Business

A re-reading kind of winter.

I am antsy this winter.

For months I've been feeling simultaneously like I can't sit still but also can't get up and actually get anything done. What is up? Is this the continuing midlife crisis? Anyway, whatever is causing it, I am finding it hard to start new books (or new anything, really). So I've been mainly plowing through comfort reading--Agatha Christie and Helene Hanff have been my twin Patron Saints of Antsy Re-Reading--but the other day I was talking to someone about Facebook and I found myself jonesing to re-read Ben Mezrich's thoroughly appalling* The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, a Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal.

It was about as horrible as I remembered. I still can't get over Zuckerberg wandering through the the computer files of all Harvard's "houses" and just downloading (stealing) everyone's photos so people could vote on the attractiveness of the women. And now he's one of the richest men in the world. In other news, Silicon Valley parents are now all figuring out that the products they make are terrible for children and are taking them away. Super. Meanwhile the rest of us are stuck with the Tech Hell they created.

So what's a representative quote? Well, this one, from the ending of the book, seems as appropriate as any.

"In one sense, the card represented nothing more than Mark Zuckerberg's personal brand of humor. But in another sense, the card was more than a joke--because it was true. No matter what else anyone wanted to believe, no matter what anyone else ever tried to do, the sentiment of the card would always be true.

Inevitably, indelibly true.

We can picture Mark reading the words on the card aloud to himself, the smallest hint of a grin twitching across his usually impassive face. I'm CEO--Bitch." (p. 249.)

And yes, they really did say that.

Gross. I'm back off to the comfort re-reading.

*On so many levels. I actually think Ben Mezrich plays a little too loose with the nonfiction form, but not many other people have written exposes of Facebook or Mark Zuckerberg, which is another fact I find appalling.

 


Looking for a name for our "Best of" Nonfiction list.

I thought long and hard about what to title these new types of posts:

1. The Citizen Reader Worldview in 52 Books (Or, Become a Bitter Middle-Aged Midwestern Woman in Only 52 Weeks!)

2. 100 Game-Changing Nonfiction Books

3. Nonfiction for a Twenty-first Century Citizen Reader

4. 100 Nonfiction Books Deemed "Too Depressing" by Mr. CR

5. Great Nonfiction to Read While Watching Two Preschoolers Who Can't Stop Pushing Each Other Down On the Cement Driveway

But all of those seemed a little personal (well, not the second one, the second one just seems boring), and I would like this list of Nonfiction Greatest Hits to be more broadly useful to a wide variety of readers.

So what to call it?

...

First maybe I'll tell you a little story about how I really started thinking that it is time to change Citizen Reader, or perhaps just to start to go out with a bang. In the month of March I slowly read an investigative nonfiction/business history book titled Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town,* by journalist Brian Alexander. It was a great book. It was not the best book I've ever read, and in some ways it was a very run-of-the-mill example of the type of nonfiction I favor (namely, "depressing" investigative nonfiction on current economic and cultural trends in America), but it was a great book. It was a book I found on another list, elsewhere, and I was intrigued by the title, so I brought it home, and it sat around my house for a while. And then I took a little break from reading, but shortly before this book was due, I thought, "No, even if my eyes are tired, I want to read this book."

So I did.

I read it more slowly than I usually read these books, and I never really felt like I couldn't put it down, but all the same I kept being drawn back to it. It is the story, basically, of the city of Lancaster, Ohio, and how its main manufacturer and employer, Anchor Hocking Glass, began and (pretty much) ended. It is a story of community history, the business environment of America in the twentieth century through 2016, it is the story of individuals struggling to find meaning in their work and a living wage, it is the story of an insular town mentality, it is an individual business history, and it is also a story of opiate abuse and other crime (mainly petty, but also huge glaring financial crimes perpetrated by the 1% of the title).

It's got a lot going on.

I would like for you to read this book, but I know that a lot of readers would be turned off by the level of business details in it. Trying to understand the financial shenanigans of leveraged buyouts and corporate takeovers (many of which have been going on since at least the 1980s) is ridiculous; I have to give Alexander credit that he could describe most of it as clearly as he could. Where the rubber really meets the road is in one of the final chapters, when he discusses the trend of pundits telling Midwesterners to leave their smallish cities and towns and rural areas if they want to avoid drugs and find better-paying work:

"For decades, politicians--Republicans and Democrats both--and pundits had all been spewing empty platitudes of praise for 'the heartland,' 'real America,' and 'small-town values.' Then, with shameless hypocrisy, they supported the very policies that helped destroy thriving small towns.

Corporate elites said they needed free-trade agreements, so they got them. Manufacturers said they needed tax breaks and public-money incentives in order to keep their plants operating in the United States, so they got them. Banks and financiers needed looser regulations, so they got them. Employers said they needed weaker unions--or no unions at all--so they got them. Private equity firms said they needed carried interest and secrecy, so they got them. Everyone, including Lancastrians themselves, said they needed lower taxes, so they got them. What did Lancaster and a hundred other towns like it get? Job losses, slashed wages, poor civic leadership, social dysfunction, drugs...

Telling Lancaster to surrender and call U-Haul made it easy for America to ignore its Lancasters. Sure, there was a lot of talk about such places and the people in them, but few wanted to spend much time learning about how they'd been left behind by the financialization and digitalization of American life. Silicon Valley kept promising nirvana but delivering new ways to gossip, even while disconnecting people from each other and their real communities. Politicians soothed the blows of globalization with promises to retrain and educate, but none of that happened for Lancaster's working class.

To so blithely dismiss the value of community was to pretend there was no loss. But there was, and the effects of that loss continued to ripple throughout the town." (pp. 291-294.)

