A Writer’s Writer and His Cats

John D. MacDonald is a brilliant writer. He is a writer’s writer, a master at clear prose and a strong narrative voice. His plots are tight, his humor insightful, and a special kind of wisdom infuses his texts. Something of an American Trollope, MacDonald writes about people but tells us much more. Steven King, Kingsley Amis, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and many other outstanding authors have paid tribute to MacDonald. He is very good. Or was – he passed away nearly twenty years ago. House Guests

Like many other fans, my first MacDonald’s were Travis McGee mystery/thrillers. Over time I expanded to other novels by him, some short stories and the occasional non-fiction piece. The man wrote constantly and consistently well. However, I picked up The House Guests, his book about his cats and other pets, with misgivings. It is a book about his pets – two cats and a goose – or so the cover claims.

People’s fascination with cats puzzles me. Cat people talk cats. The rest of us have little to say. When my inbox features links to cat videos, their only source are the feline-obsessed. Look at rankings and ratings on the internet, though and it’s clear felines are trending. Some say that cats are poised to take over the internet. But why? Cats – and I’ve had good relationships with more than a few – are usually supremely indifferent to us. MacDonald, I was certain, was a dog person.

I had him wrong. He wrote The House Guests, in part, to settle a debt he had with the species, a way of righting a childhood wrong. He also wrote it as a love letter to the animals that made his family life so much richer. I suspect that his devotion to his cats and other pets, stemmed from the same sense of empathy. When we care about our pets, we slow down, think and feel. MacDonald understands that and much more.

Still, it is not a good book in the sense of what a book ought to be. There is no real beginning or end, save the animals’ eventual demise. (Books about animals almost always end with the animal’s death. I don’t know who made that a rule. I recognized it as a young reader after Old Yeller, Charlotte, and a children’s book of animal stories that had me weeping.) The House Guests is series of anecdotes, stories and observations from a very smart and funny man. It is warm, enjoyable, and makes you wish that you had time to visit the MacDonald family and their animals all those years ago. It is a sweet book. And in many ways, it can be easier to hear about a friend’s pets than to hear about their children.

Still, I’m not getting a cat.

David Potash

Serendipity, Fiction, and a Home Away

A friend in publishing told me that every book finds its audience.

If so, the journey taken by Laura McBride‘s We Are All Called To Rise to me is worthy of sharing.

ZappotopiaIt has been a full summer of work. In need of a vacation, Las Vegas emerged as a surprising choice. It is not expensive to fly there and lodgings are affordable. So despite the 100+ heat, we set off to the Nevada desert in August. It turned out to be a successful trip – and not because the heat is dry.

Away from the casinos and the Strip, Las Vegas can be unexpectedly surprising. Zappos, the internet shoe and clothing company, has its headquarters in the former Las Vegas City Hall. It is a wildly successful company with a  particular culture. They give “factory” tours in Vegas, explaining the Zappos story. Zappos knows a great deal about customer service. In fact, they describe themselves as a customer service company who happens to sell shoes.Container Park Visit them and you will bear witness to the power of a vision fully implemented. Zappos culture is impressive to contemplate. After taking the tour, I was wondering: “How did this end up here?”

A few blocks away is the Downtown Project. The brainchild of Zappos founder Tony Hsieh, the Project is an outsize attempt to revitalize a neglected part of the city. Hsieh purchased cut-rate property and hand-picked vendors and firms to energize a 60-acre tract. It features restaurants, shops, new companies, and public art. Fueled by optimism, technology and caffeine, the jury remains out as to its sustainability three years on.

Container Park is at the heart of the Downtown Project. An attractive small outdoor shopping center made of shipping containers, it has good food, cold drink, and effective air conditioners. Walking around in daylight without a purpose in daylight makes little sense. Scurrying on the shady sides of the street, aided by apps and a smart phone, led to iced coffee and barbecue. Replenished, I looked at the outdoor playground, the public art and the heat rising of the concrete, and again wondered, “Why here?”

