Book Review: Riding Rockets

Mike Mullane. Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut. New York, Scribner, 2006. 368 pages.

This is a book everyone who has any kind of interest in the history–and future–of manned space flight should read. For that matter, anyone who doesn’t have an interest in manned space flight should read it, too, so they have an idea of why it’s so important.

I was born after the Apollo program ended, and have vague memories of Skylab (mostly my dad assuring me that it wouldn’t land on us when it re-entered earth’s atmosphere in 1979). I remember hearing that, by the mid-1980s, we’d be sending shuttles into space every other week, and that space travel would be safe and commonplace. Of course, history told a different story.Riding Rockets

Since I started explaining the history of the space program to my four year-old (who is full of questions), I’ve been reading up on it as much as I can. When I learned about Mike Mullane’s book, I figured I’d give it a read and get a few new insights on the shuttle years.

Suffice it to say that Riding Rockets gave me much more than that. About one page in, I realized something: Mullane is a hell of a writer. You might think that, as one of the few human beings to have escaped earth’s gravity, he’d start his story with the sublime joy of watching a sunrise from space or seeing the earth speed by below him at 17,500 miles per hour. No. He starts the book naked, lying on a table at a NASA facility, giving himself an enema.

Too much information! you might think, but within a few paragraphs Mullane is able to explain exactly why it was so important to administer that enema, and along the way introduce the reader to the astronaut selection process without doing a data dump or being didactic. When a NASA psychologist asks him about his motivations for going into space, he gives the reader a detailed account of his early years–and tells us the simple, boring story that he told the psychologist–again, letting us understand his deception.

Once he gets into the selection and training of 1978 Astronaut Class (nicknamed TFNG, ostensibly “Thirty-Five New Guys), the book really takes off. He shares painfully honest details of the process, including the tension between him and the other military flyers and the civilian astronauts. He also isn’t shy about revealing a nearly dysfunctional management structure, singling out Chief Astronaut John Young and George Abbey, Flight Crew Operations Directorate chief, for keeping the astronauts in the dark about the flight assignment procedures.

Mullane was assigned as a mission specialist on STS 41-D, the first flight of Discovery, and gives a personal perspective on that mission, which included the program’s first launch pad abort. He also talks about his friendship with fellow TFNG Judy Resnick, who was killed in the Challenger disaster in January 1986.

Discussing the aftermath of the Challenger tragedy is where Mullane is at his most searing. He is forthright in blaming almost everyone at NASA for the disaster, including himself and the other astronauts, who almost uniformly let their desire to go into space outstrip safety concerns. The story of the disaster is a cautionary tale for any organization, and the insights Mullane adds convinces the reader that the disaster itself wasn’t a fluke–that it took so long for such a tragedy is. His first flight, for example, saw erosion of the O-rings and “blow-by,” which ultimately doomed Challenger, but none of the astronauts were told of the safety concerns. Similarly, one of his post-Challenger flights saw the orbiter struck by debris during its ascent–the same scenario that doomed Columbia in 2003.

What struck me most about the book was Mullane’s unflinching, often uncomfortable, honesty. Sometimes it’s humorous, as when talking about the culture clash between the “Arrested Development” military aviators and the liberal civilian “post doc” astronauts, but it’s usually quite personal, as when he candidly admits his owns failures as a husband and father. Reading this book, you understand why spaceflight is such a beguiling prospect, but you also appreciate, probably as never before, exactly how many sacrifices astronauts make.

Highly recommended.


Book Review: The War at the Shore

Richard D. “Skip” Bronson with Andrew Meisler and A. M. Silver. The War at the Shore: Donald Trump, Steve Wynn, and the Epic War to Save Atlantic City. New York: Overland Press, 2012. 220 pages.