So here's where my little story ends. I read this book, and I read that, and somewhat sharply it struck me that yes, that is a culmination of most of the nonfiction I've been reading since 2000. In my brain I could feel all sorts of threads coming together, and I felt for a moment like I had a clear picture of the time and place I live in. I have read A LOT of books to get to this place. And for the first time in a long time I thought, I don't need to read any more.**

I want to do something else.

So, in light of our discussions a few weeks back, here's what we're going to do. Citizen Reader is going to place of action. Mine, and yours. We're also going to take things seriously enough to have a schedule; I'll post it soon. We're going to read some essays, and one month we're going to have an online book club, and in the middle of all that I'm going to write posts that list books I've read and helped me get to this moment of clarity, and this is what I'm going to call that list, because I am a Gen Xer and although I want to take things seriously, I also can't resist a pop culture reference:

Nobody Puts Nonfiction In a Corner (or, 100 Nonfiction Books I Couldn't Live Without)***

And #100 on that list is Brian Alexander's excellent Glass House. This list will not really be in order, but I'm calling this book #100 because I don't think you can start there. I want to tell you about the best, clearest, most helpful nonfiction books that I've read about living in this place and time. Won't you join me?

Oh, and don't worry. I'm still going to read. I'll still need something else to look at besides my little CRs pushing each other down in the driveway.

*This link goes to an excellent review of this book at Slate; concise, well-written, even very good about explaining briefly the financial mishaps wreaked on the Anchor Hocking company.

**I actually had this thought in quote form: in Anne Tyler's novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, elderly Pearl Tully is being read to by her son Ezra, out of her own childhood diary. At one point he reads to her an entry about a happy moment she had: "...'I saw that I was kneeling on such a beautiful green little planet. I don't care what else might come about, I have had this moment, it belongs to me.'

That was the end of the entry. He fell silent.

'Thank you, Ezra,' his mother said. 'There's no need to read any more.'" (p. 277.)

That's exactly the way I felt. Thank you, Ezra. There's no need to read any more.

***With full props to the film Dirty Dancing, for giving us one of the most truly ridiculous lines of dialogue ever.

 


Raw Deal: How the "Uber Economy" and Runaway Capitalism are Screwing American Workers.

Mr. CR despairs of me, but I am right back on my Depressing Nonfiction Reading Kick, and I couldn't be happier!

Raw dealLast month I spent quite a bit of time with Steven Hill's Raw Deal: How the "Uber Economy" and Runaway Capitalism are Screwing American Workers. It's a journalistic work of my very favorite type--the author pokes his nose into all sorts of assumptions, like how the "sharing economy" is helping us all save money and "monetize" the assets we do have, and how the tech companies really have all our best interests at heart...and then proves that the underlying story isn't quite as rosy as all the pundits would have you assume.

I won't lie to you, this is a dense book and it definitely takes some time to get going. But even if you only read half, or bits, of this book, you will learn more than enough to make you start to wonder about where all the money in our economy is flowing, and why. I'll give you an example of an early jam-packed paragraph that appears on page 3 (page 3!) and should suffice to give you much of the lay of the land of the book:

"Sitting here in San Francisco, I have a front-row seat at the epicenter of this latest earthquake. But as the future that the tech geniuses have planned for us comes slowly into view, it looks increasingly alarming. It's not just the many people evicted, including elderly and disabled tenants. to clear entire apartment buildings to make rooms available for tourists via Airbnb, even as Airbnb has disputed its obligation to pay local hotel taxes; or the desperate workers scrambling like low-rent braceros--'arms for hire'--on jobs found via TaskRabbit, Elance-Upwork, CrowdFlower and other job brokerage websites, sometimes for less than minimum wage (according to some workers); or the middle- and low-income households being forced to leave the Bay Area in a tech-driven 'Trail of Tears' because they can no longer afford the escalating costs; or that Uber, which is valued at $51 billion--larger than Delta or United Airlines, and approaching General Motors and Ford--has incorporated more than 30 different foreign subsidiaries, many of them no more than mailboxes in the Caribbean, as low-tax havens to greatly reduce its US tax obligations."

Yeah. The entire book is like that. It takes a little while to read.

But you should definitely give it a look. The idea of "monetizing" stuff I have by giving strangers rides in my car or a room in my house has always made my skin crawl, but this author also points out that these tech "sharing" companies are making massive profits at the same time they are refusing to play fair with their workers (not their workers, technically, their "freelancers," to whom they give no benefits and provide no sick time) and with tax and local zoning laws in general. The sharing economy might have a nice name, but what exactly is it costing all of us in the end?


Reading notes: July 2017.

On Monday I was so busy whining about the demise of EarlyWord that I forgot to include my usual weekly reading notes in the Citizen Reading report, so I thought I'd put them here.

I forget exactly why I got Peter Coughter's The Art of the Pitch: Persuasion and Presentation Skills that Win Business from the library, but I suspect it is because I am always interested in books about how to give presentations (enough so that I wrote one) and how to sell, because I am a terrible salesperson. I only skimmed this one, but I have to say I think it is one of the best and most succinct books on good public speaking that I've seen. You wouldn't even have to read the whole book; just read the first chapter: "Everything Is a Presentation." I particularly liked the list of characteristics of great presenters and their presentations, things like "It's a conversation, only you're doing most of the talking."* That does not mean you get to be boring or pontificate, it means, as Coughter explains, "We've all been there. Sitting in a meeting, praying for it to end while the speaker drones on about something that is apparently important to him, but of no interest to us. It might have been okay if he wasn't so stiff, so stilted, so 'professional.' Caught up in his own world. Lecturing us.

Don't be that guy. I can't say this strongly enough. Just talk with us. The best presenters know this, and that's how they present." (p. 16.)

