Tag Archives: books

Books: The 3800 block of San Diego’s 5th Avenue in Hillcrest


Bookseller Jan Tonnesen thumbs through a first edition Dr. Suess book at 5th Avenue Books in San Diego, Calif., earlier this month. Fifth Avenue Books is one of two terrific bookstores on the 3800 block of 5th Avenue in the Hillcrest area. The other is Bluestocking books, almost directly across the street. Photo by John Doucette.

SAN DIEGO, Calif. – Folks here said the number of bookstores in the city has dwindled in recent years, but I had time during a recent work trip to visit two terrific shops on opposite sides of 5th Avenue in the Hillcrest area – 5th Avenue Books, which sells used, and Bluestocking Books, which sells a mix of new and used.

The former Borders location in Gaslamp notably lay empty, which is not unlike an awful lot of towns, but a big recent loss for rare and used book hunters fond independent sellers was the ultimate shuttering of Wahrenbrock’s Book House, following the 2008 death of its owner. But a few shops are still going, including in and around Hillcrest, and I keep hoping people will rediscover the joy of going to a cool bookstore and finding either something wanted or something you didn’t know you needed.

With 5th Avenue and Bluestocking so close, I urge them to mate and make some beautiful new bookstores. I’m not 100 percent certain of the science behind my proposal. Regardless, the Hillcrest Town Council should petition the City Council to fund the purchase of a huge scented candle, as well as the rental of a Commodores cover band to play an autumn evening set in the middle of the avenue. Just see where it goes, San Diego. Let’s see them try to resist the silky allure of 1978’s “Say Yeah.”

Anyway. I visited Bluestocking first, where owner Kris Nelson said the store’s name roughly means “oddball,” and also refers to an intellectual woman. There’s also a brief history of the term at the store site. The number is (619) 296-1424, and they have a Facebook fan site at this link. I browsed fiction, mostly, then compulsively bought a Tim Seibles poetry collection, which you can look forward to among the prizes for next year’s Fortune Cookie Fortune Writing Contest. Say, did you hear about the National Book Award nominations yet? Still cool.

Nelson said the store has a fairly simple philosophy:

Come as you are. Dress how you want. Why can’t we all just be equal?

She’s had the store for 13 years, though there’s been a bookstore here since the 1960s.

I love our neighborhood. It’s still a great walking neighborhood with trees. It’s a very tolerant neighborhood.

She even met her husband here in the store, when he showed up for a poetry reading and then bought a book. The store is doing well, she noted, in part due to the shuttering of Borders — similar to what I heard at an independent store in Rhode Island last year.

We’ve seen a bump. We’ve also seen a bump because some of the used stores have been closing, which is sad.

Bluestocking bookseller Dawn Marie said:

A lot of the bookstores we used to have closed, but so has Borders. There’s one Barnes & Noble, and they’ve really cut back.

In addition to new books, Bluestocking has taken on services such as handling magazine subscriptions. Said Marie:

It boils down to where can [customers] get the services they need? And that’s what lets us grow. There’s still growth happening, but its stores that are really service-oriented.

Bluestocking Books exterior.

Kris Nelson, owner of Bluestocking Books in the Hillcrest neighborhood of San Diego, Calif.

Bluestocking Books.

Bluestocking Books interior.

I didn’t have time to venture out to other recommended shops — Adams Avenue Book Store in Normal Heights and D.G. Wills Books in La Jolla [the latter has a Loeb Classical Library and Western Philosophy wall and, man, check out their YouTube channel] — but I loved San Diego like stupid loves low expectations. I aim to be back, and also aim to check these spots out.

That said, I found so much great stuff at Bluestocking Books and 5th Avenue Books, I ended up with a challenging carry-on situation for the flight back to Virginia. There are worse problems to have.

Across the street from Bluestocking, I spoke with Jan Tonnesen, a bookseller at 5th Avenue Books. He worked for three decades at Wahrenbrock’s before it closed.

Fifth Avenue Books holds down a big, open space at 3838 5th Ave., with some back rooms, too. The number is (619) 291-4660 and they have a Facebook fan page at this link. I ended up choosing some Modern Library volumes, including the first San Diego-bought book I started reading on the ride home — a very nice copy of The Decameron.

Tonnesen, back when he worked at Wahrenbrock’s, witnessed the late pop star Michael Jackson on a shopping spree there. His bill topped $1,700. This was by far the coolest story I heard in San Diego. Said Tonnesen:

I spent about 20 minutes alone with him in the rare books room. He wore a red silk shirt and a red surgical mask to match.

I suggested Tonnesen had a pretty good title for a memoir: I Spent 20 Minutes Alone with Michael Jackson in the Rare Books Room: A Survivor’s Story. Kind of sells itself.

I like it. Thanks.

When was that?

Oh, God. I don’t know. It was at least 15 years ago.

Before he died.

I hope so.

5th Avenue Books exterior.

5th Avenue Books interior.

A lion watches over a bookshelf at 5th Avenue Books in the Hillcrest area of San Diego, Calif.

Some nifty sketches at 5th Avenue Books included this one of Papa.

A brief epilogue:

The photos with this post are with my iPhone, so the indoor ones are a little grainy and blurry; sorry. But I want to make it up to you. I’m lighting a candle for you, bookstores.

And now it smells all like cinnamon, with just a hint of possibility.

Say, what’s that I hear from the middle of 5th Avenue?

Oh my:

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Books: An eye on Myopic Books in Providence’s Wayland Square


PROVIDENCE, R.I. — This is the second of two posts on the book stores in Wayland Square on the East Side. The first post featured Books on the Square, an independent bookseller, and this one features Myopic Books, a used and rare book shop with more than 25,000 volumes.

