Some of my
journalism

Quite the World, Isn't It?


The Rust Belt: Still there, still a challenge

May 24, 2013

Tags: books, writing, history, nonfiction

As I finish writing Jones's Bones: The Search for an American Hero - due to my publisher at the end of May - the Los Angeles Times has this review I wrote about a book that meshes nicely with the last project, Detroit: A Biography.

The book is Edward McClelland's Nothin' but Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America's Industrial Heartland, the latest in a series of books about the beat up heart of America - includng my Detroit book.

While my book drilled into the rise and fall of Detroit, McClelland casts a wider geographic net. Some of the material feels dated (as I pointed out in the review), but this is a solid addition to the current collection of books about the nation's faded industrial core. From the review:
Engagingly written, the book covers some of the emblematic stories of the past few decades, from the 1994 A.E. Staley labor lockout in Decatur, Ill., an underappreciated example of the uneven playing field on which organized labor fights these days, to the creation of a shoppers' paradise out of old steel property in Homestead, Pa., near Pittsburgh, a "microcosm of what America had become: a nation of shopkeepers who sold each other things, instead of making things."

In many ways, "Nothin' but Blue Skies" is a personal travelogue. The book begins with McClelland dropping into a blue-collar bar across the street from a closed auto plant in his native Lansing, Mich., where he entered high school as the bottom was falling out of the auto industry with the 1981-82 recession. McClelland also was a newspaper reporter in Decatur during the Staley lockout, and now lives in Chicago, which also gets some play in the book.

The author is fully present in these scenes, though the tales are predominantly those of others: Steelworkers laid off in their 50s, never to work again; autoworkers in their 40s moving into service jobs at a fraction of their former pay; chronically poor urban scavengers; young men who will never have a shot at a factory job rolling drugs in urban underground economies. Or economies in which nothing is produced.

"Young people who were born after the manufacturing base was destroyed, I don't think they have a clue about what this place was like," Homestead Mayor Betty Esper tells McClelland. "All they know is there's no jobs out there. They don't know why … you can't grow an economy, grow a middle class, without making things."


On the American Revolution, and the original Tea Party

May 10, 2013

Tags: books, writing, history, nonfiction

The Los Angeles Times today carries my review of Nathaniel Philbrick's new "Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution, a very good and, as the headline says, "on the ground" recreation of the start of the American Revolution.

And like most things historical, the subtleties tell us a different story from the commonly held beliefs of what was going on in the minds of the revolutionaries.

As I quote Philbrick in the review:
"To say that a love of democratic ideals had inspired these country people to take up arms against the [British] regulars is to misrepresent the reality of the revolutionary movement," Philbrick writes. "The patriots had refused to respect the rights of those with whom they did not agree, and loyalists had been sometimes brutally suppressed throughout Massachusetts."

In fact, the "revolution had begun as a profoundly conservative movement," he writes. "The patriots had not wanted to create something new: They had wanted to preserve the status quo — the essentially autonomous community they had inherited from their ancestors — in the face of British attempts to forge a modern empire."

Only as they resisted did talk of freedom gain traction. Even as the first bullets flew, Philbrick writes, many of the fighters still hoped for a negotiated peace that would keep them under British rule.
Backing up those conclusions is a deeply researched and well-spun set of stories about the key players and events in and around Boston all those years ago. Well worth your time....


And you think you want to get away from it all?

January 30, 2013

Tags: history, current events, nonfiction

There are a lot of things in this bizarre world to be fascinated by, and this week's entry is the details from this piece at Smithsonian about a reclusive family of religious Russians who, seeking escape from violent persecution, disappeared into unimaginably harsh Siberian interior. And for more than 40 years had no contact with anyone else.

So complete was their isolation that they missed World War II, and such technological advances as cellophane: "Lord, what have they thought up—it is glass, but it crumples!" But they figured out satellites, because they saw them hurtling through the night sky, whose darkness you can only imagine given the hundreds of miles between the family's hut and any significant light pollution.

The family, then consisting of two parents and two young children, fled into the wilderness after the father's brother was shot dead by a communist patrol as he stood beside him at the edge of their remote village:
That was in 1936, and there were only four Lykovs then—Karp; his wife, Akulina; a son named Savin, 9 years old, and Natalia, a daughter who was only 2. Taking their possessions and some seeds, they had retreated ever deeper into the taiga, building themselves a succession of crude dwelling places, until at last they had fetched up in this desolate spot. Two more children had been born in the wild—Dmitry in 1940 and Agafia in 1943—and neither of the youngest Lykov children had ever seen a human being who was not a member of their family. All that Agafia and Dmitry knew of the outside world they learned entirely from their parents' stories. The family's principal entertainment, the Russian journalist Vasily Peskov noted, "was for everyone to recount their dreams."
...
But if the family's isolation was hard to grasp, the unmitigated harshness of their lives was not. Traveling to the Lykov homestead on foot was astonishingly arduous, even with the help of a boat along the Abakan. On his first visit to the Lykovs, Peskov—who would appoint himself the family's chief chronicler—noted that "we traversed 250 kilometres [155 miles] without seeing a single human dwelling!"

Isolation made survival in the wilderness close to impossible. Dependent solely on their own resources, the Lykovs struggled to replace the few things they had brought into the taiga with them. They fashioned birch-bark galoshes in place of shoes. Clothes were patched and repatched until they fell apart, then replaced with hemp cloth grown from seed.

The Lykovs had carried a crude spinning wheel and, incredibly, the components of a loom into the taiga with them—moving these from place to place as they gradually went further into the wilderness must have required many long and arduous journeys—but they had no technology for replacing metal. A couple of kettles served them well for many years, but when rust finally overcame them, the only replacements they could fashion came from birch bark. Since these could not be placed in a fire, it became far harder to cook. By the time the Lykovs were discovered, their staple diet was potato patties mixed with ground rye and hemp seeds.
Remarkable. And well worth your time to go read the piece.


Virtual research, or how to visit Paris from my desk

December 20, 2012

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history

So in writing Jones's Bones: The Search for an American Hero, I've been buried deeply in old maps and descriptions, and not so old photographs of where John Paul Jones lived and died in Paris, and where he was buried. A natural point of curiosity, of course, is what do these places look like now?

To the left is a photo of the buildings that were erected over the cemetery in which Jones was buried in 1792 - the row, including the hotel, across the street, to the right in the frame. The picture was taken in 1905 from the street corner, and accompanied reports from the U.S. Embassy in Paris to the State Department in Washington.

Here, to the left and through the magic of Google maps street view, is what it looks like today. All the buildings over the cemetery have been replaced. But the cafe on the corner, left foreground, is still a cafe, modernized a bit.

Obviously, looking at photos and Google maps street view isn't the same as being there, but it's an easy way to find out whether anything would be gained by visiting in person. In this case, other than a good meal, visiting the scene wouldn't give me any insights or perspectives - which I'm glad to discover without the expense of a trip to Paris.

Though that would be fun - I haven't been there in decades.


On 38 Nooses and the invisible past

December 8, 2012

Tags: history, current events, nonfiction

The Los Angeles Times this weekend carries my review of Scott W. Berg's fine new work, 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier's End, about the U.S. Army's legally sanctioned mass execution of men from the Dakota tribe in what is now Minnesota, and in the midst of the Civil War.

Readers of my books will recognize a certain sympathy for such overlooked moments of history. When I was telling my wife about Berg's book, she said it sounded like something I'd write. And it is -- this is a subject I would have loved to tackle. In fact, it overlaps slightly one of the chapters in my current project, Jones's Bones: The Search for an American Hero, which touches on the U.S. government's treatment of Native Americans in Alabama, Georgia and Florida some 40 years earlier (trust me, it all connects up).

The hanged men were participants in a flash war, an uprising, really, by the Dakota against racism and the white settlers encroaching on their land, and against the U.S. government failure to observe the treaties it had insisted on, including skipping a contractual payment. The uprising was quickly suppressed, and to the victors go the definition of what is a crime. From my review:
A hastily convened military tribunal lasting only six weeks found 303 warriors guilty of murder and sentenced them all to hang, based on sketchy evidence and a broad definition of culpability (warriors firing weapons in a military encounter were condemned as murderers with no evidence they hit a target, military or civilian), plus a firm belief by the whites that the region should be cleansed of its native inhabitants.

Because the sentences were from a military tribunal and not a civilian court, the president had to sign off on them. Lincoln appointed two men to review the verdicts and whittled the execution list to 39 warriors whom he believed had massacred whites. One was later reprieved, bringing the final list to 38.

And on the morning after Christmas 1862, in a public display of revenge, all 38 men were hanged in one single drop from a massive four-sided gallows erected in Mankato, about 85 miles southwest of St. Paul.

It was, Berg reports, the largest legally sanctioned execution in American history, a staggering event whose significance has been overshadowed by the Civil War even as it stands as a telling moment in America's westward expansion. (more…)


On Lincoln, and the touchstones of history

November 24, 2012

Tags: history, current events, nonfiction

I found a bit of history in my pocket the other day.

We have a couple of receptacles in the house to hold loose change for an eventual run to the credit union. One gets the silver (these are colors, not content) and the other gets the copper pennies. I pulled a small handful of coins from my pocket and, as I began separating them, noticed that one penny had a couple of wheat stalks on the back, curled around the inside edge of the coin. That meant the coin was at least as old as I am (the current Lincoln Memorial design was adopted in 1959). Flipping it over, I found the date – 1940, with the tell-tale “s” below the year meaning it was minted in San Francisco.

You don’t stumble across many coins that old in circulation these days. As coins go, this one’s not worth much to collectors (maybe a dime). The U.S. mint in San Francisco cranked out nearly 113 million pennies that year, so they aren't rare, and the one that cropped up in my change is far from mint-condition. The edges are slightly worn, and the front has a thin layer of shellac over it, as though it had been part of a display at some point.

Yet the coin represents more than a single cent. It is a touchstone to the past. The year this particular coin was minted, Hitler’s Nazi Germany – with Paris already in its control – began a nine-month bombing blitz of British cities. Americans, with vivid memories of the last European war just two decades earlier, wanted to remain neutral. President Roosevelt, fearing what the fall of England would mean for Europe, and the world, hatched his “lend-lease” program to aid the British without committing U.S. troops. That came just a few months after the U.S. Congress, fearful of fascist and communist infiltrators, enacted the 1940 Smith Act, the law that lies at the heart of my second book, The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy in Trial.

So this coin came into the world near the onset of a nearly all-encompassing global convulsion of violence. The world has changed since then. It's become more crowded, more polluted, more complicated in many ways. But it’s unchanged in that we as a species can’t seem to find a way to avoid killing each other in encounters personal, national, and tribal (be the bonds faith or blood).

Maybe that’s our curse, as a species, and as a nation. Over more than 235 years, we have rarely been at peace, from the "pacification" of the native tribes to fights with Mexico, to skirmishes in the Pacific to that massive war among ourselves. And that's just the first century. It's a staggering list to contemplate.

Of our most common four coins, three feature war presidents - the Lincoln penny, the Roosevelt dime, and the Washington quarter. Washington obviously was a general before the nation was founded, and even though he was the first president, it is as the hero of the revolution that we remember him. Jefferson, on the nickel, was part of the Revolution but is remembered mostly for his role in writing the Constitution and expanding the nation. But the bulk of the national medals - our coins - that we carry around are physical reminders of wars past.

And Lincoln, of course, came to a violent end, which means the most common coin in American currency bears the likeness of a murder victim.

It’s funny the kind of history you can find in the change in your pocket.


Detroit Public Library, here I come...

September 10, 2012

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history

It feels like I just left Detroit after a whirlwind visit on the summer-end return trip to the West Coast, but here I come again.

The Detroit Public Library has invited me to talk about Detroit: A Biography at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, October 17, in the Friends Auditorium of the Main Library. It's free and open to the public (Marwil Books will be selling books for signing).

I'm looking forward to this for a lot of reasons, not the least of which were the hours I spent in the DPL's Burton Historical Collection looking through archives and records to help bring to life some of the myriad stories included in Detroit. The Main Library is a beautiful building between the Detroit Institute of Arts and Wayne State University, making it a prime component of Detroit's urban intellectual core. And it is a gem of a place, though, like much of Detroit, the library has been fighting some significant budget problems.

The evening should be fascinating. I'll talk a bit about the genesis of the book, why I wrote it, some broad conclusions about how the city got to be in the shape it's in, and then open it up for questions and discussion. That, to me, is usually the most fascinating part of any talk, hearing the stories of people directly connected to the historical things I write about. I invariably learn something new, pick up a sliver of nuance I missed before, and often discover things that I wish had included in the book. I look at the sessions as an organic "afterword" to the book, told in real time, and through living voices.

I hope to see my Michigan readers -- and I'm gratified by how many of you there are -- at the talk and signing.

Incidentally, the talk occurs on the eve of the annual North American Labor History Conference (program director Fran Shor helped set up the library talk; thanks, Fran) at Wayne State University, where I'll be part of three different events. I'll post more about those as it gets closer.

