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Quite the World, Isn't It?

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

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. Read More 
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The 2011 LA Times Festival of Books, and me

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. Read More 
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The kind of thing that makes an author very happy

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 Read More 
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Any Human Heart and the little screen

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. 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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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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A couple of my favorite books from the past year

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. Read More 
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It's not all about history around here

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 foodalign="left"> 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.align="right">

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...
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A nice sense of accomplishment

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. Read More 
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On 'The Cultures of War'

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. Read More 
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