The store is owned by Kristin Sollenberger, a visual artist and businesswoman who studied at Rhode Island School of Design. Wayland Square is near RISD and Brown, and it’s a great place to walk around — and between Books on the Square and Myopic Books it’s a great place to buy books. Sollenberger said:

I think people are lucky to have both of us in this area.

Her shop has been open since 1996. Its emphasis, as per the web page, is “scholarly books, literature and books on the arts.” I enjoyed the philosophy and biography sections, picking up a few biographies for me and a copy of Poetics for my dad. There was a great selection of Loeb classical library books, too.

Kristin Sollenberger, owner of Myopic Books in Providence, R.I.

There’s art throughout — no surprise — including art featuring eyeballs, hand-made cards made from “book debris,” and an “Art-O-Mat,” which dispenses original artworks. And, though best enjoyed in better weather than the cold spell when I was around, a courtyard out back.

The name of the store originated with Sollenberger’s hand-made card company. The name, she said, reflects this:

It’s sort of my vision, which may be tunnel vision of what a good book should be that I should have on my shelves.

Sollenberger, who has a painting degree, worked at another bookshop, managing a cafe. She bought out the inventory when that shop closed to open Myopic Books. She said:

I just liked books. I have ever since I discovered used bookstores. You never know what you can find going to used bookstores.

The day I visited she sported a slight black eye — a book-shelving wound.

I was at the top shelf. One tipped over and hit me in the eye. It was up beyond my reach.

She also opened a store in Wakefield, R.I., which lasted about two years.

I kind of had to move two stores into one.

Myopic shows it. The place it packed with books. The store has done well in Wayland Square, and Sollenberger had a great holiday season. I asked about how business stays strong.

I feel I was very lucky getting this location. And being selective about inventory, and keeping it moving.

In addition to the cards, there were some craft-style artworks for sale on the wall when I visited. But the business is books,despite the artistic touches around the shop. Sollenberger said:

I guess since I don’t have much time for my artwork, this is like my artwork.

And a couple of young men came in to sell books, and the owner bought a few — keeping it moving.

Myopic Books, at 5 S. Angell St., can be reached via (401) 521-5533. The website can be found at this link. For the first post, follow this link.

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Books: A community’s independent shop, and life without Borders


A customer reads in the front section of Books on the Square, an independent book shop in the Wayland Square neighborhood on Providence, R.I. Photo by John Doucette.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The Wayland Square neighborhood on this city’s East Side is a great place to be a book hunter. The area has two terrific book shops, the independent bookstore Books on the Square and the rare and used shop Myopic Books.

I visited both while I was home in Rhode Island for the holidays. This post focuses on Books on the Square, and another post on Myopic Books will follow in the next few days,

I got the dime tour over the holidays from Chris Byrnes, a bookseller and leader of three of the shop’s weekly story times. Video follows:

This past summer, two Borders locations in the area closed. In July, Books on the Square manager Jennifer Doucette (no relation) told Publishers Weekly that Borders had not had much effect on business:

Our store is really blessed. We’re in a great neighborhood with lots of families walking around. We’re up, just a little bit, and we just renewed our lease for another five years.

Since the Borders closed, business has been strong. Aside from the book store at Brown University, Byrnes noted:

When it comes to Providence, we’re kind of it for new books.

Bookseller John Duvernoy.

Brooke Huminski, a regular customer at Books on the Square, shops.

The shop is designed for community involvement, and it hosts story times for kids, a variety of reading groups, a discussion of ideas called the Socrates Cafe, and even community meetings. Byrnes said Doucette put the central book racks on wheels, so they can be moved aside for large events. And the shop has a large children’s section, a point of pride. Byrnes said:

We want to create a place where people can relax and not be part of the rat race. They can come and pick up a book or a magazine.

Brooke Huminski, a graduate student studying social work, is a regular. She said:

I love this bookstore. There’s a personal feel to it and a lot of community events.You can find things in it from best sellers to idiosyncratic books.

Customer Bill Dilworth added:

I like supporting local businesses, and this has books you might not see at chain stores.

I asked Dilworth about being in neighborhood with two great bookstores. He replied:

It’s impoverishing. If I go into either of these places just to look, I almost invariably get something I didn’t intend to purchase.

Books on the Square is at 471 Angell St. on Providence’s East Side. Find out more about the shop via its website at this link. A post on Myopic Books is forthcoming.

Customer Bill Dilworth checks out the selection at Books on the Square.

Booksellers Chris Byrnes and Richard Scott.

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Writing Craft, Vol. IV: Author and journalist Earl Swift


There's a world outside every darkened door/Where blues won't haunt you anymore/For the brave are free and lovers soar/Come ride with me to the distant shore/Here's a picture of Earl Swift/(Chorus) Life is a highway/I wanna ride it all night long/Photo by John Doucette

Back when Norfolk, Va., journalist and author Earl Swift was kind enough to participate in a mighty fun Belligerent Q&A here at the blog, I promised a more serious craft talk with him would follow.

This is it, starting below, and it couldn’t come at a better time.

His new film, in which anthropomorphic cars engage in an international spy adventure, has earned nearly $287 million at the international box office. This, despite the regrettable preproduction death of Paul Newman and the doubly regrettable continued involvement of Larry the Cable Guy, whose every utterance is the tonal reproduction of the sound a banshee makes when kicked in the throat. Oh, wait.

Yeah, I’m think of that new Pixar money grab. Swift wrote a terrific book that is 100 percent Larry the Cable Guy free.

His The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways, had its latest strong review in The New York Times this weekend.

Swift, formerly of The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, is also author of Journey on the JamesWhere They Lay, and The Tangierman’s Lament and Other Tales of Virginia. The Big Roads also has received favorable reviews in The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.