Nearby in the project is a small bookstore – The Writers Block. Talking with the owners, who received backing from Hsieh, I learned that it is the only independent bookstore in Nevada focusing on new books. It is an attractive and Writers Blockthoughtfully curated bookstore. It also had a familiar urban feel. It turned out that the The Writers Block is the creation of the forces who managed the Superhero Supply Store in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I used to live in Brooklyn. I knew Superhero Supply well. For profit stores with a not-for-profit and not terribly secret back-half, the Writers Block and Superhero Supply mix retail with space and support for writers, especially children. It is an intriguing concept originally promoted by Dave Eggers. The Writers Block opened less than a year ago. Like the larger Downtown Project, it is still very much in start-up phase.

So there I was, in a new and different but still somewhat familiar space, thousands of miles away from home, trying to make sense of a downtown that wasn’t fully realized in a city keen on constantly reinventing itself for tourists. There seemed only one reasonable course of action: ask for a good book to help me understand Las Vegas.

I expected nonfiction. Instead, they recommended, McBride’s We Are All Called To Rise. McBride teaches English at the College of Southern Nevada. She is known in the community and had done a reading at The Writers Block. It is her debut novel. Told that it liked by the critics and is selling well, I bought the book.We Are All Called to Rise

We Are All Called To Rise is not about Las Vegas, but it is grounded in the lives of those who live and work in Las Vegas. McBride tells several distinct and related, stories in the book, weaving together a narrative about loss, family, and making meaning. Sentimental but still hard-headed, it is an impressive work of fiction. She is particularly strong on survivors and the impact of trauma. McBride cares about her characters. It is an excellent read.

May your next read find its way to you with an equally interesting journey. I give thanks – to vacations, to company tours, to online shoe shopping, to urban spaces, to independent bookstores, and to the power of coincidence. Many of these resonate in McBride’s world, too.

David Potash

Voyeur Ethnography: Everyone Wants Something

In 1978, while Keith Richards was embroiled in legal troubles, Mick Jagger was living in New York City and working on Some Girls, a superb Rolling Stones album. In the album’s last song, Shattered, Jagger sings of Gotham:

Pride and joy and greed and sex
That’s what makes that town the best
Pride and joy and dirty dreams
Are still surviving on the street

The Stones captured something essential about NYC in the rough 1970s in about three minutes. Much has changed over 35 years, but much has remained the same. It would have been helpful if Sudhir Venkatesh, rogue sociologist from Columbia University, knew this when penning his exploration of the underside of NYC, Floating City. It is a deeply frustrating book, made doubly irritating because hidden away, amid a self-referential narrative, are valuable observations about an important topic. It should be more substantive.

Venkatesh made his academic and literary name with Gang Leader For A Day. That is a compelling study of the South Chicago drug economy made possible through the sociologist’s friendship with a gang leader. Through charm, persistence and a non-judgmental profile, Venkatesh earned a place of privilege in a violent urban subculture. His vantage point provided more than enough material for a provocative book.

Floating CityNow in New York City and with a professorship at Columbia University, Venkatesh tries the same approach in Floating City. Problems quickly multiply. New York City’s off the books economy is very complex. He is unable to define his research or the project. He befriends a drug dealer and prostitutes, but friendship does not necessarily translate into ethnography. His academic peers describe his work as journalism. Venkatesh may embraces a “rogue” title but his confidence rings hollow. His marriage dissolves. His subjects are beaten and arrested. They are all in distress. New York City is not afloat – Venkatesh is.

If we bypass the prurient in Floating City – and Venkatesh’s fascination with prostitution and prostitutes borders on the obsessive and exploitative – and the author’s all too frequent discussions about himself – what remains are some interesting stories of how legal and illegal blur. What makes for cultural capital in a constantly shifting city? It is well-trod ground and reminded me of one of my favorite neglected books about Gotham.

