Sunday, December 30, 2007

City Pages and the West

I have almost always lived in cities, either in the Rocky Mountain West or on the eastern seaboard. Tucson and Missoula to the left of the map. Hartford and, now, Baltimore to the right. I find much great nonfiction literature in which the eastern seaboard cities are a primary focus, even, to some extent, characters. But when it comes to literary narrative nonfiction about the urban American West, there is next to nothing. Why is that?

The answers are myriad, as you’ll find if you read Jenny Shank’s recent entry in the books section of, one of my favorite sites for news and chat about the Rocky Mountain west. A question I asked Jenny started a discussion between us on this search for nonfiction narrative literature of the American West. In the comments section on Jenny’s page, you’ll find more than a few thoughts on the subject. One thought – mine – muses on whether this lack of urban Western literature means that years after Zane Grey the American West is still romanticized in literature.

“Wait a minute,” you say. “Romanticism in Western literature died out with Buffalo Bill, Louis L’Amour, and the singing cowboys of film. Wallace Stegner helped kill it, and so did Richard Hugo, and Terry Tempest Williams and James Welch and Annie Proulx. Now we have hard core realist Western portrayals. People get mauled by grizzlies. Mine waste poisons rivers. Cowboys gets dirty. Sometimes, they even have sex on Brokeback Mountain and then get beaten to death for their troubles. That’s realism, baby. Hard core realism.”

Yes, it is. What I wonder, though, is if the return to the same settings over and over results in a general romanticism in spite of all that realism. Maybe an accumulation of so much literature about fly fishing and ranching and horses and mountains creates a new Western Romanticism. Such a romanticism is not that of Albert Bierstadt (see the attached Western portrait), nor is it the romanticism of Manifest Destiny. But it is romanticism because it suggests that experience in the West is not valuable unless it is pastoral, or rural, that experience matters in the West only if it happens in conjunction with or in proximity to landscapes or a rural place. If you imagine this statement to be false, consider this: would “Brokeback Mountain” have been as successful if it hasn’t been set in a pretty landscape with guys in cowboy hats? Would it have been so successful if it were about two macho truck drivers who met annually at a Flying J outside Casper, Wyoming? By subverting the romantic ideal of the West (the macho cowboy), the story and the film actually stoked the romantic ideal.

I suspect that until the urban West matters as much as the rural West to writers and publishers, western literature will remain romantic, no matter how far it has come since the “Riders of the Purple Sage.”

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Journalist's Burden

Kevin Abourezk, a journalist I respect and a man I admire (and pictured to the right), recently covered the shooting deaths at an Omaha Mall. He wrote about his experiences that day for reznet, an online newssite by and about Native Americans. I’m grateful for his blog entry. In it, he meditated on the difficulties of covering such a story. It’s important that journalists remind each other how difficult the job can be, how emotionally taxing. Sometimes the job can make us feel less than human. But in particular, I’m struck by this portion of his entry:

“Every time a group emerged, the media would swarm. I had mixed feelings about being part of that. / I've always believed journalism serves a vital democratic function in our society, documenting each day's events in order to provide citizens the information they need to improve their lives and that of their fellow men and women. / But standing there with video cameras rolling in witnesses' faces, I couldn't help but wonder if there was a better way. That day, I couldn't think of one.”

What Kevin and the other reporters did is necessary, and I think there doesn’t need to be a better way. When journalists record such moments of raw grief, they serve a valuable purpose, likely as valuable (if not more so) than helping inform readers in advance of an election. They help people make sense of the world. By listening as people speak of their suffering, journalists provide them an opportunity to give shape to their grief. By carrying that grief and passing it on, journalists help others begin to understand a world that shocks and confuses. As a conduit of grief, the journalist connects the sufferers to the sympathetic, helps create a solidarity that we need in the horrible moments, such as in Omaha, more than at any other time. James Baldwin wrote in his classic short story “Sonny’s Blues” that though “the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it must always be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness.” Carrying such news is a burden, one no one should relish; I see no way any reporter can feel comfortable carrying the weight, but I’m grateful that Kevin, and so many others, do.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Apologize to the dogs

Michael Vick of the Atlanta Falcons, who has spent the last few years participating in the torture of dogs for fun, is trying to avoid lengthy prison time with as much effort as he once exercised avoiding linebackers.

