Sad Stories

“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” It is the famous beginning of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier and it applies, too, to David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers. Lyrically haunting and extraordinarily depressing, Finkel’s account of an 8-month im-bed with a battalion stationed in Iraq during the surge is an exercise in the horrors of modern warfare. The book captures the voices, the perspectives, and the kaleidoscopic disunity of war. The portraits of the soldiers are compelling.

Life, death, and disfigurement are random events, unconnected to training or preparation. The specter of IEDs undermine a soldier’s relationship with the environment. Everything can be lethal. In that environment, the very nature of what it means to be a warrior is problematic. It often means exposing of the self to an unseen enemy – amid millions of dollars of technology – and not fighting, trusting to a populace that neither understands nor can communicate. While physical heroism, in some imagined state, used to mean physically challenging and fighting an enemy, today’s courage is strangely more often about not fighting. But where does a soldier locate trust in Iraq?

Overlay that suspicion with the acute suspicion that there is no point, no telos to the conflict – a realization that is so powerfully undermining that it can never be voiced – and the pathos of these soldiers and their predicament is acutely rendered. They have to believe in the job. If they don’t, they can’t endure the horrors of the job.

Finkel’s prose is haunting. It is a difficult book to pick up and an even more difficult book to put down.

Each generation, I suppose, has to discover its good soldiers and to wrestle with the gap between nationalistic rhetoric and the carnage of the battlefield. It happened in Vietnam, it happened in Korea, and it even happened in the “Good War” – World War II. But perhaps it was most acutely rendered in World War I, as the late Paul Fussell repeatedly observed.

In fact, the acute chasm between romantic rhetoric and military action is a less-explored but fundamental component of modernity and post-modernity. Subjectivity gains greater agency even as its ability to affect outcomes, render meanings, or even to gain understanding is sapped.  Nowhere is that more clear than in war, when the manifestation of abject chance overwhelms induction, deduction, and even superstition. It is the ultimate black box – with an indifferent operand.

Deluxe – From Design to Bling and Back Again

Relentless branding and marketing extend luxury to the masses. But like America in the 1870s, famously called the “Gilded Age” and not the “Golden Age” by Mark Twain, our purchases are no longer quite so luxurious. Luxury has lost its luster, Dana Thomas explains, in Deluxe. Penned in 2007, when the luxury goods business grossed revenues of more than $157 billion, Deluxe chronicles a well-known capitalist arc. Initially an artisan works small, emphasizes quality, and grows a business. At a certain point, however, the business either stalls or is radically transformed through the injection of new capital and new models. It is the move from proprietary capitalism to managerial capitalism, a process that I’d wager is known by that name by Ms. Thomas but not stated in her book.

Within the luxury goods sector, the aggregation of “brands” under large holding companies, coupled with the advent of Chinese manufacturing, completes the story. Massive amounts of wealth are created by mass-market sales of what had been artisanal creations of clothing, luggage, accessories and scents. Luxury brands no longer are known by the quality of their components are manufacture. They are known by their branding, and ironically, it is easy to produce a counterfeit of a good whose primary distinguishing characteristic is ornamental, like a logo.

Thomas writes briskly. Her narrative, driven by a journalist’s curiosity, is tight and clean. She visits designer houses, factories, and board rooms. She talks with designers, sales people, marketers and consumers. Her arguments make sense.

And yet . . . nestled within this book is a better book struggling to make itself heard. The concepts Thomas presents are simplified, Cliff notes versions of oft-analyzed economic phenomena. The linkage of consumerism with mass markets and identity is a staple of economics, history and popular culture. One does not have to quote Marx or Veblen, but there are powerful ideas from the 19th century that support and scaffold much of Deluxe. Thomas, however, eschews the complicated or complex.

People appreciate and crave quality. They are willing to pay for it, too. The democratization of luxury without quality renders luxury an empty category, a ripe opportunity for the entrepreneurial.  The disruptive power of technology is facilitating multiple answers to the question of what the future of luxury will be. I believe that there are three paths: traditional luxury, internet-funded artisanal, and technologically transformed bespoke.