Oh, and if you want a Word copy of the library flyer pictured here for posting or sharing, email me through the link in the column to the right and I'll send one out to by return email.


On Detroit, and changed white attitudes

August 15, 2012

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history

Photo: Margaret Mercier-Martelle
The woman sat with a friend to my left as I stood last night discussing Detroit: A Biography at Saturn Booksellers in Gaylord, Michigan (a wonderful little store and a wonderful event). I talked about the propelling role that race and racism has played in the evolution of the city, and she raised her hand and offered, paraphrasing here, that the racist attitudes of white Detroiters toward their black neighbors have changed since the crucial days of the 1950s and 1960s, as Detroit careened toward collapse.

Not so, unfortunately, I responded. As I write in the book, racism among suburban whites is still a driving force in the region. The book quotes a Facebook discussion about Detroit, which I cite as evidence of the private sentiments of some whites. And I noted to the woman that suburban Southfield and Oak Park - once white-majority cities to which black middle class families had fled to escape Detroit's violence and the abysmal school system - are now majority black cities as whites once again ran away from growing numbers of black neighbors.

Which got me thinking last night as I drifted off to sleep: If people think this is a post-racial society, can we ever truly get there? If people believe the struggle for equality has been won, when all evidence points to the contrary, has the fight ended?

After I responded and turned to another questioner, the woman and her friend were heard to say that the Facebook example in the book was just one person, and that it was an outlier. Society has gotten better.

Maybe things have improved, but not enough, when black urban poverty is taken as a given, churches refuse to let blacks marry, and presidential politics comes shrouded in a racial mantle.

Some things to think about as we hit the I-75 freeway and head south for a couple of days in Detroit.


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

August 14, 2012

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history

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

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

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

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

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


The summer of John Paul Jones, and high-impact gardening

August 3, 2012

Tags: personal, books, nonfiction

Photo - and truck - by Craig Martelle
Posting has been light around here for a variety of reasons, most deriving from being on the road. I'm in Western New York now, bouncing between my parents' house in Wellsville and my in-laws in Rochester. Lotta labor on the Wellsville end as my brothers and I have been digging out old rotted lilacs, scrub brush, railroad ties and the occasional yellow-jacket nest (I won't show you the welts from the stings).

The picture at left is a mass of lilacs (one of many) that we dug out with a backhoe and are taking to a gully on land one of my brothers owns that needs fill. The lilacs haven't been thinned in decades, and the trunks and roots were too rotted to save. We're thinking of replanting with new, healthy lilacs, but may just leave the open space.

And, every morning, I'm working on the manuscript for Jones's Bones, at a pace of at least 1,000 words a day. It may please you to know that I've just polished off the Battle of Manila Bay. As for why, you'll have to wait for the book to find out (I'm such a tease, I know).

We begin the drive back to California in a little more than a week, with a stop at Saturn Booksellers in Gaylord, Michigan, on August 14 for a talk and signing. I'm really looking forward to that - I imagine there will be a lot of interested folks turning out, most with personal Detroit stories to tell. It should be a very engaged conversation. I hope to see some of you there....


Research trip winding down; let the writing recommence!

July 12, 2012

Tags: writing, history, nonfiction

At the Library of Congress. Photo by Margaret Mercier-Martelle.
I have one more day of research here in Washington, DC., before we pack up and head to New York to visit relatives. It's been a productive trip; as usual, found some unanticipated material and details, but didn't find other bits I had hoped to, or found them to be less useful than anticipated.

But that's the nature of this process. And while it's forcing me to rethink how to approach some parts of the story of the search for John Paul Jones's body, it also is letting me add some historical nuance that in many ways makes the story even more compelling. I've already made good progress in writing the early part of the story. Now it's time to hunker down for the main body of writing. Which means even lighter posting here than you've been seeing, unfortunately.

The trip has had some challenges of its own. This part of the country was battered by intense thunderstorms two days before we arrived, and the power was only restored at the rental we're calling home a few hours before we arrived. Then there was the heat - over 100 degrees for the first few days, continuing the onslaught we first encountered in Austin, Texas, (107 degrees) and that continued through New Orleans.

There have been a lot of long days in archives but we've squeezed in some fun along the way (see above references to Austin and New Orleans), including a stop at the reading room of the Library of Congress, where I hoped to have my picture taken with all three of my books. Turns out the Library filed The Fear Within in the law library, rather than the general collection, classifying it as a law book (???) rather than a history book. And when I arrived at the library to pick up the other two books, which I'd ordered earlier that morning, I found someone else had picked up Detroit: A Biography from the counter, and the librarian working the circulation desk couldn't find it in the stacks of books being used by researchers. It's good to be in demand, I guess.

So above you see me at one of the study desks in the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress with Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West, which is fitting since that's the book that first got me added to the collection that began with Thomas Jefferson's personal library. That's about as close to immortality as one can hope for.


Detroit: A Biography heading back for another printing

June 25, 2012

Tags: personal, books, nonfiction

Words an author loves to hear from his editor: We're going back to press to print more copies of your book.

It doesn't mean the first printing of Detroit: A Biography sold out, but it does mean my publisher, Chicago Review Press, feels it needs more copies to fill the demand (and technically, this is the third printing - CRP went back to press for more copies before the first printing reached the warehouse).

So from somewhere deep in New Mexico - actually Las Cruces, which is just north of El Paso, Texas - my thanks for the interest, and the support. Folks like me tend to write by compulsion; it's very nice to know that people are reading the work, liking it - nearly unanimous positive reviews - and, most importantly, buying the book. It is, in the end, how we get paid for our labor.

Now back to the road trip: After a slow cruise through Saguaro National Park near Tucson, we put in for the night at Las Cruces. Tomorrow: Way too much of Texas, but with a couple of days in Austin looming.

And it looks like Tropical Storm Debby is being nice and heading east and out of our way. Sorry about that, Florida ....


Road trip into the past - and maybe the wind

June 24, 2012

Tags: personal, books, nonfiction

So Margaret and I leave tomorrow for an eight-week road trip, part business, part pleasure (note to would-be burglars: We're leaving behind the two strapping, lacrosse-playing sons and the dog). The main focus for me is two weeks in Washington diving into the Library of Congress and National Archives for research for the Jones's Bones book project. We'll also be reconnecting with a lot of friends while we're there.

Assuming we get there.

The plan is to take the southern route because Margaret has never been to Austin or New Orleans. And if the National Hurricane Center's current prediction pans out, we and Hurricane Debby should both be in Louisiana on Thursday. So far the prediction is for the storm to slide westward along the Gulf Coast, missing New Orleans itself, so we're forging ahead with the plans.

But if the storm cuts north, so will we. Not as exciting as the adventure our friends Jeremy and Paula Dear are on - a couple of years traveling the Americas in a sleeper van - but Debby is putting a little edge on our plans.


Celebrating Father's Day with bicoastal book reviews

June 17, 2012

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history

Well, this is an achievement in timing: Two book reviews published the same day, one in the Los Angeles Times, and the other in the Washington Post. Happy Father's Day to me!

I'll start in the east, with the Post review of Peter Pagnamenta's "entertaining new book, Prairie Fever, a deeply researched and finely delivered look" at a slice of American I wasn't familiar with: The Great Plains and intermountain west as a 19th century adventure tourism destination for England's idle rich young men.

From my review:
The tourism invasion began, in part, because of James Fenimore Cooper and his Leatherstocking Tales, Pagnamenta reports. Natty Bumppo and his fellow travelers were popular among English readers, and the stories of life on the frontier whetted the appetites of young British men who found themselves in unusual straits. In that era, the eldest son stood to inherit the family estate, while younger male siblings received allowances but few responsibilities. What to do with the indolent rich was a conundrum, since working for a living was outside the sphere of social respectability. One solution was to send them packing to America, lured by the tales of buffalo hunts, Indian skirmishes and the taste of hardy adventure. Some sought to blend in; most did not.
It was a fun book to read. In my own books I like to focus on overlooked slices of American history, and this is one I wish I had found before Pagnamenta did.

The second review in the LA Times was of Buzz Bissinger's Father's Day: A Journey into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son, a much different and more difficult book.
The book, Bissinger confesses at the end, "was difficult and painful" to write. Much more so than he anticipated when they hit the road in 2007. Bissinger thought it would take another year to finish the manuscript, but the pain of the process lengthened the calendar, as did the perhaps subconscious shift of focus from Zach, an utterly charming person in his father's portrayal, to Bissinger himself.

It is not a flattering self-portrait, and that's the biggest problem with what is a frank yet disquieting book. Father's Day isn't compelling so much as it's revelatory about Bissinger's struggle to reconcile the son he thought he deserved with the one he has. It's a human reaction to uncontrollable events, but by the end, if you had to choose a cross-country traveling companion, you'd go for the son, with all his mental deficiencies, over the narrating father with his rages and insecurities.


On Michael Harrington, and the persistence of poverty

May 25, 2012

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history

A half-century ago Michael Harrington published a fairly slim book, The Other America, that focused the nation's attention on what life was like for impoverished Americans, from urban cores to the hollows of Appalachia. It was an important book then; sadly, it remains an important book now.

The Los Angeles Times asked me to write a short appreciation of the book for this Sunday's paper (already available online here). I was happy to do it. I was four years old when the book came out, and as I write in the piece, I read it for the first time in the early 1980s, early in my career as a journalist.
I grew up about 90 miles to the east of Jamestown, part of a conservative family in a small conservative village in the northern reaches of Appalachia. The area had forests, deer and poverty in abundance, so I found much to identify with in Harrington's book, which could well stand as the last hurrah for any pretense that we lived in a nation of compassion....

Harrington's work didn't move me to a life of journalism — I was already there, propelled by genetics (my father and grandfather were newspapermen) and by the mixed impulses to explore and to challenge. But Harrington's book affirmed those impulses and helped mold my world view, an evolution from small-town conservatism to a believer in the power of government and collective action to effect good in the world.
Unfortunately, despite decades of national policies that place the health of corporations ahead of the health of communities, poverty is just as intractable today as it was then (programs that support the poor are necessary and humane, but only temporary solutions to what in the end is a structural problem).

But in these days of ostracism and greed, with a religious embrace of free-market economics and paying the lowest price for everything, don't expect anything to change. As I wrote in the piece, Harrington's book "could well stand as the last hurrah for any pretense that we lived in a nation of compassion."


A couple of reviews of a couple of good books

May 18, 2012

Tags: fiction, nonfiction, reviews

Looking at the Los Angeles Times book coverage this week, you'd think I've been busy. And you'd be right.

Thursday's paper carried a review of a newly translated novel by Sayed Kashua, Second Person Singular, which as I write in the review explores "themes [that are] are universal in a world in which every culture, it seems, has an 'other' against which to play out prejudice, and feelings of supremacy." Kashua, an Arab living in Israel, writes in Hebrew, and he has produced a very good novel exploring the lives of two Arabs who grew up in the occupied territories but moved to Jerusalem to forge futures. And the key to the future, they decide, lies in freeing themselves from their personal and ethnic histories. But can they? Can anyone?

The second review, which is online now but I believe will be in the paper Sunday, is of historian Geoffrey C. Ward's A Disposition to be Rich. The subtitle tells you pretty much all you need to know: How a Small-Town Pastor's Son Ruined an American President, Brought on a Wall Street Crash, and Made himself the Best-Hated Man in the United States. And no, it's not about Bernie Madoff. The "best-hated" man is Ferdie Ward, a 19th century Wall Street investor who stole millions using the classic Ponzi scheme years before Charles Ponzi invented it.

What I didn't mention in the review are the coincidental overlaps with my own life and work. Ward grew up near Rochester, N.Y., where I lived and worked from 1983-86 (my wife's extended family still lives in the area and I visit often). So the geography was fun to read. And the presidential victim was Ulysses S. Grant, for whom Horace Porter served as a top aide during the Civil War, and as private secretary when Grant was president. They were so close that Porter became the key figure in raising money to build Grant's Tomb in Manhattan.

Porter also is the man who found John Paul Jones's body. Small world among all those books.


On biographies - and talking about them

May 17, 2012

Tags: personal, books, nonfiction

This weekend I'm taking part in the annual conference of Biographers International, a fairly new and quite interesting organization of writers who focus on biographies (the conference is at the University of Southern California). I'm involved with two panels on Saturday, which I'll get to momentarily. But first let me address a question: What is a journalist writing about history doing at a conference for biographers?

It's more than just throwing the word "biography" in the title of a book. Writing history is writing biography, though not in the David McCullough vein. To write about historic events for a general audience, as I do, it's imperative to tell stories, not just string together facts. And to make these moments in time resonate with readers, you have to bring to life the people involved. That means dipping into the biography pool so you can explain how and why people acted as they did. The research that I do in learning about the characters in my books is not as deep, or time-consuming, as required by a full biography. But it covers much of the same ground, and requires the same discipline.