On Nov. 19, Vick turned himself in early to start serving his federal sentence for animal cruelty. The sentence itself hasn't been handed down, but his willingness to serve, Vick and his lawyer seem to hope, will show to the court that he is contrite and deserving of a lesser sentence than the max five years and perhaps even less than the expected 12 to 18 months. Writes his lawyer, as quoted at "From the beginning, Mr. Vick has accepted responsibility for his actions, and his self-surrender further demonstrates that acceptance. ... Michael wants to again apologize to everyone who has been hurt in this matter ..."

Vick's first efforts weren't to accept responsibility. In fact, he denied his involvement and initially pleaded not guilty. The plea changed to guilty only after Vick's buddies offered to give him up to prosecutors. And who is the "everyone" hurt by his actions? Talk about self-aggrandizement. Vick shouldn't apologize to "everyone." He should apologize to the dogs he helped kill.

A sidenote: I'd probably not have written this post had the Washington Post's reporters pointed out that the lawyer's statement was wrong regarding Vick's acceptance of responsibility. Publishing his statement without a challenge to its false underpinnings strikes me as a significant lapse.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Dear Jed Gottlieb ...

Dear Jed Gottlieb,

You were right. I needed to read books by the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski. I've just finished The Soccer War, and I hope to read more of Kapuscinski's work soon. His episodes -- told with wit, restrained grief, and a sharp sense of irony -- add up to so much more than a thousand press dispatches ever could. Thank you for being my teacher.


Sunday, September 30, 2007

Fahrenheit 451: Subversion and the Qualities of Art

The National Endowment for the Arts is sponsoring nationwide reading initiatives called "The Big Read" in which local communities encourage people to read great books. Towson University is pushing Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, and Rick Davis of the university's library asked me to give a lecture at Towson's opening event for its "Big Read." Below is the lecture in its entirety.

Fahrenheit 451 and The Big Read: A Writer’s Perspective

The first book I read -- all by myself -- was about a blue unicorn, or maybe a blue dragon. I don’t remember the subject or title or author. What I do remember is that I was in first grade, had just learned to read, and the book came from the town library. The day I started the book I didn’t finish it. I don’t know what interrupted; maybe Mom needed help with my sick little sister, or Dad chewed me out for saying a word that rhymes with gull spit. Whatever the reason, I went to bed not even halfway through with the book of the blue creature. But as I dreamed, those pages tugged at me, and early the next morning, when it was dark, before anyone else in the house was awake, I snuck into the living room, and switched on a single lamp.

And, while the world slept, I finished the first book I ever read all by myself.

I’ve read hundreds, perhaps thousands of books since. My parents encouraged me, took me to libraries, made Christmas and birthdays occasions to unwrap books. My dad bought me comics whenever I took sick. X-men. Batman. In those days I preferred comics to real books, because, I suppose, they had pictures. But it was not too long before comics led me to sci fi and fantasy novels. The Lord of the Rings. The War of the Worlds. Dragons. Time machines.

Turns out most of it wasn’t memorable. What stays with me instead of the books themselves is the discovery I made while reading them.

It was not new then to anyone but me, and it will not be new to you. What I learned is that there is a divide amidst books in that literary genre some people call sci-fi / fantasy / horror and others call speculative fiction. Some of the books are good, some even very good, and others, at best, so-so. The same is true of books in any genre, even literary books, supposedly the highest of the genres. The so-so books are so-so because they do nothing but fulfill the reader’s expectations. Opening to page one of such a fantasy or sci fi book, I already knew what was going to happen. Character, with sidekick or aged mentor or both, goes on quest, finds force of evil, dispatches force of evil with laser rifle or magic sword.
Whatever. Story over. Repeated again and again in thousands of books and, now, movies and video games. Those mediocre books distracted me from whatever was troubling me at that moment – geometry, acne, an argument with my girlfriend – but those books do not stay in my memory because they did not change me. They didn’t help me think new thoughts. They didn’t knock me off the place in the world that I found most comfortable. Though these books were about adventures, there was nothing adventurous about them.

