instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Quite the World, Isn't It?

The face of Detroit: A Biography

I've been sitting on this for awhile, waiting for the designers and sales people at Chicago Review Press to give their final approval, which apparently they've done. So here is the cover for my new book, Detroit: A Biography.

The cover is the view of Detroit from the Windsor, Canada, side of the Detroit River, looking, oddly, north. Not many people realize that Detroit sits north of Canada, a wrinkle of local geography (for a few miles the Detroit River flows mostly east to west before resuming its north to south route). The photo was taken in 1929, when Detroit was full of cash and energy, with a population of around 1.6 million - more than twice the current population.

Note the ferries and other boats docked along piers on the Detroit riverfront. It was an entirely different city then, though the skyline is clearly recognizable and quite similar to today's.

I'm looking forward to the book's launch in the spring. We're mappng out some talks and signings in Michigan, and also contemplating appearaces in other cities where it makes sense (where there'd be the highest interest in the book). Once that all gets settled, I'll post here and add it to the events tab.

And Detroit: A Biography is already showing up at online booksellers for pre-orders, so feel free to reserve yours ahead of time.  Read More 
Be the first to comment

On holiday gifts and supporting authors

Like most people, I cringe when I see ads for holiday gift shopping when the Halloween candy bowl is still full and no one's even figured out the Thanksgiving menu and guest list. Yet, here I go ...

Over the past few days I've made arrangements with writer friends to buy their books and have the writers sign them as gifts for people. It's early, I know, but it's easy and relatively cheap to do when there's time to get the books delivered, signed, and then shipped to me for re-shipping to the recipients (good news for the U.S. Post Office, that).

Which got me thinking that I really should be urging all of you to think about doing something similar. Most authors like to interact with readers, and many are willing to sign and ship out copies of their books (well, at least those not lucky enough to have a mass audience). So if you have a favorite author, or are the friend of an author that you think someone on your list would enjoy, now's the time to begin making those arrangements. And the knowledge that you went to such trouble will resonate with the recipient.

Two caveats: If you're buying the book directly from the author, make sure the check (plus postage) gets there before the author sends out the book. If you're having it shipped from an online seller to the author for re-posting to you, offer to send the author a check to cover the postage. For the author, such costs add up fast, and likely would exceed per-unit what the author will make in royalties.

Of course, this is a bit self-serving (my books, ahem, make wonderful gifts for the history buffs on your list). But it's at heart a plea for broader support for writers. In this era of Kindles and ebooks, and the subsequent squabbles over pricing, the work of writers and publishers is becoming devalued. I've even seen posts by friends that they refuse to spend more than $9.99 for a Kindle version of a book, seemingly forgetting that there's labor behind that product.

As I've written here in other contexts, that insistence on the lowest possible price for the consumer, and the near-religious pursuit of a bargain, is one of the things that has helped kill millions of American jobs. Be ready to pay a fair price, not the cheapest possible price, especially if you know the people creating the product are getting their fair share. In the case of publishing, that's what will keep the industry vibrant. Read More 
Be the first to comment

One down, digging into another

Those linked to me on Facebook already heard the other day that I've finished proofing the pages for Detroit: A Biography, and we're rolling along to an April release. We're still figuring out specifics but it will likely involve some appearances in Detroit, and I'll pop those details up on the events page when they get firmed up.

Meantime, I'm in the early stages of putting together a proposal for the next possible project. Too premature to post about it here, but I'm right at that precipice where idle curiosity tumbles me into obsession - the crucial first big step in writing a book. If you're not obsessed by it, chances are slim you'll be able to build up enough steam to finish the book. Or to write it with enough energy, and sense of engagement, to draw in readers.

It can be exhausting, but I'm looking forward to burying myself in another book. It's hard to describe the deep satisfaction that comes from diving into an ocean of material and detail, and then teasing a readable narrative out of what you find.

Plus, it gives you something to do during those insomnia-filled nights.

Oh, and if you're on Facebook, come friend me up over there. Read More 
1 Comments
Post a comment

On Condoleezza Rice, and memoirs

My review of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's memoir, No Higher Honor, is in the Los Angeles Times this morning. Lon-n-n-ng book, more than 700 pages, both exhaustive and exhausting.

My approach to the review was to leave politics out of it, which may or may not have been a good idea. I believe everyone has the right to be the star in his or her own memoir, and Rice gives herself her own due. Had I more patience I'd turn now to the memoirs of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush himself to try a little cross-tabulation, seeing if they included many of the same events, and their different takes on them. But, well, I don't have that much patience. Or curiosity.

But the point of the review was to assess the book, not the person or the policies. Here's the opening:
By now, of course, the key details of former national security advisor and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's "No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington" have already made it to public view. Among them: She clashed over policy with Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi had an unnerving fixation on his "African princess," which revealed itself in a bizarre private dinner in his kitchen. She regretted the timing of a vacation just as Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on New Orleans.

But there's a lot more to Rice's memoir. In fact, with more than 700 pages of reminiscences, there's an awful lot more than those headline moments, making "No Higher Honor" an exhausting walk in Rice's shoes as, arguably, President George W. Bush's most influential foreign policy advisor — a role she stepped into in August 1998, more than two years before the 2000 election, when Bush was governor of Texas.

