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Quite the World, Isn't It?

My favorite day to open the mail

When the newest book comes in from my publisher.

Copies of The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man's Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones should start shipping to stores and online retailers soon, ahead of the official May 1 publication date. Click over to the events page for details on a couple of D.C.-area events coming up in mid May, one at Politics & Prose, and the other at the Annapolis Bookstore.

Also, for you Coloradoans, I'll be in the state in a couple of weeks for a series of events marking the centennial of the Ludlow Massacre, the subject of my first book, Blood Passion. I'm hoping to see a lot of old friends and acquaintances on both trips - and, of course, to sell a few books. Read More 
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On Bob Mould's 25-year-old "Workbook"

The Post Office was good to me twice this week (I already posted about the box of paperbacks): The 25th anniversary remaster of Bob Mould’s “Workbook” album, with a second disk of a live recording of the album and some other songs, as well.

Music comes and goes, especially pop and rock, but this is one of those albums that has stuck with me over the years. I was a middling fan of Husker Du, Mould’s first band, simultaneously drawn and repelled by the sheer mass of noise they created. Maybe not repelled – challenged is a better word. It was music that took work to listen to, to find the threads of melody through the controlled chaos and remarkably dense sound created by a three-man band. Cathartic, yes, but catharsis is never easy now, is it?

Then Husker Du broke up – atomized, really – and Mould disappeared for a few months and suddenly “Workbook” was out. I remember tossing the album on the turntable and hearing the first few notes of acoustic guitar on the opening track, ”Sunspots,” repeat and build at the same time into a mesmerizing solo display that Mould never would have done with Husker Du. This was new, and different, and he was clearly making a musical break from the past. It was transition as statement.

Then came the other tracks, harder-edged, plugged-in, driving and evocative at the same time. And intimate, as in “I See A Little Light,” which her performs in the video below:

As I said, pop and rock music fades quickly. But not this album. It remains as strong and fresh as when Mould first recorded it, and is still on my high rotation” list. It should be on your, too. Read More 
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Detroit: A Biography out in paperback with a new Afterword

So I arrived home yesterday after the long slog on the train from Los Angeles and found a box delivered to the house. Part of the contents is pictured at left.

Yes, that’s the paperback edition of Detroit: A Biography, shipping now and available in stores (I hope; if your local is a smaller shop you might need to have them owner order it). It looks very nice – they kept the design from the hardcover, which is that great metallic-sheen finish over the 1929 photo of Detroit from Windsor, across the river.

The book also has a new Afterword, my attempt to wrap my arms around all the developments since I finished writing Detroit: A Biography in late 2011 (it was published in April 2012, nearly two years ago). I’ve pasted the first few paragraphs of the new Afterword below to give you a sense of it.

Overall, for all of Detroit’s troubles, strong flickers of life remain there that deserve nurturing, and hundreds of thousands of Detroiters need help from their fellow citizens.

As for the bankruptcy, I find myself in a lot of discussions about that. One recurring point: Pensioners and investors should not be on equal footing. The workers did their jobs for wages and promises of future support, and the city – bankrupt or not – has a moral obligation to them. The bondholders invested knowing – it’s the nature of investing – that there was risk, and many bond buyers received inflated interest rates reflecting Detroit’s shaky financial underpinnings. I have problems at a fundamental level with much of capitalism, but if people are going to play to play the investment game knowing they are putting assets at risk, they don’t have much room to cry for special consideration when they lose the gamble. Keep the pensions whole; let the gamblers ruminate on their losses.
_________________________

Afterword

October 2013

Seats on the second tier of Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers professional baseball team, offer an impressive view of the downtown Detroit skyline. Tall buildings shoulder their way skyward beyond the center field fence. Some have the clean lines of modern architecture, but most are much older, dating back to the 1920s, and have been dirtied by time, with a patina of gray covering ornate cornices and other architectural details that exude a sense of history. And despite a surge in purchases in recent years, many remain shuttered and empty.

This is the cradle for the potential rebirth of Detroit, which ...  Read More 
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A review, and a new gig

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This weekend's Los Angeles Times carries my review of Greg Grandin's very good new book, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, which builds off the story of a single repressed slave revolt into a thoughtful revisitation to the spread of slavery in South America. The review runs in the Sunday paper (already available online here).

The timing is coincidental, but it's fun that the review appears in the newspaper the day before I start my new job as an editorial writer for the LA Times, returning to the paper and full-time work for the first time since 2008. More about that momentarily.

Grandin's book, I note in the review, is more than a simple history:
He also uses it as a spark for rumination on paradox: an antislavery ship's captain re-enslaving Africans; an "age of liberty" coinciding with "the Age of Slavery"; and the transition of an economic system based on chattel slavery to one of wages, a different kind of bondage. As Herman Melville's Ishmael asked in the beginning of "Moby-Dick," "Who ain't a slave?"