In 1850, a reporter for the New York Tribune, George G. Foster, wrote New York by Gas-Light and Other Urban Sketches: With Here and There a Streak of Sunshine. He describes prostitution, drinking, gambling and the evening economy and lifestyle in a rapidly changing city. Foster focuses on more than explaining and exploring. He draws attention to the hypocrisy of respected political and civic leaders who criticize the underground culture while enjoying and profiting from it. Foster identifies with those that work at night. It is a strange book that captures a city becoming modern.

The dynamic interdependence of legitimate and illegitimate is extremely interesting. Patient readers can glimpse it in Floating City. More than the interplay of legal and illegal, it is the interplay of competing economies and cultures. An area of tremendous vitality, that interplay leads to Bronx hip hop becoming a global phenomenon, or Brooklyn street fashion travels European runways. Grasp it and you have a sense of what makes New York City such a special place.

David Potash

That’s A Beautiful Function

Making sense of architecture is no easy task. While we can recognize famous buildings and spaces, making sense of why they are important can be very difficult. Even harder is understanding how good architecture comes to be.why we build

Rowan Moore, an architect who gave it all up to become an architectural journalist, tackles these questions and more in Why We Build: Power and Desire in Architecture. Moore does so from an inspired and thoughtful perspective. He focuses on people: the people who build and the people who experience the built environment. He grasps that human experience is critical to comprehending a structure and turning it into architecture.

The book is funny, insightful, and a bit of a kaleidoscope. Moore is not bound by a single set program or argument. He tries this approach and that, sprinkling delightful language as he travels the globe. How does a place so like Dubai, so over the top, so showy and yet so empty, happen? Why are the works of Lina Bo Bardi, an Italian architect who build in Brazil, so effective? What explains the interplay of architecture and desire? We read about imagined immortality and seduction, of Loos and Norman Foster, about the World Trade Center and the Freedom Tower, and about follies of design and true fakes (Pompidou Centre).

Moore served as director of the Architecture Foundation, where he worked with Zaha Hadid. His viewpoint is both as architect, patron, and critic. Moore tells us that eternity is overrated and form will follow finance.

I came away with a greater appreciation of the magic in a well-conceived and well-executed design, and gratitude to Moore, who writes about architecture critically in a way that makes me think.

David Potash

The Three Most Important Things in Real Estate Are. . . .

Farnsworth HouseLudwig Mies van der Rohe is considered one of the twentieth century’s greatest architects. Known for his advocacy of modernism – “less is more” – Mies designed many famous structures: the Seagram Building in New York City, much of the IIT campus in Chicago, and a few houses.

The most important of his homes is the Farnsworth House, a weekend retreat south of Chicago. Dr. Edith Farnsworth had money and taste. She wanted the home to be significant work of architecture. The project turned sour, ending with lawsuits and the cessation of communication between owner and architect. The Farnsworth House is now on the National Register of Historic Places and is run as a museum by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The house is an icon – it is a member of the Lego pantheon.

The house is designed to integrate with nature. Situated on the Fox River flood plain, the house was flooded in 2008 following a hurricane (yes, they can make it all the way up the Mississippi River Valley, though they lose their punch in the journey). We had some heavy rains earlier this week. The house had to be closed. To avoid looking like a house boat, the organization that oversees the house is now considering a plan to relocate it.

Interesting what makes for successful architecture, isn’t it?

On, and it’s location, location, location.

David Potash

Paying To Play – And Illinois Is Still Paying

The recent election of Governor Rauner and the Chicago mayoral election have many folks in Illinois talking about the state’s finances. It is not a happy story. According to George Washington University’s Mercatus Center, Illinois is in the US’s bottom five states when it comes to ranking in categories like cash solvency, budget solvency, and fiscal condition. This is not due to anemic business activity. Illinois has the nation’s fifth largest GDP. Other factors are very much at play.

Pay to PlayTo learn more about Illinois’ economy, I look to history and politics. One solid case study that provides insight into how and why is the legacy of Governor Rod Blagojevich. Leading the state from 2003 to 2009, Blagojevich was impeached, convicted of corruption, and imprisoned. He is currently serving a twelve-year sentence and will be eligible for release in 2024. He also has the dubious distinction of being the fourth Illinois governor to do time in a federal penitentiary. Joining former governors Otto Kerner, Jr., Dan Walker and George Ryan, Blagojevich is an unfortunate example of a long-standing culture of corruption.