And, by way of full disclosure, Swift and I are friends. Without further ado …   

Q: Can you talk about how (The Big Roads) came about? What got you interested in the interstate system as a history?

Well, I’ve always loved road trips, and I’ve always been a bit of a techno-geek; I could identify most airliners by name, model number and manufacturer by the time I was ten, and could ID close to every tank used in World War II at 11 or 12. I could name pretty much every country on a globe, too. Some kids play sports; I memorized cubic yards of weird, arcane, seemingly useless crap.

I was fascinated to learn, at about the time I was perfecting my knowledge of tanks, that the interstate system boasted a numbering protocol, and I made it my business to commit some of the principal routes and numbers to memory. This was completely extraneous to my needs: I was years from getting my driver’s license; even when I got it, knowing such stuff came in handy only once in a very great while. Mostly, it occupied brain space that I would have done well to reserve for other matters. Calculus, for instance.

Fast-forward 30 years, and I’m watching a TV meteorologist serve up the morning weather, and I notice that his map of the Lower 48 has been reduced to its barest essentials—a few cities, the boundaries of the various states. And lastly, the interstate highways. At one point, any national map would have included principal rivers and mountain ranges. No longer: It features no topography at all.

It strikes me that I’ve come to see the country the same way, as a grid of high-speed roads. And that ushers a chain of mini-epiphanies: In the supermarket, I realize I can buy fresh asparagus and clementines and strawberries the year round; that a widescreen TV sells for about the same price in North Platte, Neb., say, as it does in New York; that Virginia Beach, the ultimate bedroom community, a quiltwork of subdivisions that covers a couple hundred square miles, was swamp and truck farms until the 1970s. Superhighways — the efficiency and ease of movement they offer — are the reason for all.

Not long after, I’m talking to an editor at Houghton Mifflin, an incredibly smart and gifted guy named Eamon Dolan. He’s been reading a proposal of mine in which I’ve pitched an entirely different book, and suggests that I instead tackle the interstates. It occurs to me that I’ve been preparing for the story. So I say: ‘OK.’

Q: There’s a great deal of history that coincides with your present-day reporting in Journey on the James, Where They Lay, and now (to some extent) this project, as well as some of your narrative features for The Pilot. What is it that draws you to history?

Living in Virginia, and especially in Norfolk — which has been settled since the 17th Century, and where every piece of property has been used and reused several times over — it’s hard to ignore the notion that our individual stories are part of a greater, never-ending narrative, and that each individual story is affected by those that came before and reverberates in some way to affect what comes after.

I find it reassuring, this idea that we’re all connected through time — that the environment in which we pass our days in 2011 is no accident, but the sum of human enterprise over centuries. And that each of us, however big or small our lives might seem, leaves a mark.

Q: This clearly was a very research and reporting-intensive project. Would you please talk about how you began this process? How did you determine where to gather records, and what was that process like?

In that it was Eamon’s idea, I had to figure out what the story was — like most Americans, I assumed that the interstates were a product of the Eisenhower administration, and that they were largely a civil defense project. It took about 18 months to figure out that they really dated to the 1930s, and were based on ideas that harkened a lot further back than that.

I started by reading everything I could get my hands on that had been published before, from Caro’s The Power Broker to Phil Patton’s Open Road to Jane Fisher’s Fabulous Hoosier. From there, I moved on to academic journals, then magazines. I was well aware that a book about an inanimate object, no matter how huge or compelling that object might be, wasn’t going to fly, so most of that early research was aimed at identifying a handful of characters through whom I could tell the object’s story.

Eventually, I had four main players. Carl Fisher, a wild man from Indianapolis, would get things started: In 1912, he proposed the first coast-to-coast motor road, the Lincoln Highway, and in so doing inspired the creation of a primitive, mostly dirt web of privately sponsored ‘auto trails’ in the teens and early twenties — the country’s first interstate road network. Thomas MacDonald, a preternaturally uptight engineer who led the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads, turned that network into a rational, numbered system in the late 1920s, then oversaw the research and assembled the policy that yielded the concept of interstate expressways in the late 1930s. Frank Turner, MacDonald’s quiet, teetotaler protégé, took that concept and translated it into concrete and steel in the 1950s and 1960s. And Lewis Mumford, a writer and amateur urban planner, was among the first proponents of what we now know as limited-access superhighways, then evolved into their harshest critic — and in both roles helped shape what we got.

I fleshed out all four through their papers, which are kept by university libraries scattered around the country, and through their families, who supplied me with letters, photos and such. I wound up with more than 10 cubic feet of papers.

I didn’t settle on the last main character, a Baltimore homeowner named Joe Wiles, until six months before I finished the first draft. I knew I needed a character who represented the thousands forced from their homes when interstate highway construction ventured into America’s cities, but considered several cities as the setting for that drama before settling on Baltimore. Even then, I had another character in mind — Barbara Mikulski, now a U.S. senator, who by reputation helped lead the fight against the concrete juggernaut. The senator’s staff repeatedly promised that I’d get face time with her, and repeatedly failed to deliver. That turned out to be a favor to me: My research was to show me that her leadership of the fight has been overstated. In her place, I chose Wiles, who was in the thick of Baltimore’s ‘Road Wars’ from the start.

Q: I’ve always been impressed at your early research. What I mean is, you seem to have always done a lot of homework before picking up the phone to do interviews or heading to a location to report or pull records. Can you talk about preparation and planning in reporting?

Interviewing is an organic process. The more you know, the better your questions will be, and the better your subject’s answers will be — which will yield better follow-up questions, and enable the two of you to get into territory you’d never reach if you, the reporter, came into the conversation knowing nothing.

