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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Sunday at the LAT Festival of Books: 'We built this city'

There's a busy weekend ahead with the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. I'll be on a panel Sunday, but it also looks like I'll be blogging from some of the events for the LAT's Jacket Copy blog, which I've done for the past few festivals.

The panel should be quite interesting, with me talking about Detroit, Bill Boyarsky talking about Los Angeles, and Rebecca Solnit talking about San Francisco (I presume; she's written about it). The moderator will be the Times's book editor, Jon Thurber. We'll be in Taper Hall Room 101.

So I'll be around the grounds of the University of Southern California for both days of the festival. I hope to see some of you there. Read More 
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'Rest?' What is this word, 'rest'?

John Paul Jones's crypt in Annapolis. Photo: U.S. Naval Academy
With Detroit: A Biography doing well less than two weeks after its official pub date, I've already been looking ahead to the next project. And I'm pleased to let you know that my agent, Jane Dystel of Dystel & Goderich, has reached an agreement with Chicago Review Press for Jones's Bones: The Search for an American Hero (that's the working title, anyway), a look at the obsessive hunt in fin de siecle Paris for the body of the man recognized as the father of the U.S. Navy. I'm doubly pleased because CRP did such a great job with Detroit, and I'll be working with the same editor, Jerome Pohlen, and his crew.

John Paul Jones had a checkered life after the Revolutionary War, and died of natural causes in Paris in 1792 in the midst of the French Revolution. Amid the tumult, his body was dropped in the sole Protestant cemetery and the location promptly forgotten, the cemetery eventually covered over with buildings. More than a century later, U.S. Ambassador Horace Porter - a Civil War vet, former top aide to Ulysses S. Grant (in the Union Army and the White House) and the moving force behind establishing Grant's Tomb as a monument - decided Jones deserved better. So he made it so, in dramatic fashion and at his own expense, including digging a network of shafts and tunnels beneath buildings in Paris to explore the old cemetery to find the right body.

I've already done some early research, and it's a fascinating story. Look for it in Spring of 2014 (tentative). And naturally, there will be occasional updates before then.

Oh, and the crime novel I wrote? It's still wandering around publishing houses looking for a home. So think good thoughts for that project, too. Read More 
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On the book tour whirlwind

Photo: Jerome Pohlen
Well, I'm back in California, landed Saturday in time to prepare for Easter dinner with my family and some old friends, and now here in the predawn hours I'm getting my week mapped out. Which is also a good time to look at the week behind.

The schedule was posted elsewhere so I won't detail it here, but it was a hectic and fun romp through Ann Arbor, Lansing and Detroit. Met some wonderful people at some great bookstores, and had a great night with old friends and the newly curious at the Anchor Bar in Downtown Detroit. The reception was uniformly positive, supportive, and spiced with personal and family stories about living - or leaving - Detroit. No resolutions were made or solutions found, but that wasn't the intent of the book. I want Detroit: A Biography to give people who don't know Detroit a better sense of what it once was and how it got to be what it is, and to give Detroiters and Michiganders a better sense of themselves, and the problems they face.

There have been some nice recent write-ups and reviews of the book, too, including The Detroit Hub, a ocal news site, and Bookslut, a national book-centric blog. Sales are going pleasantly well, too. Apparently it's the number two best-selling nonfiction title in northern Michigan.

And we've only just begun. Read More 
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A nice overview of Detroit: A Biography from Atlantic Cities

One of the websites on my daily list of visits is The Atlantic Cities, part of the publishing group that puts out The Atlantic monthly magazine. Great site with a lot of interesting looks at slices of urban existence. So it makes me doubly happy to see them with a nice write up today of Detroit: A Biography (the writer, David Lepeska, interviewed me last week):
That the price of a house in Detroit can cost less today than a new car seems one of the great ironies of 21st century America. But no major city has been harder hit by the recent recession, or by the decades of manufacturing attrition that preceded it, than the Motor City.

It’s famously lost a quarter of its population in the last decade and 60 percent since 1950, and now sits on the brink of bankruptcy. “We are at a critical and pivotal time like none in Detroit's history,” Mayor Dave Bing said in his state of the city speech Wednesday.

