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

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

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

Another Look at the Data

Steve Lohr, a journalist for the New York Times, knows how to explain. He has written about technology for decades and his book, written with Joel Brinkley, on the federal antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft is outstanding. Lohr is not a “gee-whiz” technology enthusiast. He is also not a Luddite, crying for the return to a simpler, earlier age. Instead, he brings solid technical knowledge to the table and explains how technological change and innovation impacts business, society, and culture.

Data-ism: The Revolution Transforming Decision Making, Consumer Behavior, and Almost Everything Else is Lohr’s account of the rise of data science and analytics. He started the project in 2012, finished it three years later – and I would expect that the field has changed since. Change in technology, and especially this kind of work with its endless applications, is constant. I would still recommend Lohr’s book. It mixes theoretical and real-word information, painting a picture of how things are being transformed as well as the thinking and rules that will lead to more change. It is accessible, memorable, and very interesting.

A host of different technologies contribute to “big data,” Lohr explains. The amount of data from various points is increasing exponentially. New and better systems are making better sense out of it – especially on the artificial intelligence front. The book wisely focuses on people leading in their fields. Lohr has written a narrative, not an abstract. He profiles Jeffrey Hammerbacher, whose journey from Harvard to Facebook to Mt. Sinai hospital and entrepreneur captures the many possibilities of data science. From the business side, Lohr gives a quick history of how developments in data analytics changed IBM from within. He visits McKesson, a company in Memphis that is responsible for a third of the pharmaceutical products in the United States. Sensors, analytics, and smart computing – along with help from IBM – have radically changed its operations. From hotels to vineyards to hospitals (the work of Dr. Timothy Buchman, who heads Emory University Hospital’s critical care unit, is very instructive), smarter and better use of data is leading to small changes and big reworks of organizational structure, processes and decision-making.

Concerns are woven through the book. Lohr asks hard questions about context, about how data is used, and about privacy – and its erosion. His curiosity leads him to businesses, government officials, scientists and business leaders. He has worries about discrimination and the potential loss of agency of any one individual. People are much more than a collection of data points. Technology is not waiting for us to sort out the rules. The future, Lohr opines, will increasingly be shaped by those who have access to more and better data and the ability to analyze and act on it.

David Potash

A Look Ahead – Several Years Back

Robert Gilpin wrote The Challenge of Global Capitalism: The World Economy in the 21st Century in 2000. Gilpin was widely recognized as one of the wise men of global economics and the book won notice and awards. If you were to take a college class on global trade or economics, chances were good that you would be assigned this book or one of his earlier efforts. In 2002, Gilpin penned a new preface to the paperback edition, commenting on the 2001 technology slowdown. He wrote that “this situation of Americans living beyond their means cannot last.” He explained his concerns that slowing economic growth, an American trade deficit, and high unemployment might “trigger a protectionist reaction in the United States, and that such a development would seriously damage the global economy.”

After reading that preface, I decided that giving time to Gilpin’s prophetic work would be well worth the effort. I was correct. We are seeing signs of a protectionist backlash today. Gilpin’s analysis – particularly of the interplay of global politics and global trade – seems spot on. The heart of Gilpin’s argument is that a healthy international economy based on free markets is highly dependent upon safe and solid political leadership. It needs cooperation, stable currencies, and the recognition that multilaterism is better for all concerned. Gilpin stresses further that there should be an ongoing campaign to educate the public on the benefits of free trade and a global economy. Without leadership and popular support, the global economy is surprisingly fragile.

Gilpin highlights America’s drift toward unilateralism and the poor recognition among leaders and the public of the benefits of the global economic system. Noting the rise of international trade, technology, and services to the global economy, he makes clear that these shifts are painful. Markets are amoral, he stresses, and their impacts have to be managed. Contrasting the Cold War economy from after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Gilpin examines the structural weaknesses in the global economy: insecure trading, unstable monetary systems, and unreliable financial markets. He notes the clustering of regional economics. He also gives attention to the many critics of the global economy. They fear exploitation, loss of sovereignty, lower wages, and diffusion of culture. The answer, Gilpin writes, is better leadership and cooperation from America. He is well aware, though, that this is no easy task – and a specter of fatalism haunts Gilpin’s conclusion.

In a culture awash with bad information and fake news, I do not anticipate much interest in attempting to educate and convince the public on macroeconomic principles or facts. Nevertheless, we have to try. We need a better informed polity to navigate through these challenges. Reading Robert Gilpin is one small step in that effort.