So having said all that, my role at the conference will be two-fold - and has nothing to do with writing biographies. At 9 a.m. Saturday I'm moderating a panel, "Show Me the Money," in which I'll lead a conversation with Elizabeth Hoover and Robin Rauch on financing big projects (it isn't easy), and at 10:45 a.m. I'm on a panel about "Blogging to Boost Sales" with Beverly Gray and Mark Sarvas to talk about, well, this blog and other ways of connecting with readers.

I hope to see some of you there.


Doing some good for my neighbors

May 8, 2012

Tags: history, current events, nonfiction

Albert Ezroj
Another side benefit of publishing Detroit: A Biography: Keeping neighbors like Albert Ezroj occupied. Because, as we know, idle hands are the devil's playthings ....

I'm also pleased to note that Hour: Detroit, a magazine in Metro Detroit edited by former colleague Beck Powers, included Detroit in a roundup of new books in the May issue. They wedged me after a book on morel mushrooms, and just above The Skeleton Box, the newest mystery by old friend and former colleague Bryan Gruley. He'll be in Los Angeles on June 13; I'll be buying my copy then.


Why today should be marked in red on your calendar

April 20, 2012

Tags: history, current events, nonfiction

This date has a habit of sneaking up on me. I look at the calendar and am a little shocked to see it rounding out again. There are others who have the same feeling, I know (a few post on Facebook). But it remains just another day for most people, including labor supporters, which has long struck me as a bit of an insult to history.

It was 98 years ago today that a day-long gun battle erupted at a coal strikers' tent colony at the edge of the Great Plans in southern Colorado. The violence led to the suffocation deaths of 11 children and two mothers (they died in an underground bunker as fire swept through the tents above), but it also represented one of the most extreme encounters between workers and their bosses, and state military forces. Another child and several men were killed that day, too, including the apparent cold-blooded murders of union miners by National Guardsmen The deaths at Ludlow occurred within the sweep of a seven-month guerrilla war between the miners and their supporters, and mine guards and the Colorado National Guard. At least 75 people were killed in what amounted to open insurrection. Yet few of you have ever heard of it.

With the centennial looming - the strike began in September 1913 - I'm hoping the events at Ludlow gain more of our national attention. Meantime, after the jump you'll find a short excerpt from Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West, my first book, about that long ago day in southern Colorado: (more…)


Mark the calendar: 'We Built This City'

March 23, 2012

Tags: history, current events, nonfiction

Organizers of the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books have announced the schedule for this year's festival, and once again I'm happy to see my name on it. I'm slotted for a panel at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 22, in Taper Hall. The subject: "We Built This City."

It should be an interesting hour or so. The other two panelists:

- Bill Boyarsky, a familiar name to longtime LA Times readers for his years as a columnist, reporter, and editor He also is the author of Big Daddy: Jesse Unruh and the Art of Power Politics and contributes regularly to Kevin Roderick's LAObserved website (a must-read sit for Angelenos interested in media and politics), and at Truthdig.

- Rebecca Solnit, who's always sharp and insightful, also was behind the book, Infinite City, an atlas of San Francisco. But not just any atlas. She writes about the different ways of perceiving a city. At least most recently. By my count, this is her ninth book.

And my book, Detroit: A Biography, obviously enough, is about Detroit.

So we'll have a conversation about three iconic cities: Detroit, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Can;t wait to see where Thurber takes us with his questions. Hope to see some of you there. And as usual, I'll be wandering around both days, so say hello if we cross paths.


Let William Hughes tell you my Detroit: A Biography story

March 21, 2012

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history

Cover of the audio version of Detroit: A Biography
This is lot of fun for me. A few months back, Blackstone Audiobooks bought the rights to Detroit: A Biography, and it looks like their version is already available. The cover is different from the print version, and the narrator is William Hughes, who, I noticed, also read The Soloist, by columnist and former Los Angeles Times colleague Steve Lopez. The book is based on Lopez's columns about a homeless classical musician, and was also made into a movie. So here's hoping some of that success rubs off via Hughes.

If you go to the Blackstone site for , there's a button to click that plays a short sample from the book. They selected a snippet from the chapter about the onset of the Great Depression in Detroit. It begins:
The “Roaring Twenties” party in Detroit – and elsewhere – ended less abruptly than we think. In retrospect, we tend to look at the stock market meltdown of late October 1929 as the economic collapse that sank into the Great Depression. In truth, signs of the bursting bubble began emerging well before then (and this is a bit of an historical mine field, with debates still ongoing over what really happened to spur the worldwide depression). In February of 1929, concerned over the vast amounts of money the nation’s private banks were lending to speculators investing in the stock market, the Federal Reserve asked member banks to “restrain the use, either directly or indirectly, of Federal Reserve credit facilities in aid of the growth of speculative credit.” It didn’t do much good. Broad consumer faith in the economic boom began to falter, and then turned into a financial panic with the Wall Street selloff, likely sparked by a mix of scandals and feared regulation of public utilities, and criticism at home and abroad of the “speculative orgy” on Wall Street. News stories detailed the first hemorrhages, which helped fuel the panic. In rapid order, several million people lost their jobs, their life savings, and their homes. Banks failed across the nation, and personal fortunes large and small evaporated. Small businesses withered and died; homeowners were evicted; farmers were booted off land they could no longer afford to tend. In an era of unregulated banking, thousands of small banks shut their doors, never to re-open, the deposits of their customers gone. By the end of 1931, the Great Depression was on. Billions of dollars of equity evaporated as the nation’s publicly traded companies lost 73 percent of their value through 1932 (ultimately the market would lose 90 percent of its value).
So go ahead, all you commuters, buy a copy of the audiobook and for a few days, anyway, start your workdays with my words - and Hughes's voice - in your ears.


Books, books, and more books; my friends have been busy

March 2, 2012

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, fiction

My wife and I wandered over to the UC Irvine Bookstore last night for a talk and signing by Anne-Marie O'Connor, a former colleague at the Los Angeles Times, who has just published her first book, The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. Good talk about a valuable painting done in fin de siecle Vienna, stolen by Nazis, and finally recovered by descendants of the true owner a few years ago. It should be a great read; I remember Annie's journalism about the legal battle when she was at the LA Times.

But it has me thinking also about the other books I've recently read, or have on my "to read" stack, which is beginning to resemble that tower in Pisa. All by friends and acquaintances published this spring or in the previous few months, alphabetically:

- Julia Heaberlin's debut novel Playing Dead (in galley; out in May)
- Adam Hochschild's World War One-era history,To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918
- Domenica Marchetti's most recent cookbook, The Glorious Pasta of Italy
- Robin Mather's The Feast Nearby: How I lost my job, buried a marriage and found my way by keeping chickens, foraging, preserving, bartering and eating locally (all on forty dollars a week)
- Terry McDermott and Josh Meyer's The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
- Maile Meloy's children's book, - Lisa See's Dreams of Joy
- Julia Flynn Siler's Lost Kingdom: Hawaii's Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America's First Imperial Adventure

That's a lot of busy writers.


It's real - got the first Detroit: A Biography in the mail yesterday

March 1, 2012

Tags: history, current events, nonfiction

I received the first copy of Detroit: A Biography in the mail yesterday, which as you might suspect is a pretty cool feeling. And the designers at Chicago Review Press did a wonderful job with the cover, which, as best as I can describe it, has a bit of a mock dull-metal finish to the paper. It works beautifully with the 1929 picture of Detroit taken from the Windsor side of the Detroit River, which I found in the Library of Congress digital archives (lot of great photos there). From a practical standpoint this means copies of the book should start showing up at retailers in a couple of weeks or so.

And I have some wonderful news on that front, too. Barnes & Noble will be featuring Detroit: A Biography in all of its stores (nearly 700 nationwide) from April 3-16, placing it on the “new in nonfiction” tables and racks. That should get the book in front of readers who might not otherwise find it. Let’s hope they pick up a copy!

And for you Michiganders, I’ll be in the state—Detroit, Ann Arbor, Lansing—the first week of April for a series of appearances (details after the jump). I’ll also be on the Craig Fahle Show on WDET-FM in Detroit on April 3 (show starts at 10 a.m.), and we’re hoping for other media events. And I’ll be talking at a couple of classes at Wayne State University, too. Should be a busy and fun week.

As always, thanks for the interest and the support. (more…)


An idea for a moving book trailer

February 24, 2012

Tags: history, current events, nonfiction

I really want to do a trailer like this for the forthcoming release of Detroit: A Biography. All I need is three other guys, a car, a few pianos, some metal bits, a stretch of desert road and, um, a budget ...


A killing in Oakland

February 11, 2012

Tags: history, current events, nonfiction

In August 2007 word pinged through the journalism world - and echoed loudly in Detroit - that reporter and editor Chauncey Bailey had been gunned down on an Oakland street. Shock turned quickly to incredulity as it was discovered Bailey had likely been gunned down because of a story he was working on about a local bakery with a reputation for helping downtrodden blacks in Oakland.

My review of a new book about that murder - Thomas Peele's Killing the Messenger: A Story of Radical Faith, Racism's Backlash, and the Assassination of a Journalist - is in the Los Angeles Times, and as I mention high up in the review I knew Bailey, but not well. We were colleagues, but not social friends, when we both worked at The Detroit News. And there is, as I write, something disconcerting about reading the intimate details of the violent death of someone you know--despite years of reading autopsy reports and listening with detached ears to witnesses describe horrors they had seen.

At its heart this is a true-crime book, and overall it's done pretty well, exploring the seamiest excesses of the Bey family in Oakland, through to the conviction of Bailey's killers. From the review:
Peele's book begins with Bailey's murder, as it should, since it was Bailey's death that ultimately sent Yusuf Bey IV (known as Fourth), a son of Your Black Muslim Bakery founder Yusuf Bey, to prison for life and ended the family's violent control of North Oakland. But how the Beys rose to such prominence, and the related Keystone Kops behavior of the Oakland Police Department, is the book's main focus.

At the time of his death, Bailey was editor of the weekly Oakland Post, a freebie paper several rungs down the journalistic food chain from the dailies where Bailey once worked. In truth, Bailey had a loose grasp of journalistic ethics and his work was not exactly top tier, and Peele offers an unvarnished view here of Bailey's professional weaknesses.

Still, it was his journalism that got Bailey killed.


Roger Williams and the U.S. as a 'Christian' nation

January 22, 2012

Tags: history, current events, nonfiction

The timing of this was inadvertent, yet still telling. I have a book review in this morning's Los Angeles Times of a new look at Roger Williams and the concept of the separation of church and state, at the same time the political world is digesting New Gingrich's win amid the conservative Christians in South Carolina (my friend and former colleague Mark Z. Barabak puts that into clear context here).

The book is John Barry's Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty, and it is a fascinating read. From my review:
Barry, whose earlier books include "The Great Influenza" on the 1918 pandemic and "Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America," writes with absorbing detail and quotes extensively from 17th century English, a version of the language hard on modern eyes. For instance, there's this from John Winthrop's famous "City Upon a Hill" speech to his fellow Puritans as they fled England for the New World:

"But if our heartes shall turne away, soe that wee will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship and serue other Gods, our pleasure and proffits, and serue them; it is propounded unto us this day, wee shall surely perishe out of the good land whither wee passe over this vast sea to possesse it."

But patient readers are rewarded. Williams' views on the relationship between the individual and the state carved out the path to the American future. Most of the early settlers may have been Christians, but by the time the nation was born, the focus was on preserving civil liberties, not faith — establishing a place in which people could, indeed, pursue life, liberty and happiness. And where individuals could define for themselves what that meant.


The face of Detroit: A Biography

November 29, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history

I've been sitting on this for awhile, waiting for the designers and sales people at Chicago Review Press to give their final approval, which apparently they've done. So here is the cover for my new book, Detroit: A Biography.

The cover is the view of Detroit from the Windsor, Canada, side of the Detroit River, looking, oddly, north. Not many people realize that Detroit sits north of Canada, a wrinkle of local geography (for a few miles the Detroit River flows mostly east to west before resuming its north to south route). The photo was taken in 1929, when Detroit was full of cash and energy, with a population of around 1.6 million - more than twice the current population.

Note the ferries and other boats docked along piers on the Detroit riverfront. It was an entirely different city then, though the skyline is clearly recognizable and quite similar to today's.

I'm looking forward to the book's launch in the spring. We're mappng out some talks and signings in Michigan, and also contemplating appearaces in other cities where it makes sense (where there'd be the highest interest in the book). Once that all gets settled, I'll post here and add it to the events tab.

And Detroit: A Biography is already showing up at online booksellers for pre-orders, so feel free to reserve yours ahead of time.


On holiday gifts and supporting authors

November 20, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, fiction

Like most people, I cringe when I see ads for holiday gift shopping when the Halloween candy bowl is still full and no one's even figured out the Thanksgiving menu and guest list. Yet, here I go ...

Over the past few days I've made arrangements with writer friends to buy their books and have the writers sign them as gifts for people. It's early, I know, but it's easy and relatively cheap to do when there's time to get the books delivered, signed, and then shipped to me for re-shipping to the recipients (good news for the U.S. Post Office, that).