Many people are fascinated by the high-stakes world of casino development. Deals get announced that create thousands of jobs and bring in millions of dollars of revenue a month, or proposals to build casinos get tabled somewhere in the US every month or so. Skip Bronson, a real estate developer in his own right, worked alongside Steve Wynn for several years, first attempted to build a casino in Connecticut, then, as the title lets you know, battling Donald Trump for the right to do so in Atlantic City. In THE WAR AT THE SHORE, he takes the reader inside the Wynn war room and delivers several fascinating insights on how deals get done–and done away with.

In essence, this book looks at how Steve Wynn tried to build a Vegas-style mega-resort, which might have been called Le Jardin, on the H-Tract, where the Borgata is today. Donald Trump, Bally’s Arthur Goldberg, and others opposed him, both in the courts but also through less direct means, such as funding “community” opposition groups.

Bronson begins not at the beginning, but at a contentious community meeting in Atlantic City where he feared for his life. In general, Bronson doesn’t paint a flattering portrait of Atlantic City or its environs. Most residents are on the take or have their hands out, and he even complains about clams washing up on the beach in front of the South Cornwall Ave. house in Ventnor that he lived in part-time while chasing the deal. I’ve got some inside information here because I used to be a member of the Ventnor Beach Crew, the elite group of city employees charged with keeping the beach here, and I can say that dead clam stink, while it is an occasional problem, isn’t a chronic one, and it certainly shouldn’t spoil the pleasure of beachfront living just steps from the city’s only surfer’s beach and the storied Ventnor City Fishing Pier. While he singles out some locals for praise, particularly Mayor James Whelan, his overall sentiment seems to hover between disgust and contempt–which makes it easier to understand why things didn’t click with many in the community.

Community involvement was key to the Wynn/H-Tract deal because, as a condition for investing over a billion dollars, Wynn wanted improved access to the H-Tract. This involved building the thoroughfare now known as the Brigantine Connector, which indeed improved access to the Marina District, but whose construction demanded nine local residents sacrifice their homes (for which they’d receive twice “fair market value”). Clearly, it’s a difficult political position, and any hesitation on the part of locals was exacerbated by the full-court press Donald Trump, among others, employed, chiefly to stymie Wynn and prevent a potential rival.

Bronson does a great job of bringing to life the various characters he met and situations he found himself during the five years he tried to get Le Jardin built (1995-2000). He provides what I think is the best profile of Arthur Goldberg, former Bally’s/Park Place Entertainment CEO, in print today, and we even get to see the “Mirage Volcano” erupt a few times (even scarier, he says, is when Steve Wynn speaks with complete calm to those who’ve let him down).

I need to point out, though, that there are several errors in the book that pulled me out of the story. Some are relatively minor, like referring to Mickey Brown as the head of the “New Jersey Gaming Commission” (a body whose existence is a mystery to me), when he actually helmed the Division of Gaming Enforcement. Others reflect the fact that this book was apparently written a while ago: Foxwoods is labeled “the largest, most profitable casino in the world” (Venetian Macao has had that honor for five years now) and the book ends on a happy note with MGM MIRAGE about to build the $5 billion MGM Atlantic City on the land where Le Jardin once might have been. That project was announced in 2007, tabled in 2008, and killed in 2010 when MGM Resorts effectively surrendered its NJ gaming license rather than cut ties with Pansy Ho, its Macau partner. Ditto for the reference to Atlantic City as “America’s fastest-growing city.” It seems that much of this book was written five years ago and not strenuously revised before publication.

So it’s a good book, but it’s only as good as the recollections of the principals, and there are some areas where standard fact-checking and updating would have given the manuscript more immediacy.

The need for a current assessment is nowhere clearer than in the wrap up, in which Bronson says that, in the end, the War at the Shore ended in “a triumph for all involved.” Bronson got to say he’d turned a former dump into land valued at $400 million, Trump kept out a competitor, and Atlantic City got the Borgata.

