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Quite the World, Isn't It?

The first advance review for The Fear Within

I'm still in Detroit (for one more day) finishing up research for Detroit: A Biograhy, and received a nice email from the publicity folks at Rutgers University Press: the first advance review for The Fear Within from Kirkus Reviews. They seem to like it, which is always reassuring for a writer. It's in the February 1 issue, limited to subscribers, but I was lucky enough to get a copy of it.
An evenhanded revisiting of the trial of the U.S. Communist Party leaders that tested the pernicious efficacy of the Smith Act.

Journalist Martelle (Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West, 2007) focuses on Dennis v. the United States of America, which had dramatic and disturbing ramifications to First Amendment rights to this day—e.g., the Patriot Act, which the author mentions but does not dwell on. In August 1945, Soviet spy turned FBI informer Elizabeth Bentley spilled incriminating evidence about leaders of the U.S. Communist Party, and the two-count indictment was handed down, charging 12 men with violating the Smith Act because they “unlawfully, willfully, and knowingly did conspire with each other” by their society and meetings to “teach and advocate the overthrow and destruction of the Government of the United States by force and violence.” Among the men were New York City Councilman Benjamin Davis, Jr., Daily Worker editor John Gates, decorated war hero Robert Thompson, top party leader William Z. Foster and general secretary Eugene Dennis. The nine-month Foley Square trial became a cause célèbre, not only for the anti-Communist crusaders, including Harry Truman, who was up for reelection, but for defenders of the First Amendment and radical activists who believed fiercely that the men were innocent and being framed for their beliefs. Their defense should have been an opportunity to defend their political views and present an education in Marxism and Leninism, as Dennis did vociferously during the trial, representing himself. Instead, Judge Harold R. Medina threw the book at them, and at their attorneys, who received jail time and disbarment. Not until the Warren Court of the ’50s did the “roundups” cease.

Martelle treads carefully through the evidence, keeping a close harness on his own sympathies for the defendants.
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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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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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A book I'd have loved to have written

Actually, there are two books mentioned here I'd have loved to have done myself, both by Bill Barich, a former New Yorker writer who now works in television. The first is his align="left">new Long Way Home: On the Trail of Steinbeck's America, a look at Americans during the 2008 election following the template of John Steinbeck's Travels With Charley (my profile of Barich, which ran in the Los Angeles Times today, is here).

It's an interesting, and intricately drawn, portrait of Americans as they wrestled with a souring economy, the stresses of a nation engaged in two wars, and a viciously split electorate masked somewhat by the ordinariness of everyday lives.

The other is one of Barich's earlier books, A Pint of Plain: Tradition, Change and the Fate of the Irish Pub, in which he rambled around Ireland (where he was living at the time) looking for a pub that would stand as the perfect Irish watering hole. In both cases, Barich approaches the projects in a way that I've long found appealing - using a somewhat thin template around which to build a detailed and meandering view of a people, and a place. In the case of Long Way Home, the model is revisiting Steinbeck's tour with his dog, detailed in Travels With Charley. In the latter, it is using a subjective quest as an excuse to take a close look at a cultural institution.

In both, the tack gives a writer an excuse to poke around in places one might otherwise not write about, let alone visit. Within that forced relevance, you can learn a lot about people, and place. And, occasionally, get a nice pint of ale. Read More 
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Pages proofed, another step in the process

Last week I sent back to the publisher my edits of the page proofs for The Fear Within, lending a nice sense of finality to my end of the production process. Well, not quite final. Still awaiting the index pages to proofread, but we're almost there.
align="left">I have to say I like the design and the feel of the pages. Looks like you'll have a chance to see them for yourselves come May, or even mid April (earlier, I was told the pub date would be March). This is one of the harder adjustments to make from a career in daily newspapers, and even doing this kind of blogging. Book publishing moves very slowly. Frustratingly slow, at times. But then, the books last a lot longer than newsprint.