Enter Robert Heinlein. And JRR Tolkien. Kurt Vonnegut. Ursula K. LeGuin. And, yes, Ray Bradbury. These writers wrote about fortress-castles and spaceships, dystopian futures and idyllic pasts as did other writers of speculative fiction. But in their books they did not just speculate on how dogs would one day be replaced by robots, or on the best spell to paralyze a troll.

They speculated about what it means to live, what it means to think, what it means to love. They asked big, spooky questions about the nature of good and evil, about the diversity of the universe, about the weakness and strength of the soul, be it human or alien or otherwise. And these authors offered no answers, because there are no answers to those questions. What we have instead of answers are stories, artfully told, and that’s what these writers created and why their books are still read today – in some cases decades after their first publication. In the case of Fahrenheit 451, it’s been more than 50 years since it first appeared in book stores.

So, these books – the good ones – surprised me. They got inside me. They mucked around in my head and in my heart and in my guts. In that way, they resembled books teachers forced us to read in high school, books such as Lord of the Flies, The Merchant of Venice, To Kill a Mockingbird. Memorable books -- whether sci fi, fantasy or the literary books I mostly read now -- change me from the inside out, turn me over. There’s a word that describes the effect these books have on me. They are subversive. I want to talk about that word. Subversive – and its root word subvert – comes from old Latin or French words meaning to “turn over” and “from below.” These days, we use “subversive” to describe anything or any action that helps undermine – or turn over from below -- an established institution or system. The institution could be a government or church or classroom. The system could be political or economic, or it could be personal: your own way of looking at the world, or the beliefs you’ve never questioned. A subversive book should disturb you, should – by making you uncomfortable -- create in you a rebellion of some sort; a revolution.

I was once among a group of students who met with an Irish writer named John McGahern, who is famous among Irish writers and whose work I highly recommend. He was a small man, a farmer as well as a writer, soft-spoken and generous, with little tufts of hair over his ears and very little atop his head. I don’t remember in what context McGahern said what I am about to tell you, but his words have stayed with me. He told us this: There is nothing more subversive than a person alone in a room reading a book.

Because he was Irish, I believed him. The Irish know about subversion after centuries of working it against the English government or the Roman Catholic church.

What does McGahern’s line about subversion have to do with Fahrenheit 451?

Fahrenheit 451 is about rebellion, about revolution, about subversion. And not just subversion against a government – or any institution -- that decides to burn or censor books. No, Montag, the main character, is a hero because he allows books to work their magic on him, to upset his life, to push him toward new thoughts, to turn him over, from below, and change how he lives in the world.

That’s the trick of good books. Their revolutions, their subversions, act on one reader at a time. You are the reader. The book gets inside you. Maybe you don’t understand at first, but there’s something in those pages that won’t let you go. The words, the story, muck around in your guts. The best books aren’t rarified or sacred, as it sometimes seems when English professors talk about them. Instead, they overflow with spit and blood, mud and grime. They are more the stuff of earth than of heaven. A great poet, also an Irishman, named William Butler Yeats, wrote in a poem that books begin with “a mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street, old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,” all clattering about in a place he called “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”

“The foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”

Which phrase, curiously, reminds me of what Faber, a one-time professor of English, explains to the main character, Montag, in Fahrenheit 451 about good books. Quality literature, he says, has “pores. It has features. It can go under the microscope.” Books are hated and feared, he says, “because they show the pores in the face of life.” “The comfortable people,” says Faber, “want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless.” I read that and think suddenly of the covers of magazines like Elle or Seventeen or ESPN the magazine where everyone looks perfect, expressionless, their faces air brushed into wax moons. But I think Faber’s not just talking about doctored photographs. His wax moons are a metaphor for any entertainment that reassures people the world is just as they want. They read books that confirm their beliefs; they watch cable channels that pertain only to their interests. Such people turn away – in anger or in fear – from what disturbs them. Montag’s wife, Millie, is this way. After he shows her his books, after those books spill to the floor as husband and wife fight, Millie, writes Bradbury, “sagged away from him and slid down the wall and sat on the floor looking at the books. Her foot touched one and she saw this and pulled her foot away.”

