Nancy MacLean: Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America

September 26, 2017 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America – Nancy MacLean – Viking – Hardcover – 9781101980965 – $28.00 – 368 pages – June 13, 2017

I will say this clearly and forthrightly: whatever your political opinions or positions, you must read this book. It shines an important light on the history of what has now become the most potent force in modern American politics. This book reveals in detail how the Koch brothers and other shadowy billionaires’ political philosophy has been weaponized in an ongoing war against democratic beliefs and institutions.

Professor MacLean came across this historical record more or less by accident, while she was researching the Nobel Prize-winning political economist, James McGill Buchanan, the principal architect of the ideas and institutions  the Koch brothers and their allies have harnessed to radically alter the American political landscape in their distorted image of “economic libertarianism.” This philosophy fully recognizes that anti-democratic efforts are necessary to secure the wealth of the few against the “predations” of the democratic majority, and all their work for the last forty years or more has been aimed toward controlling and weakening democratic institutions. They have been remarkably successful in their efforts.

There is so much to learn in this book, yet still so much more for us to uncover, and ultimately then, so much that needs to be done by those who feel the need to defend democratic liberalism and American institutions. It is remarkable to learn that this effort is essentially part of a longstanding effort to reach far back into our history to undo FDR’s democratic reforms, as well as those of JFK, LBJ, and the civil rights movement. And that Charles Koch is so ironically a follower of the principles of that old Bolshevik, V.I. Lenin.

We learn here that Koch and his cronies have built a secret cadre of true believers who want to do what their hero Buchanan did in Pinochet’s Chile, which was to use the institutions of government to control and contain democracy. They have come a long way toward succeeding in our own country, as most citizens are completely unaware of what they are doing, especially with their takeover of the judiciary. And in Trump’s America, they are free to have their way with us.

One way you can tell Nancy MacLean has made an impact with her research is the level and sheer ferocity of mostly personal attacks from the right against her. Those who post in opposition seem to have neither read the book, nor care to think about the author’s actual work. One of the tools used by the Koch-financed opponents of democracy is the personal attack and what they call the “increased transaction cost” for anyone who opposes their views. Since they usually cannot win intellectual or even political arguments, they prefer to disparage and attack those who dare stand against them on other grounds than reason.

I urge listeners to read this book, think about what MacLean has uncovered, and then, if you agree with what she says, use what you learn from this book to stand up for freedom and democracy against oligarchy.

“This sixty-year campaign to make libertarianism mainstream and eventually take the government itself is at the heart of Democracy in Chains. . . . [MacLean] takes the time to meticulously trace how we got here. . . . If you’re worried about what all this means for America’s future, you should be. . . . And if someone you know isn’t convinced, you have just the book to hand them.”
—NPR

“It’s the missing chapter: a key to understanding the politics of the past half century. To read Nancy MacLean’s new book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, is to see what was previously invisible.”
—George Monbiot, The Guardian

“[A] riveting, unsettling account of ‘Tennessee country boy’ James McGill Buchanan, key architect of today’s radical right.”
O, The Oprah Magazine

Nancy MacLean is also the author of Behind the Mask of Chivalry (a New York Times “noteworthy” book of the year) and Freedom is Not Enough. She is currently the William Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University, and lives in Durham, North Carolina.

Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe: A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression

July 17, 2017 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression – Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe – HarperCollins – paperback now available – 9780062216427 – 336 pages – $15.99 – ebook versions available at lower prices.

First, let me say that this is one of the most interesting, readable and thought-provoking works of American history I have read in a long time. It’s interesting to think about how two writers can work together to create a consistent and compelling authorial voice – Andrew and Jane have done that brilliantly. One must assume they have a very special marriage that enables them to both collaborate and live happily together.

If you are interested in food and how the American palate has changed over time, this book will certainly have much to offer. But I think the story here is broader than it may first appear. It’s not just a “culinary history” but a comprehensive social history of one of the most important periods of American life told through the issues surrounding food and nutrition in a challenging time.

Yes, it is “an in-depth exploration of the greatest food crisis the nation has ever faced – and how it transformed America’s culinary culture,” but I think the larger story is that this book uses food as the lens to through which to view how Americans lived during our greatest economic and cultural crisis.

History writing that brings the past to life and engages us in the human dimensions of the big moments of the past is real storytelling. This kind of writing helps us understand and sympathize with the people who came before us. It makes us better able to deal with our own crises, of which there are indeed many.

