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Quite the World, Isn't It?

An idea for a moving book trailer

I really want to do a trailer like this for the forthcoming release of Detroit: A Biography. All I need is three other guys, a car, a few pianos, some metal bits, a stretch of desert road and, um, a budget ...
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Watergate: When the truth was stranger than fiction

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

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

Preposterously melodramatic. Except it really happened.

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

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

In August 2007 word pinged through the journalism world - and echoed loudly in Detroit - that reporter and editor Chauncey Bailey had been gunned down on an Oakland street. Shock turned quickly to incredulity as it was discovered Bailey had likely been gunned down because of a story he was working on about a local bakery with a reputation for helping downtrodden blacks in Oakland.

My review of a new book about that murder - Thomas Peele's Killing the Messenger: A Story of Radical Faith, Racism's Backlash, and the Assassination of a Journalist - is in the Los Angeles Times, and as I mention high up in the review I knew Bailey, but not well. We were colleagues, but not social friends, when we both worked at The Detroit News. And there is, as I write, something disconcerting about reading the intimate details of the violent death of someone you know--despite years of reading autopsy reports and listening with detached ears to witnesses describe horrors they had seen.

At its heart this is a true-crime book, and overall it's done pretty well, exploring the seamiest excesses of the Bey family in Oakland, through to the conviction of Bailey's killers. From the review:
Peele's book begins with Bailey's murder, as it should, since it was Bailey's death that ultimately sent Yusuf Bey IV (known as Fourth), a son of Your Black Muslim Bakery founder Yusuf Bey, to prison for life and ended the family's violent control of North Oakland. But how the Beys rose to such prominence, and the related Keystone Kops behavior of the Oakland Police Department, is the book's main focus.

At the time of his death, Bailey was editor of the weekly Oakland Post, a freebie paper several rungs down the journalistic food chain from the dailies where Bailey once worked. In truth, Bailey had a loose grasp of journalistic ethics and his work was not exactly top tier, and Peele offers an unvarnished view here of Bailey's professional weaknesses.

Still, it was his journalism that got Bailey killed.
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A couple of early reviews for Detroit: A Biography

The weeks leading up to, and after, the publication date for a book is always a bit nerve-wracking. You try to put it out of your mind, but there's always the node in the back of the brain that has you wondering, did I do it right? I'm happy to say that the first two early looks are positive for Detroit: A Biography.

Kirkus Reviews was first out, but the post is limited to subscribers until the book comes out April 1. The highlight: "The city’s death warrant, writes Martelle, was signed when the industry converting back to auto production after the war failed to diversify. Now much of it is returning to meadows and pasture. A valuable biography sure to appeal to readers seeking to come to grips with important problems facing not just a city, but a country."

And now comes Publishers Weekly, with this nice highlight:
Former Detroit News reporter Martelle (Blood Passion) vividly recounts the rise and downfall of a once-great city, from its origins as a French military outpost to protect fur traders and tame local Indian tribes, to the industrial giant known colloquially as Motown, and now when its “economy seized up like an engine run dry.” ... Today, says Martelle, Detroit has been abandoned by both the Big Three auto makers and most of its citizens, leaving primarily black residents, many uneducated, jobless, and poor. Martelle, also an occasional contributor to PW, offers an informative albeit depressing glimpse of the workings of a once-great city that is now a shell of its former self.
Nice words to read. Of course, there's more to the book than these reviews could capture in short write-ups, and it's not all doom and gloom. My intent was to try to explain to people who don't know Detroit how it came to be, both in the best and the worst of the place. And what the rise and fall of Detroit might mean for our other urban cores. So I'm looking forward to the longer takes that (I hope) will crop up beginning in late March. Read More 
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