Suffrage Drama in Tennessee

The expansion of American democracy is often referenced as inevitable and unidirectional. However, anyone who takes a close look at history knows that nothing could be further from the truth. Political change is messy. That is particularly true when looking at the ratification of the 19th Amendment in Tennessee, the final state to make women’s voting part of the US Constitution. It’s a complex story and the focus of Elaine Weiss’s work of nonfiction, The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote.

Weiss, a successful journalist, brings a journalist’s perspective to the task at hand. Questions of who, what, when and how drive the book. She is very strong when it comes to the people in Tennessee involved in the summer 1920 battle at the state capitol. Weiss paints detailed pictures of the players: Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association and head of the “Suffs,” Josephine Pearson, leader of the Tennessee State Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage and head of the “Antis,” their key followers, and many elected officials, ranging from state legislators to President Wilson and future President Harding. Weiss’s attention to personal detail emphasizes the contingency of struggle. Ultimately it was determined by an extremely close vote in the state legislature. The sausage making included hard-pressed lobbying, shifting alliances, threats and conspiracies, and crafty parliamentary maneuvers. Even though we know the eventual result, Weiss’s skill renders the action dramatic and engaging. It makes for entertaining reading. It is clear why the book has been optioned for a film.

If you do pick it up, I encourage reading more widely about the topic. The historian and the teacher in me want to stress that while the study of individuals and their behavior in specific events can be fascinating, broader understanding is possible when we also consider continuities, changes and context. It was a period of profound change and great conflicts. For example, the promotion of white democratic principles, as championed by President Wilson, had an international impact as well as one in the American South. Wilson, along with almost all of the elected officials in Tennessee, was steadfastly opposed of Black women voting. That is but one of the issues in the story that is essential towards knowing how and why the vote played out the way it did.

Another important realization from The Woman’s Hour is that history is framed and written by those that are successful. It’s a truism that is worth repeating and re-emphasizing. The change of one or two votes, establishing a majority, can be extremely powerful in the casting of a historical decision. Was Tennessee all that more democratic (with a lower case “d”) than Maryland, which voted against ratification? Giving historical change close attention, as Weiss effectively does in this book, often clarifies and complicates history. And that, by my account, is very much to the good.

David Potash

Nice Shoes

In 2020, the global estimate of athletic footwear sales – sneakers – was just under $100 billion. That’s an extraordinary amount of money. Forecasts for growth are optimistic and aggressive. The world’s insatiable desire for sneakers is both understandable, for it’s been growing consistently for several decades, and amazing, for fifty years ago the athletic footwear market was much, much smaller. What gives?

Kicks: The Great American Story in Sneakers is fascinating account of how this happened. It’s a cultural history, packed with personalities and anecdotes. While not a business study, the book, nevertheless, uses a very effective lens to understand sneakers’ importance and relevance to modern life. Explaining how and why so many people care so much about their sneakers, it makes for a very interesting read.

The author is journalist Nicholas Smith. He’s not a sneakerhead but he clearly is a fan of stylish athletic footwear. Smith’s enthusiasm and dogged curiosity drives the book’s enthusiasm and pace.

Charles Goodyear was the father of sneakers. An American self-taught chemist who had an unshakeable faith in his ability to unlock the secrets of rubber, Goodyear invented the process of vulcanization, leading to the tire and sneaker industry. Smith tells Goodyear’s story and moves quickly through the late 1800s and early twentieth century as the footwear industry adopted rubber in various formats. The book digs into the rise of sneakers with the growth of professional sports in the 1920s. Athletes became major media figures and major sporting events, like the Olympics, were massively important public spectacles for the use and success of athletic footwear. Chuck Taylor was a consummate salesman of Keds and a very good basketball player. Jones is great on the German Dassler brothers, whose footwear company and dramatic split led to Adidas and Puma. We learn about innovations in the 1960s and the connection of sneakers to teen life in Southern California and skateboarding. Footwear initiated and tracked many trends.

