Phair the Writer

Exit in Guyville is a brilliant debut album. Liz Phair put it out in 1993, while living in Chicago, and she followed it the next year with Whip-Smart, another strong effort. I remember buying both all those years ago and noticing her lyrics. They were pointed, thought-provoking, and carefully crafted. Phair struck me as something of a poet. Her lyrics stuck with me more than her melodies.

Over the years I lost track of Phair as a musician, though I did see her perform. She came out with a memoir in late 2019.

Horror Stories is Liz Phair’s wholly original, non-glamorous, non-rock star memoir, though she is most definitely a rock start. It is a unique sort of work, off-kilter and de-centered. It highlight’s Phair’s way of looking at the world and her life. Her perception, candor, and ability to look at things differently gives the work an unusual flavor. She tells us in the introduction that she wrote it “to articulate those experiences that people may not always want to recognize, but describe them in a way that makes them worth the effort.” It is worth the effort. Had Phair not fashioned a career as a musician, she could have given it a go as a writer.

Phair’s non-chronological observations range from childhood to where she is know. She notices things, big and small, and describes them with intensity and feeling: from a girl who passed out to a break-in at college to her thoughts while being made-up for a photo shoot. She brings care and honesty to these moments, explaining quite a bit about her, her privilege, talent, pains and suffering. More intentional than a flaneur, she is a smart woman with creative edges.

What Horror Story lacks is structure. If you give it a chance, Phair’s creativity and voice will carry you along.

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

The Narrow Road

A brilliant big novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North won the Booker Prize in 2015 among many other well-deserved awards. It is an outstanding work, a book that will grab you, engage you and keep you thinking.

Richard Flanagan is the author. An Australian born in Tasmania, Flanagan has written non-fiction, novels, short stories and screen plays. He is prolific and if the critics and editors are to be believed, just about everything he puts his mind to, he does well. He is rightly considered one of the most important writers in the world today.

The Narrow Road is a story about love, betrayal, loss, fame, leadership, and above all else, the horrors that Australian POWs faced in World War II as slaves for the Japanese in the construction of the Burmese railway. Flanagan’s father was a POW who lived through it. It was his father’s stories, Flanagan has recounted, that inspired the novel. In real life and in every sense of the word, it was a truly awful history.

In Flanagan’s account, the bigger historical narrative is captured through the actions, reactions, and struggles of multiple characters. Reading it, I thought of Tolstoy’s description of the Battle of Borodino in War and Peace. That chapter famously retells the conflict through the “fog of war.” It is scary, confusing, and messy, giving the reader a powerful sense of just how incomprehensible “history” can be when experienced without a clear narrative. It is overwhelming and, in many ways, unknowable. Only later can it be comprehended, if at all. Flanagan’s characters, trapped in the jungle, live, work and die in just such an unknowable situation. When we are in history, we have little but our convictions to assure us of outcomes.

Flanagan does details with great care; they are haunting and revealing. Especially compelling is Flanagan’s commitment to his characters. He treats each with consideration and care, even the war criminals. I found myself thinking about them as “people” – and wondering, after I finished the book, about particular plot choices and actions. My sense is that Flanagan is most interested in a certain kind of authenticity, a fidelity to a character, a moment, and place. Plotting is important to him, too, but it is not an aggressively plotted work.

Flanagan’s narrative moves effectively across time, space and scope. The success and somewhat “ruined” life of our main character is the thread, the anchor, and reference point. However, the book is really about much, much more than the life of Dorrigo Evans and the tremendous tensions between his public life as a hero and his private pains.

Big picture questions and themes are very effectively explored, weaving together a novel that is memorable and expansive. It has all the heft and weight of literature with a capital “L.” All things considered, it is probably best characterized as a novel whose key theme is history, not people. In that it differs from Dr. Zhivago, for example, a love story set against a sweeping historical drama. Here, and probably much more truthfully, is history rearranging the lives of all that it touches. But the novel is not didactic. The Narrow Road is enough of a page turner that it could be comfortably found in a bookstore under fiction, or perhaps historical fiction. I had trouble putting it down.