I don’t think anything could be further from the truth. In fact, I’d argue that the War at the Shore might have been the beginning of the end for Atlantic City, and had ripple effects throughout the gaming industry that can’t be underestimated. Let’s imagine that Trump doesn’t try to block Wynn, and instead retaliated by selling Trump Plaza and putting the proceeds into renovating Trump Marina into something that could rival Wynn, or sold the Marina and the Plaza to turn the Taj into a true mega-resort. Park Place also doubled down on its properties, starting expansion programs like what Harrah’s did with Harrah’s and Aztar started with the Tropicana (under Dennis Gomes, incidentally). Wynn breaks ground on Le Jardin in 1996; it opens in 1999 as something like the Bellagio. This pushes back Beau Rivage a few years, and by 2000 Mirage Resorts is getting enough cash from its AC operation that its stock price is considerably higher: no MGM buyout. Circus Circus Enterprises opens “Mandalay East” in early 2000, and Boyd’s Borgata comes online soon after.

Under this scenario, Atlantic City now has as many as a half-dozen destination resorts and is able to do what the Strip did in the early 2000s. Maybe you’ve got a season of MTV’s Real World filmed at Borgata, or Ocean’s 12 is set in Atlantic City. There’s a real turnaround in public perception, and Atlantic City, now established as a true rival to Las Vegas, is able to weather “competition” from Pennsylvania slot parlors later in the decade.

Maybe MGM never acquires Mirage Resorts. After finishing Le Jardin, Wynn build Beau Rivage, then starts planning for Macau. MGM maybe picks up the Desert Inn (again) and develops CityCenter there. Whatever the impact on the rest of the industry, though, it’s hard to argue that Atlantic City is better off with the cards it was dealt thanks to Trump et al’s obstruction of the H-Tract’s development.

In any event, WAR AT THE SHORE is a great look inside why Wynn left Atlantic City the second time, and provides a good perspective in general on the political and deal-making (not design) side of casino development.


Book Review: Conquering Fear

Harold S. Kushner. Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World. New York: Alfred F. Knopf, 2009. 192 pages.

Humans are the only animals that fear the future–a consequence of the gift of foresight. Harold Kushner, best known as the author of WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE, takes on fear in this quick but thoughtful book.

The essence of CONQUERING FEAR can be found in words Rabbi Kushner shared with an ill congregant: “God’s job is not to make sick people healthy. That’s the doctor’s job. God’s job is to make sick people brave.” (18) The book reminds us that while bad things may lie ahead, being crippled by fear in the present will only make them worse. Indeed, throughout the book Kushner reminds us that God himself repeatedly urges people not to be afraid. Kushner’s deity is not about fire and brimstone but overcoming fear.

The book includes chapters on some of the things that Americans fear most these days: terrorism, natural disasters, unemployment, lovelessness, aging, and finally the ultimate terror: death. While CONQUERING FEAR will be a good read for any age group, it is profoundly an older man’s book, as Kushner writes about aging and death with a purpose that a younger author, no matter how empathetic, couldn’t achieve. What he has to say is both comforting and inspiring. In a nutshell, it is that “Your life is the story; death is only punctuation.” (157) Those words aren’t just a balm for the ailing; they are a summons to life for the healthy.

Speaking of this being an old man’s book tempered by his life’s experience, I was particularly taken by Kushner’s meditation on Ecclesiastes. As a young man, he loved it because it spoke to the hypocrisy he saw everywhere. At thirty-five, he read it as the musings of a man worried that everything he’d worked for would disappear. At fifty, after his father’s death, he understood the book as an old man’s fear of death: he’s not worried that his work will be gone, but that he will be gone. It’s this kind of nuanced analysis that makes CONQUERING FEAR such a good read. It feels like the distillation of decades of serious thought about human struggle.

At a time when fear surrounds us, this book will both sooth and stir you.

Book review: The Argyle Sweater

Scott Hilburn. The Argyle Sweater: A Cartoon Collection. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 2009. 128 pages.

This is another book I got through the Amazon Vine program, so it has nothing to do with gambling. I just thought it would be a fun read.