Great writing doesn’t air brush reality. It doesn’t pull its foot away from troubling questions. Great writing, because it works through imagination and prods your memory, takes you deeper into that foul rag and bone shop than do video games or movies or TV shows, which overwhelm you with sound and sight but ignore smell, taste, touch.
Faber’s defintion can be taken, I think, as Bradbury’s advice to aspiring writers. Does Bradbury, then, in Fahrenheit 451, follow his character’s good counsel? I’d say yes. We smell the kerosene that splashes from firemen’s hoses onto their gloved hands. We feel the bright heat of a house aflame on our faces. We suffer the hollowness of a man’s stomach as he realizes a woman with whom he’s shared life is no longer alive in any meaningful way, and that she will abandon and betray him.
Does that sound rarified? Well, that’s the trick of good literature. By crawling around in that old rag and bone shop it somehow manages to elevate us. Turns over our earth and suddenly vegetables and flowers and even a few mighty trees take root. Some trick. I want to talk about that trick, and how Ray Bradbury executes it.

First off, he was a reader as are all good writers. You can tell what writers he’s read because you find in his longer paragraphs, filled as they are with metaphors and similes, echoes of 19th century giants such as Melville and Hawthorne and, of course, Baltimore’s own Edgar Allen Poe whose stories hurtle out of the rag and bone shop into a reader’s darkest places. And, as with those 19th-century writers, we can say this about Bradbury:

He knows how to spin a yarn.

Fahrenheit 451 is a thriller. The main character, Montag, is already in trouble on page one, already hiding contraband books from the authorities and from his wife. Chase scenes follow, and violence and explosions.
That Montag risks his life for books makes perfect sense. He himself is a writer. Or at least, though he’s never written a word, he sees the world as poets do, and we learn that on page one with the burning of a house containing books, a pasage written by Bradbury but filtered through Montag’s heart. The sentences sound so beautiful that someone who doesn’t understand English could listen and hear music.

"It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies."

As a writer, those are sentences I live to read.

Beautiful sentences. A thrilling plot. Still not enough to raise a book from mediocre to the subversive. The book still needs a beating heart. This one has it. Montag is a fireman with a poet’s soul, but we don’t learn that through his abstract thoughts about beauty and wisdom. We learn it through his five senses. The foul rag and bone shop stuff.

Here’s an example, as Montag, wandering through a wooded wilderness outside his city, comes upon a group of men sitting around a campfire. He is used to seeing fire as something destructive, so he’s surprised to find that fire can warm people, and this knowledge transforms him, teaches him that he is, as all of us are, an animal:
He hadn’t known fire could look this way. He had never thought in his life that it could give as well as take. Even its smell was different.

"How long he stood he did not know, but there was a foolish and yet delicious sense of knowing himself as an animal come from the forest, drawn by the fire. He was a thing of brush and liquid eye, of fur and muzzle and hoof, he was a thing of horn and blood that would smell like autumn if you bled it out on the ground. He stood a long, long time, listening to the crackle of the flames.
There was a silence gathered all about that fire and the silence was in the men’s faces, and time was there, time enough to sit by this rusting track under the trees, and look at the world and turn it over with the eyes, as if it were held to the center of the bonfire, a piece of steel these men were all shaping. It was not only the fire that was different. It was the silence. Montag moved toward this special silence that was concerned with all of the world."

Time was there. Time enough to look at the world and turn it over with his eyes. And silence, a silence concerned with all the world. Time and silence. What every writer wants, what every reader craves. I read those words, and I’m reminded of those thrilling moments when my sister slept, and my brother slept, and my parents, too, and I sat up with one lamp against the darkness, a book in my lap. How powerful I was then. And that’s what John McGahern was talking about when he spoke of the most subversive thing. A person alone in a room reading a book. With time. With silence. Revolutions begin in such places. Rebellions. The greatest of all changes.