So this book is important whether food is “your thing” or not. I’d recommend reading it no matter your specific interests, just because it will make you think, will make you care, and will help you to feel that the past really is always prologue. It was a great pleasure to have the opportunity to talk in person with Jane and Andrew about A Square Meal.

Jane Ziegelman is the director of the Tenement Museum’s culinary center and is founder and director of Kids Cook!, a multiethnic cooking program for children. Her writing on food has appeared in numerous publications, and she is the coauthor of Foie Gras: A Passion.

Andrew Coe is a writer and independent scholar specializing in culinary history, and the author of Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States, which was a finalist for a James Beard Award. He appeared in the documentaries The Search for General Tso and Eat: The Story of Food. Jane and Andrew live in Brooklyn, New York. And recently, A Square Meal was announced the winner of the 2017 James Beard Award for best nonfiction book of the year.

NPR’s Fresh Air did a wonderful interview (called “Creamed, Canned and Frozen”) with Jane and Andy about this book in August, 2016. And I interviewed Andy about his book, Chop Suey for Writerscast a few year ago.

Photo of the authors by Sasha Maslov for The New York Times.

 

Colin G. Calloway: The Victory with No Name

January 2, 2017 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

victory-with-no-nameThe Victory With No Name: The Native American Defeat of the First American Army – Oxford University Press – paperback – 214 pages -978-0190614454 – $16.95 (ebook versions available at lower prices)

I think it’s safe to say that most Americans have not given much thought to the very early history of the United States. During the first decades after the country was formed, there was much concern about the survival of the new nation. The British were still well established in the north, the Spanish were in the south and southwest, and large numbers of Indians inhabited the vast area to the west. Pressure was being exerted on the federal government to open these western lands to settlement, putting the US on a collision course with the natives who lived there.

This area was known as the Northwest Territory – comprising what are now the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and parts of Minnesota. Almost all Americans dismissed the land claims of the Native Americans. These tribes they saw simply as impediment to American growth. While some American leaders preferred to purchase the Indians’ land, the need for the government to pay its debts by selling (Indian owned) land overwhelmed all other concerns, and led ultimately to a war of extermination with the tribes.

Historian Colin G. Calloway is exceptionally perceptive and knowledgeable about the early history of the United States of America. This short, well written book focuses on a single unnamed battle that took place in late 1791 in what is now Fort Wayne, Indiana. In this period, before there was a standing army, President George Washington ordered Arthur St. Clair, the governor of the Northwest Territory, to direct a military campaign aimed at defeating the tribes that had refused to accept the unfair land deals the United States had proposed to them.

Calloway shows that the Native Americans were well organized and well-led, both politically and militarily. This surprised St. Clair as much as it may surprise us today. The American Indians were led by Little Turtle of the Miamis, Blue Jacket of the Shawnees and Buckongahelas of the Delawares (Lenape). Their war party numbered more than one thousand warriors, and included a large number of Potawatomis from eastern Michigan, a broad confederacy presaging similar Indian efforts to come in later years.

As Calloway points out: “Indians fielding a multinational army, executing a carefully coordinated battle plan worked out by their chiefs, and winning a pitched battle—all things Indians were not supposed to be capable of doing—routed the largest force the United States had fielded on the frontier.” It’s useful to note that the American army was poorly organized, included a large number of ill-trained militia, and was also victimized by crooked suppliers, starting a longstanding American tradition of private gain by military purveyors we recognize all too well today.

Unfortunately for the Native Americans, their victory was short lived. The stunning American defeat led directly to a number of changes in the way the new government operated. The House of Representatives initiated the first investigation of the executive branch, Congress established a standing army and gave the president authority to wage war. A liquor tax was created to finance the Army (which led to the Whiskey Rebellion that ironically, President Washington used the tax-financed militia to put down). The Indian confederacy did not last, and in 1794, General “Mad Anthony” Wayne built Fort Recovery and defeated another Indian war party at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, ultimately bringing an end to Northwest Territory Indian resistance and opening the way for the first stage of westward growth of the new American nation.

There is so much interesting history that relates directly to the story told in this book. It’s a compelling read for anyone interested in the early period of the American republic. My conversation with Colin Calloway reflects the stirring nature of his book, and the breadth of his knowledge. This book is an important American story, well told, and I highly recommend it.