This cartoon collection from Scott Hilburn is very much in the same vein as The Far Side. In fact, it’s almost completely derivative of The Far Side. Granted, there’s only so much you can do with a single-panel daily cartoon, but reading this book I kept on thinking of The Far Side, never They’ll Do It Every Time or The Family Circus.

That said, The Argyle Sweater is often funny. Most of the humor revolves around puns and wordplay. For example, the caption “Custer’s Last Tan” is under a cartoon of a sun-burned General George Custer laying out by the pool, or a vulture checking in at an airplane and being told there is a limit of one carrion per passenger. Nursery rhymes, dinosaurs, and wild animals show up pretty frequently, as do dung beetles.

Sometimes, though, the cartoons misfire, at least for this reader. One Star Trek-inspired panel featuring “static Klingons” might have been funny 40 years ago, but I think that joke has been pretty much run into the ground by now.

Humor is tough to review, because what one person finds hilarious another will groan at, so the best I can do in the way of a recommendation is suggest that if you like punny humor, you might like much of The Argyle Sweater.

Book Review: The Pine Barrens

John McPhee. The Pine Barrens. New York: The Noonday Press, 1968. 157 pages.

This is a non-fiction classic that, forty years on, still is a brisk and entertaining read. McPhee sketches the geography, history, and people of the Pine Barrens, a surprisingly undeveloped section of the country’s most densely-populated state.

McPhee starts with “The Woods from Hog Willow,” a description of a visit to the house of a longtime resident that sets the tone of the rest of the book. The author’s part of this chapter, as we see the pines and two typical residents through his eyes. From there, he shifts into a more or less straightforward third-person narrative of the region and its history.

There’s something almost poetic about the solitude of the Pine Barrens that McPhee artfully conveys. He really captures the eerie timelessness of the deep woods when he describes several areas that used to have bustling towns and mills that are now indistinguishable from the surrounding forest–there is no trace at all that humans once lived there. It will certainly make you think about how ephemeral our enterprises can be.

I’d really suggest this book for any student of good non-fiction writing because McPhee infuses the Pine Barrens with drama and charm, in the process teaching the reader a great deal about an obscure section of America. It’s been forty years since he wrote The Pine Barrens, so this is probably not a completely accurate guide to today’s pinelands, but it’s nonetheless a landmark book.

Book review: The Book of the Unknown

Jonathon Keats. The Book of the Unknown: Tales of the Thirty-Six. New York: Random House, 2009. 221 pages.

Mysticism is a dangerous beast for fiction writers. At its best, writing about mystical ideas can be inspiring, magical. At its worst, it is obscure and inaccessible to non-initiates. So a book inspired by ideas from medieval Jewish mysticism isn’t necessarily a slam dunk.

With The Book of the Unknown, Jonathon Keats succeeds in creating stories that are otherwordly, yet understandable. The book, framed by a fictional letter from the “author” and a closing afterward from the editors, is a collection of tales about the lamed-vov, or thirty-six hidden ones, obscure everyday saints whose righteousness redeems the world. The thing is, no one knows who the lamed-vov are, not even them, and they aren’t always conventionally God-fearing.

So Keats’ collection includes an idiot, a thief, a clown, a cheat, and my favorite, a gambler. This is one of the best distillations of the gambling ethos I’ve seen yet, and it’s sure to become an assigned reading for future students in my gambling-related courses. The story’s final line is a masterpiece–the kind of sentence that writers struggle for weeks, and it’s sure to be quoted elsewhere as an epigram.

Keats renders dialog in the same style as Charlie Huston–no quotation marks, no “he said/she said,” just an emdash to indicate someone is speaking. The more I see of this, the more it grows on me. It’s an effective way of letting the speech stand on its own, which gives it more dramatic weight.