So, in the spirit of Fahrenheit 451, I urge you to start a revolution. Rebel against your own ideas of what is best to read, of what is most fun to do. Pick up a book that’s strange to you. You can do far worse than to start with this one.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

13.5 miles for literature

One of my colleagues at Towson will be running a half marathon soon to raise money for Towson University's English Department reading series. Carol Quinn directs the reading series, and greater love hath no director for her project than to pound Baltimore pavement on its behalf. Why am I not running, too? If you know me, you know I only run when there's a basketball to chase. But I am supporting Carol's efforts with cash, and you can, too. Call 443-691-9530 to help.

And here's a Web site so you can schedule your life around the upcoming readings. I have the pleasure of reading Oct. 3, along with poet Clarinda Harriss. Her latest mini-collection, Dirty Blue Voice, just came out from Half Moon Editions in Atlanta.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

If you happen to be at the Corn Palace ...

South Dakota Public Television will broadcast a June reading I gave from "House of Good Hope" at the American Indian Journalism Institute where I've been fortunate to teach the last three summers. AIJI is a terrific program that helps college students -- and particularly Native students -- to find careers in journalism. At last summer's institute I gave a reading from "House of Good Hope" and then answered questions. You can catch it on SDPB on Sunday, Sept. 16, 3 p.m. CST.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Montana Festival of the Book

I served as a volunteer for the inaugural Montana Festival of the Book back in 1999, and I'm delighted now to be invited to participate as a panelist and reader. The festival runs Sept. 13-15 in downtown Missoula, and it kicks off with Mayor John Engen leading a vocabulary game of some sort. If Hizzoner is involved, it'll be a good show. Look for me as a reader at 11 a.m. on Friday where I'll join Danell Jones
and Michael Fitzgerald. Then, on Saturday at 11 a.m., I serve on a panel called "The Reporter's Eye, the Writer's Ear" alongside Larry Watson,
Jeff Hull, Kirby Larson, and Deirdre McNamer. Sherry Devlin, my once-colleague and now editor of the Missoulian, will moderate.

Other panels I won't miss include Jeff Hull's reading (1 p.m. Saturday) and the gala reading where Dee McNamer will read from her new novel Red Rover, which earned a starred review from Publisher's Weekly.

Here's the full sked: Montana Bookfest 2007

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Running with Scissors on Towson's campus

I'm starting a new job at Towson University, teaching creative writing, including creative non-fiction, and this semester the university has invited a special guest in the world of memoir: Augusten Burroughs, author of "Running with Scissors." Consequently, I read his book. Praised for its humor and candor, the book tells of Burrough's throroughly insane childhood: the fracturing of his family; his years living with the perverted, stupid and cruel family of his mother's shrink; and incidences of sexual abuse that masquerade as loving sex with an older man.

Overall, I found the book dull: its humor was overly dependent on cultural references; the writing was verbose. Scenes in the book did trouble me, not for their brutal emotional and physical realities, but because I didn't believe them. The book's claims seemed to me so ridiculous I began to think that "Running with Scissors" was itself a clever satire of our recent spate of "woe-is-me" childhood memoirs. Time and time again, I found myself thinking, "well, this is made up." Turns out I'm late to that debate. Read here for Buzz Bissinger's excellent account in Vanity Fair about the shrink's family and the lawsuit they filed against Burroughs and his publisher for defamation. The Boston Globe has also reported on the troubling question of how memoirists treat their subjects. You'll note that Burroughs claims his book is accurate, and that the parties involved settled their lawsuit out of court.