That last line is the beginning, middle, and end of good public speaking. Coughter adds more bullet points, of course ("be yourself," "tell stories," "know your stuff," etc.) but I think his suggestion to just TALK with the people you present to is never given enough emphasis in other public speaking books.

Sharon Weinberger, The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency that Changed the World. I'm about thirty pages in to this one, and it's interesting, but I'm just not in the mood right now. Already I've learned that DARPA really began with the mission to move America ahead in the space race, and when they lost that mandate shortly after they were formed, they turned to investigating anti-insurgency during the Vietnam War. I'll definitely want to get this one back someday.

Nick Westergaard, Get Scrappy: Smarter Digital Marketing for Businesses Big and Small. I am interested in digital marketing, even though I really have no idea how to do anything digital. I've also always been weirdly interested in marketing from a completely detached viewpoint. I don't really want to DO marketing but I find it a fascinating subject--how do people market and sell to us? How do we sell to others? So I snap up marketing books like I used to snap up dating books--I wasn't any good at dating either but found the whole process interesting from a sociological standpoint. But this book doesn't really seem to offer anything new, and it takes too long to get there. And ever since my eye went wonky this spring, I find myself asking, is this book worth wasting my waning vision on? No? Moving on.

Sophie Kinsella, I've Got Your Number. Total chick-lit fluff, but AWESOME chick-lit fluff, and set in London to boot.  A million times better than her Shopaholic series; many, many thanks to my friend who suggested I read this one.

*Full disclosure: In my experience, this is spot-on. I try to be a good listener, but let's face it, I like to hold forth. For an introverted control freak like myself giving talks and presentations is the most fun thing ever, because I get to interact with people for a useful purpose, and I get to mostly direct the conversation. Ah, that's the sweet spot.


I'm only sorry it took me so long to get around to it.

I really, really enjoyed Helaine Olen's investigative business book, Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry.

I first read about this one ages ago on Savvy Working Gal's blog, and I was immediately attracted by its cover. I wondered a bit about its subject matter; I'll admit I was skeptical that an entire book was necessary to explore the "dark side of the personal finance industry."* That's right. An entire book critiquing not the broader business atmosphere of the U.S., not the entire stock market, not capitalism, but literally critiquing ONLY those finance gurus who are well-known enough to have their own publishing, radio and TV programs, and seminar businesses. Olen began the book with a bang, giving the history of one of the earliest pundits, S. F. (Sylvia) Porter, who wrote financial advice columns and books from the 1930s through the 1970s. But I really started to enjoy myself in Olen's second chapter, on popular money guru Suze Orman:

"If there are any other personal finance gurus who are capable of arousing this much passion, I have not discovered them. Everybody knows Suze, the woman whose personal appearance is in itself nearly a caricature, with the neon-bright jackets, deep tan, big, bright white teeth, and ultrablond, ultrasculpted hair. She winks broadly at her audience, seemingly flirting with them, calling them 'boyfriend' or 'girlfriend' in her over-the-top flat Midwestern accent. Orman has more than half a dozen bestselling books to her credit and a CNBC show, which despite being placed in the Saturday night graveyard hour still gets better ratings than anything in the cable giant's weekday lineup." (p. 28.)

I really enjoyed that, even though, personally, I like watching Suze Orman when I see her programs on PBS pledge drives. It's not so much that I like her financial advice, but I'm interested in public speaking techniques and Suze is nothing if not a MASTER of public speaking.

I'm not doing a great job of describing this book; do click on the link above to Savvy Working Gal's blog, where she gives a much better synopsis of Olen's main points. I will say it took me a while to read this book--it's quite detailed--but in a good way. A great read, particularly if you are oh so tired of hearing TV financial pundits blather on about how we can all save a million dollars by brewing our own coffee at home.

*Not because there isn't enough dark side there, but I thought it might get dull to read about. It did not.


The latest Michael Lewis: Flash Boys

Flash Boys
by Michael Lewis

Powells.com

Here's a shocker: I enjoyed Michael Lewis's latest investigation into financial malfeasance, Flash Boys.

You'd think a book about an acronym as bland as HFT (high frequency trading, as in trading a lot of stocks a million times and very very fast, in order to make money) would not be all that fast-paced. But you would not be reckoning on Michael Lewis: he has, and has always had, a real touch with writing about boring and often very complex financial machinations and making them somewhat comprehendable to people whose eyes tend to go blank when they hear phrases like "trading derivatives."

Lewis first became interested in this subject when he followed the case of Sergey Aleynikov, a Russian computer programmer who worked for Goldman Sachs but, after leaving them to take a new job, was charged with (and convicted of) stealing their proprietary computer code. This led Lewis to investigate exactly how the stock market is manipulated in a multitude of different ways, all day every day, and millions of times a second.

That is not a typo. A microsecond is one-millionth of a second, and it is a unit of time (along with milliseconds and nanoseconds) in which high frequency traders deal. I won't go into all the details--if you want a better synopsis of the book, listen to a brief Michael Lewis interview about it--but I will say I really, really enjoyed it. And it was kind of a hopeful story, for a change: he found some people who were using their smarts to try and plug loopholes and make the market "make sense." Much of the narrative focuses on Brad Katsuyama, a high-level finance professional and Canadian who tried to figure out why the market fluctuations he was seeing didn't make sense, and what I enjoyed most about this book were the descriptions of the smart and different people Katsuyama found to help him understand things like HFT and dark pools. I particularly liked gaining little insights like the fact that there are a lot of Russian programmers in the finance world because Russians have become extremely good at looking for and finding loopholes in systems--simply from living in their country, where it is often necessary to game the system just to get by.

It's not a long book and I was a bit dissatisfied with the ending--I think even Michael Lewis is starting to phone them in a bit--but it was still a good read, and you don't really need much financial background to understand it.


