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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Mark the calendar: 'We Built This City'

Organizers of the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books have announced the schedule for this year's festival, and once again I'm happy to see my name on it. I'm slotted for a panel at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 22, in Taper Hall. The subject: "We Built This City."

It should be an interesting hour or so. The other two panelists:

- Bill Boyarsky, a familiar name to longtime LA Times readers for his years as a columnist, reporter, and editor He also is the author of Big Daddy: Jesse Unruh and the Art of Power Politics and contributes regularly to Kevin Roderick's LAObserved website (a must-read sit for Angelenos interested in media and politics), and at Truthdig.

- Rebecca Solnit, who's always sharp and insightful, also was behind the book, Infinite City, an atlas of San Francisco. But not just any atlas. She writes about the different ways of perceiving a city. At least most recently. By my count, this is her ninth book.

And my book, Detroit: A Biography, obviously enough, is about Detroit.

So we'll have a conversation about three iconic cities: Detroit, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Can;t wait to see where Thurber takes us with his questions. Hope to see some of you there. And as usual, I'll be wandering around both days, so say hello if we cross paths. Read More 
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On crossed paths, nearly 30 years later

An old friend and one-time editor, J. Ford Huffman, sent me a message the other day pointing out an interesting bit of timing. My Detroit: A Biography, as you all know by now, is just hitting bookstores. As is a book J.Ford co-edited, The End of Don't Ask, Don't Tell: The Impact in Studies and Personal Essays by Service Members and Veterans. And our mutual friend and former colleague Julia Heaberlin's debut novel, Playing Dead come out in a few weeks.

We all worked together at the Rochester Times-Union newspaper in New York in the mid-1980s, and as J. Ford pointed out in his message, there's a nice synchronicity to all three of us having books out this Spring. But that also got me thinking about some of the other people who worked at that great, and late (it closed in 1997) newspaper that another former editor of mine once described as less a daily newspaper than a daily magazine.

It was an interesting array of journalists who cycled through the paper during the three years I was there, including Kate Philips and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner David Barstow, both now with the New York Times; former Washington Post White House reporter and current Politico editor John F. Harris (also the author of The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House and co-author of The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008; and Jim McCommons, author of Waiting on a Train, about his year of travel aboard Amtrak trains.

Two other colleagues from that era, Marla Dickerson and Reed Johnson, work for the Los Angeles Times (we also worked together, with new novelist Julia at The Detroit News, and Steve Dollar is a prolific freelance critic and author of Jazz Guide: New York City. And the list goes on.

Quite the springboard, the Times-Union was, quite the springboard... Read More 
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A nice overview of Detroit: A Biography from Atlantic Cities

One of the websites on my daily list of visits is The Atlantic Cities, part of the publishing group that puts out The Atlantic monthly magazine. Great site with a lot of interesting looks at slices of urban existence. So it makes me doubly happy to see them with a nice write up today of Detroit: A Biography (the writer, David Lepeska, interviewed me last week):
That the price of a house in Detroit can cost less today than a new car seems one of the great ironies of 21st century America. But no major city has been harder hit by the recent recession, or by the decades of manufacturing attrition that preceded it, than the Motor City.

It’s famously lost a quarter of its population in the last decade and 60 percent since 1950, and now sits on the brink of bankruptcy. “We are at a critical and pivotal time like none in Detroit's history,” Mayor Dave Bing said in his state of the city speech Wednesday.

In his forthcoming book, Detroit: A Biography, journalist Scott Martelle details how the city – felled by one of the great innovations of the industrial era, a grave lack of official foresight and swirling poverty and prejudice – has come to redefine urban collapse.
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E-books, Amazon, and the looming cultural decline

Scott Turow, who when he's not writing best-selling books is a lawyer and president of the Author's Guild, posted a letter a little bit ago on the organization's websites that bears reading by anyone who loves books.