And given the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, policies of extreme renditions and the incarceration of suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, combating North Korean and Iranian nuclear ambitions — well, it was a busy time.

It is a fact of American political life that after a presidential administration ends, key figures retire to write their versions of what they had seen and done. Each needs to be read with a bit of skepticism — legacy more than enlightenment often is the driving force. And Rice's memoir is no different.
 Read More 
Be the first to comment

It's William Kennedy's world; Albany just lives in it

I've been reading William Kennedy's novels for almost as long as he's been writing them, and was tapped to review his latest, Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes for the Los Angeles Times.

Short review: Very good.

Longer version: Racial divisions propel the novel much more heavily than the earlier books in his famous "Albany cycle," which includes Ironweed, Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, and Legs, among others. And it could also be the farthest Kennedy has strayed from Albany, with a large segment set in revolutionary Cuba (which Kennedy covered as a journalist). But it fits right in with Kennedy's body of work. And that's a good thing.

It's been a while since Kennedy has published a novel - Roscoe, in 2002 - was his most recent. So it's been a while since I've read him. Chango's Beads makes me want to dive into the stacks to revisit some of those old works, which is about as good of an endorsement as a writer can hope for - the new novel both emulating and reminding of the great work he has produced. And, with Kennedy in his early 80s, you also have to wonder how many more novels he has in him.

From my review ....

And "Changó's Beads" (which refers to the protection offered by a Santería god) carries its own internal cycles. The novel that begins with Cody and [Bing] Crosby singing "Shine" ends after a racially charged performance of the song by Cody, alone, transforming the piece from self-mocking minstrelsy into soul-baring jazz as the streets outside explode in racial violence.

That really is what Kennedy has been writing about all along. Memory, conflict and redemption. Love, loss and betrayal. Small lives caught up with the big ones. The tastes and tones of neighborhoods, and the human stories that do a much better job of defining place than any map ever could.

And, throughout the novel, how failure can be pursued as madly as success.
 Read More 
Be the first to comment

Between things, also known as thumb-twiddling

So last week I sent back the answers to copy-editing questions on the manuscript for Detroit: A Biography, and am now awaiting the arrival of some photos to pass along to the designers at Chicago Review Press as they move onto laying out the book. Next up: Page proofs, where I get to see what the book will look like when it comes out.

Meanwhile, when not teaching and writing freelance pieces, I've been looking around for the next project, which is both fun and vexing. The fun is obvious - I spend time diving down rabbit holes in search of something that will fascinate me enough to devote large chunks of the foreseeable future, and that will fascinate enough of you to attract a publisher.

There, as the saying goes, lies the rub. And the vexation. I dug into one story that I loved, about a collection of some two dozen European displaced persons who, in the years after WWII, slipped out of the Soviet-occupied Baltics to Sweden, worked to pool their money, bought a small sailing ship and then, with only the captain and one other person having ever spent any time at sea, sailed to America using a sextant and a wristwatch. Great story; minimal historic record from which to craft a narrative. Next.

I looked at the searing drought in Texas, and the parallels to the Dust Bowl years, tipped to the idea by a New York Times piece. Alas, the parallels weren't quite so parallel. Next.

I still have hopes that a narrative can be built out of a story about the collapse of a single bank in the Great Depression, but again, finding sufficient and specific historical records from which to build a human narrative is proving to be elusive. Next.

I looked at a rural suicide in the midst of the Great Recession: Too depressing, I was told. Few readers would buy a book about that. I thought about a book exploring how our near-religious quest as a society for the lowest possible price was cheap-skating ourselves out of economic existence (the money we save as consumers means domestic jobs lost, which means less money spent to push the economy, in a vicious downward cycle). No traction there, either. Spent last night exploring the birth of the first transcontinental telegraph, which in many ways also signaled the birth of modern America. Nice, my wife said, but where's the drama? Where, indeed.

So, next? Wish I knew. Now if you'll excuse me, I think I see a couple of rabbit holes over there that need some exploring....


 Read More 
2 Comments
Post a comment

Progress on Detroit - the book, not the city

We're at that crucial stage of book production - editing and copy editing - which is both grueling and fun. Grueling because a couple of sharp-eyed editors are plying me with questions about facts, word choice and writing style. Fun because this makes the publication of the book, due out in April, feel even closer.

The next step will be proofreading the pages, which is when the book begins to feel real in a physical sense. And I've already had a sneak peak at the cover, and am very pleased with the way it's turning out. I'll post a copy of it once we have the final version.

Meanwhile I'm slogging along with a little teaching and some freelance work while trying to figure out a next project. It's an odd process, trying to zero in one something that will bear two or three years of obsession, and that would be of sufficiently wide interest to make doing the project worth the time and effort.



 Read More 
Be the first to comment

On Alaska, ice, and other photos

For the past week I've been out of reach of handy Internet access, aboard a cruise ship sailing the Inland Passage through British Columbia and southeastern Alaska. Friends over the years have reported back on the inexpressible beauty of the place, so our expectations were high. And they were exceeded. It really is spectacular.