Where Kicks truly takes off is the story of Nike and the relationship between sneakers and urban culture. Smith is very good on Nike’s gamble to invest everything in Michael Jordan. He rightly explores the many connections between hip-hop, Black culture, and footwear. It’s a relationship actively sought by footwear companies, which were growing into lifestyle brands. What’s most telling is that Smith highlights the skillful marketing and campaigns that captured millions upon millions of Americans – and later the world. He is not critical, but the very story he tells opens up all manner of questions about race, racism, and many ways that modern capitalism and advertising/marketing structures cultural identities. The story simply begs for discussion and consideration.

Reading Kicks was enlightening and troubling, entertaining and thought provoking. It calls into question the many ways that we’ve been marketed into ideas of what is and is not stylish, authentic or cool. It’s informative and fun. I will never look at my sneakers the same again.

David Potash

Grim & Real: The Costs of a Mill Town

Why recommend a work that asks more questions than it answers, or suggest reading a book that tells a terrible story without a villain or resolution? Don’t we seek clarity in our non-fiction? Usually I do, but I have been wrestling with this after reading Keri Arsenault’s haunting Mill Town: Reckoning With What Remains. Part personal memoir, part investigatory journalism, part essay on a dying community and way of life, it is a messy and complicated book. It’s also one that I keep thinking about, a book and story that touches larger issues.

Arsenault is a writer, editor and teacher. She grew up in the tiny town of Mexico, Maine, which existed, in great part, because of a paper mill. The paper mill was the economic engine for the area and it dominated the lives of those in the community. Arsenault reflects on her childhood, what was and was not said, and the direct and indirect impact of the mill. As she moved out and explored the world outside of Maine, she began to think more critically about her childhood community. Increasing numbers of illnesses and cancer deaths deepened that process, particularly with the death of her father. The book is a investigation of her community, a hard look at what can and cannot be know about the town and the great costs of working for and around a paper mill. What is a “mill town” today?

Mexico is an insular, tough community, like many other working class towns. People try to take care of each other and they tend to suffer quietly. Once Arsenault taps her personal connections with townspeople, she collects more and more stories of difficult lives, rare cancers and quiet struggles. She finds inconclusive studies, ineffective environmental agencies, and a terrible sense of powerlessness. Her writing throughout is lyrical, honest and descriptive in a way that explains without filling in the silences. Members of the community are not given to emotions and expression. We can smell the chemicals, see the darkness of the forest, and recognize the small spaces of light, love and caring in the community.

Arsenault is strongest, I think, about her family and her personal story. Her family and friends, her jobs and her day-to-day attempts to navigate her home ring extraordinarily true. She gets it and she writes about with clarity, avoiding nostalgia and pathos. Nor does she cast blame; she has deep understanding. She uses the town’s river both as a narrative fixture in the book and also as a metaphor as it sweeps us and carries things along.

That all said, Arsenault is keen on shining lights on the great injustices faced by the people in and around Mexico, Maine. There are poisons in the air, soil, water and everyday environment – and no one is willing to own up to their risks or consequences. Science, after all, is rarely completely conclusive. It is enraging and all too understandable. Like Fagin’s Toms River – another study of a community and its environmental poisons – Mill Town calls into question a way of life and way of living.

So why recommend the book? Because Mill Town is a incisive and thoughtful study of us and our communities – and the costs that we are bearing for them. It is, in many ways, a reckoning, an accounting of benefits and loss. That’s extremely important for making sense of our today and considering what sort of tomorrow we might want for ourselves and our children.

David Potash

Sunshine State of Mind Names

Looking for a laugh, a diversion, a book that will make you smile? I have a reliable recommendation: Carl Hiaasen. He’s a journalist, novelist and humorous who writes for adults and children. He has won awards, his writing has been made into movies, and he focuses on the eccentricities of Florida. Goodness knows that there are enough of them. Environmental issues are woven throughout his works of over the top crime and retribution. Above all, he’s funny – laugh out loud funny. There aren’t many writers who can consistently deliver satire and make you laugh. Hiaasen does.