[...]

At one point, Grandin compares Melville's Ahab from "Moby-Dick" with Delano. Where Ahab has become "synonymous with ruin" in the pursuit of obsession, Delano "represents a more common form of modern authority." As the captain of a seal ship that can find no seals (they'd been hunted to near-extinction), Delano struggles in a rapidly changing market under pressure from creditors and financiers to turn a profit. Abandoned by its captain, the Tryal is a prize to capture and sell — ship, stock and slave cargo included.

"Caught in the pincers of supply and demand and trapped in the vortex of ecological exhaustion, with his own crew on the brink of mutiny because there are no seals left to kill and no money to be made, Delano rallies men to the chase, not of a white whale but of black rebels. Their slide into barbarism … happens not because he is dissenting from the laws of commerce and capital but because he faithfully and routinely administers them."


The review is the last I've done as a freelance writer, though I expect to continue reviewing after I start back at the LA Times, a move that I'm looking forward to. As much as I enjoy the freelance life - particularly the control over my own time and projects - I'm drawn to this fresh challenge of writing editorials. It is one of the few things in newspapers I haven't tried yet, and after working in near-solitude for so long it will be an interesting change of pace to become part of an editorial board, and join in the give-and-take of coming to a consensus on some of the key issues of the day.

And I also expect to keep writing books, though at a slower pace. My The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man's Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones comes out in May, and I'm coming up on the midway point of another book I'm keeping under wraps for the moment, which will come out in 2015. When it does, that will make five books of history published in a span of eight years. So expect a gap after the fifth book comes out.

Meanwhile, I hope to announce in a few weeks book tour plans for Th Admiral and the Ambassador come May, a story I'm very excited to have written about. Read More 
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Happy Holidays!

The annual Holiday video ....
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Happy Thanksgiving! And thanks ....

Thank you.

That's about as succinct as I can get. Over the past six years I've published three books - the fourth will be out in the Spring and I'm working on a fifth - and there isn't a day that goes by that I'm not thankful that I'm able to do this work. ... Well, some days I'm more thankful than others (when the words are plopping lifelessly on the page, not so much). But it is a very satisfying way to live, and for that freedom I'm thankful to my wife, Margaret, and, of course, to you readers, without whom these books would just be trees falling in the forest.

And I'm also thankful for my agent, Jane Dystel at Dystel & Goderich, and the editors and production staffs at Chicago Review Press, my current publisher, and Rutgers University Press, which brought out my first two books.

And archivists. And librarians. And bookstore owners and clerks.

And critics (well, most of them). So let me finish with a very pleasing snippet from a "year in books" article this week in Detroit's alternative weekly, the Metro Times:
But judging by this year’s Detroitica, publishing has brought out a line of books trading off Detroit’s unchallenged status as poster child for the Rust Belt. Call it literary ruin porn, call it paratrooper journalism, call it what you will, but all the book deals have landed on doorsteps outside the city proper. And unlike yesteryear’s chroniclers of the Detroit experience — with their limited talents but warm fondess for the city — these authors seem more opportunistic.

If so, that’s because Detroit is vested suddenly with what ad men call “branding power.” Already a contested territory, this new “Detroit” is more up for grabs than ever. Now it’s besieged by media folks hoping to make a buck off it. All year, we’ve seen accounts of Detroit by carpetbagging feature writers, TV clowns, drive-by documentarians and so many other hucksters that it makes you long for the days when journalists only flew in for the Detroit Auto Show.

The only truly insightful book of the last year, based on decades of experience here, was Scott Martelle’s achievement Detroit: A Biography, which should be required reading for all earnest people trying to understand the Detroit of today. Published last year, it accurately tells the story of how Detroit pivoted from the glorious model city of the (mostly white) working class into a hellhole of largely black poverty. For too many metro Detroiters, this is an uncomfortable topic, which is likely why it has been so ignored hereabouts. And Martelle knows what he’s writing about. He worked for a Detroit daily paper for years until his participation in the Detroit newspaper strike and wound up working elsewhere. No doubt today’s dailies would rather happily burble on about books by writers who crossed the picket line that Martelle walked.
Now, go watch some football and eat some turkey....  Read More 
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On page proofs, and unbridled excitement

There are many stages in the book writing process that carry twinges of excitement, but only a few that really make the heart race. The biggest moment for me is when I open up that box from the publisher and find a stack of the newest book inside. There the abstract - the idea behind the book - finally becomes concrete.

It's there, as a physical thing.

The next closest stage to that is getting the page proofs, and the set for The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man's Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones, arrived by UPS delivery late yesterday. I'd seen a mockup of the cover, which I posted about a few weeks ago, but pulling that stack of paper out of the shipping box was the first time I had seen the design for the book. And I like it very much. It's clean, no gimmicks or frills, easy on the eye, and fitting for the subject matter.