Ah, the fun of a good negative review.

I have always enjoyed good negative book reviews. Either I agree with them and they're fun to read, or I disagree with them and then I have to get the book in question to see for myself. Either way it's a win-win.

For whatever reason, I haven't been finding a lot of nonfiction I love to hate lately (it doesn't help that I barely have time to read nonfiction I'm enjoying). But I did come across this article the other day, in which a reviewer let loose on a personal finance book that they called the "worst personal finance book ever." Go check it out!


All that glitters?

I was SUPER EXCITED to hear about Matthew Hart's new book, Gold: The Race for the World's Most Seductive Metal.

Yes, all caps. I was just that excited. Why, you might ask? It's not like gold is all that scintillating a subject. I'm not even all that fond of gold--yellow gold, that is. (Yes, I'm an autumn, but I still prefer wearing silver and white gold. I'm a fashion daredevil.)

I was super excited because one of the books that started me on my love affair with nonfiction was Matthew Hart's title Diamond: A Journey to the Heart of an Obsession. I loved that book and I'm not even sure why (I don't like diamonds either). One of these days I should re-read it; I just remember that it really grabbed my imagination and I enjoyed Hart's expertise on the subject, and his ability to make the discovery and refinement of diamonds so interesting.

In this book, Hart explores various aspects of this most precious of metals: its history (most often riddled with greed and violence), its role in the Spanish invasion of the Inca, its role in historical and current economies, and its discovery and mining in such locations as South Africa, the U.S., and China. It's an interesting book, and Hart still knows his way around prose:

"Spaniards came well equipped for the larceny of the sixteenth century. They reduced two empires, almost with a blow. They had the cavalier's weapon of mass destruction--Toledo steel. The swords were strong and flexible and the blades could take a razor edge. One good stroke took off a head. A horse and rider in full armor weighed three quarters of a ton. This massive equipage thundered along at twenty miles an hour, concentrating the whole weight on a sharpened steel point at the tip of a ten-foot lance. The Spanish could project such power through advanced technologies in sailing and navigation. And they had a pretext for the conquests they would make: winning souls for God." (p. 25.)

It was a good read. But it was not as good as I was hoping it would be. Part of this might be my distracted reading mind as of late--whenever Hart started discussing monetary policy (which he did a lot--it's a big part of gold as a subject), I just kind of shut down, as trying to understand most monetary policies is just beyond me. What I was looking for, I think, was more discussion on how gold is discovered and mined--if memory serves, Diamond offered a slightly more scientific viewpoint.

Not a bad read, really. But if I wasn't already a nonfiction lover, it wouldn't have been special enough to turn my head.


TBR: Matt Taibbi's The Divide.

Many thanks to the Lesbrarian, Collection Development Librarian Extraordinaire, who has just alerted me to the fact that Matt Taibbi has a new book coming out in April titled The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap.

As you know, I consider Taibbi's writing a mix of awesomeness and speaking truth to power, with just the right spicy piquant of profanity thrown in. I will expect you all to buy or borrow and read this title so we can talk about it here. That is all.


Rose George* does it again.

Last year I read journalist Rose George's fantastic book on poo, titled The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters. I loved it. It was, bar none, one of the best books I read all year.

So I was very excited when my copy of her latest book, Ninety Percent of Everything, came in at the library. The book is about the shipping industry, which George investigated by living: she actually traveled on a container ship, the Maersk Kendal, from Felixstowe (the Kendal is actually a Dutch ship, but George joins its crew from a port in Great Britain) to its final port of call in Singapore. She explains, early on, why this is a subject in which she is fascinated:

"The Maritime Foundation, a charity that promotes seafarer matters, recently made a video called Unreported Ocean. It asked the residents of Southampton, a port city in England, how many goods are transported by sea. The answers were varied but uniformly wrong. They all had the interrogative upswing of the unsure.**

'Thirty-five percent?'

'Not a lot?'

The answer is, nearly everything. Sometimes on trains I play a numbers game. A woman listening to headphones: 8. A man reading a book: 15. The child in the stroller: at least 4 including the stroller. The game is to reckon how many of our clothes and possessions and food products have been transported by ship..." (p. 3.)

I love that George is out there in the world, thinking and writing about shipping for us, because who else would have the time or the necessary drive to travel on a huge container ship? One that may or may not be boarded by pirates at some point along its route? (The chapters on piracy, by the way, are fascinating and horrifying in equal measures.)

It's a good book; do check it out. I'll confess it wasn't quite what I expected--I was thinking George would take a somewhat broader view of the entire shipping industry, rather than framing many of her chapters around her travels on the one ship, but the more I read the more I enjoyed her approach. Of particular note is the very human face she puts on the ship's crew members and captain, as well as the individuals worldwide who seek to offer charitable services and help to such workers (which is necessary, because people working in the shipping industry, as you might guess, are not treated very well or paid very much).

You can also read a lengthy excerpt of the book at the NPR website. Try that and I'll bet you'll be hooked!

*By the way, I totally want a cool name like "Rose George." I love the succinctness of it.

**For whatever reason I love this sentence. Beautifully written stuff.


The serendipity of finding titles, part two.

If you'll remember, yesterday I wrote about my lazy person's way of stumbling upon a wide variety of titles that I want to read in my library's catalog. The books in question were Wisdom of the Last Farmer: Harvesting Legacies from the Land (by David Mas Masumoto), and Harvesting the Bay: Fathers, Sons and the Last of the Wild Shellfishermen (by Ray Huling).