Plotting and reviewing Hiaasen is a fool’s errand. Like explaining a joke, it kills the fun. What I can offer, though, as a teaser to Hiaasen’s amazing talent is his ability to name characters and places. His latest book, Squeeze Me, is nominally about Burmese pythons and politics in South Florida in the time of a Trump-like president. Don’t worry about the plot; simply enjoy these Hiaasen names from the novel. It is a rare talent that few writers possess. Hiaasen’s naming ability is off-the-charts genius.

Kiki Pew Fitzsimmons is an elderly widowed and wealthy presidential supporter, whose first husband was Huff Cornbright. They had two children, Chase and Chance Cornbright. The Trump-esque president, code-name “Mastodon,” regularly gets Kiki’s name wrong, calling her “Kikey Pew.” Fitzsimmons political friends, all wealthy widows, call themselves the “Potussies” – and their names are memorable: Faye Alex Riptoad, Dorothea Mars Bristol, Yirma Skyy Frick, Dee Wyndham Wittlefield, Deirdre Cobo Lancome, and Kelly Bean Drummond. Much of the action takes place at the resort favored by the president, Casa Bellicosa, but there’s also Lipid House. Don’t forget the villainous Tripp Teabull, Prince Paladin (whose real name is Keever Bracco), and Uric Burns. There’s a stripper named Farrah Moans.

You’re reading these aloud, right?

Spending time in Hiaasen’s Florida world, where one might think that satire couldn’t be possible, is reassuringly ridiculous, over-the-top, and out loud funny. He never fails to make me smile and I hope that he does the same for your, too.

David Potash

Storytellers and Writers

Reading two works of fiction in a row – an unusual thing for me – has me thinking about reading and writing. My regular practice for reading is a predictable routine: non-fiction, non-fiction and then a bit of fiction. And occasionally a dash of “literature” as opposed to fiction to stretch myself. Non-fiction is my bread and butter. The regained ability to visit in-person bookstores and browse has upset the apple cart. I am enjoying the disruption.

Wells Tower’s collection of short stories, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned was a fiction treat. It had been on my “wouldn’t it be good to pick this up?” list for several years after reading a glowing review. Everything in this work of fiction aspiring for literature is good. It is polished, especially the rough bits. Tower’s prose is muscular and confident. He writes with expressive masculinity, direct with just enough distance. It’s engaging and interesting. The characters are memorable and there are lovely phrases sprinkled throughout. But as soon as I picked up my next book, it started to fade – and quickly.

Stephen King’s Billy Summers is a crime novel from the prolific horror author. King, impressively, continues to write and publish and write and publish – and do it consistently well. At first Billy Summers seemed like an exercise in a well-traveled theme, the last crime gone wrong crime genre. Hard-boiled and gritty might be the description that immediately comes to mind. In this novel, Summers is a hit man who only kills bad people. He is morally compromised but not without charm. He’s a very good protagonist. King, as usual, gives us a cast of well-drawn characters, somewhat familiar plotting and backstory – a decorated soldier sniper with terrible childhood trauma – and you think you know what’s going to happen. It is familiar terrain.

And then, halfway through the book, King shifts the direction with giving his protagonist a moral choice. It was unexpected, powerful, and it charged the novel with a new direction and energy. The latter sections of the book are outstanding. It’s storytelling at its best. I was pulled into the novel, cared for the characters, and wondered what King could do with a Reacher-like theme. King’s prose throughout is clean, crisp and carefully crafted. He doesn’t draw our attention to it, though, even though it’s worthy of consideration. What he is doing is writing to tell a story. I remember the plot and characters; they have remained vivid and I’m confident that they will do so for years. It has happened with other King writing, too.

In Billy Summers King gives his character multiple undercover identities. It is both plot device and an opportunity for King to enjoy himself writing with different voices. One of Summer’s identities is as a writer. King, through his narrator, and then through his narrator’s created fake identity, attempts to tell his “story.” It’s unreliable first-person narrator through unreliable first-person narrator, with commentary on what it is to write and why.