Traditional luxury will become ever more important as the luxury brands are challenged to retain the purchases high-end customers. Fashion houses are already familiar with the challenge of expanding couture just enough to make profits while maintaining a distinction from mass production. Brands respond by splintering into different labels, each of which is produced under different circumstances with different materials. However, consumers’ demand for quality requires something more than red and black labels. One strategy is to create an entirely new entity; another is to horizontally integrate by purchasing a smaller, more luxurious brand.  One fascinating new strategy is that some companies that have lost their way now create “heritage” or “legacy” sub-brands to make a commodified value statement. For these firms, the aim is to recreate quality from long ago and to reconnect with consumers.  Levi’s and Dickey‘s are two such firms, but examples are legion.

Another path to luxury comes from the ability of the internet to allow a manufacturers to control growth while maintaining quality. Competition is ruthless and relentless, to be sure, and customer reviews and the power of social media can whipsaw firms. That said, good quality and customer service can redefine a luxury good and be profitable. For the mid to lower end of the market, Etsy is primary marketplace for the hand-made, but many others – and a good search – will reveal multiple choices for inquisitive consumers. Artisanal firms in this environment can define themselves in different ways, too, offering an advantage over larger companies. Manufacturing only in America, or committing to sustainable manufacture, are two such distinguishing paths.

Finally, high-tech bespoke, be it from a 3-D printer or a fashion-site with made-to-measure clothing, is an increasingly viable option. The technology is not perfect, but it is getting steadily better and more reliable.

I used to believe that my desire for quality made me an outlier (interestingly enough, the name of a clothing company). After reading Deluxe and giving the matter some thought, I think that I’m on the crest of a trend: internet-enabled purchases from small, non-marketed companies with strong value-statements but no wide brand recognition. In other words, luxury will return to its roots.

Greed and Tech – a familiar refrain

The recent controversies surrounding the Facebook IPO show no signs of abating. Was there insider trading? Did NASDAQ folks down?  Did Morgan Stanley overvalue the company? Is it a reflection of a lack of confidence in Mark Zuckerberg? As it has been unfolding it sent me to the bookshelves to read about another technology company who never lived up to its hype, boo.com.

Boo.com was the creation of two young Swedes, Ernst Malmsten and Kajsa Leander, who had some success with a Swedish internet book site in the early 1990s.  They sold that site, pocketing a good payout, and then built an online fashion site with the help of a slew of investors eager to cash in on the e-tailing boom. Spending $135 million in 18 months, boo.com was created on the assumption of massive sales of fashion online. Sales were solid and improving, but not fast enough. When credit tightened in the late 1990s, boo.com went belly up in spectacular fashion. Malmsten wrote about the entire journey in Boo Hoo. It was a business failure of epic proportions.

Aggressively confident and self-confident, Malmsten’s account is a fascinating read when it comes to how money was made via finance, through borrowing and the hope of selling. The year-and-a-half recounted is a blur of parties, problems, pitches and solutions. They founders and those about them worked very hard, but towards what end?

The idea for the site itself – selling a particular kind of clothing – was neither innovative nor well considered. Barriers to entry were not about the site; they were about delivery of clothing and support. Malmsen does not spend much time on the technical aspect of the business; he lacked the knowledge or skills. Above all, the book and its author are surprisingly thin when it comes to a more old-fashioned way of making money: income exceeding expenses.

We are in the midst of a craze for social media – we read and hear about social media’s power and importance. As the largest social media site, Facebook is at the apex of this trend. But even with its millions of subscribers and the models of valuation, its underlying business model – how it makes money – is advertising. And unfortunately for Facebook, its advertising is a distraction from what it provides. Google, who at bottom is also another advertising company, integrates its advertisement into what it offers. Its power is that it provides a solution that is part of its service.

I have yet to meet someone who will admit to having clicked on a Facebook advertisement.  The “crisis” around Facebook isn’t new; it is another example of greed and the power of finance to obscure basic business functions.

Tasteful, but . . . .

Been to the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum lately? Or earlier?

When first locating in Boston, I visited the Gardner. And then I visited again, lunching in a small, cramped cafe. And then wondered if I could avoid visiting a third time.

It’s a stunning house and it has a fascinating story. The Gardner captures a special moment in collecting, when American taste makers and European taste setters were feeling each other out. But the Gardner museum was also a house museum stuck in time, and to be brutally honest, the art was not that that interesting. Despite a beautiful courtyard and internal flowering plants, my overwhelming sensation was of darkness.

