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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Pat Conroy's South of Broad

My review of Pat Conroy's new novel, a long time in coming, is in today's Los Angeles Times. The short version: Disappointing.

The book is called South of Broad, for the upscale neighbor of mostly old money in Charleston, South Carolina. Conroy creates a network of characters who all serve a narrative function, but most of them feel more like cutouts than full=fledged people. And as I write in the review, Conroy's wonderful and powerful narrative voice seems to have lost its vigor.

Which is disappointing. Conroy, at his best, writes with a captivating sense of lyricism, a flow of language and rhythm that wraps you up and takes you, usually, to the Deep South.

But he's much drier here, his powerful muscle gone lax, as I note in the review. Part of the problem is the plot focus itself, which turns on the arrival of the devastating Hurricane Hugo, and a twist in which an AIDS patient draws the gaggle of friends to San Francisco for a rescue. Combined, it just feels like last decade's novel.

Loyal Conroy fans will likely quibble, but the book just doesn't hold up to The Prince of Tides or Beach Music, two of his more recent works. Even without comparing South of Broad to those bar-setting works, the new novel just doesn't engage as it should. Again, a point made in the review, Conroy doesn't propel you through his story so much as he drags you, and it takes some patience to get to the end.

That's never a good feeling when you're reading a novel by someone you know to be a gifted storyteller. Read More 
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Blood Passion gets an airing in San Francisco

Sorry, a little slow to post this -- hard to juggle online responsibilities from the road. But the reading Wednesday at San Francisco's Modern Times Bookstore went very well. Some 25 to 30 people stopped in, and my part of it went for more than an hour, with lots of great questions from the audience. (Thanks to organizer Steve Zeltzer for the photo).

One theme that has come up since the book was published came up again: Whether there are plans for a movie. So far we've had a few inquiries but nothing has materialized, which is disappointing.

The Ludlow Massacre was part of the nation's most violent showdown between workers and their bosses. More than 75 people were killed in what became open insurrection by coal miners and their supporters, who routed the Colorado National Guard and controlled more than 200 miles of the Front Range before the U.S. Army moved in as peacekeepers. The story draws in everyone from the Rockefellers to Mother Jones to President Wilson. Some of the players involved here went on to play roles in the events behind John Sayles' movie, "Matewan." I think Ludlow and the coal war would make a great action/historical film. With luck, some day (the rights are still available, as they say in Hollywood).

Meantime, there were also a few questions about the current book project, which was nice to hear.

One of the highlights was the bookstore itself. It opened in the mid-70s as a co-op and though it's a tough model in a tough business, they're still making it work. Shows you what passion and dedication can do.

The talk, as I've posted before, was part of San Francisco's annual Laborfest, focused this summer on the 75th anniversary of the San Francisco general strike. The strike, like Ludlow, was a small moment against the backdrop of the sweep of American history -- but still important to learn and teach about. I hope you're able to take in some of the other planned eventsRead More 
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Past as present: Hemingway on his newspaper years

I love these little slices of history when they crop up -- in this case in the form of an obituary from the Toronto Star (thanks to Mark Sarvas' The Elegant Variation for the initial link). It seems Lloyd Lockhart, a Canadian reporter with the claim of being the last to interview Ernest Hemingway, has died.

It wasn't much of an interview -- more like tea and chat. And that only after Hemingway spotted Lockhart's wife waiting behind him at the door before he kicked the reporter off his property. This was near Havana during the last days of the Fulgencio Batista regime (Fidel Castro was still leading his band of rebels in the hills).

Hemingway worked for the Toronto Star in the 1920s, and Lockhart, then a Star reporter, had thought that might give him an in with the reclusive Nobel Prize-winning writer. It didn't -- Hemingway had a rather low opinion of his former bosses.
"He complained that the paper blew hot and cold on its newsroom people, that you were a king one day and a dog the next. He told me he had made friends there, had some interesting times but it still rankled him how the Star ebbed and flowed around (long-time editor) Harry Hindmarsh Sr."
Sounds like every newsroom I ever worked in... Read More 
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Chris Anderson, Wikipedia and borrowed passages

A blogger at Virginia Quarterly Review (one of the best periodicals out there) dug into Chris Anderson, of Wired fame, and his book Free: The Future of a Radical Idea, and found Anderson had lifted portions of it from Wikipedia. (Ironically, I lifted this book jacket from Anderson's blog page).

Anderson copped to the problems in an email with VQR (the magazine was preparing a review of the book), blaming it on a last-minute decision to not use footnotes. Beyond the fact that nonfiction books without footnotes always make me suspicious, for the life of me I can't figure out why deciding late in the process to drop the footnotes makes a difference. Lifting passages verbatim and then footnoting is just as lazy -- and dishonest -- as cribbing them in the first place, as Ed Champion also notes on his blog.

But Wikipedia? I mean, if you're going to steal ...
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So, you think you want to write a novel ...

My friend Frances Dinkelspiel -- another journalist-turned-historian -- has a nice Q&A on her blog today with Andy Ross, the former owner of Cody's Books in Berkeley. After he closed the shop a couple of years ago, he turned himself into a literary agent, with some pretty good results.

