re-read Kerouac's Big Sur, which I first read years ago in a Kerouac frenzy -- On the Road, then The Town and The City (his most conventional novel), then Big Sur, if I recall that order correctly. Amid the boozing and hangovers and now dated-feeling beat-speak there is still a core beauty to Kerouac's feel for the life of language:
"Big elbows of Rock rising everywhere, sea caves within them, seas pollocking all around inside them crashing out foams, the boom and pound on the sand, the sand dipping quick (no Malibu Beach here) -- Yet you turn and see the pleasant woods winding upcreek like a picture in Vermont -- But you look up into the sky, bend way back, my God you're standing directly under that aerial bridge with its thin white line running from rock to rock and witless cars racing across it like dreams!"

Later in the same passage he describes "those vistas when your drive the coast on a sunny day opening up the eye for miles of horrible washing sawing."

Makes me want to turn around and drive it again.
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Pat Conroy's South of Broad

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. Read More 
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