Ambitious leadership, vision and fundraising led to a lawsuit and the expansion of the Gardner. Its new wing, designed by Renzo Piano, gives the Gardner a new entrance and a new feel, contextualizing the house within a modern organization of space and function. It’s extraordinarily tasteful in the way that contemporary museum architecture does all so well: light, clean lines and planes, expensive materials, but no detail or ornamentation that captures the eye or calls for attention. Instead it provides clean organization of space to highlight whatever is contained within. It is also relatively unexceptional – its functionality and tastefulness make it effective but not all that interesting.  What is interesting is the relationship between the old and the new.

One enters the old Gardner through the new Gardner. What used to be a door off the street is now more of a processional through the new, through a hallway, and then into the new and then a covered path into the old. The original house is no longer a house. The ordering of spaces make the house a relic, a collectible unto itself. That distancing is critical in establishing a different way of viewing and understanding the collection. It makes one re-question the very sense of it ever being a home.

And in tune with modern museum design, the cafe is larger, thoughtfully appointed and a good deal of care has gone into the food.  The folks running the Gardner know what matters – a good latte in tasteful surroundings.

Modeselektor at an advanced age

Modeselektor was recently in town and I was fortunate enough to catch their show at the Royale. Three musicians – two front and center, one tucked off to the side with a keyboard; two screens and a some hardware. All in all, very good, very dance inducing kind of show. Their music is neither harmonically brilliant or poundingly house. It’s a mixture of light hip hop and happy German dance. They’re funny and fun, meaning that above all, the show is fun, especially so when played loud with strobe lights. So while I didn’t leave humming any of their tunes (relatively short on hooks), I did go home sweaty, tired of dancing and quite happy – and I’m spotifying Modeselektor at the gym.

The wikipedia entry notes that Modeselektor is a favorite band of Thom Yorke from Radiohead, which made me think of the ways in which musicians plump for other musicians. They don’t write book jacket blogs and it takes a bit of digging to determine who likes who. And even if they do like [insert name of obscure band/musician here], that’s no guarantee that you will. In fact, musicians almost always go out of their way to celebrate a musician that often doesn’t fit. It’s as though when queried, most musicians feel obligated to name someone really different or really obscure. If not for other musicians, would any Captain Beefheart music ever be sold?

When I was a young man, I trucked in the lesser-known. Pick your punk, your new wave, your alternative to the alternative, and I more often than not had a mix tape. Fabulous Poodles, anyone? It takes time and effort, though, and rarely results in much social capital. As I’ve matured, my tastes have not – I tire very quickly of music that I heard 10, 20, or 30 ears ago – but my acceptance of what I like and listen to has shifted and broadened as well. So while I do still fancy the unusual (Afropop to German electronica), at long last I am completely at home and comfortable with much of the popular. Chris Brown may be a violent human being who doesn’t sing all that well, but he sure knows his hooks. I like Katy Perry and I think that Jessie J. is a fine song writer. Give me my Ludacris and Kanye. My street cred may suffer, but if music makes me smile, I have to like it.

I like Modeselektor.

Damian Hirst in Context

I did not see Damian Hirst’s show at the Tate Modern this weekend past. Selling out quickly, the throngs were teeming and I watched people. And I took this snap once I stepped into the sunlight. No genitalia on the other side, by the way, but it’s clear that the ass end belongs to the Tate.

One of the more traditional ways in which the art world assigns value – collectively, of course – to works of art is the extent to which they ignore the economies of everyday life. The work may embody the time and talent of its creator. It may aspire to transcend, reaching the sublime. And lurking in the background, however, when discussing works of art is its price. The cost of a thing is what someone will pay for it – and that is its price. But its value?

One of the things that I admire about Hirst’s work is his ability to make us think and to ground much of what he does in the complex interplay of price, value and cost. Like Jeff Koons, Hirst wants to make lots and lots of money. I wonder, though, whether or not he wants to make great art.

