Sports and Sentimentality, Courtesy of Jerry Izenberg

Growing up in northern New Jersey, back in the 1970s, I was always the first one in the family to get up. My routine during the school week was rock solid. I’d head downstairs, take the dog out, pick up a copy of the newspaper – we got the Newark Star-Ledger, bring the dog in and feed her, start to brew a pot of coffee for my parents, and then, at long last, dig into the sports section of the paper. Sports always came first – even as so many New York teams in the 70s were awful. A hurrah for Joe Pisarcik.

The Ledger’s sport section was always comprehensive. They printed late night scores from the west coast, covered all the sports, and several times a week, a column by Jerry Izenberg would grace the pages. Izenberg wrote the way that I imagined old school sports writers did, with rich language, lots of adjectives, and stories of heroism, triumph and catastrophe. I pictured him in a fedora with a cigarette hanging out the side of his mouth like a character from The Front Page, hammering away at manual typewriter. His columns were interesting and engaging, offering a different take on sports. They were like to the older guys who spent time at the breakfast diner in the center of town.

Recently I was given a copy of his 1989 book, The Jerry Izenberg Collection. Truth in advertising: it is exactly as billed, a collection of Izenberg’s columns. Reading it reminded me of those morning and the consistent tone and perspective of his work. Izenberg is still at it – he’s 90 – and recently published a novel.

The collection is a testimonial to Izenberg’s interest in people and his preternatural sentimentality. He specializes in a particular kind of traditional male ethos that jumps headfirst into emotions. In the hands of a different writer, in the context of other topics, it would ring as false and maudlin. But when writing about boxers, jockeys, gamblers and football players it seems all the more appropriate. Damon Runyon, perhaps?

Izenberg’s gift is to write about intimate issues in a way that male sport fans can relate. And I hope others, too. It’s his secret power – and I cannot think of many other sportswriters able to do it as effectively.

So if you find a copy, curl up with a beer and some Kleenex – it’s a Jerry Izenberg special.

David Potash

An Homage to my Bicycle

A mid-life crisis is a cliche with teeth. A staple of stand-up and the butt of jokes, it is funny until it disrupts a relationship. That begs the question: if you acknowledge a milestone birthday, how do you prevent a mid-life crisis? How do you reassess, reassure, and move forward in a healthy manner? I’ve been mulling this over. Bad behavior, especially in our current situation is most unwelcome. And no worries – it’s not me that faces the problem – I’m well past the age. Rather, I’m concerned about my bicycle, which just turned 40 this month. That’s a pretty important birthday and I want to make sure that we get through the coming years on the best of terms. I would like to keep my bicycle moving forward, on the straight and narrow, with few opportunities for mischief. My planned solution is this post, an homage to my bicycle and last-century British bicycle manufacturing, and a tune-up at the end of the month.

My bicycle is a Raleigh Carlton Super Course 12. It was manufactured in May of 1980, when I was listening to The Police and Blondie, attending high school in New Jersey, with long hair and much less heft. Little did I know that decades hence this Raleigh, with its steel frame, twelve-speeds, and Brooks saddle would find its way to me in Chicago. Restored in the past few years, the bike, unlike its current owner, shows few signs of age. It is an absolute delight to ride.

Raleigh was one of the largest bicycle companies in the world back in the day. Founded in the late 1800s on Raleigh Street in Nottingham, England, Raleigh grew to a behemoth after World War I. The size of the Raleigh works was breathtaking – and you can get a taste of the factory and how bicycles were made in this 1945 promotional video. It is a trip.

In the 1970s, during a bike-boom, Raleigh was making about 10,000 bikes a year. My bicycle was manufactured at a factory in Worksop, England, on the site of the Carlton Cycles company. Raleigh bought out Carlton in 1960, using their factory and putting Carlton badge for reputation on some of its better bikes – like mine. In late 1980, Raleigh closed the site. In the coming years, all bicycle production was relocated in Asia.

Today, somewhere between 15 and 20 million bicycles, mostly still manufactured in Asia, are sold in America every year. The trend is for growth, too, as more people are finding cycling a healthy, environmentally friendly, and enjoyable way to get exercise and commute. It is great fun. Bear in mind, too, that a well-built and well-maintained bicycle can be a fine companion for a very long time. Basic bicycle functions were worked out ages ago. You can spend more money for something new and fancy. Or you might find a somewhat older, more experienced bicycle, and form a lasting relationship.

