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Quite the World, Isn't It?

A rare foray into television criticism

The television and I have an agreement: It shows "Law and Order" or "NCIS" reruns with the occasional soccer and football game thrown in, and I agree to watch it. Otherwise we don't spend a whole lot of time together.

But I managed to catch the first two episodes of the new series, "Harry's Law," on NBC, with Kathy Bates, and find it pretty intriguing. The writing is erratic - some scenes stretch credulity to the breaking point - and they have an annoying habit of pushing up cheesy music during emotional peaks, which only serves to lessen the dramatic impact.

But the first episode dove into the problem of drug addiction, from the perspective of the addict and our societal failure to create pro-active programs to help. The second episode touched on the plight of chronically poor elderly people, and our failure to adequately support them.

Not exactly groundbreaking stuff, but a lot better than the cheap moralism of "Law and Order" (even though I watch it), "CSI" and other top-rated TV shows with their typical "catch a perp" approach. "Harry's Law" offers a more nuanced look - at least least in the first two episodes - at some of the key social issues that, for decades now, have influenced the make up and health of our urban and rural communities. Poverty and addiction are isolating things, and in that isolation, desperation grows.

This also has had me ruminating lately on our societal predisposition to treat crime as a problem in our neighborhoods, but as entertainment on our TV screens and in our movie theaters. "Detroit 187" is one of the new ones, and while it;s fun to see Detroit on the screen, I can't help but think there are better ways to get at the city's core than following cops around. What we need is more entertainment holding up teachers, social workers and others who try to build a better society, and fewer programs romanticizing those who break our codes, and those who enforce them. Read More 
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The first advance review for The Fear Within

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.
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Michigan's baby bust

Stumbled across an intriguing article in the Detroit Free Press this morning - I'm in Detroit doing book research - about an unusual demographic twist. The birth rate in the state of Michigan has dropped precipitously.
Just 117,309 babies were born in Michigan in 2009, the smallest supply of newborn Michiganders since the end of World War II. That's 11.8 babies per 1,000 Michiganders, the lowest birthrate since the 1870s.

At its peak -- during the national baby boom -- Michigan's high was 27.6 new babies for every 1,000 residents.
This really is remarkable, especially the point writer Robin Erb makes in the piece that part of the cause is the exodus of young, child-bearing couples. This is how ghost towns are made, though Michigan doesn't risk that fate (can we have a ghost state?). But a baby bust is something of a canary in the coal mine - or the auto plant, in this case. When the young give up on a place, it makes it all the harder to keep the economy running and diversifying.

I've long told my newspaper colleagues that all journalists should come spend some time in Detroit, and in Michigan, to get a sense of what post-industrial society really looks like. The forces that led Detroit to this juncture are complex, and they pose massive challenges. So far, there has been little national political will to do something about it.

You know, that would make for an interesting book project .... Read More 
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This is cool beyond words

A few years ago, when I was still a staff writer for the LA Times, I wound up in Alaska for a political corruption story, and drove up the Turnagain Arm, which, like the Bay of Fundy in Canada, has very bizarre tidal bore waves (not tsunamis). These dudes surfed them. For five miles. Like I said, beyond cool ...
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The problem with the discourse of hatred

I’ve been watching with the predictable sense of outrage as the events in Tucson have unfolded over the past 24 hours or so, and share in the anger about the circumstances in which the killings and attempted killings took place. As others have noted, our political discourse carries the bile and venom of a marriage ending badly. It is not the framework for progress. But we also can’t say for certain yet whether it was the impetus for violence.

So it is with a bit of revulsion that I’ve been watching the reactions of many on the left who are quick to see political motivations in the actions of what appears to be a mentally ill man. It could well turn out that this was indeed the willful attempted political assassination of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. But it could also turn out that her politics had nothing to do with it. We just don’t know enough to draw those conclusions. One friend referred to the attack as a political assassination. But is it? Can we conclude that? Did the gunman even know Giffords’ politics? Could he have just as easily targeted a conservative Republican, if that happened to be his congressional representative? We don’t know enough to even say whether there was any rational process involved. Was he coldly and delusionally anti-government, a Timothy McVeigh, and thus any political figure could be a target? Or was he, in the end, a John Hinckley seeking in his illness to impress a starlet?

We don’t know.

This rush to judgment is born of the very same sharp divides in political discourse that the outraged believe to be the gunman’s motivation. Similarly, friends have reacted with sharp condemnation over the initial erroneous reports that Giffords had died, chastising the media outlets that ran with the information (apparently based on a reporter’s conversation with a sheriff’s department official; unclear whether the official or the reporter got it wrong). Mistakes get made. Does each mistake really require a pound of flesh?

It is human nature to want to understand why these events happen. But it is also our nature, as a society, to leap to the easy conclusion, and to not probe deeply to understand true causation. We are quick to assign blame, slow to forgive, happy to reach out for the evidence that supports our conclusions. We demonize and dehumanize, and every subsequent turn reinforces our view. We choose not to use our mirrors for self-reflection. We use them to blind ourselves.

When did we become a culture of the misinformed? And why are we so satisfied to stay that way? Read More 
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No turning back now

After years of browsing through stacks of publishers' catalogs to figure out which upcoming books I might want to review, or authors I might want to profile, it's very satisfying to open the mail and find a catalog with my own name and book in it.

The Fear WithinThere are a lot of little thrills for an author in this whole publishing process. Seeing your name pop up in the Library of Congress catalog is one. And it's especially warming for a history buff, given that the Library's current collection began with Thomas Jefferson's personal library, which he sold to the government to relaunch the Library after the Brits burned it down in the War of 1812.

And receiving the catalog is another little thrill. The Rutgers University Press Spring-Summer catalog - marking the press's 75 anniversary - is here, and they were gracious enough to send me a separate .pdf of the entry for my book, The Fear Within, available here.

And the publicity folks tell me the early galleys - advance versions in paperback sent to critics for review purposes - are just about ready for the mail. You can almost feel the train leaving the station, can't you? Read More 
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The Library of America's Greatest Hits

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. Read More 
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Pete Postlethwaite, and a great movie scene

I was sorry to awaken this morning to the news that British actor Pete Postlethwaite had died. He had a very distinctive, and remarkably non-Hollywood, physical appearance, and a long resume that will be trotted out in obituaries today (or easily found on IMDB).

For me, his best film moment came in the woefully under-appreciated Brassed Off, set in a British mining town whose mine was facing closure. The movie looks at the effects of the events leading up to the decision through the prism of the "colliery band," and efforts by Danny (Postlethwaite) to keep the music playing as the miners' lives crumbled.

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The year ahead

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. Read More 
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