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August 9, 2013

very recent history

You know, all I really wanted was to read Choire Sicha's book. A couple weeks ago I realized that the book, Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City was coming out soon, and gosh would I like to get my hands on a copy. "Realized." Actually Twitter was on fire with all sorts of people yammering on and on about "Choire's book" and not being able to put it down—being physically unable to release it from their grasp—and then unfollowing anyone that did not respond that they, too, were in some sort of Choire/book-induced euphoria resulting in physical disability. I didn't want to get unfollowed. I wanted to experience that peculiar discomfort. But I did not have a copy of the book. How to get one before it was actually released?

Resolution: review it! Duh. So I asked an editor of a website if that would be something worth running (they said sure) [at least initially, ha ha ha ow.], contacted the publicist for a review copy (he said sure), and bingo! There I was, holding a copy of this very handsome book, all green and purple, just like the Incredible Hulk! But then the doubts started. Book reviewing hadn't been so much my thing, well, ever. Maybe in high school? No, those were book reports. But it couldn't be that difficult, and even if it was, a small price to get to read Sicha's book.

But then I started thinking about the full disclosures. First one: (FD: I will refer to Choire Sicha as "Sicha" in accordance with general journalistic style, though he is someone generally referred to simply as "Choire" or some misspelling thereof.) I realized that, full disclosures? I had a few. Such as the primary, problematic one. (FD: I have written for the site Sicha is the co-proprietor of, The Awl, on more than one occasion.) Actually pretty problematic. (FD: Actually, like, a lot more than one occasion. And I have been compensated for some of these writings.) Maybe workable? (FD: No, I won't tell you how much, mind your manners.) No, very problematic. (FD: Sicha has edited about a third of the pieces I've written, and he's never been anything but a dream to write for. And I'd like to continue to do so.)

I sought expert advice. I emailed a pal who has long been writing book reviews, real ones, asking if there was some standard protocol in this sort of situation. To (wildly) paraphrase the reply: "I would never ever ever, under any circumstance, even consider the possibility of reviewing a book written by a friend, or even an admired associate. For example, I've had Choire's [Sicha's] book for a couple years now, and I would never dream of reviewing it, even under a pseudonym." For a couple years? OUCH! (FD: Since making the acquaintance of Sicha, my use of both all-caps and exclamation points in personal communication has increased drastically.) Plus also, I probably shouldn't be reviewing VRH, then, should I?

Well, there's always the writearound, as they call it. (FD: Most of what I have learned about publishing I learned from Sicha.) You know, just do the thing you're not supposed to be doing in a way that you can't be accused and/or clobbered for having done the thing you're not supposed to be doing. That's not really what a writearound is, but for these purposes, etc., etc.

In the meantime, I had the freaking book, so I might as well read it, right? Maybe you'd like to know a few things about it. (FD: I actually have communicated with Sicha concerning the contents of VRH, which communication I initiated even though all those warning bells were going on in my head. I'm an ass.) Bullet points!

- The basic structure of the book is that this very awesome narrator prefaces the sections of the book, in italics, explaining the City to the reader, as if the reader was from the distant future, or the distant past, if not a different planet entirely. In the in-between (and the preponderance is in between), it is the account of an affinity group of men, late-20ish, in this City. And by the City, don't think Green Bay or Charlotte or Seattle, but something like Manhattan and where those that work in Manhattan choose to live. Also not Staten Island, also not Riverdale. Those could be part of the City, but City as far as the dreamlife of the world for a century, and for the purposes of the book.

- OMG, the purposes of the book. You could drop this hot nugget into the hands of a supergenius reader outside of the context of the past couple years of NYC, and they'd run it up the flagpole of smart fiction, and rightfully so. But it is not fiction (according to the author, if that is in fact his name, etc.); it is a factual account. Obviously, the narration about the City and the Mayor is entirely factual and verifiable, but as breezy as is the account of the protagonist, John, and the other people who swirl into a supporting cast whose names you have to flip back to recapture—his friends, co-workers, lovers/sex partners, largely—it is, according to the author, reportage.