As a former journalist, I'm all for memoirs that are accurate. I appreciate that emotional truth -- or literary truth -- can be different from fact. But emotional truths can be realized through literary techniques that do not trample on reality or on the lives of others (see the work of hundreds of other memoirists). Every effort must be given to treat the subjects of the memoir fairly. Burroughs goes so far as to have his mother-character accuse the psychiatrist-character of rape. Maybe his real mother did that, and yes the psychiatrist is dead, but why traffic in rumor and hearsay regarding such a serious crime? Read Bissinger, a Pulitzer-Prize winner and the author of "Friday Night Lights," and you might well see Burroughs as cruel rather than fair. I don't know who is more aggrieved: the boy who grew up with insanity or the family he depicted years later. But I do know that I'm weary of reading the woe-is-me memoir and wish someone would write a satire that might give us all some perspective on -- and perhaps relief from -- this genre.

Augusten Burroughs speaks at Towson University on Oct. 18.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

so Missoula

Near midnight the other day, I startled two teenage girls as they vandalized my neighbor's car, covering it in crushed eggs and two other goopy substances I didn't recognize. The girls fled into the dark night and later, as I spray-cleaned my neighbor's car with a garden hose, I discovered empty bottles tucked near his tires. "Beer bottles," I thought, but no, not in Missoula. These were the empties that had once held the goopy stuff I was now cleaning off the car windows. What could it be? Motor oil? Ink?


Only in Missoula would teenage girls commit vandalism with ORGANIC molasses and RAW, UNFILTERED honey.

The eggs probably came from steroid-free chickens.

What a place.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

It is our right; it is our duty

This morning, as on every July 4, I raised the American flag outside my front door. It's a beautiful piece of material, representing a country whose people I admire, a nation that rests on many principles I hold dear. I cherish the First Amendment, habeus corpus, our protections from unreasonable search and seizure; I love that we are a nation structured so that people of varied faiths and ethnicities live together in a relative peace. I'm grateful and aware that I was born into a country blessed with economic prosperity. But I raise the flag today with a heart full of anger and fury with the administration that currently governs the United States. This government spends billions of dollars on private contractors in Iraq, but fails to spend enough so that the poorest Americans have proper housing. This government takes unprecedented measures to keep secret its work on behalf of the people, thereby holding in contempt the very population that elected it. This government tortures people without any determination whether its victims have committed a crime, holds others in prison without trial, but commutes the sentence of its friend and ally found guilty through proper trial because "he has suffered enough."

The people of this country -- in New Orleans, in Hartford, in Lodge Grass, in Baghdad -- have all suffered enough.

Would that I could commute this administration's time in office.

This morning, with friends, I will read aloud the Declaration of Independence as I have every July 4 since 1991. It is a solemn reading of a remarkable document, and, as every year, I will be moved. But I will also be reminded that the government of the United States is our government, and that when a government's "long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce (a people) under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."

It is our right; it is our duty.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Love Under the Big Sky

Mermaids flirting with New Englanders at a Tiki Bar? The Loneliest Man in America? Immaculate conception? This is what Brian McDermott discovered while working on his graduate journalism project about Montana Love. He found a lot more than that, too, and I recommend you check out his site -- Montana Love -- to discover fine, multimedia storytelling (with the emphasis on the word storytelling). These are some of his photos (copyrighted) to entice you.

McDermott is now an out-of-work former grad student, so if you're a smart editor somewhere on the East Coast who'd like someone who can write, photograph, and work in audio, I'd recommend you chat with Brian.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Thin Ice

My wife is a writer of lovely prose. I don't mind saying so, because I know her recent essay in the book "Thin Ice: Coming of Age in Grand Rapids" proves me right. I just returned home from Grand Rapids where Sheri was among nine or so writers reading excerpts of their essays during a fun show at the Grand Rapids Public Library. Sheri's piece has as its springboard the true and peculiar family tale of Sheri's twin aunts, born premature, who spent their first days as part of the sideshow at a Grand Rapids amusement park where people paid to see the "preemies."

Our particular disappointment about the reading? Even though he has a piece in the book, the Rev. Al Green couldn't find his way north from Memphis (yes, that Al Green. He grew up in Grand Rapids) to join his fellow authors.

How can anyone mend our broken heart?