I heartily recommend The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

David Potash

History, Leadership and War

Andrew Roberts is a successful and prolific British historian. Almost as much a journalist as a scholar at this latter stage in his career, Roberts is probably best known for his biography of Winston Churchill. He writes with confidence, vigor, and a conservative perspective.

In his 2019 work, Leadership in War: Essential Lessons From Those Who Made History, Roberts presents the reader with nine short biographic sketches of well-known leaders, focusing on their traits in conflict. Emphasizing that leadership is value-neutral – it can be for the good or the bad – Roberts wrote the book as an outgrowth of a series of lectures he had given at the New York Historical Society. That helps to explain the particular kind of leaders looked at here; stated simply, they are of interest to the author. Leadership in War offers very few historical surprises in its examination of Bonaparte, Nelson, Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, Marshall, de Gaulle, Eisenhower and Thatcher. If you have read a short biography of any of these figures, you would be familiar with the outlines of their lives and the leadership in war.

Roberts brings something different to the task: an appreciation and understanding of the profound sense of self-belief exhibited by these figures. Coupled with that self-reliance, each of the leaders yoked their efforts to a larger cause. Each thought that their people, their team, their nation, was inherently better than that of the enemy. All of them were mostly lucky. Each, too, had surprising success at crafting, selling and reinforcing an understanding of circumstances that at the time of the conflict, might not align with the fact. Roberts goes into detail about this trait with Churchill, who convinced England that it was not in defeat during the early years of World War II. Roberts points out, too, that truly great leaders did not just craft and insist on a new reality; they were also disciplined and focused in ways to achieve it.

Roberts does not engage much with the really interesting questions about the distinctions between their leadership in battle and their leadership in campaigns, in diplomacy, and it regular domestic politics. His sketches made me wonder if there are some fundamentally different skills involved – and how and when they are accessed and employed.

Clausewitz’s dictum that war is politics by other means hovers throughout this book. War is a particular kind of conflict, a zero-sum game with awesome immediate consequences. Successful politics away from the battlefield is rarely zero-sum and sustainable – especially if we evaluate it with the criteria of improving lives. Reading more of Roberts’ thoughts of these kinds of questions would have been welcome.

David Potash

Texas: Lone Star History

There’s an old-school kind of history book, sweeping and opinionated, that when done well often finds its way to the shelves of more than a few non-historians. These are big and heavy tomes, hundreds upon hundreds of pages, usually about complicated topics or places that defy simple categorization. While appearing to be encyclopedic, if only because of their heft, these histories are in truth idiosyncratic. They tend to drive professional historians, who make qualified and careful arguments, nuts – and not just because of their out-sized sales. These big histories can shape popular understanding and convey arguments about mood, culture and the zeitgeist. They simplify and clarify. This is quite difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in traditional academic history.

It would be difficult to find a better representative of the genre and phenomenon than T.R. Fehrenbach’s Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans. It’s massive, unabashedly biased, and beautifully written in many sections. Proudly subtitled “From Prehistory to the Present; The People, Politics, and Events That Have Shaped Texas,” Lone Star is really about the frontier and the “spirit” of white settlers. Theodore Reed Fehrenbach was a Texan, educated at Princeton, who made a career as a writer, columnist, and journalist. The book, written in 1968 and reissued in 2000, is comprehensive in its coverage but its heart is the Republic of Texas in the early 1800s to the closing of the frontier.