Turow lays out the background of the fight over e-books and their prices, and what it could mean if the Department of Justice steps in, as is becoming likely, and tries to stop efforts by five publishers and Apple to create some competition for Amazon (and Nook). It's complicated, so I urge you to read Turow's letter. But the key passage to me is:
"Our concern about bookstores isn't rooted in sentiment: bookstores are critical to modern bookselling. Marketing studies consistently show that readers are far more adventurous in their choice of books when in a bookstore than when shopping online. In bookstores, readers are open to trying new genres and new authors: it’s by far the best way for new works to be discovered. ... For those of us who have been fortunate enough to become familiar to large numbers of readers, the disappearance of bookstores is deeply troubling, but it will have little effect on our sales or incomes. Like rock bands from the pre-Napster era, established authors can still draw a crowd, if not to a stadium, at least to a virtual shopping cart. For new authors, however, a difficult profession is poised to become much more difficult."
That includes me. Detroit: A Biography is my third book, but no one could make the case that I'm a well-known author (as the joke goes, I'm not even famous in y house). In early April, Detroit: A Biography will be featured for two weeks on Barnes & Nobles' "New In Nonfiction" shelves in nearly 700 stores across the country.

In an Amazon-run book world, I would never get that exposure. And thousands of readers wouldn't have the opportunity for a moment of serendipity, to chance across that wonderful cover created by the Chicago Review Press graphics folks, and discover both a new work, and a new author.

Akin to the decline in our journalism, we are increasingly becoming an electorate informed by the echoes of what we already know. To have our reading public fall into that same pit of ignorance does not bode well for us as a culture, or a responsive democracy. This is an important issue. I urge you to follow it developments, and to act when it becomes appropriate. Read More 
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It's real - got the first Detroit: A Biography in the mail yesterday

I received the first copy of Detroit: A Biography in the mail yesterday, which as you might suspect is a pretty cool feeling. And the designers at Chicago Review Press did a wonderful job with the cover, which, as best as I can describe it, has a bit of a mock dull-metal finish to the paper. It works beautifully with the 1929 picture of Detroit taken from the Windsor side of the Detroit River, which I found in the Library of Congress digital archives (lot of great photos there). From a practical standpoint this means copies of the book should start showing up at retailers in a couple of weeks or so.

And I have some wonderful news on that front, too. Barnes & Noble will be featuring Detroit: A Biography in all of its stores (nearly 700 nationwide) from April 3-16, placing it on the “new in nonfiction” tables and racks. That should get the book in front of readers who might not otherwise find it. Let’s hope they pick up a copy!

And for you Michiganders, I’ll be in the state—Detroit, Ann Arbor, Lansing—the first week of April for a series of appearances (details after the jump). I’ll also be on the Craig Fahle Show on WDET-FM in Detroit on April 3 (show starts at 10 a.m.), and we’re hoping for other media events. And I’ll be talking at a couple of classes at Wayne State University, too. Should be a busy and fun week.

As always, thanks for the interest and the support. Read More 
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An idea for a moving book trailer

I really want to do a trailer like this for the forthcoming release of Detroit: A Biography. All I need is three other guys, a car, a few pianos, some metal bits, a stretch of desert road and, um, a budget ...
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Watergate: When the truth was stranger than fiction

Today's Los Angeles Times carries my review of Thomas Mallon's Watergate, a book that was a lot of fun to read for someone whose formative years were dominated by Watergate. I remember poring over every story in the daily paper as the scandal unfolded, and watching the hearings on TV when I got home from school. Names like Fred LaRue, John Dean, and Rose Mary Woods were as familiar to me as the starting lineup of my beloved Baltimore Orioles.

So it was entertaining to read Mallon's novelization of those events. From the review:
It's been nearly 40 years since Watergate, a chain of events that did, in fact, carry the echoes of a bad novel. Imagine the overview: People working for a powerful president get caught breaking into the headquarters of the opposition political party, setting off a scandal that reaches the highest level of power and threatens the very foundations of the government itself.

Preposterously melodramatic. Except it really happened.