- It's a curious little construct of a book, and not for the reasons in the immediately previous point. Focus swoops, in then out, micro then macro. It's not entirely consistent (sometimes the omniscience bleeds into the everyday), but whose narrator ever played by all the rules. One second the Narrator is explaining how student loans work, and then you blink and we've breezed into a bar called Boiler Room with John and the boys cadging smokes and making out and acting like people act at that age in that circumstance. It is sometimes dizzying, but dizzying is just another word for breath-taking, in some contexts.

- Sicha has already told us what VRH is about:

My shortsightedness in general is that I am over-obsessed with the commercial systems of our time, not that I'm very good with engaging with them except as an observer. It seems clear to me that money is a game. In New York, especially, money gets passed around for little coherent reason. I am always seeing those paths--paths I have watched people (writers and painters and lawyers and everyone else) take over and over again--that are forged with some canny choices and some elbow grease that results in, at least, a short-term windfall. And then I like ignoring the obvious lessons.

To that end, yes, much of the book is about commercial transactions, though interestingly enough, much is discussed of having a job, and little to nothing is mentioned of doing a job. Plus also there's a ton of emotional/sexual transactions in there to. Authors get to say what their book is about, but ultimately the reader decides, which is scary.

- It's possible to think of the book as a little puzzle of figuring out who the innocents protected by the changed names, but it's best to leave those little mysteries, who the characters are, where the knives go in, to the reader, some of whom may or may not be portrayed. But the name-changing discretion is not shared with the powerful, who are rarely named by name—once though, when Leona Helmsley and Brooke Astor] are cited by in conversation between characters, the narrator reminds us, "These were the names of rich people they didn't really know""—but are named (and skewered) in spirit. Particularly Mayor Whatever-His-Name.

- The book arrives at a conclusion concerning the social fabric of youngsters and not-so-youngsters in the city, a conclusion which I will withhold in the interest of not spoiling the book for you, and two hours after I read it (finished it first thing in the AM), on the way to work, it hit me, in the way that things hit you, and your eyebrows peak and your invisible hat pops up off your head a good three feet: that same thing the Sicha pulls out of his/"his" year 2009 is a thing that happened to me, a while back, but I didn't have a word for it, or even realize what it was. Of all the other things the book is, a snapshot, a fable, it's also a proof-of-concept for the benefit of gentle hindsight and the eurekas that arise therefrom.

So those are the facts, or at least the facts with as much subjectivity lopped off as I could manage.

Well, except for the invisible elephant in the room: Sicha. (FD: Actually, if you ask me, and we've only met a few times and I don't know when his birthday is or anything, Sicha is a swell guy, which of course means that I have spent time worrying about whether he thinks the same of me.) Sicha has achieved a sweet little niche of celebrity in certain circles, such as the circles that would peruse this website. [Well, not this website, but, you know, ha ha ha ow.] (FD: I, and you, may be a member of these circles and not even know it.) Sicha is respected. Hell, Sicha has fans, fans who have followed him from Gawker to other jobs then back to Gawker and then other jobs and finally at The Awl, with Alex Balk. (FD: Balk has not yet written a book like this?) It's hard to separate the admiration that you have for someone (like Sicha) from a book that they have written (like VRH). This may well end up being one of the topics of the thousands of words of interviews/reviews/thinkpieces that have been published in the past week, and slotted to be published soon. (FD: I've refrained from reading all of them, and will have a busy night the day this is published.) I wonder what everyone thinks?

Ultimately, I can't tell you whether or not you should buy this book, or whether it's "for you," or if it should be included in those lists of books that indicate merit in some lasting fashion. (FD: I like it very very much, and would probably advise friends to purchase it, but to be honest, I would probably do the same had I read it or not.) But I can say this: it is now commercially available (though Amazon's stock is already depleted? Support your local bookstore), and will be widely read, and many conversations about life and jobs and the City (and Sicha) will arise from it.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:50 AM

August 7, 2013

blodget, making friends on the street

Yeah, I'm back on Henry Blodget again, but the fellow is making sense in a fashion that you do not see very often these days:
These days, if you suggest that great companies should serve several constituencies (customers, employees, and shareholders) and that American companies should share more of their wealth with the people of generate it (employees), you get called a "socialist." You get called a "liberal." You get told that you "don't understand economics." You get accused of promoting "wealth confiscation." You get told that, in America, people get paid exactly what they deserve to get paid: Anyone who wants to get paid more should go out and "start their own company" or "demand a raise" or "get a better job."