The book’s meta-plot, a professor who’s made a discovery that leads him into possible danger, recalls Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, as does the its kabbalistic bent. But mystical concepts themselves don’t play into the stories, nor do Jewish ideas, either religious or cultural. Besides the occasional rabbi as an authority figure, there’s nothing specifically Jewish about the characters and plotlines. None of tales are tied to any particular era or locale–they are set in a vaguely medieval Europe with kings and merchants, farmers and fisherman. So accurate historical fiction this is not, but this is not really a drawback. The characters and ideas take center stage, and emphasizing details like the name of the river that runs by the town or the exact method used to plow the fields, while they would be a part of realistic world-building in another genre, would trivialize the folkloric style that gives the book its power.

The Book of the Unknown is a fascinating collection of ideas in story form, tales about a town where… or a king who… It’s a great read that’s sure to be thought-provoking.

Book Review: Legal Tender

Laraine Russo Harper. Legal Tender: True Tales of a Brothel Madam. Las Vegas: Stephens Press, 2008.250 pages.

Legal brothel prostitution is a small, enigmatic part of the Nevada experience. “Direct to your room” escorts get all the advertising and notoriety, but prostitution remains illegal in Clark County and therefore Las Vegas. But the legal brothels, the closest of which to Vegas are in tiny Pahrump, tend to fly under the radar.

In Legal Tender, former madam Laraine Russo Harper recounts the six years she spent running an unnamed Pahrump brothel. It’s an often-amusing collection of anecdotes about her time in the sex business.

Harper was recruited to run the brothel by a friend who had been impressed by her tact and commitment as a casino host. After visiting the dingy trailers that comprised the sex palace, Harper accepted and began a thorough renovation, transforming the brothel into a full-service resort.

Most of Legal Tender revolves around Harper’s struggle to bring class to the tacky brothel scene. One chapter recounts the eccentricities of various “ladies” employed in the brothel, while another discusses the foibles of the customers. It’s told in a humorous vein that tends toward the sophomoric side. Take, for example, this extract:

I laughed as I compared my new endeavor with the gaming business. I remembered in the casino industry that “BJ” stood for “blackjack.” Not anymore! It had a whole new meaning now. Many things would take on new meanings from that point forward. (p. 24)

There’s a great deal of that in the pages to follow. Also, much of the humor is at the expense of the customers, or at least their personal hygiene and fashion sense–not exactly a selling point to the potential patron.

The details of how the brothel works are interesting from many perspectives, but Harper isn’t content to just tell us about life as a madam. Instead, she wants us to believe that brothels are beautiful, egalitarian oases of fulfillment: “The ladies,” she writes, ” did not judge a person based on their looks as we, as a society, tend to do. It was a business and everyone was a potential customer.” Harper goes on about how it doesn’t matter what kind of car you drive or what you do for a living: the brothel ladies are there to make you happy. Couldn’t you say that about any business? I’m sure the folks at Trader Joe’s don’t ring up my order because they like the cut of my jib. They’ve got stuff to sell, and I’ve got money. If I didn’t give them money, they wouldn’t let me walk out of the store with my groceries. There’s nothing noble about it, unless you want to wrap it into the bigger story of capitalism liberating Europe from its feudal slumber. But that happened several hundred years ago, and I don’t think that a Pahrump brothel can take credit for it.

The book’s worst conceit is that the brothel is about more than exchanging sex for cash:

The ladies who worked in the brothel were indeed dream makers. They weren’t giving fifty-dollar blow jobs in someone’s back seat or giving twenty-dollar hand-jobs in an alley. They fulfilled fantasies. They took you to heights you’ve always dreamed about experiencing. They role-played and pampered and catered. (p. 210)

There’s certainly an argument to be made in favor of legal prostitution. I’m not saying it’s a good one, but there merit to the idea that two consenting adults should be allowed to do what they want. But it’s still selling sex for money, as opposed to sex between people who feel a shared intimacy (or shared whatever). I can understand not being judgmental about it, but there’s no reason to glorify it as something that it isn’t. Similarly, Harper spends a great deal of time talking about what smart businesswomen the “ladies” are, and how they earn more than professionals in more traditional areas like real estate, finance, or retail. But she shoots herself in the foot by discussing the large number of brothel workers who have brutal pimps and are addicted to drugs. There’s a real disconnect, it seems, between the marketing material and the reality here.