My Raleigh Super Course 12 was shipped to the United States in the 1980s and sold in Boston. And while I don’t know about its journeys in America, I’m grateful that it found its way to me. I plan on riding it for many more decades to come. Happy birthday.

And I hope that you, dear reader, have a good bicycle, too.

David Potash

Bright Light on Grief

Brilliant in several senses of the word, Joan Didion is inquisitive, worldly, and extraordinarily intelligent. When Didion seizes upon a topic, she shines her mighty powerful brilliance on it. I picture it as a hot white light, so intense, in fact, that it can sometimes overwhelm, flattening out colors and feelings.

The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion’s 2005 account of her year of grief following the death of her husband. He was her soul-mate, though she does not call him that. He is John Gregory Dunne and John through the book. John suffered a massive sudden heart-attack at the dinner table in their New York City apartment. John had a heart condition, so his death was not wholly unexpected, but it was extraordinarily traumatic. He was with her and then he was not. Didion is unsparing in her account of the impact, nature and effect of her loss. She processed, engaged, disengaged, and imagined all manner of things. It was a year that her brain simply could not accept the sadness of the unacceptable. Yet she persevered.

The year was further worsened by the grave illness of Didion’s daughter. Her book reports on both with clinical precision. At the same time, she knows that there can be no final clarity, no resolution. It is, after all, of thinking and not thinking, of numbing loss and overwhelming tears.

I can’t say that I was comforted by Didion’s book; nor would I say that she wrote it to provide comfort. It is not a broader study and it did not shed much light on grieving and loss writ large. I have experienced enough loss already to have formed some thoughts and to have done a fair bit of research. This book is not a source for any of that.

What The Year of Magical Thinking does extraordinarily well is explain Joan Didion’s experiences, her processes, her feelings. She’s a frightfully clever and interesting writer – and that, in and of itself, makes this an important book. It underscores, in a myriad of ways, the isolation of loss, both direct and existential. She writes with great courage, with precision, and insight into herself and what made her who she is. It is powerful prose.

The Year of Magical Thinking also made me wonder if it might sometimes be healthier healthier to think a little less. Asking and answering hard questions, it seems to me, may not always the best path to understanding.

David Potash

High-Quality Humanized Potboiler?

One of the challenges living close to Myopic Bookstore – perhaps Chicago’s best used bookstore – is that it’s convenient, inexpensive, stays open late, and (did I say this already?), is perhaps Chicago’s best used bookstore. My shelves seem to fill without planning. It’s not a lack of discipline, either on my part. There are just so much good things to read . . . .

Recently I picked up a novel by John D. MacDonald, one of my favorite writers. Known for his mysteries, MacDonald also penned more than a few stand alone novels. He wrote, wrote – and wrote some more. If you like his style – taut, cleverly plotted, every character sketched with care, ample philosophizing but rarely in a didactic manner – you will recognize his prose within a paragraph or two. It’s tight and consistently entertaining.

At a recent Myopic visit I picked up one of his books that was a complete unknown to me. Written in 1984, One More Sunday is a sprawling novel about a large and successful evangelical church in the South. Chock full with a wide range of characters, the book is also about good and bad behavior. In fact, most of it is about wickedness. It covers the loss of faith, lust, adultery, envy, lying, murder, extortion and theft. There’s enough crime and creepiness in the book that it could veer into parody.

However, MacDonald’s skill gives the reader a page-turner with tolerance, ambiguity, and more than a little reflection. He leavens the luridness with compassion. That’s a welcome trait in a book that could only become an R movie.

If you run across it, give One More Sunday a chance – especially for the beach, the vacation, or when you want a high-quality diversion.

David Potash

Lost In The Supermarket

Michael Ruhlman is a prolific author, writing mostly about food. He does cookbooks, recipes, reviews, books, blogs, articles and more. He is always publishing, always getting prose out, and there is a good chance that you may have come across his work in a newspaper or magazine. It’s easy to understand why. Ruhlman writes as a friend, an informed colleague, and as the man next door (who loves to eat well).