Context for Hirst’s work is critical. Without context, it become pastiche, kitsch, collections, assemblies, or something odd. We will not look at it if it is not properly sited, situated and considered. Shark in tank? Fascinating, but one only stops and stares in certain environs. There’s nothing wrong with generating artistic meaning from context, but it can undercut the value question and, ultimately, the issue of price. For one of Hirst’s work to maintain its value and price, it either must remain in a proper context or it must become so well-known, so famous that its value is eponymous – like his diamond skull known as the “love of God.”

Makes one wonder, doesn’t it?

Plus Ca Change

One of fashion’s few certainties is recurring change. What is in fashion one day is later not and the hot young designer is rarely the hot mature designer. Writing about fashion faces the same challenges and it is a rare look at this multi-billion dollar industry that lasts. Teri Agins’ The End of Fashion has legs. Dated legs, but the issues she addressed are worth considering today, too.

Penned in 1999 by Agins, a writer for the Wall Street Journal, the book is a from the ground up look at massive transformations in capital, process and reach in the fashion industry. Agins looks closely at the work of a limited number of designers. In the 1980s, it was still possible for a designer to create in an atelier-like setting. By the time the book was published, such models were rarities.

What happened? A confluence of factors led to the shift. The power of finance played a role, as did the growth of a middle class with the means to identify and purchase more. Most important, Agins notes, is the influence of marketing. Interestingly enough, the forces that transformed fashion also reshaped it from the inside.

Fashion, or at least haute couture, is about the commodification of time. A well-designed dress (and it’s almost always women’s clothes) represented the designer’s time and the time of those who put it together. The more ornate and the more carefully constructed, the greater the time – and the greater sense of exclusivity. A fine garment’s other exclusivity also stems from time, for a designer’s collection would be worn within a limited time, furthering its exclusivity. Extend a design to the masses and its exclusivity disappears, leaving questions and concerns.

Agins is less interested in these questions and more in the ways that designers and houses navigated these shifts; some sold out, some profited and some failed. She recasts the marketed brands as business enterprises facing particular challenges. The personalities are often outsize and the contingency of it all is tremendous. While people hunger to distinguish themselves – fashion itself matters – relative value any one designer or house is always contingent. All told, it is a very tough way to make a buck.

I’ll Take My Big Ideas Bite Sized, Please

I live in Brookline, MA, and before that I lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Both are high-density urban environments filled with highly educated families keen on providing their children a good education. These kinds of environments feature specialized coffee stores, independent bookstores, organic food and many places to eat and drink. They are gay-friendly, supportive of the “creative class,” and better able to handle serious financial problems; they are cities central to Richard Florida’s conception of where the economy and society is headed. I like Park Slope and Brookline – as do many of my friends who share my demographic – but I’m not nearly as certain as Professor Florida.

The Great Reset is another opus in the ever-productive, market savvy Florida. His themes are well-known and juicy: the creative economy has overtaken the traditional manufacturing economy and that this urban, cosmopolitan, well-educated “class” represents the future. In Reset Florida takes the longer view, emphasizing how the Great Depression reshaped internal and external landscapes of work, home and values. He sees such a transformation resulting from the financial crisis of 2008-2009.

What happened? Housing values plummeted, many were thrown out of work, and different areas were affected differently. The larger, more “creative class” metropolises, he writes, weathered the storm more effectively. As for the consequences, people are starting to value conspicuous consumption less and instead seeks status through other means. It accelerated the decline in popularity of cars and cities dependent upon sprawl and housing prices. In contrast, the mega-regional cities, marked by large cities, government centers and the presence of large universities, fared relatively well.

The appeal of these big, broad statements is that they seem – at least to those of us who have graduate degrees and live near universities – is that they validate our choices. Florida’s future is in many ways our future. The difficulty with Florida’s arguments is that they are supported at times by the weakest of reeds. In this book, in particular, he jumps about without developing a sustained argument or marshaling facts in a systematic way.

For example, Florida posits the decline of importance of the car. Really? Just because some suburbs are emptying and a subset of younger Americans who live in certain cities are eschewing automobile ownership does not spell the demise of the automobile. I’d suggest that automobiles, in one form or another, will remain an extraordinarily important part of our economy and society for decades. They may be powered by alternative fuels, look different and ownership structures may change (more Zipcar options, for example) – but it would be foolish to think that the car-free future is around the corner.

