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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Detroit: A Biography heading back for another printing

Words an author loves to hear from his editor: We're going back to press to print more copies of your book.

It doesn't mean the first printing of Detroit: A Biography sold out, but it does mean my publisher, Chicago Review Press, feels it needs more copies to fill the demand (and technically, this is the third printing - CRP went back to press for more copies before the first printing reached the warehouse).

So from somewhere deep in New Mexico - actually Las Cruces, which is just north of El Paso, Texas - my thanks for the interest, and the support. Folks like me tend to write by compulsion; it's very nice to know that people are reading the work, liking it - nearly unanimous positive reviews - and, most importantly, buying the book. It is, in the end, how we get paid for our labor.

Now back to the road trip: After a slow cruise through Saguaro National Park near Tucson, we put in for the night at Las Cruces. Tomorrow: Way too much of Texas, but with a couple of days in Austin looming.

And it looks like Tropical Storm Debby is being nice and heading east and out of our way. Sorry about that, Florida .... Read More 
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Road trip into the past - and maybe the wind

So Margaret and I leave tomorrow for an eight-week road trip, part business, part pleasure (note to would-be burglars: We're leaving behind the two strapping, lacrosse-playing sons and the dog). The main focus for me is two weeks in Washington diving into the Library of Congress and National Archives for research for the Jones's Bones book project. We'll also be reconnecting with a lot of friends while we're there.

Assuming we get there.

The plan is to take the southern route because Margaret has never been to Austin or New Orleans. And if the National Hurricane Center's current prediction pans out, we and Hurricane Debby should both be in Louisiana on Thursday. So far the prediction is for the storm to slide westward along the Gulf Coast, missing New Orleans itself, so we're forging ahead with the plans.

But if the storm cuts north, so will we. Not as exciting as the adventure our friends Jeremy and Paula Dear are on - a couple of years traveling the Americas in a sleeper van - but Debby is putting a little edge on our plans. Read More 
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Celebrating Father's Day with bicoastal book reviews

Well, this is an achievement in timing: Two book reviews published the same day, one in the Los Angeles Times, and the other in the Washington Post. Happy Father's Day to me!

I'll start in the east, with the Post review of Peter Pagnamenta's "entertaining new book, Prairie Fever, a deeply researched and finely delivered look" at a slice of American I wasn't familiar with: The Great Plains and intermountain west as a 19th century adventure tourism destination for England's idle rich young men.

From my review:
The tourism invasion began, in part, because of James Fenimore Cooper and his Leatherstocking Tales, Pagnamenta reports. Natty Bumppo and his fellow travelers were popular among English readers, and the stories of life on the frontier whetted the appetites of young British men who found themselves in unusual straits. In that era, the eldest son stood to inherit the family estate, while younger male siblings received allowances but few responsibilities. What to do with the indolent rich was a conundrum, since working for a living was outside the sphere of social respectability. One solution was to send them packing to America, lured by the tales of buffalo hunts, Indian skirmishes and the taste of hardy adventure. Some sought to blend in; most did not.
It was a fun book to read. In my own books I like to focus on overlooked slices of American history, and this is one I wish I had found before Pagnamenta did.

The second review in the LA Times was of Buzz Bissinger's Father's Day: A Journey into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son, a much different and more difficult book.
The book, Bissinger confesses at the end, "was difficult and painful" to write. Much more so than he anticipated when they hit the road in 2007. Bissinger thought it would take another year to finish the manuscript, but the pain of the process lengthened the calendar, as did the perhaps subconscious shift of focus from Zach, an utterly charming person in his father's portrayal, to Bissinger himself.

It is not a flattering self-portrait, and that's the biggest problem with what is a frank yet disquieting book. Father's Day isn't compelling so much as it's revelatory about Bissinger's struggle to reconcile the son he thought he deserved with the one he has. It's a human reaction to uncontrollable events, but by the end, if you had to choose a cross-country traveling companion, you'd go for the son, with all his mental deficiencies, over the narrating father with his rages and insecurities.
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Flight 255 and the sole survivor, a quarter-century later

Cecilia Cichan with airplane tattoo. Credit: Soul Survivor
After more than 30 years in journalism, and thousands of stories heard and written, it's easy for the bulk of them to blur into faded memories. The story of baby Cecilia is one that stands out.

On the evening of Margaret's and my first wedding anniversary, a Sunday in mid-August 1987, we returned from a celebratory dinner out as the phone began ringing. It was Ray Jeskey, then my editor at The Detroit News. In his calm, matter-of-fact way, he asked if I could come into work. There had been a crash at Detroit Metro airport. It had been an incredible year in Detroit for news - cops were killed in ambushes, firefighters died in training accidents and fighting a warehouse blaze, kids were killing each other in a seemingly endless wave of violence over coats and sneakers.

I paused, trying to buy time to make up an excuse because I really didn't want to end our first anniversary celebration at my desk. I asked Ray how many people were aboard the plane, thinking it was another commuter flight.

"About 150," Ray said. I left the apartment a few minutes later, and didn't get home for three days. It was Northwest Flight 255, which fell to the ground just seconds after takeoff, disintegrating into a debris field of metal and bodies as it slammed into a bridge. Two people on the ground and everyone aboard the plane was killed -- except for little Cecilia Cichan, age four, who was found hurt but alive in the debris.

As compelling as that story is, even more remarkable was the reaction of her extended family, which took Cecilia in (both parents and a brother died in the crash) and then, in effect, made her disappear. They sought to shield her from people like me, refusing to talk to media or to make Cecilia available for photos. For years, they did this, seeking to let the miraculous survivor grow up in as near a normal way as she could, given the circumstances.

Now Cecilia has emerged, and apparently will be part of this upcoming doumentary, Sole Survivor on survivors of catastrophic plane crashes. I don't see many movies, but I think I'll catch this one (the trailer is embedded below). Margaret, whose fear of flying is palpable, will skip it, I'm sure.

Oh, and in the "small world" category, Flight 255's final destination that night (after a stop in Phoenix, where most of the victims lived) was John Wayne Airport. That's about four miles from where I now live in Irvine, California.
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Irony, and the notion of drilling in the arctic

(AFP photo: Saul Loeb)
A news item this morning, complete with beautiful photos of the arctic, caught me up short, and I really hope the irony here hasn't escaped policy makers: Global warming has opened up polar regions so we can drill for more oil, whose burning in large part is how we got into this environmental mess in the first place.

So how about instead of careening down this foolish and self-destructive path, we agree internationally to leave the arctic alone and spend more serious effort in developing alternatives? Which brings me to a Twitter exchange I had yesterday with an old friend and current business journalist. She tweeted a link to a Los Angeles Times story about state regulators requiring new and renovated buildings be more energy efficient.

A noble idea, that. But we should go one step further and require solar installations in all new buildings, especially in the Sunbelt. It's mind-boggling that here in the high energy-consumption Southwest and West Coast, we burn fossil fuel instead of converting sunshine for the energy to light and cool our homes.

Requiring solar installations on new construction would add some initial costs to the buildings, but if we added incentives to install American-made solar panels, we could goose the domestic manufacturing economy, and over time the solar units' cost would decline. And the property owners would have lower utility bills, further reducing the cost.

It seems like a wasted a opportunity. And drilling in the arctic is foolhardy, at best, beyond the environmental risks it would entail. Same with the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from the Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico. Why would we want to make it easier to keep burning fossil fuels, instead of harder? It's like a drug addict burning through his family's money who, instead of getting help, looks for a cheaper drug dealer. What will it take for us to get more sensible about how we generate energy? Read More 
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