Delightful, De-lovely, and Debatable

If one of the key skills of being a good book editor is knowing what would sell and what would not, I’m glad that my career is elsewhere. It’s often a surprise to me.

Take Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. It’s a Pulitzer Prize winning novel that is being made into a movie. When it was published a few years back, it seemed that everyone was reading it (at least when they weren’t watching Game of Thrones) or talking about it. It’s a hefty work and folks likened it to Dickens. I then read that a few critics thought it wasn’t that great after all – while others said to read it anyway. The debate seemed to be about the quality of Tartt’s prose, the complicated plot, and its relative accessibility.

The book’s opening, a lengthy first-person narrative account of love, loss, a bombing, and a theft is tightly written. It’s engaging, memorable and really impressive. The remaining 750 pages? I found it to be much less effective. In fact, it seemed to lose direction and several times I lost interest. It surprised me that so much attention has been given to this novel. It is a solid work, but really? It is not an amazing novel and it is most definitely not the kind of literature that college students will be writing about in ten years. At least that’s my take. It took some reflection and study, though, to figure out why I was disappointed.

I am fine with complicated plots, accessible prose, and the occasional awkward sentence. There can be more than a few clunkers in the prose, too. A novel doesn’t have to be highfalutin or philosophical or even aspirational for me to give it praise. I am a tolerant reader, ready to give the author many breaks. My interest in a novel tends to be hooked to a character, a plot, a question, or, if the writer is really good, a viewpoint or perspective. What frustrates me is an absence of authorial integrity or consistency.

We don’t need to review the plot of The Goldfinch, which is easy enough to find. It is a coming of age story. Through much of the latter part of the book our narrator – a teen and then a young man – leads a self-destructive lifestyle, consuming massive amounts of alcohol and drugs. He is an addict, a deeply troubled and wounded character. Yet this behavior has no effect on his narrative voice, the lucidity of his prose, or even his actions. This disconnect between voice and action, between action and consequences, undermines any belief I might have given to the novel’s reliability. It undercuts the credibility of book’s plotting and the characters’ actions.

Tartt is an accomplished novelist and she is clearly capable all manner of authorial strategies. But here, she avoids exploring questions of perspective or narrative veracity or the creation of an alternative reality. Nor does she seem interested in changing her authorial stance. Instead, she moves the story along in the same way. And that is why I lost interest – because I felt that she lost interest.

I wish Tartt success and I nod in acknowledgement to those that like The Goldfinch. It is not for me. It turns out that I am a stickler for integrity in my fiction.

And sorry about the Cole Porter pun in the title.

David Potash

Women in Occupied Paris

Les Parisiennes, by Anne Sebba, examines at the lives of women in Paris from the late 1930s, through WWII and the Nazi occupation, until after France regained autonomy. More historical journalism than a traditional work of history , the book attempts to capture the wide range of experiences of women in this period of crisis and change. It’s an ambitious endeavor. Sebba has consulted memoirs, biographies, the popular press, and, occasionally, primary sources from everyday women in Paris. However, so much happened to so many over the 15 years that simple or even consistent characterizations are very difficult. It’s an extraordinarily interesting time – a period of drama and heartbreak, as well as heroism – and Sebba does a fine job capturing the period’s complexities.

Most of us are not historical actors. Rather, our lives are shaped by history. Sebba gets this. The key battles of World War II were not fought in Paris. However, the war’s violence – and in particular, its violence against Jews – took place throughout the city. It was a battlefield of a difference sort. Sebba gives the reader a better understanding of the interplay of individual women’s lives and the moral ambiguity of life under occupation. Questions of honor, collaboration, and agency were all played by women and on women, literally and symbolically. I think that Sebba could have advanced a more explicit feminist argument – it would have sharpened her narrative – but her interest is in the person.

Sebba is attuned to the horrors of the war. She examines its impact on her subjects, writing with compassion and imagination. She is a skilled writer.

Sebba, also, is aware of the difficulties inherent in her approach. She seems of two minds, sometimes giving more focus to the political. Other times she is more keen on the personal. In fact, there are two  subtitles to the book: Resistance, Collaboration, and the Women of Paris Under Nazi Occupation is one and the other is How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved, and Died Under Nazi Occupation. The former is more historical and the second is more biographic.

Haunting Les Parisiennes are questions of why: why did some women collaborate and others resist? Why did some women risk their lives to protect Jews and others were fine profiting from anti-Antisemitism? These questions are difficult and they defy simple explanation. Read collectively, they speak to the deep challenges of everyday life in the occupation.