Colin Calloway is the author of a number of excellent works, including one of my personal favorites, One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark. He is the John Kimball, Jr. 1943 Professor of History and Professor of Native American Studies at Dartmouth, where he has taught since 1990. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Leeds in England.

Length note – this interview is slightly longer than average at about 35 minutes. 
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George Gmelch: Playing With Tigers, A Minor League Chronicle of the Sixties

August 1, 2016 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

george-gmelch-playing-wth-tigers9780803276819 – University of Nebraska Press – 288 pages – Hardcover – $26.95 (ebook versions available at roughly similar prices)

Today, George Gmelch is a successful anthropologist, with a number of books to his credit. But when he was a young man, he was a very good baseball player, with the typical dreams so many shared of becoming a professional baseball player and making it to the Major Leagues. Growing up in an all-white suburb in California in the late fifties and early sixties, George led a fairly sheltered childhood, playing ball and having fun. In 1965 he signed a contract to play professional baseball with the Detroit Tigers organization and so began a four year period of coming of age, during which George experienced the challenges of life in baseball’s minor leagues.

While learning to be a professional athlete, he also became aware of the realities of race and class; minor league baseball in the nineteen sixties was often played in small towns in the south where segregation was still in effect, despite the advances of the civil rights movement. And as an adolescent on his own with other boys in the cocoon like world of pro sports, he also had his first experiences of sex and romance, living, traveling and playing ball. Somewhat unlike most of his teammates, George paid attention to the events of the era, including the Vietnam War, the rise of the counter culture, and civil rights protests.

Playing with Tigers is a memoir certainly unlike most others written by baseball players. The sixties was a time of turmoil involving young people of all backgrounds and professional baseball was not immune from its disruption. George was likely more socially aware than most of his compatriots, and his direct experience of racial issues ultimately led to the end of his professional baseball career.

To write this book, George relied on the journals he kept as a player, as well as letters from that time, and in addition he used his skills and experience as an anthropologist to interview thirty former teammates, coaches, club officials – and even some former girlfriends. This is a unique story, documenting a socially disrupted period in American history through the lives of many of the young people who lived through it. We get to experience first hand the naivete, frustrations and joys of a young man trying to find his way in a complex time. And clearly, some of the motivation for writing this book was unfinished business, events, relationships with people, his baseball experience, on which George wanted to gain some closure.

I read alot of baseball books, as many listeners know. Among the many I have read the past couple years, I found Playing With Tigers extremely compelling, and one I had fun reading. I very much enjoyed the opportunity to speak with George Gmelch for the second time – in 2013, George and I talked for Writerscast about another of his baseball books, Inside Pitch. In addition to being an intensely personal memoir, Playing With Tigers opens a door to a period in our history that deserves a lot more exploration than it seems to have been given. George has some great stories and a deep understanding and love for the people and places he’s experienced. This is a fine book and you do not need to know anything about baseball to like it.

George Gmelch is a professor of anthropology at the University of San Francisco and at Union College in Schenectady, New York. His books include In the Ballpark: The Working Lives of Baseball People, with J. J. Weiner (Bison Books, 2006), and Inside Pitch: Life in Professional Baseball (Bison Books, 2006). He is the editor of Baseball without Borders: The International Pastime (Nebraska, 2006). His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Psychology Today, Society, and Natural History.baseballtalk_gmelchGmelch

David Wilk talks with Nicolás Kanellos of Arte Publico Press

December 14, 2015 by  
Filed under Publishing History, PublishingTalks

nicolaskanellos (1)Publishing Talks began as a series of conversations with book industry professionals and others involved in media and technology about the future of publishing, books, and culture. As we continue to experience disruption and change in all media businesses, I’ve been talking with some of the people involved in our industry about how publishing might evolve as our culture is affected by technology and the larger context of civilization and economics.

I’ve now expanded the series to include conversations that go beyond the future of publishing. I’ve talked with editors and publishers who have been innovators and leaders in independent publishing in the past and into the present, and will continue to explore the ebb and flow of writing, books, and publishing in all sorts of forms and formats, as change continues to be the one constant we can count on.

It’s my hope that these conversations can help us understand the outlines of what is happening in publishing and writing, and how we might ourselves interact with and influence the future of publishing as it unfolds.

