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Quite the World, Isn't It?

The cover: The Admiral and the Ambassador

Well, I've been keeping this under wraps for a few weeks as we go through the production part of publishing my forthcoming book, The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man's Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones. But Chicago Review Press is revamping its website, and it's posted over there so I guess it makes sense to post it here, as well.

As you may recall, I was very pleased with the work CRP's designers did on Detroit: A Biography. They used a photo I suggested and crafted that stunning overlay of title and 90-year-old Detroit skyline, giving it a near-metallic sheen. It really captured the essence of the book, I thought.

And they've done it again here. They used a drawing of John Paul Jones for the top bit, and a photo I found of Ambassador Horace Potter and colleagues over the crushed leaden coffin in which they found Jones's body more than a century after he died. So we have images of both tracks of the book, and presented in a way that I hope will stand out on bookshelves.

I'll let you know when pre-sales are available. As it stands, CRP is looking at a May publication date, which means books should be available mid-April or so. As you might imagine, I'm pretty excited about that. This will be my fourth published book, and I'm already working on the fifth, another history I'm keeping under wraps for now. But it's very enjoyable and professionally rewarding work, and I thank you all for your support. Without readers, these things are just so many trees falling in the forest. Read More 
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Remembering the war some of them never fought

There's an odd phenomenon here in America - and it could be happening elsewhere - in which people who never served in the military still claim the service, lying on their resumes to be seen as the patriots they never really were. It often blows up on them, and there are organizations that have made it their mission to cast a bright light on the fraudulent claims.

But in the aftermath of the Civil War, an era in which the poor had no safety net, pretenders to glory seemed to be everywhere - often to get a pension. Richard A. Serrano, a Los Angeles Times staff writer (we overlapped but I don't recall ever meeting him), has written about this odd slice of Americana in his new Last of the Blue and Gray: Old Men, Stolen Glory, and the Mystery that Outlived the Civil War, which I reviewed this week for the Los Angeles Times. From the review:
Serrano, a staff writer in the Los Angeles Times' Washington, D.C., bureau, starts with two main characters: former Union soldier Albert Woolson and onetime rebel soldier Walter Washington Williams. Each man forms a compelling story of becoming caught up in the nation's bloodiest war and its aftermath. By the late 1950s, as the United States neared the centennial of the start of the war, each was feted as the oldest living veteran of his respective army.

But one was a fraud, a scam that would have gone undetected had he not outlived all of his fellow Confederate veterans.

There's not a lot of suspense here. It becomes clear pretty quickly which was the real deal and which a fraud. But suspense isn't the point. Serrano uses the men as a window into the long-playing reverberations of the Civil War, from the reunions to the reenactments to the wounds covered with, in retrospect, tissue paper.
It's a good quick read (if redundant in places), and worth the time. On a personal level, I was intrigued by the overlaps with my own projects. One of the main figures in The Admiral and the Ambassadoris Horace Porter, who rose to prominence as an aide to general and, eventually, president Ulysses S. Grant. Porter's support for honoring fellow veterans was a main catalyst in his decision as ambassador to France to find and recover the body of John Paul Jones (the book is due out in the spring).

And I've just begun a new project, which I'm keeping under wraps for the time being, which touches even more deeply on the Civil War. In fact, this very morning I'm revisiting a key battle in western Virginia. I should keep an eye out for some of the names in Serrano's book. Read More 
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Norman Mailer, gone but still relevant

Was there a more pugnacious figure in modern literature than Normal Mailer? And not just because he was a fan, and occasional chronicler of, boxing? Six years after his death, Random House is publishing a collection of his essays this month (pub. date is October 15), called Mind of an Outlaw. Jonathem Lethem (whom I profiled a whole ago here) offers an introduction, and the collection is edited by Phillip Sipiora, editor of the Mailer Review

But the collection is all Mailer, from his first significant essay through to work that came near the end of his life six years ago. I did a Q&A with Sipiora a couple of weeks ago for Esquire.com, which posted this morning. This is from my introduction:
For the better part of 60 years, writer Norman Mailer was at the center of just about every intellectual brawl that found a public spotlight. War (against), feminism (ditto), literature (emphatically for), birth control (oddly against), the sexual revolution — well, with six marriages and nine children, he formed his own battalion.

Mailer was also one of the guiding lights of the "New Journalism," a literature-driven approach to nonfiction that led to one of his most celebrated books, The Armies of the Night in 1968, which won the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. And he was still writing and raging up until his death at age 84 in 2007. He was bombastic and combative, and with a hunger for the limelight and literary success. Even when Mailer was wrong, he was usually interesting — and provocative.
My favorite part of the interview with Sipiora was his response when I asked him whether we have seen the last of public intellectuals – people like Irving Howe, William Buckey Jr., and Mailer – smart, communicative people conversant with a wide range of knowledge about American life, not the one-topic experts who dominate the ublic landscape today:
Well, with the death of Christopher Hitchens, I don't know who is around today. I think one of the problems is that knowledge and culture have become more of a niche industry than they were. In Mailer's days, from the 1950s forward, it was possible to comment intelligently on culture, social issues, politics, sports. But it seems today that we have specialized commentary in which the media bring forth individuals who have significant knowledge in a particular niche. But their wheelhouse knowledge does not transcend the broad spectrum of niches the way that it did for Mailer. I think those days are gone.
It was am interesting interview, so wander on over to Esquire for the full version, which, I should point out, was edited down from a longer, recorded conversation. Read More 
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The shutdown, and some other bits

I know, I know, the blog's been quiet for too long. But I have the usual excuse firmly in grasp: I've been busy. Today I could be busier, but a certain faction of political loons (yes, I mean you, Tea Partiers) seems to have shut down the federal government right as I'm researching a new book topic.

So work I was planning to do today I now can't because the Library of Congress website is shut down, one of many bits of evidence that puts the lie to right-wing claims that a federal government shutdown doesn't have much effect. Hundreds of thousands of federal workers out of work indefinitely - and likely now hoarding cash amid the uncertainty - is a big deal for a sputtering economy, not to mention family budgets. Bureaucracy, as much as we might hate it, keeps the country moving. But now that's stalled.

And researchers like me find ourselves at loose ends. So yeah, there's an effect.

One of the reasons posting has been light here is that I've recently signed on as a contributor to the Truthdig online news site, where, not coincidentally, I blogged this morning about the shutdown, and the failed political system that made it possible. Who's really to blame? We all are, for putting up with this garbage:
And this is where the real blame lies—in ourselves, and in our failure as a body politic to end gerrymandering. With the major political parties setting the ground rules for the geographical shape of congressional districts (the process follows each decennial census), they ensure that incumbents face easy re-election by gaming the system through amoeba-shaped districts that collect the optimum number of voters for each respective party. So the only real elections at the congressional level are often the party primary, in which very few people vote. Which means minority extremists like the tea party, with some organization and the help of a compliant media that fails to call out lunacy when it sees it, can seize control of the U.S. Congress. Or at least enough of it to shut down the U.S. government.
So why do we put up with this? Read More 
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