In 2009, after his impeachment but before prison time, journalist Elizabeth Brackett wrote Pay to Play: How Rod Blagojevich Turned Political Corruption Into a National Sideshow. It is a chilling book, highlighting a amoral political climb and an environment that fostered self-serving leadership. How could it happen? It turns out that it was not all that difficult to elect an ethically empty politician. Especially one who married the daughter of a well-connected and powerful alderman.

Brackett’s book may not be the final word on Blagojevich, who probably is not worthy of the time or effort of a more serious analysis. There is no epic tragedy here. What Brackett does bring to the table is a heightened awareness of how the system worked for politicians and their teams. Self-serving interests were consistently placed ahead of any sense of shared responsibility or stewardship. The consequences were clear and critics pointed them out. But behavior did not change. Politicians awarded contracts, jobs, and resources for personal gain. Graft was prevalent. Future generations were left to pick up the bill. And here we are, today, paying for it.

One of the basic hopes of democratically elected government is that the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts. The exact opposite was the result under Governor Blagojevich. Many sought what was best for themselves. Few considered the collective interests of the community. The result was a culture and political landscape bereft of a well-funded and considered shared public good. It is a depressing story.

I have to hope for a better future.

David Potash

Old School Chicago Politics and Journalism: Boss

Mike Royko is a Chicago legend. A giant in American journalism, he wrote thousands upon thousands of columns. Most were about Chicago – its neighborhoods, its characters, its perennial hapless Cubs. For those of us who read his syndicated work – he died in 1997 – Royko’s perspective shaped our understanding of America’s Second City.

BossI have lived in Chicago just under two years. Dipping into Royko now and then has been interesting. What has been truly informative, though, is reading Royko’s best seller, Boss, an unauthorized biography of long-term Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley. Written in 1971 and reflecting the political and social upheaval of the period, Boss is a brilliant work of history and commentary. Royko is an amazing writer.

A short read with punchy sentences and a master’s flair for capturing the feel of a group and the nature of a person, Boss captures the rise of Daley and Chicago. The first mayor Daley was brilliant, ambitious, anti-democractic, and relentless. A product of the neighborhoods with a keen understanding of power, he brought tremendous benefit to the city at tremendous cost. Daley defined much of Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s. Inspiring both admiration and hate, he was a fascinating figure whose priorities, values and vision are visible in Chicago today. Controversial does not begin to describe Daley.

Truly outstanding biographies do much more than explain an individual. Like Robert Caro’s four volumes on Lyndon Banes Johnson, Royko’s book sheds as much light on context as subject. The complexities of America’s post-wire economic boom, the prosperity and racism, the conflicted ways in which we thought about cities, are all part of Royko’s narrative. The very concept of “downtown” is best understood in a context of geography and time. Royko gets this – and also how Daley and his contemporaries thought about it.

Boss is still a relevant book, well worth your time and consideration. And it is particularly relevant as we ready for Chicago’s first “real” mayoral election in decades. We live in a much different Chicago today – yet the legacy of Daley still looms.

David Potash

‘Merican-Made: Beth Macy’s Factory Man

Several years back after teaching lessons on US labor history I became interested in modern labor practices and how to be a thoughtful consumer. Our family income was improving and while we are far from buying jewelry or vacation homes, there were opportunities here and there to get a piece of furniture or a nice item of clothing. Skipping Craig’s list and looking at new couches in a store was a treat. I started to wonder: Where do the things I buy come from? And how was it made? Are the workers making a decent wages or slaving in a sweat shop? I decided to try to avoid cheap, to purchase less, and when possible, to buy items made in the United States and/or goods that have a greener history.Factory Man

This has made for some interesting challenges on the shopping front. For instance, if you do not favor the expensive New Balance sneakers made in the USA, choices are slim. I also know that my strategy does not make all that much of a difference, is not sustainable, and probably rests on questionable assumptions. What I do know, though, is that is has made me a more conscious consumer. That, I hope, has been to the good.

