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Quite the World, Isn't It?

The LATimes Book Festival, me, and three other authors

This morning's inbox held an email from the organizers of the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books - the top book festival in the country - firming up my role there this Spring, and I'm quite pleased.

In each of the last two years I was invited to take part as a panelist, discussing themes related to my first book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West. This time I get to sit in the moderator's chair (full disclosure: I "suggested" the role and they took me up on it). The panel they've assigned me to looks incredibly interesting - the kind of thing I;d sit in on even if I wasn't moderating it.

Called "Biography: Literary Masters," I'll be leading a discussion with three authors of well-received works on Raymond Carver, Arthur Koestler and Mark Twain. The authors are Michael Scammell (Koestler), Carol Sklenicka (Carver) and Laura Trombley, whose new Mark Twain's Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years is due out next week. And, coincidentally, I profiled Trombley for the LA Times - the piece is supposed to run this weekend, I believe.

I'll post more details as I get them. The session is slated for 1:30 p.m. Saturday, April 24. Hope to see a bunch of you there. Read More 
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On the history of a historian

I had a lot of fun working on this story, a short profile of a local historian named Jim Sleeper -- himself a former newspaper reporter. The piece runs in the current issue of Orange Coast magazine. From the story:
After 82 years of life and some 60 years of collecting other people’s stories, Jim Sleeper’s memories can be a little hard to follow. What starts out as a single thought morphs into a 20-minute digression spinning across decades, like a series of hyperlinks. Or footnotes tacked to footnotes. It’s the storyteller’s curse, this meandering mind, but even if some of the details occasionally elude Sleeper—“The tape’s running a little slower these days,” he says—the stories always come to a point.
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Some updates, and Roger Ebert

Sorry for being AWOL -- been a busy three weeks. Been filing regularly for Aol News, including this piece trying to set the Joe Stack suicide-pilot story into context, as well as finishing up some freelance articles, teaching, giving a two-part lecture on the state of newspapers and journalism, and trying to resurrect a dormant murder mystery while my agent shops my next book proposal.

Oh, and nailing down photographs and making final revisions to The Fear Within. No wonder I'm tired.

Unrelated, I'm guessing most of you saw the Esquire piece on Roger Ebert by Chris Jones. I'm not a movie-goer but have a professional -- and human -- interest in Ebert and his disfiguring struggle with cancer. I ran through the piece quickly and thought it well done, and up to the magazine's standards as one of the few places where writers have the space to give a subject, and a story line, its due.

But a piece about the story caught me up a bit short. Jones, in an interview at About.com, reveals that he wrote while being acutely concerned about what his subject would think of the piece. That's a dangerous way to write journalism. I teach my students that a journalist's primary responsibility is to the truth, and to the reader, while being faithful to the subject and the results of the reporting. But I also tell them to NOT be concerned with what the subject of the story might think, because the subject of the story will inevitably look at things differently than the reporter. You have to write from a vantage point of detached independence.

Makes me wonder how this profile might have differed if Jones had been less concerned about what the subject of his piece thought about it. Read More 
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On Salinger, eco-terror and The Onion Field killer

It's been a busy week, with a couple of wrinkles. First, I posted earlier about becoming the Los Angeles correspondent for Sphere.com. Well, AOL decided to kill the page and roll it into Aol News. So now I'm the Los Angeles correspondent for Aol News, which my editor tells me means nothing n terms of what I'll be doing -- and getting paid.

Good news, that.

But the gig has kept me firing this week. First I had a piece on the parole hearing Wednesday of Gregory Powell, the main gunman in the cop-killing that formed the basis of Jopseph Wambauigh's The Onion Field, a classic in the true-crime genre (and a bit of an intentional echo of Truman Capote's In Cold Blodd). Ironically, he's the only involv ed in the crime who is still alive. And his parole was turned down.

Then I co-wrote a piece with my old friend and former Detroit News colleague Allan Lengel on domestic eco-terrorism.

And a little bit ago I posted a shortish look at the death of J.D. Salinger - and the continued life of teen-age angst.

Yes, I'm ready for a nap.
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Bruce Chatwin's On The Black Hill

Margaret is out of town for a few days - she and two friends took a short cruise down to Ensenada, Mexico - and the boys were both out at theater events Friday night. So it was me, the dog, a cold beer, and Bruce Chatwin's acclaimed On The Black Hill, a novel I'd tucked away long ago and never got around to cracking.

I'm very glad I finally got around to it. The novel is set in rural Great Britain, on a farm that straddles the British and Welsh border. It traces the lives of two main characters, twin brothers Lewis and Benjamin who, for a variety of reasons, make their farm their de facto Elba (there's a lovely set piece in the plot about their refusal to serve in World War One, part of an important but largely forgotten aspect of that era).

The novel, Chatwin's debut (it won the 1982 Whitbread First Novel Award), dissolves a bit at the end as Chatwin brings the characters into contemporary times, and it reads as though he just ran out of ideas of what to do with them. But it's not a fatal flaw, so rich is the rest of the book as it delves into class (and a bit of race), dreams and the reality of hard lives. Chatwin always had a keen eye for details, and for description, as in this bit about a walk up craggy Black Hill with their grandfather:

Lewis and Benjamin gambolled ahead, put up grouse, played finger-football with rabbit droppings, peered over the precipice onto the backs of kestrels and ravens and, every no and then, crept off into the bracken, and hid.

They liked to pretend that they were lost in a forest, like the Twins in Grimms' fairy-tale, and that each stalk of bracken was the trunk of a forest tree. Everything was calm and damp and cool in the green shade. Toadstools reared their caps through the dross of last year's growth; and the wind whistled far above their heads.

