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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Happy Thanksgiving! And thanks ....

Thank you.

That's about as succinct as I can get. Over the past six years I've published three books - the fourth will be out in the Spring and I'm working on a fifth - and there isn't a day that goes by that I'm not thankful that I'm able to do this work. ... Well, some days I'm more thankful than others (when the words are plopping lifelessly on the page, not so much). But it is a very satisfying way to live, and for that freedom I'm thankful to my wife, Margaret, and, of course, to you readers, without whom these books would just be trees falling in the forest.

And I'm also thankful for my agent, Jane Dystel at Dystel & Goderich, and the editors and production staffs at Chicago Review Press, my current publisher, and Rutgers University Press, which brought out my first two books.

And archivists. And librarians. And bookstore owners and clerks.

And critics (well, most of them). So let me finish with a very pleasing snippet from a "year in books" article this week in Detroit's alternative weekly, the Metro Times:
But judging by this year’s Detroitica, publishing has brought out a line of books trading off Detroit’s unchallenged status as poster child for the Rust Belt. Call it literary ruin porn, call it paratrooper journalism, call it what you will, but all the book deals have landed on doorsteps outside the city proper. And unlike yesteryear’s chroniclers of the Detroit experience — with their limited talents but warm fondess for the city — these authors seem more opportunistic.

If so, that’s because Detroit is vested suddenly with what ad men call “branding power.” Already a contested territory, this new “Detroit” is more up for grabs than ever. Now it’s besieged by media folks hoping to make a buck off it. All year, we’ve seen accounts of Detroit by carpetbagging feature writers, TV clowns, drive-by documentarians and so many other hucksters that it makes you long for the days when journalists only flew in for the Detroit Auto Show.

The only truly insightful book of the last year, based on decades of experience here, was Scott Martelle’s achievement Detroit: A Biography, which should be required reading for all earnest people trying to understand the Detroit of today. Published last year, it accurately tells the story of how Detroit pivoted from the glorious model city of the (mostly white) working class into a hellhole of largely black poverty. For too many metro Detroiters, this is an uncomfortable topic, which is likely why it has been so ignored hereabouts. And Martelle knows what he’s writing about. He worked for a Detroit daily paper for years until his participation in the Detroit newspaper strike and wound up working elsewhere. No doubt today’s dailies would rather happily burble on about books by writers who crossed the picket line that Martelle walked.
Now, go watch some football and eat some turkey....  Read More 
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On page proofs, and unbridled excitement

There are many stages in the book writing process that carry twinges of excitement, but only a few that really make the heart race. The biggest moment for me is when I open up that box from the publisher and find a stack of the newest book inside. There the abstract - the idea behind the book - finally becomes concrete.

It's there, as a physical thing.

The next closest stage to that is getting the page proofs, and the set for The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man's Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones, arrived by UPS delivery late yesterday. I'd seen a mockup of the cover, which I posted about a few weeks ago, but pulling that stack of paper out of the shipping box was the first time I had seen the design for the book. And I like it very much. It's clean, no gimmicks or frills, easy on the eye, and fitting for the subject matter.

Now to dive in and double-check the final proofs. Since I've been immersed in another project (details soon, I promise), this process is something akin to reading the book with fresh eyes. I finished the manuscript back in April, and except for quick-reading to answer copy-editor queries, I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about the book.

I started on the first few pages late last night, and I'm still happy with it, which is nice (Lord help me if I looked at it and thought, yechh). As soon as I shake this head cold, I'll dive into it fully.

You get to dive in sometime in mid-April (pre-orders are already being taken at Amazon, though it's better if you order it through your local independent bookseller). Read More 
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On Doris Kearns Goodwin and The Bully Pulpit

The Los Angeles Times this weekend carries my review of Doris Kearns Goodwin's new history, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism It's Goodwin's usual solid job of richly detailed lives at crossroads that had significant effects on the nation. My only quibble with it is the length - 750 pages before the notes and index. As I wrote in the review:
[T]hat's because this really is three overlapping books stitched together. There's a bio of Roosevelt (president from 1901-09), a bio of Taft (president, 1909-13), and a history of the muckraker era, with shorter bios of such seminal figures as Samuel L. McClure and the stable of writers (including Ida M. Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker and Lincoln Steffens) he brought together at his eponymous magazine.

The strength and the weakness of Goodwin's work here rest in the details. Roosevelt and Taft have been the subjects of many biographies, and for good reason. Both are outsized figures (for Taft, in the literal sense), and each was touched by personal tragedy (Roosevelt's first wife died shortly after giving birth; Taft's wife suffered a debilitating stroke two months after he became president). Roosevelt became president with the assassination of William McKinley and survived an assassination attempt himself during the 1912 presidential campaign. Taft went on to serve as chief justice of the United States, the only president to have done so.

While each is a fascinating figure in his own right, there's too much space devoted to their formative years here — they don't meet until Page 135. Similarly, there is too much minutiae about legislative battles that might have been significant in the moment but are not so significant against the historical backdrop. This is where the work, for all of Goodwin's strength as a writer, bogs down.
I took particular interest in the work because it overlaps in time and in some characters with my forthcoming The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man's Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones, due out in the Spring. Jones's body was recovered by Horace Porter, ambassador to France under President McKinley and then Roosevelt, during Roosevelt's first term, so I was already attuned to the era. And Goodwin gets it right. Read More 
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