Which got me thinking that I really should be urging all of you to think about doing something similar. Most authors like to interact with readers, and many are willing to sign and ship out copies of their books (well, at least those not lucky enough to have a mass audience). So if you have a favorite author, or are the friend of an author that you think someone on your list would enjoy, now's the time to begin making those arrangements. And the knowledge that you went to such trouble will resonate with the recipient.

Two caveats: If you're buying the book directly from the author, make sure the check (plus postage) gets there before the author sends out the book. If you're having it shipped from an online seller to the author for re-posting to you, offer to send the author a check to cover the postage. For the author, such costs add up fast, and likely would exceed per-unit what the author will make in royalties.

Of course, this is a bit self-serving (my books, ahem, make wonderful gifts for the history buffs on your list). But it's at heart a plea for broader support for writers. In this era of Kindles and ebooks, and the subsequent squabbles over pricing, the work of writers and publishers is becoming devalued. I've even seen posts by friends that they refuse to spend more than $9.99 for a Kindle version of a book, seemingly forgetting that there's labor behind that product.

As I've written here in other contexts, that insistence on the lowest possible price for the consumer, and the near-religious pursuit of a bargain, is one of the things that has helped kill millions of American jobs. Be ready to pay a fair price, not the cheapest possible price, especially if you know the people creating the product are getting their fair share. In the case of publishing, that's what will keep the industry vibrant.


One down, digging into another

November 17, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history

Those linked to me on Facebook already heard the other day that I've finished proofing the pages for Detroit: A Biography, and we're rolling along to an April release. We're still figuring out specifics but it will likely involve some appearances in Detroit, and I'll pop those details up on the events page when they get firmed up.

Meantime, I'm in the early stages of putting together a proposal for the next possible project. Too premature to post about it here, but I'm right at that precipice where idle curiosity tumbles me into obsession - the crucial first big step in writing a book. If you're not obsessed by it, chances are slim you'll be able to build up enough steam to finish the book. Or to write it with enough energy, and sense of engagement, to draw in readers.

It can be exhausting, but I'm looking forward to burying myself in another book. It's hard to describe the deep satisfaction that comes from diving into an ocean of material and detail, and then teasing a readable narrative out of what you find.

Plus, it gives you something to do during those insomnia-filled nights.

Oh, and if you're on Facebook, come friend me up over there.


On Condoleezza Rice, and memoirs

November 5, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history, reviews

My review of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's memoir, No Higher Honor, is in the Los Angeles Times this morning. Lon-n-n-ng book, more than 700 pages, both exhaustive and exhausting.

My approach to the review was to leave politics out of it, which may or may not have been a good idea. I believe everyone has the right to be the star in his or her own memoir, and Rice gives herself her own due. Had I more patience I'd turn now to the memoirs of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush himself to try a little cross-tabulation, seeing if they included many of the same events, and their different takes on them. But, well, I don't have that much patience. Or curiosity.

But the point of the review was to assess the book, not the person or the policies. Here's the opening:
By now, of course, the key details of former national security advisor and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's "No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington" have already made it to public view. Among them: She clashed over policy with Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi had an unnerving fixation on his "African princess," which revealed itself in a bizarre private dinner in his kitchen. She regretted the timing of a vacation just as Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on New Orleans.

But there's a lot more to Rice's memoir. In fact, with more than 700 pages of reminiscences, there's an awful lot more than those headline moments, making "No Higher Honor" an exhausting walk in Rice's shoes as, arguably, President George W. Bush's most influential foreign policy advisor — a role she stepped into in August 1998, more than two years before the 2000 election, when Bush was governor of Texas.

And given the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, policies of extreme renditions and the incarceration of suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, combating North Korean and Iranian nuclear ambitions — well, it was a busy time.

It is a fact of American political life that after a presidential administration ends, key figures retire to write their versions of what they had seen and done. Each needs to be read with a bit of skepticism — legacy more than enlightenment often is the driving force. And Rice's memoir is no different.


Between things, also known as thumb-twiddling

October 10, 2011

Tags: personal, books, nonfiction

So last week I sent back the answers to copy-editing questions on the manuscript for Detroit: A Biography, and am now awaiting the arrival of some photos to pass along to the designers at Chicago Review Press as they move onto laying out the book. Next up: Page proofs, where I get to see what the book will look like when it comes out.

Meanwhile, when not teaching and writing freelance pieces, I've been looking around for the next project, which is both fun and vexing. The fun is obvious - I spend time diving down rabbit holes in search of something that will fascinate me enough to devote large chunks of the foreseeable future, and that will fascinate enough of you to attract a publisher.

There, as the saying goes, lies the rub. And the vexation. I dug into one story that I loved, about a collection of some two dozen European displaced persons who, in the years after WWII, slipped out of the Soviet-occupied Baltics to Sweden, worked to pool their money, bought a small sailing ship and then, with only the captain and one other person having ever spent any time at sea, sailed to America using a sextant and a wristwatch. Great story; minimal historic record from which to craft a narrative. Next.

I looked at the searing drought in Texas, and the parallels to the Dust Bowl years, tipped to the idea by a New York Times piece. Alas, the parallels weren't quite so parallel. Next.

I still have hopes that a narrative can be built out of a story about the collapse of a single bank in the Great Depression, but again, finding sufficient and specific historical records from which to build a human narrative is proving to be elusive. Next.

I looked at a rural suicide in the midst of the Great Recession: Too depressing, I was told. Few readers would buy a book about that. I thought about a book exploring how our near-religious quest as a society for the lowest possible price was cheap-skating ourselves out of economic existence (the money we save as consumers means domestic jobs lost, which means less money spent to push the economy, in a vicious downward cycle). No traction there, either. Spent last night exploring the birth of the first transcontinental telegraph, which in many ways also signaled the birth of modern America. Nice, my wife said, but where's the drama? Where, indeed.

So, next? Wish I knew. Now if you'll excuse me, I think I see a couple of rabbit holes over there that need some exploring....



Progress on Detroit - the book, not the city

September 26, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history

We're at that crucial stage of book production - editing and copy editing - which is both grueling and fun. Grueling because a couple of sharp-eyed editors are plying me with questions about facts, word choice and writing style. Fun because this makes the publication of the book, due out in April, feel even closer.

The next step will be proofreading the pages, which is when the book begins to feel real in a physical sense. And I've already had a sneak peak at the cover, and am very pleased with the way it's turning out. I'll post a copy of it once we have the final version.

Meanwhile I'm slogging along with a little teaching and some freelance work while trying to figure out a next project. It's an odd process, trying to zero in one something that will bear two or three years of obsession, and that would be of sufficiently wide interest to make doing the project worth the time and effort.





Joe Hill, and the killing of an icon

August 27, 2011

Tags: history, current events, nonfiction

There's a new book out next week - not by me - that comes the closest I've seen to figuring out what really happened in a century-old murder case that led to the execution by firing squad of Joe Hill, a Wobbly organizer and songwriter who became the face of radical American labor.

The book is The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon, by William M. Adler, who my Detroit friends might recognize as the author of Land of Opportunity, the story of the eastside Chambers brothers crack empire.

Hill, whose songs were largely parodies of contemporary pop music and religious hymns, was an agitator of the lyrical kind. Others wrote songs for the Industrial Workers of the World - the Wobblies - but none with as much wit, or drive. So when Hill turned up wounded in Salt Lake City on the same night a father and son were murdered in the family grocery store, Hill made a convenient suspect for the Salt Lake City police. It didn't help Hill's case that the Wobblies were actively organizing in Utah at the time, much to the consternation of the local business leaders and the local newspapers.

And drawing on a long-forgotten letter, Adler establishes to a point of near certainty that Hill was not guilty of the killings, that he had been shot by a rival for a woman's affections (it's her letter Adler found) unrelated to the grocery store case, and that Hill had been railroaded by a local power structure blinded by his radicalism and intent on stomping out the Wobblies. The New York Times this morning has a nice overview of the book and Adler's findings.

Incidentally, Hill's story overlaps with that of the Colorado coal field war and the Ludlow Massacre, the subject of my first book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West. The grocery-store killings occurred in January 1914; the Ludlow Massacre came that April; Hill was executed in November 1915. While Hill's trial and the coal field war were separate events, they both occurred against a backdrop of significant class frictions, upheaval, and a rich-poor gap that rivaled conditions today.

I encourage you all to pick up The Man Who Never Died. Even if you're not that interested in the history of radical Americans like Hill and the Wobblies, Adler has done a fine job of finding the human story behind a complex set of details, and lays them out in a highly readable narrative. It is a story of injustice, but also about an odd sense of chivalry, and Hill's eventually fatal desire to keep his lover's name out of the public eye.

Ultimately, it turns out Hill likely was executed by a Utah firing squad because he put too much faith in the American court system's ability to discern truth, and justice. Maybe now the truth has won out. But it's far too late for justice to have been served.

Embedded here is a contemporary cover of one of Hill's best-known songs.





On Alaska, ice, and other photos

July 31, 2011

Tags: personal, books, nonfiction

For the past week I've been out of reach of handy Internet access, aboard a cruise ship sailing the Inland Passage through British Columbia and southeastern Alaska. Friends over the years have reported back on the inexpressible beauty of the place, so our expectations were high. And they were exceeded. It really is spectacular.

Part of the trip was a side run up a fjord called the Tracy Arm, near Juneau. The deeper into the fjord we went, the more mesmerizing the scenery became, until we stopped within view of the face of the Sawyer Glacier - and in front of a field of ice floes. The captain of our ship, the Norwegian Star, explained later that he decided not to move closer because he feared he wouldn't be able to turn the ship around. It was windy and cold and wet - and beautiful.

In Seattle now, with a talk and signing set for this afternoon at Elliott Bay Books. It will be hard not to talk about Alaska, too....

(This is a slide show and could take a bit to load depending on your browser and Internet link).




The reason for the long weekend

July 3, 2011

Tags: history, current events, nonfiction

You know, some of those guys could really make a political argument:
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, (more…)


What I said at Ludlow

June 26, 2011

Tags: history, current events, nonfiction

It was hot in Ludlow yesterday. Fortunately the United Mine Workers of America, which maintains the memorial site, built a roof over the picnic area a number of years ago. So for the 2 1/2-hour gathering we had shade, and a nice breeze. And more than 100 people.

I saw some familiar faces, and met folks I've come to know through Facebook. The themes of the speeches, as one might suspect, focused on labor, and the benefits of unions, and the continuing assault on the right to collective bargaining.

Among the speakers was Annaliese Bonacquista, the great granddaughter of a 1913-14 Colorado coal striker, who passed along some emotional stories about her family history, and the legacy of Ludlow. The keynote was by Marty Hudson, a key figure in the United Mine Workers, who talked about how the coal barons of the past aren't necessarily gone. His brother was among those underground when the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia blew up last year. The brother narrowly missed joining the 29 men killed that morning (I wrote an op-ed on that theme last April).

I talked a bit about the history of Ludlow, and how it remains relevant today -- even if most people have no idea what happened in Colorado nearly a century ago. My prepared comments are after the jump.


(more…)


On d. boon, the desert, and the flash of the unpredictable

June 22, 2011

Tags: current events, nonfiction

The dust cloud first caught my eye. I’d been on the road for 90 minutes or so this morning, was just east of Palm Springs on Interstate 10, when the puff of dust exploded on the other side of the median. It was a gray car and it seemed to wobble a bit as the driver, who’d drifted off the freeway onto the desert space between us, struggled to regain control. For a flash the car was pointed directly at me in the eastbound left-most lane, then it veered sharply away and across three lanes of westbound traffic as other cars, their drivers stomping on the brakes, seemed to genuflect. The spinning gray car flipped into the air and landed on its roof off the edge of the freeway, kicking up yet another burst of desert dust.

And then I was past it.

It’s remarkable how much detail you absorb in the span of a second. Or maybe two. And how simple functions momentarily move beyond reach. I couldn’t remember how to dial 911 through my car’s voice-activated system so fumbled to pull the cell phone from my pocket, the irony hovering while I punched in the numbers. It rang through on the dashboard speaker and I told the dispatcher where I was and what I had seen. “You’re probably going to need an ambulance,” I said, thinking to myself: Or the coroner.

When you drive a lot, you evolve a detached sense of safety. Crashes happen to other people. A whisper of anxiety might come as you pass roadside crosses draped with plastic flowers, but it’s for other people’s pain. Other people’s losses. We get lulled into a sense of invulnerability.

After the 911 call ended the stereo kicked back on, piping in music from my iPod, set on shuffle. I don’t remember what song was playing when the other car did its freeway shimmy then flip. But the next song up was “History Lesson Part 2,” an old blast of punk by The Minutemen, whose lead singer, d. boon, died when the van he was riding in rolled off the same freeway farther east, just over the Arizona border – which I would soon pass as I headed to Phoenix. I nudged the cruise control down a few ticks. I was going to be early anyway.

