instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads

Quite the World, Isn't It?

Research trip winding down; let the writing recommence!

At the Library of Congress. Photo by Margaret Mercier-Martelle.
I have one more day of research here in Washington, DC., before we pack up and head to New York to visit relatives. It's been a productive trip; as usual, found some unanticipated material and details, but didn't find other bits I had hoped to, or found them to be less useful than anticipated.

But that's the nature of this process. And while it's forcing me to rethink how to approach some parts of the story of the search for John Paul Jones's body, it also is letting me add some historical nuance that in many ways makes the story even more compelling. I've already made good progress in writing the early part of the story. Now it's time to hunker down for the main body of writing. Which means even lighter posting here than you've been seeing, unfortunately.

The trip has had some challenges of its own. This part of the country was battered by intense thunderstorms two days before we arrived, and the power was only restored at the rental we're calling home a few hours before we arrived. Then there was the heat - over 100 degrees for the first few days, continuing the onslaught we first encountered in Austin, Texas, (107 degrees) and that continued through New Orleans.

There have been a lot of long days in archives but we've squeezed in some fun along the way (see above references to Austin and New Orleans), including a stop at the reading room of the Library of Congress, where I hoped to have my picture taken with all three of my books. Turns out the Library filed The Fear Within in the law library, rather than the general collection, classifying it as a law book (???) rather than a history book. And when I arrived at the library to pick up the other two books, which I'd ordered earlier that morning, I found someone else had picked up Detroit: A Biography from the counter, and the librarian working the circulation desk couldn't find it in the stacks of books being used by researchers. It's good to be in demand, I guess.

So above you see me at one of the study desks in the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress with Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West, which is fitting since that's the book that first got me added to the collection that began with Thomas Jefferson's personal library. That's about as close to immortality as one can hope for. Read More 
Be the first to comment

Celebrating Father's Day with bicoastal book reviews

Well, this is an achievement in timing: Two book reviews published the same day, one in the Los Angeles Times, and the other in the Washington Post. Happy Father's Day to me!

I'll start in the east, with the Post review of Peter Pagnamenta's "entertaining new book, Prairie Fever, a deeply researched and finely delivered look" at a slice of American I wasn't familiar with: The Great Plains and intermountain west as a 19th century adventure tourism destination for England's idle rich young men.

From my review:
The tourism invasion began, in part, because of James Fenimore Cooper and his Leatherstocking Tales, Pagnamenta reports. Natty Bumppo and his fellow travelers were popular among English readers, and the stories of life on the frontier whetted the appetites of young British men who found themselves in unusual straits. In that era, the eldest son stood to inherit the family estate, while younger male siblings received allowances but few responsibilities. What to do with the indolent rich was a conundrum, since working for a living was outside the sphere of social respectability. One solution was to send them packing to America, lured by the tales of buffalo hunts, Indian skirmishes and the taste of hardy adventure. Some sought to blend in; most did not.
It was a fun book to read. In my own books I like to focus on overlooked slices of American history, and this is one I wish I had found before Pagnamenta did.

The second review in the LA Times was of Buzz Bissinger's Father's Day: A Journey into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son, a much different and more difficult book.
The book, Bissinger confesses at the end, "was difficult and painful" to write. Much more so than he anticipated when they hit the road in 2007. Bissinger thought it would take another year to finish the manuscript, but the pain of the process lengthened the calendar, as did the perhaps subconscious shift of focus from Zach, an utterly charming person in his father's portrayal, to Bissinger himself.

It is not a flattering self-portrait, and that's the biggest problem with what is a frank yet disquieting book. Father's Day isn't compelling so much as it's revelatory about Bissinger's struggle to reconcile the son he thought he deserved with the one he has. It's a human reaction to uncontrollable events, but by the end, if you had to choose a cross-country traveling companion, you'd go for the son, with all his mental deficiencies, over the narrating father with his rages and insecurities.
 Read More 
Be the first to comment

Flight 255 and the sole survivor, a quarter-century later

Cecilia Cichan with airplane tattoo. Credit: Soul Survivor
After more than 30 years in journalism, and thousands of stories heard and written, it's easy for the bulk of them to blur into faded memories. The story of baby Cecilia is one that stands out.

On the evening of Margaret's and my first wedding anniversary, a Sunday in mid-August 1987, we returned from a celebratory dinner out as the phone began ringing. It was Ray Jeskey, then my editor at The Detroit News. In his calm, matter-of-fact way, he asked if I could come into work. There had been a crash at Detroit Metro airport. It had been an incredible year in Detroit for news - cops were killed in ambushes, firefighters died in training accidents and fighting a warehouse blaze, kids were killing each other in a seemingly endless wave of violence over coats and sneakers.

