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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 
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Detroit: A Biography heading back for another printing

Words an author loves to hear from his editor: We're going back to press to print more copies of your book.

It doesn't mean the first printing of Detroit: A Biography sold out, but it does mean my publisher, Chicago Review Press, feels it needs more copies to fill the demand (and technically, this is the third printing - CRP went back to press for more copies before the first printing reached the warehouse).

So from somewhere deep in New Mexico - actually Las Cruces, which is just north of El Paso, Texas - my thanks for the interest, and the support. Folks like me tend to write by compulsion; it's very nice to know that people are reading the work, liking it - nearly unanimous positive reviews - and, most importantly, buying the book. It is, in the end, how we get paid for our labor.

Now back to the road trip: After a slow cruise through Saguaro National Park near Tucson, we put in for the night at Las Cruces. Tomorrow: Way too much of Texas, but with a couple of days in Austin looming.

And it looks like Tropical Storm Debby is being nice and heading east and out of our way. Sorry about that, Florida .... Read More 
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Road trip into the past - and maybe the wind

So Margaret and I leave tomorrow for an eight-week road trip, part business, part pleasure (note to would-be burglars: We're leaving behind the two strapping, lacrosse-playing sons and the dog). The main focus for me is two weeks in Washington diving into the Library of Congress and National Archives for research for the Jones's Bones book project. We'll also be reconnecting with a lot of friends while we're there.

Assuming we get there.

The plan is to take the southern route because Margaret has never been to Austin or New Orleans. And if the National Hurricane Center's current prediction pans out, we and Hurricane Debby should both be in Louisiana on Thursday. So far the prediction is for the storm to slide westward along the Gulf Coast, missing New Orleans itself, so we're forging ahead with the plans.

But if the storm cuts north, so will we. Not as exciting as the adventure our friends Jeremy and Paula Dear are on - a couple of years traveling the Americas in a sleeper van - but Debby is putting a little edge on our plans. Read More 
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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.
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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 
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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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On biographies - and talking about them

This weekend I'm taking part in the annual conference of Biographers International, a fairly new and quite interesting organization of writers who focus on biographies (the conference is at the University of Southern California). I'm involved with two panels on Saturday, which I'll get to momentarily. But first let me address a question: What is a journalist writing about history doing at a conference for biographers?

It's more than just throwing the word "biography" in the title of a book. Writing history is writing biography, though not in the David McCullough vein. To write about historic events for a general audience, as I do, it's imperative to tell stories, not just string together facts. And to make these moments in time resonate with readers, you have to bring to life the people involved. That means dipping into the biography pool so you can explain how and why people acted as they did. The research that I do in learning about the characters in my books is not as deep, or time-consuming, as required by a full biography. But it covers much of the same ground, and requires the same discipline.

So having said all that, my role at the conference will be two-fold - and has nothing to do with writing biographies. At 9 a.m. Saturday I'm moderating a panel, "Show Me the Money," in which I'll lead a conversation with Elizabeth Hoover and Robin Rauch on financing big projects (it isn't easy), and at 10:45 a.m. I'm on a panel about "Blogging to Boost Sales" with Beverly Gray and Mark Sarvas to talk about, well, this blog and other ways of connecting with readers.

I hope to see some of you there. Read More 
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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 
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Why today should be marked in red on your calendar

This date has a habit of sneaking up on me. I look at the calendar and am a little shocked to see it rounding out again. There are others who have the same feeling, I know (a few post on Facebook). But it remains just another day for most people, including labor supporters, which has long struck me as a bit of an insult to history.

It was 98 years ago today that a day-long gun battle erupted at a coal strikers' tent colony at the edge of the Great Plans in southern Colorado. The violence led to the suffocation deaths of 11 children and two mothers (they died in an underground bunker as fire swept through the tents above), but it also represented one of the most extreme encounters between workers and their bosses, and state military forces. Another child and several men were killed that day, too, including the apparent cold-blooded murders of union miners by National Guardsmen The deaths at Ludlow occurred within the sweep of a seven-month guerrilla war between the miners and their supporters, and mine guards and the Colorado National Guard. At least 75 people were killed in what amounted to open insurrection. Yet few of you have ever heard of it.

With the centennial looming - the strike began in September 1913 - I'm hoping the events at Ludlow gain more of our national attention. Meantime, after the jump you'll find a short excerpt from Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West, my first book, about that long ago day in southern Colorado: Read More 
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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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