Ruhlman’s recently published book, Grocery: The Buying and Selling of American Food, is a non-fiction account of the supermarket, written with a focus on a small family run chain, Heinen’s, in Cleveland. It is not a comprehensive account of the supermarket industry. Nor is it a business history, or what is all to common in the books about food, a polemic on what we should or should not be eating. Instead, Ruhlman is after information – about the store, they buying and selling of food, about his father, and about himself. To the extent that one can write a personal book about a grocery store, Ruhlman has done it. The book features some very interesting genre-crossing observations.

Ruhlman’s late father figures prominently. He loved to shop, to cook, and to feed people. Prominently among Ruhlman’s childhood memories are shopping with his father at Heinen’s, buying food for a week’s worth of meals, and large get togethers with family, friends and neighbors. The shopping trip represented family, prosperity, choice and optimism. Ruhlman senior was not alone in his love of the supermarket. We learn that for many, particularly of a certain generation, the boomers, fondness for grocery store trips and opulence is all too common.

Over the years, Ruhlman’s parents divorced, ending the shopping trips and the large meals. Ruhlman, too, is writing while experiencing a divorce and traumatic change. He grew up in Cleveland, but the book jacket notes that he now divides his time between New York City and Providence, Rhode Island. One does not have to be much of a detective to appreciate that this is a tangled book. Ruhlman’s interest in Heinen’s grocery is deeply tied to a host of memories, values and meaning. The knot of issues enhance, constrain and complicate the book.

The book is wide-ranging, moving from popular culture to what grocery store owners think and do, then back again. Ruhlman walks us around the supermarket, examining the differences in produce, dairy, delis and processed foods. There is a reason that milk is usually located at the back of a supermarket – and it’s more to do with a place for coolers than a marketing trick. The changes in how groceries operate and what they sell has been tremendous. More changes are anticipated, too. It’s a very complicated business with many moving parts and small profit margins.

The book concludes with the location of a Heinen’s in a restored downtown Cleveland building. It’s an expensive project. It also represents a new direction for the city and people’s expectation for shopping and food. Ruhlman is both elated by the new space and also saddened by loss.

Remember The Clash’s Lost in the Supermarket? Great track on one of the best albums of all time, London Calling, written all the way back in 1979. The song ran repeatedly through my head when reading Michael Ruhlman’s Grocery. Sometimes shopping is not really about shopping.

I’m all lost in the supermarket
I can never shop happily
I came in here for that special offer
A guaranteed personality

David Potash

Pat Barker is a Genius

No ifs, ands or buts about it – Pat Barker is one of the best novelists around. A bit more than a decade ago I read her Regeneration trilogy, three novels taking place in World War I. It was gripping, amazing, and memorable. They gave me goosebumps. The books were well-read, well-reviewed, and received multiple awards. The last novel in the three, The Ghost Road, won the Booker Prize.

I don’t really know why, but I went for years without reading anything else by her. Barker kept writing, gathering up awards and putting out novels. When I came across a recent review praising yet another novel by her, I decided that it was high time to reacquaint myself with Barker. After a few more reads, my estimation of her has increased.

Barker wrote Double Vision in 2003. It’s a tightly written and yet wandering story with a hole at its middle: a character who was killed in the Middle East. His grieving wife and friend reconnect. No gimmicks in the plot. Instead, events unwind methodically as characters work to make sense of loss, life and meaning. There’s crime, passion, and a gothic feel to it – but without undue ornamentation.

In 2015 she published Noonday, the third novel in a trilogy that also stands on its own. It’s very good – no surprises there – and it deals in a very mature way with trauma, memory, and how people navigate through “history.” Again, at the center of the novel are few well developed characters who interact with each other, trying to figure out relationships, commitment and and meaning. Set during the WWII Blitz, violence defines the environment.

Both novels are sure of themselves and where they are going. Reading them provoked me into thinking through why Barker is so good, why her writing is so powerful. One answer rests on her intelligence. Her observations, her plotting, her language – it’s impossible to read Barker and not be aware that someone incredibly smart and talented has put it together. Even with her relatively straightforward language, I am aware of great wisdom, coupled with curiosity, moving the story along.

