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Quite the World, Isn't It?

The roundabout version of how America got its name

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. Read More 
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On North Korea, the anti-Disneyland

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. Read More 
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A CEO excessive-pay solution that will go nowhere

New York Times columnist Joe Nocera has a column today looking at "executive pay czar" Kenneth R. Feinberg's decision to curtail executive compensation at firms that received massive government bailouts. He could do that because of the public investment in the businesses, but the problem extends far beyond a few troubled banks and GM. It is endemic in the private sector, with executives receiving millions of dollars for, in effect, screwing up.

Nocera suggests that the ultimate power needs to be held by the shareholders in the companies, and there's some merit to that. They are, after all, the ones immediately shouldering the weight for those obscene pay packages. But getting corporations to change their governance structure to let that happen isn't going to be easy. As good revolutionaries know, those who hold power aren't likely to let it go without a fight.

It would be easier, and more effective, to do it through the tax code. Congress could set up an agency, or use Treasury, to develop formulas for acceptable executive pay ratios. It could tie the pay package to the size of the company and to the average wage of the workers, making it some reasonable multiple of what the lowest rung gets paid. And for every dollar over that level the executive is paid, the company is taxed dollar for dollar. So if the level under the formula is $10 million, and the executive receives $15 million, the company pays another $5 million in taxes.

In the short term, the taxpayers get some benefit. In the long term, the brakes are put on this obscene practice. Read More 
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Shane MacGowan, The Pogues, and NASCAR

Went last night to see The Pogues, long one of my favorite bands, though I'd never managed to catch them live during their first incarnation in the '80s. Glad I went, but Margaret and I left before the encore - and that is a key mark of how bad they were.

The band has become a self-caricature. Lead singer Shane MacGowan's drinking problem is legendary - the band fired him over it in 1991. Last night, MacGowan fell over three times on stage, finishing songs from the floor before the roadies, then his band mates, helped him to his feet. They finally wheeled in one of those big gray equipment cases for him to sit on.

And naturally it affected his performance. MacGowan's voice has always been an acquired taste, a whiskey-and-cigarettes rasping (and often indecipherable) mumble that was also a muted primal scream. The raw intensity gave the songs an urgency. He was the romanticized fallen man incarnate, the beauty of the emotion overcoming the limitations of the voice.

Last night at Club Nokia, all that was left was the bad voice. Except for a few moments that sparkled ("If I Should Fall From the Grace of God" and "Sunny Side of the Street" taped live here in March in the current incarnation), it was an ineffective drone of a voice, with no intensity or emotional impact, off-tempo much of the time, and that seemed to throw the whole band off. "Turkish Song of the Damn" was a reel of mush. "Bottle of Smoke" careened badly. When Spider Stacey, the whistle player who eventually took over singing duties after MacGowan's departure (and after a short stint by the irreplaceable Joe Strummer), sang it was a tighter band. But it wasn't The Pogues. And with MacGowan, The Pogues were close to unlistenable.

After MacGowan's third tumble - flat backwards with a dumb look of surprise on his face - the rest of the show was like watching a NASCAR race, where part of the draw is anticipating the next wreck. And you have to wonder where the band's pride is. Can they be satisfied propping up MacGowan just for the sake of a gig? Read More 
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National Book Award finalists named

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)

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) Read More 
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Terry Teachout on Louis Armstrong

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. Read More 
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On Ishiguro, and the pitfalls of unresolved fiction

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

A recurring theme in Ishiguro's work is the enigma of unresolved plots, and unresolved relationships. He takes slices of lives and weaves broader stories from them, most successfully in Remains of the Day. But reading a series of short stories that all end in various shades of ambiguity just gets tiring. Rather than waiting for a surprise, you just wait for the end, like the train getting into your local station. You know it will get there, and you know when, so it's awfully hard to get too fired up about it.  Read More 
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The Great Recession close up

I met with a couple of women the other day outside a local coffee shop. One was a friend, the other I was introduced to for the first time. They were putting together Spring courses for a UC Irvine-related program of continuing education for older folks, and it looks like I'll be doing one and maybe two courses (as a volunteer, unfortunately). Both the women I met with are of retirement age, though both had still been working -- until the recession. Now both have been laid off, one as an overseer of student teachers and the other from the jewelry department of a major retail department store chain.

There's a lot of that going around -- the first anniversary of my lay off from the LA Times came a couple of weeks ago. But the meeting got me thinking about the far reaches of this recession, and what it has meant.

My wife, a first grade teacher, now has 25 students in her class instead of 20, a massive increase in work load given that they're all 5 and 6 years old. I play soccer regularly in some neighborhood pickup games. One guy was laid off from his job with a software company. Another, an artist, has left the area to move in with his in-laws in San Diego. A third player lost his job and has since formed his own PR agency. A close friend of a neighbor -- a regular visitor -- has been laid off twice from accounting jobs tied to the mortgage industry. And every time a rumor swirls in the LA Times about more layoffs there, I get emails from folks still working wondering about how to get ready for the ax.

Our family is surviving. Margaret's job is reasonably secure, even if the workload has increased. We've thought about moving for another newspaper job, but pretty much ruled it out. Even if someone was hiring, it's not a smart gamble to cut the security of Margaret's job for a newspaper job that can still easily disappear. So I'm freelancing when I can, teaching journalism part-time at Chapman University, finishing up the current book project and putting thoughts together for a proposal for the next one. With one son in college and the other heading there in two years, this has meant a radical shift in how we live, but we're surviving and trying not to think about the age of the cars, let alone setting aside money for retirement.

But we're surviving. We're the lucky ones, I know. And it's a strange indicator of the times that where once we were thankful for good jobs and health, now we're thankful for good health and that we're not at risk of losing the house.

There has got to be a better way. Read More 
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Hadrian, before the wall and after

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. Read More 
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