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Quite the World, Isn't It?

On fear, the past, and the present

Eugene and Peggy Dennis arrive at the Foley Square courthouse for his sentencing.
Sixty years ago this coming Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the convictions in the Dennis v. U.S. case, which is the focus of my latest book. The Los Angeles Times was kind enough to print an op-ed I wrote on the subject (or will be kind; it's available online now and is to be printed in Monday's paper).

The case was one of the major stories of the year (1949), though it has faded into obscurity, overwhelmed in our consensus memory by the Hollywood 10, McCarthyism, Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs. Yet the Dennis case was the most troubling of all those events. For a time, the U.S. government in effect outlawed a specific political belief, undercutting what it is that we tell ourselves sets our democracy apart. This story displays exactly how fragile these basic civil liberties are.

The piece summarizes the case, and then concludes:
"Sixty years later, it might be hard to build up much sympathy for a dozen communists at the peak of the Cold War. But in this era of Patriot Act-permitted warrantless searches, surreptitious surveys of library and bookstores users' records, and extralegal rendition of terrorism suspects to secret interrogation sites, we would be wise to recognize that the rights we deny others out of fear, we eventually deny ourselves."
I encourage you to head over to the article and read it, and invite your comments there or here.

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Wishing a friend success with a great book

A couple of years ago a close friend, food writer Robin Mather, already suffering from some health problems, hit a buzz saw of personal crises: Her husband told her he wanted a divorce, and she lost her job writing for the Chicago Tribune (part of the same corporate convulsion that cast me off from the Los Angeles Times). She wound up retreating to the small lakeside cottage in a remote part of western Michigan that she and her husband had bought anticipating a retirement home some years down the road.

We spent a lot of time on Skype talking, me from my desk in sunny Irvine, Robin from the metaphorical morass of gray clouds at the edge of the Michigan lake. Neither of us is suited to wallowing in our own miseries, and Robin's plan quickly took shape. We're writers, after all, and the best thing a writer can do is write, So she proceeded, with the help of some friends and the irreplaceable agent we share, Jane Dystel, to write her way out of the clouds,

The result 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 $40 a week), which is due out in a couple of weeks. I have an early copy, and finished reading it last night, coincidentally the eve of my own party to launch The Fear Within.

Robin's done a splendid job. The concept of the book was to write about her year trying to piece her life back together, while also trying to live within a severely diminished budget while patronizing and supporting local food producers, from truck farmers to butchers. Organized seasonally, it is a collection of essays, accented by recipes, of engaging with life, knitting together a fresh network of new friends, enjoying the benefits of relationships with geographic neighbors (not just our new communities here in the Internet), and even the restorative powers of a walk through untrammeled woods. In the end, she writes, the clouds began clearing:
The good food that I found near my home strengthened and nourished me and, together with the work of my own hands, gave me a sense of pride, security, and peace that I have never known before. The search for it led me to new friends and new ways of thinking about myself and the world in which I live. It provided me with the luxury of having enough to share, even on the spur of the moment, when money was tight and the future uncertain.

My life is newly deep and full of riches. I hope yours is as well.
Great writing. And a wonderfully evocative look at getting your feet back under you when you've been knocked astride. Pick up a copy.

Oh, and Robin's recently moved on from the solitary life on the lake. She's now an editor of Mother Earth News. Read More 
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On author James B. Stewart, and circles of lies

Today's Los Angeles Times carries my review of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James B. Stewart's new book, Tangled Webs: How False Statements Are Undermining America: From Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff, which is a detailed look at some notable cases of high-profile lying scandals from the 2000s. The review begins:
"For a nation whose romanticized history includes a young George Washington confessing to chopping down a cherry tree because he 'cannot tell a lie,' we seem to do an awful lot of lying. But then, the story about Washington is a lie itself, so maybe we're just being true to our national character.

"In his new book, 'Tangled Webs,' Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James B. Stewart dives deeply into four recent cases of high-profile conspiracies of lies. What he finds does not say good things about us.
As I mention in the review, the book almost chokes on the amount of detail Stewart has dug up from inside each of the scandals: Martha Stewart, the role of White House officials in outing Valerie Plame as an undercover CIA operative; Barry Bonds; and Bernie Madoff.