But beyond that, it’s a question of respect. You’re asking somebody to give you something you want but don’t have. It establishes that you value that gift, and that you’re serious about putting it to its fullest possible use, when you’ve done your homework beforehand. Fail to do it, and you broadcast to your subject that he or she is of little importance to you.

I’ve heard some journalists say they don’t prep ahead of an interview because they don’t want to be ‘tainted’ by research. I think anyone who suggests that winging it beats preparation is a fool.

Q: Could you talk about how you organized the narrative? Did you do a lot of outlining? Did you plan out the ways you foreshadow some of the events that take place later in the narrative, such as the events in Baltimore, or does that tend to take shape naturally?

I did do a lot of outlining. I’m a bit of a freak for structure: I believe that it dictates whether a story works. The skeleton is key: Pretty words are all well and good, but they’re like nice skin — they can’t obscure the presence of ugly bones.

This book’s structure morphed substantially over the three drafts I took it through. Initially, I had all five main characters making their first appearances early on, and kept the narrative threads braiding through the whole story. My editors at Houghton, who were terrific, suggested that instead I should introduce each character at the point at which he reached prominence. I wound up with a hybrid of the two structures, in that I had some of the characters make cameos ahead of their full-on entries.

At one point, I was all but committed to using Washington, D.C., as my setting for the freeway revolt. I liked the idea that the protests there occurred within sight and earshot of the guys pushing the highways into town. But Baltimore came to make more sense to me, because it was the example that the Bureau of Public Roads used, back in the 1930s, of a city that would benefit from the interstates — and as things turned out, it’s one of the few major cities in the country that is not penetrated by them.

Q: You demonstrate very clearly that Eisenhower was not the father of the interstate system, and that thought is a kind of mythology. Was this something you understood going in, or did it come in your research? Have you had any feedback on this aspect of the book? It seems like something that would be widely known to engineers, let less so in popular memory of the interstate system.

I didn’t understand it going in; the research made it plain. It’s funny: A good many highway engineers know of Toll Roads and Free Roads, the 1939 report that served as a rough draft for the interstates. They know of Interregional Highways, the report that amounts to an actual blueprint of the system, and in response to which Congress authorized the network in 1944. Still, if you were to ask them, whether employed by the federal government or the states, who is most responsible for the system, a bunch would answer, ‘Eisenhower.’

Q: The placement of this discussion isn’t exactly a revelation, as it is mentioned briefly early on (7), but it’s meat comes roughly 150 pages in, after you have demonstrated the fathers of the system – “career technocrats” – laying out the groundwork. That was an interesting choice that seemed very natural when I reread the selection in the context of the earlier chapters. Then you reinforce it at least two or three times by noting Ike’s absences on major policy events involving the highways.  Can you talk about how you determine what information supports what is a fairly major point, and how you decided to lay it out within the text?

Insofar as this is the story of how the highways came to be, and not a hatchet job on Ike, I didn’t see much need to burden the reader with an opening rant over his being given unjust credit for the interstates early on. I laid out the story in a fairly straight, chronological line, and built a case for who really authored the system simply by relating their acts in the order they occurred; by the time you come to Ike, it’s quite apparent that he’s arrived too late to play a substantial role.

Q: One cost of the highway system in urban areas was the removal of people in slums and struggling neighborhoods to make way for roads. You mention this issue throughout the book, even stressing that urban renewal efforts involving highways target neighborhoods but fail to address the human toll. One of you most compelling examples of the human cost is in Baltimore, where the effect of a planned highway is shown through a middle class black community. What led to this choice? What was it about Joe Wiles and the Rosemont community that led you to use them to illustrate a larger point?

The main argument for Baltimore, from a storytelling standpoint, is that it was the hometown of Herbert Fairbank, who wrote the bulk of Toll Roads and Free Roads and was the ideological brains behind the interstate system. Fairbank used Baltimore in the report as an example of a central city wasting in blight, choked by traffic on colonial-era streets, and losing population and influence to its suburbs—then proposed that encircling the city with a beltway and penetrating its heart with a spray of radial expressways might not only unclog its arteries, but provide a handy tool for clearing slums.

Baltimore was thus the first city of the interstate age, the test case. For my purposes, it was all to the better that it’s also a pretty cranky place, and that the interstates envisioned for it were met with 30 years of protest so harsh that the plans were ultimately abandoned.

Q: Were you aware of Thomas MacDonald and the role he played shepherding the interstate system before you worked on the book?

I’d never heard of the guy.

Q: Though you discuss the shortcomings of engineers behind the system, and unintended consequences of the system, you seem to have an appreciation for Frank Turner, who lost property to a highway and simply accepted that his parents would have to move for a road project – and never used this fact to gain favor or understanding in his role with the system. And then there’s a really poignant moment toward the end of the book that I don’t want to spoil for those who have not read it. Turner, as much as anyone in the book, seems fully realized as a character within the narrative – yet he is someone dramatically different and perhaps harder to bring to life than a showman and businessman such as Carl Fisher. How did you find these stories in your reporting and decide how to deploy them?

As you suggest, Fisher was easy—the guy was a total maniac, each of his ventures bigger and scarier than the last, his every word grist for the newspapers. He was way beyond a risk-taker; he could be downright reckless. That said, he was no dummy, and he had great instincts. I had a lot of fun digging into his past.

Writing about someone who lives a comparatively quiet and careful life is always tougher. Frank Turner was especially so, because he was so damn good — a man whose heart was almost always in the right place, and who didn’t think too much of himself, and who was a loving and responsible husband and father, and who was good at his job and decent to the people who worked for him.

Lucky for me, he left a hell of a paper trail, along with three children and a large number of friends and colleagues I was able to interview. He also sat for several long interviews, the transcripts of which were in his papers at Texas A&M. They were invaluable.