Does a book’s ability to remain with us signify quality? Often, but not necessarily so. Sometimes writing sticks with us because it is extreme; it shocks or disturbs. It can also remain with us if it is simple and recognizable. And there are also very well-written thoughtful works of literature that are complicated and profound. Some of these remain with us and others engage and we move on. I may not remember much of the book, but if it was assigned (and I’m thinking of all those papers in years ago college), parts will stay with me. I loved Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier the first time I read it. Much of it has remained vivid, including that amazing first sentence. But I would be hard pressed to map the book’s plot. What did stick, both as a reader and as an object of study and reflection, is Ford’s use of an unreliable narrator to tell the story. I wonder if that is a literary device that works for me.

The contrast between King and Tower is about more than structure and style. It is about perceived intent, or perhaps how I understand what they are trying to do. Tower is a writer who is focused on his writing. He wants us to pay attention to his prose. King is a story teller who writes to tell stories. He wants us to engage in his stories and characters. Reading Tower and King led me to a realization after all these years: my preference, truth be told, is for stories. Some stories stand on their own. However, what makes for a truly memorable is a skillful story teller.

David Potash

Novel of Testimony

Gilead is a Pulitzer-prize winning novel from Marilynne Robinson. A meditation on morality, faith and trust, it’s a gripping and powerful read, a book with a voice that will stay with you. And yet, it is reflective and moves at deliberate pace. The book drew me in – as it has for many others.

Gilead is a first-person novel, told from the perspective of a aged dying pastor with a heart condition. He’s writing for his young son and as a way to come to grips with his family, its history, and the tensions that exist in the fictional small Iowa town called Gilead. That, by the way, is also the name of a place of testimony in the Bible. There’s nothing in this book that isn’t carefully thought through by Robinson. There’s great care in the narrative and the drawing of the people who inhabit the town.

The character who tells the story, John Ames, is a good man who feels down to his bones. He is flawed and aware of his flaws. He questions but is no doubting Thomas. At the same time he offers wisdom, understanding, and ultimately, forgiveness, at the personal level and as a way to lead a life. The way that he tells his story is a testimonial, a sharing that extends well beyond the superficial. Ames is a profoundly wise person, not in any sense from omniscience, but rather from his fully formed humanity.

Racism and its lengthy and violent history are never far from the characters or their histories. The story is set in the 1950s and Ames’s narrative extends to his grandfather’s life. Lynching and anti-black violence scar the Midwest and characters contend frequently.

My inclinations do not regularly run to reflections on religion. Nonetheless, the way that Robinson uses Ames to frame issues of faith engaged me. This is not an abstract novel about theological ideas divorced from the day-to-day; it is a reflective novel about how ideas and values are might be lived. It is a powerful meditation on how to think about faith and what it can mean to the conception of a good and meaningful life. That’s not a question just for philosophers or novelists.

After I finished and started reading about Gilead I learned that it is one of President Barack Obama’s favorite books. That, in and of itself, is more than enough of a recommendation.

David Potash

Minneapolis Biography

Comprehensive studies of cities are tricky things. The growth, evolution and development of a complex community can be shoe-horned into a neat narrative, but does that really capture the spirit of a place? Photos and well-wrought prose can emphasize one viewpoint, but so, too, can numbers and graphs. One trait that make cities so special is their elusiveness, their chameleon-like character that allows for multiple perspectives, each with worthy claims to truth. This is no abstract philosophical exercise. Head to a busy street corner at 8:00 am and start to pay attention. Write down what you see, what you think is going on, what it all means. Head to the opposite side of the corner at 11:00 pm and try the same exercise. Does one contain more truth? Or do we need both in order to appreciate the complicated chaos and choreography that is a city?