Fehrenbach is unconcerned with sources. He avoids charts and historical data, instead telling stories, mostly about men and acts of violence and courage. Maps are few and so, too, are traditional chronologies. This is not the work to ground one in facts or numbers. Instead, Ferhrenbach is after something ephemeral – the historical memory that binds and animates Texans as Texans. He envisions it as a particular kind of ethnic-racial identify, grounded in opportunity, self-reliance, and toughness. For him, these are mostly white Anglo-Celts. Fehrenbach locates this special “Texas-ness” in places and people, and especially at the battle of the Alamo and in the Texas Rangers. It may not be an accurate history of the state, and at times it is frustrating, particularly if you are trying to sort out facts or look at wider issues. The book truly only emphasizes one perspective, and accordingly is missing differing experiences and histories. It is, though, filled with memorable stories and characters.

It’s not a book that I would recommend for everyone. It’s too long and its idiosyncrasies can be jarring to the point of distraction. And yet – even with the bias, racism, cynicism, and sweeping opinions, there is much to admire in Ferhenbach’s prose. He writes with style and confidence. And, as suspect as he may be when it comes to questions of causality and context, the book does put its finger on something different and unique. I am in no position to affirm that he’s accurate, but the book does go far in helping to explain that particular mythos of Texas.

David Potash

Longstreet, Leadership, and the Judgment of History

The United States Civil War was, by far, the nation’s bloodiest and greatest challenge. Any serious engagement with the history of the war underscores how horrific – and important – it was to our nation’s history. Reading about the war and its history, which has long been disputed and argued, reminds me that the Civil War’s outcome was not foreordained. It was the consequence of choice, leadership, determination and contingencies.

Reading James Longstreet: The Man, the soldier, the Controversy underscores those observations. A solid volume of essays edited by R. L. DiNardo and Albert A. Nofi, the book is more than twenty years old and retains its relevance. Leadership, on and off the battlefield, is a vital topic of interest and concern today. So, too, are the ways that scholarship, advocacy and politics can shape history and our collective understanding.

Longstreet was one of the Confederate Army’s most prominent generals. Born in South Carolina and raised in Georgia, he attended West Point and had a successful military career in the US Army until the start of the Civil War. He resigned his commission and became a key figure in the south’s military effort. Longstreet was known for his defensive tactics. He fought in multiple key battles, gaining greater responsibilities and eventually working directly under Robert E. Lee, who headed the Confederate military effort. Lee called Longstreet his “old war horse” and consistently supported him. Longstreet was responsible for a key attack at Gettysburg that failed, leading many in the South to blame Longstreet for the loss and, eventually, much more. Lee was a consistent supporter of Longstreet, even after the battle of Gettysburg. Through the course of the war, Longstreet’s reputation and overall effectiveness were widely affirmed.

After the Civil War, Longstreet preached cooperation with the north and the Union. Like many who held leadership roles in the Confederate military, he sought leadership as a civilian. Unlike almost all other southern military leaders, Longstreet joined the Republican party. It was this, and his subsequent commitment to working with the union and with blacks, that made him a target in the south, in the public eye, and in historical analysis.

A group of former Confederate military commanders, all associates to Lee, targeted Longstreet after Lee’s death. Longstreet became a scapegoat for the loss of the confederacy. They labelled him incompetent during the war and worse, a villain who contributed to the loss of southern dignity during Reconstruction. Truth was ignored and history was “rewritten” to serve political ends. Longstreet’s poor judgment in how he defended his military record compounded the situation. In the century plus that followed the conclusion of the Civil War, Longstreet was the only Confederate general to have no statue or memorial tribute in the South. It is telling evidence of how post-war interpretation shaped collective understanding.

DiNardo and Nofi’s volume emerged from a conference on Longstreet, supported by the New York Military Affairs Symposium. The scholars who attended focused on Longstreet’s career and his legacy. Essays in the volume examine Longstreet’s pre-Civil War career, his leadership style, which was more “modern” than most of his contemporaries, battlefield tactics, and broader historical questions of interpretation. It is accessible, even for someone who is not deeply attuned to the history of the Civil War. Taking the heroism and horrors of the war as a given, the essays collectively provide a good understanding of a professional soldier’s career before, during and after the Civil War. One cannot read about what Longstreet and his contemporaries wrestled with, though, and not be affected by the violence and loss. Further, the essays reinforce what we already know about popular historical understanding: it is contested, politicized, and always suspect to manipulation. Truth and truths may not emerge immediately, but with careful consideration and scholarship, we may get there eventually.