In his forthcoming book, Detroit: A Biography, journalist Scott Martelle details how the city – felled by one of the great innovations of the industrial era, a grave lack of official foresight and swirling poverty and prejudice – has come to redefine urban collapse.
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A couple of early reviews for Detroit: A Biography

The weeks leading up to, and after, the publication date for a book is always a bit nerve-wracking. You try to put it out of your mind, but there's always the node in the back of the brain that has you wondering, did I do it right? I'm happy to say that the first two early looks are positive for Detroit: A Biography.

Kirkus Reviews was first out, but the post is limited to subscribers until the book comes out April 1. The highlight: "The city’s death warrant, writes Martelle, was signed when the industry converting back to auto production after the war failed to diversify. Now much of it is returning to meadows and pasture. A valuable biography sure to appeal to readers seeking to come to grips with important problems facing not just a city, but a country."

And now comes Publishers Weekly, with this nice highlight:
Former Detroit News reporter Martelle (Blood Passion) vividly recounts the rise and downfall of a once-great city, from its origins as a French military outpost to protect fur traders and tame local Indian tribes, to the industrial giant known colloquially as Motown, and now when its “economy seized up like an engine run dry.” ... Today, says Martelle, Detroit has been abandoned by both the Big Three auto makers and most of its citizens, leaving primarily black residents, many uneducated, jobless, and poor. Martelle, also an occasional contributor to PW, offers an informative albeit depressing glimpse of the workings of a once-great city that is now a shell of its former self.
Nice words to read. Of course, there's more to the book than these reviews could capture in short write-ups, and it's not all doom and gloom. My intent was to try to explain to people who don't know Detroit how it came to be, both in the best and the worst of the place. And what the rise and fall of Detroit might mean for our other urban cores. So I'm looking forward to the longer takes that (I hope) will crop up beginning in late March. Read More 
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The year ahead: Plan, or live?

California, here we come, December 30, 1996.
Fifteen years ago today Margaret and I, with two young sons in tow, were in the final stages of a life-changing move. After nearly 18 months of walking a picket line (among other things) during the Detroit Newspaper strike, I took a reporting job with the Los Angeles Times, watched as the movers packed up our things, and after spending Christmas with Margaret's family in Rochester, New York, flew to Southern California on December 30, 1996.

It was a leap of faith in many ways. Margaret had been to San Francisco once, but otherwise hadn't been any farther West than Nebraska. I'd had a few more forays but, except for the job interview, had only spent a couple of days in Los Angeles, and that was to cover the 1987 visit by Pope John Paul II, so really had no idea what the place was about.

My job with the Times lasted three more years (though I still freelance for them) than did my nine-year job with The Detroit News, and at 15 years, I've lived here in Irvine longer than any other place in my life. Maybe it's a function of the way we landed here, amid tumult and uncertainty, but at a deep level it still feels temporary.

Or maybe it's a function of the seasons. And I don't mean that old Easterner's lament about missing the changing colors of fall, the first snowflakes of winter, that musty smell of warmth carried on the first warm winds of spring. It has more to do with how someone whose formative years were spent in the Northeast marks time.

Memories tend to cleave along the fractures of the year. Events back East didn't happen two Februaries ago, but two winters ago. Or five summers ago. Here, in a place where the seasons are marked by the length of the day, and the relatively slight ebb and flow of temperatures, time has a sense of standing still. We moved here fifteen winters ago. Or at the start of this endless summer.

So fifteen years feels like a few blips, not the span of our younger son's cognizant lifetime. What has happened through all those changeless seasons? A lot of journalism. Some book writing. A little parenting here and there, and some time off on our own with Margaret. And significantly over the last three years of freelancing and book writing, I've found I've been doing less planning, which I've also found has meant less stress.

Love, work, and play - quite the trifecta. As John Lennon once sang, life is what happens while making other plans. So in the year ahead, plan a little less, live a little more....
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Happy holidays!

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"The First Thanksgiving," Jean Leon Gerome Ferris
There's been a lot of sadness in the neighborhood recently. A couple of weeks ago a neighbor two doors away died after a short and furious battle with cancer at the age of 86. A close friend of our next-door neighbor to the east dropped dead at age 37 (the same week, the neighbor says, that his family lost a longtime friend to cancer). Then yesterday, one of two sisters (in her 50s, I believe) who live next door to us to the west died after a long and particularly brutal fight against cancer.

