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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Another one down, the desert, and scratching the ground

Well, a couple of weeks ago I sent off the manuscript for Jones's Bones: The Search for an American Hero (which I should emphasize is the working title and could change). That's always a good feeling, but it also leaves me feeling a bit at loose ends. Margaret tells me I am incapable of relaxing, and I can't argue - I always feel better when I have a project stretching before me.

So yes, I've already been scratching around for the next book idea. I have a couple of ideas I'm wrestling with, and one for which I'm already working up a proposal, an idea that has me as excited as Horace Porter finding a lead coffin (you'll have to wait for Jones's Bones to get that reference).

Meanwhile, I drove out to Rancho Mirage (Palms Springs area) this week to lead a seminar Thursday at the University of California-Riverside's Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts program. The subject was "Research: Pain in the Ass, or Pearl Diving?" As you might guess, I land on the pearl-diving side myself. It was a fun session, a lot of bright, enthusiastic students, and I had some good one-on-one sessions with several of them over the course of the day. There are some very good projects in gestation, and I wish them all luck.

And a little for myself, too, as this next idea takes root. Read More 
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The Rust Belt: Still there, still a challenge

As I finish writing Jones's Bones: The Search for an American Hero - due to my publisher at the end of May - the Los Angeles Times has this review I wrote about a book that meshes nicely with the last project, Detroit: A Biography.

The book is Edward McClelland's Nothin' but Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America's Industrial Heartland, the latest in a series of books about the beat up heart of America - includng my Detroit book.

While my book drilled into the rise and fall of Detroit, McClelland casts a wider geographic net. Some of the material feels dated (as I pointed out in the review), but this is a solid addition to the current collection of books about the nation's faded industrial core. From the review:
Engagingly written, the book covers some of the emblematic stories of the past few decades, from the 1994 A.E. Staley labor lockout in Decatur, Ill., an underappreciated example of the uneven playing field on which organized labor fights these days, to the creation of a shoppers' paradise out of old steel property in Homestead, Pa., near Pittsburgh, a "microcosm of what America had become: a nation of shopkeepers who sold each other things, instead of making things."

In many ways, "Nothin' but Blue Skies" is a personal travelogue. The book begins with McClelland dropping into a blue-collar bar across the street from a closed auto plant in his native Lansing, Mich., where he entered high school as the bottom was falling out of the auto industry with the 1981-82 recession. McClelland also was a newspaper reporter in Decatur during the Staley lockout, and now lives in Chicago, which also gets some play in the book.

The author is fully present in these scenes, though the tales are predominantly those of others: Steelworkers laid off in their 50s, never to work again; autoworkers in their 40s moving into service jobs at a fraction of their former pay; chronically poor urban scavengers; young men who will never have a shot at a factory job rolling drugs in urban underground economies. Or economies in which nothing is produced.

"Young people who were born after the manufacturing base was destroyed, I don't think they have a clue about what this place was like," Homestead Mayor Betty Esper tells McClelland. "All they know is there's no jobs out there. They don't know why … you can't grow an economy, grow a middle class, without making things."
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On the American Revolution, and the original Tea Party

The Los Angeles Times today carries my review of Nathaniel Philbrick's new "Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution, a very good and, as the headline says, "on the ground" recreation of the start of the American Revolution.

And like most things historical, the subtleties tell us a different story from the commonly held beliefs of what was going on in the minds of the revolutionaries.

As I quote Philbrick in the review:
"To say that a love of democratic ideals had inspired these country people to take up arms against the [British] regulars is to misrepresent the reality of the revolutionary movement," Philbrick writes. "The patriots had refused to respect the rights of those with whom they did not agree, and loyalists had been sometimes brutally suppressed throughout Massachusetts."

In fact, the "revolution had begun as a profoundly conservative movement," he writes. "The patriots had not wanted to create something new: They had wanted to preserve the status quo — the essentially autonomous community they had inherited from their ancestors — in the face of British attempts to forge a modern empire."

Only as they resisted did talk of freedom gain traction. Even as the first bullets flew, Philbrick writes, many of the fighters still hoped for a negotiated peace that would keep them under British rule.
Backing up those conclusions is a deeply researched and well-spun set of stories about the key players and events in and around Boston all those years ago. Well worth your time.... Read More 
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On Detroit: A Biography, a year later

It was just about a year ago that copies of Detroit: A Biography began showing up in bookstores, always an exciting time for a writer, but fraught with uncertainty. Will people like the book? Will it get the attention of critics? Will it sell? And, perhaps most unsettling of all, did I screw something up?

I’m very pleased, and gratified, to be able to say that the book has done well. It’s in its third printing, reader reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, and I continue to get feedback from folks who say they learned a lot of unexpected things about Detroit, and how it has come to be what it is. The professional critical reviews were light, but except for one culture critic who dismissed the book for not being about culture (?), they have been overwhelmingly positive. And they keep trickling in. This essay-review ran recently in TriQuarterly.