After settling into my hotel room, I called up Palm Springs news sites to learn that, miraculously, no one was hurt in the rollover. Though early Tuesday, on the same stretch of the I-10, a woman died in a ball of flames after drove onto the freeway in the wrong direction and head on into a tractor-trailer truck.

I think I’ll drive home along a different route.


Taking a road trip into the past - join us Sunday at Ludlow

June 21, 2011

Tags: personal, books, nonfiction

The Ludlow Monument. Photo: Margaret Mercier-Martelle.
I leave tomorrow to spend a week or so on the road doing some freelance stories during a trip framed around a tragedy - the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, the event that launched me on the path to writing books.

Regular readers here know the basics. During the 1913-1914 Colorado coal strike, 11 children and two mothers died when, at the end of a daylong gun battle, Colorado National Guardsmen torched the Ludlow tent colony. The women and children were hiding from the bullets in a hole dig beneath the floorboards of a tent; as the fire raged above them, it sucked the oxygen out of the air. As tragic as the deaths were, they were only a fraction of the 75 people who were killed during that strike, most of them shot to death in the most violent showdown between labor and capital in U.S. history.

Yet few remember this moment. A few years after the Ludlow Massacre, the United Mine Workers union bought the site of the tent colony and have managed it as a roadside spot of reflection, and homage. In recent years, at the end of June, the union has hosted a memorial service to try to keep alive the memory of the dead from that day. It begins at 10 a.m. Sunday at the Ludlow Memorial site a short drive north of Trinidad along Interstate 25. I'm honored to be part of the line up of speakers this year.

Despite winning designation as a National Landmark a couple of years ago, the Ludlow Massacre remains a forgotten moment in U.S. history. That's partly, I think, because it happened here in the West, while our collective national memory is East Coast-centric. And I say that as someone born in Maine and raised and educated there and in Western New York. I came with an east Coast bias, in other words, but after more than a dozen years living in California I’ve come to recognize that, in a historical sense, the nation tips eastward. Which makes sense. The United States began in the East, and the bulk of our formative history lies in the East, so that’s where our memory is focused.

But more significantly, Ludlow is forgotten because it involved labor. And that's a dark hole in our collective memory. Workplace safety, the eight-hour workday and the 40-hour week, health insurance and retirement plans and everything else that we find ourselves once again fighting to protect, those all began with the labor movement. And as the strength of labor has faded, so have those hard-won benefits - and the middle class along with them.

That old maxim seems to be coming true, that those who forget the past are destined to repeat it. Let's hope we don't wind up repeating tragedies like Ludlow. Let's hope all this national anger, frustration and class division builds into something positive.


A different way of writing

June 15, 2011

Tags: writing, history, nonfiction, fiction

So with The Fear Within launched and Detroit: A Biography safely in my editor's hands, I've been poking around for the next project while catching up on my general reading. I have a couple of ideas and am researching whether there's enough material available to make a book out of them, though at this stage I'm not too optimistic. Neither involves people who left much of a paper trail, which makes it nearly impossible to put flesh on the skeletons of their compelling stories. But we'll see.

Meanwhile, I've dusted off a mystery I've been nibbling away at for a number of years now, which is fun to work with, and has me contemplating the different requirements of writing history, and writing fiction. I was at a dinner party a couple of weeks ago for the launch of Adam Hochschild's new book, To End All Wars, his history of the antiwar movement in England surrounding The Great War, and he made a comment to the effect that fiction writing differs from history writing in that with a novel, what you write only has to be plausible. With history, what you write has to be true.

Adam was talking about some of the characters in his book, including a brother and sister who found themselves in key positions on opposite sides of the war, the kind of dramatic tension that would make you roll your eyes if it appeared in a novel. Yet here they were in real life. In the novel I'm working on, I keep encountering a similar friction. Not between plausibility and truth, but between what a character would do, and what a character should do.

It's a subtle, yet crucial, distinction. Making sure actions are true to character is obvious. But as I frame a scene, I keep stumbling over the issue of should my character do this? Is this action necessary? Does it help the reader understand the story, or reveal a subtle dynamic? Or am I just indulging my imagination?

So 40,000 words in, with the victims dead, the two main plot lines firmly established, and the characters in full dress, I find myself becalmed by second-guessing. I know where the story lines go, and how the threads come together at the end. I just don't know where the characters go in the next few thousand words. It is the difference between writing what happened, and creating what happened.

Ah, writer's block. Nice of you stop by unannounced. A short visit, I hope?


On fear, the past, and the present

June 4, 2011

Tags: history, current events, nonfiction

Eugene and Peggy Dennis arrive at the Foley Square courthouse for his sentencing.
Sixty years ago this coming Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the convictions in the Dennis v. U.S. case, which is the focus of my latest book. The Los Angeles Times was kind enough to print an op-ed I wrote on the subject (or will be kind; it's available online now and is to be printed in Monday's paper).

The case was one of the major stories of the year (1949), though it has faded into obscurity, overwhelmed in our consensus memory by the Hollywood 10, McCarthyism, Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs. Yet the Dennis case was the most troubling of all those events. For a time, the U.S. government in effect outlawed a specific political belief, undercutting what it is that we tell ourselves sets our democracy apart. This story displays exactly how fragile these basic civil liberties are.

The piece summarizes the case, and then concludes:
"Sixty years later, it might be hard to build up much sympathy for a dozen communists at the peak of the Cold War. But in this era of Patriot Act-permitted warrantless searches, surreptitious surveys of library and bookstores users' records, and extralegal rendition of terrorism suspects to secret interrogation sites, we would be wise to recognize that the rights we deny others out of fear, we eventually deny ourselves."
I encourage you to head over to the article and read it, and invite your comments there or here.


Wishing a friend success with a great book

May 14, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history

A couple of years ago a close friend, food writer Robin Mather, already suffering from some health problems, hit a buzz saw of personal crises: Her husband told her he wanted a divorce, and she lost her job writing for the Chicago Tribune (part of the same corporate convulsion that cast me off from the Los Angeles Times). She wound up retreating to the small lakeside cottage in a remote part of western Michigan that she and her husband had bought anticipating a retirement home some years down the road.

We spent a lot of time on Skype talking, me from my desk in sunny Irvine, Robin from the metaphorical morass of gray clouds at the edge of the Michigan lake. Neither of us is suited to wallowing in our own miseries, and Robin's plan quickly took shape. We're writers, after all, and the best thing a writer can do is write, So she proceeded, with the help of some friends and the irreplaceable agent we share, Jane Dystel, to write her way out of the clouds,

The result is The Feast Nearby: How I lost my job, buried a marriage, and found my way by keeping chickens, foraging, preserving, bartering, and eating locally (all on $40 a week), which is due out in a couple of weeks. I have an early copy, and finished reading it last night, coincidentally the eve of my own party to launch The Fear Within.

Robin's done a splendid job. The concept of the book was to write about her year trying to piece her life back together, while also trying to live within a severely diminished budget while patronizing and supporting local food producers, from truck farmers to butchers. Organized seasonally, it is a collection of essays, accented by recipes, of engaging with life, knitting together a fresh network of new friends, enjoying the benefits of relationships with geographic neighbors (not just our new communities here in the Internet), and even the restorative powers of a walk through untrammeled woods. In the end, she writes, the clouds began clearing:
The good food that I found near my home strengthened and nourished me and, together with the work of my own hands, gave me a sense of pride, security, and peace that I have never known before. The search for it led me to new friends and new ways of thinking about myself and the world in which I live. It provided me with the luxury of having enough to share, even on the spur of the moment, when money was tight and the future uncertain.

My life is newly deep and full of riches. I hope yours is as well.
Great writing. And a wonderfully evocative look at getting your feet back under you when you've been knocked astride. Pick up a copy.

Oh, and Robin's recently moved on from the solitary life on the lake. She's now an editor of Mother Earth News.


On author James B. Stewart, and circles of lies

May 11, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history, reviews

Today's Los Angeles Times carries my review of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James B. Stewart's new book, Tangled Webs: How False Statements Are Undermining America: From Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff, which is a detailed look at some notable cases of high-profile lying scandals from the 2000s. The review begins:
"For a nation whose romanticized history includes a young George Washington confessing to chopping down a cherry tree because he 'cannot tell a lie,' we seem to do an awful lot of lying. But then, the story about Washington is a lie itself, so maybe we're just being true to our national character.

"In his new book, 'Tangled Webs,' Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James B. Stewart dives deeply into four recent cases of high-profile conspiracies of lies. What he finds does not say good things about us.
As I mention in the review, the book almost chokes on the amount of detail Stewart has dug up from inside each of the scandals: Martha Stewart, the role of White House officials in outing Valerie Plame as an undercover CIA operative; Barry Bonds; and Bernie Madoff.

Yet the details are worth wading through. Stewart does a good job at looking at how the powerful (and the powerless) react in times of stress, and challenge. In the end, it is the ease with which so many choose to lie, and the myriad reasons, that is most sobering. And before readers cheer over clear evidence that seems to confirm the belief that top figures in the Bush II White House saw the truth as a malleable thing, remember Bill Clinton's wriggling when caught with his pants down. Lying to the American people is not the hallmark of one political party or another. And, as Stewart makes clear, it's hardly limited to politics.

So why is it so prevalent in American life? Because people keep getting away with it. And nothing breeds success like success. Leavened, apparently, by a few well-told lies.


Just Kids - a (slightly) counter opinion

May 4, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history

Patti Smith signing Just Kids for a fan at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Photo credit: Scott Martelle.
Now that the buzz-saw of writing and researching the Detroit project has died away, I've started chipping away at an embarrassingly high stack of books that I really should have read by now, some by friends, some that have just struck my curiosity. And since it's too late to review the books for publications (and I couldn't review many of them because of personal conflicts), I'll be sprinkling some short takes into the blog mix over the next few weeks.

I finished Patti Smith's Just Kids the other day, her National Book Award-winning memoir of living and trying break through as an artist in Manhattan in the late 1960-early 1970s. The book couldn't live up to its advance buzz, and true to form, I liked it, but also was disappointed by it.

Manhattan was defined by creative counter-cultural energy in that era, and Smith and her lover/friend Robert Mapplethorpe hovered near the center of it. To read Smith's take on the time was interesting, and valuable, but it also fell short of full truth, I feel. I was talking about the book with some other reviewers at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books over the weekend, and we agreed that she over-romanticized what were nearly impossible living conditions in sections of Manhattan - heatless flats, hustling sex for food money, drug deaths of those who experimented too wildly.

And Smith's depiction of her relationship with Mapplethorpe, who became one of the most divisive photographic artists of the era, was remarkably thin on two levels. First was their romantic relationship, which transformed radically as Mapplethorpe began embracing his homosexuality - a revelation that would cause deep emotional turmoil for most women, but that Smith all but shrugs off. And despite her closeness to Mapplethorpe, and her descriptions of the different art forms he was experimenting with before he shifted fully into photography, by the end of the book you have little sense of what was driving his - or her - art beyond Mapplethorpe's lust for fame.

There's plenty of name-dropping in the book, and one charming anecdote of the poet Allen Ginsberg, who was gay, mistaking the rail-thin Smith for a young man and trying to pick her up at a food automat. But mostly it is a thin revisit to an era. By definition Smith limited the book to the New York/Mapplethorpe years, but one wonders about her emotional reaction to the death of her husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, five years after Mapplethorpe died of AIDS. The deaths of two significant players in the emotional life of a poet are worth exploring, and reading about. But Smith doesn't touch on it.

In the end, I suspect the book received such critical acclaim, and strong sales, because it serves less as an informative memoir of two influential artists than as a generational touchstone. For those who lived through that era, Smith's book is something of a vicarious trip down memory lane. For those too young to have tasted New York in the 1960s and 1970s, Just Kids offers a small, if somewhat romanticized, window into an era. But for a memoir by a poet, Just Kids lacks significant emotional punch.


Day Two at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

May 2, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, fiction

The 2011 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books
It was a little warmer, felt a little less crowded, and was a lot of fun for the second day in a row. And oh, yeah, I was on a panel.

The theme was "History: Democracy and its Discontents," moderated by Celeste Fremon, who came incredibly well-prepared, and included Barry Siegel and Thaddeus Russell. It made for an interesting conversation, with Russell talking about his A Renegade History of the United States, a "ground up" look at influential but ignored sectors of American history with some iconoclastic takes on such things as prostitutes as early feminists.

Siegel, a friend and former Los Angeles Times colleague, as well as a Pulitzer Prize-winner, talked about his Claim of Privilege, and the lie that stands behind the U.S. government's ability to evade court disclosures of uncomfortable information by claiming to do so would violate a state secret. And I talked about The Fear Within, which has a nice overlap with Siegel's book (both of our subjects turned on decisions by the same Vinson Supreme Court).

The session was aired live on Book TV over CSPAN-2, and via its website, and is now safely lodged in its archives. So if you missed it, you can watch it at your leisure here. And yeah, it's true, a TV camera adds a few pounds (but then, so did the dinner at El Cholo afterward with my wife). The program begins with the tail end of a prior, unrelated interview, but you can move beyond that). Unfortunately, there was no link for embedding the program on my site.


