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Quite the World, Isn't It?

More than a lifetime of tornadoes in one image

I'm a sucker for dramatic weather (odd, then, that I live in a place that rarely gets any), great web imagery, and unusual maps. This blends all three in spectacular fashion: A map of every tornado that has touched down in the lower 48 United States over the past 56 years - which begins two years before I was born.

Yes, this is essentially my lifespan as told by tornadoes. Put together by John Nelson at IDV Solutions.

tornado paths Read More 
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On Nick Dybek and his debut novel

I've had a series of reviews published in the Los Angeles Times recently (a more or less up to date list of links to my journalism is at the left), and this morning's edition carries my look at Nick Dybek's debut novel, When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man, which I liked despite some reservations.

Dybek, son of award-winning writer Stuart Dybek, went through the modern steps to becoming a writer, studying at the University of Michigan then going through the Iowa Writer's Workshop. A lot of times first novels by writers who've gone that route feel a bit too studied, as though they are assembling a novel, not writing one. And there is a touch of that in Dybek's book. But he manages to move beyond it and create something that works. It's a good debut, good enough that I'd happily read a second novel by him.

From my review:
The sharpest evidence of Dybek's skills is that he has taken a story line that could easily have veered into film cliché, a mix of "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and the basic secret-in-the-basement plot, and turned it into a taut novel juggling the sometimes conflicting impulses to do the moral thing, and to protect those we love.

At the same time, Dybek steps beyond what could have been a tired coming-of-age story to write about memory, and about the repercussions of making a choice, whether it's right or wrong. In fact, making the right choice can often lose us more than making the wrong choice.

The choices Cal and his father make reveal facets of themselves they had not before contemplated. In the austere world of controlled emotions in which they live, the revelations are salted away like a catch at sea.

And we're left to wonder whether Flint ever was, indeed, a good man.
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On Memorial Day, and the honored lost lives

From the Battle of Verdun, World War I
Nearly 30 years ago I found myself in Rennes, France, reporting a feature story while traveling France, England and Ireland with Margaret. We stopped by a local war memorial, which I remember as a stark and haunting place, large, with white marble walls, the names of the dead chiseled into the stone.

I remember as we walked around seeing a thigh-high ark near one of the walls. With my limited French abilities, I made out that the white-marble case was to memorialize the dead of World War II. It wasn't until then that I realized the endless rows of names on the walls were the dead from World War I.

The human costs of war in the 20th century was astounding, with tens of millions killed across Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. I guess we should count our blessings that so few people live in Antarctica, or surely there'd have been war there. too.

On Memorial Day we tend to wax patriotic about soldiers giving the ultimate sacrifice to defend our way of life, a take that leaves me with a sour feeling. Some wars are just; most are not, sparked by greed, hubris, and tribalistic nationalism. But I can never shake the feeling that the military graveyards of the world are filled in large part by the bodies of men and women who never should have been sacrificed.

On Memorial Day, I join the nation in thanking and remembering fighting men and women who have died simply because they were asked to fight in their nation's name. But we also should hold accountable those who put them in harm's way for reasons other than our common defense. And no, a cheap gallon of gas or access to markets, no matter how shrouded in patriotic jingoes they might be, are not issues of national defense. Read More 
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Cheering on an old friend's new book, and re-invented life

There was a nice piece in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram the other day by Julia "Julie" Heaberlin, an old friend and former colleague (at the Rochester Times-Union and The Detroit News), on this process of re-invention. In her case, it's as a thriller writer with a debut novel, Playing Dead, hitting shelves next week.

It's a very good book, especially for a first-timer, with a sharply drawn plot, a likable and unusual central character (Tommie McCloud, who makes a tomboy seem prissy), and some lovely stretches of writing. The novel is set mainly in Texas, where Julie was raised and now lives, and I told her after reading the galley that she shouldn't have wasted all those years as an editor for newspapers (an honorable profession, but still...). She took it the way it was intended, as a compliment.

In her piece for the Star-Telegram, Julie writes about the decision she and her husband, Steve Kaskovich (another old friend and former golfing buddy), made to live on his income as a newspaper editor while she pursued her dream. No easy decision, that, and one that was complicated by timing: She quit her upper-management job at the Star-Telegram just before the Great Recession hit both the economy, and the newspaper industry.

So a deeper layer of uncertainty was tossed over the endeavor. It took a lot of work, and a lot of tears from Julie, she writes, but she finally sold a book - two, actually - achieving a dream nurtured since childhood:
When people ask me about the process of writing a book, I think they are expecting the romantic version about the magical place where ideas come from. So I generally don't tell them about the bitterly cold Wednesday morning that I sat crying in the middle of my empty street with dog poop all over my gloves.

I'd already cried once that morning, as soon as I woke up. I muffled it into my pillow as my son and husband got ready for school and work. I was vaguely wondering whether I needed a therapist. Mostly, I was wondering whether, after 31/2 years of writing and trying to get a book published, I should just admit that the dream wasn't going to happen. Whether I should go back and get a real job, if there was one to be had.

Not so long ago, I had been a newspaper editor with a successful career and a decent ego, not this sniveling mess.

The difference between Julie's writing carrer and mine is that she made the conscious leap to leave a lifelong career, while I was pushed. But we're in similar places now. I've published three nonfiction books, and still relish the sense of accomplishment, and semi-permanence, that comes with seeing my name in the Library of Congress.

