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Quite the World, Isn't It?

On Stephen Dobyns's The Burn Palace

The Los Angeles Times has posted my review of Stephen Dobyns's The Burn Palace, which I picked up with great anticipation and put down at the end feeling a bit dissatisfied. It's a good book, and he does a fine job creating a sense of place, and gently satirizing small-town life. But (from the review) ...
For all of Dobyns' skills in creating characters and place, the central plot line becomes transparent early. The subplots resonate better than the main plot, and the writing is strongest in the action scenes, which erupt with cinematic clarity.

Dobyns is sharp too, portraying people under stress. Some of the characters, though, never break out of single dimensions, a weakness of the novel. The gossipy coffee shop owner. The spunky old lady in the assisted-living home. The stoned war vet. State police Det. Bobby Anderson — "Hey, I'm their token black guy." — has potential as a nuanced character, but Dobyns doesn't break him out of the predictable either.

Anderson cracks wise with his white peers, drives a "magnetic black Nissan 370Z coupe with a rear deck spoiler," and, as Woody points out, keeps himself "hidden behind the jive mask." Which is fine if that's the public persona Dobyns wants to give him, but as a novelist Dobyns can, and should, create a more deeply developed and nuanced character, even if only the reader can see that particular interior landscape.

But those are wrinkles in an otherwise enjoyable work of popular fiction.
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On Nick Dybek and his debut novel

I've had a series of reviews published in the Los Angeles Times recently (a more or less up to date list of links to my journalism is at the left), and this morning's edition carries my look at Nick Dybek's debut novel, When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man, which I liked despite some reservations.

Dybek, son of award-winning writer Stuart Dybek, went through the modern steps to becoming a writer, studying at the University of Michigan then going through the Iowa Writer's Workshop. A lot of times first novels by writers who've gone that route feel a bit too studied, as though they are assembling a novel, not writing one. And there is a touch of that in Dybek's book. But he manages to move beyond it and create something that works. It's a good debut, good enough that I'd happily read a second novel by him.

From my review:
The sharpest evidence of Dybek's skills is that he has taken a story line that could easily have veered into film cliché, a mix of "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and the basic secret-in-the-basement plot, and turned it into a taut novel juggling the sometimes conflicting impulses to do the moral thing, and to protect those we love.

At the same time, Dybek steps beyond what could have been a tired coming-of-age story to write about memory, and about the repercussions of making a choice, whether it's right or wrong. In fact, making the right choice can often lose us more than making the wrong choice.

The choices Cal and his father make reveal facets of themselves they had not before contemplated. In the austere world of controlled emotions in which they live, the revelations are salted away like a catch at sea.

And we're left to wonder whether Flint ever was, indeed, a good man.
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Cheering on an old friend's new book, and re-invented life

There was a nice piece in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram the other day by Julia "Julie" Heaberlin, an old friend and former colleague (at the Rochester Times-Union and The Detroit News), on this process of re-invention. In her case, it's as a thriller writer with a debut novel, Playing Dead, hitting shelves next week.

It's a very good book, especially for a first-timer, with a sharply drawn plot, a likable and unusual central character (Tommie McCloud, who makes a tomboy seem prissy), and some lovely stretches of writing. The novel is set mainly in Texas, where Julie was raised and now lives, and I told her after reading the galley that she shouldn't have wasted all those years as an editor for newspapers (an honorable profession, but still...). She took it the way it was intended, as a compliment.

In her piece for the Star-Telegram, Julie writes about the decision she and her husband, Steve Kaskovich (another old friend and former golfing buddy), made to live on his income as a newspaper editor while she pursued her dream. No easy decision, that, and one that was complicated by timing: She quit her upper-management job at the Star-Telegram just before the Great Recession hit both the economy, and the newspaper industry.

So a deeper layer of uncertainty was tossed over the endeavor. It took a lot of work, and a lot of tears from Julie, she writes, but she finally sold a book - two, actually - achieving a dream nurtured since childhood:
When people ask me about the process of writing a book, I think they are expecting the romantic version about the magical place where ideas come from. So I generally don't tell them about the bitterly cold Wednesday morning that I sat crying in the middle of my empty street with dog poop all over my gloves.

I'd already cried once that morning, as soon as I woke up. I muffled it into my pillow as my son and husband got ready for school and work. I was vaguely wondering whether I needed a therapist. Mostly, I was wondering whether, after 31/2 years of writing and trying to get a book published, I should just admit that the dream wasn't going to happen. Whether I should go back and get a real job, if there was one to be had.

Not so long ago, I had been a newspaper editor with a successful career and a decent ego, not this sniveling mess.

The difference between Julie's writing carrer and mine is that she made the conscious leap to leave a lifelong career, while I was pushed. But we're in similar places now. I've published three nonfiction books, and still relish the sense of accomplishment, and semi-permanence, that comes with seeing my name in the Library of Congress.

I've also written a crime novel (and the first draft of the sequel), and am now enduring the ego-slaps that Julie went through as book editors initially rejected her first novel as not being enough XXX. In my case, the rejections, couched in supportive words about the writing, changed by the editor, sometimes contradictorily so. One reported that the novel moved too quickly, another too leisurely. It can be maddening if you take it too personally, something I learned long ago not to do with the criticism others have for my work.

So as I slog on hoping my hardworking agent can get the manuscript in front of the right editor, one for whom my Detroit-based story and characters will resonate, I'm excited for Julie that she's achieved the dream, and wish her great luck and success in these reinvented lives of ours.  Read More 
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A couple of reviews of a couple of good books

Looking at the Los Angeles Times book coverage this week, you'd think I've been busy. And you'd be right.