It turns out my book was at the head of a surge of mass media interest in Detroit, from other books about the state of the city to the national media coverage of the installation of an emergency financial manager (you all know what I think of that) to some movies that have touched on the city (from “Detropia” to ”Searching for Sugarman”). I like to think that, among all these projects, my book offers the broadest foundation for understanding the place.

And from the assembly line of book writing, I’m pleased to report solid progress on Jones’s Bones: The Search for an American Hero, which is due to the publisher at the end of next month, with a tentative publication date of next Spring. In a touch of inadvertent timing that will coincide (roughly) with the centennial of the Ludlow Massacre, the central event in my first book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West, which came out in August 2007.

The publication of Jones’s Bones will be my fourth book to hit the bookstands in seven years. And I have a couple of unpublished novels I’ve written in between those nonfiction projects. It’s a very gratifying way to live, and work, and I thank you all for your readership and support. It’s an overworked and often ill-used word, but, literally, I couldn’t do this without you. Read More 
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Coming up: Me and the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

I'm pleased to report that the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books has invited me back for another go-around, this time as a panel moderator. For you book-lovers who don't live in the Los Angeles area, the Festival of Books is one of the prime events of its kind in the country. The two-day gathering of authors and readers covers a large chunk of the University of Southern California, and is an exhausting blast.

The panel I'm moderating is called "Nonfiction: Landscapes Real & Imagined," and is slotted for 2 p.m. Sunday, April 21. The panelists are T.D. Allman (whose new book is about Florida), Greg Goldin (co-author of a book about Los Angeles), and Julia Flynn Siler (whose latest book is about Hawaii). I don't know Allman or Goldin but have known Siler for a number of years, and moderated a panel with her once at the Nieman Conference of Narrative Journalism. Very bright, and a very good writer (her House of Mondavi is a must-read for wine-lovers everywhere).

I'm anxious to start preparing for the panel by diving into the works of all three panelists. And the subject is of personal interest to me. In my Blood Passion and Detroit books, the landscape served almost as another character, as it does in my still in-vitro novel. So it should be a fun and interesting talk. I'll post more details - like building and room number - when I get them. Hope to see some of you there.... Read More 
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On Stephen Dobyns's The Burn Palace

The Los Angeles Times has posted my review of Stephen Dobyns's The Burn Palace, which I picked up with great anticipation and put down at the end feeling a bit dissatisfied. It's a good book, and he does a fine job creating a sense of place, and gently satirizing small-town life. But (from the review) ...
For all of Dobyns' skills in creating characters and place, the central plot line becomes transparent early. The subplots resonate better than the main plot, and the writing is strongest in the action scenes, which erupt with cinematic clarity.

Dobyns is sharp too, portraying people under stress. Some of the characters, though, never break out of single dimensions, a weakness of the novel. The gossipy coffee shop owner. The spunky old lady in the assisted-living home. The stoned war vet. State police Det. Bobby Anderson — "Hey, I'm their token black guy." — has potential as a nuanced character, but Dobyns doesn't break him out of the predictable either.

Anderson cracks wise with his white peers, drives a "magnetic black Nissan 370Z coupe with a rear deck spoiler," and, as Woody points out, keeps himself "hidden behind the jive mask." Which is fine if that's the public persona Dobyns wants to give him, but as a novelist Dobyns can, and should, create a more deeply developed and nuanced character, even if only the reader can see that particular interior landscape.

But those are wrinkles in an otherwise enjoyable work of popular fiction.
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On Dana Goodyear, poet as journalist/journalist as poet

Regular readers of The New Yorker will recognize Dana Goodyear as the Los Angeles-based correspondent who keeps trying to explain us to the Manhattanites who think the West Coast is somewhere over there on the other side of Tenth Avenue. And she's done some very nice work in that regard, including this recent piece on a sub-radar dining fad: Chef Craig Thornton and his private dinners.

But Goodyear also is a poet, and the Los Angeles Times has a short profile I did of Goodyear tied to the release of her second collection of poems, The Oracle of Hollywood Boulevard. From the piece:
Poet and journalist Dana Goodyear perches on a swivel chair in the second-floor writing studio behind her Venice home, the windows cranked open to a gentle ocean breeze. Low rooftops and tall palm trees stretch to the horizon, and Goodyear points to an anomaly just across the alley — a faded surfboard tossed up and forgotten atop a neighbor's single-story house.

Such juxtapositions appeal to Goodyear, a New Yorker magazine staff writer. And while the misplaced surfboard doesn't make an appearance in her new book of poems, "The Oracle of Hollywood Boulevard" (Norton, $25.95), it reflects the kind of unexpected encounters that she says drives her poetry.