Now to dive in and double-check the final proofs. Since I've been immersed in another project (details soon, I promise), this process is something akin to reading the book with fresh eyes. I finished the manuscript back in April, and except for quick-reading to answer copy-editor queries, I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about the book.

I started on the first few pages late last night, and I'm still happy with it, which is nice (Lord help me if I looked at it and thought, yechh). As soon as I shake this head cold, I'll dive into it fully.

You get to dive in sometime in mid-April (pre-orders are already being taken at Amazon, though it's better if you order it through your local independent bookseller). Read More 
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Now appearing at Truthdig .... me

Last week I started a new role as a contributing blogger to the Truthdig website, which has me pretty excited. The aim of the site is to spotlight what we see as significant stories that have been overwhelmed by other issues, or that just never seemed to grab the attention we think they deserve.

The most appealing part of it is my marching orders are to post engaging items on stories and issues about which I'm passionate. There are quite a few of those, and so far I've written about arrests of protesters and news photographers as a means of silencing them, the impact of extended layoffs on men's careers, differing perceptions of racial equality, and lies told by the federal government to the secret court supposedly overseeing the NSA's surveillance programs, among other things.

And that's just the first week. So please add Truthdig to your regular rotation of sites to visit. Read More 
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On an anniversary, and a test of integrity

Eighteen years today I was on a family vacation, sitting in my in-laws’ house in Rochester, New York, when I got a call from colleagues in Detroit that the long-anticipated strike had finally begun at The Detroit News and Free Press. It was an acid test for a lot of us. Journalists as a rule must remain disengaged, but there we were thrust into engagement by circumstances over which we had little control.

The non-journalists in the strike – there were six unions involved, only one comprising journalists – were remarkably strong. But about half of my fellow Newspaper Guild colleagues ultimately crossed the picket line, a capitulation to fear, career, arrogance, and insecurity that to this day taints my perception of many of those practicing my trade. To me, the strike was a test of will, and of belief. Many colleagues who had voiced support for collective bargaining and collective action (the members voted overwhelmingly to strike) then boldly crossed the picket line, an act of betrayal that was also an indictment of their character.

The strike became a lockout and lasted some six years. Fellow striker Daymon Hartley captured some of the violence on his website, and academic Chris Rhomberg wrote a book about the strike within the context of labor laws. I lasted 18 months on the picket line before taking a job at the Los Angeles Times, and moving west with my wife and our two young sons. In some ways, I still view it as a failure that I didn’t stick it out for the duration. But the actions of the papers during the strike led me to conclude that I would never work for them again (journalistic principles were abandoned by the editors in unscrupulous fashion), so it made no sense to stay on. We got on with our lives, and I enjoyed a 12 year-career at the LA Times before the industry, and the paper’s corporate owners, fell off a cliff, and my job was cut. So I moved on again into this new mix of writing books, doing freelance journalism, and teaching college journalism classes (adjunct), while my wife teaches elementary school.

So 18 years later I’m sitting here at my in-laws’ house, on a family vacation, and now watching Facebook posts from fellow strike veterans. Many of them I barely knew before the walkout, but they have since become close friends. A shared experience like a protracted labor struggle reveals character for good and bad, and blows up some friendships, but it also creates new and deep bonds with others. We all learn about ourselves when crises hit, even something like a labor strike.

That strike also was formative for some who watched. Our son, Michael, is in China in the early weeks of a two year-plus stint with the Peace Corps. He posted the following status update this morning, and I repost it here with pride:
I am reminded that today is the 18 year anniversary of the start of the Detroit Newspaper Strike. I was pulled into it without choice (since I was a 5-year old) and didn't fully understand what was happening around me, but as I grew older and Scott Martelle and Margaret Mercier-Martelle started to fill me in on what I had missed, those few years early in my life provided me with an immense amount of inspiration as I tried to decide what kind of man I wanted to be. And here I am now, in the Peace Corps. To all those who served on our domestic front lines in defense of our freedoms: Thank you for standing, and thank you for inspiring. Barbara Ingalls, Kate DeSmet Kulka, Paula Yoo, Marla Dickerson, Liz Seymour and everybody else I don't know on facebook.
Happy anniversary to us all. Read More 
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The view from the writing desk

Our house isn't very big, especially for four adults and an unusually large collection of books (mine, those of my wife, an elementary school teacher, and those of our two reading sons, ages 22 and 19). So my desk and work space is part of our large living room, next to a door to the side patio overlooking a hibiscus. Which is hummingbird-speak for "breakfast buffet bar," and the key reason I keep the camera handy. This is from yesterday morning.

I put a dozen of the best shots together over on Flickr, adding to a stream of photos going back three years (whale watching, desert spring flower blooms, etc.). Go have a look at the hummingbird photos by clicking here - Hummingbird - and then poke around. I think I'm going to start posting more photos over there, and will post links when I do. Read More 
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