There are certainly some interesting stories in here, but the writing style tends to drag the narrative down. Reading the book, you’ll find out that brothels are businesses just like any other, with all the petty bickering and dickering that you’d see anywhere else. That may be Harper’s most significant contribution to the debate about legalized prostitution.

Book Review: The Widow Clicquot

Tilar J. Mazzeo. The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It. New York: Collins, 2008.

Champagne is an interesting luxury product. Originally, wine-makers were vexed by the bubbles that showed up in some of their bottles after a cold snap. But in the 17th century, a taste for bubbly developed at the high end of the market. Still, it wasn’t until the 19th century that champagne became “big business,” with well-branded makers serving an international market.

Tilar Mazzeo’s The Widow Cliquot tells the story of one of the most interesting of the early champagne tycoons: a woman who, in the turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars, founded a dynasty. Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, the daughter of a prosperous Reims merchant, married into the Cliquot family, who sold both cloth and wine. After her husband’s death, she chose to continue running the family’s wine business, concentrating on the fizzy wine we now call champagne.

The Widow Clicquot faced long odds–indeed, she was a true gambler–because travel was hazardous and much of the export market was closed. Still, she clung to her vision with a remarkable tenacity and was ultimately successful–Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin is still one of the best known champagne houses in the world.

The book has a great deal of interesting information on the history and production of champagne–this gives the Widow’s life some context. Mazzeo’s finest moment is her taut telling of the delivery of the 1811 vintage under the specter of war in 1813. Mazzeo clearly sets the scene and lets the reader know just how high the stakes are. We really get a sense of the menace–and triumph–of the Widow’s life.

Much of what happens after that drama, which falls about in the middle of the book, is unfortunately anti-climax. Mazzeo’s problem is that there simply aren’t any sources to guide her: since the Widow left scanty records of her personal life, we just don’t know what was going on there. It’s no coincidence that a well-documented episode from the Widow’s business career is the best part of the book: clearly, there were solid sources to ground the story here.

There also seems to be a great deal of telling, rather than showing in the narrative. Time and again, the reader is told that Barbe-Nicole was an exceptional woman, and that she couldn’t have been successful had she started her career a few years earlier or a few years later. We are also reminded frequently that Barbe-Nicole was middle class–but she came from one of the wealthiest families in Reims and ultimately ran a multi-billion dollar (in today’s terms) business empire. True, she was not a titled noble, but today’s audiences might not consider a woman born to her privilege and riches “middle class.”

Much of the problem is apparent in the title–it’s just too wordy for its own good. Why not “The Widow Cliquot: The Woman Who Ruled a Champagne Empire?” The book suffers similarly–though it’s less than 200 pages, it still feels repetitious and over-long at points.

It’s too bad, because Mazzeo has an great story to tell, and where she’s got the benefit of solid sources, she’s does a fine job. Perhaps this story would have worked better as one chapter in a book devoted to similar pioneers? It’s certainly a good read, and a story that more people should know about.

Review in The American Interest

I’ve got a pretty long review of Des Wilson’s Ghosts at the Table in the current issue of The American Interest. In the review, I go from talking about the book to discussing the place of poker in global culture. Here’s a sample:

Poker is the quintessential American game. As with jazz or capitalism It’s no accident all three were either invented or perfected under the American aegis, improvisation intersects with formal rules, such as how to deal and the rank of hands. Risk-taking, cunning, nerve, bluffing, inspiration, luck and even skill at cheating, it must be said, all matter as much or more. A gutsy player doesn’t need a winning hand to collect any given pot, or the best cards over an entire evening to walk away with more money than he came with. As players leave a game, they may talk about who had cards and who didn’t, but deep down they know that personalities and gaming skills defined the results.

It could be that American poker lovers worry about what they’ll find in the past, as Des Wilson discovers in Ghosts at the Table. For him and his fellow players, the past is a bad neighborhood where maps are unreliable and the natives unfriendly.

