Discussion about “American Lightning”

Terror, Mystery, Movie-making, and the Crime of the Century" by Howard Blum                                        What makes a book good?  That’s one of the questions we asked at book club last night (after we’d asked about what was on the menu at Yia Yia’s.)  We’ve asked this same question throughout the more than twenty years I’ve been in this book club, and I’m sure it was one of the first questions at the very first meeting years before I joined.  We’re still trying to decide.

Sometimes the majority of us really dislike a book and would never recommend it, yet the book provoked the best discussions.  Does that make the book good in some way?

The discussion was particularly lively over “American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, Movie-making, and the Crime of the Century” by Howard Blum.  Some didn’t like it because it read like a series of wikipedia entries for a variety of topics — labor unions versus capital, early detectives, D.W. Griffith and the birth of Hollywood, California politics, development, terrorism and bombings, Clarence Darrow, the beginning of media relations, socialism, journalism, the battle for water in California — a huge range of topics that still resonate today.   I liked the book because it combined so many fascinating topics between two covers (or, in Linda’s case, in one Kindle download.)  As a history student and journalist, this book focused on several of my interests.  I’m also interested in California history, because my grandparents moved there in the 1920s — and then moved back to the Black Hills of South Dakota because there was no water in California.  But I agree that the book wasn’t lyrical. 

We all appreciate a beautiful turn of phrase, a sensation evoked, a personality plumbed, relationships and motives examined.  We’ll forgive a lack of plot if we get to know and care about the characters.  One book that really moved me was Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain,” while strangely the movie did not.  The language in the book was achingly beautiful.  Frazier created words out of the ether and the soil and fashioned them into emotions, dreams and knowledge.  We found his second book “Thirteen Moons” just as beautifully written but without the soul of the first.

We usually read fiction  — contemporary literature.  Still, some nonfiction books have really moved us, such as “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Another nonfiction book I really liked was “Einstein” by Walter Isaacson.  Some of the fiction books we’ve read have been so hauntingly written they are more heart-breaking than reading the news, such as “March” by Geraldine Brooks.  

A terrifying book we read that I could never recommend to anyone is “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy.  I wouldn’t want anyone to have nightmares the way I did.  It was one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read. I couldn’t put it down.  This is a recommendation of a sort.  But you have been warned!

Perhaps this is what some book club members meant when they didn’t find “American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, Movie-making, and the Crime of the Century” compelling.  There were many tragedies in the story, but perhaps we were too detached.   Still, I was very glad to have read it.  I definitely wanted to find out “who dunnit” and what happened to them.  I’m definitely interested in reading more about the subjects covered in the book. 

Jacki says that when she reads nonfiction like “American Lightning,” her “imagination brings the characters to life and they become as real to me as emotionally enhanced characters in fiction.  Maybe that’s why I like to occasionally read history and nonfiction.”

We decided last night we needed a rubric to help us to evaluate the books we read — a list of criteria that we can pass along to anyone who asks “Read any good books lately?”  We’ve read plenty of Pulitzer Prize winners and National Book Award winners that fell far short of our idea of a good book.  Why were they chosen?  What we were looking for that the winning books failed to fulfill? 

 Here’s a start:

  • Thought-provoking
  • Inspiring
  • Amusing
  • Lyrical
  • Provides Knowledge

Any more ideas? Cathy

Below is a review from the New York Times

Published: November 21, 2008

In the early-morning hours of Oct. 1, 1910, a huge explosion rocked the headquarters of The Los Angeles Times, killing 21 people and leaving the building in ruins. It soon became apparent that this was the work of a bomber, not the result of a match struck carelessly near leaking gas, and a national manhunt began. What followed — the arrests, the trial, the confessions — would grab headlines intermittently before sliding into the memory hole of history.

The more sensational press accounts from that era portrayed the bombing as “the crime of the century,” even though the century still had 90 years to run. Since that time, authors and headline writers have claimed this title for a host of other crimes (and trials) — think of Leopold and Loeb, Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scottsboro boys, the Lindbergh baby kidnapper, Alger Hiss, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray, the Manson family, the Watergate crowd and O. J. Simpson. “American Lightning” is the latest entry in this bloated field, and Howard Blum, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, isn’t shy about stretching the relevance of his story. The 1910 bombing was a watershed event in our nation’s history, he insists, with dire consequences for the 20th century and a dark warning for the 21st.

