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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Jones’s Bones – it was just a name anyway

Well, for those of you expecting to read Jones’s Bones: The Search for an American Hero in the spring, it ain’t going to happen. Oh, the book is still being published, but after some back-and-forth and input from the folks who actually have to market and sell it, we’ve changed the name.

The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man’s Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones

I hear your communal sigh, and “but, I LOVED the Jones’s Bones title!” Truth be told, I loved that title, too. But my loyalty to it was eroded by some pretty compelling arguments, and I’m trotting them out here because I think it’s probably interesting to book lovers to see some of the thinking that goes into these decisions.

First, the folks at Chicago Review Press, who are publishing the book (they did Detroit: A Biography, as well), had the same initial reaction to the original title as we all did. They loved it. But they knew the book was coming, and what it was about. They showed the title to some folks who didn’t know what the book was about. And after reading the title, they still didn’t. Because it doesn’t say which Jones, and old John Paul just doesn’t have the instant recognition of, say, Miley. Even adding a picture of Jones in his admiral’s hat didn’t help much. But getting the John Paul in there, well, that was instant recognition.

Most significant, though, was that without John Paul Jones in the title, we feared search engines looking for his name would not find the book. And in this era of digital existence, if Amazon’s title search engine can’t find it, let alone Google, the book may as well not exist.

So we bounced around constructs along the lines of Jones’s Bones: One Man’s Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones. But the double Jones just felt odd, as though a line in a poem had slid off rhythm. We played with some others, all of which fell short either because of redundancy, or imprecision.

So we finally hit on The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man’s Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones. Doesn’t grab like Jones’s Bones, to be sure, but it could help me sell more books. Which would be really nice. Because as much fun as working on these projects might be, writers still need to eat. And I don’t like cheap beer.

Oh, and I’ve seen mockups of the cover. Verrrry nice. I’ll share it when I can. Read More 
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Now appearing at Truthdig .... me

Last week I started a new role as a contributing blogger to the Truthdig website, which has me pretty excited. The aim of the site is to spotlight what we see as significant stories that have been overwhelmed by other issues, or that just never seemed to grab the attention we think they deserve.

The most appealing part of it is my marching orders are to post engaging items on stories and issues about which I'm passionate. There are quite a few of those, and so far I've written about arrests of protesters and news photographers as a means of silencing them, the impact of extended layoffs on men's careers, differing perceptions of racial equality, and lies told by the federal government to the secret court supposedly overseeing the NSA's surveillance programs, among other things.

And that's just the first week. So please add Truthdig to your regular rotation of sites to visit. Read More 
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100 years ago today, the first death in the Colorado coal war

Gerald Lippiatt, with mustache, in undated family photo, courtesy of Gerald Lippiatt, a descendant.
Forgive yourselves for not having this day marked down on your calendars. But it was the beginning of unprecedented violence here in the U.S., as Gerald Lippiatt, an organizer for the United Mine Workers, was shot and killed in a confrontation in Trinidad, Colorado. His death was the first in at least 75 killings over the next seven months or so, including the 11 children and two mothers who died in the Ludlow Massacre.

These events were the focus of my first book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West. It remains a significant event in American history - not just labor history - as a strike in Colorado's coal mines escalated into open guerrilla war between union supporters and the mine owners, with the Colorado National Guard aligned with the corporations.

I thought I'd mark the day by posting the a few paragraphs from my book about Lippiatt and his final hours. And, of course, encourage you to buy a copy through your favorite or local independent bookstore, or through the link above.

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Prologue

Trinidad, Colorado
August 16, 1913

Gerald Lippiatt , a stocky man with a bushy mustache, worked his way up North Commercial Street, his feet scuffing puffs of dust from the dirt roadway as he climbed the slight rise between the bridge over the Purgatoire River and downtown Trinidad. A full moon bathed the prairie-edge city in gentle light and a dry evening breeze wafted easterly from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to swirl among Trinidad’s two and three-story wood and red-brick buildings. The Saturday night crowd thickened as Lippiatt neared the city center, passing the Colorado Supply Co., the Isis Theater, the Trinidad Hotel, the Sherman-Cosner grocery store, the Quilitch Brothers’ grain and farm-implements businesses. Ahead, just before the busy intersection with Main Street, a Salvation Army minister exhorted sinners to repent, his message stopping at the doors of busy first-floor saloons, pawnshops and narrow gambling halls. Trolleys rumbled along brick-lined tracks, blue flashes from overhead wires adding to the festive energy of a crowd shaking off the exacting drudgery of a week on the ranch, or of mining coal deep below ground.

Lippiatt, an organizer for the United Mine Workers of America, had been working in Trinidad for more than a week, and was helping prepare for a state Federation of Labor convention two days later at Trinidad’s new Toltec Hotel, a three-story brick building just down North Commercial Street from the city’s established gem, the  Read More 
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Joseph Stiglitz on Detroit: He gets it

One of the most misunderstood cities in the country right now is Detroit. Yes, the city government filed for bankruptcy, but as regular readers know, I argue that is just a symptom of the broader problems facing the city. Many people discussing Detroit seem to be caught up in a vein-pulsing fury against unions, corruption, black political leadership, Democrats, and political liberalism. None of which has much to do with what's happened to Detroit.

Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics, is among the few who understand the great stresses and policies that have left Detroit mired in devastation, which he spelled out the other day in the New York Times. Among his many key observations:
Detroit’s travails arise in part from a distinctive aspect of America’s divided economy and society. As the sociologists Sean F. Reardon and Kendra Bischoff have pointed out, our country is becoming vastly more economically segregated, which can be even more pernicious than being racially segregated. Detroit is the example par excellence of the seclusion of affluent (and mostly white) elites in suburban enclaves. There is a rationale for battening down the hatches: the rich thus ensure that they don’t have to pay any share of the local public goods and services of their less well-off neighbors, and that their children don’t have to mix with those of lower socioeconomic status.

The trend toward self-reinforcing inequality is especially apparent in education, an ever shrinking ladder for upward mobility. Schools in poorer districts get worse, parents with means move out to richer districts, and the divisions between the haves and the have-nots — not only in this generation, but also in the next — grow ever larger.

Residential segregation along economic lines amplifies inequality for adults, too. The poor have to somehow manage to get from their neighborhoods to part-time, low-paying and increasingly scarce jobs at distant work sites. Combine this urban sprawl with inadequate public transportation systems and you have a blueprint for transforming working-class communities into depopulated ghettos.
I highly encourage you all to go read the whole piece. And think about it. The demise of Detroit is a national problem, not a local one. Read More 
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On Kristallnacht, and the teenage gunman who precipitated it

It's a bicoastal weekend of book reviewing for me. As the Los Angeles Times prints my review of Brenda Wineapple's Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877, the Washington Post carries my review of Jonathan Kirsch's The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris.

Both are fascinating reads for different reasons (I explore the Wineapple book here). I was vaguely familiar with the Grynszpan case, but not to the detail that Kirsch provides. Fascinating slice of history:
On the morning of Nov. 7, 1938, a troubled teenager walked into an embassy in Paris, lied his way past some rather nonchalant guards, was granted a private meeting with an attache and then shot the man dead. The boy was Jewish, the victim was a low-level Nazi diplomat, and the killing was quickly seized upon by Hitler and his agents of darkness to accelerate their campaign to drive Jews from Germany. Within hours of the attache’s death, Hitler unleashed the infamous Kristallnacht, or “night of broken glass,” a rather poetic name for a savage orgy of murder, rape, arson and vandalism in which more than 200 Jews were killed, 1,300 synagogues were burned and 7,500 Jewish-owned shops were attacked.
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The history surrounding those events has been scoured for decades and subjected to wide-ranging debates over how much of Kristallnacht was planned and how much was spontaneous. Kirsch seems to split the difference. He believes that plans for a broad pogrom were in the works and that Grynszpan’s assassination of Ernst vom Rath gave the Nazis the pretext to unleash what propagandist Joseph Goebbels called “the justified and understandable outrage of the German people.”

As Kirsch points out, Grynszpan was one of the first Jews to strike a violent blow against the regime that would work with such savage efficiency to exterminate the Jewish race. Yet Jewish history and culture have not been kind to Grynszpan, in large part viewing him as a deranged, immature youth who put his lust for personal revenge ahead of the safety of his people. That’s a fair assessment in Kirsch’s eye, though he thinks it’s time to reconsider Grynszpan and the two bullets he fired in that Parisian office 75 years ago. To blame Grynszpan for the violent racism of the Nazis, he writes, “is not merely unsupported by the facts of history, but is also morally bankrupt.” Rather, Kirsch argues, Grynszpan, like others once described as “premature antifascists,” read the Nazis for what they were and “seemed to perceive the existential threat that Nazi Germany posed to the Jewish people” at a time when most of the world, including Jews, sought to appease Hitler or wait him out.
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On a troubled century that defined the nation

And you think we're a politically fractured nation now?

The Los Angeles Times has posted my review of Brenda Wineapple's fine new history, Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877, which explores the national mood in the years before, during, and after the Civil War. You could fill a library with the volumes that have been written about those turbulent and violent days, but Wineapple's book stands out as a broad cultural history. It's light on battle details - incorporating the major, pivotal moments while eliding the incremental skirmishes - and deep on politics and cultural collisions.

I've argued in the past that one of the propellants of our current cultural frictions is a failure to acknowledge that different races, cultures, and economic strata have different views of our national history. That has infused the debate around Detroit and its economic collapse. But it crops up elsewhere, too, as we saw with Paula Deen and a recent survey in which Georgia Republicans thought more highly of her than Martin Luther King Jr. Same country, different views. Same as it ever was.
It's hard in an era of voter suppression efforts in minority neighborhoods, with a Supreme Court that devalues the Civil Rights Act, and when an armed Florida vigilante can spark a confrontation and then claim self-defense, to not measure past against present. Especially given the argument streaming through conservative America that this is a post-racial society in which blacks no longer need special protections from the legal system.

Whites and blacks have a different history in these same United States, and it behooves us to recognize that. And to sense — in the present — the weight of the past. Wineapple's Ecstatic Nation does a laudable job of bringing to life not just the Civil War but the society in which it occurred — and has evolved into the present.
It's a good book. It can take patience in places, with a wide cast of characters and quotes that can make for burdensome reading. But it's well worth the effort. Read More 
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