I paused, trying to buy time to make up an excuse because I really didn't want to end our first anniversary celebration at my desk. I asked Ray how many people were aboard the plane, thinking it was another commuter flight.

"About 150," Ray said. I left the apartment a few minutes later, and didn't get home for three days. It was Northwest Flight 255, which fell to the ground just seconds after takeoff, disintegrating into a debris field of metal and bodies as it slammed into a bridge. Two people on the ground and everyone aboard the plane was killed -- except for little Cecilia Cichan, age four, who was found hurt but alive in the debris.

As compelling as that story is, even more remarkable was the reaction of her extended family, which took Cecilia in (both parents and a brother died in the crash) and then, in effect, made her disappear. They sought to shield her from people like me, refusing to talk to media or to make Cecilia available for photos. For years, they did this, seeking to let the miraculous survivor grow up in as near a normal way as she could, given the circumstances.

Now Cecilia has emerged, and apparently will be part of this upcoming doumentary, Sole Survivor on survivors of catastrophic plane crashes. I don't see many movies, but I think I'll catch this one (the trailer is embedded below). Margaret, whose fear of flying is palpable, will skip it, I'm sure.

Oh, and in the "small world" category, Flight 255's final destination that night (after a stop in Phoenix, where most of the victims lived) was John Wayne Airport. That's about four miles from where I now live in Irvine, California.
 Read More 
1 Comments
Post a comment

Irony, and the notion of drilling in the arctic

(AFP photo: Saul Loeb)
A news item this morning, complete with beautiful photos of the arctic, caught me up short, and I really hope the irony here hasn't escaped policy makers: Global warming has opened up polar regions so we can drill for more oil, whose burning in large part is how we got into this environmental mess in the first place.

So how about instead of careening down this foolish and self-destructive path, we agree internationally to leave the arctic alone and spend more serious effort in developing alternatives? Which brings me to a Twitter exchange I had yesterday with an old friend and current business journalist. She tweeted a link to a Los Angeles Times story about state regulators requiring new and renovated buildings be more energy efficient.

A noble idea, that. But we should go one step further and require solar installations in all new buildings, especially in the Sunbelt. It's mind-boggling that here in the high energy-consumption Southwest and West Coast, we burn fossil fuel instead of converting sunshine for the energy to light and cool our homes.

Requiring solar installations on new construction would add some initial costs to the buildings, but if we added incentives to install American-made solar panels, we could goose the domestic manufacturing economy, and over time the solar units' cost would decline. And the property owners would have lower utility bills, further reducing the cost.

It seems like a wasted a opportunity. And drilling in the arctic is foolhardy, at best, beyond the environmental risks it would entail. Same with the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from the Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico. Why would we want to make it easier to keep burning fossil fuels, instead of harder? It's like a drug addict burning through his family's money who, instead of getting help, looks for a cheaper drug dealer. What will it take for us to get more sensible about how we generate energy? Read More 
1 Comments
Post a comment

More than a lifetime of tornadoes in one image

I'm a sucker for dramatic weather (odd, then, that I live in a place that rarely gets any), great web imagery, and unusual maps. This blends all three in spectacular fashion: A map of every tornado that has touched down in the lower 48 United States over the past 56 years - which begins two years before I was born.

Yes, this is essentially my lifespan as told by tornadoes. Put together by John Nelson at IDV Solutions.

tornado paths Read More 
Be the first to comment

On Memorial Day, and the honored lost lives

From the Battle of Verdun, World War I
Nearly 30 years ago I found myself in Rennes, France, reporting a feature story while traveling France, England and Ireland with Margaret. We stopped by a local war memorial, which I remember as a stark and haunting place, large, with white marble walls, the names of the dead chiseled into the stone.

I remember as we walked around seeing a thigh-high ark near one of the walls. With my limited French abilities, I made out that the white-marble case was to memorialize the dead of World War II. It wasn't until then that I realized the endless rows of names on the walls were the dead from World War I.

The human costs of war in the 20th century was astounding, with tens of millions killed across Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. I guess we should count our blessings that so few people live in Antarctica, or surely there'd have been war there. too.