Day One at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

April 30, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, fiction

Patti Smith signing for fans after her panel discussion with Dave Eggers, moderated by David Ulin.
The first day of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at the new place -- University of Southern California instead of UCLA -- went pretty well. I blogged about a couple of panels for the LA Times' Jacket Copy, one on science and belief, and the other on maps.

Also got a picture of Patti Smith as she was signing books and talking with fans. Which is really all the reason you need to do a fresh blog post over here.

My panel is tomorrow at 2 p.m. West Coast time (5 p.m. in the East). It's being carried live by Book TV, on CSPN2. Which makes me wonder whether I need to go, or can I just stay home and watch myself from my living room?


Reviewer: 'The Fear Within' a 'cogent nuanced account'

April 29, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history, reviews

Well, it's been a couple days of good news around here. First came word that Book TV would be airing live my Sunday panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Now comes the first major-media review of The Fear With: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial.

The review runs in the Los Angeles Times this Sunday, but is already available online. And I'm very pleased that the reviewer, Wendy Smith, likes the book, calling it a "cogent, nuanced account." She concludes:
Writing in the 21st century, when the passions of the Cold War era have faded, Martelle does not pretend that all communists persecuted in the postwar years were blameless victims. The defendants in Dennis were tough political activists, and they did believe that socialism should replace the capitalist economic system whose injustices had led them to the Communist Party. But they were not spies, and they had taken no direct action to overthrow the U.S. government; they were tried for their beliefs under a law that violated the United States' first and most vital amendment. Martelle's scrupulous, lucid history resonates with contemporary relevance because it reminds us that freedom of speech and thought are most essential, not when we are feeling most confident, but when we are most afraid.

Beyond saying nice things about the caliber of the work, Smith did a very nice job summarizing the details of what it's about. Let's hope it's the first of many such reviews. Oh, and if it is, don't worry, I won't be blogging about them all. But I will be adding them to the "Reviews etc." tab above, where you can also find past reviews of Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and American Democracy on Trial.


'Mr. Martelle, are you ready for your close up?'

April 26, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, book festival

Well, I better be. And in a good way. Book TV has posted its schedule for coverage of the 2011 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, and it lists my panel for live airing at 2 p.m. (5 p.m. eastern time) on Sunday.

So if you can't make it to the festival in person, you can join us virtually.

The panel, as I've posted before, is called "Democracy and Its Discontents,' and it should be an interesting discussion. I've known co-panelist (and Pulitzer-winning journalist) Barry Siegel for a number of years, and his book, Claim of Privilege, is a tremendous and engaging story of the lie that sits at the heart of the government's legal right to claim a "state secrets" exemption from court actions. My book looks at the court case that, for a time, effectively outlawed communism here in the land of the free, and in defiance of the First Amendment. I haven't read Thaddeus Russell's work, so am looking forward to hearing about his A Renegade History of the United States.

I hope you all can join us, either in person or over the tube.


Los Angeles Times Festival of Books details

April 19, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, fiction

Well, there's less than two weeks to go before the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which I mentioned before, but I've been remiss in passing along details of my appearance.

The panel is called "History: Democracy and its Discontents," and will be at 2 p.m. May 1 in Room 101 Taper Hall. Since my book is a narrative retelling of the trial of the leaders of the American Communist Party, I'm taking the May Day schedule as a good omen.

If you've never been, the Festival of Books is a great two-day literary orgy. This year it moves to the University of Southern California campus (used to be at UCLA), so I don't know what to expect in terms of fresh logistical challenges. But it is a great chance to spend time with a lot of authors and fellow book lovers. I'll be hanging around both days, and signing books after our panel. So look me up.


Wanna buy a bookstore?

April 13, 2011

Tags: books, nonfiction, fiction

There aren't very many independent bookstores in Orange County, California, where I live, so I was sad to get an e-newsletter earlier this week from Tom Ahern, owner of Latitude 33 Bookshop in Laguna Beach, that he is planning to retire, which casts the future of his great little bookshop in some doubt. But he's hoping to find a buyer.

The store is a couple of blocks from the beach itself, a welcome part of the mix of art galleries, clothing boutiques and other high-end retail shops in downtown Laguna. It's just a bit too far from my house to be a regular stop, but when I've been in there the staff has been friendly and helpful. And while the size of the store limits the breadth of the offerings, it is pleasantly diverse.

All communities need a good (independent) bookstore, and a place like Laguna Beach, with it's upper-income households and artistic bent, should be able to support the place. I hope someone comes forward to buy it. If writing books about obscure moments in history paid a little better, I'd consider it myself.

From Ahern's newsletter announcing his pending retirement:
My reasons: I turn seventy this year and my wife has health problems that require more attention than I can give while still running the store. I don't want to shut the doors: hopefully, a book lover or group of book lovers will take over and keep Latitude 33 running.

I have the best staff ever: two former Barnes & Noble branch managers and three incredible book lovers. A new owner will be able to take over the portion of the store now occupied by Silver Images. There is a future for service-intensive independent bookstores, as the megastore chains decline. Much can be done to help Latitude 33 do even better, but recently, I have not had the time and energy to implement them.


The moment we've all been waiting for

March 31, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, fiction

Well, at least I have. Came home to find in the mail a copy from the advance shipment of The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial. Handsome little bugger, if I do say so myself. And the folks at Rutgers University Press tell me that the books are on their way to distributing warehouses, so should start showing up in stores (and fulfilling advance orders) in a few weeks.

At the same time, the manuscript for Detroit: A Biography, gets shipped off in the next few days (cleaning up a couple of details, but it's for all intents and purposes done). I'm looking forward to a taking a couple of weeks to catch up with some freelance articles and then start forming the next project. I have a couple of things I'm looking into, but am a long way from committing - or getting a commitment.

Oh, and it's a beautiful 80 degrees here today with a brilliant washed blue sky. I suspect a beer on the patio will be in my near future.


On a (short) look at the Peace Corps' (long) history

March 23, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, fiction

The Los Angeles Times today carries a review I wrote of its former foreign correspondent Stanley Meisler's history of the Peace Corps. The book is When the World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years, and as I say in the review it's a pretty good overview. Look at it as taking a survey course in the history of the institution.

From my review:
Despite his clear affinity for the Corps, Meisler doesn't gloss over the problems, from ineffective volunteers to wrong-headed staffing goals and policies. His final chapter asks, "Does the Peace Corps Do Any Good?," and it's a good question to ponder. Statistically, much of the work done by volunteers has had limited effect on making broad changes in the quality of life for the world's impoverished.

But, as Meisler argues, some gains can't be measured by a bureaucrat's spreadsheet. And in many ways, the Peace Corps' gains might have come to the U.S., as legions of former volunteers used their experiences as springboards to public service careers, including such political figures as former Sen. Christopher Dodd, Carol Bellamy (who went from New York City politics to lead the agency for a time) and Donna Shalala, the former secretary of Health and Human Services.
I should note that while Meisler and I both worked at the Times, we've never met.


The 2011 LA Times Festival of Books, and me

March 13, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, fiction

Some more good news to announce: I'll be appearing at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books again this Spring, this time at the new venue at the University of Southern California (Used to be held at UCLA).

Details can still change but at this point I'll be talking about The Fear Within on a panel called "History: Democracy and Its Discontents," at 12:30 p.m. on May 1 (May Day, fittingly enough - I'll have to remember to wear red). The moderator will be author/journalist Celeste Fremon. So far, only one fellow panelist has been lined up - my former LA Times colleague Barry Siegel, author most recently of Claim of Privilege: A Mysterious Plane crash, A Landmark Supreme Court Case and the Rise of State Secrets, a riveting look at the sketchy legal case behind the legal precedent that gives the federal government the right to not respond to subpoenas if it invokes a "state secret" excuse. (Barry also offered a wonderful blurb for my book, so I owe him lunch). The third panelist is to be named later.

I'll update the blog when more details, including the specific site for the panel, are available. It will be followed by a book-signing, so if you plan to attend the Festival of Books please bring (or buy there) your copy of The Fear Within (available for pre-order at online sites and independent bookstores) and I'll be happy to sign it for you.


The kind of thing that makes an author very happy

March 12, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, fiction

Two of the defendants among supporters at a rally. Library of Congress photo.
From the forthcoming Publishers Weekly, the leading trade journal in the book industy:

The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial
Scott Martelle. Rutgers Univ., $26.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-8135-4938-5

In this illuminating examination of a troubling episode in America's past, veteran journalist (and PW contributor) Martelle (Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West) recounts the celebrated 1949 trial of 11 American Communists for violating the Smith Act, which outlawed advocating overthrow of the government by force. All were public spokesmen of the minuscule American Communist Party. During nine stormy months, the prosecution was reduced to quoting Karl Marx and obscure Communist texts to prove that the defendants had advocated violent revolution. Martelle presents convincing evidence that the judge favored the prosecution, goaded by defense lawyers who the author admits were tactless and quarrelsome. In the end the judge sent every defendant and many of the lawyers to prison. Few readers of this gripping history will quarrel with Martelle's conclusion that the defendants suffered for expressing unpopular opinions. Further, says Martelle, many Americans, including political leaders, continue to proclaim that those who want to destroy America should not be permitted to "hide behind" the Constitution. Photos. (May)
Reviewed on: 03/14/2011


Any Human Heart and the little screen

February 13, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, fiction

Matthew MacFadyen as Logan Mountstuart and Hayley Atwella as Freya Deverell. Credit: Joss Barratt, PBS
It's not often I look forward to a televised dramatization of a novel, but I'm setting the DVR for tonight's Masterpiece Theatre rendition of William Boyd's spectacular Any Human Heart. Lord, I hope they don't screw it up.

Any Human Heart is one of my favorite books of the past decade or so, a Zelig-style novel (think Forrest Gump) that traces the evolution of art and war through 20th Century Europe, with just enough United States tossed in to give it cross-Atlantic appeal. There are plenty of flaws to it, but as a broad piece of work, it stands up well. Incidentally, I missed Any Human Heart when it first came out, and turned to it after Kinky Friedman told me it was his favorite book. When a serious book draws a clown's interest, it never hurts to give it a read.

In truth, I've never had much faith in adaptations of complicated novels. Too much of the power of the novel lies in the intricacies of plot and character, and television by its nature elides the intricacies for the grand and the obvious. But enough adaptations have worked over the years -- Timothy Hutton's televised Nero Wolfe novels leap to mind -- that I'll enter this one with an open mind. And the early reviews give hope.

I'll be curious to see what you all think about it.


On football, and our passion for violence

February 5, 2011

Tags: current events, nonfiction

The always insightful Garry Wills had an interesting take on The New York Review of Books blog yesterday heading into Super Bowl Weekend, which has become our annual celebration of violence.

Wills' point of departure is the viciousness at the heart of the sport, and the irony that the very equipment meant to protect players becomes, when worn by 300-plus pound behemoths, weapons.
This “protection” is like the boxing gloves mandated by the Marquess of Queensberry Rules in 1867. Some supposed they were meant to protect a fighter’s hands. Their real function was to make it possible to strike at an opponent’s head with maximum force. Back in the days of bare-knuckle fights, the only way to do real damage to another man’s head, without crippling oneself, was to break his nose with the heel of the hand. Otherwise, the long bouts were waged with wallops to the muscle-padded torso. The gloves made it possible to score knockouts to the head—and to do that head permanent damage, registered in the high degree of dementia among fighters.

The same “gain” has been achieved for football with the heavy helmet.
The chilling result is the high number of former pro football players suffering from trauma-induced dementia. And it becomes even more tragic when you consider the number of kids who have been killed or suffered crippling injuries from the sport as they emulate the toughness lauded on television every Sunday.
Between 1982 and 2009 according to the National Center for Catastrophic Injury Research, 295 fatalities directly or indirectly resulted from high-school football. From 1977 to 2009, at all levels, 307 cervical-cord injuries were recorded. And between 1984 and 2009 there were 133 instances of brain damage—not slowly accruing damage, as in the case of C.T.E., but damage upon impact.
All of which has me mulling this national ethos that celebrates violence. Fights make the hockey game. We celebrate boxers who, by definition, earn their livings by committing felonies. The most violent and macabre movies and TV shows become cultural icons, then we react with disgust when life imitates art. John Hinckley's attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan, emulating the character Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver stands as the ultimate crossover.

In the back of my mind lurks the sections of the current book project about the 1970s and 1980s in Detroit, when the gun slinging drug-dealer became a folk hero to a generation of youths who saw - and not in the romanticized nihilistic sense - nothing but prison or death in their futures. The hit movie "Scarface, though set in Miami, captured that sense in all of its gory glory. Which, of course, was a remake of a Depression-era movie about the violent gangster world propelled by Prohibition. So this thing of ours - the glorification of violence - is nothing new. And I'm as guilty as the next. I love hockey, fights and all, and will be watching the Super Bowl on Sunday, though I hope I have the good grace to wince instead of cheer when a player gets knocked senseless.

