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1/16/12: Roger Ebert tweeted about the book today. Well, okay, he tweeted about an article in Slate about the book. Close enough.

1/8/12: A hard, heavy, sad day here today. There were about sixty people gathered at the Safeway, some under the acrhes, some in the sun. Overheard from one man with a camera around his neck: “This is like being at Gettysburg. Blood was spilled here. It really is hallowed ground.” Guys from the butcher department came to the entrance and stood their in their cotton smocks, caps held to their chests at 10:11 a.m., the moment the shootings took place last year. At a half-filled Centenntial Hall at the University of Arizona, two of Christina-Taylor Green’s friends from Mesa Verde Elementary talked about knowing her. Incredibly moving. Watching Gabrielle smile from the stage, though, made me feel like we’re all going to get through this. I’m straining for something original to say here, but there are no other appropriate words. She is so amazing – my God, I am so lucky to have known her.

1/5/12: This oped ran at Zocalo Public Square and the libertarian magazine Reason didn’t care for it too much. An odd personal footnote. The author of this piece, Matt Welch, used to run a scrappy little newspaper called Prognosis during the Vaclav Havel era in Prague and, years ago when I was an unwashed Eurail bum, I showed up at the offices asking for a job. I talked to a cordial guy who I’m pretty sure was Welch. He gave me a tour around the offices and encouraged me to contribute some stories as a stringer. But I stayed only two more days, drank a lot of beer, and then got back on the train for Budapest. Exactly of a piece with my behavior at the time.

1/2/12:  I recently moved to downtown Los Angeles and the white-neon logo atop the L.A. Times building next door shines into my window at night.

So I suppose I should think of this weekend’s review as a “welcome to the neighborhood” postcard.

I have a lot of respect for David Ulin. He’s probably the best living nonfiction writer — except perhaps for Joan Didion — about the vagaries and ironies of Southern California. An anthology he edited, “Writing Los Angeles,” is one of the best compendiums of regional literature that I’ve seen anywhere. I’ve even assigned it as a textbook in class I’m teaching next semester. So I wish his view had been a different one, but I’ve always believed that anyone who asks a reader to spend several hours inhabiting their thoughts deserves a rigorous evalulation and shouldn’t expect nursery school treatment. This scenario is no different, and I’m grateful that Ulin took the time to consider what I had to say in a serious way.

This isn’t the place for a total rebuttal — and sadly, there is no court of appeals in the world of book reviews – but I would like to take brief issue with his apparent feeling that historical events should not be scrutinized until years after they’re over.

He says: “In writing about the Giffords shooting, Zoellner has taken on a story that is, for now anyway, open-ended, full of unanswered questions about the congresswoman’s recovery and the fate of her assailant, who has yet to go on trial. How, then, do we get to the center of it, when the center has yet to be determined?”

Holy cats, if that supposition is true, it would obviate the need for all literature everywhere. Why write a single word about anything when the center is yet to be determined? (Is the center on anything ever determined to everyone’s satisfaction? Let me know, because I missed that day in school.) For me, the restless seeking of the center is the entire point of writing. That’s how we stumble towards answers — through this massive and self-correcting web of ideas put out into the world through books. It’s the best possible function of a book.

My own belief, which I wish Ulin had clearly understood, was that 21st century Arizona didn’t cause this to happen but a powerful enabling context was in place that allowed a disturbed young men to act out delusional fantasies at a grocery store political event. It’s hard to imagine how I could have said this any plainer — in fact, I tried my hardest not to pussyfoot around within the limits of journalism and the necessary humility of never-knowing-completely that unfortunately characterizes the human condition.

The more I looked into the facts of the case, the more the power of context became apparent and it bothered me that the aggravating sociological factors of this disaster were so quickly dismissed after Sheriff Dupnik’s famous press conference, for which he took a lot of criticism. He was speaking from passion in the heat of the moment, but I believe his core instinct was correct. This did not come out of nowhere.

Ignoring this catastrophe in my hometown until some yet-to-be determined further notice was just not an option. Books are supposed to grapple with the events of their time, even if the dust is still hanging in the air. Maybe even especially then. If the writer decides to put his pen on ice until absolutely everything is known, or a note-perfect book can be written, then we’re all sunk. As it happens, it is doubtful if Jared Loughner will see a criminal trial anytime in the next five years. We will never understand, but the surmise is worth the effort.

(Update on 1/2/11): The San Francisco Chronicle took a view different than the Times in Sunday’s paper, and I’m grateful that this discussion is at last in the air, if even for a single day. We’ve blown it off for too long.

Anyway, this ass-kicking from the friendly building across Spring Street doesn’t change the fact that I still admire David Ulin and his work and I’ll always turn to the Times’ book section first on Sunday mornings. Neither would I hesitate to buy him a beverage if I ever get the privilege of meeting him. You can’t take this stuff too personal; you’d go crazy otherwise.

 

Starting off in New York on January 30th.

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