Faith and the famous

What a delight to find Cathleen Falsani's face on the front page of the May 16 USA TODAY, teasing a story about journalists who cover religion. Cathleen's book, "The God Factor" is a dynamite collection of her interviews with folks from Bono to Dusty Baker to Seamus Heaney asking them about their faith. The Christian Science Monitor named Falsani's book one of the best nonfiction books of 2006, and it has just been released in paperback. Falsani has long covered religion for the Chicago Sun-Times with freshness, candor and wit. Cathleen's husband is the inestimable Maurice Possley, kick-ass investigative reporter at the Chicago Trib, who once gave a semester to the University of Montana's School of Journalism as its T. Anthony Pollner Distinguished Professor.

The God Factor isn't theology to give Aquinas a run, but it is thoughtful people thinking about what matters to their spiritual lives.

The Greatest Show says "Check it out."

Tuesday, May 08, 2007


Brianne Burrowes, a talented former student of mine, interviewed me for articles she planned to write about House of Good Hope. You can read the transcribed interview (okay, full disclosure: I edited it) at the University of Nebraska's blog:

Read the interview

Thursday, April 26, 2007

For newspapers, books aren't -- apparently -- local

The new wave in newspaper journalism is what's called "hyper-local" coverage. The hope is that newspapers will keep readers by concentrating on what's happening in neighborhoods and towns and cities rather than paying attention to national and international affairs.

Okay. I don't agree with that, but newspaper managers and editors seem to. So, given the popularity of hyper-local, wouldn't editors want coverage of local book scenes? You'd think so, but in my town the Missoulian does very little coverage of the local book scene, which is robust and has long helped define the community, and instead uses lots of wire copy about the national scene. Local authors are often ignored. Along those same lines, we learn that the Atlanta Journal Constitution has just eliminated the position of books editor. The paper is likely to fill its book page with wire copy instead.

While in Missoula, we seem to have given up any hope that our paper will change, there's a rebellion against what's happening in Atlanta. You can join the fight.

Read about it here:

Journal Constitution closes book on editor

And sign a petition here:


Saturday, April 21, 2007

House of Good Hope, New England Tour, 2007

1. On the plane ride from Minneapolis to Hartford a woman sang a Christmas carol to me in Polish

2. Warning: at the Maple Ave. Giant Grinder shop in Hartford, Conn. what looks like a single piece of lasagna is actually a half piece.

3. On a rainy afternoon in Hartford's troubled Frog Hollow neighborhood, a man backed his yellow Nissan X-Terra into my rented PT Cruiser. Later, our problems resolved, he gave me a bottle of Poland Springs water and called me a "nice Irish man."

4. A wild turkey with an attitude ruffled himself up and beak-pecked at the basement window in my friends' Glastonbury house as we watched. No damage to the window.

5. The fierce Nor' Easter that hit Connecticut so flooded the Connecticut River that the riverside park disappeared beneath water, the only sign of it the occasional lampost along a sidewalk.

6. Rain kept falling, and my friend Mary used a carpet cleaner to suck water that had seeped through an unsettled door into the carpet in her home office.

7. Why we can't always trust bureaucratic documents: my cousin Peter Urbanik found one about his Catholic grandfather that called him "Hebrew."

8. My friend, Eric Shorter, who is featured in "House of Good Hope" as a man dreaming of building his own house with a jacuzzi, now owns a house with a jacuzzi. On the tub edge rest these large words carved from wood or shaped from metal: "Dream" and "Believe."

9. Joshua Hall Jr., the beautiful infant son of Joshua Hall (also featured in the book) gets to listen to XM Classical music while waiting for sleep to come.

10. When the bookstore RJ Julia offered me my choice of one book for having read in their store, I chose Jhumpa Lahiri's "Interpreter of Maladies."

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Quilt Love

If you'd like to know more about the quilt that covers "House of Good Hope," you can link to the home page of quilt artist Ed Johnetta Miller at her online gallery.

. If you'd like to learn more about African-American quilting in general, I'd recommend my fellow blogspotter:


Kyra Hicks keeps a wonderful blog, informative and dynamic. Enjoy!