But the odd part is that we'll be fully into the marketing phase of The Fear Within while I'll be finishing off the manuscript for the third book, Detroit: A Biography. So I feel like I'll be lapping myself, which is an odd sensation.

That means I'll soon be contemplating what to tackle next. And yes, I have some ideas, but I'm keeping them to myself for now. Those seeds need a little more germination time. 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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Detroit, and a little labor history

So we had our panel chat yesterday at the North American Labor History Conference, looking at the Detroit newspaper strike some 15 years after the fact. It was two hours, and while that seems long it zipped by quickly, and we barely scratched the surface. A friend taped the session and I'll post a link to the video once it's online.

If you're not familiar with it, the Detroit newspaper strike lasted five and a half years (19 months of strike, the rest as a lockout), cost the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press' corporate parents, Gannett and Knight-Ridder, more than $300 million, and was such a divisive event that Detroit, in many ways, has yet to recover from it. But it also helped create a new generation of community activists and local labor leaders (and set in motion the events that moved my family to Los Angeles after 18 months of walking the picket line).

The title of the panel, "Lessons and Legacies," aptly captured what we were trying to get at. The genesis of the panel was my hope that sufficient time has past for the hottest flames of passion to have died down so we can have reasonable conversations about what happened, and why. As it turns out there's still a lot of passion, and pain, judging by the audience comments (about 50 people showed up). I conceived of this panel as something of a conversation starter, and I'm hoping it will spur more discussions and dissections of the strike, including union leaders, activists and even management people, so we can get a better sense of what transpired. And what we can learn from it.

And lessons were learned, both good and bad. The upshot: Workers have to take responsibility for their own fates, even when represented by a union. And without real solidarity -- not, as one of the panelists, waving a sign and singing a song -- little can be gained.

Thanks to the panelists: Steve Babson, longtime professor in Wayne State’s Labor Studies Center (and an active strike supporter); Chris Rhomberg, a Visiting Associate Professor of Sociology at Fordham University in the Bronx, who is working on a book about the strike; and Donald Boggs, former president of the Metro Detroit AFL-CIO from 2000 to 2006, who weighed in on the impact of the strike on Detroit labor, and the community at large.

And beyond the weighty issues, it was great seeing and catching up with old friends. And Daymon Hartley brought in an array of photographs he took during the strike, many of which can be found at his websiteRead More 
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My personal recession

I wrote this a bit ago and submitted it to a few places to see if someone might be interested in publishing it. The short answer: No (though I did have one overture that would have involved recasting the piece, which I didn't feel like doing). But I think it's worth getting it out there anyway. So here it is:

More than two years ago an email popped up from the managing editor of the Los Angles Times, a couple of rungs above my editor, asking if I was available for a chat. I was working from home that morning, part of the team covering the 2008 presidential election, so sent him my phone number. But I already sensed what we’d be talking about. A half-hour later I was out of a job, effective in late September 2008, and out of newspapers after some 30 years. The Great Recession – the worst since World War II – was suddenly my personal recession.

There have been some adjustments as I’ve morphed from a career newspaper staff writer into my own “brand” as a freelance journalist, author and part-time college instructor. My wife says I seem less stressed – losing daily deadlines will do that. But other, less visible strains have moved in. It took a while to stop swearing softly when Facebook friends moaned about the encroaching start of the workweek. Impulse buys are smothered before they can rise. We’re hoarding cash like survivalists save cans of soup, and college options for our two sons have gone decidedly down market.

Yet I’ve been luckier than others. With my wife’s job as a first grade teacher we’ve been able to stay afloat (we bought our house before the housing bubble so are okay there). But the California state budget crisis has meant layoffs and other cutbacks in public education, too. This year she faces furlough days with an 8% cut in wages, and a classroom once capped at 20 students is nudging toward 30 (a significant hike when dealing with the noise and energy of 5- and 6-year olds). We still have health coverage with a manageable co-pay thanks to her union contract but have set aside virtually nothing for retirement since my job evaporated. Later, I tell myself, we Read More 
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