Wilson begins his tale by checking into the Bullock Hotel in Deadwood, South Dakota, where the ghost of Seth Bullock, the original proprietor, apparently shows his disgust over the current staff’s lassitude by shaking the odd plate or turning on a random blender in the kitchen. It’s not a chance reference: Touring the remains of the Old West in modern America, Wilson continually hears of poltergeists and specters haunting the old sites. And he believes them: The legends of the past really are ghosts, and hostile ones, too. The evil they’ve done lives on, and it still might undermine the progress poker has made towards legitimacy.
Poker Ghosts – David G. Schwartz – The American Interest Magazine

I never thought I’d be published in the same magazine as Lawrence Eagleburger, so this just shows you how unpredictable life can be. It’s a thought-provoking publication that I urge you to read.

It’s a different kind of writing for a readership that probably doesn’t care too much about gambling as such. I really liked Wilson’s book, and it gave me a chance to ramble on about cheating and the American psyche.

Just to let you know, I’m not going to try to pass myself off as some kind of policy wonk or Beltway intellectual now. Yes, there’s some high-powered political stuff in TAI, but my review comes right before a review of two books about the history of hamburgers, so I don’t have any illusions–this was clearly a “lighter side” deal.

Book Review: American Lightning

It’s been a busy week so far–I gave a talk at the Liberty Fund in Indianapolis yesterday and learned from afar that the Plaza v. Plaza verdict had come down. I’ll have more to say about that on the next Vegas Gang podcast, which should be fun.

With all of my travel yesterday I got to do some serious reading, which means that you get a book review today. Enjoy.

Howard Blum. American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century. New York: Crown Publishers, 2008.

Nowadays, just about any crime of significance is labeled the crime of the century by someone. But back in 1910, when a gigantic bomb blast leveled the Los Angeles Times building, that designation really meant something. It was a seismic event–21 people died in what was assumed to be the latest event in the battle between Capital and Labor that was sweeping the country. And the trial, which pitted LA’s moneyed elite against two union brothers represented by Clarence Darrow, riveted the nation.

In American Lightning, Blum does more than retell the story of the LA Times bombing. He weaves a complex narrative that centers on three principals: Darrow, the McNamara brothers’ reluctant advocate, Billy Burns, the “American Sherlock Holmes” who spearheaded the investigation into the bombing, and D. W. Griffith, who was at the time a budding film-maker in the midst of inventing much of modern cinematography.

Though the three men only come together literally for a brief moment, Blum masterfully ties each together–each man was, in his own way, profoundly changed by the trial. Darrow nearly saw his career end in shame, Burns solved the case only to be denigrated as a lackey for LA money, and Griffith was inspired to “think big,” thus putting him on the path of filming Birth of a Nation.

The story of the bombing itself, while well known to historians, is likely to be new to the average reader, and Blum does a great job of telling the story, putting the reader next to Burns as he tries desperately to stop a rising wave of terror. It’s certainly a story that’s told differently in the post 9/11 world, and it is not without its relevance to us today.

American Lightning is a quick read–most of the 45 chapters are short, and the book breezes along. It doesn’t hurt that Blum is an engaging writer and that he’s unraveling one of the 20th century’s most infamous mysteries. It’s a rare author that can make a genuine page-turned out of Progressive-era labor politics, Los Angeles municipal scheming, and the details of silent movie production, but Blum does just that, and then some.

Blum knows that many of his themes–a war on terror, the budding of a new media in California, and land speculation and corruption–will have a special resonance for today’s readers, but he doesn’t overplay his hand and does an admirable job of letting the reader think for him (her)self. There’s certainly a great deal of food for thought here.

For those interested in a detailed dissection of the Times bombing trial, or Burns’ career, or Griffith’s film-making, something by a specialist might be a better choice. But if you just want to read a great story that has real relevance today, you can’t go wrong with American Lightning.