I really wanted to read it, but I didn't actually get the chance to start the Masumoto book before it had to go back to the library. Instead, for whatever reason, I picked up the second book (Harvesting the Bay) one night when I couldn't sleep. Ray Huling's investigative memoir about the shellfishermen on Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay (quahoggers) is a mix of work/job reporting and sociological history combined with personal memoir (as Huling comes from a long line of such shellfishermen). I came to think of it as "Studs Terkel meets Michael Perry."

I really liked Huling's personal insight into a job I'd never heard anything about. And a lot of what he had to say eerily echoed my own personal experience as the daughter of a farmer (another labor-intensive, singular profession):

"My father and grandfather also trained me to regret the loss of large numbers of hours to work, another dissuasion from my professional activities. One of the great attractions of quahogging is the trade-off it provides: You work hard so you don't have to work a lot. There's an adage for this: Quahoggers ain't lazy, but they don't want to work. This is something they say about themselves. It's an idea virtually unknown to the community of people outside the quahogging fold. The sentiment resides in me, but I am no quahogger, which, again, leaves me ill-prepared for the wonderful opportunities afforded me by a life of mental labor. This doesn't mean that I myself am motivated to do the right thing. I am caught between the bullraker and the world he righteously derides. If my position were grander, it would be tragic: I have all of the bullraker's scorn and none of his discipline." (p. 36.)

I really enjoyed that. I've never been very good at office or full-time professional work, and I always thought at least part of that was my upbringing on the farm. I never had any patience for meetings or any work that seemed more like "make work" than actually producing anything of value (like food).

Huling also had interesting things to say on the broader economic and social impact of the profession of shellfishing:

"On the national level, the proper action is so clear and obvious as to be banal: universal, single-payer health care. Sustainable food relies on people who perform hard manual labor, and the society that benefits from their suffering should do its best to alleviate it in the most direct way. Mike McGiveney wasn't kidding when he said that the cost of health care drove quahoggers off the water. The rising cost of insurance, insurance companies' pernicious attempts to deny care at every opportunity, and the willingness of health-care professionals to abet the insurance companies convinced many guys that the very communities they had helped to feed would throw them to the wolves once their bodies gave out after years of toil." (p. 265.)

As you can see from the text snippets I've provided, this is not narrative-driven writing that you just fly through. It's more along the lines of Wendell Berry writing, where you have to read a little bit and then take a break to digest it. At times it's a bit dry, a bit too technical about how quahogging works, but overall it's a fascinating, fascinating read. Consider checking it out.


Aging with Leonardo DiCaprio.

I've really turned a corner on Leonardo DiCaprio.

Wait a minute: I can relate this to nonfiction, I promise.

I always really enjoyed DiCaprio as an actor, and although his look was not particularly for me, I did always think he was quite the cutie (especially in favorite films of mine, like "Romeo + Juliet"). And then one day, it was like he grew up. All of a sudden. And into this rather broad man with a goatee who I didn't think was cute at all. So for years I was rather meh on him, and I was definitely too lazy to see (and try to figure out) Inception, although Mr. CR liked that movie.

And then I saw The Great Gatsby. Which was no real great shakes as a movie. But I thought DiCaprio really hit his role out of the park. He gave me the same feeling that I get watching Brad Pitt--you're always aware its Brad Pitt, and yet he really manages to disappear into the role he's playing. I was never not aware it wasn't DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby, but he WAS Jay Gatsby.

LeoAnd this week he arrived in my home, on the cover of my New York magazine. And although I still hate his goatee, I must say: he looks good. And I thought, huh, I've come to appreciate Leonardo, all grown up. And then I read that he's just a few months younger than me, and I thought, huh again, Leo and I have grown up together. Funny. And the article was interesting. And here's how I can relate it to nonfiction: this fall he'll be starring in a movie he helped finance, based on a nonfiction memoir titled The Wolf of Wall Street. Don't know that I'll be able to go see it (and it looks almost too depressing, if funny, to stand), but here's the trailer, if you're interested. Seems particularly and ironically appropriate a story to talk about, on Labor Day weekend. Hope you have a good one.


A bit more about George Packer's The Unwinding.

I felt very unfulfilled by what I wrote yesterday about George Packer's book The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. I feel I am not giving you the flavor of the book, or explaining why I couldn't seem to put it down, even though it was a downer.

One thing I would like to say that I particularly appreciated in Packer's choice of interviewees and subjects was his choosing Americans from all over the spectrum: from the factory worker to the political operative to Peter Thiel and other Silicon Valley luminaries. In fact, the Peter Thiel/Silicon Valley parts of the book were the ones I found the most informative. This sounds terrible to say, but I've now read so many books about the loss of our manufacturing base, failing heartland cities (Detroit among them), and working-class woes that none of the narratives from those perspectives particularly surprised me or provided new knowledge. But many of the points-of-view and ideas given by Thiel, the PayPal billionaire, were quite interesting (although Thiel in general gave me the super-heebies, also making him a fascinating character):

"At Cafe Venetia in downtown Palo Alto...Thiel pulled an iPhone out of his jeans pocket and said, 'I don't consider this to be a technological breakthrough.'

Compared to the Apollo space program or the supersonic jet, a smartphone looked small. In the forty years leading up to 1973, there had been huge technological advances, and wages had increased sixfold. Since then, Americans beguiled by mere gadgetry had forgotten how expansive progress could be...

The information age arrived on schedule, but without the utopia. Cars, trains, and planes were not much better than they had been in 1973.* The rising price of oil and food showed a complete failure to develop energy and agriculture technology. Computers didn't create enough jobs to sustain the middle class, didn't produce revolutionary improvements in manufacturing and productivity, didn't raise living standards across classes. Thiel had come to think that the Internet was a 'net plus, but not a big one.' Apple was mostly a 'design innovator.' Twitter would give job security to five hundred people for the next decade, 'but how much value does it create for the entire economy?' Facebook, which had made Thiel a billionaire, was 'on balance positive,' because it was radical enough to have been banned in China. But that was all he would say for the celebrated era of social media. All the companies he invested in probably employed fewer than fifteen thousand people." (p. 383.)