They lay on their backs and gazed at the clouds that crossed the fretted patches of sky; at the zig-zagging dots which were flies; and, way above, the other black dots which were the swallows wheeling.
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Some details on the new book

Well, after the madness of the holiday season, I've heard back from my editor on my The Fear Within manuscript, and she likes it. She has a couple of suggestions that will make it stronger, we both think, but I should have it cleaned up and ready to go to the copy editor by March. Still looking at a likely Fall 2010 publication date, and I'll update when I know more.

Still lagging a bit on the photos - having trouble getting some help on the ground in New York City. But I expect to have that straightened out in short order. There are also some old newsreels available that I hope to use here or on another website to offer am online component of the book, and the events that I'm writing about. With the proposal for a third book in my agent's hands, I'm in a very good spot.

This is one of the photos I expect to use in The Fear Within- Eugene Dennis and his longtime companion, Peggy, arriving at court to start his prison term. I like the massing of supporters on the park across this street - Foley Square in Manhattan -- as the couple climbs the steps to the U.S. Courthouse.

The picture is from the Library of Congress, which holds the old New York World-Telegram photo archives, now in the public domain. Read More 
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Nothing to Envy, Take Two

I posted earlier about my profile of Barbara Demick in Publishers Weekly, and promised a review of her book in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. It's live now and available here.

It really is a remarkably well-done bit of journalism, and reconstruction. And I've been thinking since writing these two pieces that this is the kind of journalism that we are at risk of losing in the continuing crisis in the business model for newspapers. So much of what we know about the world begins with reporters on the ground. And as much as we all love what we do, we do need to eat. I can continue to do piecemeal bits of freelance but the kind of stuff I've been doing isn't in the same range of what I was doing before (author profiles versus presidential campaign coverage).

Magnify that across the thousands of journalism jobs that have gone away in the past two years, and the yawning gap in what we know about our world, both home and abroad, becomes dangerously wide and deep. Read More 
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Last-minute gift suggestions - books, of course

I really should keep a list of the books I read that I like, something I can refer to at times like this when I'm trying to put together a recap of recommendations.

Sadly, I don't keep such a list. So I'm going to have to wing this. And the scope of my reading this past year was unusually limited this year. Writing a book, freelancing and teaching didn't leave much time for reading on my own. So this is even more subjective than the usual kind of list - books I read that left an impression, and that would make great holiday figts for the readers on your lists (assuming, of course, you already got them Blood Passion last year).

Allison Hoover Bartlett’s The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession is a compelling look at book thief, and the way he plies his trade.

Bryan Gruley’s Starvation Lake is a great debut mystery that manages to mix small town Michigan, hockey and scandalized journalist into a fun read. Bryan is a friend and former colleague, but I’d have recommended this book even if he wasn’t.

Laila Lalami’s Secret Son doesn’t have the power of her first book, Hope And Other Dangerous Pursuits, but still warrants a read as she explores life in a Moroccan ghetto and the petri dish it provides for radicalism.

Toby Lester’s The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map That Gave America Its Name, which I reviewed for The Washington Post. A great slice of history that turns into a survey course of cartography.

Maile Meloy’s Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It, a collection of stories set in the West that has you contemplating characters long after you’ve finished it. It’s made a lot of “best of “ lists this year, and for good read reason. The book is so good, in fact, it will likely send you looking for some of her earlier works. Read Liars and Saints first, then A Family Daughter – for reasons that will become apparent as you read.

Nick Reding’s Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town is a chilling yet compassionate look at the effects of the meth epidemic on a single town.

Terry Teachout’s Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, is a deeply researched look at the life and influence of the jazz legend. As I mentioned in my post a couple of weeks ago, who knew Pops was a pothead?

Finally, Barbara’s Demick’s mesmerizing Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, isn’t out until later this month, but get it on your pre-order list. A remarkable look at life under one of the world’s most isolated regimes. Read More 
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Random House and the rights grab

I'm a member of the Authors Guild - which, in fact, hosts this web site - and received an email this morning staking out its position on the news the other day that Random House was asserting it holds the e-book rights rights to books it published before the onset of the e-generation.

Random House's argument seems to be that it asserted a claim to all rights of publication in those old contracts, which is broad enough to include e-books. Not so fast, says the Authors Guild, in a pretty cogent argument. The Guild's statement is after the jump (and no, it's not a lot of legalistic "whereases" and "therefors"). This comes down to grabbing rights from authors without paying for them. Read More 
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On Elif Batuman and lovers of Russian literature

A few weeks back an editor at Publishers Weekly emailed and asked if I'd be interested in profiling Elif Batuman, whose name I knew from The New Yorker. Beyond that I knew nothing about Batuman, but the editor's description of her book, The Possessed, intrigued me: "Unlike any other book I've ever read about literature. Think: Mary Roach meets Dostoevsky."

I took on the assignment, and the editor was right - very unusual book, mixing travelogue with personal essay with literary discourse. And all much more accessible than what you think when you hear "Stanford prof" and "Russian literature." From my PW piece:

"In a world defined by categories, Elif Batuman and Lorin Stein, her editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, had a problem positioning Batuman's debut book, The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, due out February 23.

"They couldn't figure out exactly where the book fit. Part literary criticism, part travel writing, part memoir, Batuman's collection of seven nonfiction pieces moves from the campus of Stanford University to Uzbekistan, contemplating everything from Isaac Babel to an overweight mathematician in Florence who confides in an e-mail to Batuman: “I haven't had sex with a woman.... Also I haven't done laundry in almost a month and all my underwear is dirty.” But, somehow, it all ties in with Russian literature."

The profile went live early today, and is available here. I'm also reviewing the book for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and will toss up a link when that runs. Read More 
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