Thursday's paper carried a review of a newly translated novel by Sayed Kashua, Second Person Singular, which as I write in the review explores "themes [that are] are universal in a world in which every culture, it seems, has an 'other' against which to play out prejudice, and feelings of supremacy." Kashua, an Arab living in Israel, writes in Hebrew, and he has produced a very good novel exploring the lives of two Arabs who grew up in the occupied territories but moved to Jerusalem to forge futures. And the key to the future, they decide, lies in freeing themselves from their personal and ethnic histories. But can they? Can anyone?

The second review, which is online now but I believe will be in the paper Sunday, is of historian Geoffrey C. Ward's A Disposition to be Rich. The subtitle tells you pretty much all you need to know: How a Small-Town Pastor's Son Ruined an American President, Brought on a Wall Street Crash, and Made himself the Best-Hated Man in the United States. And no, it's not about Bernie Madoff. The "best-hated" man is Ferdie Ward, a 19th century Wall Street investor who stole millions using the classic Ponzi scheme years before Charles Ponzi invented it.

What I didn't mention in the review are the coincidental overlaps with my own life and work. Ward grew up near Rochester, N.Y., where I lived and worked from 1983-86 (my wife's extended family still lives in the area and I visit often). So the geography was fun to read. And the presidential victim was Ulysses S. Grant, for whom Horace Porter served as a top aide during the Civil War, and as private secretary when Grant was president. They were so close that Porter became the key figure in raising money to build Grant's Tomb in Manhattan.

Porter also is the man who found John Paul Jones's body. Small world among all those booksRead More 
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Books, books, and more books; my friends have been busy

My wife and I wandered over to the UC Irvine Bookstore last night for a talk and signing by Anne-Marie O'Connor, a former colleague at the Los Angeles Times, who has just published her first book, The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. Good talk about a valuable painting done in fin de siecle Vienna, stolen by Nazis, and finally recovered by descendants of the true owner a few years ago. It should be a great read; I remember Annie's journalism about the legal battle when she was at the LA Times.

But it has me thinking also about the other books I've recently read, or have on my "to read" stack, which is beginning to resemble that tower in Pisa. All by friends and acquaintances published this spring or in the previous few months, alphabetically:

- Julia Heaberlin's debut novel Playing Dead (in galley; out in May)
- Adam Hochschild's World War One-era history,To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918
- Domenica Marchetti's most recent cookbook, The Glorious Pasta of Italy
- Robin Mather's 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 forty dollars a week)
- Terry McDermott and Josh Meyer's The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
- Maile Meloy's children's book, - Lisa See's Dreams of Joy
- Julia Flynn Siler's Lost Kingdom: Hawaii's Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America's First Imperial Adventure

That's a lot of busy writers. Read More 
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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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Writing, and beating the long odds

The new Orange Coast magazine has a short piece I wrote on Thanhha Lai, a former journalist and a Vietnamese American teacher who recently won the National Book Award in the Young People's Literature category for her verse novel, Inside Out & Back Again. It's a wonderfully done book in which Lai novelizes her real-life experiences as a sudden transplant in America.

The part I love about her story is that she spent 15 years working on a novel that she finally gave up on, then turned her attention to the Inside Out & Back Again -- and won one of the most coveted awards in American letters. From my story:
She focused her writing passion on her arrival in Alabama as a 10-year-old who spoke no English. “I was standing in this playground, not knowing what the kids were saying to me,” Lai says. “For the first time the words were taken from me. I was beyond frustration, and there was nothing I could do. Those feelings never go away.”

Her novel deals with her alienation and fear, family love and obligation, all propelled by the loss of her father, who served in the South Vietnamese navy and remains missing in action. As the south fell to the Communist north in 1975, Lai says her mother faced an impossible choice for herself and her nine children: “It was heartbreaking. Wait for her husband and risk nine lives ... or just go and believe, if he were alive, he would find his way to us. In the end, her children won.”
The book targets young adults, but the knife-sharp writing and her themes of overcoming alienation work across age levels. Pick up a copy. You won't regret it. Read More 
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So this is what I've been up to

More than a decade ago I began writing a crime novel and then tucked it away for the best of reasons: My agent, Jane Dystel, sold the first of my history projects, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West. But after I finished the third nonfiction book, Detroit: A Biography, I found myself with time on my hands, and unsettled about the next nonfiction project.

So I dusted off the crime novel, tentatively titled Buried, which Jane this week begins shopping around to publishing houses. This is the description from her online newsletter:
Adam Becklund’s world was humming along nicely. Drawn from his small western Michigan hometown to Detroit, Becklund was writing a popular street-oriented column for a Detroit newspaper, had a beautiful girlfriend, an apartment with a killer view, and a life defined by daily routines that left him deeply satisfied. And then his world blew up. In this debut crime novel, BURIED, critically acclaimed nonfiction author Scott Martelle weaves overlapping stories of murder and suspicion against the backdrop of the streets of Detroit. In a matter of days, Becklund finds himself the leading suspect in the murder of his girlfriend, struggling with a sense of grief and guilt over her killing and retaliatory journalism by his rivals, and serving as the best hope his bar-owning friend Tanker has for eluding an elaborate frame job for a second killing rooted in Detroit’s criminal past. The contemporary tale of fear, intimidation and mystery merges Martelle’s gifts as a storyteller, his eye for dramatic details and his grasp of the nuances of history. BURIED is the first in a new series starring reluctant detective Adam Becklund, who finds the balm for his grief in helping others.
So friends in the publishing industry, if you're interested, get in touch with Jane. We now return you to your regularly scheduled day. Read More 
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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 
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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.
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