Creating a real character out of him — and of Thomas MacDonald, for that matter — relied on inculcating the reader with an engineering mindset. I hope I was able to pull that off. Engineers get a bad rap as overly sober, numbers-driven, careful. The best of them are, in fact, enormously creative. They’re puzzle-solvers.

Q: I understand you have some magazines stories in the works, as well as another book. Will you please talk about what you’re working on?

I’m halfway through a book about a local man named Tommy Arney, and his struggle to restore an old car. There’s a lot more to it than that, but I don’t like to talk up a project until it’s farther along. I have another book in the outlining stage that’s completely unrelated to cars or transportation — it’s set in the Deep South in the 1910s and 1920s.

Besides that, I’ve been writing for Popular Mechanics and doing a lot of radio interviews. Not least, by any means, I’ve been finishing an MFA in nonfiction at Goucher College; I’ll be heading up to Baltimore to collect my degree in August. What a great program. I’m going to miss it.

After that, I hope, I’ll be back to writing full-time.

You can find out a bit more about Swift here at this link to his site.

And I urge you to pick up The Big Roads. It’s a great read.

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Earl Swift, author of The Big Roads, reads Thursday at Prince Books


Norfolk, Va., author Earl Swift on Thursday will read, take questions, and sign copies of his new book,
The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways.

The event is 7 p.m., Thursday, June 30, at Prince Books, 109 E. Main St., Norfolk.

Also, on Wednesday, June 29, Swift is scheduled to do an hour with Hampton Roads radio personality Tony Macrini on Newsradio 790 AM WNIS. Swift expects to be on at 9 a.m.

Swift, formerly of The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, is a journalist and author of Journey on the JamesWhere They Lay, and The Tangierman’s Lament and Other Tales of Virginia.

The Big Roads has received favorable reviews from Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post, Patrick Cooke in The Wall Street Journal, and in The Pilot. It also is among the summer reading “treats” listed by the Charlotte Observer. Some other reviews are forthcoming this summer.

Said Swift:

This has been an unusual experience for me. I’ve never had a book get this much attention.

For what it’s worth, that may be because it’s freaking terrific. Finished it last week. Highly recommended.

For those interested in inspired silliness, Swift recently participated in a Belligerent Q&A that can be found at this link, the most popular Q&A to date here. I hope to have more with Swift at the blog in the near future.

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Twelve journalism truths by William Ruehlmann


William Ruehlmann retired this year after 18 years teaching journalism and communications at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, Va., and I recently wrote about his work here.

Ruehlmann is the author of Saint With a Gun: The Unlawful American Private Eye, The Feature Story Strikes Back (written for the Society for Collegiate Journalists), and Stalking the Feature Story. The latter is a terrific book about writing and reporting for a newspaper. It has a keen eye toward finding and executing the stories that become great features. It has a spot of honor on my office bookshelf.

I’m not the only fan. A fellow VWC alum recently noted that upon arriving at an internship, an editor handed her a copy of the book. And a reader left a neat comment and a question in the comments of my last post. Addressing Ruehlmann, David Wilson wrote:

Stalking the Feature Story is a book that gripped me way back in 1981, when I was a journalism major at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark. After all these years, I keep it on my shelf as one of my favorites on writing. It is definitely among the best. I have a doctorate in educational leadership and work as one of the assistant principals at Jefferson City High School in Jefferson City, Mo. One of the duties I enjoy the most is writing and editing staff newsletters. Your work has helped me tremendously and is much appreciated. Any chance you will be writing another book on journalism?

I put the question to Dr. R. His reply:

(I) appreciate your friend’s approval of Stalking, but no other journalism books planned, though writing will go on in various venues.

You can track down copies of Stalking the Feature Story through sites such as Amazon and Bookfinder, among others. I highly recommend it for those in the business of newspapering or simply writing better stories of any kind. It’s useful. Great read, too.

I recently revisited Stalking the Feature Story, as I have from time to time, and pulled out some cool lines Ruehlmann wrote that are as great and true as anything you’ll find in any other book on writing. These quotes are just a hint of the great professor I was lucky enough to have at VWC.

1. On inspiration:

Read everything. Observe everything. Become earth’s well-travelled eavesdropper. The stories aren’t scarse – they’re too plentiful.

2. On hard work:

The engine started daily runs the most reliably.

3. On reading pretty much everything as research:

That is to say, from now on you are never off duty. Your mind never runs on automatic pilot. In everything you see and read, you are subtly digging.

4. On keeping your eyes open:

What’s worth seeing on the way to work? Simply everything. A world is waiting for those with the eyes to see it; the writer knows that the miraculous happens routinely, the extraordinary is commonplace. … All of this is material. It’s around you, too. You are no longer a pedestrian – you are a witness.

5. On the difference between a writer and a reporter:

If you remain merely a writer – that is, one more consistently at home in the library than on the street – you are not going to get the kinds of stories that matter in this business. You must take the native curiosity of the scholar out into the field and approach the pauper and politico with equal persistence. There will be those who won’t want to talk to you. You’re going to have to go through them to get the story.

6. On accuracy for and honesty with the reader:

If you like to improve on reality and dress up quotes to make a better story, perhaps you’d better get back to that Gothic romance you were thinking of writing.

7. On healthy skepticism:

Trust nobody.

The copy you turn out is your best testimony to the truth, so you have to be very careful what you believe. Even if your sources are honest – and some of them won’t be – they have a way of getting matters mixed up. You’re going to need corroboration to protect yourself not so much from mendacity as from human error.