Over the past several years, I have had a number of conversations with the literary editors and publishers whose work in independent publishing has been influential during the past four, or sometimes even five decades. Independent literary publishing, both magazines and books, has been and continues to be at the forefront of cultural change, enabling independent and outsider writing to be available to readers. One of the most important of these presses is Arte Publico Press, founded by writer and scholar Nicolás Kanellos, housed at the University of Houston for many years now.

As Nicolás says about his founding of the press: “In the early 1970s, it became obvious that Hispanic writers were not being published by mainstream presses. Because there was no outlet for the creative efforts of these Latino writers, their work was condemned to be forgotten, lost or just delivered orally through performance.”

Starting, as so many publishers have done, with a literary magazine, Kanellos founded the Revista Chicana-Riqueña in Gary, Indiana, in 1972. Revisita was a quarterly magazine for Latino literature and cultural arts that subsequently evolved into the well respected Americas Review, which published its final issue, Volume 25, Numbers 1-4, in 1999.

Kanellos then founded Arte Público Press in 1979 to further expand the work of providing a n important forum for Hispanic literature. In 1980, Kanellos was offered a teaching position at the University of Houston, and brought Arte Publico with him, where it has now thrived for 35 years.

Arte Publico has published an incredible range of important Hispanic writers of many different backgrounds since its beginnings nearly four decades ago. And Kanellos and the press have expanded into a range of other important programs, including collecting and archiving lost Latino writings from the colonial era to today through the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage project, and more recently a Latino children’s publishing program. The list of authors that Arte Publico has published is truly astonishing, and its impact on writers and readers alike is immeasurable.

It is my great pleasure to speak with my old friend Nicolás Kanellos for Writerscast about his work as editor, publisher and literary impressario. Publisher website here. NBC Latino profile of Kanellos and the press here.

Note to listeners, as with most of the Publishing Talks interviews, this is longer than most podcasts at 49 minutes, but hopefully well worth your time to listen and enjoy.Chicano-Manual-150x250ap-logo2 (1)

Janice P. Nimura: Daughters of the Samurai

October 6, 2015 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

Nimura_jacketDAUGHTERS OF THE SAMURAI: A JOURNEY FROM EAST TO WEST AND BACK

978-0-393-07799-5 – W.W. Norton – Hardcover – 336 pages – $26.95 (ebooks available at lower prices, paperback edition to be published in May 2016)

Janice Nimura’s Daughters of the Samurai is a wonderful book about an extraordinary and little known episode in modern Japanese history. In 1871, soon after the Japanese civil war that led to the modernization of the country, the Japanese government decided to send five young girls to the United States to educated. They were sent along with a delegation of diplomats and civil servants, with a very specific mission to be educated in modern Western ways and then to return to help create new generation of men and women to lead Japan. While each of these young girls had been raised in very traditional samurai households, they were all displaced from their families and clans. Three of the girls stayed the course, while the other two girls went home.

On their arrival in San Francisco, and later, traveling across the country, the Japanese girls became significant public celebrities, written about by newspapers across everywhere. It’s incredible to imagine what it must have been like for the girls as well as for the American public, who had never seen anyone from Japan before.

Sutematsu Yamakawa, Shige Nagai, and Ume Tsuda all were raised in middle class or upper middle class homes in the United States and grew up in many ways as typical American schoolgirls, despite their obvious differences from their American friends and family members. Within the families and then in the various schools and colleges they attended, they developed lifelong friendships and connections, and after their ten year sojourn was completed, they returned home to Japan almost as foreigners.

They had started their sojourn in America in radically cross-cultural environments and experiences, then learned a completely new culture, only to return home as yet again out-of-place foreigners, this time in the culture they actually came from. Their unusual experience gave them an incredibly unusual perspective on Japanese culture. As adult women living in a still male dominated society struggling with the tension between modernity and tradition, they each determined to revolutionize women’s education and lead their country forward. Ume Tsuda, in particular, made a significant impact on Japanese education that continues into the modern era.

It’s impossible not to be captivated by these incredible women and their life stories, both in the United States and in Japan. Nimura’s narrative is fascinating and compelling; she brings to life what was once an obscure piece of history, and through the lens of these interesting women, a period in both American and Japanese history of great change in every aspect of culture.

After reading Daughters of the Samurai, it’s impossible not to want to share the story with anyone who will listen. I am fortunate that I was able to talk about it with the author herself.  This is a book I am happy to recommend to readers.