Barker shuns the unnecessary . Sentences and paragraphs, ideas and story, are clear and unencumbered. Her words are precise. She does not dumb things down, either, when parsing. It was good to reach for a dictionary when I came across “lordotic.” It’s the curve above your butt and in the paragraph, it fit perfectly.

Themes in Barker’s books are often unsettling. She writes about violence, trauma, and how people manage through it. She is generous with her characters while unsparing in her insights. I feel as though I have learned when I read her – though I never get the sense that she is didactic. There is little frivolity in her novels.

Bottom line – Barker’s writing is mature. It is literature, not fiction, from a grown up for grown ups. And when I’m ready for that, and not distraction, it makes for a very welcome read.

Thank you, Pat Barker, and please keep the prose coming.

David Potash

A Different World

Cesar Aira is a prolific and gifted Argentinian writer. His stories and novels are dynamic, driven by innovation, and difficult to categorize. Light on structure, improvisational, they are also very engaging. Aira reportedly has a rigid and unique process for writing: one page a day with no revisions. However he does it, he does it well. Aira is an accomplished teller of tales.

Shantytown, a short novel or novella, is a good introduction to Aira. It features a shifting focus, a tangle of characters, and a parable like simplicity that tidies up questions. It takes the reader from beginning to end quickly, but through unexpected routes. What might be “normal” in a normal novel is not normal here.

The eponymous “Shantytown” is an off-grid slum in Buenos Aires with a separate culture, its own power supply, and it’s own rules. Characters from the city proper engage with, and in, Shantytown with mixed results. The feel is film noire with a parable-like mission throughout. The collective outcome, happily, is a short and intriguing book that transports the reader to a different world.

David Potash

Remembering People’s Puerto Rican History

If you are looking for a dispassionate traditional academic history of Puerto Rico, do not read War Against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony. Do not seek it out if you want a dry textbook on Puerto Rico in the twentieth, a volume loaded with charts, tables, economic or demographic data. There are many traditional books that give that sort of information. However, if you are interested in learning how many people think and feel about the impact of colonization in Puerto Rico, how the exploited tell and understand their history, what a passionate study of violence and repression told from the ground up would be, this an excellent source.

New York City attorney, film-maker, journalist, activist and former state representative Nelson A. Denis authored this non-fiction study. His anger and outrage are clear from the book’s preface, which opens with the childhood history of his father, a Cuban immigrant, who was arrested and deported from their family home in Washington Heights, New York City. In the pages that follow, Denis tells the story of colonialism, revolution and repression in Puerto Rico from the 1890s through the mid-1960s. The heart of the book is the rebellion of 1950 and the clampdown that followed it. Argument and persuasion is the aim as much as recounting history.

Key figures are central to the narrative: Pedro Albizu Campos, who led the Nationalist Movement; Luis Munoz Marin, the long-term governor, and key Nationalist leaders, Juan Emilio Viguie and Vidal Santiago Diaz. Denis explains the 1950 conflict as part of a longer term struggle. He is exceptionally strong recounting the massacre at Ponce in 1937. Police killed 19 people wounded several hundred. Denis does an important service highlighting this tragedy, as well as many other lesser publicized facts of Puerto Rican history.

A good illustration is Denis’s discussion of the 1948 Public Law 53. It was called “La Ley dela Mordaza” (The Law of the Muzzle or the Gag Law) in Puerto Rico. This legislation forbid discussion of Puerto Rican independence and owning a Puerto Rican flag. More than 3,000 were arrested because of this law. Appreciating that history is central to understanding the prevalence of flags at Puerto Rican parades and festivals in the continental US. Appreciating the larger history set out in this book is equally valuable in contextualizing current debates about the island.

War Against All Puerto Ricans is a people’s history – think Howard Zinn. It does not provide all answers, but what it does address, it does so well and memorably.

David Potash

Mavis and the Staple Singers: More Than Amazing Music

When I read a good book, I want to share it. When I read a really good book, I want many other folks to read it – and I want to read it again. That’s how I feel about I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the Music That Shaped the Civil Rights Era. You can borrow, but I will want it back – and soon. 