Legend are the eyewitnesses at the scene of any situation. One will tell you the mugger was a fat man in an Afro who left in an emerald green sedan; another will insist he was a skinny bald guy who escaped on foot. Both are absolutely convinced they are right. Chances are fair the mugger was a woman who took off in a taxi. This is the kind of thing that keeps detectives and reporters amused.

8. On focused, but still expressive writing:

Albert Einstein once explained his theory of relativity to someone on a moving train by asking, “When does the next town get here?”

If it can’t be stated clearly and simply, an idea is not profound. It is merely uninformed.

9. On showing rather than telling:

A writer is a performer who must never ask for the reader’s emotion. He or she must earn it.

10. On economy:

Delete excess.

11. On starting strong:

(W)riting an effective story is like facing a mean drunk twice your size. You’d better get in the first punch, and it had better be a damned good one, or he’ll chew you up. And he won’t even remember in the morning.

12. On finishing strong:

If you want to maximize the force of your piece, the knockout must come at the end.

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Belligerent Q&A, Vol. VIII: Earl Swift, author of The Big Roads


You are a saucy one, Earl Swift, Norfolk, Va., journalist and author of The Big Roads. Even when I crop out your tiny brass-studded leather novelty fez. Photo by John Doucette.

I pulled up to Crumbling Swift Manor in Norfolk, Va., in the warm evening air, my pad in pocket, pen in trembling hand. When I knocked, a petite dog announced my visit. Her master approached.

Earl Swift, former journalist and feature writer at The Virginian-Pilot, author of The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways. A book with words, many words, words in a certain order of his own design so as to form a story about a topic that people can read after they buy it when it is released on Thursday.

Swift opened the door slowly, yet assuredly. He wore writerly intensity as plainly as a dancer in the All-Cowboy Revue might wear chaps and a red bandana mask. Briskly, we toured the manor house, a parade of wonders – a library containing what could only be called books, a dining room in which meals are eaten atop a table, a kitchen in which food is stored and prepared prior to the very meals that are eaten by people in the house.

Silkily, as he led me through his spacious home, I imagined an imaginary stable boy imaginarily saddling horses that did not exist in the pretend stables. No. Not horses. War-painted camels. Yes.

Those.

And then we were in his office. Where calls are made, a keyboard fingered, electrons spun into nonfiction gold. Overhead, above this hub of composition and concoction, was a handsome chandelier. No doubt his firmest demand of the landlord, made while the imaginary stable boy, awaiting the landlord’s pretend response, trembled, as had my hand, holding my pen in anticipation of this very moment. I demand, he must have said, this Earl Swift fellow, a chandelier above my writing space.

He signed a copy of The Big Roads, blowing gently upon the fiery ink that bore his cursive mark, this signed book so blessed, a prize to be won in the upcoming 2011 Fortune Cookie Fortune Writing Contest, which continues until June 15 at this very swanky online foolishness disseminator.

Or you could buy your own copy. Again, it goes on sale Thursday.

I took in his garb. Rugged. Manly. As though the conjoined lovechildren of L.L.Bean and American Eagle conspired to outfit Hemingway for his last great safari to a public park in Key West. Of course. Swift, who ventured along a mighty Virginia river for Journey on the James and tromped through faraway lands to report Where They Lay, deserved no less. His shorts were khaki, his polo cobalt blue. I announced this finding, much as Jonas Salk must have exclaimed, “I think we got this polio deal licked!”

Swift replied:

This is not cobalt blue. Maybe Columbia blue.

Columbia blue it was. I tried to note the rest of his clothes, but as I bent low to read the words on the back of his adventure sneakers, he spun away, as magically as someone pivoting using a combination of their legs and torso in the holy congress of simple movement. Alas, in determining the needed detail of his wardrobe, my welcome had expired like overindulgent rock star upon regurgitated Jack Daniels.

Point being, this Belligerent Q&A was conducted via email later.

Q: Just who do you think you are? Please use three examples in your response.

You know, if you added ‘young man’ to the end of that question, you could be my mom just after my eighth-grade science project went bad in the kitchen and those things got loose.

Or Sister Mary Michael, the headmistress of St. James Primary School in Twickenham, a suburb of London, where I attended the third through fifth grades and was regularly beaten on the back of my thighs with metal-edged rulers, and yanked to my tiptoes by my proto-sideburns, and where Sister Mary Michael (who had so lavish a mustache that it would arrest the blade of my 6.5-horse Honda self-propelled mower) once thrashed me with the sneaker of a four-year-old.

Or Dennis Tenney, graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan, self-described “song series poet,” and author of The Song of Eisenhower (New York: Whittier Books, 1956), whom I’m confident used the phrase often—though, it must be said, not to me personally.

Q: Your new book is called The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways. That’s quite a subtitle. Were there any words left for the rest of the book?

A few. Though I didn’t use them. I’m pretty strict when it comes to the thematic programming of a story. I pick a few notes, and play them over and over. Like in Close Encounters. Only more realistic: I wouldn’t have some French guy running NASA.

Q: You pull the “myth” of Eisenhower as father of the Interstate system apart a bit with your reporting. So didn’t Ike do anything? Like hire a cousin for a paving contract?

I doubt he resorted to cousins. He had an extremely large immediate family, including a number of siblings with interesting nicknames, among which were Bike, and Fike, and Pike, and Wendy.

Ike was busy while president. He made bald sexy as hell; that took time. So did convalescing.

Q: If they make this one into a movie, who would you like to play I-70?

Gene Hackman. He has the reach. I can see him snaking through Glenwood Canyon. Rolling with the Missouri pastureland. And no one else could deliver Wheeling so full-force to the screen.

Q: Since I’ve known you through The Pilot, I’ve admired the way you handle complex subjects and can incorporate a number of sources/characters into such stories in ways that serve the overarching narrative. What does that sentence I just typed mean?