I mention all of this to help you understand my thoughts about journalist Beth Macy’s Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local – and Helped Save and American Town. It is a fascinating book, or rather three books, welded together. Well-written, engaging, and popular, Factory Man also highlights that “made in America” is about more than economics. It touches us emotionally, nationally, and ethically.

One focus of Factory Man is the business history Bassett Furniture Industries, a Virginia company founded in the early 1900s by two Bassett brothers. The company took advantage of inexpensive labor from Appalachia, building a factory town and exercising all manner of control as the firm flourished. Bassett furniture appealed to the burgeoning middle class. Since copyrighting furniture styles is well-nigh impossible, a smart designer – and Bassett invested in talent here – can copy and adapt with tremendous success. There was no culture of craftsmanship or innovation at Bassett, save making more money. Bassett’s growth and expansion, up until the threat of globalization, mirrored that of many other domestic industries geared toward the broad consumer market. Control expenses, find new ways to market, and seek profit.

Macy prefers people to business, though, so much of her attention returns to the people involved in Bassett. She spends years tracking down family lore, from sibling rivalries to sexual relationships between management and labor. Families involved in the furniture business inter-marry, form partnerships and break up acrimoniously. It is a bit like medieval history, without the flags. Macy is equally attuned to the history of labor in the factory towns, interviewing workers and their families. Their voices are valuable, but their perspective is limited, just as their straits were curtailed. Working at Bassett provided a wage but not much of a way of life. Those with ambition left the company towns. Much of Factory Man is colored through the lens of an inquisitive outsider trying to make sense of complicated family dynasties and their impact on the local communities.

The final key component of the book is the story of John D. Bassett III, family outsider who returns and leads the political charge against the tide of Chinese furniture imports. Led by Larry Moh, a brilliant business man, Chinese companies began to use very same techniques as Bassett to increase market share. Chinese manufacturers kept labor costs very low, controlled costs of ingredients, and copied designs. American companies responded by directing more manufacturing to Asia and shifting attention to retailing directly. US manufacturing jobs steadily disappeared. The strategy was at best a delaying tactic. Asian manufacturers started selling to other retailers and US furniture companies lost more share of the market. JD Bassett III put a halt to the trend by building a coalition of American furniture manufacturers and pressing an anti-dumping case against Chinese furniture makers. It took years and millions of dollars, but he eventually prevailed. The US case was “won” resulting in penalties and fines that eventually made it back to US companies.

It is, on one level, a great story: a “factory man” successfully fights globalization and keeps a local industry and community alive. Tom Hanks has optioned the book and it is easy to see him in the lead role.

On the other hand, Macy’s book raises more questions than it answers. Who, exactly, has won or lost here? Do workers benefit? It is difficult to argue that Bassett, despite the jobs it provided, values labor any more than its foreign competitors. Regulation and other macro-economic factors account for the differences. The US furniture industry, too, did not seem to do anything creative to either keep jobs in the US or to distinguish itself. The book regularly highlights the lack of investment, research, or innovation in Bassett industries. It is possible, in fact, to argue that the domestic furniture industry got what it deserved.

Factory Man left me a little wiser and more thoughtful. Reaching for the “made in America” label is no guarantee, but it remains a good place to start. And when it comes to furniture, I may be looking for antiques.

David Potash

Guns At Last Light: The Good War Done Well

In 2013 Rick Atkinson finished the third and final volume of his popular history of the United States military in the WWII Atlantic theater, The Guns at Last Light: The War in Europe, 1944-1945. It is the best kind of history for the broader public: well-written, informative, and driven by a clear focus. World War II is reputed to be humanity’s largest collective enterprise. It is damned difficult task for an historian to capture the scope of the conflict and still make it understandable. Atkinson handles the challenge with skill and verve.Guns at Last Light

The first two volumes, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, and The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, are equally well written. The first garnered a Pulitzer Prize. With the third in place, it is possible to see Atkinson’s strengths and weaknesses more clearly. The volumes, too, drive home the importance of revisiting the war and what it meant to America and the world. There are no easy answers when it comes to World War II.

