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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Yesterday: Niagara Falls; Tonight: Reading in Gaylord, Michigan

Erie Canal bridges, Rochester, New York. Photo: Scott Martelle
Well, we've begun the slow trek back West, and after overnighting in Port Huron we're off to northern Michigan today for a 6:30 p.m. reading at Saturn Booksellers in Gaylord, Michigan (see the Events page). I've never visited the shop before (I recall only being in Gaylord once, more than 25 years ago, while working for The Detroit News) but where I'm very much looking forward to talking about Detroit: A Biography, because of the high recommendation my old friend Bryan Gruley gives the store.

We made a brief detour as we drove west from Rochester, New York, through southern Ontario, and stopped in at Niagara Falls, which I haven't visited in more than a decade. It never fails to impress with the sheer volume of water that tumbles over the edge of the Niagara escarpment, and the beautiful attention to the grounds, particularly on the Canadian side, where we stopped.

But history is never far from mind, and as we watched the water tumble and roar, I couldn't help wondering what it looked like in the early 1800s when it was the impassable barrier between the upper Great Lakes and Lake Ontario, and the ocean beyond via the St. Lawrence River. The opening of the Erie Canal, a mind-boggling project in itself, in 1825, took Niagara Falls out of play as a navigation barrier, and, as I wrote in Detroit: A Biography, that was a crucial turning point in the development of Detroit as a trading hub, and as an economic lifeline for the upper midwest.

The canal eventually was superseded by the railroads, of course, but I like how this summer trip of ours has both inadvertently and purposefully touched on some of the elements of the book. The photo inserted in this blog post was taken from the deck of the Mary Jemison during a two-hour trip we took on the Genesee River and the Erie Canal while in Rochester, another place that found riches with the opening of Clinton's Ditch, as it was called. Today we head into the heart of what was Michigan's first major industry, logging.

And on Wednesday, we head to Detroit for a couple of days. That stop will be purely social, with no readings planned. And then, like the western expansion itself, we point the nose of the Fusion toward the Pacific and head home.Video by Margaret Mercier-Martelle. Read More 
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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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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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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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Writing, and beating the long odds

The new Orange Coast magazine has a short piece I wrote on Thanhha Lai, a former journalist and a Vietnamese American teacher who recently won the National Book Award in the Young People's Literature category for her verse novel, Inside Out & Back Again. It's a wonderfully done book in which Lai novelizes her real-life experiences as a sudden transplant in America.

The part I love about her story is that she spent 15 years working on a novel that she finally gave up on, then turned her attention to the Inside Out & Back Again -- and won one of the most coveted awards in American letters. From my story:
She focused her writing passion on her arrival in Alabama as a 10-year-old who spoke no English. “I was standing in this playground, not knowing what the kids were saying to me,” Lai says. “For the first time the words were taken from me. I was beyond frustration, and there was nothing I could do. Those feelings never go away.”

Her novel deals with her alienation and fear, family love and obligation, all propelled by the loss of her father, who served in the South Vietnamese navy and remains missing in action. As the south fell to the Communist north in 1975, Lai says her mother faced an impossible choice for herself and her nine children: “It was heartbreaking. Wait for her husband and risk nine lives ... or just go and believe, if he were alive, he would find his way to us. In the end, her children won.”
The book targets young adults, but the knife-sharp writing and her themes of overcoming alienation work across age levels. Pick up a copy. You won't regret it. Read More 
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So this is what I've been up to

More than a decade ago I began writing a crime novel and then tucked it away for the best of reasons: My agent, Jane Dystel, sold the first of my history projects, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West. But after I finished the third nonfiction book, Detroit: A Biography, I found myself with time on my hands, and unsettled about the next nonfiction project.

So I dusted off the crime novel, tentatively titled Buried, which Jane this week begins shopping around to publishing houses. This is the description from her online newsletter:
Adam Becklund’s world was humming along nicely. Drawn from his small western Michigan hometown to Detroit, Becklund was writing a popular street-oriented column for a Detroit newspaper, had a beautiful girlfriend, an apartment with a killer view, and a life defined by daily routines that left him deeply satisfied. And then his world blew up. In this debut crime novel, BURIED, critically acclaimed nonfiction author Scott Martelle weaves overlapping stories of murder and suspicion against the backdrop of the streets of Detroit. In a matter of days, Becklund finds himself the leading suspect in the murder of his girlfriend, struggling with a sense of grief and guilt over her killing and retaliatory journalism by his rivals, and serving as the best hope his bar-owning friend Tanker has for eluding an elaborate frame job for a second killing rooted in Detroit’s criminal past. The contemporary tale of fear, intimidation and mystery merges Martelle’s gifts as a storyteller, his eye for dramatic details and his grasp of the nuances of history. BURIED is the first in a new series starring reluctant detective Adam Becklund, who finds the balm for his grief in helping others.
So friends in the publishing industry, if you're interested, get in touch with Jane. We now return you to your regularly scheduled day. Read More 
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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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