The lives Sebba has unearthed are extraordinary. The war was a cauldron for choice – one could not simply “live” and get by. Basic survival demanded extreme behavior. With or without broader analysis, the individual stories make for fascinating reading. Les Parisiennes offers a valuable perspective to understand the complex tragedy that was World War II.

David Potash

Facing Addiction – Full On

Charming and deceptive. Honest to a fault and blind to large truths. Lovely and awful. Cat Marnell is a super smart recovering addict who lives these contradictions.

Marnell recently came out with a memoir, How to Murder Your Life. She’s held a number of positions in the beauty/women’s media – with Glamour, Vice, Nylon, xoJane, and Lucky. She’s written about herself – her drug use, career, love life, sex life, family, obsessions and self-harm with humor and honesty. She embodies intelligence and self-destructiveness. The story of her longer journey, captured in this book, is fascinating and terrible to behold. Making it more than bearable is Marnell’s wit, humor and a candor that makes one wince. You want to look away, you want to shake her, and you keep reading.

Marnell’s narrative voice is both agent and witness to success and catastrophe. She knows how to pull it together and she knows how to flame out – and she does both with regularity. The painful repetition of her screw ups can make for less interesting reading. However, it underscores the difficulty of stopping  addictive behaviors. Addicts don’t stop being addicted; it is part of their identity. As much as you may wish for clarity and happiness, there is no complete resolution in any next chapter of Marnell’s book. She lives a life of more highs and more lows.

Marnell’s childhood was marked by wealth, strife, and unhappiness. From an early age, prescriptions and non-prescription drugs were a part of her everyday life. Health care professionals, including her father, a psychiatrist, made sure that she was medicated and re-medicated to deal the stresses of growing up, attention deficit disorder, and teen angst. She moved from a college internship into full-time employment in the New York City media world. Work gave her a sense of importance and agency that was missing from the rest of her life. You can feel the triumph in her voice when she describes those early career advances. But from her teens until now, in her mid-30s, she’s struggled with her addictions, career, relationships, and gaining control of her life. At many times she self-sabotaged to the point of murdering her life.

And yet – and the yet is important here – Marnell’s immediacy gives a real sense of what it is like to live as an addict and to have hope. My experience is limited. I have known two friends who have lived with serious drug addiction. For both, it fractured their identity, scrambling sense of self and direction. It is more than a conflict between healthy and unhealthy impulses. Addiction reshaped identity through action, adding a lens of meaning that fundamentally altered their person-hood. That splintered self, aligning actions with impulse, is woven through How to Murder Your Life.

Marnell might sell many copies of this book for the scandals, and the drama. Stick with it, though, and you’ll gain an understanding of the powerful ways that addiction harms. I really wish Cat Marell well. She’s a very talented woman who is lucky to be alive. She’s also fortunate to have the facilities to write such fresh and engaging prose. I do not believe that all of her really wants to murder her life. She’s around to talk about it and she cares. She is clear and direct about behaviors to avoid, particularly for women.

I am optimistic that her honesty strips the appeal from what an Instagram-follower might believe is a glamorous lifestyle. Her story is cautionary. Life can be challenging enough.

David Potash

The Benefits of Democracy: Learning From History

Historians tend to distrust sweeping arguments, particularly when claims include predictions. It’s an understandable caution. We are trained to work carefully, looking backwards. The tools that help a historian are not the necessarily the same skills that identify macro-trends and tendencies. But don’t avoid history because it can’t predict the future. Good histories, read collectively and critically, tell us a ton. Better still, when good history is coupled with the insights from the social sciences, very promising ideas are possible.

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty is thick and robust history with social science, and it is done very well. Written by economist Daron Acemoglu and political scientist James A. Robinson, the book covers centuries of growth, conflict, advance and decline. It is national histories looked at globally and comparatively. The authors draw from many continents, reading widely and critically. The authors offer ambitious thinking about world history.

Their arguments proceed in two parts. First, they look at the range of factors which shape the degree of democracy or autocracy in a nation over time. Their big picture observation is that shifts to greater democracy are often the result of threats, real or potential, by those that have money and power. Without viable threats, wealth and power tends to accumulate. Power begets power – and there is no inevitable democratic impulse. The arguments in Federalist Papers #10, in other words, bear out over the centuries.

The second half of their book examines the benefits of more of living in more democratic societies. They use an economic lens primarily, but also include research from other social sciences. They explain that the nations that support more “creative destruction” from capitalism experience greater innovation and wealth. It is an empirical argumentation, not ideological. Acemoglu and Robinson have the data and history to support their claims.