David Potash

Favorites Places, Different Time

Studying history can be a delightful exercise in disciplined imagination. It requires us to summon forth in our minds – critically, with data and evidence – what happened in a different time in a different place. More than assembling sources and crafting arguments, fully immersed historical study is transcendent. It whisks us away while we stay at home.

I took such a trip to one of my favorite places when I read John Kasson’s 1978 history monograph, Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century. I don’t know how many years ago, probably decades, that I first encountered this slim and well-written study. It is a smartly crafted work that cast a long shadow in the study of popular culture. Kasson’s writing is accessible and scholarly, good with details and theory. He is a reliable and caring guide.

Coney Island, for the uninitiated, was the nation’s first mass amusement area. A Brooklyn beach-side resort in the 1800s, Coney Island grew rapidly in the latter quarter of that century. Accessible and affordable, Coney Island sat at the intersection of New York City’s massive population growth, the rise of the middle and working classes with disposable income, and the creation of mass production entertainment. It offered opportunity for socialization, pleasure and wonder within a short train ride of the city’s apartments and tenements. It was and remains to this day a special place, close to the city, of the city, and apart from the city.

Dreamland

Kasson situates Coney Island’s development within the broader historical context of the New York City’s Central Park, created after the Civil War, and the 1893 Colombian Exposition in Chicago, one of the most important cultural events of the latter half of the century. He explains what trends the entrepreneurs in Coney Island followed and where they established their own paths. Sensitive to issues of race, ethnicity and gender, Kasson recounts how Coney Island represented an alternative cultural space for its millions of visitors.

As one of those regular visitors – I’ve riding the Cyclone and Wonder Wheel annually for decades – the book truly comes to life when it goes into detail describing the ambitious amusement parks built in the years before the first World War. Steeplechase Park, Luna Park and Dreamland, each in their own way, created immersive alternative realities for day-tripping New Yorkers. Fantastic architecture, cutting-edge technologies, and shows designed to amuse, entertain and amaze shaped these extraordinary spaces. The photos alone can transport me.

When casting about for a read in these challenging times, consider dipping into well-written history. And if you pick up a copy of Kasson’s Amusing the Million, I’m sure that you’ll find it engaging.

David Potash

Right Stories, Wrong Time?

Determined to unplug for a short spell, I recently sat down with Ted Chiang’s latest collection of short stories, Exhalation. Chiang is an extremely talented writer, perhaps best known for “The Story of Your Life”, which was the basis for the movie Arrival. He has garnered several awards, too; he is an author that we’ll be reading for many years.

Chiang is sometimes described as a fiction writer and sometimes as a science fiction writer. One can be both of course – and fitting within a genre’s expectations is no recipe for success. My interest was piqued by curiosity and convenience. When one shelters in place, tethered to phones and screens, maintaining long-term focus can be a challenge. I thought that short stories were a safe hedge in a time when focus can be elusive.

Turns out that my plan was both wrong and right.

The stories in Exhalation are well-written and creative. Chiang is a writer who is interested in an idea, a speculation, and from that spins a tale. His ideas, too, are mostly very intriguing. Themes of free will, cognition, meta-cognition and what it means to be human are recurring questions that drive these stories. Chiang explores them with focus and clarity. There are no tricks, no narrative sleight-of-hand gimmicks, or even experiments with the prose itself. Instead, he writes with sense of purpose. It is though he wants to sort something out.

All well and good, and yet, I found myself less than fully engaged in the book while reading it. While I liked the ideas and found them provocative, there was little about the stories that stuck. Initially, I had difficulty figuring out why. I re-read, skimmed, and started to obsess, ever so mildly, about why I wasn’t all that engaged. Bear in mind, too, that I clearly was engaged since I was thinking about the stories quite a bit. It took some time to gather what was going on.