The most interesting part of the piece is Ross' take on the state of publishing which squares with what I've been seeing. Things aren't as bad as in newspapers, but it's still pretty tough. Especially for fiction writers. Frances asked him what is easier to sell to editors, fiction or nonfiction:
"Uhh -- well -- non-fiction is easier by a mile. Look, I don't want to rain on the parade, but look at the numbers. Publishers will only look at fiction that has been submitted by an agent. These submissions have been heavily vetted. I would imagine that out of 100 queries received by agents for novels, they might select 1 for submission (probably less). I have spoken with a number of fiction editors. They inform me that of the submissions they receive, they may decide to publish (again) 1 in 100. Just looking at the numbers, selling a novel is like winning the lottery. Of course, if you are a published author with a good track record, you are in pretty good shape. It isn't very hard to sell a new novel by Philip Roth. But if you are a published novelist whose last book bombed, it is extremely difficult. Publishers are making decisions by the numbers now. They have a data base that tells them the sales of every book on the market. Refined taste in literature plays a very small role."
So I guess the good news is the novel I've got stashed away, half finished while I work on The Fear Within, is a mystery. Not much call for refined literary taste there....  Read More 
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Methland: How a drug overwhelmed the heartland

I picked up this book out of a sense of curiosity, and found myself devouring it like, well, an addict.

Journalist Nick Reding spent a few years immersing himself in small-town Iowa, researching a book about the devastating effects of meth in rural America. I grew up in a small town (I can never say that without a John Mellencamp song bursting into my head) so read it with the eye of a familiar.

This is from my review in today's Los Angeles Times:
"In 'Methland,' Reding sets something that is known to most of us -- illicit meth labs and tweakers, violent hallucinations and destroyed families -- against a broad context of the decline of local economies, shattered dreams and a sense of fate-driven helplessness.

"This is a strong book, and it tells a complicated story in comprehensible, human dimensions. Like all good journalism, it's the hand holding up the mirror, the friend telling us to take a cold, hard look at ourselves."

The book's strength lies in the professional distance Reding maintains. He lays out people in full, the heroes with flaws, the tweakers as fully rounded people with crippling addictions. It's a complicated story, and it hasn't gone away, Reding argues. It's just faded from the headlines.  Read More 
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Solid NY Times review for Laila Lalami's Secret Son

It's always nice to see friends get good play and reception for their creative works. This time it's Laila Lalami's turn, with this solid review in The New York Times for her novel, Secret Son.

Truth be told (sorry, Laila), I have yet to crack the novel, which Laila signed for me when we both were speaking (separate panels) at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Just too many on the stack, though I hope to get to it soon. I loved her first book, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, a wonderful collection of inter-connected short stories about the illegal flow of migrants from Lalami's native Morocco to Spain.

Laila's a wonderful work -- I recommended Hope to many friends, and none were disappointed. And it looks like Secret Son is just as compelling, and insightful. Below is the book trailer.

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Ludlow verse-novel author wins $40,000 prize

I'm tickled to see that my friend, David Mason, has won the 2009 Thatcher Hoffman Smith Creativity in Motion Prize -- $40,000 to convert his wonderful verse-novel Ludlow in a libretto.

Dave's book and my Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West came out around the same time, and we've done readings and appeared in panels together. He also, coincidentally, is married to Annie Wells, a wonderful photographer with whom I worked at the late Rochester Times-Union in the mid-1980s.

Dave's award, combined with the recent Bancroft Prize to Thomas Andrews for Killing for Coal, a look at the Ludlow through the prism of environmental history, is beginning to bring more attention to the Ludlow Massacre and the Colorado coal war that spawned it -- more than 75 killed in seven months, with the striking coal miners and their supporters controlling 275 miles of the Front Range until President Wilson sent in the U.S. Army as a peacekeeping force.

I still think the story would make a wonderful movie. So far, I've had a few nibbles but nothing has panned out, unfortunately. Keep your fingers crossed. Read More 
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Pat Conroy, Richard Russo and other authors to look for

One of the many benefits of spending a few days at BEA is the chance to mingle with sorts of folks, from buyers for libraries to authors to behind-the-scenes publishing folks. The whole point, of course, is to see what's coming out over the next nine months or so. So here's a highly distilled list of things -- mostly big books -- I'm looking forward to. I'll add more later.

-- Pat Conroy's South of Broad, which I've just finished reading (it's out in September). I've always liked Conroy's narrative power, and the lyrical embrace of language. He's a true southern storyteller and writes, in fact, the way he speaks (I interviewed him years ago for The Detroit News). I don't want to say too much about the new book, his first in 14 years, because I'm reviewing it for the LA Times. But I'll link when the review runs.

-- Richard Russo's That Old Cape Magic, due out in August. I've enjoyed most of his books, which are infused with an affectionate but skeptical look at the joys of smalltown life, and about the pervasiveness of the past. That said, I didn't think he carried off his last novel, . I have higher hopes for this one, which he sasy began as a short story and then just took off.

-- Margaret Atwood's Year of the Flood, unfortunately, wasn't available here as a galley, so I'll have to try to wrest one out of the publisher before it comes out in September. It looks to be an interesting take on human nature, part sci-fi, part fantasy.

-- Michael J. Sandel's Justice: What's The Right Thing To Do?, based on his hugely popular lecture at Harvard. I suspect this will hit a few bestsellers lists. It doesn't have the drama of The Last Lecture, but in an era in which our national sense of justice has been sorely tested -- from Guantanamo Bay to the Wall Street and banking bailouts -- this is a subject of great interest. Read More 
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Interviewus Interruptus

Video proof that I am, indeed, here in New York at Book Expo America, and trying not to be perturbed when the guy who organized it, Lance Fensterman, interrupted my interview with Rick Joyce of Perseus Books Group, who led their effort to create a multi-platform instant book during the convention (I'm on camera a bit for the last third of it).

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