Acemoglu and Robinson’s explanations are not the only ones, of course, to explain any one historical trend. They are not searching for detailed history. They pass over contingencies, which bedevil all historical arguments. Further, their historical interpretations may not be the “best” when it comes to understanding the complexities of any one revolution, a war, or a similar historical event.

Why Nations Fail delivers is a powerful argument for democracy using history and social science. The authors identify the synergies of inclusive economic activity, which is supported by property rights and rule of law, which align with greater democratic values. The push towards equity brings with it, over time, greater wealth and prosperity for all. The benefits of living in a liberal society are broad and mutually supportive.

In contrast, extractive nations, with less free economies, often struggle recurring violence and instability as their leaders struggle for wealth and power. Many of these countries have histories as colonies and shallow democratic tendencies. Less free nations are less wealthy. Acemoglu and Robinson’s argument is captured in their title: they have a recipe for how nations fail.

It is thoughtful and thought-provoking book, a very interesting way to think about world history. Why Nations Fail would be a delight to teach, too. The benefits of democracy are more plentiful than we realize.

David Potash

Changing My Movies

I love a good movie. Not films – movies. Movies are about entertainment. No friend ever says “You have to go see this movie.” That’s not the case for films. Seeing a film is freighted with expectations of art, philosophy and meaning. When I’m looking for that, I reach for a book.

But of late I’m finding it harder to enjoy movies. My mind wanders. I’m increasingly aware of genre, expectations, and arc. Why do the plots of so many movies resolve around violence? I know that conflict is essential to drama, but movies’ fixation on one kind of conflict – violence – has become tiresome. It is not escapism. We have more than exposure to violence every day.

I don’t understand why action and suspense so often relies on explosions and guns. Or why a movie’s final conflicts must have even larger explosions and bigger armories. Guns, more guns, and even more guns are not the only way to solve problems or bring a conclusion to a movie. Violence in a movie is not necessarily satisfying, suspenseful, or entertaining. It is lazy, to my way of thinking, and it perpetuates a ton of lazy thinking about violence. It’s so common today and movie makers seem unable to break out the rut. Movies weren’t always like this.

No longer do I get a cathartic thrill when the villain meets a particularly grisly end in a movie. My adrenaline doesn’t pump. It’s boring and unimaginative. We know what’s going to happen.

My movie dissociation could be because of the many shootings that fill our papers and screens. The violence in the news and in our neighborhoods is more than numbing; it’s scary and sad. The change may be me – age and it’s possible that I could be seeing the wrong movies. Whatever the cause, it is definitely affected my movie going. I am too aware of the movie habit of solving any and all conflicts with a bigger boom. There’s no suspense in that.

I’m going to hold out for better. Older movies that rely on character, dialogue, and imaginative plotting could do it. Resolution through cleverer means.

Or I might go see a film.

David Potash

Back In the Hood

Back in the day I lived in Brooklyn, near the Gowanus Canal. It wasn’t fashionable then, though the signs of gentrification and development were discernible if you looked closely. The neighborhood had character. And if you were polite, listened, and happened to be in the right spot at the right times, you could meet the neighborhood’s characters, too.

Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn is a detective story about that part of Brooklyn. Published in 1999, when I was nearby, it takes the idiosyncrasies of the hood and blows them up into something special. There’s murder, love, deception and more deception. Driving it is the wise guy narrative of Lionell Essrog, a self-taught detective with Tourette’s.

Lethem is a talented and prolific writer. What makes Motherless Brooklyn so interesting is the mixture of genres, deft plotting, and the wisdom of Essrog. He’s a smart man, a smart-ass, and a good egg – an Archie Goodwin (if you know Nero Wolfe) or Travis McGee. Detective stories with that kind of voice, written in the hands of an accomplished author, are reliably entertaining.

Motherless Brooklyn is a good book but an even better read.

David Potash

Opioids – America’s Killer

An epidemic of opioids, opiates, prescription drugs and illegal narcotics, is killing record numbers of Americans. This isn’t news – it is a massive public health problem that has been getting worse for several years. The statistics are staggering. A New York Times article highlights that overdoses are the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50. Nearly 100 Americans die every day from these drugs, prescribed or purchased illegally. It is having a disastrous effect on hundreds of thousands of families, communities across the country, and our economy.

We are getting a better sense of the how of why of this crisis. I count myself among those who did not comprehend its scope or causes. I knew that drug addiction was a continuing issue. But I had little sense to the pervasiveness and devastation stemming from opioid addictions and heroin use. A host of new reports and government actions has informed and awakened broad attention across the country. Even with the attention experts predict that numbers of deaths will continue to rise for the next few years.

