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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Bruce Chatwin's On The Black Hill

Margaret is out of town for a few days - she and two friends took a short cruise down to Ensenada, Mexico - and the boys were both out at theater events Friday night. So it was me, the dog, a cold beer, and Bruce Chatwin's acclaimed On The Black Hill, a novel I'd tucked away long ago and never got around to cracking.

I'm very glad I finally got around to it. The novel is set in rural Great Britain, on a farm that straddles the British and Welsh border. It traces the lives of two main characters, twin brothers Lewis and Benjamin who, for a variety of reasons, make their farm their de facto Elba (there's a lovely set piece in the plot about their refusal to serve in World War One, part of an important but largely forgotten aspect of that era).

The novel, Chatwin's debut (it won the 1982 Whitbread First Novel Award), dissolves a bit at the end as Chatwin brings the characters into contemporary times, and it reads as though he just ran out of ideas of what to do with them. But it's not a fatal flaw, so rich is the rest of the book as it delves into class (and a bit of race), dreams and the reality of hard lives. Chatwin always had a keen eye for details, and for description, as in this bit about a walk up craggy Black Hill with their grandfather:

Lewis and Benjamin gambolled ahead, put up grouse, played finger-football with rabbit droppings, peered over the precipice onto the backs of kestrels and ravens and, every no and then, crept off into the bracken, and hid.

They liked to pretend that they were lost in a forest, like the Twins in Grimms' fairy-tale, and that each stalk of bracken was the trunk of a forest tree. Everything was calm and damp and cool in the green shade. Toadstools reared their caps through the dross of last year's growth; and the wind whistled far above their heads.

They lay on their backs and gazed at the clouds that crossed the fretted patches of sky; at the zig-zagging dots which were flies; and, way above, the other black dots which were the swallows wheeling.
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Some details on the new book

Well, after the madness of the holiday season, I've heard back from my editor on my The Fear Within manuscript, and she likes it. She has a couple of suggestions that will make it stronger, we both think, but I should have it cleaned up and ready to go to the copy editor by March. Still looking at a likely Fall 2010 publication date, and I'll update when I know more.

Still lagging a bit on the photos - having trouble getting some help on the ground in New York City. But I expect to have that straightened out in short order. There are also some old newsreels available that I hope to use here or on another website to offer am online component of the book, and the events that I'm writing about. With the proposal for a third book in my agent's hands, I'm in a very good spot.

This is one of the photos I expect to use in The Fear Within- Eugene Dennis and his longtime companion, Peggy, arriving at court to start his prison term. I like the massing of supporters on the park across this street - Foley Square in Manhattan -- as the couple climbs the steps to the U.S. Courthouse.

The picture is from the Library of Congress, which holds the old New York World-Telegram photo archives, now in the public domain. Read More 
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Nothing to Envy, Take Two

I posted earlier about my profile of Barbara Demick in Publishers Weekly, and promised a review of her book in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. It's live now and available here.

It really is a remarkably well-done bit of journalism, and reconstruction. And I've been thinking since writing these two pieces that this is the kind of journalism that we are at risk of losing in the continuing crisis in the business model for newspapers. So much of what we know about the world begins with reporters on the ground. And as much as we all love what we do, we do need to eat. I can continue to do piecemeal bits of freelance but the kind of stuff I've been doing isn't in the same range of what I was doing before (author profiles versus presidential campaign coverage).

Magnify that across the thousands of journalism jobs that have gone away in the past two years, and the yawning gap in what we know about our world, both home and abroad, becomes dangerously wide and deep. Read More 
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Last-minute gift suggestions - books, of course

I really should keep a list of the books I read that I like, something I can refer to at times like this when I'm trying to put together a recap of recommendations.

Sadly, I don't keep such a list. So I'm going to have to wing this. And the scope of my reading this past year was unusually limited this year. Writing a book, freelancing and teaching didn't leave much time for reading on my own. So this is even more subjective than the usual kind of list - books I read that left an impression, and that would make great holiday figts for the readers on your lists (assuming, of course, you already got them Blood Passion last year).

