Tag Archives: “American Lightning”

Book Club List for 2008

american-lightning Every year, Linda compiles a list of the books we’ve read in the previous year, in case our memories and notes are faulty when someone asks, “What have you been reading lately?”

In alphabetical order: (Reviews and descriptions are from various sources.)

  • Almost Moon (Alice Sebold) Explores the complex ties between mothers and daughters, wives and lovers, the meaning of devotion, and the fine line between love and hate.
  • American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, The Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century (Howard Blum) The October 1910 bombing of the offices of the Los Angeles Times, which killed 21 people, seemed to portend that the vicious battle between capital and labor would escalate into the United States’ second civil war. Howard Blum, bestselling author and contributing editor for Vanity Fair, examines the crime and its aftermath from the perspective of three legendary men of the period, each of whom would “permanently transform the nature of American thought, politics, celebrity, and culture.” The first, detective William Burns, led a painstaking investigation that revealed a conspiracy by the Iron Workers Union to set off bombs around the country — the Times was targeted for its fierce anti-labor campaign. The second, famed attorney Clarence Darrow, reluctantly agreed to represent the defendants despite his belief that an acquittal would be impossible; in the low point of a distinguished career, Darrow, seen passing money to an associate who then bribed a juror, was subsequently tried for jury tampering. The third, director D. W. Griffith, had no real connection to the case, but Blum argues that his epic Birth of a Nation was informed by the events in L.A. While he doesn’t provide ample evidence for that assertion, Griffith’s inclusion still seems somehow fitting: Blum’s true-crime drama plays out like an old movie, complete with complex heroes, mustachioed villains, and lusty dames. It doesn’t always read like history, but it is great fun nonetheless. —Barbara Spindel
  • Candy Girl (Diablo Cody) Why would a healthy, college-educated young woman start stripping for a living, when she could work in a nice, clean office?
  • Desert of the Heart (Jane Rule) is a 1964 lesbian-themed novel, which was adapted into the 1985 film, “Desert Hearts.”
  • The Double Bind (Chris Bohjalian)  The idea of the invented self hovers over F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.   Jay Gatsby, we remember, begins an unpromising life as James Gatz and is murdered for a crime he does not commit. Bohjalian, too, is interested in the gray area between hope and delusion, in how people are shaped by the events of their lives and the efforts they make to hold the self inviolable against fate and harm. As Nick Carraway concludes, the past is powerfully present in the future, and Laurel’s investigations into Bobbie Crocker’s life lead her inevitably into her own history. Some readers may reach the end and feel blindsided rather than enlightened, but The Double Bind describes just how circuitous that inescapable journey can be. 
  • Ghostwalk (Rebecca Stott) The mysterious drowning death of Elizabeth Vogelsang, a Cambridge University scholar who was almost finished writing a controversial biography of Isaac Newton.
  • Glass Castle (Jeannette walls) A nonfiction story in which Walls chronicles her upbringing at the hands of eccentric, nomadic parents.
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Burrows) This books, told in letters, is the story of an English author living in the shadow of World War II—and embarking on a writing project that will dramatically change hguernsey-societyer life. Unfolding in a series of letters, this enchanting novel introduces readers to the indomitable Juliet Ashton. Through Juliet’s correspondence with her publisher, best friend, and an absorbing cast of characters, readers discover that despite the personal losses she suffered in the Blitz, and author tours sometimes marked by mishaps, nothing can quell her enthusiasm for the written word. One day, she begins a different sort of correspondence, responding to a man who found her name on the flyleaf of a cherished secondhand book. He tells her that his name is Dawsey Adams, a native resident of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands recently liberated from Nazi occupation. Soon Juliet is drawn into Dawsey’s remarkable circle of friends, courageous men and women who formed the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society as a cover to protect them from the Germans. With their appetite for good books, and their determination to honor the island’s haunting recent history, this is a community that opens Juliet’s heart and mind in ways she could never have imagined.
  • The Gravedigger’s Daughter (Joyce Carol Oates)  In 1936 the Schwarts, an immigrant family desperate to escape Nazi Germany, settle in a small town in upstate New York, where the father, a former high school teacher, is demeaned by the only job he can get: gravedigger and cemetery caretaker. After local prejudice and the family’s own emotional frailty result in unspeakable tragedy, the gravedigger’s daughter, Rebecca, begins her astonishing pilgrimage into America, an odyssey of erotic risk and imaginative daring, ingenious self-invention, and, in the end, a bittersweet—but very “American”—triumph. “You are born here, they will not hurt you”—so the gravedigger has predicted for his daughter, which will turn out to be true.   In The Gravedigger’s Daughter, Oates has created a masterpiece of domestic yet mythic realism, at once emotionally engaging and intellectually provocative: an intimately observed testimony to the resilience of the individual to set beside such predecessors as The Falls, Blonde, and We Were the Mulvaneys.