Chiang, I propose, is more focused on his ideas than plot, and more interested in plot than the development of his characters. His ideas are consistently intriguing. His plots are mostly strong. His characters, on the other hand, are less than fully developed. Chiang, to my reading, does not give them love or even all that much care. More often than not they seem to be vehicles for delivering his ideas.

Had Chiang stayed within the strictures of genre – hero/antihero; boy meets girl, loses girl, gets girl; stranger comes to town – the thinness of his characters would not be noticed. Without the well-worn clothing of genre, however, all aspects of the story are equally exposed. My reading was, as a consequence, probably more intense than necessary. Engagement indeed! Added to that, of course, that I’m reading them in a time of social distancing. My underlying hope was not to find ideas; it was connection, the kind of connection that can only come through fiction.

Exhalation is a thought-provoking collection of short stories that I’m confident will make you think. However, I am equally confident that I cannot predict what it will make you think about.

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

Hard Lives and Hardiness in Kansas

Sarah Smarsh is a fifth-generation Kansan who grew up amid grinding poverty. She found a way to get an education and become a journalist. Her first book, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth is a heartfelt and powerful account of her extended families and community. It is not a rags to riches story. It is not about luck or personal triumph, and it is not a political call for government action or this policy or that policy. Instead, Heartland is an empathetic and critical account of poverty, an up close look at the millions of ways that being poor affects one’s life.

In the trilogy of race, class and gender, Smarsh effectively carves out a perspective that offers a deep understanding of what it means to be poor, white, and a woman in the Midwest. She does it with care and an outstanding eye for detail. (It isn’t what mobile one home one lives in that matters – it is where the mobile home is parked) Readily acknowledging the problems of racism and the difficulties of class identity, Smersh situates herself and her family within larger structures of power and disadvantage. The book’s greatest strength is perhaps in its attention to how women work, work even more, and endure in extraordinarily difficult circumstances with limited options. She makes clear that for her and many of those around here, only one small mistake – a problem that could be readily overcome by someone in the middle class – could effectively derail a person’s life.

Smarsh attributes her education and career to some family stability, to good fortune, and to not becoming a teenage mother, something very common in her family and community. She explores the impacts of domestic violence, the cycle of power exercised by the powerless on those with even less agency. She also calls out the policies and practice that seem aimed at further marginalizing or simply punishing women. Some are known; others are less visible.

For example, women often move regularly out of necessity or fear. Smarsh’s maternal grandmother, Betty, moved constantly. When Betty found a good and reliable match in her seventh husband, Arnie, they were able to keep a farm. The farm, a very modest place, was an anchor, a haven, in Smarsh’s childhood. But like many other family farms that barely make enough, the farm eventually was lost when Arnie died. Just about everyone is working hard, but financial stability is elusive. Rural life in Kansas is tough and unforgiving. Nearby cities, Wichita and Topeka, are not easy, either.

Smarsh mixes government policies and big picture events with local histories. Politics is part of the climate. It is present, it has an impact, and it seems as though it cannot be changed. Smarsh clearly wants to see opportunities and at least some semblance of economic and social justice for many, but that’s not the thrust of her book.

Instead, what is haunting throughout the narrative is the everyday heroism of her kith and kin. Yes, they are flawed and yes, they do not always make the optimal choices. But they often make understandable choices. They are mostly good people and a few are really outstanding – loving, caring and deserving of much more of the good life. They struggle and work hard. Smarsh paints their stories with care and without romanticism. It’s an effective and moving memoir.

Heartland is very easy to read. It’s well written, really beautifully crafted. It is also difficult to digest. The unfairness is raw and uncomfortable, especially in a nation that has so much. If you give Heartland deep consideration, it will haunt you.

David Potash