The contours of Mavis Staple’s life and that of her family are well-documented. She grew up in the public eye. The Staple Singers started singing publicly in 1950 in Chicago churches. Her father, Pops Staples, in addition to being a musical genius, was also an incredibly sharp businessman and leader, steering the family musical group through very difficult waters. Their first hit was in 1956 and they were an influential presence in popular music for decades. Based in Chicago and traveling throughout the US, the Staple Singers emerged from the gospel circuit and “crossed over” to folk, to R&B, to soul, and more.

Mavis Staples is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame, and has been awarded honorary doctorates. It’s easy to read about her online. A long-time Chicago music critic, Greg Kot, authored I’ll Take You There. He is interested in Mavis’s life, her family, and her connection and role with massive transformations in American life – all while paying close attention to their music. Their songs were written and performed with talent, integrity and feeling in a context of faith, opportunity and conflict. The Staple Singers were at the heart of the Civil Rights movement. Their story is, in many ways, American history.

What truly makes reading the book a joy is doing so with music at hand. Every now and then I recognize just how convenient technology can be – and reading this book reminded me why. When Kot referenced a song or an artist, I called them up on Spotify. Threads of music history, and artists’ relationships, took a different shape. Sam Cooke was a neighbor growing up in Chicago. Bob Dylan proposed to Mavis (she turned him down). Reading and listening played off each other. It made for a very special experience. The connections and interactions are too numerous to count, building a fascinating web of relationships and artistry.

Just one example: I am writing this while listening to Freedom Highway, a Staple Singers album recorded live at the New Nazareth Church in Chicago in 1965. Kot explains that the recording was made just after Dr. King’s march in Selma, Alabama. The title song, refers to Selma, with references to Emmitt Til and the march to civil rights. The songs capture a moment of history that is relevant today. The music is beautiful and meaningful.

I heartily recommend I’ll Take You There. It will.

David Potash

Like A Vision He Appeared

Back in the day, I grew up in New Jersey. It is easy to stereotype the Garden State, from the “Jersey Shore” to Atlantic City to Frank Sinatra’s Hoboken. But for those who have lived there, we know that the state’s diversity resists easy simplification. It is densely packed with history and people, rich in cultures and distinctive communities. The northern part of the state skews to New York City, the southern part is influenced by Philadelphia. It has great poverty and tremendous wealth, rural farmland and robust cities, all surprisingly close to each other. It is, in no uncertain terms, a complicated place without multiple sites and sources of identity.

Jersey heritage figures prominently in my reading of Bruce Springsteen’s wonderful autobiography, Born to Run. Springsteen has become many things to so many people throughout the world over the years. That kind of impact first took place in Jersey back in the 1970s. Appointed and anointed as perhaps the state’s only unifying force, Springsteen made fantastic music that spoke to northern Jersey, southern Jersey, to rural Jersey and urban Jersey, in the burbs and down the shore. I heard bar bands cover Springsteen, give tribute to Bruce, and do a good job with “Rosalita” just a few years after the album “Born to Run” was released. He is a New Jersey state treasure. How did it do it?

Springsteen has a way with words, in music and on the page. He’s a genius – and it is a beautifully written book. It is frank, candid, dark and optimistic. Springsteen’s focus is, rightly, on his journey – and not the reasons that so many of us see him as ours. His prose is grounded in “how”: how he grew up, how he was loved and rejected, how he developed his career, and how he dealt with his battles, failures, and successes.

We know that Springsteen has tremendous talent and is a great showman. His autobiography highlights that wrapped up in the very core of the man is discipline and an extraordinary work ethic. The artist “Springsteen” is an authentic creation, the outcome of thoughtful choices and boatloads of effort. He worked at his music, his career, his image and, in many ways, his friends and family. He has struggled with depression. He has consistently mined his pains as catalysts of creativity. It has not happened easily. While we may think of it as just the triumph of talent, the book makes clear that it has happened through deliberate hard work.

Born to Run left me with more admiration for Springsteen, more understanding of him, and appreciation for the pain that has haunted him. His father’s mental illness, the challenges of his childhood, and his demons have been real and powerful. It is a testament to the man that he has had the gifts, skill and temperament to use them and much more to make music that the entire world sings. I will re-read Born to Run. It will be worth it, just like revisiting older Springsteen favorites.

David Potash

And a big thanks to my sister for giving me the book!