Blum tells the story through the intersecting lives of three characters: Billy Burns, the detective who tracked down the bombers; Clarence Darrow, the lawyer who defended them; and D. W. Griffith, the filmmaker who had assisted the detective on an earlier murder case. Burns had built his career in the United States Secret Service, battling mobsters and corrupt politicians. By 1910, the year he formed his own detective agency, he was already a legend in the popular press, which called him “the American Sherlock Holmes.”With a knack for solving mysteries that baffled lesser men, Burns was hired by the mayor of Los Angeles to find the culprits.

The motive for the bombing seemed apparent from the start. The Los Angeles Times was a “fiercely conservative” newspaper, Blum says, and its publisher, an “unpleasant mountain of a man” named Harrison Gray Otis, had vowed to turn Los Angeles into “a bustling, nonunion metropolis.” Employing his army of detectives, Burns traced the conspiracy, as well as other terrorist acts, to the Indianapolis headquarters of the Structural Iron Workers union and its secretary-treasurer, John J. McNamara, whose accomplices included his brother Jim.

Business leaders praised Burns for saving capitalism from the clutches of ­working-class thuggery.

Even former President Theodore Roosevelt, who had fought hard to break up big corporations, congratulated the detective for his “signal service” to the nation. But the union movement rushed to the McNamara brothers’ defense. “I have investigated the whole case,” said Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor. “Burns has lied!” Some went further, maintaining that the charges, if true, showed the desperation of working people in the face of capitalist greed: “Justifiable dynamiting,” the muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens cried. With aid from the growing Socialist Party, organized labor raised the war chest needed to give the McNamara brothers the finest defense. Enter Clarence Darrow.

Blum spends more time on Darrow’s romantic failings than on his courtroom successes, though he does note that Darrow had previously defended labor leaders accused of violent acts. What made the Los Angeles case different, he adds, was the prosecution’s airtight case: the evidence against the McNamaras was overwhelming. So Darrow, attorney for the common man, seems to have taken part in a conspiracy to pay off a potential juror.

(Charged with bribery after the trial, Darrow won himself an acquittal by delivering one of the more disingenuous summations of his career.) Meanwhile, Billy Burns was busily using the latest technology to illegally bug the jailhouse conversations of the defendants. In the end, the brothers pleaded guilty to murder in return for long sentences that spared their lives. Burns emerged as the hero, Darrow the beaten man. The blustering Harrison Gray Otis saw it all as further proof of organized labor’s villainy. Poor Samuel Gom­pers ran for cover, claiming to “have been cruelly deceived.”

And what of D. W. Griffith? In Blum’s hands he remains a transient figure, shoehorned into the story, one suspects, to tie the McNamara trial to the sexy culture of Hollywood. We learn a bit about Griffith’s moviemaking skills, his sympathy for the downtrodden and his influence on an awful two-reel film about the McNamara case, “A Martyr to His Cause,” which, Blum admits, had little “relation to reality.” But we also learn about Griffith’s weakness for teenage girls, especially the actress Mary Pickford, whose relationship with the filmmaker is described in turgid detail. (“D. W. . . . had left Mary seething with emotion. . . . His thoughts remained unarticulated, yet they were a torment.

They pounded through his consciousness with the force of a compulsion.”)

“In the end,” Blum says, “the book I’ve written is more a narrative, an expansive and hopefully dramatic and resonating story about the past, than a historian’s narrow, fact-laden tome.” Fair enough. But the best stories are still the ones that go beyond the nuts-and-bolts narrative, no matter how dramatic, to explore larger meanings and ideas. Although Blum makes repeated claims for the importance of the Los Angeles Times bombing and casually compares it to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, he adds no historical bedrock to support either assertion. What’s missing from the book is both a feeling for the pulse of every­day life in Los Angeles in 1910 and an understanding of the enormous industrial, technological and demographic changes that had ignited the violent impasse between labor and capital in California, and beyond.

For Americans a century ago, the bombing offered a brief whiff of Armageddon — a society on the brink. This alone makes it a memorable story, one that still begs to be told.

 

David Oshinsky holds the Jack S. Blanton chair in history at the University of Texas and is a distinguished scholar in residence at New York University.