Janice Nimura graduated from Yale and then moved to Japan with her new husband, where she lived for three years, became proficient in Japanese, and later earned a Masters degree from Columbia in East Asian Studies, specializing in 19th century Japanese history. At one point she stumbled across a book written by Alice Mabel Bacon (originally from New Haven) called A Japanese Interior, which is about Bacon’s visit to Japan in the 1880s. Alice Bacon’s story captured Nimura’s imagination. She learned about Sutematsu Yamakawa Oyama, Bacon’s foster sister and Vassar’s first Japanese graduate; Ume Tsuda, whose pioneering women’s English school Alice helped to launch; and Shige Nagai Uriu, the third of the little girls who arrived with the Iwakura Mission in 1872 and grew up in America, and then took up the challenge of researching and writing about this amazing episode in modern Japanese and American history.

Author website here.Janice Nimura31subBENFEY-facebookJumbo

Loren Glass: Counterculture Colophon

August 5, 2014 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

0804784167Counterculture Colophon: Grove Press, the Evergreen Review, and the Incorporation of the Avant-Garde (Post*45) – 978-0804784160 – Stanford University Press – Hardcover – $27.95 (ebook versions available at substantially lower prices)

This book has turned out to be one of the most influential on my recent thinking  about publishing and how it should work, proving that history can tell us a great deal about both the present and the future. Grove Press was immensely influential in changing American culture from the 1950s through the 1980s, and remains meaningful today, with its massive backlist representing the golden age of the literary avant-garde of that time. Its longtime owner and spiritual leader, Barney Rosset, has been an almost mythic hero to many who got into publishing because of what he accomplished with Evergreen Magazine and Grove Press.  How a publisher could become so powerfully influential makes for a terrific and inspiring story.

Grove’s accomplishments and innovations are legion and well documented by Loren Glass in this book. While Counterculture Colophon is written as an academic history, and sometimes Glass falls prey to academic terminology that may put off the non-scholarly readers, I was happy to overlook the academic jargon and focus on the compelling story he tells of Grove and what it has meant for modern publishing.

This heroic and sometimes tragic saga reminds us of what it means to be a passionate and committed publisher. It’s difficult for anyone alive today to believe that up until the 1960s it was illegal to publish and sell literary books that included sexually explicit content.  Battles were fought – and finally won at great expense –  by Grove Press against the US government and many local jurisdictions over DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and William Burroughs’ notorious Naked Lunch. These cases literally led to “the end of obscenity” and created the groundwork that has enabled modern literary publishing to flourish in our time.

Rosset and Grove, together with myriad editors and publishers in Paris, London, San Francisco, and New York, were at the heart of a revolution in publishing, both in content and in form that in many ways inspired and led directly to an equivalent revolution in the overall American culture, that reverberates today.  Grove was at the heart of political, cultural and literary ferment in North America, introducing new voices not only from here, but from around the world, to American readers. Rosset more or less invented the trade paperback, and was a leader in introducing trade books to be used as supplemental reading for college courses, of course hitting its stride at the very moment that the Baby Boom generation went to college. The magazine and press brought an emerging set of writers to an emerging generation of readers, inspiring and changing the way millions read and thought about writing, politics, theater and art. Grove Press was as much a cultural institution as it was a publisher.

And, importantly, what this book most strongly highlighted for me is the meaning and power of a publisher’s brand. It is widely accepted that most publishers today have no identity with readers. Grove Press and its house literary journal, the Evergreen Review, were made into powerful and coherent brands that recognized the publisher as enabled it to introduce formerly unknown writers and artists to their audiences. Using graphics, typography and a consistently subversive publishing program, Grove was able to become a recognized brand for readers, the power of which, seemingly very few publishers have understood or been able to duplicate.

Counter Culture Colophon is a book I strongly recommend to anyone interested in contemporary literature and of course, publishing. Loren Glass was able to interview Rosset and many other principle players in the story of the press. And for many, it will be a truly inspiring tale.glass-150

 

Loren Glass is a Professor of English at the University of Iowa. There is a really nice video of Glass speaking about Rosset and Grove at the Chicago Humanities Festival here. (55 minutes)

Brad Meltzer: The Fifth Assassin

April 22, 2013 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

Fifth_assassin978-0446553971 – Grand Central Publishing – Hardcover – $27.99 (ebook versions available at lower prices, paperback edition due out in August 2013).

