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Quite the World, Isn't It?

New books by old friends

There are a couple of books that landed here recently, both by friends, that I'm looking forward to diving into once the current stack clears (writing history involves reading history, and my stack of "to-reads" is rather forbidding).

align="left">First is Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed, by former LA Times colleague Judy Pasternak. The book expands on her wonderful series for the LA Times on the radioactive legacy of uranium mining on the Southwest. The cover illustration tells it all: A skull drawn with yellow sands.

align="right">The second is Working Words: Punching the Clock and Kicking Out the Jams, a anthology of writing on work edited by my old Detroit friend -- and tireless award-winning advocate for poetry and writing -- M.L. Liebler. There are pieces, poetry and lyrics from Amiri Baraka to Woody Guthrie to Lolita Hernandez to Walt Whitman.

Incidentally, I'll be joining M.L. for a reading Friday, October 22, as part of the North American Labor History Conference in Detroit. The plan, I think, is for me to read from The Fear Within, which will be the first public airing of the book, due out this coming March. The gig will be in the Walter P. Reuther Library on Cass. Read More 
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This is what The Fear Within will look like

This is always a fun moment in the life of a writer: Getting to see the cover of the next book. The design folks at Rutgers University Press did a very nice job with a difficult art element, an array of mugshots. I think it works very neatly. Still awaiting word on official pub date but it's looking like sometime in March.

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Wondering if this is a measure of success

I have to admit, I laughed when this popped up the other day. And I assume it means my first book has cleared some sort of hurdle -- an online site that sells essays to college students has done one on Blood Passion.

Of course, these pre-packaged essays are crap, and I hope any professor who receives one fails the offending student (I've already failed two students and severely reprimanded a third for plagiarism issues, and I'm only on my fifth class).

But as a barometer, I guess this means enough labor and history profs have assigned the book (thank you very much) that these vultures think they can make a profit by selling essays about it. Read More 
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Working away on the Detroit project

Well, it's been a busy summer. Left home in late June and won't get back until next week through a combination of research for the Detroit book and some family time back East.

The Detroit book is progressing well, though it's a real challenge to distill such a broad amount of often disjointed history into a compelling narrative. But it's a good challenge to have, believe me. I hope I can do the topic justice.

Meantime, we're just finishing up the copy edits for The Fear Within: Spies, Commies and American Democracy on Trial, which should be out next Spring. I still get a kick out of typing my name into the Library of Congress catalog search engine and having it pop up two books. Great thrill for a writer and history buff to be included in the collection Thomas Jefferson started.

I'm hoping the designers at Rutgers University Press, who did such a wonderful job on the cover for Blood Passion, will have something for me to look at in the next month or two, Once we've settled on the cover, I'll post it here... Read More 
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This is, like, you know, cool, or something?

Typography from Ronnie Bruce on Vimeo.

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On Scott Turow, and Innocent

I had a chance a few weeks back to interview Scott Turow via Skype (great invention, that) about his new novel, Innocent, his resumption of the life of Rusty Sabich, the main character in 1987's breakthrough legal thriller, Presumed Innocent. My story is in today's Los Angeles Times, so I won't get redundant here.

But what i found most appealing about the new novel was Turow's ability to resume Sabich's life without seeming to have missed a beat. It helped, no doubt, that all of Turow's novels are set in fictional Kindle County, and that he has used Sabich as a side character in some of those works.

But it was the consistency of both style and character that really stood out for me, which I wrote about in a review for the Cleveland Plain Dealer (not online yet). The book is worth picking up. Read More 
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Literary biographers and the LAT Festival of Books

We're spending a couple of days at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, where I'm doing some blog coverage for the LAT and hosted a panel yesterday -- which was interesting, and great fun.

The topic of my panel was Literary Biography, and the panelists authored works on Raymond Carver, Arthur Koestler and Mark Twain, though the Twain book is as much about personal assistant Isabel Lyon as it is about the last years of the venerated American icon.

The challenge was finding common ground among the subjects so that the authors -- Carol Sklenicka (Carver), Michael Scammell (Koestler) and Laura Skandera Trombley (Twain) -- could engage with each other. They managed quite nicely, offering some fine insights into their work, and their subjects, to an audience that filled about two-thirds of the seats and an auditorium in the Humanities Building at UCLA. And it was a gorgeous day for it, too, in the upper 60s with blue skies and a nice breeze.

We talked a bit about the struggles to find the truth in the letters and journals of people who are very conscious -- and concerned -- about their places in literary history. Trombley said she had to be particularly careful because Twain was such an unabashed liar. Sklenicka had to sweet-talk still-protective friends and relatives of Carver, who died at age 50 in 1988, into sharing memories and material. For Scammell, it was a matter of vetting the details in Koestler's two autobiographies. I wasn't taking notes so can't quote, but Scammell said he was surprised to learn how truthful Koestler's works were, good bad and ugly (though Koestler had a propensity for not including some of the uglier stuff).