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Ghostwalk, the book for December 2008

ghostwalk


Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. British historian Stott makes a stunning debut with this hypnotic and intelligent thriller, the first fiction release of a new Random House imprint. The mysterious drowning death of Elizabeth Vogelsang, a Cambridge University scholar who was almost finished writing a controversial biography of Isaac Newton, leads her son, Cameron Brown, to recruit Lydia Brooke, his former lover, to complete the book. That request plunges Brooke into probing two ostensibly separate series of murders: one in the 17th century claimed the lives of several who stood between Newton and the fellowship he needed to continue his studies at Cambridge; the other in the present day appears to target those who have offended a radical animal rights group. Brooke’s work may be haunted by a ghost from Newton’s time who guides her to a radical reinterpretation of the role of alchemy and the supernatural in Newton’s life. Much more than a clever whodunit, this taut, atmospheric novel with its twisty interconnections between past and present will leave readers hoping Stott has many more stories in her future. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. –This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From The New Yorker
Drawing on alchemy, neurology, animal-rights activism, and supernatural visitations, this début novel is an ambitious, learned thriller. A Cambridge historian dies under suspicious circumstances, leaving behind the nearly completed manuscript of a book on the alchemical experiments of Isaac Newton. Her son, a research scientist, hires his former lover, Lydia, to finish the book. Meanwhile, a shadowy group of animal-rights activists escalate their violent attacks. As Lydia is drawn further into Newton’s seventeenth-century world, she begins to believe that his ghost is haunting her and, perhaps, directing the murderous events of the present. Stott, a historian of science, deploys her research effortlessly and demonstrates great attention to detail, but the proliferation of themes means that none are explored in much depth. Click here to subscribe to The New Yorker –This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Book A Minute

This is our "avatar," which will appear whenever we make a comment.  I was tempted to use Edvard Munch's "The Scream," which is how we feel when we pay $25 for a book (less at Costco and amazon.com) and discover it's terrible, and we can't even pass it along in good conscience!  Cathy

Our blogging friend at www.19thcentury.wordpress.com, a blog about the Victorian era, told us about a website that summarizes a long list of classics in just a minute each!  Go to www.rinkworks.com/bookaminute/classics.shtml.  Okay, so you’ll miss a few details and all of the romantic or dramatic touches.  But think of how much time you’ll save! Cathy

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“American Lightning,” book for November 2008

"American Lightning" by Howard Blum

The book for November 2008 is “American Lightning” by Howard Blum.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In 1911, Iron Workers Union leaders James and Joseph McNamara plea-bargained in exchange for prison sentences instead of death after bombing the offices of the Los Angeles Times—killing 21 people and wounding many more. The bombing had been part of a bungled assault on some 100 American cities. After the McNamaras went to jail, Clarence Darrow, their defense attorney, wound up indicted for attempting to bribe the jury, but won acquittal after a defense staged by the brilliant Earl Rogers. The McNamaras were investigated by William J. Burns—near legendary former Secret Service agent and proprietor of a detective agency. Surprisingly, Burns’s collaborator in the investigation was silent film director D.W. Griffith. This tangled and fascinating tale is the stuff of novels, and Vanity Fair contributing editor Blum (The Brigade) tells it with a novelist’s flair. In an approach reminiscent of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Blum paints his characters in all their grandeur and tragedy, making them—and their era—come alive. Blum’s prose is tight, his speculations unfailingly sound and his research extensive—all adding up to an absorbing and masterful true crime narrative. (Sept.) “”
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.”

From Bookmarks Magazine
Most critics were eager to learn more about this neglected event in American history and were glad to have Blum as their teacher. They were most impressed by the first half of the book, which covers the attacks and investigation and which was several times compared to a Hollywood thriller or an episode of the television show 24. Reviewers were less thrilled by the second part of the book, where Blum introduces Darrow and Griffith into the story. Several felt that these great American personalities were presented superficially, perhaps because Blum attempted too great a scope in the book. But on the whole, critics found American Lightning to be a satisfying work of narrative history.
Copyright 2008 Bookmarks Publishing LLC

Review
“An unforgettable tale of murder, deceit, celebrity, media manipulation, and film as propaganda, when the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building exposed the deadly ‘national dynamite plot’ by trade unionists to terrorize America with one-hundred bombings in a doomed attempt to force capitalism to its knees. The relentless pursuit, capture, trial, and punishment of the bombers made a national hero of America’s Sherlock Holmes, master detective Billy Burns, and entangled crusading defense lawyer Clarence Darrow in a reckless, nearly career-ending scheme to bribe witnesses and jurors and throttle justice. Gripping, surprising, often thrilling, American Lightning ranks among the most riveting works of narrative history.”
—James L. Swanson, author of the Edgar Award-winning New York Times bestseller Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase For Lincoln’sKiller