More broadly, though, I wonder what history will have to say about us, and the choices we've made as a culture, and as a political society. I used to think we have come to treat free-market capitalism, with all of its faults, as a national religion, albeit one without a soul. But I'm beginning to think that at a deeper level we worship, first, Darwinism, from our social policies to our entertainment choices to our sports. It's a faith in which only the tough survive. And that's not a good thing if we are to have any credibility when we say we value human life.

It reminds of that old David Gray song, "Let the Truth Sting," with its lyric, "If we're searching for peace, how come we still believe in hatred as the catalyst?"9K4N5ZN8ZM7X


The first advance review for The Fear Within

January 24, 2011

Tags: writing, history, nonfiction

I'm still in Detroit (for one more day) finishing up research for Detroit: A Biograhy, and received a nice email from the publicity folks at Rutgers University Press: the first advance review for The Fear Within from Kirkus Reviews. They seem to like it, which is always reassuring for a writer. It's in the February 1 issue, limited to subscribers, but I was lucky enough to get a copy of it.
An evenhanded revisiting of the trial of the U.S. Communist Party leaders that tested the pernicious efficacy of the Smith Act.

Journalist Martelle (Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West, 2007) focuses on Dennis v. the United States of America, which had dramatic and disturbing ramifications to First Amendment rights to this day—e.g., the Patriot Act, which the author mentions but does not dwell on. In August 1945, Soviet spy turned FBI informer Elizabeth Bentley spilled incriminating evidence about leaders of the U.S. Communist Party, and the two-count indictment was handed down, charging 12 men with violating the Smith Act because they “unlawfully, willfully, and knowingly did conspire with each other” by their society and meetings to “teach and advocate the overthrow and destruction of the Government of the United States by force and violence.” Among the men were New York City Councilman Benjamin Davis, Jr., Daily Worker editor John Gates, decorated war hero Robert Thompson, top party leader William Z. Foster and general secretary Eugene Dennis. The nine-month Foley Square trial became a cause célèbre, not only for the anti-Communist crusaders, including Harry Truman, who was up for reelection, but for defenders of the First Amendment and radical activists who believed fiercely that the men were innocent and being framed for their beliefs. Their defense should have been an opportunity to defend their political views and present an education in Marxism and Leninism, as Dennis did vociferously during the trial, representing himself. Instead, Judge Harold R. Medina threw the book at them, and at their attorneys, who received jail time and disbarment. Not until the Warren Court of the ’50s did the “roundups” cease.

Martelle treads carefully through the evidence, keeping a close harness on his own sympathies for the defendants.


The Library of America's Greatest Hits

January 4, 2011

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, fiction

There's a bookshelf here in the home library* given over to the distinctive-looking spines of twenty or so editions from the Library of America, of which I am an unabashed fan. So it was warming to see the nonprofit publishing house's blog list its all-time bestsellers. And even more warming to see the titles, which I've pasted below.

Thomas JeffersonThere are three series of what I'll call, for lack of a better phrase, archival re-issues that have done stellar work over the years. The Library of America, obviously, but also Modern Library and Everyman's Library (both for profit and part of Random House).

Since much of reviewing and current coverage of books and publishing necessarily focuses on the new and the now, reissues by these houses often get overlooked. Which is a pity. All three help keep American literary culture alive and available, and relatively cheaply. The Library of America's top-seller, Thomas Jefferson: Writings, is 1,600 pages of essays, books and letters for $32.

Similarly, the Everyman's Library offers John Updike's series of four Rabbit Angstrom novels for $35

One of my favorite reading experiences was devouring that collection cover to cover, which reinforced for me what a remarkable thing Updike had achieved over the span of decades. And that's the beauty of these editions - that chance for discovery, or rediscovery, of significant writers of the past and, occasionally, the present.

The Library of America list:

Thomas Jefferson: Writings [1984] 217,518 copies
Mark Twain: Mississippi Writings [1982] 150,973
Abraham Lincoln: Speeches 1859–1865 [1989] 120,589
Abraham Lincoln: Speeches 1832–1858 [1989] 118,284
Walt Whitman: Poetry & Prose [1982] 114,790
Henry David Thoreau: A Week, Walden, etc. [1985] 114,367
Debate on the Constitution: Part One [1993] 112,273
Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays & Lectures [1983] 108,781
Robert Frost: Poems, Plays, & Prose [1995] 106,772
Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works [1988] 105,753

* "Home library" misstates it. The only two places without bookshelves are the kitchen (cookbooks are in the dining room) and the bathrooms. Even the garage has been pressed into service with six over-stuffed bookcases of the less-consulted, but too good to donate.


The year ahead

January 1, 2011

Tags: personal, books, nonfiction

It seems fitting that I'm starting off a year on the binary date of 1/1/11 waiting for files to write to my new wireless backup drive, which makes me sound a whole lot more tech-savvy than I really am (no installation comes without sputtered adjectives of the impolite kind; good thing computers don't have feelings). But while I'm watching the little loading bar click from left to right, I'm also looking ahead to what should be an interesting year.

My second book, The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial, is due out in May, though it likely will be available in mid-April. My third book, Detroit: A Biography, is due to the publisher April 1 (likely out in the spring of 2012). And I've already begun poking into a possible topic for the fourth book. Meanwhile, I'm off to Detroit next week for three more weeks of research and writing, then am signed up to teach two journalism courses during the Spring semester at Chapman University here in Orange County, which is a lot of fun (anyone interested in hiring a full-time journalism and nonfiction writing instructor, let me know).

I've already signed up for two book festivals, the Literary Orange on April 9 at UC Irvine, and, April 30-May 1, the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, moving this year to the University of Southern California campus (used to be at UCLA). Still forming plans for the launch of The Fear Within, which may involve some New York City appearances. And Margaret and I, looking ahead to our 25th wedding anniversary in August, are planning a summer trip to Alaska.

So it's a busy year ahead, and it was a busy year in the rearview mirror. I hope you all have a lot to look forward to this year, too.


A couple of my favorite books from the past year

December 26, 2010

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, fiction

Well, since so many other folks are posting lists of their favorite books from the past year, I figured I might as well join in. Unfortunately, I haven't read that many new books this year since my nose has been buried deeply in Detroit history for my own book project. So this is a short list. In fact, I'm limiting it to two books, one a novel and the other an essay collection.

The novel is Jon Clinch's The Kings of the Earth, a book I found myself contemplating long after my review ran in the Los Angeles Times. An excerpt from that piece:
The power of "Kings of the Earth" lies in the intricacies of the relationships among the Proctors; neighbor and childhood friend Preston, who serves as something of a guardian angel; the drug-dealing nephew and the police. Clinch is canny enough to move his characters through their own understated lives, hinting where he needs to as he skirts the obvious, and refusing to overlay a sense of morality on their actions. The reader is the jury.

And Clinch knows his territory, both psychologically and geographically, as in this snowless winter scene:

"The drive from town was one hill after another and the view from the top was always the same. Muted shades of brown and gray. Shorn fields encroaching on wind-ravaged farmhouses, not so much as a chained dog visible. A countryside full of that same old homegrown desolation…. They climbed the last hill to the farm and saw smoke coming not just from the chimney but from a big fire in the yard. Wind yanked at the smoke, and they turned up the dirt lane and went toward the fire."

The landscape informs the story as much as the internal terrain of the characters does, giving "Kings of the Earth" a grounding that is missing from many modern novels. We know the events that lie behind Clinch's novel were real, and that the novel is not. But the realism here is no less, with writing so vibrant that you feel the bite of a northern wind, smell the rankness of dissipated lives and experience the heart-tug of watching tenuous lives play out their last inches of thread.
The other book that stood out for me was Elif Batuman's highly enjoyable The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, a look at just what the title says. But like all great essay collections, the power here lies in the voice. From my review for the Cleveland Plain-Dealer:
If you're honest with yourself, you'll admit that when you hear "Russian literature," you think of college classes you wish you'd cut - and books that can seem as long as a Siberian winter.

But in this delightful debut, Elif Batuman makes you look at Russian literature from a fresh perspective, using an unusual blend of memoir and travelogue as she delves into the lives and personalities of such Russian literary giants as Isaac Babel, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy.

Many of the chapters are extensions of pieces Batuman first wrote for The New Yorker and n+1 and range geographically from Palo Alto, Calif., where Batuman managed to lose one of Babel's daughters at the local airport, to Uzbekistan, where Batuman spent a few months studying Uzbek.

In a sense, the details of Batuman's essays are less significant than the tone. She cruises through minor crises with an air of detached amusement, eye focused on the little absurdities that make travel -- and people -- fun.
So there you have it, my favorites of the year, though I should also mention my friend Bryan Gruley's second mystery, The Hanging Tree, which does just what you want a mystery to do -- creates a world in which you get to rummage around for a while. So now you have some ideas for what to do with all those gift cards you got for the holidays.


A book I'd have loved to have written

November 27, 2010

Tags: writing, history, nonfiction

Actually, there are two books mentioned here I'd have loved to have done myself, both by Bill Barich, a former New Yorker writer who now works in television. The first is his new Long Way Home: On the Trail of Steinbeck's America, a look at Americans during the 2008 election following the template of John Steinbeck's Travels With Charley (my profile of Barich, which ran in the Los Angeles Times today, is here).

It's an interesting, and intricately drawn, portrait of Americans as they wrestled with a souring economy, the stresses of a nation engaged in two wars, and a viciously split electorate masked somewhat by the ordinariness of everyday lives.

The other is one of Barich's earlier books, A Pint of Plain: Tradition, Change and the Fate of the Irish Pub, in which he rambled around Ireland (where he was living at the time) looking for a pub that would stand as the perfect Irish watering hole. In both cases, Barich approaches the projects in a way that I've long found appealing - using a somewhat thin template around which to build a detailed and meandering view of a people, and a place. In the case of Long Way Home, the model is revisiting Steinbeck's tour with his dog, detailed in Travels With Charley. In the latter, it is using a subjective quest as an excuse to take a close look at a cultural institution.

In both, the tack gives a writer an excuse to poke around in places one might otherwise not write about, let alone visit. Within that forced relevance, you can learn a lot about people, and place. And, occasionally, get a nice pint of ale.


Pages proofed, another step in the process

November 16, 2010

Tags: writing, history, nonfiction

Last week I sent back to the publisher my edits of the page proofs for The Fear Within, lending a nice sense of finality to my end of the production process. Well, not quite final. Still awaiting the index pages to proofread, but we're almost there.
I have to say I like the design and the feel of the pages. Looks like you'll have a chance to see them for yourselves come May, or even mid April (earlier, I was told the pub date would be March). This is one of the harder adjustments to make from a career in daily newspapers, and even doing this kind of blogging. Book publishing moves very slowly. Frustratingly slow, at times. But then, the books last a lot longer than newsprint.

But the odd part is that we'll be fully into the marketing phase of The Fear Within while I'll be finishing off the manuscript for the third book, Detroit: A Biography. So I feel like I'll be lapping myself, which is an odd sensation.

That means I'll soon be contemplating what to tackle next. And yes, I have some ideas, but I'm keeping them to myself for now. Those seeds need a little more germination time.


It's not all about history around here

November 5, 2010

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, cooking

In recent days two old friends have revamped a website and kick-started a blog as they look ahead to the publication of books. Both books are about food -- cookbooks, yes, but also about how we use food to engage with the world, and with others. And I have to admit, if I wasn't so deep into these history projects, I'd love to write a book along those lines.

But I'd fail. I can cook, and reasonably well, but for me cooking is a diversion, a chance to get creative in another venue. And never under-estimate the therapeutic value of a cold beer, a sharp knife and a bunch of veggies that need chopping. But writing about cooking just isn't something that comes naturally to me.

It does, though, for my friends Robin Mather and Domenica Marchetti. Robin's first book, The Garden of Unearthly Delights: Bioengineering and the Future of Food, was way ahead of the Michael Pollan/food integrity folks when it came out in 1995. Her upcoming book is The Feast Nearby: How I lost my job, buried a marriage and found my way by keeping chickens, foraging, preserving, bartering and eating locally (all on forty dollars a week), which I've had the pleasure of watching her conceive and execute from afar, and can't wait to read when it's out in May (the subtitle pretty much covers it all). Her blog is here.

And I'm also anxiously awaiting Domenica's new book, The Glorious Pasta of Italy, also due out next year, and am keeping up with her blog in the interim. I have both of her earlier works - The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy and Big Night In: More Than 100 Wonderful Recipes for Feeding Family and Friends Italian-Style - on the "heavy use" shelves near the kitchen. But a warning: Don't try making the risotto without checking with your cardiologist first (who knew arborio rice could absorb that much cheese?).

Both are updating their blogs with essays and recipes, and both are natural and engaging writers. So jog on over to see what they're up to, and what they're cooking, and find some news ways of engaging the world through your own kitchen. As for me, I'm diving back into 1920s Detroit...


A nice sense of accomplishment

October 30, 2010

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history

It's a nice fall day in Southern California, a little rain overnight and mixed clouds and sunshine this morning. Sitting at my desk in front of the open patio door I just finished proofreading the printed pages for The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial, which left me with a tremendous sense of satisfaction.