Amid all the conjecture, however, are very worthwhile observations – about gender and jobs, and work and meaning, and about the broad shifts in our society. Further, his underlying assumption that something really important is forcing deep change in America is probably correct, too, though I believe we’re still way too early in the process to know what it means or where we are going. Florida writes well, too, and that cannot be discounted; you would want him on your panel, around your table, or at the bar. He would give you something to mull over, to chew on – just as he has done in this book.

Engaging Scoundrels

Come with me, dear reader, on an exciting journey through smells, sights, opportunities, lies and crimes. I will entertain, engage, challenge and confide in you. I will be a most trusted guide and nothing that I say can be believed.

A good first-person narrator can take a reader by the wrist, or wallet, or throat and lead us through all manner of adventure. A tried and true technique, it is extraordinarily effective in the right hands. Aravind Agida employs it fully in his debut novel The White Tiger.  Dark and comical, the book references, borrows and steals from all the right sources: Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison, but also Defoe, Rushdie and Barth. It is the story of a charming and untrustworthy man living in multiple worlds – modern India.

The overall structure is the personal history of Balram (or Munna), an Indian entrepreneur, as written in a series of letters to Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabo, who is scheduled to visit Bangalore. Balram tells his own story as way of explaining India; it is a story within a story. Born in “Darkness” or abject poverty in a rural village, Balram experiences privation and disappointment despite being identified as intelligent, a “White Tiger.” He is only partially aware of his misery in his lot until he becomes a driver for a rich man with family connections to his village. He journeys to the city, “Light,” comes to understand more clearly his situation and the way that India “works.” It is a voyage of knowledge, cynicism, and advancement. Balram eventually murders his employer in order to break free and to establish a new identity, business, and future. The novel’s coda is a recount of how Balram the businessman handles the death of a child run over by one of his employees: with bribery, influence peddling and power.

Agida gives Balram great intelligence but little knowledge, and as his perspective becomes more informed, an ever greater sense of agency. Balram’s morality is thin at best. He murders in cold blood and is ruthless. One the other hand, the very sense of right and wrong is problematized throughout, as “justice” seems to be irrelevant to the world in which the characters live. inhabit. Agida’s satire is of India and Balram is the vehicle. Balram the quintessential traveler, an alien in his own land, a visible invisible man. He parodies the myth of the self-made man. Balram has access to many voices: the subaltern, the Quisling, the entrepreneur, the internal immigrant, and the business man.

And though a cold character, above all, Balram is very funny.

Winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2008, The White Tiger is the kind of literature that entertains and provokes – a good and thoughtful read.

A Little More Than a Snowman’s Chance . . . .

Some books we read to learn. Some to laugh. Some because we’re told to some because they catch our eye. Elizabeth Letts The Eighty-Dollar Champion is a book to read for pleasure,for the simple joy of a good story. Letts is an accomplished author with two novels and a children’s book under her belt. She also rode horses competitively, a background that drew her to the triumphs of an unknown horse and the Dutch immigrant who trained him into a jumping champion.

Harry de Leyer purchased a grey gelding from a knacker for $80 in 1956, with the fee including delivery of the beat up horse to the small Long Island stable. De Leyer was a poor but very talented horseman who made a living teaching riding at a girls school and providing lessons. The horse, christened Snowman by one of de Leyer’s children, was placid, easy-going and a surprising jumper. In fact, de Leyer only learned of the horse’s ability after he sold him and the gelding refused to stay in the neighbor’s paddock.

Once back under de Leyer’s tutelage, Snowman became an accomplished jumper winning national prizes. The story was picked up by the local and then national press and played for all it was worth: poor horse and horseman succeeding in the high society world of equestrian jumpers. When at the National Horse Show in Madison Square Garden, Snowman and de Leyer even took a trip to Rockefeller Center to appear on the Tonight Show. Johnny Carson subbed that night for Jack Parr.

Letts strikes the same chords, emphasizing heart and the bond between horse and man. It is cliched, to be sure, but it is an effective tactic. She does not lay it on too thick, either, a shortcoming of  Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit, a book which linked the underdog horse, his dysfunctional trainer and rider, with the Great Depression and the very health of the nation.

It was a good story in 1958 and it is a good story today.