Part of the trip was a side run up a fjord called the Tracy Arm, near Juneau. The deeper into the fjord we went, the more mesmerizing the scenery became, until we stopped within view of the face of the Sawyer Glacier - and in front of a field of ice floes. The captain of our ship, the Norwegian Star, explained later that he decided not to move closer because he feared he wouldn't be able to turn the ship around. It was windy and cold and wet - and beautiful.

In Seattle now, with a talk and signing set for this afternoon at Elliott Bay Books. It will be hard not to talk about Alaska, too....

(This is a slide show and could take a bit to load depending on your browser and Internet link).



 Read More 
Be the first to comment

Taking a road trip into the past - join us Sunday at Ludlow

The Ludlow Monument. Photo: Margaret Mercier-Martelle.
I leave tomorrow to spend a week or so on the road doing some freelance stories during a trip framed around a tragedy - the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, the event that launched me on the path to writing books.

Regular readers here know the basics. During the 1913-1914 Colorado coal strike, 11 children and two mothers died when, at the end of a daylong gun battle, Colorado National Guardsmen torched the Ludlow tent colony. The women and children were hiding from the bullets in a hole dig beneath the floorboards of a tent; as the fire raged above them, it sucked the oxygen out of the air. As tragic as the deaths were, they were only a fraction of the 75 people who were killed during that strike, most of them shot to death in the most violent showdown between labor and capital in U.S. history.

Yet few remember this moment. A few years after the Ludlow Massacre, the United Mine Workers union bought the site of the tent colony and have managed it as a roadside spot of reflection, and homage. In recent years, at the end of June, the union has hosted a memorial service to try to keep alive the memory of the dead from that day. It begins at 10 a.m. Sunday at the Ludlow Memorial site a short drive north of Trinidad along Interstate 25. I'm honored to be part of the line up of speakers this year.

Despite winning designation as a National Landmark a couple of years ago, the Ludlow Massacre remains a forgotten moment in U.S. history. That's partly, I think, because it happened here in the West, while our collective national memory is East Coast-centric. And I say that as someone born in Maine and raised and educated there and in Western New York. I came with an east Coast bias, in other words, but after more than a dozen years living in California I’ve come to recognize that, in a historical sense, the nation tips eastward. Which makes sense. The United States began in the East, and the bulk of our formative history lies in the East, so that’s where our memory is focused.

But more significantly, Ludlow is forgotten because it involved labor. And that's a dark hole in our collective memory. Workplace safety, the eight-hour workday and the 40-hour week, health insurance and retirement plans and everything else that we find ourselves once again fighting to protect, those all began with the labor movement. And as the strength of labor has faded, so have those hard-won benefits - and the middle class along with them.

That old maxim seems to be coming true, that those who forget the past are destined to repeat it. Let's hope we don't wind up repeating tragedies like Ludlow. Let's hope all this national anger, frustration and class division builds into something positive.

 Read More 
3 Comments
Post a comment

Wishing a friend success with a great book

A couple of years ago a close friend, food writer Robin Mather, already suffering from some health problems, hit a buzz saw of personal crises: Her husband told her he wanted a divorce, and she lost her job writing for the Chicago Tribune (part of the same corporate convulsion that cast me off from the Los Angeles Times). She wound up retreating to the small lakeside cottage in a remote part of western Michigan that she and her husband had bought anticipating a retirement home some years down the road.

We spent a lot of time on Skype talking, me from my desk in sunny Irvine, Robin from the metaphorical morass of gray clouds at the edge of the Michigan lake. Neither of us is suited to wallowing in our own miseries, and Robin's plan quickly took shape. We're writers, after all, and the best thing a writer can do is write, So she proceeded, with the help of some friends and the irreplaceable agent we share, Jane Dystel, to write her way out of the clouds,

The result is The Feast Nearby: How I lost my job, buried a marriage, and found my way by keeping chickens, foraging, preserving, bartering, and eating locally (all on $40 a week), which is due out in a couple of weeks. I have an early copy, and finished reading it last night, coincidentally the eve of my own party to launch The Fear Within.

Robin's done a splendid job. The concept of the book was to write about her year trying to piece her life back together, while also trying to live within a severely diminished budget while patronizing and supporting local food producers, from truck farmers to butchers. Organized seasonally, it is a collection of essays, accented by recipes, of engaging with life, knitting together a fresh network of new friends, enjoying the benefits of relationships with geographic neighbors (not just our new communities here in the Internet), and even the restorative powers of a walk through untrammeled woods. In the end, she writes, the clouds began clearing:
The good food that I found near my home strengthened and nourished me and, together with the work of my own hands, gave me a sense of pride, security, and peace that I have never known before. The search for it led me to new friends and new ways of thinking about myself and the world in which I live. It provided me with the luxury of having enough to share, even on the spur of the moment, when money was tight and the future uncertain.

My life is newly deep and full of riches. I hope yours is as well.
Great writing. And a wonderfully evocative look at getting your feet back under you when you've been knocked astride. Pick up a copy.

Oh, and Robin's recently moved on from the solitary life on the lake. She's now an editor of Mother Earth News. Read More 
Be the first to comment