I've also written a crime novel (and the first draft of the sequel), and am now enduring the ego-slaps that Julie went through as book editors initially rejected her first novel as not being enough XXX. In my case, the rejections, couched in supportive words about the writing, changed by the editor, sometimes contradictorily so. One reported that the novel moved too quickly, another too leisurely. It can be maddening if you take it too personally, something I learned long ago not to do with the criticism others have for my work.

So as I slog on hoping my hardworking agent can get the manuscript in front of the right editor, one for whom my Detroit-based story and characters will resonate, I'm excited for Julie that she's achieved the dream, and wish her great luck and success in these reinvented lives of ours.  Read More 
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On Michael Harrington, and the persistence of poverty

A half-century ago Michael Harrington published a fairly slim book, The Other America, that focused the nation's attention on what life was like for impoverished Americans, from urban cores to the hollows of Appalachia. It was an important book then; sadly, it remains an important book now.

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....

Harrington's work didn't move me to a life of journalism — I was already there, propelled by genetics (my father and grandfather were newspapermen) and by the mixed impulses to explore and to challenge. But Harrington's book affirmed those impulses and helped mold my world view, an evolution from small-town conservatism to a believer in the power of government and collective action to effect good in the world.
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." Read More 
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A 'High Maintenance' musical interlude

Both of our sons graduate this year, Michael from the University of California-Irvine with a bachelor's in history, and Andrew from University High School. This is from Andrew's final jazz band concert at the school. Both sons are musicians, and it's been a lot of fun watching them evolve both as musicians, and as people.
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A couple of reviews of a couple of good books

Looking at the Los Angeles Times book coverage this week, you'd think I've been busy. And you'd be right.

Thursday's paper carried a review of a newly translated novel by Sayed Kashua, Second Person Singular, which as I write in the review explores "themes [that are] are universal in a world in which every culture, it seems, has an 'other' against which to play out prejudice, and feelings of supremacy." Kashua, an Arab living in Israel, writes in Hebrew, and he has produced a very good novel exploring the lives of two Arabs who grew up in the occupied territories but moved to Jerusalem to forge futures. And the key to the future, they decide, lies in freeing themselves from their personal and ethnic histories. But can they? Can anyone?

The second review, which is online now but I believe will be in the paper Sunday, is of historian Geoffrey C. Ward's A Disposition to be Rich. The subtitle tells you pretty much all you need to know: How a Small-Town Pastor's Son Ruined an American President, Brought on a Wall Street Crash, and Made himself the Best-Hated Man in the United States. And no, it's not about Bernie Madoff. The "best-hated" man is Ferdie Ward, a 19th century Wall Street investor who stole millions using the classic Ponzi scheme years before Charles Ponzi invented it.

What I didn't mention in the review are the coincidental overlaps with my own life and work. Ward grew up near Rochester, N.Y., where I lived and worked from 1983-86 (my wife's extended family still lives in the area and I visit often). So the geography was fun to read. And the presidential victim was Ulysses S. Grant, for whom Horace Porter served as a top aide during the Civil War, and as private secretary when Grant was president. They were so close that Porter became the key figure in raising money to build Grant's Tomb in Manhattan.

Porter also is the man who found John Paul Jones's body. Small world among all those booksRead More 
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On biographies - and talking about them

This weekend I'm taking part in the annual conference of Biographers International, a fairly new and quite interesting organization of writers who focus on biographies (the conference is at the University of Southern California). I'm involved with two panels on Saturday, which I'll get to momentarily. But first let me address a question: What is a journalist writing about history doing at a conference for biographers?

It's more than just throwing the word "biography" in the title of a book. Writing history is writing biography, though not in the David McCullough vein. To write about historic events for a general audience, as I do, it's imperative to tell stories, not just string together facts. And to make these moments in time resonate with readers, you have to bring to life the people involved. That means dipping into the biography pool so you can explain how and why people acted as they did. The research that I do in learning about the characters in my books is not as deep, or time-consuming, as required by a full biography. But it covers much of the same ground, and requires the same discipline.

So having said all that, my role at the conference will be two-fold - and has nothing to do with writing biographies. At 9 a.m. Saturday I'm moderating a panel, "Show Me the Money," in which I'll lead a conversation with Elizabeth Hoover and Robin Rauch on financing big projects (it isn't easy), and at 10:45 a.m. I'm on a panel about "Blogging to Boost Sales" with Beverly Gray and Mark Sarvas to talk about, well, this blog and other ways of connecting with readers.

I hope to see some of you there. Read More 
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A fascinating time-lapse video of earth

Every now and then you stumble across something that is just so compelling you have to share it (hmm, I wonder if we could build a social-networking site around that idea?). This is a time-lapse video of photos taken from a Russian satellite about a year ago. The photos are fairly high-resolution - one kilometer per pixel - for the amount of terrain covered, which gives the video a heightened sense of sharpness. The orange is vegetation, the color a result of the infrared cameras used.

The rest of the technical details (121 megapixel cameras, photos taken every 30 minutes, etc.) are on the Youtube page where I found this, but I thought the video remarkable enough to share here. This really needs to be done as a screensaver, no?

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Doing some good for my neighbors

Albert Ezroj
Another side benefit of publishing Detroit: A Biography: Keeping neighbors like Albert Ezroj occupied. Because, as we know, idle hands are the devil's playthings ....

I'm also pleased to note that Hour: Detroit, a magazine in Metro Detroit edited by former colleague Beck Powers, included Detroit in a roundup of new books in the May issue. They wedged me after a book on morel mushrooms, and just above The Skeleton Box, the newest mystery by old friend and former colleague Bryan Gruley. He'll be in Los Angeles on June 13; I'll be buying my copy then. Read More 
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