Atkinson is an expert and mixing personal details with broader, well-established history. He knows how to maintain drama and interest with just the right quote culled from a journal or letter. To his credit, Atkinson never lets the reader forget that this was not just an international conflict pitting organization against organization. It was a battle among people. Maintaining that agenda, without losing sight of the larger shifts, makes for gripping history.

He is also writer with an expansive vocabulary and a love of rich prose. With a less sure hand, or a topic less important, the florid language might seem overdone. Considering he is writing about a war that killed 60 million, extremes are necessary.

On the other hand, Atkinson is not primarily an historian of battles or strategy. These books are not the best resource to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the Normandy campaign or to consider supply line challenges. Atkinson mentions them, to be sure, but they are referenced in terms of people and ideas, not as examples of grand design. Further, the Atlantic Theater is best understood within the context of a global conflict. Atkinson’s theme – what the US military did and experienced – is valid. However, thoughtful readers should realize that there cannot be one definitive account of the war.

There are many volumes looking at WWII from a range of perspectives. What Atkinson has done in the Liberation Trilogy is make the heroic efforts of the United States military in the Atlantic Theater, warts and all, with its incomprehensible scale, and human sized. It is accessible intellectually and emotionally. It is an impressive achievement.

David Potash

You Can’t Keep Them Down On The Farm – Glaeser’s Triumph of the City

Triumph of the CityEdward Glaeser, Harvard economist and prolific blogger, is enraptured with cities. His 2011 book, Triumph of the City, is a paean to all things urban, with a special place for the twenty-first century mega-city. The work is a breezy airport read. Informative and lightly pedantic, it is a departure for Glaeser, who is a well-respected economic researcher. It is a work well suited for what we used to call the middlebrow market.

Triumph jets around the globe, zooming in on this city or that from 35,000 feet . There is little to no original scholarship here. Instead, Glaeser has skillfully assembled a host of anecdotes and a panoply of data points to argue that cities are good for people and the planet. His narrative rests on his observations and insights. He is smart, well-informed, and confident in his prose. The argument driving the book is summarized neatly in the subtitle: “How our greatest invention makes us richer, smarter, greener, healthier, and happier.”

Cities, Glaeser claims, are magnets for smart human talent. As they create opportunities, they and their inhabitants flourish. Density promotes competition and competition forces innovation. Glaeser promotes ever greater density here. He criticizes mindless historic preservation as an impediment to urban success with a nod to Jane Jacobs. The narrative presents pros and cons of various urban policies, but is distant from the human politics that create the cities and decide those policies.

For all of Glaeser’s urban enthusiasm, the book has an oddly antiseptic feel to it. Some is due to the author’s relative lack of interest in people as individuals. He is, after all, a social scientist. The deeper reason is that Glaeser’s argument is fundamentally about the relative benefit of cities to society; it is not about the joy of living in a city or in a particular city. This is not an issue of class, integrity, or design. I share Glaeser’s affirmation of high-density mixed use, though I am less keen on the high-rise. Nor is it about crime or grit. Missing is a sense of the flavors that go with city life.

A certain kind of urban aesthetics about how one leads one’s life necessarily must inform writing about cities. For all of Glaeser’s intellectual enthusiasm, his book does not carry much personal passion for city life. The tensions, interactions, and felicity that accompany the forced socialization that accompanies being squeezed together in a city do not complicate this work. Glaeser does not strike this reader as in love with cities, though he certainly does wax warmly for New York. But I see him in a high-rise condo, perhaps on the upper East Side. It is difficult to picture him in a walk-up in Brooklyn or Queens. It came as no surprise to learn that he now lives in the suburbs with his family and children.

I guess my aesthetic is just different – another good reason cities are a great place to live.

David Potash