  • The House on Fortune Street (Margot Livesey) The book opens multiple perspectives on the life of Dara MacLeod, a young London therapist, partly by paying subtle homage to literary figures and works. The first of four sections follows Keats scholar Sean Wyman: his girlfriend, Abigail, is Dara’s best friend, and the couple lives upstairs from Dara in the titular London house. While Dara tries to coax her boyfriend Edward to move out of the house he shares with his ex-girlfriend and daughter, Sean receives a mysterious letter implying that Abigail is having an affair, and both relationships start to fall apart. The second section, set during Dara’s childhood, is narrated by Dara’s father, who has a strange fascination with Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) and shares Dodgson’s creepy interest in young girls. Dara’s meeting with Edward dominates part three, which mirrors the plot of Jane Eyre, and the final part, reminiscent of Great Expectations, is told mainly from Abigail’s college-era point of view. The pieces cross-reference and fit together seamlessly, with Dara’s fate being revealed by the end of part one and explained in the denouement. Livesey’s use of the classics enriches the narrative, giving Dara a larger-than-life resonance.
  • Last night at the Lobster (Stewart O’Nan) Explores how the closing of one chain restaurant profoundly affects many lives.
  • The Little Book ( Selden Edwards) First-time novelist Selden Edwards here conjures up a light fable about the birth of modernism — a frothy bit of time-travel that makes literal Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return. In this case, we’re given to understand that Edwards’s all-American hero, Frank Standish Burden III, and his father, Frank II, were able to change the course of modern history and culture by traveling back to Vienna during its golden age. With cameos by Freud, Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, and a host of Viennese luminaries, Edwards compounds his historical conceit by comparing the radical politics and artistic tumult of the fin de siècle to America in the ’60s. Frank III, known to friends as “Wheeler” for his devastating baseball pitch, shows up Zelig-like at all sorts of crucial moments in his own time as well. A hip refusenik in the Bartleby tradition, he walks off the mound at the Harvard-Yale game — one pitch shy of a perfect game; and off the stage at Altamont — he’s also a kick-ass rocker who learned his licks from Buddy Holly himself. But Wheeler, “a stranger in a strange land” wherever he is, rises to greater challenges when he wakes up one day in the past — a past inhabited also by members of his own Boston Brahmin family, who figure greatly into the future of politics and culture. The plot twists can be dizzying, with some weird suggestions of incest, but Edwards’s mythic quest and liberal notions will delight fans of Jack Finney and John Irving. His New Age-y ideas about a “symmetric reality,” “state of flow,” and “life force” serve him well for this improbable romp through time. —Thomas DePietro
  • Martin Dressler (Stephen Milhouse) Martin Dressler is a turn of the last century New York City entrepreneur who begins in his father’s cigar store, but creates a much bigger empire.
  • Out Stealing Horses (Per Peterson) Trond Sander, a man nearing 70, dwelling in self-imposed exile at the eastern edge of Norway in a primitive cabin, deals with his complicated past.the-little-book
  • Song Yet Sung (James McBride) Escaped slaves, free blacks, slave-catchers and plantation owners weave a tangled web of intrigue and deceit.
  • On Chesil Beach  (Ian McEwan) The year is 1962. Florence, the daughter of a successful businessman and an aloof Oxford academic, is a talented violinist. She dreams of a career on the concert stage and of the perfect life she will create with Edward, the earnest young history student she met by chance and who unexpectedly wooed her and won her heart. Edward grew up in the country on the outskirts of Oxford where his father, the headmaster of the local school, struggled to keep the household together and his mother, brain-damaged from an accident, drifted in a world of her own. Edward’s native intelligence, coupled with a longing to experience the excitement and intellectual fervour of the city, had taken him to University College in London. Falling in love with the accomplished, shy and sensitive Florence – and having his affections returned with equal intensity – has utterly changed his life.Their marriage, they believe, will bring them happiness, the confidence and the freedom to fulfill their true destinies. The glowing promise of the future, however, cannot totally mask their worries about the wedding night. Edward, who has had little experience with women, frets about his sexual prowess. Florence’s anxieties run deeper: she is overcome by conflicting emotions and a fear of the moment she will surrender herself.From the precise and intimate depiction of two young lovers eager to rise above the hurts and confusion of the past, to the story of how their unexpressed misunderstandings and fears shape the rest of their lives,  the novel shows us how the entire course of a life can be changed – by a gesture not made or a word not spoken.