There is a LOT to unpack in just those few paragraphs, and a lot to think about. I suspect that's why this book took me so long to read, even though it's quite readable--there's a lot of paragraphs like that, that you almost have to take the time to digest.

There. I feel I've done the book more credit now.

*I might also point out there are similar problems in health care, since I've read several times in the past months about how the maternal death rate from childbirth is now higher than it was in 1978.


Are we unwinding?

When I got George Packer's The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America from the library, I'm pretty sure I started reading it that night--I was very excited to see it, as I am a fan of George Packer's. When I started it, I did have difficulty putting it down, but since I finished it, it's been sitting on my night table while I try to think what to say about it.

I don't really know what to say about it.

Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker, and I get the feeling he's got a pretty good grasp on most issues of American economics and culture. In this book, he chooses not to write a straightforward journalistic investigation of such topics as the loss of America's manufacturing base, the problems of our political systems, and many more, but rather gives the reader a picture of them by interweaving several character portraits. The individuals whose stories he tells through the narrative are Dean Price (an idealistic and optimistic entrepreneur of the type typically presented as the type that will "save our country" with their entrepreneurial drive); Jeff Connaughton (a longtime political operative); Tammy Thomas (an Ohio woman whose town and economic situation keeps worsening due to lost jobs and dropping wages); and Peter Thiel (the Silicon Valley billionaire who founded PayPal). In between he also provides short chapters briefly sketching the biographical details of such American luminaries as Newt Gingrich, Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell, Robert Rubin, and many others.

It's an interesting way to provide a snapshot of America. Typically I prefer a more straightforward piece of nonfiction, like Matt Taibbi's Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the Most Audacious Power Grab in American History, but there's no denying that this type of investigative storytelling makes for fascinating (if sad) reading as well. What surprised me a little bit was how long it took me to read the book--you don't feel like it's taking a long time while you read, and the stories are all character-based and move right along, but you can feel the depth of detail, research, and work behind Packer's writing. It really is, to put it as simply as possible, a somewhat amazing book. Depressing, of course, because it left me with the feeling of, well, what can we possibly do now?, and because (as some critics have charged, conservative David Brooks among them) Packer doesn't really provide any overarching statements or analysis. Normally I like some overall theme or structure myself, but this book works better without it. For lack of a better description, it drops you right in there with Americans facing a future that does not appear to be getting brighter. In some ways it reminded me of Joe Bageant's excellent Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War. In other ways it reminded me of Chris Hedges's Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, although I think this was a stronger book because Packer doesn't rely on overblown rhetoric as much as Hedges does (and he also doesn't present the Occupy movement as any kind of great hope for future change). 

This has been a dry review; sorry about that. I was actually a little stunned by this book, and I'd suggest giving it a try, but don't read it at bedtime. It's not relaxing. (And if you're going to read any of the review links below, go for the Christian Science Monitor one--it includes a great interview with Packer.)

Other reviews: The Guardian | Christian Science Monitor | Huffington Post


Downer Book Week: Down the Up Escalator

I know, I know, you're starting to feel a little down just reading these reviews, aren't you? Well, hang in, we're getting through the week.

Barbara Garson's Down the Up Escalator: How the 99 Percent Live in the Great Recession was a book I saw on many "forthcoming books" nonfiction lists earlier this spring, and the title intrigued me enough so that I put a hold on it at the library. Then I heard the author speak on public radio, and while I didn't hear the entire program, I liked her point that we are thinking of our current financial situation in America all wrong--most peole date our financial "crisis" to 2008, while Garson posits that things have really not been that great (particularly for working stiffs) for a lot longer than that, back even to the late 1970s. The book is divided into three segments representing our financial lives: Our Jobs, Our Homes, and Our Savings.

And of course nothing here is that big a surprise either (at least, not if you're a downer book addict like me):

--"By the fall of 2010 there were fourteen million officially unemployed Americans--40 percent of them classified as the long-term unemployed. An additional ten million were working part-time but said they wanted full-time jobs. Fifteen million more had dropped out of the labor force since this recession began." (p. 46.)

--"California was the Wild West of mortgage innovation. Nine out of the top ten subprime lenders were based in California before the crash, and so were most of the top ten mortgage banks that failed. California has 12 percent of the U.S. population, but between 2005 and 2007 more than 56 percent of America's subprime mortgages originated in California..." (p. 149.)

But this is a book that's more about personal stories and analysis than a recitation of numbers. Consider this exchange between Garson and one of her interview subjects:

--"'What am I looking at here in Evansville?' I asked the lean fifty-year-old [Charles Whobrey, president of the local Teamster union] as he led us into his cubbyhole of an office. 'How could a town have gotten this depressed since Lehman Brothers collapsed?'

''You're not looking at the effects of just this recession,' he asserted. 'So many people here survive paycheck to paycheck, obviously living beyond their means, that when something like this hits...well, let me go back.

'I started working for the union in 1981...I started in March, and not a month later President Reagan fired the air traffic controllers. Permanently fired the strikers. That doesn't happen much in American history. Killing PATCO [the air traffic controllers' union] sent the signal to business--as it was supposed to--that it was okay to get rid of the unions. 'Uh-oh,' I said, 'I have the knack for gettin' involved right when the wheel's going into the mud.'"

And with unions went wages..." (p. 82.)