Questions of perspective and priority crowded my reading of Tom Weber’s Minneapolis: An Urban Biography. It’s an accessible narrative account of the city. Weber is a journalist and radio host. He knows his city and its stories. Weber’s a fan, no doubt, but he’s no starry-eyed idealist when it comes to the city. He’s penned a tough-minded book that highlights conflict, exclusion and a disturbing history of recurring racism. For all its progressive policies and practices, Minneapolis’s origins are grounded in deception of native Americans and their slaughter by whites. Slavery was no stranger before the Civil War, either. And as the city grew, in perpetual competition with St. Paul, Minneapolis was home to much conflict, exacerbated by nativism. Class and labor issues were also major problems. Through much of the twentieth century, conflict and exclusion persisted. This is well-established for many historians and not a particularly unique characteristic for many American cities. That said, it’s unusual that a popular history to appreciate the importance of conflict in shaping economic, political and social culture. It certainly did in Minneapolis. Weber did his homework.

The book is long on anecdotes, the kind of historical examples that give life to an area. Weber is a sports fan, too. He anchors the book in the exploits of Minnesota sports teams, which seem have played an outsize role in shaping city culture. It’s light, though, on maps and charts, the kind of harder-edged information that us urban nerds appreciate.

I can’t attest that I know Minneapolis well. I can affirm, however, that I’m in a much better position to learn it and its history after spending a few hours with Weber’s book. Even with its hardheadedness, the book makes a strong case for spending more time in Minneapolis.

David Potash

Preternatural Calm

Wildly successful in an extraordinary range of fields, Walter E. Massey is not like many other people. Or really anyone else. Massey is a physicist who moved from active research faculty into academic leadership, and then to much more. His accomplishments over a lengthy career include heading the Argonne National Laboratory, the National Science Foundation, and presidencies of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Morehouse College. He received the Fermi award from the Chicago Historical Society and the Public Humanities award from Illinois Humanities, along with many other awards. Massey chaired the American Association for the Advancement of Science as well as the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design. He has influenced policy and practice in education, science and the arts – and amid this busy schedule, he currently chairs the board of trustees of the City Colleges of Chicago.

Deeply committed to racial and social justice, Massey has been a consistent and effective voice for equity. He’s advised black student groups, created programs to improve access and education for underrepresented students, and pushed for reforms and change.

In 2020, Massey wrote In the Eye of the Storm, an account of his leadership of the Bank of American board during the financial crisis. Yes, amid all the other activities, he chaired one of the nation’s largest banks. He is and has been on many other corporate boards, including McDonald’s, BP, Motorola, First National Bank of Chicago, and Amoco.

Eye of the Storm is a conversational, first-person account from Massey. We learn about him growing up, some of his professional activities, his wife, and a good deal about Bank of America board negotiations during the crisis. He talks about racism, what he’s seen and experienced, and how he’s fought it and tried to instill social justice. There’s a fascinating matter of fact quality to the prose. He’s open, notes the challenges, and gives us clear descriptions that are surprisingly non-dramatic. You would definitely want Massey on your island and leading your team. As much as anything else, this is an account of leadership. His clarity of description, confidence without arrogance, and observations are extremely impressive. The behind the scenes descriptions of all the decisions, the challenges, would be overwhelming to most of us. Yet Massey, even when describing stressful decisions, conveys a sense of calm, focus and direction.

And if that isn’t enough, he’s an avid tennis player.

Eye of the Storm is very good on what Massey has done and what it was like for him leading the Bank of America during the Great Recession. It’s accessible and interesting. However, it is when the reader reflects, realizing that Massey is navigating all of this with all his other massive accomplishments, that one has to go “How does he do all this?” Massey’s perspective, from inside the center of storm, is vital. To learn more, we need an external account to see the storm’s size and impact. That is probably a question for a biographer – and I’d be very interested in how a biographer might try to describe the impact and many accomplishments of Dr. Walter E. Massey.

David Potash

Roxane Gay – Extreme Candor

Roxane Gay is a genius, a tremendous writer. She’s a feminist, a public intellectual, and has a narrative voice that resonates in your head. Read her and you hear her.

Gay’s book, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, is powerful account of Gay’s body and her relationship with her body. Gay is fat – she frames the book and her body through her weight. She gives us a clear sense of the problems, the challenges, the difficulties of being fat. Her tone is spot on, with candor, frustration and humor. The world is unkind to fat people. More often than not, we are judgmental, mean and inconsiderate to the fat.