“This is a wonderful story, with a cast of characters out of a Cecil B. DeMille epic, told in a style that is lucid, lyrical, even electric. Narrative history at its very best.”
—Joseph J. Ellis, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Founding Brothers and American Creation

“In an approach reminiscent of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Blum paints is characters in all their grandeur and tragedy, making them — and their era — come alive. Blum’s prose is tight, his speculations unfailingly sound and his research extensive — all adding up to an absorbing and masterful true crime narrative.”
Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

“The author’s eye for scene-setting and subtle explication perfectly mimics a Griffith-style camera. Blum is at his best when exploring the motivations, the genius and the deep flaws of his three principals, men who occupied the same room only once in their lives, but who are memorably linked in this book. Unfailingly entertaining.”
Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)

“In American Lightning Howard Blum brings to life the tragic bombing of the Los Angeles Times in l910. Writing with narrative verve and finely-honed detective instincts, Blum fleshes out the real story behind this hideous act of domestic terrorism. Highly recommended!”
—Douglas Brinkley, New York Times bestselling author of The Great Deluge and Tour of Duty and Professor of History, Rice University
 
“Howard Blum has given us a fascinating–and hugely entertaining–glimpse into early 20th-century America. The burgeoning labor movement, the dawn of the movies, bomb-toting anarchists, ‘the crime of the century,’ gimlet-eyed private detectives, Clarence Darrow,  you name it and it’s here. And–eat your hearts out, novelists–it’s all true.”
—John Steele Gordon, author of Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power

“As good a true-crime tale as you could hope to find, well-researched, vivid, irresistible.”
—Andrew Solomon, author of the National Book Award-winning The Noonday Demon

“Howard Blum has performed a literary miracle. He has brought back to vivid and relevant life a forgotten act of terrorism in America’s past — and made it as suspenseful and crowded with unforgettable characters as any novel I have ever read.”
—Thomas Fleming, New York Times bestselling author of The Officers’ Wives, Time and Tide and The Perils of Peace

American Lightning strikes at the soul of Los Angeles the way Ragtime revealed turn-of-the-century New York. Like E. L. Doctorow, Howard Blum has captured a time and a place through masterful manipulation of true events, weaving an intricate tale of class war and intrigue that harks back to an era when L.A. was little more than a pueblo, frontier justice still prevailed and a fabulous cast of real-life characters dragged the future metropolis kicking and screaming into the 20th Century.”
—Dennis McDougal, New York Times bestselling author of The Last Mogul: Lew Wasserman, MCA, and the Hidden History of Hollywood and Privileged Son: Otis Chandler and the Rise and Fall of the LA Times Dynasty

“Master detective William Burns on one side and famed attorney Clarence Darrow on the other…A riveting account of 20th century homegrown political terrorism.”
Library Journal

Product Description
It was an explosion that reverberated across the country—and into the very heart of early-twentieth-century America. On the morning of October 1, 1910, the walls of the Los Angeles Times Building buckled as a thunderous detonation sent men, machinery, and mortar rocketing into the night air. When at last the wreckage had been sifted and the hospital triage units consulted, twenty-one people were declared dead and dozens more injured. But as it turned out, this was just a prelude to the devastation that was to come.

In American Lightning, acclaimed author Howard Blum masterfully evokes the incredible circumstances that led to the original “crime of the century”—and an aftermath more dramatic than even the crime itself.

With smoke still wafting up from the charred ruins, the city’s mayor reacts with undisguised excitement when he learns of the arrival, only that morning, of America’s greatest detective, William J. Burns, a former Secret Service man who has been likened to Sherlock Holmes. Surely Burns, already world famous for cracking unsolvable crimes and for his elaborate disguises, can run the perpetrators to ground.

Through the work of many months, snowbound stakeouts, and brilliant forensic sleuthing, the great investigator finally identifies the men he believes are responsible for so much destruction. Stunningly, Burns accuses the men—labor activists with an apparent grudge against the Los Angeles Times’s fiercely anti-union owner—of not just one heinous deed but of being part of a terror wave involving hundreds of bombings.