Like I said, there's been a lot of sadness in the neighborhood.

There's a tendency amid such sadness to do the Pollyanna thing, and to mouth words that do little more than touch the surface. It's not a religious rite but it's a ritual all the same, this passing of condolences. And as heartfelt as it might be, I suspect it offers very little in the way of balm. Time, as we know, is the only healing agent that works. Though having people recognize your grief means something, I suspect, to the grieving. As does a hug. And a glass of wine.

So on this Thanksgiving, be thankful for the time you've had with those you've lost, and for the life you have. It's more fragile than you might think.

And recognize that the legend of the Native Americans whose generosity saved the early European settlers carries a significant lesson about helping those in need. This nation was founded on a wide range of personal impulses, from the desire for religious freedom to base greed.

But it survived because of the help of others - even those who had good reason to fear us. It's a human impulse we should embrace more often. Read More 
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Sorry, America, for not helping out with that recovery thing

Three years ago last month my job at the Los Angeles Times was eliminated, sending me off on this odd hybrid career of freelancing, book writing and teaching. And a much-reduced role as a consumer. In Sunday's Times, I weigh in on what that transition means for the rest of you, and our prognosis for economic recovery. From the piece:
I may owe the nation an apology. It turns out I'm a prime reason why the U.S. economy can't regain its footing. Because as a wage-earner, and as a consumer, I'm not what I used to be. ... It's how we and others in our situation are living now that helps explain the persistence of the economic crisis, and hints at the troubles of the future. ...[W]e're spending significantly less than we once did, forming an incremental drag on the economic recovery. Ironically, we have more money salted away in our savings account now than before my job was cut. That's what financial fear does; it makes you hoard cash.

So we patronize fewer restaurants, buy fewer books (a painful cutback for an author; if I'm not buying their books, are they not buying mine?), and rarely contemplate a weekend train getaway to Santa Barbara or San Diego. Take in a professional hockey or baseball game with the family? Um, no.

But a recovery needs us to spend. So we're not helping. And that's why the future is worrisome. We never were high-debt spenders (at the moment, mortgage, car payments and a small credit card balance are our only outstanding debts), but it's highly unlikely our household spending will ever again be what it was.

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Between things, also known as thumb-twiddling

So last week I sent back the answers to copy-editing questions on the manuscript for Detroit: A Biography, and am now awaiting the arrival of some photos to pass along to the designers at Chicago Review Press as they move onto laying out the book. Next up: Page proofs, where I get to see what the book will look like when it comes out.

Meanwhile, when not teaching and writing freelance pieces, I've been looking around for the next project, which is both fun and vexing. The fun is obvious - I spend time diving down rabbit holes in search of something that will fascinate me enough to devote large chunks of the foreseeable future, and that will fascinate enough of you to attract a publisher.

There, as the saying goes, lies the rub. And the vexation. I dug into one story that I loved, about a collection of some two dozen European displaced persons who, in the years after WWII, slipped out of the Soviet-occupied Baltics to Sweden, worked to pool their money, bought a small sailing ship and then, with only the captain and one other person having ever spent any time at sea, sailed to America using a sextant and a wristwatch. Great story; minimal historic record from which to craft a narrative. Next.

I looked at the searing drought in Texas, and the parallels to the Dust Bowl years, tipped to the idea by a New York Times piece. Alas, the parallels weren't quite so parallel. Next.

I still have hopes that a narrative can be built out of a story about the collapse of a single bank in the Great Depression, but again, finding sufficient and specific historical records from which to build a human narrative is proving to be elusive. Next.

I looked at a rural suicide in the midst of the Great Recession: Too depressing, I was told. Few readers would buy a book about that. I thought about a book exploring how our near-religious quest as a society for the lowest possible price was cheap-skating ourselves out of economic existence (the money we save as consumers means domestic jobs lost, which means less money spent to push the economy, in a vicious downward cycle). No traction there, either. Spent last night exploring the birth of the first transcontinental telegraph, which in many ways also signaled the birth of modern America. Nice, my wife said, but where's the drama? Where, indeed.

So, next? Wish I knew. Now if you'll excuse me, I think I see a couple of rabbit holes over there that need some exploring....

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