Several factors have led this disastrous state of affairs. Pain management became a focus within healthcare, and cost concerns have led to more and more “pill” solutions to chronic pain. The economics of healthcare, in other words, propelled certain kinds of prescriptions and certain kinds of business to profit from these changes. An increase in cheap heroin – coupled with new drug selling techniques – provided more fuel, as did a host of new synthetic opioids. Knowing the root causes is important if we are to effect long-term, meaningful change. We need to address this as a nation and in our communities: opiates are ending and ruining lives.

One of the best accounts of how this crisis came to pass is Sam Quinones’s Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic. Quinones is a journalist who has researched in the US and Mexico. Familiar with both cultures, he brings an on-the-ground feel to his reporting as well as a love of story-telling. He is a relentless journalist and a captivating writer. Dreamland won a well-deserved National Book Critics Award and is on many “best book of 2015” lists.

Quinones weaves together many narratives to make sense of this complicated epidemic. His perspective is through the eyes and words of people connected to the issue: doctors, addicts, parents, children, dealers, community leaders, and police. One thread is about how middle, rust belt America became the ground zero for black tar heroin. “Dreamland” was a swimming pool in Youngstown, Ohio. Long-ago it was a place of joy, family leisure, and a representational shared good among the town’s many residents. Gone for many years, its memory hovers as a far away time when life was better and more optimistic. Changes in the economy and culture, marked by job loss, fewer prospects, and the proliferation of prescription painkillers, highlight the Youngstown of the 2000s.

Quinones explains how our more recent world set the stage for increased drug use. The massive increase in the how and why of prescription pain-killers – in particular Oxycontin – is another thread. He takes us to medical conferences, doctor’s offices, and the pain clinics that sprung up in middle America. The development, marketing and distribution of heroin from the “Xalisco Boys” of Mexico. These young men, born in poverty in a small Mexican town, sought a better life. Often relatives or neighbors, many came to the United States to take part in the lucrative drug trade. Organized into small cells, they first sold heroin in the smaller towns and cities away from the established organized drug trade. The Xalisco Boys model was different. They only carried small amounts of the narcotics, never used the drugs, and were drilled into customer (addict) service. They had a growing market, an increased number of Americans who had an opioid addiction.

The American communities’ responses to the crisis forms another narration. Many parents never admitted that their sons or daughters were addicted. Deaths from a drug overdose was rarely reported and not often studied. Only when the numbers began to add up did families, communities, and public health officials begin understand the scope and massive spread of the problem. The journey of analysis and comprehension is another thread, as is the work of police in figuring out what was happening to their towns and cities. Fighting this spread of heroin called for different kinds of policing and prosecution.

Dreamland offers much to digest. It is wonderfully written but it is hard to read: so much sorrow, so much sadness, and so many tragedies. We learn who is profiting and who has avoided responsibility for the crisis, but the aim here is not blame. Quinones does not moralize. He explains with sympathy and patience. The better understanding he gives us is a window into the powerful forces that reshape lives. He also writes about compassion, cooperation and the many ways that people have worked to fight addiction and this crisis. Dreamland is also about everyday heroes who save lives and give us hope.

We need more books like Dreamland.

David Potash

Junctions of Memory, Identity and Loss

Slavkov u Brna is a small town in the Czech Republic. Centuries ago, it was known as Austerlitz. In 1805, one of the most important battles of modern Europe took place there, with Napoleon’s Army defeating the Prussians and the Russians. To commemorate this historic victory, the French named one of its large Parisian railroad stations Gare D’Austerlitz. It’s a stop on the Parisian metro today. Austerlitz is a place, a station, a stop, and a battle. It is freighted with meaning, which is probably one of the reasons that it is also the title and lead character is W.B. Sebald’s haunting novel, Austerlitz

Published in 2001, Austerlitz was immediately recognized as a significant work. Garnering several awards and prizes, it was also an inspiration for a movie. Sebald died shortly after the book’s publication. He was considered an important writer at the time of his untimely death. Sebald’s reputation has not waned and he remains popular today. He writes literature worthy of time, consideration and reflection.

The story of Austerlitz is recounted through a narrator who talks with the title character over many years. Their friendship serves as a vehicle for Austerlitz to recount his search for his identity. Raised by a cold Welsh family, Austerlitz was a child refugee from Czechoslovakia during the early years of World War II. Austerlitz gradually learns of his parents, his history, and himself. The themes are of loss and identity, but much more happens. We think about meaning, empathy, and the consequences of choice and contingency. It is a magically layered work, with streams of knowing and not-knowing strung together in an evocative web. Photos are sprinkled through the text. It has enough authenticity to read like non-fiction; I wondered, while reading it, where Sebald did his research. There is tremendous integrity in the work.