Is ‘overarching narrative’ the same as ‘narrative arc’? Using one of those phrases will get one’s ass kicked in South Norfolk, though I can’t remember which. In case you wondered, that’s why I’ve been avoiding the Campostella Bridge.

Q: Tell me about this Thomas MacDonald fellow. Is he why I can’t get off I-264 at Independence during rush hour? Or was that Herbert Fairbank? Were they the guys who made I-95 suck, especially in Connecticut?

Those men stayed out of Connecticut. Moreover, they forged a pact, early in their working lives, to avoid Rhode Island, as well one might; to get to Boston, they had to drive around. Did you notice my use of ‘moreover’? That’s how you can tell I’m a journalist.

Q: You contend that “we’ll be pumping more money, a lot more money, into the (interstate) network in the years to come” for maintenance alone. Why not ignore it? That seems to be working out great on Social Security.

You raise an excellent point. And remarkably, you raise it in 13-point Lucida Grande. I know of few others who would be so bold.

Q: What was it like collaborating with Ted Danson?

We spent a lot of time on his boat, The Decimator. It had five or six staterooms and a full disco staffed by snug-shirted eastern Europeans. I’m pretty sure most were Hungarian. Plus, of course, the boat’s rigged to pull a purse seine, so the food was great. Ted’s an excellent actor and a fine influence on young people. And when it comes to Pilates – I mean, he could turn professional.

Q: How do you like being interviewed by people who have not read the book?

What did you think of that one part where Ike eats the lemon meringue with his hands? It continues to surprise me that the incident had such a lasting effect on our infrastructure.

Q: Why should we read your book, which all its facts, research, perspective, and storytelling, when there are other books that won’t challenge my assumptions that everything is totally cool, that the landscape hasn’t been that radically changed by the de-centering of communities into suburban sprawl, and everybody just chill don’t worry about it we got a Chipotle coming in near the Wal-Mart?

Are you sure? Is the Chipotle really coming? I’d heard rumors. Man. You’re positive? Hold on a minute. I have to make some calls.

Q: We’ve covered so much ground here. What else would you like to say?

It’s always a pleasure to talk craft with you.

I’ll follow up with a real craft talk with Swift in the near future.

Some early reviews are in for The Big Roads, including this one by Jonathan Yardley for The Washington Post and this one by Patrick Cooke for The Wall Street Journal. Locally, the book is in stock at Prince Books in downtown Norfolk and will be available at other fine local bookstores.

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Ted Danson reschedules Norfolk appearance at Prince Books


I never wanted to be a photo cutline. I just wanted to be close to Norfolk, Va., author Mike D'Orso. Photo by John Doucette.

It’s back on, baby.

Ran into Prince Books owner Sarah Pishko this evening in Norfolk, Va., where it is always sunny except when it is not, and she said Ted Danson is scheduled to come to Norfolk next month. And so it’s sunny again.

As you may recall, Danson had to cancel a planned visit in support of his recent writing project with local writer Mike D’Orso, Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them.

Danson was called away suddenly to battle the Yakuza, all of it at once, with his mighty anti-Yakuza Level 5 Power Handsome. Or he had to do some voice work for a cartoon. Okay, the latter is what discerning readers might call true.

Still, why do you hire the Danson and hide the handsome behind cartoon hijinks? Hollywood has been so confused ever since it went to the talkies.

D’Orso also sent out an email announcement this evening. And, so doing, he confirmed my crack reporting, which involved going to a store and running into somebody. Eat it up, Columbia J-School – two sources in a blog post! That’s like a hat trick, but with two things instead of three. Or a double threat. Because you can’t fight math.

D’Orso wrote:

We now have a new date and time set for Ted Danson to come and join me (and all of you – those can make it) in a discussion/signing of our book, Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them. The event will, as before, be held at Prince Books in downtown Norfolk, on Saturday, May 14, at 12 noon. As before, Ted will only be signing copies of the book (no other memorabilia).

Amusingly, D’Orso signed off in his email thusly:

Hope you can make it. It should be fun. – Mike D.

Amusing because Danson recently guested in the Beastie Boys video at this link, which is not safe for work unless your corporate pissing contests are a wee splash more than figurative. One of the Beastie Boys calls himself Mike D. Maybe that’s not really amusing, but it’s enough of a coincidence for me to get out of this post without bringing up the Yakuza again.

Anyway, the discussion and book signing starts at noon, Saturday, May 14, at Prince, 109 E. Main St., at the corner of E. Main Street and Martins Lane. If you head to Prince, there’s metered street parking and a couple city garages within easy walking distance. There’s also some free parking in the TowneBank lot behind the building on the Martins Lane side.

Previous posts with D’Orso can be found here. The book’s website is here. D’Orso’s website is here.

A glimpse of Danson in the Beastie video follows in this potty-mouth trailer:

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UPDATED: Ted Danson coming to Norfolk for talk with Mike D’Orso


During a recent reading at Borjo Coffeehouse in Norfolk, Va., author Mike D'Orso points out something in a book he is holding. The microphone pretends to understand, but the microphone has a painful secret — illiteracy. Photo by John-Henry Doucette.

• • • • • • • • • • •

April 27

It’s back on, baby. Ran into Prince Books owner Sarah Pishko this evening in Norfolk, Va., where it is always sunny except when it is not, and she said Ted Danson is scheduled to come to Norfolk next month. And so it’s sunny again.

And you may recall, Danson had to cancel a planned visit this month to promote his writing project with local writer Mike D’Orso.

Danson was called away suddenly to battle the Yakuza, all of it at once, with his mighty anti-Yakuza Level 5 Power Handsome. Or do some voice work for a cartoon. Okay, the latter is what you might call true.