On Memorial Day we tend to wax patriotic about soldiers giving the ultimate sacrifice to defend our way of life, a take that leaves me with a sour feeling. Some wars are just; most are not, sparked by greed, hubris, and tribalistic nationalism. But I can never shake the feeling that the military graveyards of the world are filled in large part by the bodies of men and women who never should have been sacrificed.

On Memorial Day, I join the nation in thanking and remembering fighting men and women who have died simply because they were asked to fight in their nation's name. But we also should hold accountable those who put them in harm's way for reasons other than our common defense. And no, a cheap gallon of gas or access to markets, no matter how shrouded in patriotic jingoes they might be, are not issues of national defense. Read More 
Be the first to comment

On Michael Harrington, and the persistence of poverty

A half-century ago Michael Harrington published a fairly slim book, The Other America, that focused the nation's attention on what life was like for impoverished Americans, from urban cores to the hollows of Appalachia. It was an important book then; sadly, it remains an important book now.

The Los Angeles Times asked me to write a short appreciation of the book for this Sunday's paper (already available online here). I was happy to do it. I was four years old when the book came out, and as I write in the piece, I read it for the first time in the early 1980s, early in my career as a journalist.
I grew up about 90 miles to the east of Jamestown, part of a conservative family in a small conservative village in the northern reaches of Appalachia. The area had forests, deer and poverty in abundance, so I found much to identify with in Harrington's book, which could well stand as the last hurrah for any pretense that we lived in a nation of compassion....

Harrington's work didn't move me to a life of journalism — I was already there, propelled by genetics (my father and grandfather were newspapermen) and by the mixed impulses to explore and to challenge. But Harrington's book affirmed those impulses and helped mold my world view, an evolution from small-town conservatism to a believer in the power of government and collective action to effect good in the world.
Unfortunately, despite decades of national policies that place the health of corporations ahead of the health of communities, poverty is just as intractable today as it was then (programs that support the poor are necessary and humane, but only temporary solutions to what in the end is a structural problem).

But in these days of ostracism and greed, with a religious embrace of free-market economics and paying the lowest price for everything, don't expect anything to change. As I wrote in the piece, Harrington's book "could well stand as the last hurrah for any pretense that we lived in a nation of compassion." Read More 
Be the first to comment

A fascinating time-lapse video of earth

Every now and then you stumble across something that is just so compelling you have to share it (hmm, I wonder if we could build a social-networking site around that idea?). This is a time-lapse video of photos taken from a Russian satellite about a year ago. The photos are fairly high-resolution - one kilometer per pixel - for the amount of terrain covered, which gives the video a heightened sense of sharpness. The orange is vegetation, the color a result of the infrared cameras used.

The rest of the technical details (121 megapixel cameras, photos taken every 30 minutes, etc.) are on the Youtube page where I found this, but I thought the video remarkable enough to share here. This really needs to be done as a screensaver, no?

 Read More 
Be the first to comment

Doing some good for my neighbors

Albert Ezroj
Another side benefit of publishing Detroit: A Biography: Keeping neighbors like Albert Ezroj occupied. Because, as we know, idle hands are the devil's playthings ....

I'm also pleased to note that Hour: Detroit, a magazine in Metro Detroit edited by former colleague Beck Powers, included Detroit in a roundup of new books in the May issue. They wedged me after a book on morel mushrooms, and just above The Skeleton Box, the newest mystery by old friend and former colleague Bryan Gruley. He'll be in Los Angeles on June 13; I'll be buying my copy then. Read More 
Be the first to comment

A well-traveled friend buys a well-received book

Paula Dear could well be the most-traveled reader of Detroit: A Biography.

Paula and her husband, Jeremy, are from England, and visited with us for a couple of weeks last summer as they prepared for the trip of a life-time. Both had pitched their jobs (he as general secretary for the National Union of Journalists, she as a journalist for BBC news), packed up their keepsakes with family, came to the U.S. and went shopping for a sleeper van. The plan: To spend a couple of years driving around the Americas (which they're chronicling here).

Oh, and neither spoke Spanish.

They've been marooned for a bit in Honduras, awaiting delivery of a new transmission (a long story amusingly told on their travel blog). But they took a planned break last week, Jeremy to head to Havana for May Day (as close to a religious holiday as he celebrates), and Paula to New York City for some facetime with old friends to celebrate her birthday.

And there, in a Barnes & Noble, she bought my book. Thanks, Paula. And for any others with photos of the Big Purchase, email me and I'll try to pop the picture up here on the blog.

Now, back to John Paul Jones. Where is that body? Read More 
Be the first to comment