Brad Meltzer is an incredibly active writer, author of myriad best sellers in both fiction and nonfiction, creator of television shows, host of History Channel’s excellent show Decoded – which is fun, compelling and full of amazing historical detail.  He’s also a comics fan and author of many critically-acclaimed comic books, including a nice run of Green Arrow stories, Identity Crisis and Justice League of America, for which he won the important Eisner Award.  Sometimes one wonders if he ever sleeps.

Brad quite evidently has a voracious appetite for history, and especially for the kind of stories in history that fascinate so many of us.  And as an unstoppable researcher, he gets into places that most of us simply never have the time or the chutzpah to find.  What makes his fiction so compelling is that Meltzer is able to combine his passion for history with great storytelling and a clean, brisk writing style that propels his stories forward.  And he does write characters we can relate to and enjoy as well, so there’s another reason to find and read his books.

The Fifth Assassin is a sequel to the earlier, and very successful The Inner Circle,a book I am sorry to say I have not read.  That book introduced the Culper Ring, an informal organization founded by George Washington to defend the presidency of the United States.  Each of these two books (and the next book, which will complete the trilogy these books have begun) can be read on its own.  Being new to the story did not pose any problems for me in reading and enjoying The Fifth Assassin, though I am  sure I would have enjoyed it more if I had read the first book first.  Many of the characters in the new book were introduced in the first – and of course some of them are killed off in the second book, as there are other secret organizations out there, dedicated to much darker aims the Culper Ring must fight.

It does help that I am familiar with and enjoy the Decoded series (disclosure – I work with History Channel on book projects, one of which is a book based on Decoded that will be published by Workman in Fall 2013).  The Fifth Assassin is linked to a number of historical mysteries covered in the Decoded’s two seasons on History.  This novel has a pretty complicated plot, the details of which I will leave for readers to discover for themselves.  There have been four presidential assassinations before now – Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy.  What if there was a secret organization whose members were responsible for all of these murders?  And what if there was a present day plot to add another president to the list of the dead?  And what if the plot is being acted out by mysterious players whose aims are difficult to fathom and therefore difficult to stop?

Beecher White is Meltzer’s hero, and an unlikely one at that.  I think he enjoyed creating a sympathetic hero who does not have any special powers other than his knowledge of history and ability to think – and act when needed, which of course any hero must do.

This is a wonderfully fun book which I enjoyed a great deal.  Meltzer is incredibly skilled at plot creation and keeping his story moving organically, so we don’t feel manipulated or ever question the motivations or actions of his characters, i.e., we do not feel the hand of the plot maker at work, which is a terrific skill I greatly appreciate in a time when so many storytellers struggle to give their stories the kind of credibility and natural narrative movement that Meltzer seems to find so effortless to accomplish.

I’d recommend reading The Fifth Assassin, and then listening to this discussion about the book.  I think it will add to the experience for readers.  Brad Meltzer’s website is here and it’s worth a visit.  If you get a chance to hear him read from or talk about his work in person, it’s worth the effort to see him.  And Decoded, the television show, is in reruns on History’s H2 – if you have not seen them, take a look, there are some fun, thoughtful and compelling episodes.  Brad Meltzer is a terrific writer, and great fun to to speak with, it’s a pleasure to have had the opportunity to talk to him about this book.Brad_Meltzer

Publishing Talks: David Wilk interviews Black Sparrow Press founder John Martin

November 5, 2012 by  
Filed under Publishing History, PublishingTalks

In this series of interviews, called Publishing Talks, I talk to book industry professionals and other smart people about the future of publishing, books, and culture.  This is a period of disruption and change for all media businesses.  How will publishing evolve as our culture is affected by technology, climate change, population density, and the ebb and flow of civilization and  economics?

I hope these Publishing Talks conversations will help us better understand the outlines of what is happening in publishing, books and reading culture, and how we can ourselves both understand and influence the future of books and reading.  Over the past couple of years, I’ve been talking to a wide variety of people in the book business, mostly about the future of writing, publishing, and reading. But the future is always built on what has gone before now.  And there has been so much incredibly creative and wonderful publishing work done in recent years, I’ve wanted to share some of the experiences of people who have accomplished so much, with vision, talent and amazing effort.