I found reading an overwhelming experience, emotional and intellectual. The details are compelling. The prose – often strung together at lengthy, building on itself and creating a cloud of observation, memory and questions, is mesmerizing. Sebald’s book offers a way to think about the Holocaust that is both global and individual, judgmental and compassionate. I was moved by the book in unexpected ways; it haunts me. Austerlitz is an extraordinary novel.

David Potash

Derailleur

My apartment opens to a busy Chicago Avenue. At night, the street is loud with hipsters, tourists, buskers and custom car stereos. Young men and women Whoo and Whoop and the bars clink with bottles and glasses. Sounds are continuous, a constant roar punctuated by thumps and yells, with engines rumblings and street musicians jamming.

Mornings are different. Sound is episodic. Single cars and trucks, conversations, the barking of a dog. I hear people, not crowds.

The bike lane is full. More and more people are cycling downtown to their jobs. Some take their bicycle commute seriously, kitted with panniers, reflective tape and extra mirrors. Others are more spontaneous. They pass by in a steady stream.

A difficult intersection is up the street, a hundred feet or so from my door. When halted by a red light, the they start together as a mass, a morning peloton.

I like to linger – not watching but listening. I want to hear shifting, the sounds of gears changing. The sound of a well-tuned bicycle is extremely satisfying: silent with perhaps the quietest of hums, depending upon pavement, save for the changing of gears.

A gear change announces itself with a small but purposeful rattle. It is a hiccup, a deep breath before starting something strenuous, a machine readying itself before picking up a piece of work. The pause is brief, less than a second. And then, with a decisive click, the gear engages.

Silence.

David Potash

Lines in the Permafrost

Some changes are irreversible.

When I entered my local public New Jersey high school, expectations for science learning were high: earth science freshman year, biology in the sophomore year, chemistry as a junior, and physics your senior year. Everyone in my cohort took those subjects in that sequence. I am sure that some kids questioned it, some kids dropped it, and some were never placed into it. Not me. For science, at least, I went where I was told.

A teacher gave us the outline when we were in junior school. I looked forward to physics, biology and chemistry. Earth science, though, did not excite me. It sounded a bit fake. I had no idea what it was. Today, I think about it and its lessons often.

Our earth science teacher was Mr. Caprio, a pleasant, non-intimidating man who seemed old to me. He was not, but when you are fourteen, everyone seemed old. He had a gentle manner. The word around school was that he was “nice.” In my high school, that was faint praise. Mr. Caprio was methodical and patient. I decided that he was OK.

We read about the formation of the earth. Geology figured prominently in the fall semester and we handled samples of igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks. We had sections on earthquakes and even a bit on plate tectonics, which was cutting edge back in the day. We identified types of clouds and learned about the atmosphere, which also meant sections on the oceans and currents. It was a good class. I can’t say that it made me excited, but it was solid.

A little more than half way through the year, when working on climate, things changed.

Mr. Caprio had spent years in Alaska. It might have been research – I don’t remember – but he was passionate about the Arctic. The first day he showed us slides from his time in northern Alaska, his voice was different – and that I remember distinctly. He brought passion and immediacy to the lecture. We saw images of him in a Snow Cat (this was before The Shining), pictures of glaciers and icebergs, and of endless horizons of snow and ice. Mr. Caprio had traveled to Alaska regularly. The place, its people and nature, mattered to him – and this came through the lecture. He showed slides of the areas he had traveled and where he lived, clicking through the carousel.

A series of slides, taken over the years of the same area, stood out. They were tracks of a Snow Cat carved in the permafrost. Not exciting. Simply two lines of dark moving away from the viewer on a flat terrain. Mr. Caprio explained that when the vehicle traveled over the permafrost, the frozen cover would be broken. The grooves become deeper and deeper over time. The permafrost was broken. There was no “fixing” it. The tracks were indelible and had spread over the years.

Mr. Caprio emphasized the fragility of the permafrost and told us that human action in the Arctic had real consequences, things that could not be changed. He forecast problems for the future.

Mr. Caprio did not preach any idealized conservation. He did not portray the Arctic as romantic or glamorous. His method was rational. Actions have consequences. He stressed that figuring out science was one problem and that figuring out human behavior was a different problem. The science of the permafrost presented one set of issues. The science of how and why people did what they did – like driving around in the Arctic – was a different set of issues. He could not tell people what to do or not to do in Alaska. What he could do is make certain that we understood the impact of what they did.

Thank you, Mr. Caprio, for the lesson. You taught a good class. You were right then and right today.

David Potash