"There's something about the shape that a poem takes in my mind before I write it that has to do with suddenness," Goodyear says. She finds it's more effective to deal with that immediacy in poems than in her better-known nonfiction magazine pieces, which she describes as "more outside and objective. For me, it makes sense to address shocking experiences through poems because of the way poems also have that effect on the reader."
It was a fun piece to do. Any time a writer gets to spend a couple of hours with another writer talking about writing, well, you get the point.

Oh, and she's working on her first nonfiction book, too. It's on American foodie culture. And I suspect her piece on the private dining fad will be a part of it. Read More 
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Virtual research, or how to visit Paris from my desk

So in writing Jones's Bones: The Search for an American Hero, I've been buried deeply in old maps and descriptions, and not so old photographs of where John Paul Jones lived and died in Paris, and where he was buried. A natural point of curiosity, of course, is what do these places look like now?

To the left is a photo of the buildings that were erected over the cemetery in which Jones was buried in 1792 - the row, including the hotel, across the street, to the right in the frame. The picture was taken in 1905 from the street corner, and accompanied reports from the U.S. Embassy in Paris to the State Department in Washington.

Here, to the left and through the magic of Google maps street view, is what it looks like today. All the buildings over the cemetery have been replaced. But the cafe on the corner, left foreground, is still a cafe, modernized a bit.

Obviously, looking at photos and Google maps street view isn't the same as being there, but it's an easy way to find out whether anything would be gained by visiting in person. In this case, other than a good meal, visiting the scene wouldn't give me any insights or perspectives - which I'm glad to discover without the expense of a trip to Paris.

Though that would be fun - I haven't been there in decades.
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Detroit Public Library, here I come...

It feels like I just left Detroit after a whirlwind visit on the summer-end return trip to the West Coast, but here I come again.

The Detroit Public Library has invited me to talk about Detroit: A Biography at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, October 17, in the Friends Auditorium of the Main Library. It's free and open to the public (Marwil Books will be selling books for signing).

I'm looking forward to this for a lot of reasons, not the least of which were the hours I spent in the DPL's Burton Historical Collection looking through archives and records to help bring to life some of the myriad stories included in Detroit. The Main Library is a beautiful building between the Detroit Institute of Arts and Wayne State University, making it a prime component of Detroit's urban intellectual core. And it is a gem of a place, though, like much of Detroit, the library has been fighting some significant budget problems.

The evening should be fascinating. I'll talk a bit about the genesis of the book, why I wrote it, some broad conclusions about how the city got to be in the shape it's in, and then open it up for questions and discussion. That, to me, is usually the most fascinating part of any talk, hearing the stories of people directly connected to the historical things I write about. I invariably learn something new, pick up a sliver of nuance I missed before, and often discover things that I wish had included in the book. I look at the sessions as an organic "afterword" to the book, told in real time, and through living voices.

I hope to see my Michigan readers -- and I'm gratified by how many of you there are -- at the talk and signing.

Incidentally, the talk occurs on the eve of the annual North American Labor History Conference (program director Fran Shor helped set up the library talk; thanks, Fran) at Wayne State University, where I'll be part of three different events. I'll post more about those as it gets closer.

Oh, and if you want a Word copy of the library flyer pictured here for posting or sharing, email me through the link in the column to the right and I'll send one out to by return email. Read More 
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On Detroit, and changed white attitudes

Photo: Margaret Mercier-Martelle
The woman sat with a friend to my left as I stood last night discussing Detroit: A Biography at Saturn Booksellers in Gaylord, Michigan (a wonderful little store and a wonderful event). I talked about the propelling role that race and racism has played in the evolution of the city, and she raised her hand and offered, paraphrasing here, that the racist attitudes of white Detroiters toward their black neighbors have changed since the crucial days of the 1950s and 1960s, as Detroit careened toward collapse.

Not so, unfortunately, I responded. As I write in the book, racism among suburban whites is still a driving force in the region. The book quotes a Facebook discussion about Detroit, which I cite as evidence of the private sentiments of some whites. And I noted to the woman that suburban Southfield and Oak Park - once white-majority cities to which black middle class families had fled to escape Detroit's violence and the abysmal school system - are now majority black cities as whites once again ran away from growing numbers of black neighbors.

Which got me thinking last night as I drifted off to sleep: If people think this is a post-racial society, can we ever truly get there? If people believe the struggle for equality has been won, when all evidence points to the contrary, has the fight ended?

After I responded and turned to another questioner, the woman and her friend were heard to say that the Facebook example in the book was just one person, and that it was an outlier. Society has gotten better.

Maybe things have improved, but not enough, when black urban poverty is taken as a given, churches refuse to let blacks marry, and presidential politics comes shrouded in a racial mantle.

Some things to think about as we hit the I-75 freeway and head south for a couple of days in Detroit. Read More 
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