Mike D’Orso also sent out an email announcement this evening. D’Orso wrote:

We now have a new date and time set for Ted Danson to come and join me (and all of you – those can make it) in a discussion/signing of our book, Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them. The event will, as before, be held at Prince Books in downtown Norfolk, on Saturday, May 14, at 12 noon. As before, Ted will only be signing copies of the book (no other memorabilia).

• • • • • • • • • • •

April 19

Ted Danson has postponed his visit, according to Prince Books.

Prince hopes to have a new date to announce in the next week.

Mike D’Orso, in an email announcement, said Danson had to do a movie shoot:

Ted was extremely apologetic and we will set a new date soon. Sorry to all for the inconvenience. But rest assured he is still coming.

• • • • • • • • • • •

April 9

Welcome back to the blog that does little more than tell lame jokes about blood-spitting rock’n’roll bass players repping high-end insurance products and walk-up whatever Norfolk, Va., author Mike D’Orso is doing. Look, it’s a niche. When you see one, you gotta carve it out before James Franco does.

A while back, I wrote about D’Orso’s collaboration with Ted Danson, Oceana: Our Planet’s Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them, published this past month by Rodale Books. D’Orso — he’s a friend, full disclosure — recently did a reading and Q&A at Borjo. It was great stuff, but it was light on Danson.

Now D’Orso says Danson is headed to Hampton Roads for an appearance at Prince Books, one of the last independent bookstores in these parts. A discussion and book signing starts at 1 p.m., Saturday, April 23, at Prince, 109 E. Main St., at the corner of E. Main Street and Martins Lane.

D’Orso, via email, said:

We’re going to have a nice casual sit-down conversation for the first half, then open the floor to any and all questions not pertaining to ‘Cheers,’ ‘Damages’ or ‘Bored to Death.’

So fire up those Becker, Body Heat and Three Men and a Little Lady questions.

Just kidding. Maybe just stick to ocean acidification, commercial fishing and so forth. Though if you want to ask something cheap — say along the lines of Apparently our planet’s oceans are endangered; what can we do to save them? — it’s been done. Got there first, didn’t I, Franco?

Regarding Danson, D’Orso added:

He – and I, if people want it – will then sign books before I toss him back in my Camry and drive him back to the airport.

And while you’re at Prince, maybe you could buy some books. It’s National Poetry Month. Twenty percent off poetry. Not bad, if you’re into that sort of thing.

If you head to Prince, there’s metered street parking and a couple city garages within easy walking distance. There’s also some free parking in the TowneBank lot behind the building on the Martins Lane side.

Please don’t park in Pete Decker’s space. It simply is not done.

Nothing left to say, so it’s boilerplate time:

Here’s a link to info on the Danson-D’Orso book.

Here’s a link to a recent video interview with and story on D’Orso by The Daily Press.

Here’s a link to D’Orso’s site.

Here’s a link to a James Franco fansite run by a lady named Vanessa, who will pay or already has paid good money to see Your Highness.

Finally, here’s an absolutely pointless link to the very post you are reading right now.

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Belligerent Q&A, Vol. I: Mike D’Orso


Norfolk, Va., author Mike D’Orso’s new collaboration with the actor and environmental activist Ted Danson will be published March 15.

Oceana: Our Planet’s Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them is Mike’s 11th “collaborative book,” and he has written five of his own.

Previous collaborative subjects include former New York Jets player Dennis Byrd, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and civil rights pioneer and current U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.

Mike’s working on a memoir and how-to book now. The working title is WITH… : The Long Strange Trip of a Professional “Ghost” Writer.

Mike agreed to answer a few questions by email. Only after he received the questions did he realize there were no backsies.

Q: Just who do you think you are? Please use three examples in your response.

It often depends on the day – sometimes on the hour. At the moment, I am:

  1. A proud father (of my 26-year-old daughter, Jamie)
  2. A 14-handicap golfer (it’s been a long winter–a lot of rust to shake off)
  3. Hungry (it’s almost time for lunch)

Q: Apparently our planet’s oceans are endangered. What can we do to save them?

The first step is realizing the numerous ways in which the oceans are threatened, the extent of those threats, and how truly catastrophic the consequences will be if something (many things) aren’t done and done soon.

There’s no room here to list the dozens of courses of action that we as individuals (not just Americans, but all people), that our government (not just the U.S. government, but the international community), and that the global fishing industry can and must take to stem the tides of overfishing, ocean acidification, marine habitat destruction, insidious government subsidies, and corruption among commercial fisheries that threaten to turn the oceans into nothing but watery deserts within the next half-century.

Q: Regarding Ted Danson, how handsome is too handsome?

I believe the definitive answer is provided in the video found at this link in which Ted, of course, makes an appearance. (About two minutes in.)

Q: If we submerge Oceana: Our Planet’s Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them in water, will it expand into a giant sponge shaped like a commercial fishery?

Are we talking sea water or fresh water?

Q: The book lists for $32.50 in the U.S. and $37.50 in Canada. Do Canadians care 15 percent more than do Americans about the oceanic biosystem?

No. There’s a dirty little secret in the publishing industry at work here … it’s called the ‘Uncle Sam Discount.’ (The statute was hidden deep in the pages of the Patriot Act.)

Q: We’ve covered so much ground here. What else would you like to say?

Time for lunch!

If you followed Mike’s link to that video above, and either are a patient individual or reading this at work, you may have realized by the fifth minute that too much handsome cannot save too little funny.

Mike answered a few more questions on one of my favorite journalism stories from his days at The Virginian-Pilot, collected in his book Pumping Granite. I’ll post that this weekend.

A site for the new book is here. Mike’s own site is here.

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