While preparation is laid for America’s highest profile trial ever—and the forces of labor and capital wage hand-to-hand combat in the streets—two other notable figures are swept into the drama: industry-shaping filmmaker D.W. Griffith, who perceives in these events the possibility of great art and who will go on to alchemize his observations into the landmark film The Birth of a Nation; and crusading lawyer Clarence Darrow, committed to lend his eloquence to the defendants, though he will be driven to thoughts of suicide before events have fully played out.

Simultaneously offering the absorbing reading experience of a can’t-put-it-down thriller and the perception-altering resonance of a story whose reverberations continue even today, American Lightning is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction.

About the Author
HOWARD BLUM is the author of eight previous books, including the national bestsellers Wanted!, The Gold of Exodus, and Gangland. Currently a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, Blum was also a reporter at the New York Times, where he won numerous journalism awards and was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for his investigative reporting.

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Jane Austen

Jane Austen

Jane Austen

Jane Austen never goes out of style.  Several new books and movies about her and her books have recently appeared.  To help us sort these out, Arti at Ripple Effects has posted two great articles about two Austen biographies and one Austen biographical novel. One is a biography by Carol Shields, called “Jane Austen,” which I’ve read and enjoyed.  

Arti has also re-posted two articles about Jane Austen’s town of Bath, including many of his own gorgeous photographs of Bath, England. (Link below and on blogroll.)

Our book club read “The Jane Austen Book Club” by Karen Joy Fowler, and I recently saw the movie “Becoming Jane,” which attempts to fill in some of the blanks of Jane Austen’s life.   I’m not alone in confessing that I’ve seen every movie and television adaptation of Austen’s work.   She first published anonymously, but now she’s known and admired worldwide almost two centuries after her death.  She wrote about her own small world, but she speaks to the concerns of everyone, even if they only know her from the screen and not from the printed page.

To read Arti’s articles go to Ripple Effects   Arti’s blog is also on the Blatherblog blogroll. Currently, the Austen articles are at the top of Ripple Effects, but if you come to this late (What are you waiting for? Go there now!) you can use Art’s search box. Also, you can take a poll to vote on which of Austen’s heroines she was most like.  Post a comment here to tell me who your choice.  (I voted for E. D., but don’t that influence you, ha, ha.) Cathy

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“The Little Book”

Here’s a review of “The Little Book” from The Washington Post:  Back to the Future. This is one of our two books for October.

One fun aspect this book for me was that the main character, Wheeler Burden, is descended from Myles Standish, because my sister-in-law Janet is a “nonfiction” descendant of Myles Standish.   The thousands of Standish descendants have kept track of one another by way of elaborate charts.  The author apparently made the protagonist a Standish as a short-hand way of saying he was a blueblood.

Some Americans like to look for our own version of royalty, so they go back to the first settlers or to other famous people.  During political campaigns, geneologists trot out charts proving that one candidate is related to some other famous person or even an opposing candidate, such as the distant cousinship of Barack Obama and Dick Cheney.  We’re all related to one another in some way!  None of this directly pertains to the book except that “The Little Book” is full of relationship entanglements.  You might need a chart. Cathy

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The Story Behind Edgar Sawtelle

This field of a vast crop of sunflowers is a tribute to Henry Lamb, one of the characters in "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle."

This is a book mostly about dogs and their people, but I posted this photograph of this field of a vast crop of sunflowers as a tribute to Henry Lamb, one of the characters in "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle." Lamb's choice of sunflowers as a crop made Lamb unusual in a life he said many described as ordinary. (Also, I thought it was a gorgeous scene when I drove past this field on September 19 near Quapaw, Oklahoma.)

Here is the link to David Wroblewski’s the story behind “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.”  Our book club read this book as our September choice and we unanimously agreed we would recommend it.  Seldom are we all in accord!  Oprah now has decided to jump on our bandwagon and has recommended it for her book club, too.

David Wroblewski’s website is www.davidwroblewski.com, which has biography information and reviews.

David Wroblewski, author of "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle."

David Wroblewski.

 Janet Maslin’s review of the book from the New York Times: Talking to Dogs, Without a Word

 A story about the author in the New York Times: This Summer’s Dog Days Suit One Novelist Fine  It also includes links to other articles.

Oprah copies our book club:  Oprah Makes Her Pick  Cathy

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