It's kind of a strange read. Garson does not, for the most part, provide really shocking details of homelessness or utter destitution. What she DOES provide is a rather unnerving portrait of an increasingly large group of people finding it a bit tougher, every single day, to keep and find jobs, to keep making their house payments, to stay out of debt after experiencing a health setback, to have anything for retirement; in other words, pretty much everyone's growing daily monetary struggles.

I have read other similar books that I liked somewhat better: Richard Longworth's Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism, for instance, or even Louis Uchitelle's The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences, which was published before 2008 and was therefore all the more prescient. But I did enjoy Garson's viewpoint, and I'd never heard of her before, so now I may look into some of her earlier books (including Electronic Sweatshop and All the Livelong Day: The Meaning and Demeaning of Routine Work).


Downer Book Week: End of the Good Life

I know. You read a book with a title like End of the Good Life: How the Financial Crisis Threatens a Lost Generation--And What We Can Do about It, what do you expect it to be, except a downer?

Froymovich, herself a member of the Millennial generation, describes many of the economic factors that are currently working against those born between the years of the late 1970s and early 2000s. Among them are governmental austerity measures, uncertain global economics, higher unemployment rates and a poor job market, and rising education and student loan costs.

She does not paint a very optimistic picture.

Again, nothing in this book particularly surprised me: I've seen for myself and know many others who have found the job market to be tough going for the last few years. (Generation X hasn't exactly been raking in the dough either.) And it was definitely not a very "narrative" read; Froymovich interviewed lots of people and there are, therefore, many personal stories and insights throughout her book, but overall it has a definite "wonky" feel--heavy on the numbers and economic policy facts--but that was definitely part of why I found it such an informative read.

So what has been contributing to the loss of the American (and, to an extent, European) dream? Things like:

--"From 1990 to 2010, tuition and fees at public four-year universities more than doubled and the prices of two-year colleges climbed by 71 percent, while median household income rose just 2 percent." (p. 37.)

--"Since the crisis [of 2008], a quarter of young adults reported delaying marriage and about one-third have delayed starting a family." (p. 39.)

There's many more facts here than those, and the author offers a surprisingly global look at these challenges (and the political short-term thinking and austerity plans that continue to make a bad situation worse), but unfortunately I was an idiot and didn't bookmark many of the passages I found interesting.

One aspect of the book in which I was disappointed was its lack of better suggestions for the future or concrete ideas for improving one's own personal lot. And when such suggestions were made, they seemed to focus largely on the need for Generation Yers to "become entrepreneurs."* Consider this, as one of her positive case examples:

"Dollar Shave Club is another one of those great ideas. Cofounded in 2012 by Michael Dubin, just 33 years old, the company offers a subscription plan and delivery service for basic razor blades for men's grooming. Shaving supplies are often expensive, and men have to remember to restock regularly...Depending on the plan a customer chooses, the program costs just $3 to $9 a month, compared to fancy razors bought in a store that can cost more than $12 for the handle alone and $20 for a four-pack of refill cartridges. Dollar Shave Club can undercut the competition by cutting out the middleman--stores. It operates solely online. The company hired manufacturers in China and South Korea to make their blades cheaply." (p. 193.)

If you want to take a global view on that, how does it help the young people in China and South Korea?

So the ending annoyed me. But the rest of the book? I didn't think I was going to stick with it, and yet I did. And it provided a different look at current economic and political policy, which I appreciated.

*This line of thinking always pisses me off. First and foremost: not everyone wants to become an entrepreneur, for chrissake, and not everyone should have to become one. Also, there is increasingly NO POSSIBLE FRICKING WAY to cover your health insurance or health costs as an entrepreneur (unless you are one of the entrepreneurs who turns out to be, you know, Mark Zuckerberg, or someone like that). Take it from a freelancer: one of the only ways to make it as a freelancer is to marry some other poor sap who has a health insurance plan you can join.


Back in the reading saddle.

I realized the other day that I have a different book going in every room of the house (and one in my backpack), and it feels really, really...good. It feels like I am getting back to myself again, reading-wise.

So what's going on where? Details to follow, but in the bathroom I have a novel by a British author I've always enjoyed, in the bedroom is a book on how Generation Y is getting royally screwed, economically speaking (nice light bedtime reading, dontcha know), in my bag is a memoir that I'm not quite sure about but am going to stick with anyway, in the living room is a somewhat depressing book (book info toward the bottom of that post) that I've had to take a small pause from, and in the kitchen waits a book I started a few weeks back and really must get back to, because it is fascinating. Oh, and how could I forget a book about books, which, interestingly enough, has a chapter about being in the middle of too many books (and which roves around as I carry it from room to room and outside)? Add to that some books on gardening (every year in spring I read about gardening, rather than actually gardening) and some on toilet training (although, sadly, neither CRjr nor I are too interested), and you have a full reading slate.

It's lovely.


Looking for a few good business book reviewers.

I still periodically review books for Library Journal, and in with my last book they included this message:

"I need more reviewers with a strong grounding in business, able to take on a variety of books covering topics across the range of economics, whether it's exploring American capitalism, or the domestic and global impacts/causes of the Great Recession, investigating small business profiles and leadership models, or considering a biography of Warren Buffett!

If you have colleagues who may be interested in becoming a reviewer in such subject areas, please ask them to email me: Annalisa Pesek, at apesek@mediasourceinc.com."

Just thought I'd pass that along. You don't get paid for your reviews, but the business books aren't all that demanding, and it can be a nice credit for your skills list if you're looking for that sort of thing. Plus, sometimes you get real stinker books, but a lot of the business books I've read for LJ have been quite interesting.


I at least like my manifestos to be helpful.

I was thoroughly annoyed by Charles J. Selden's The Consumerist Manifesto Handbook: The Guerilla's Guide to Making Corporations Pay for Faulty Goods, Substandard Services, and Broken Promises.