Yet the details are worth wading through. Stewart does a good job at looking at how the powerful (and the powerless) react in times of stress, and challenge. In the end, it is the ease with which so many choose to lie, and the myriad reasons, that is most sobering. And before readers cheer over clear evidence that seems to confirm the belief that top figures in the Bush II White House saw the truth as a malleable thing, remember Bill Clinton's wriggling when caught with his pants down. Lying to the American people is not the hallmark of one political party or another. And, as Stewart makes clear, it's hardly limited to politics.

So why is it so prevalent in American life? Because people keep getting away with it. And nothing breeds success like success. Leavened, apparently, by a few well-told lies. Read More 
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Just Kids - a (slightly) counter opinion

Patti Smith signing Just Kids for a fan at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Photo credit: Scott Martelle.
Now that the buzz-saw of writing and researching the Detroit project has died away, I've started chipping away at an embarrassingly high stack of books that I really should have read by now, some by friends, some that have just struck my curiosity. And since it's too late to review the books for publications (and I couldn't review many of them because of personal conflicts), I'll be sprinkling some short takes into the blog mix over the next few weeks.

I finished Patti Smith's Just Kids the other day, her National Book Award-winning memoir of living and trying break through as an artist in Manhattan in the late 1960-early 1970s. The book couldn't live up to its advance buzz, and true to form, I liked it, but also was disappointed by it.

Manhattan was defined by creative counter-cultural energy in that era, and Smith and her lover/friend Robert Mapplethorpe hovered near the center of it. To read Smith's take on the time was interesting, and valuable, but it also fell short of full truth, I feel. I was talking about the book with some other reviewers at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books over the weekend, and we agreed that she over-romanticized what were nearly impossible living conditions in sections of Manhattan - heatless flats, hustling sex for food money, drug deaths of those who experimented too wildly.

And Smith's depiction of her relationship with Mapplethorpe, who became one of the most divisive photographic artists of the era, was remarkably thin on two levels. First was their romantic relationship, which transformed radically as Mapplethorpe began embracing his homosexuality - a revelation that would cause deep emotional turmoil for most women, but that Smith all but shrugs off. And despite her closeness to Mapplethorpe, and her descriptions of the different art forms he was experimenting with before he shifted fully into photography, by the end of the book you have little sense of what was driving his - or her - art beyond Mapplethorpe's lust for fame.

There's plenty of name-dropping in the book, and one charming anecdote of the poet Allen Ginsberg, who was gay, mistaking the rail-thin Smith for a young man and trying to pick her up at a food automat. But mostly it is a thin revisit to an era. By definition Smith limited the book to the New York/Mapplethorpe years, but one wonders about her emotional reaction to the death of her husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, five years after Mapplethorpe died of AIDS. The deaths of two significant players in the emotional life of a poet are worth exploring, and reading about. But Smith doesn't touch on it.

In the end, I suspect the book received such critical acclaim, and strong sales, because it serves less as an informative memoir of two influential artists than as a generational touchstone. For those who lived through that era, Smith's book is something of a vicarious trip down memory lane. For those too young to have tasted New York in the 1960s and 1970s, Just Kids offers a small, if somewhat romanticized, window into an era. But for a memoir by a poet, Just Kids lacks significant emotional punch. Read More 
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Day Two at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

The 2011 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books
It was a little warmer, felt a little less crowded, and was a lot of fun for the second day in a row. And oh, yeah, I was on a panel.

The theme was "History: Democracy and its Discontents," moderated by Celeste Fremon, who came incredibly well-prepared, and included Barry Siegel and Thaddeus Russell. It made for an interesting conversation, with Russell talking about his A Renegade History of the United States, a "ground up" look at influential but ignored sectors of American history with some iconoclastic takes on such things as prostitutes as early feminists.

Siegel, a friend and former Los Angeles Times colleague, as well as a Pulitzer Prize-winner, talked about his Claim of Privilege, and the lie that stands behind the U.S. government's ability to evade court disclosures of uncomfortable information by claiming to do so would violate a state secret. And I talked about The Fear Within, which has a nice overlap with Siegel's book (both of our subjects turned on decisions by the same Vinson Supreme Court).

The session was aired live on Book TV over CSPAN-2, and via its website, and is now safely lodged in its archives. So if you missed it, you can watch it at your leisure here. And yeah, it's true, a TV camera adds a few pounds (but then, so did the dinner at El Cholo afterward with my wife). The program begins with the tail end of a prior, unrelated interview, but you can move beyond that). Unfortunately, there was no link for embedding the program on my site. Read More 
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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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