As you all know, I've been deep into researching and writing Detroit: A Biography, which has become (as you might imagine) an all-consuming project. I haven't read or thought much about The Fear Within in months as it has worked its slow way through the pre-publishing process. So it was with a fresh eye that I went through the page proofs over the past couple of days. And you know what? It's not a bad bit of work (there are a few passages for which I wouldn't mind a do-over, but it's a bit late for that now).

Can't wait for you all to be able to read it in March.


On 'The Cultures of War'

October 25, 2010

Tags: books, writing, nonfiction, history

One of the finalists in the current crop of National Book Award contenders is John W. Dower's The Cultures of War, which I was lucky enough to review this weekend for the Los Angeles Times.

Dower, a Pulitzer-winner for his earlier work examining Japan in the wake of World War Two, has put together a compelling set of case studies about what happens when a nation plans for war -- and the inevitability of it happening. He makes the case that the U.S. reaction to the 9/11 terror attacks more closely resembled the Japanese thinking that led up to the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor than to the American response. In both cases, the ensuing wars were conscious choices, rather than defensive acts.

One of the more chilling bits is Dower's depiction of the bomb-makers in the Manhattan Project and their rush to complete their work before Japan decided to surrender. They were positively itching to use the "device," as they called it, to measure its impact, a sordid example of the dehumanization that comes with war. In another vein, policy decisions were made to rain firebombs on Japanese and German cities, intentionally targeting civilian neighborhoods, which amounts to acts of terror.

I'll leave the argument of whether those were the proper policy decisions within the context of their time to others. But the decisions by government, not just military, officials do provide further evidence that not all the savagery of war happens on the battlefield.


Detroit, and a little labor history

October 22, 2010

Tags: writing, history, nonfiction

So we had our panel chat yesterday at the North American Labor History Conference, looking at the Detroit newspaper strike some 15 years after the fact. It was two hours, and while that seems long it zipped by quickly, and we barely scratched the surface. A friend taped the session and I'll post a link to the video once it's online.

If you're not familiar with it, the Detroit newspaper strike lasted five and a half years (19 months of strike, the rest as a lockout), cost the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press' corporate parents, Gannett and Knight-Ridder, more than $300 million, and was such a divisive event that Detroit, in many ways, has yet to recover from it. But it also helped create a new generation of community activists and local labor leaders (and set in motion the events that moved my family to Los Angeles after 18 months of walking the picket line).

The title of the panel, "Lessons and Legacies," aptly captured what we were trying to get at. The genesis of the panel was my hope that sufficient time has past for the hottest flames of passion to have died down so we can have reasonable conversations about what happened, and why. As it turns out there's still a lot of passion, and pain, judging by the audience comments (about 50 people showed up). I conceived of this panel as something of a conversation starter, and I'm hoping it will spur more discussions and dissections of the strike, including union leaders, activists and even management people, so we can get a better sense of what transpired. And what we can learn from it.

And lessons were learned, both good and bad. The upshot: Workers have to take responsibility for their own fates, even when represented by a union. And without real solidarity -- not, as one of the panelists, waving a sign and singing a song -- little can be gained.

Thanks to the panelists: Steve Babson, longtime professor in Wayne State’s Labor Studies Center (and an active strike supporter); Chris Rhomberg, a Visiting Associate Professor of Sociology at Fordham University in the Bronx, who is working on a book about the strike; and Donald Boggs, former president of the Metro Detroit AFL-CIO from 2000 to 2006, who weighed in on the impact of the strike on Detroit labor, and the community at large.

And beyond the weighty issues, it was great seeing and catching up with old friends. And Daymon Hartley brought in an array of photographs he took during the strike, many of which can be found at his website.


My personal recession

October 14, 2010

Tags: writing, history, nonfiction

I wrote this a bit ago and submitted it to a few places to see if someone might be interested in publishing it. The short answer: No (though I did have one overture that would have involved recasting the piece, which I didn't feel like doing). But I think it's worth getting it out there anyway. So here it is:

More than two years ago an email popped up from the managing editor of the Los Angles Times, a couple of rungs above my editor, asking if I was available for a chat. I was working from home that morning, part of the team covering the 2008 presidential election, so sent him my phone number. But I already sensed what we’d be talking about. A half-hour later I was out of a job, effective in late September 2008, and out of newspapers after some 30 years. The Great Recession – the worst since World War II – was suddenly my personal recession.

There have been some adjustments as I’ve morphed from a career newspaper staff writer into my own “brand” as a freelance journalist, author and part-time college instructor. My wife says I seem less stressed – losing daily deadlines will do that. But other, less visible strains have moved in. It took a while to stop swearing softly when Facebook friends moaned about the encroaching start of the workweek. Impulse buys are smothered before they can rise. We’re hoarding cash like survivalists save cans of soup, and college options for our two sons have gone decidedly down market.

Yet I’ve been luckier than others. With my wife’s job as a first grade teacher we’ve been able to stay afloat (we bought our house before the housing bubble so are okay there). But the California state budget crisis has meant layoffs and other cutbacks in public education, too. This year she faces furlough days with an 8% cut in wages, and a classroom once capped at 20 students is nudging toward 30 (a significant hike when dealing with the noise and energy of 5- and 6-year olds). We still have health coverage with a manageable co-pay thanks to her union contract but have set aside virtually nothing for retirement since my job evaporated. Later, I tell myself, we (more…)


New books by old friends

October 8, 2010

Tags: writing, history, nonfiction

There are a couple of books that landed here recently, both by friends, that I'm looking forward to diving into once the current stack clears (writing history involves reading history, and my stack of "to-reads" is rather forbidding).

First is Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed, by former LA Times colleague Judy Pasternak. The book expands on her wonderful series for the LA Times on the radioactive legacy of uranium mining on the Southwest. The cover illustration tells it all: A skull drawn with yellow sands.

The second is Working Words: Punching the Clock and Kicking Out the Jams, a anthology of writing on work edited by my old Detroit friend -- and tireless award-winning advocate for poetry and writing -- M.L. Liebler. There are pieces, poetry and lyrics from Amiri Baraka to Woody Guthrie to Lolita Hernandez to Walt Whitman.

Incidentally, I'll be joining M.L. for a reading Friday, October 22, as part of the North American Labor History Conference in Detroit. The plan, I think, is for me to read from The Fear Within, which will be the first public airing of the book, due out this coming March. The gig will be in the Walter P. Reuther Library on Cass.


This is what The Fear Within will look like

September 21, 2010

Tags: writing, history, nonfiction

This is always a fun moment in the life of a writer: Getting to see the cover of the next book. The design folks at Rutgers University Press did a very nice job with a difficult art element, an array of mugshots. I think it works very neatly. Still awaiting word on official pub date but it's looking like sometime in March.


Literary Orange, and other spring events

March 30, 2010

Tags: books, history, writing, fiction, nonfiction

Spring, it seems, is the season for speaking gigs. I'm on a panel April 10 at UC Irvine - conveniently near my house - as part of the Literary Orange program. It's a limited-access event, with day-long tickets $60 ($25 for students with IDs) and capped at 500 participants. My session is "History: True Stories, True Lives," with fellow authors Catherine Irwin and Vicki L. Ruiz, moderated by Mary Menzel.

The day's other panelists include Maile Meloy, whom I profiled for the LA Times a few months back, as well as former colleagues William Lobdell and Martin J. Smith (for whom I write occassionally at Orange Coast Magazine). So it should be an interesting day of engaging with committed readers and catching up with folks.

A few weeks later, I'm moderating a panel at the LA Times Festival of Books, where we'll be discussing literary biography (details in this earlier post). And I'm talking about the Ludlow Massacre as part of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute through UCI. I did a two-part talk this winter for the same organization, dissecting what's happened to newspapers. It was a lot of fun - a smart, caring audience. This session will be built around my book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West. I'm looking forward to it - love talking history with people who care about it.

Speaking of which, in May I'm on a panel in Santa Cruz at the Southwest Labor Studies Association, "The Lessons of Ludlow: Interethnic solidarity during the Great Colorado Coalfield War," built around a documentary-in-progress by Alex Johnston. The panel also will include Zeese Papanikolas, author of Buried Unsung: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre, a smart and dedicated scholar I met for the first time at another conference last year in Colorado. I'm looking forward to seeing and talking on a panel with him again.

If you make ay of these events, be sure to track me down and say hello....


Some updates, and Roger Ebert

February 21, 2010

Tags: writing, books, nonfiction, movies, biography

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

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

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

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

Makes me wonder how this profile might have differed if Jones had been less concerned about what the subject of his piece thought about it.


On Salinger, eco-terror and The Onion Field killer

January 28, 2010

Tags: books, history, writing, fiction, nonfiction

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

Good news, that.

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

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

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

Yes, I'm ready for a nap.


Last-minute gift suggestions - books, of course

December 19, 2009

Tags: books, history, writing, fiction, nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Random House and the rights grab

December 15, 2009

Tags: books, history, writing, fiction, nonfiction

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

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


On Elif Batuman and lovers of Russian literature

December 14, 2009

Tags: books, history, writing, fiction, nonfiction

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

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

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

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

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


Who knew Pops was a pothead?

December 1, 2009

Tags: writing, books, nonfiction, music, biography

A little slow in posting on this - I have two weeks to finish off the current book project, so am under the gun - but I had this piece in the Los Angeles Times over the weekend on critic Terry Teachout's new biography, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.

It's a good, solid bit of work, infused with insights Teachout gleaned from some 650 reels of tapes Armstrong made - many surreptitiously - on his home recorder. As I mentioned in the piece, that let Teachout eavesdrop on large portions of the last half of Armstrong's life.

The tapes didn't reveal any significant new details on an already well-chronicled jazz legend, but the book is likely to introduce Armstrong as a full character to a generation of people who only know him as the voice in "It's a Wonderful World." And yes, Armstrong enjoyed the occasional - okay, daily - joint. And behind that engaging smile there existed a complex man who was eager to please, saw himself as an entertainer first, and who was more than capable of flexing his ego.

The book is an engaging read, and worth picking up for yourself or the jazz lover on your holiday list.


So, you think you want to write a novel ...

June 18, 2009

Tags: writing, books, friends, fiction, nonfiction, bookstores

My friend Frances Dinkelspiel -- another journalist-turned-historian -- has a nice Q&A on her blog today with Andy Ross, the former owner of Cody's Books in Berkeley. After he closed the shop a couple of years ago, he turned himself into a literary agent, with some pretty good results.

The most interesting part of the piece is Ross' take on the state of publishing which squares with what I've been seeing. Things aren't as bad as in newspapers, but it's still pretty tough. Especially for fiction writers. Frances asked him what is easier to sell to editors, fiction or nonfiction:
"Uhh -- well -- non-fiction is easier by a mile. Look, I don't want to rain on the parade, but look at the numbers. Publishers will only look at fiction that has been submitted by an agent. These submissions have been heavily vetted. I would imagine that out of 100 queries received by agents for novels, they might select 1 for submission (probably less). I have spoken with a number of fiction editors. They inform me that of the submissions they receive, they may decide to publish (again) 1 in 100. Just looking at the numbers, selling a novel is like winning the lottery. Of course, if you are a published author with a good track record, you are in pretty good shape. It isn't very hard to sell a new novel by Philip Roth. But if you are a published novelist whose last book bombed, it is extremely difficult. Publishers are making decisions by the numbers now. They have a data base that tells them the sales of every book on the market. Refined taste in literature plays a very small role."
So I guess the good news is the novel I've got stashed away, half finished while I work on The Fear Within, is a mystery. Not much call for refined literary taste there....
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About me


A third-generation journalist, I was born in Scarborough, Maine, and grew up there and in Wellsville, New York, about two hours south of Buffalo. My first newspaper job came at age 16, writing a high school sports column for the Wellsville Patriot, a weekly (defunct), then covering local news part-time for the Wellsville Daily Reporter.

After attending Fredonia State, where I was editor of The Leader newspaper and news director for WCVF campus radio, I worked in succession for the Jamestown Post-Journal, Rochester Times-Union (defunct), The Detroit News and the Los Angeles Times, where I covered presidential and other political campaigns, books, local news and features, including several Sunday magazine pieces.

An active freelancer, my work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Sierra Magazine, Los Angeles magazine, Orange Coast magazine, New York Times Book Review (books in brief), Buffalo News, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Teaching Tolerance (Southern Poverty Law Center), Solidarity (United Auto Workers) and elsewhere. I teach or have taught journalism courses at Chapman University and UC Irvine, and speak occasionally at school and college classes about journalism, politics and writing. I've appeared on panels at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and the Literary Orange festival, moderated panels at the Nieman Conference in Narrative Journalism and the North American Labor History Conference, among others, and been featured on C-SPAN's Book TV.

I'm also a co-founder of The Journalism Shop, a group of journalists (most fellow former Los Angeles Times staffers) available for freelance assignments.



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