Saturday, June 30, 2007

Colonial America--Echo Park Version

I just finished reading Charles Rappleye's Sons of Providence. It's about the Brown brothers, Moses and John, who founded Brown University and butted heads over the issue of slavery in colonial Rhode Island. Moses was a Quaker abolitionist, John a hardheaded businessman and slaver. In addition to tracing their lives in full and fascinating detail, Charles presents them as two American archetypes--social reformer and robber baron.

With the vast searching power at your fingertips, you can look up this book's favorable reviews at your leisure. You might start with the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times. Allow me to scale the magnitude of this critical success for you. According to David Ulin, the L.A. Times receives 200 books per day for review; they actually review about 12 per week in the Sunday supplement. So the odds of receiving a review are long; to run the table at the nation's top papers is huge. If you've mastered the Google search, you will also learn that Sons of Providence received the George Washington book prize and the $50k cash award that goes with it. That's folding money, people.

To which the fanatical reader of this blog might respond: All very well, but what does any of this have to do with Carey McWilliams and California culture? Well, let's start with the basics. First, Charles was for many years a fixture at the LA Weekly. Who among you expected an award-winning book on colonial America to emerge from the offices of an alternative weekly in Los Angeles? Full disclosure: Charles is originally from Rhode Island. But still.

Second, Charles's first book, a portrait of racketeer Johnny Rosselli, overlapped with the McWilliams story. Specifically, Rosselli was involved with the Chicago mob's takeover of Hollywood unions in the 1930s, a takeover McWilliams tried to resist. By coincidence, Rosselli was back in the news this week when the CIA released its so-called Family Jewels. Those documents show that Rosselli was involved with the agency's attempt to assassinate Castro. Charles gave me that book at a party he hosted at his Echo Park home some years ago, and I put it to good use on the McWilliams bio.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Fall Book List

OK, the book lineup for the Fall course on Los Angeles is set. In order, the books are:

Carey McWilliams, Southern California: An Island on the Land
Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
Chester Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go
John Fante, Full of Life
Charles Bukowski, Post Office: A Novel
Joan Didion, The White Album
T.C. Boyle, The Tortilla Curtain

This was a tough list to assemble. Other candidates included Fante's Ask the Dust, Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run?, Bugliosi and Gentry's Helter Skelter, Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Walter Mosley's A Red Death, D.J. Waldie's Holy Land, and many others. I would love to teach Greg Mitchell's Campaign of the Century, Otto Friedrich's City of Nets, and Mike Davis's City of Quartz, but I didn't think they would work in this course. I tried to get some historical coverage here, something from every decade or so, but I would have been happy to teach a course just on Los Angeles in 1939.

The feature films I've penciled in are:

Sunset Boulevard
Devil in a Blue Dress
Endless Summer
Real Women Have Curves
Laurel Canyon

There will be documentaries, too:

Zoot Suit Riots
Hollywood on Trial
The Doors

The idea is to pick some evocative works, but also to get some resonances between and among them: Zoot Suit Riots dramatizes McWilliams, Bukowski picks up on Fante, Chinatown comments on The Big Sleep (and McWilliams), Devil in a Blue Dress looks back on Himes, etc. So we'll see how that goes.

Friday, June 22, 2007

McWilliams and Orange County's Secret History

Gustavo Arellano has a piece in the Los Angeles Times on Orange County's amnesia when it comes to its Latino past. That includes the Mendez v. Westminster decision that paved the way for Brown v. Board of Education. As Gustavo notes, McWilliams wrote the counter-history that fills in many of these gaps.

Here's the link:,1,830485.story?coll=la-news-comment

Fanatical readers of this blog will recall that Gustavo interviewed me for a piece on the citrus strike of 1936 and McWilliams's role in it. He also has a book out, doing well last time I checked, called Ask a Mexican! (For purposes of accuracy, insert an upside down exclamation mark before Ask.) It's based on his column in the OC Weekly. I haven't seen it, but I've read some excerpts and heard him on NPR--sounds funny and edifying.


Friday, June 15, 2007

Fante Tour of Los Angeles

This just in--a Los Angeles Times story about a downtown tour as seen through the eyes of John Fante: novelist, screenwriter, and FOC (Friend Of Carey).

Here's the link:,0,1894240.story?coll=cl-home-more-channels

Recall that the link will work only for a few days. (That's why there's no link here to the LA Times review of American Prophet.)

In other news, I'm putting together the reading list for the Fall course on Los Angeles. Fante's Ask the Dust will probably make the cut.