David Potash

When Were The Good Old Days?

Above and beyond explaining the past, history can give us perspective and helpful doses of humility. Are our experiences or abilities all that different from those in the past? It is comforting to believe that we have made great gains. Confidence in our collective abilities aside, questions remain about causality and broad trends. For example, what should we define as “normal” in terms of the macro-economy? It is critical question, particularly when voters go to the polls. Managing public expectations is at the very center of our democratic institutions.

Many Americans believe that strong economic growth and rising standards of living is how life was and should always be. Economic historian and journalist Marc Levinson explains otherwise in his well-argued book, An Extraordinary Time: The End of the Postwar Boom and the Return of the Ordinary Economy. Levinson focuses on 1973 as a pivot point in economic and political history. It marked the end of an extraordinary post-World War II boom, a period of steadily rising wages, multiple employment opportunities (regardless of income), and great expansion. The decades since, which have witnessed slower growth, balloons and busts, greater economic instability, are a return to “traditional” American economic history.

Levinson weaves together broad macroeconomic trends and global politics in the 1970s, making sure that we appreciate the complexities of the OPEC oil embargo, the abandonment of the gold standard, increased global trade, and currency speculation. There are always disruptions and shocks to economic systems. What Levinson underscores is that political leaders had assumed that they could control and manage these forces. After all, they had successfully done so since the late 1940s – the “extraordinary times” of his title. But by the Nixon and Ford administrations, there were no magic bullets. A range of policies were tried without success. Growth slowed, times got harder, and they have mostly remained so since.

Forgotten leaders, questionable theories, and difficult decisions dot An Extraordinary Time. Levinson takes a hard look at Arthur Burns, an economist who was named chairman of the Federal Reserve in 1969. Under Burns’ leadership, the Fed waged a losing battle to inflation. Broad faith in the Phillips Curve, which was supposed to explain the relationship between inflation and employment, muddied policy decisions. Gordon Richardson, head of the Bank of England, tried with limited success to bring greater stability to international banking. The most important underlying fact, Levinson argues, is the slowdown in productivity spelled the end of a post-war extraordinary time. Inequality increased and that trend that has accelerated since 1973. Social unrest followed, leading to the broad turn to the right by the late 1970s. Levinson locates the elections of Thatcher and Reagan within these broad currents of economic unrest.

An Extraordinary Time is closely researched, accessible, and a vitally important corrective to assumptions that there should always be tremendous economic growth. It makes clear that interventions in global market forces may or may not result in planned consequences. Levinson gives us a clear-eyed perspective on our recent history and the currents of forces that brought us here. It would be comforting to think that we are smarter today, but . . . .

David Potash

Financialization’s Bamboozle

Could it possibly be true that the emperor of finance has no clothes? John Kay, one of the most important and influential economists of the past forty years, argues that the world’s financial sector needs a major rethink. In fact, he goes so far as to argue that the rise of the finance industry has probably done more harm than good.

Kay is no radical Marxist. He is a professor of economics, a consultant, and a public intellectual. He believes in markets and the value of finance. But as he explains in Other People’s Money: the Real Business of Finance, the real aim of the colossal finance industry is to aid the people who work in the colossal finance industry. What we have now, he claims, is a sector with tremendous wealth that operates untethered from its original and central four functions: payments (wages, salaries, buying goods); matching lenders with borrowers; management of personal finances; and management of risks for individuals and businesses. Instead, Kay argues, we have confusion, complication, deception and a system of fictions being swapped with fictions for the benefit of the few.

It is a damning and troubling book.

Kay covers the historical rise of finance. He is British and his perspective is shaped by the empire and Britain’s long history in risk management. Finance today, he makes clear, is less and less about raising capital or making matches.

The books not aimed at the uninformed or those unfamiliar with our current financial sector. Kay packs every page or two with an aside, an insight, and a criticism. It is well-written but slow going simply because there is so much to it. It highlighted to me the inadequacy of just staying on top of the business and financial news. Reading the Economist and newspapers regularly gives a solid account of the action. Missing is an understanding of the how and why of the financial industry. Kay offers that and a clear message about the dangers of unchecked financial activity.

Kay proposes a series of reforms. One wonders, though, if they will fall on deaf ears. Those in the industry are far too focused on amassing more wealth. Those outside of the industry lack the technical skills to push through the necessary changes. It most likely will require another financial crisis – and Kay makes it most clear that without reforms crisis is due – in order to put the house of finance in order.

David Potash