As the book unfolds, Gay shares that she is a sexual assault victim. Her description of that trauma is haunting and enraging. It’s horrific and a deep betrayal. There are many connections between the trauma and her body, her life and her sense of self – but this is not clinical study. She knows that she gained weight to protect herself. The assault changed her relationship with her body, with food, and with desires. Gay opens up about herself, sharing her strengths and vulnerability. It is extraordinarily intimate writing. Gay knows that her bulk is both protection and a prison. There’s no resolution, no pat observations. This is not a book about weight loss. It is about Gay and her body, and a voice that shares what it is like to be Roxane Gay.

We will be reading and re-reading Hunger for decades. It’s very accessible writing, an almost deceptively straightforward first-person account. But it is also painful and uncomfortable to read at times. Reflect and it opens up many threads. The book’s engagement enables great empathy, at a personal and societal level, calling into question judgements and assumptions. It hammers home the complexity of trauma, the layers upon layers of intertwined history, identity and response. It resonates philosophically, not only with mind-body duality, but also through basic questions of epistemology. What do we know, who do we know – and do we know ourselves?

As readers we may not really know Roxane Gay. We know what we read, and with that, its limitations. What I do know – after reading Hunger I have tremendous respect and admiration for her. And I want to read more of her work.

David Potash

Enlightening & Entertaining: Trevor Noah

Host of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah is a South African comedian, writer, producer and entertainer who has achieved well-deserved international success. Wickedly funny, he is an extraordinary person with an extraordinary personal story. Born under apartheid to a Black Xhosa mother and a white Swiss father, Noah was, literally, Born a Crime. That is the name of the memoir of his childhood and a powerful reminder of the South African laws at the time, which prohibited people of different races from having children. Noah’s book is accessible, funny in just the way you would think a talented comedian might write, and also a chilling account how corrosively evil life in apartheid might be. Like a dark satire that brings laughter and discomfort, Born a Crime is not humorous at all when you consider its larger themes.

The hero of Noah’s childhood is his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo. Born to a very large family in dire poverty, she escaped to craft a new life and to make sure that her son would not suffer the “tax of Blackness.” She navigated legal and state oppression to find work and opportunities. She chose to have a child, knowing that she could never be see n in public as a couple with the boy’s father. Sustaining her throughout was religion. She’s a person of deep and pervasive faith. Noah’s recounts of the various churches and his mom’s faith is humorous, touching and understandably overwhelming. What the woman was able to accomplish is a testament to her faith and strength. Noah gets this and is very much aware of his great debt to her.

Amid the friendships, the trouble-making, the attempts at girlfriends, the trips to church and to see his father, surreptitiously, all of which are told in good humor, Noah guides us through the many traps, barriers and challenges of a childhood in South African apartheid. He shows us how people followed and broke rules, and how the system worked its way into all aspects of life. It is important to remember that this is not ancient history. Noah was born in 1984. Nelson Mandela did not get out of prison until 1990. Multi-racial voting in South Africa did not happen until 1994. So many suffered and died because of apartheid and its legacy. Noah, though, is not interested in writing a public history. That said, he is very smart and he draws clear lines of connection and consequence for us as he tells stories and describes people and situations. Awful things often cause long-lasting harm. Many in Noah’s orbit suffered, but this is not a book about suffering. It’s about an amazing childhood filled with interesting people.

Noah describes his difficulty fitting in as a child, how is otherness led him to become more of a chameleon. This makes sense, particularly with the sharp divisions in his home country. That otherness, though, has also given Noah a powerful skill to see what many might miss or overlook. After I read the book I learned that it is being made into a film. It is easy to see why. There is much in the story that is recognizable and familiar to an American audience. And yet, there is also much that is different – a different country, different languages and histories – that can give us a different perspective on ourselves. Noah’s skill at doing this, with great humor, is a special gift.

David Potash