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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Day One at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

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? Read More 
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The trailer for The Fear Within

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

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

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. Read More 
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Los Angeles Times Festival of Books details

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. Read More 
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Wanna buy a bookstore?

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.
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On endangering the endangered, and sleazy politics

Gray Wolf. Credit: Tracy Brooks/Mission Wolf / USFWS
In the end, it turns out, the budget showdown last week was about wolves. At least that's the conclusion we can draw by the sleazy attachment of a rider on the budget resolution that, according to environmentalists, marks the first time Congress has directly intervened in determining what animals are on the Endangered Species list.

With moves like this - and the attack on Planned Parenthood, and NPR - it's no wonder the American body politic holds elected officials in such low disdain. If you're going to debate a budget, debate a budget. If you're going to challenge programs, challenge programs. Don't mix the two and pervert the political process by holding one issue hostage to advance the other.

You can be excused for missing the issue here, since it was done quietly - and we should always distrust quiet political maneuvers. The recent budget bill hammered out by Congress included a last-minute rider by Sen. Jon Tester (R-Montana) and Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) that drops "endangered species" status for gray wolves in the Northern Rockies.

I'm not going to get into the merits/demerits of the size of the wolf packs in the Rockies because that's not the issue here (and I readily admit I'm no expert). The issue is the congressional predilection - by both parties - to attach unrelated riders to significant bills like the budget to pass items that otherwise would not make it through the legislative process. This is not deliberative, and consensus, politics, it is the hijacking of the common good by the few. And in this case, the few are political actors doing an end run around the decisions that should be made by expert environmentalists. So Tester and Simpson have not only perverted the legislative process, they have forced non-scientific views into what should be a scientific process.

This is sleazy, and anti-democratic. The process of legislating, and governing, is broken. And it has been broken by the people whose responsibility is to fix it. In the end, what we get is more fuel for cynicism about our governmental processes. And, in this case, a bunch of dead wolves. Read More 
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Some good labor news during this otherwise bleak period

Mexican farmworkers in Imperial County, June 1938. Dorothea Lange; Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USF34-9058-C]
The California State Senate on Thursday approved a bill that would allow agriculture workers in California - whose working conditions are as grueling as they come - to organize into a union if a majority of the workers at a site fill out membership cards that are certified by state labor officials. The process would replace one that requires the filing of a petition, and then a workplace referendum, which union organizers say has left the workers open to intimidation by managers, from threats of dismissal to warnings that their names would be passed to immigration officials.

Without diving into the the minefield of immigration policy, this is a good move for workers, no matter their legal status. Even illegal immigrants are entitled to working conditions that do not imperil their lives. As the story points out, 15 workers have died in the fields in the last six years despite state regulations requiring shade, water and other defenses against the oppressive summer heat in places like Imperial County and the Central Valley. A robust union - in this case, another set of watchdog eyes - would save lives.

The Legislature has passed similar bills in the past, followed by the Assembly, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has refused to sign them. With Jerry Brown as governor, chances are better that the legislation will become law (he hasn't tipped his hand yet).

Given the 1920s mood in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and elsewhere, where anti-union politicians are trying to destroy the last vestiges of the collective bargaining system that helped create the American middle class, the move by the California Senate is welcome. It's a disgusting turn that political leaders are using the battered private sector as a weapon against public sector workers. Instead of fighting to bring public-sector wages, benefits and job protections down to the abased level of private sector jobs, political leaders should be fighting to elevate the quality of life of all.

With luck, the move here in California could be the next step, after the Wisconsin protests, in a broad national pushback against those who would drive more American workers into a downward economic spiral.

And the move by the legislature reminds me of one of the first stories I wrote for the Los Angeles Times back in April 1997, after spending a day working in a strawberry field. The top of the story is below. The full story can be found here.
This time of day, this time of year, Saddleback Mountain begins the dawn in close, hovering, then slowly draws back as darkness seeps out of the sky. For a few moments, the peak seems to glow, back lit in the soft morning haze as the sun rises for its daily assault.

And it is an assault, a relentless battering of energy that takes rather than gives, leaving you drained and parched, weak and dizzy.

Strawberry pickers know that. So they prepare for it as they gather just after 6 a.m. to begin work in a Western Marketing Co. field off Alton Parkway and Jeffrey Road.

The wardrobe is a trick of the trade, knowledge gained in many instances through years of experience. Some of the workers wear hats. Some wear bandannas. A few wear a combination of both, red and blue kerchiefs tied around baseball caps. And loose, long-sleeved shirts that guard against the chill now and the sun later on.
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