You may remember that I profiled Trombley for the LA Times a few weeks back, and it was a great pleasure to see and talk with her again -- smart, poised and interesting (traits that likely helped her ascend to the president's office at Pitzer College).

Key highlight of taking part in the Festival -- meeting and chatting with so many smart, intelligent lovers of books. And the people who write them.  Read More 
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Literary Orange, and other spring events

Spring, it seems, is the season for speaking gigs. I'm on a panel April 10 at UC Irvine - conveniently near my house - as part of the Literary Orange program. It's a limited-access event, with day-long tickets $60 ($25 for students with IDs) and capped at 500 participants. My session is "History: True Stories, True Lives," with fellow authors Catherine Irwin and Vicki L. Ruiz, moderated by Mary Menzel.

The day's other panelists include Maile Meloy, whom I profiled for the LA Times a few months back, as well as former colleagues William Lobdell and Martin J. Smith (for whom I write occassionally at Orange Coast Magazine). So it should be an interesting day of engaging with committed readers and catching up with folks.

A few weeks later, I'm moderating a panel at the LA Times Festival of Books, where we'll be discussing literary biography (details in this earlier post). And I'm talking about the Ludlow Massacre as part of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute through UCI. I did a two-part talk this winter for the same organization, dissecting what's happened to newspapers. It was a lot of fun - a smart, caring audience. This session will be built around my book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West. I'm looking forward to it - love talking history with people who care about it.

Speaking of which, in May I'm on a panel in Santa Cruz at the Southwest Labor Studies Association, "The Lessons of Ludlow: Interethnic solidarity during the Great Colorado Coalfield War," built around a documentary-in-progress by Alex Johnston. The panel also will include Zeese Papanikolas, author of Buried Unsung: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre, a smart and dedicated scholar I met for the first time at another conference last year in Colorado. I'm looking forward to seeing and talking on a panel with him again.

If you make ay of these events, be sure to track me down and say hello....
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Next book is set - Detroit: A Biography

Those of you who know me understand that I'm not one to sit around. I like having several projects bubbling at the same time, and so, as Rutgers University Press works at publishing The Fear Within, I'm already off and running on the next project.

The working title is Detroit: A Biography, and I'll just crib the description my agent, Jane Dystel, sent over to Publisher's Marketplace: "DETROIT: A BIOGRAPHY, a sweeping look at the disintegration of a once great city, in which the author describes how collapse came about through a mix of corporate hubris, globalization and ill-conceived government policies overlaid with racial and class divides, to Jerome Pohlen, by Jane Dystel of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management."

And after publishing two books through Rutgers, this one is going to be published by Chicago Review Press. I've been very happy with the folks at Rutgers, especially editor Leslie Mitchner, who have been wonderful partners in these first two books. But I felt this book would be better-suited with Chicago Review Press, primarily because some of the key people there have Detroit roots and, in a sense, speak the language of Detroit.

As you can imagine, I'm pretty excited about this. And I hope to see some of you in Detroit this summer.... Read More 
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On Mark Twain, and an image problem

I'm a little slow in posting this piece from this past weekend, which ran on the cover of the Los Angeles Times Calendar section. I sat down with Laura Trombley, president of Pitzer College, to talk about her new bio of the last decade or so of Mark Twain's life.

Samuel Clemens, who carefully crafted the Twain image into a brand, was afraid that revelations about his daughter's affair with a married man might cut into his sales and royalties. So he turned to his best weapon, his pen, and wrote a secret manuscript as a bludgeon to silence his longtime personal aide -- whom he feared would spill the beans. If she talked, his orders were to publish his 450-page screed against her.

Twain's fears are comically quaint in this era of Tiger Woods, John Edwards and Eliot Spitzer, but Twain's fears were real to him. From my story:
That manuscript, never published but well known to Twain scholars, had little in common with "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and the other books that made Twain one of the nation's first celebrities. At its heart, Trombley believes, the manuscript was a blackmail tool, a libelous screed against Lyon, whose life Twain was fully prepared to ruin to protect family secrets and his place in American history.

Early biographers believed the manuscript's details, including Twain's charge that Lyon tried to seduce him, to be true and that Lyon's role in Twain's life was too minute to bother with. But Trombley saw the work as an elaborate lie and wondered why Twain would bother. Her speculation turned into obsession, and eventually into "Mark Twain's Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years" (Alfred A. Knopf: 332 pp., $27.95), her third book dealing with Twain's life and legacy.
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