Allison Hoover Bartlett’s The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession is a compelling look at book thief, and the way he plies his trade.

Bryan Gruley’s Starvation Lake is a great debut mystery that manages to mix small town Michigan, hockey and scandalized journalist into a fun read. Bryan is a friend and former colleague, but I’d have recommended this book even if he wasn’t.

Laila Lalami’s Secret Son doesn’t have the power of her first book, Hope And Other Dangerous Pursuits, but still warrants a read as she explores life in a Moroccan ghetto and the petri dish it provides for radicalism.

Toby Lester’s The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map That Gave America Its Name, which I reviewed for The Washington Post. A great slice of history that turns into a survey course of cartography.

Maile Meloy’s Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It, a collection of stories set in the West that has you contemplating characters long after you’ve finished it. It’s made a lot of “best of “ lists this year, and for good read reason. The book is so good, in fact, it will likely send you looking for some of her earlier works. Read Liars and Saints first, then A Family Daughter – for reasons that will become apparent as you read.

Nick Reding’s Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town is a chilling yet compassionate look at the effects of the meth epidemic on a single town.

Terry Teachout’s Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, is a deeply researched look at the life and influence of the jazz legend. As I mentioned in my post a couple of weeks ago, who knew Pops was a pothead?

Finally, Barbara’s Demick’s mesmerizing Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, isn’t out until later this month, but get it on your pre-order list. A remarkable look at life under one of the world’s most isolated regimes. Read More 
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Random House and the rights grab

I'm a member of the Authors Guild - which, in fact, hosts this web site - and received an email this morning staking out its position on the news the other day that Random House was asserting it holds the e-book rights rights to books it published before the onset of the e-generation.

Random House's argument seems to be that it asserted a claim to all rights of publication in those old contracts, which is broad enough to include e-books. Not so fast, says the Authors Guild, in a pretty cogent argument. The Guild's statement is after the jump (and no, it's not a lot of legalistic "whereases" and "therefors"). This comes down to grabbing rights from authors without paying for them. Read More 
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On Elif Batuman and lovers of Russian literature

A few weeks back an editor at Publishers Weekly emailed and asked if I'd be interested in profiling Elif Batuman, whose name I knew from The New Yorker. Beyond that I knew nothing about Batuman, but the editor's description of her book, The Possessed, intrigued me: "Unlike any other book I've ever read about literature. Think: Mary Roach meets Dostoevsky."

I took on the assignment, and the editor was right - very unusual book, mixing travelogue with personal essay with literary discourse. And all much more accessible than what you think when you hear "Stanford prof" and "Russian literature." From my PW piece:

"In a world defined by categories, Elif Batuman and Lorin Stein, her editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, had a problem positioning Batuman's debut book, The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, due out February 23.

"They couldn't figure out exactly where the book fit. Part literary criticism, part travel writing, part memoir, Batuman's collection of seven nonfiction pieces moves from the campus of Stanford University to Uzbekistan, contemplating everything from Isaac Babel to an overweight mathematician in Florence who confides in an e-mail to Batuman: “I haven't had sex with a woman.... Also I haven't done laundry in almost a month and all my underwear is dirty.” But, somehow, it all ties in with Russian literature."

The profile went live early today, and is available here. I'm also reviewing the book for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and will toss up a link when that runs. Read More 
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A lovely sense of accomplishment

Well, I managed to finish the new book this past week, just over 100,000 words, all printed out at Office Depot then mailed off to my editor at Rutgers University Press. A very satisfying feeling, I can tell you.

The book is called The Fear Within, and it's a retelling of the trial in 1949 under the Smith Act of 11 leaders of the Communist Party-USA, charging them with "teaching or advocating the necessity of overthrowing the United States government." They weren't charged with doing anything, just talking about it, without any specific plans for its actually happening. In essence, they were imprisoned by the United States government for their thoughts and beliefs.

