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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Let William Hughes tell you my Detroit: A Biography story

Cover of the audio version of Detroit: A Biography
This is lot of fun for me. A few months back, Blackstone Audiobooks bought the rights to Detroit: A Biography, and it looks like their version is already available. The cover is different from the print version, and the narrator is William Hughes, who, I noticed, also read The Soloist, by columnist and former Los Angeles Times colleague Steve Lopez. The book is based on Lopez's columns about a homeless classical musician, and was also made into a movie. So here's hoping some of that success rubs off via Hughes.

If you go to the Blackstone site for , there's a button to click that plays a short sample from the book. They selected a snippet from the chapter about the onset of the Great Depression in Detroit. It begins:
The “Roaring Twenties” party in Detroit – and elsewhere – ended less abruptly than we think. In retrospect, we tend to look at the stock market meltdown of late October 1929 as the economic collapse that sank into the Great Depression. In truth, signs of the bursting bubble began emerging well before then (and this is a bit of an historical mine field, with debates still ongoing over what really happened to spur the worldwide depression). In February of 1929, concerned over the vast amounts of money the nation’s private banks were lending to speculators investing in the stock market, the Federal Reserve asked member banks to “restrain the use, either directly or indirectly, of Federal Reserve credit facilities in aid of the growth of speculative credit.” It didn’t do much good. Broad consumer faith in the economic boom began to falter, and then turned into a financial panic with the Wall Street selloff, likely sparked by a mix of scandals and feared regulation of public utilities, and criticism at home and abroad of the “speculative orgy” on Wall Street. News stories detailed the first hemorrhages, which helped fuel the panic. In rapid order, several million people lost their jobs, their life savings, and their homes. Banks failed across the nation, and personal fortunes large and small evaporated. Small businesses withered and died; homeowners were evicted; farmers were booted off land they could no longer afford to tend. In an era of unregulated banking, thousands of small banks shut their doors, never to re-open, the deposits of their customers gone. By the end of 1931, the Great Depression was on. Billions of dollars of equity evaporated as the nation’s publicly traded companies lost 73 percent of their value through 1932 (ultimately the market would lose 90 percent of its value).
So go ahead, all you commuters, buy a copy of the audiobook and for a few days, anyway, start your workdays with my words - and Hughes's voice - in your ears. Read 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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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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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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Roger Williams and the U.S. as a 'Christian' nation

The timing of this was inadvertent, yet still telling. I have a book review in this morning's Los Angeles Times of a new look at Roger Williams and the concept of the separation of church and state, at the same time the political world is digesting New Gingrich's win amid the conservative Christians in South Carolina (my friend and former colleague Mark Z. Barabak puts that into clear context here).

The book is John Barry's Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty, and it is a fascinating read. From my review:
Barry, whose earlier books include "The Great Influenza" on the 1918 pandemic and "Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America," writes with absorbing detail and quotes extensively from 17th century English, a version of the language hard on modern eyes. For instance, there's this from John Winthrop's famous "City Upon a Hill" speech to his fellow Puritans as they fled England for the New World:

"But if our heartes shall turne away, soe that wee will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship and serue other Gods, our pleasure and proffits, and serue them; it is propounded unto us this day, wee shall surely perishe out of the good land whither wee passe over this vast sea to possesse it."

But patient readers are rewarded. Williams' views on the relationship between the individual and the state carved out the path to the American future. Most of the early settlers may have been Christians, but by the time the nation was born, the focus was on preserving civil liberties, not faith — establishing a place in which people could, indeed, pursue life, liberty and happiness. And where individuals could define for themselves what that meant.
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The face of Detroit: A Biography

I've been sitting on this for awhile, waiting for the designers and sales people at Chicago Review Press to give their final approval, which apparently they've done. So here is the cover for my new book, Detroit: A Biography.

The cover is the view of Detroit from the Windsor, Canada, side of the Detroit River, looking, oddly, north. Not many people realize that Detroit sits north of Canada, a wrinkle of local geography (for a few miles the Detroit River flows mostly east to west before resuming its north to south route). The photo was taken in 1929, when Detroit was full of cash and energy, with a population of around 1.6 million - more than twice the current population.

Note the ferries and other boats docked along piers on the Detroit riverfront. It was an entirely different city then, though the skyline is clearly recognizable and quite similar to today's.

I'm looking forward to the book's launch in the spring. We're mappng out some talks and signings in Michigan, and also contemplating appearaces in other cities where it makes sense (where there'd be the highest interest in the book). Once that all gets settled, I'll post here and add it to the events tab.

And Detroit: A Biography is already showing up at online booksellers for pre-orders, so feel free to reserve yours ahead of time.  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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One down, digging into another

Those linked to me on Facebook already heard the other day that I've finished proofing the pages for Detroit: A Biography, and we're rolling along to an April release. We're still figuring out specifics but it will likely involve some appearances in Detroit, and I'll pop those details up on the events page when they get firmed up.

Meantime, I'm in the early stages of putting together a proposal for the next possible project. Too premature to post about it here, but I'm right at that precipice where idle curiosity tumbles me into obsession - the crucial first big step in writing a book. If you're not obsessed by it, chances are slim you'll be able to build up enough steam to finish the book. Or to write it with enough energy, and sense of engagement, to draw in readers.

It can be exhausting, but I'm looking forward to burying myself in another book. It's hard to describe the deep satisfaction that comes from diving into an ocean of material and detail, and then teasing a readable narrative out of what you find.

Plus, it gives you something to do during those insomnia-filled nights.

Oh, and if you're on Facebook, come friend me up over there. Read More 
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On Condoleezza Rice, and memoirs

My review of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's memoir, No Higher Honor, is in the Los Angeles Times this morning. Lon-n-n-ng book, more than 700 pages, both exhaustive and exhausting.

My approach to the review was to leave politics out of it, which may or may not have been a good idea. I believe everyone has the right to be the star in his or her own memoir, and Rice gives herself her own due. Had I more patience I'd turn now to the memoirs of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush himself to try a little cross-tabulation, seeing if they included many of the same events, and their different takes on them. But, well, I don't have that much patience. Or curiosity.

But the point of the review was to assess the book, not the person or the policies. Here's the opening:
By now, of course, the key details of former national security advisor and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's "No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington" have already made it to public view. Among them: She clashed over policy with Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi had an unnerving fixation on his "African princess," which revealed itself in a bizarre private dinner in his kitchen. She regretted the timing of a vacation just as Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on New Orleans.

But there's a lot more to Rice's memoir. In fact, with more than 700 pages of reminiscences, there's an awful lot more than those headline moments, making "No Higher Honor" an exhausting walk in Rice's shoes as, arguably, President George W. Bush's most influential foreign policy advisor — a role she stepped into in August 1998, more than two years before the 2000 election, when Bush was governor of Texas.

And given the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, policies of extreme renditions and the incarceration of suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, combating North Korean and Iranian nuclear ambitions — well, it was a busy time.

It is a fact of American political life that after a presidential administration ends, key figures retire to write their versions of what they had seen and done. Each needs to be read with a bit of skepticism — legacy more than enlightenment often is the driving force. And Rice's memoir is no different.
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