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Quite the World, Isn't It?

A book I'd have loved to have written

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 align="left">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. Read More 
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Guantanamo detainees, and the presumption of guilt

This story in the New York Times about the first of the Guantanamo Bay detainees to be tried in civilian court caught my eye this morning. What jumps out is the presumption behind the key argument against trying suspected terrorists in civilian courts - and it should be a red flag for defenders of civil liberties.

The underlying political issue is what to do with the men still detained at Gitmo. They don't don't belong there. Guilty or innocent, the plots with which the government believes they are linked amount to criminal acts, not military. And they should be tried in civilian courts.

But the bothersome element of this story is the underlying presumption that the civilian court somehow failed because the jury convicted suspected terrorist Ahmed Ghailani of only one of some 280 counts against him. “This is a tragic wake-up call to the Obama Administration to immediately abandon its ill-advised plan to try Guantanamo terrorists” in federal civilian courts, the Times quotes U.S. Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican. “We must treat them as wartime enemies and try them in military commissions at Guantanamo.”

Why? Because Ghailani was only convicted of one charge? Does King presume a military tribunal would look at the evidence differently than civilians and would have convicted Ghailani on all the counts, guilt or innocence be damned?

These are the freedoms we hold dear, and for which our terroristic enemies supposedly hate us: that the accused are innocent until proven guilty, and that justice will be blind. Summary trials and pre-ordained verdicts are the stuff of totalitarian regimes, not democratic ones. It's possible the U.S. government couldn't make its case. It's been wrong before about the men the swept up, and deprived of freedom, in the name of anti-terrorism. The presumption that a military tribunal would have convicted him Ghailani regardless of the evidence suggests King thinks the military courts are hanging courts, and not concerned with such niceties as the rule of law and the rules of evidence. There, King seems to believe, suspected terrorists would get what's coming to them. Whether guilty or innocent.

We're a better nation that that. I hope. Read More 
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Pages proofed, another step in the process

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.
align="left">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. Read More 
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It's not all about history around here

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 foodalign="left"> 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.align="right">

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...
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