ManifestoAlthough I don't really have the energy to become a "consumer guerrilla," I do largely agree with the author that most corporations are out to make cheap, sell high, and by no means to provide anything approximating decent customer service. Largely I deal with this belief by striving not to buy anything I don't have to, but invariably, there are things a person needs.* And because I am the world's worst shopper, I somehow always manage (I feel) to get taken advantage of. So I thought this would be a handy little book for learning a few techniques for making complaints and actually getting them resolved.

Sadly: not so. Selden spends most of his book describing ways in which corporations take advantage of consumers (through various methods such as rushing goods to market; accepting a certain number of defects in their products because they'll make more money off them than they'll have to spend in resolving complaints; quality fade; customer disservice; etc.). Yeah, you're preaching to the choir here, Selden, I already KNOW that's what corporations are doing. I'm not saying a little background isn't helpful, but this is all old news for anyone who has bought any consumer goods in the past ten years.

Selden is also very good at relating stories about what a clever consumer guerrilla he is, most of which I just found obnoxious. Consider:"When I buy a prepackaged bag of food labeled fresh, I put any suspicious pieces--in their original containers--in the Returns Area of our pantry...Going to the minor trouble of retaining a couple of potatoes from a 5-pound bag, or even a couple of berries from a 1-pound box, nets me refunds for the entire container. Food retailers charge more for food because it is labeled 'fresh,' reason enough to raise consumerist expectations. Every potato and every berry had better be good--and fresh--or I'll expect a refund for the whole package--even if the majority was consumed." (p. 42.)

Now, that paragraph raises all sorts of questions. Were the majority of the foods they consumed actually "fresh" enough to meet their expectations, with one or two truly offending potatoes or berries really being "unfresh," or was the author just pulling a fast one, getting a refund for food already eaten?**

Later on the author discusses his wife's predilection for fancy-name clothes from Bergdorf Goodman***, and how he bought her a Barbara Bui suit on sale for $370 (marked down from $1,850), mailing it back to BG after ten months because its "feathery lapels" had started to lose feathers, and asking for an explanation or replacement. When they didn't hear back for a month, they called BG, who could confirm they had received the suit back but couldn't find it. Eventually BG offered to compensate them for losing the suit, asking them what they paid for it originally. The author's answer? The truthful (but again: dicey morally?) gambit, "I think it sold for around $1,800." BG offered a credit of $1,250, and the author took it, making $880 off a suit his wife wore for ten months.

I don't know what you think about that, but I'll tell you what I think: Gross. 

A greater problem with the book is that, although you may pick up some consumerist tips buried in the author's self-congratulating stories, the actual section on how to deal successfully with corporations that have you screwed you over only constitutes about twenty pages of the book (pages 155 through 172). It contains some not unhelfpul suggestions: have a couple of credit cards ready to use so you can always dispute charges on one or the other, document your purchases, write letters and find company officer names and phone numbers so you can call them at times amenable to you, not them, and so on. The appendix listing online resources is also not unhelpful.

But all in all: start your consumer guerrilla career by not spending the $14.95 on this book.

*The other day Mr. CR said to me, "hey, you have a big tear in your shorts, in a fairly obvious spot" (meaning, "I can see your underwear, and I don't want to, and neither do our neighbors"). And I said, "Oh NO...this is my one pair of shorts!" I can only hope that hot weather doesn't return any time soon.

**I get his larger point. Corporations shouldn't charge a premium for "freshness" if they can't back it up. But this is a level of semantics--and deliberations with front-line grocery store workers--to which I am simply too lazy to go. And I remember what I used to think of shoppers who came back to my farmers' market stand, demanding refunds for my produce that they'd eaten. It was not kind.

***How hilarious is that? Even when such "name" merchandise is on sale, talk about "made-up" value, that consumers impose upon themselves. I don't think you can blame companies for that one.


Tuesday Article: The real problem with the economy.

I really enjoy reading the Christian Science Monitor online, although it's typically depressing as hell.

I found this article (written by Robert Reich) on one of the biggest problems in our economy echoed what I've been thinking for years but could never verbalize so well. If you don't have time to read the whole article, here's one of my favorite paragraphs out of it:

"The crisis of American capitalism marks the triumph of consumers and investors over workers and citizens. And since most of us occupy all four roles – even though the lion’s share of consuming and investing is done by the wealthy – the real crisis centers on the increasing efficiency by which all of us as consumers and investors can get great deals, and our declining capacity to be heard as workers and citizens."

Incidentally, speaking of deals (or things that are not deals), someone posted yesterday on my post from a million years ago about Melissa & Doug products being crap. I share the comment here in its entirety because I will not rest, people, until all of you stop buying Melissa & Doug products. Thank you.

"Heh! I submitted a one-star review of a dreadful M&D product we were given -- a $35 set of dollar-store craft supplies with 'washable' paint that permanently trashed an easel, table, a bit of the floor, and so much clothing I have difficulty thinking about it, before I realised 'washable' was not 'washable.' The review was never posted. I got an e-mail from "Lisa" thanking me for my "e-mail" with an invitation to call her during [rather restricted times]. I wrote back to say I appreciated the response, but was extremely pressed for time and was not going to have time to make a phone call anytime soon; could she please address this in e-mail? Of course I didn't hear back, and of course my review simply didn't make it on the site. melissaanddoug.com is littered with enthusiastic four and five star reviews; I haven't been able to find any poor ratings or reviews. Apparently they are all simply trashed as mine was, perhaps with a half-hearted attempt at contact from "Lisa." At least the paint disaster was bad enough for me to be rude enough to finally ask the person who had been buying us all the M&D stuff to please stop..."

Thanks for the comment, K.