In "Watergate," Mallon adeptly converts the real into fiction. This is Mallon's eighth novel, including 1994's "Henry and Clara," about a couple that President Abraham Lincoln invited to sit in the presidential box at Ford Theater that fateful night he was assassinated, and 2007's "Fellow Travelers," about a gay romance in McCarthy-era Washington.

So Mallon has the experience, both in fictionalizing history and in plumbing the depths of Washington, where he lives. In "Watergate," he adroitly captures the banal venality of Nixon, the loyal scheming of his political intimates and the complex interactions among shadowy ex-CIA agents and others that ended in criminal acts.
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A killing in Oakland

In August 2007 word pinged through the journalism world - and echoed loudly in Detroit - that reporter and editor Chauncey Bailey had been gunned down on an Oakland street. Shock turned quickly to incredulity as it was discovered Bailey had likely been gunned down because of a story he was working on about a local bakery with a reputation for helping downtrodden blacks in Oakland.

My review of a new book about that murder - Thomas Peele's Killing the Messenger: A Story of Radical Faith, Racism's Backlash, and the Assassination of a Journalist - is in the Los Angeles Times, and as I mention high up in the review I knew Bailey, but not well. We were colleagues, but not social friends, when we both worked at The Detroit News. And there is, as I write, something disconcerting about reading the intimate details of the violent death of someone you know--despite years of reading autopsy reports and listening with detached ears to witnesses describe horrors they had seen.

At its heart this is a true-crime book, and overall it's done pretty well, exploring the seamiest excesses of the Bey family in Oakland, through to the conviction of Bailey's killers. From the review:
Peele's book begins with Bailey's murder, as it should, since it was Bailey's death that ultimately sent Yusuf Bey IV (known as Fourth), a son of Your Black Muslim Bakery founder Yusuf Bey, to prison for life and ended the family's violent control of North Oakland. But how the Beys rose to such prominence, and the related Keystone Kops behavior of the Oakland Police Department, is the book's main focus.

At the time of his death, Bailey was editor of the weekly Oakland Post, a freebie paper several rungs down the journalistic food chain from the dailies where Bailey once worked. In truth, Bailey had a loose grasp of journalistic ethics and his work was not exactly top tier, and Peele offers an unvarnished view here of Bailey's professional weaknesses.

Still, it was his journalism that got Bailey killed.
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A couple of early reviews for Detroit: A Biography

The weeks leading up to, and after, the publication date for a book is always a bit nerve-wracking. You try to put it out of your mind, but there's always the node in the back of the brain that has you wondering, did I do it right? I'm happy to say that the first two early looks are positive for Detroit: A Biography.

Kirkus Reviews was first out, but the post is limited to subscribers until the book comes out April 1. The highlight: "The city’s death warrant, writes Martelle, was signed when the industry converting back to auto production after the war failed to diversify. Now much of it is returning to meadows and pasture. A valuable biography sure to appeal to readers seeking to come to grips with important problems facing not just a city, but a country."

And now comes Publishers Weekly, with this nice highlight:
Former Detroit News reporter Martelle (Blood Passion) vividly recounts the rise and downfall of a once-great city, from its origins as a French military outpost to protect fur traders and tame local Indian tribes, to the industrial giant known colloquially as Motown, and now when its “economy seized up like an engine run dry.” ... Today, says Martelle, Detroit has been abandoned by both the Big Three auto makers and most of its citizens, leaving primarily black residents, many uneducated, jobless, and poor. Martelle, also an occasional contributor to PW, offers an informative albeit depressing glimpse of the workings of a once-great city that is now a shell of its former self.
Nice words to read. Of course, there's more to the book than these reviews could capture in short write-ups, and it's not all doom and gloom. My intent was to try to explain to people who don't know Detroit how it came to be, both in the best and the worst of the place. And what the rise and fall of Detroit might mean for our other urban cores. So I'm looking forward to the longer takes that (I hope) will crop up beginning in late March. Read More 
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Coolest video you'll see this week: Legoman (almost) in space

This is just too cool not to share. Some high school students in Ontario, Canada, rigged up a helium weather balloon, some cameras, and a Legoman, and let it fly ....
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