  • The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (David Wroblewski) explores the deep and ancient alliance between humans and dogs, and the power of fate through one boy’s epic journey into the wild.Born mute, speaking only in sign, Edgar Sawtelle leads an idyllic life with his parents on their farm in remote northern Wisconsin. For generations, the Sawtelles have raised and trained a fictional breed of dog whose thoughtful companionship is epitomized by Almondine, Edgar’s lifelong companion. But with the unexpected return of Claude, Edgar’s uncle, turmoil consumes the Sawtelle’s once-peaceful home. When Edgar’s father dies suddenly, Claude insinuates himself into the life of the farm – and into Edgar’s mother’s affections.Grief-stricken and bewildered, Edgar tries to prove Claude played a role in his father’s death, but his plan backfires, spectacularly. Edgar flees into the vast wilderness lying beyond the farm. He comes of age in the wild, fighting for his survival and that of the three yearling dogs who follow him. But his need to face his father’s murderer, and his devotion to the Sawtelle dogs, turn Edgar ever homeward.Wroblewski is a master storyteller, and his breathtaking scenes – the elemental north woods, the sweep of seasons, an iconic American barn, a ghost made of falling rain – create a family saga that is at once a brilliantly inventive retelling of Hamlet, an exploration of the limits of language, and a compulsively readable modern classic.ghostwalk
  • The Story of Lucy Gault (William Trevor)is set in provincial Ireland in the early 1920s at the height of the civil turmoil and anti-English violence.  Everhard Gault, a retired Anglo-Irish army captain married to an Englishwoman, shoots and wounds one of  the boys who has come in the night to set their house on fire.This act sets in motion a chain of events that has serious consequences for the Gault family.  Convinced that their attackers will return, Everard and Heloise plan to leave Ireland. Their daughter Lucy, heartbroken at the idea, runs away.  When some of her clothes are found by the sea shore, her parents assume she has drowned.  In their grief, they decide to travel, losing touch entirely with Ireland.They are unaware that Lucy didn’t die, but has lived out the years waiting for their return, unable to forgive herself for her recklessness.
  •  Three Cups of Tea (Greg Mortenson)   Some failures lead to phenomenal successes, and this American nurse’s unsuccessful attempt to climb K2, the world’s second tallest mountain, is one of them. Dangerously ill when he finished his climb in 1993, Mortenson was sheltered for seven weeks by the small Pakistani village of Korphe; in return, he promised to build the impoverished town’s first school, a project that grew into the Central Asia Institute, which has since constructed more than 50 schools across rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. Coauthor Relin recounts Mortenson’s efforts in fascinating detail, presenting compelling portraits of the village elders, con artists, philanthropists, mujahideen, Taliban officials, ambitious school girls and upright Muslims Mortenson met along the way. As the book moves into the post-9/11 world, Mortenson and Relin argue that the United States must fight Islamic extremism in the region through collaborative efforts to alleviate poverty and improve access to education, especially for girls. Captivating and suspenseful, with engrossing accounts of both hostilities and unlikely friendships, this book will win many readers’ hearts.
  • Thunderstruck (Erik Larson)   Larson’s new suspense-spiked history links Guglielmo Marconi, a developer of wireless telegraphy, with Hawley Crippen, a mild-mannered homeopathic doctor in turn-of-the-last-century London. While Larson tells their stories side by side, most listeners will struggle to find a reason for connecting the two men other than that both lived around the same time. Only near the end does the logic behind the intertwining of the stories become apparent and the tale gain speed. At this point, the chief inspector of Scotland Yard sets out after Crippen on a transatlantic chase, spurred by the suspicion that he committed a gruesome murder. Larson’s account of the iconoclastic Marconi’s quest to prove his new technology is less than engaging and Crippen’s life before the manhunt was tame. Without a very compelling cast to entertain during Larson’s slow, careful buildup, many listeners may not make it to the breathless final third of the book when it finally come alive.
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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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“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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