I got launched on the project because I found the story fascinating, and relatively unexplored outside the realm of Cold War historians. I also found parallels to the USA Patriot Act, in that it and the Smith Act were enacted out of fear of the outside. It's a perverse phenomenon that in times of national crisis, the U.S. tends to undercut the principals it professes to be fighting to preserve -- in this case, freedom of speech and assembly, among others.

The 11 men's convictions were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court just after the Korean War broke out. But a change in the makeup of the court followed a lessening of the Red Scare passions, and the Court effectively reversed itself and gutted the Smith Act in a related case, But by then the men had each served five-year sentences (some more for going on the lam; some less for good behavior).

It's a fascinating story, complete with spies, riots, legal chicanery and intriguing characters. Can't wait for you all to be able to read it; plans are for a Fall 2010 publication date.

And now that it's done, I'll be posting here more regularly. Read More 
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Who knew Pops was a pothead?

A little slow in posting on this - I have two weeks to finish off the current book project, so am under the gun - but I had this piece in the Los Angeles Times over the weekend on critic Terry Teachout's new biography, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.

It's a good, solid bit of work, infused with insights Teachout gleaned from some 650 reels of tapes Armstrong made - many surreptitiously - on his home recorder. As I mentioned in the piece, that let Teachout eavesdrop on large portions of the last half of Armstrong's life.

The tapes didn't reveal any significant new details on an already well-chronicled jazz legend, but the book is likely to introduce Armstrong as a full character to a generation of people who only know him as the voice in "It's a Wonderful World." And yes, Armstrong enjoyed the occasional - okay, daily - joint. And behind that engaging smile there existed a complex man who was eager to please, saw himself as an entertainer first, and who was more than capable of flexing his ego.

The book is an engaging read, and worth picking up for yourself or the jazz lover on your holiday list. Read More 
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The roundabout version of how America got its name

Sunday's Washington Post carries my first freelance book review for them, a piece on Toby Lester's The Fourth Part of the World, a very good survey of Europe's quest for knowledge of the world, and the riches that came from the first forays into globalization.

Lester is a contributing editor at Atlantic Monthly, and this is his first book. It's a solid effort, if a little too European-focused. AS I mention in the review it would have been nice if he had touched on, for example, China's explorations around the same pre-Columbian time.

But that doesn't detract from the work. Well worth picking up for yourself (and we are all history buffs, now, aren't we?) or for the history reader on your holiday gift list.

I'm hoping to place more book reviews at the Washington Post, and elsewhere. As it is my reviews and author profiles have been appearing regularly in the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Publishers Weekly, which is a nice array (links are on the left). Very satisfying work, to say the least. Read More 
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On North Korea, the anti-Disneyland

My short profile of Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent Barbara Demick and her forthcoming book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, is live now at Publishers Weekly. It's a remarkable book, due out in December, and you ought to put it on your pre-order list.

First a disclaimer: Though I spent a dozen years as a staff writer for the LA Times, I never met Demick nor, to the best of my recollection, did we ever work together or share a byline. But I've been reading her journalism since she moved from the Philadelphia Inquirer to become the Times' first Seoul bureau chief, a gig that led directly to this book.

As my piece says, there are certain hurdles to writing about North Korea, not the least of which is dreadfully thin and controlled access to the place. Demick found a way around that by diving into the lives of refugees from the same small city, and through their eyes and memories has been able to create a gripping portrayal of life in what is likely the world's most repressive regime.

So why is this book important? It helps us understand a bit about life in a country that has been a major influence on U.S. foreign policy in Asia since the end of World War Two. The government is a holdover from Stalinist totalitarianism, and the populace lives under intense poverty, famine and indoctrination.

The headlines these days are all about the push for nuclear weapons. But in the end, it is a nation of people shackled by mad men. Read More 
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