I’m very pleased and honored to present my interview with John Martin, founder and publisher of Black Sparrow Press for 36 years, from 1966 through 2002.  While best known for his discovery and commitment to the work of poet, Charles Bukowski, John was responsible for publishing an incredible range of writers, poets and critics an established a truly historical breadth of work.  Black Sparrow books were notably beautiful (all designed and produced by Barbara Martin), and established a singular and unmistakable brand that told readers that they could expect quality books with writers whose work was selected for aesthetic rather than commercial reasons.  And on that commitment to quality, Martin built a very successful and profitable business.

When I was a young poet and publisher, I admired no publisher more than Black Sparrow, and I am sure I am not alone among independent publishers in appreciating John’s achievement over such a long period of time.  The list of writers and poets Black Sparrow published is incredible, including Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Diane Wakoski, Paul Bowles, Wyndham Lewis, Joyce Carol Oates, Tom Clark, John Fante, Charles Reznikoff, and many, many others.

Martin famously promised to pay Charles Bukowski $100 a month for the rest of his life if he would quit his job at the post office and become a full time writer.  What a brilliant and creative gesture.  Brave and perhaps foolhardy too, but that single act changed literary history and probably enabled Black Sparrow to become so successful.  A great investment, risking one fifth of his personal income to support a writer whose work he loved.  Bukowski wrote his first novel, Post Office, and Black Sparrow published it in 1971.  As John points out, that book sold forever, along with a number of others, and became the backbone of his business.

Black Sparrow Press was started in 1966 with a single broadside poem.  After 36 years of long rewarding hours and hundreds of titles published, John Martin decided the business had changed enough by 2002 that it was a good time to get out.  He guessed that the consolidation of retail would spell the end of the golden age of independent publishing, and based on that prescience, sold his most valuable assets, his deals with Bukowski, Paul Bowles and a few others, to HarperCollins’ Ecco Press imprint, and the rest of the inventory (but not the contracts) to fellow independent publisher, David Godine, who renamed the list Black Sparrow Books, and who has continued to publish a fine, though smaller list of books in the Black Sparrow vein.

I recently discovered a wonderful letter written to John by Bukowski in 1986.  In it he says “To not to have entirely wasted one’s life seems to be a worthy accomplishment, if only for myself.”  That seems a pretty good description of what John Martin did himself and a worthy goal for any of us to aspire to.  (You can read the entire inspiring letter at a great site called Letters of Note.)

There’s a really well done history of the press, with quite a bit from John himself, written in 2002 here.  The Black Sparrow archive is at the University of Alberta and quite a bit of it can be viewed online. I’ll be posting interviews with a number of other independent publishers over the next few months, in hopes of helping to document what has been and remains an amazing era in American literary publishing. (Warning note to listeners: this is a long interview but hopefully well worth your time. Enjoy!)Photograph of John Martin from Metroactive by Michael Amsler.


Ellen Cassedy: We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust

October 23, 2012 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

978-0803230125 – University of Nebraska Press – Paperback – $19.95 (ebook versions available at variable lower prices)

Finding this book was a happy accident for me.  Much of my own family is from Lithuania and I have long been interested in the history and culture of the Jewish community prior to World War II.  I’ve read a number of books by Jews who survived the Holocaust in Lithuania – terrible stories of suffering and loss.  But Ellen Cassedy’s story resonated even more deeply for me.  She went to Lithuania to study Yiddish as part of her quest to connect to her Jewish roots on her mother’s side and to explore the country and culture of her family’s birth.

She also needed to learn some of the secrets of her Holocaust survivor Uncle’s past, and as she explored and connected to Jews and gentiles alike, her experiences in modern Lithuania changed her perspective and understanding of the complex connections between people, their history, and their present.   Much of what she believed was true about Lithuania as well as her family’s experience in the terrible war years was upended by what she learned and the people she met and interacted with there.

Cassedy’s story should be meaningful not just for Jews seeking to understand their European roots.  Through her eyes, we learn a lot about her hard work in trying to master the complexity of the beautiful and difficult Yiddish language.  She spends time with old people, young people, survivors, witnesses, goes through old Lithuanian and Russian archives, interviews city and country folk, including an old man who wants to “speak to a Jew” before he dies and learns a great deal about the issues that confront a country that was taken over by both Nazi and Soviet dictatorships.  In the end, her journey transforms her, and in this memoir she allows us to travel with her through a difficult and rewarding emotional and physical landscape.  I truly enjoyed this book and talking to Ellen about it was a pleasure.  And I learned some new Yiddish words and expressions too!

Her own website is well worth a visit – nice video of Lithuania and more about her other work.

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