It's a piece entitled "Companies Need To Pay Employees More," and it is so tempting just to post the entire thing.

This view, unfortunately, is not just selfish and demeaning. It's also economically stupid. Those "costs" you are minimizing (employees) are also current and prospective customers for your company and other companies. And the less money they have, the fewer products and services they are going to buy.

The Reagan Era brought with it some ideological drift that totally redefined sound business principals.  Combine that with the temptations of the global economy (want to read something that will set your hair on fire? try this piece on Li & Fung), and you get the current New Gilded Age where contracts are only enforceable when they benefit the employer, and Soylent Green is no longer the distant future but an aspiration.

Blodget may well be writing the same essay over and over again, but, hey, it works for Paul Krugman, right?

Posted by mrbrent at 10:58 AM

the genius of reince preibus (does that rhyme? how to find out?)

So now RNC Chairman Reince Preibus has come out swinging against NBC and CNN (note that both have Ns in them, just like MSNBC — makes you wonder!), as they have both scheduled movie projects based on the life of Hillary Clinton.  This is not fair, says Preibus, because she's probably running for president and it will amount to free publicity!

That's not the craziest argument.  Clinton has not declared yet, so this is not an issue for the Federal Election Commission, but, even though his argument boils down to it not being fair that Democrats have a candidate worth making a movie about, it is not unreasonable to allege favoritism.

But, being Reince Preibus, he does not stop there — no, he has threatened each of NBC and CNN to punish them by withholding Republican primary presidential debates from them.

Now I have no idea if those debates are a ratings juggernaut, but I do know that the primary debates for 2012 were an unmitigated disaster for Mitt Romney and the party in general.  There were like twenty or thirty of them, which gave the Anybody But Romney crowd time to cycle through the entire field as alternatives.  But even worse, many of these debates were held in decidedly conservative venues, which gave the entire country the chance to point and stare at knuckle-draggers who don't believe in contraception, or who boo war veterans.  It wasn't just terrible for Romney, it was the absolute worst marketing for the GOP imaginable.

So to threaten to cancel two debates that would be actually mainstream, no Gadsen flags, no militiamen, etc.?  Jeez, I guess do it if you have to, Priebus.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:12 AM

August 6, 2013

the guns of pennsylvania

Remember that funny story a couple weeks ago about that police chief in the middle of Pennsylvania who kept making these funny videos about shooting photos of Nancy Pelosi and saying a lot of funny swear words and funny Tea Party/militia sorts of things about shooting "libtards," whatever those are?  And then how the town government suspended him a month without pay?  And we were all like, that's funny!

Sorry, not so funny.  At the meeting at which the chief's suspension was determined:

"He was able to stand up above the crowd and blaze a separate path," John Zangaro, director of Operation Constitution, said of [Chief Mark] Kessler's attention-grabbing video odes to the Second Amendment.

As for all the profanity, the shooting and the verbal zings of prominent national Democrats, Zangaro defended Kessler, saying that he only "started getting louder and desperate" when gun rights were threatened.

Many in the gun-toting crowd, which seemed to out-number the considerable media and the sparse towns folk, seemed to agree. Some bearing arms said they were there to protect Kessler, who has claimed to have received multiple death threats in wake of the Internet firestorm. Some said they were providing "security" for the meeting.

When it came time to open the small borough building for the public meeting, these armed men blocked the doors and prevented people from going inside.

That sounds bad, right?

A State Police helicopter was spotted hovering over the borough building as he gun-carrying crowd gathered, but there was no police presence at the scene.

Hey, that sounds worse!

And were you to drive less than 60 miles to the east, say up 209 through Jim Thorpe, you'd arrive in Saylorburg, just above the Appalachian Trail, where last night three people were shot to death by an aggrieved property owner at a township meeting.

Connection between the two?  Of course not.  Other than sixty miles and assholes with firearms, what could be in common?

Posted by mrbrent at 10:17 AM

August 5, 2013

blodget: we need unions

This came in late last week, but it is important.  Henry Blodget, the E-i-C of Business Insider with whom I am for some reason fascinated, has come out for labor unions.

Oh, there's probably no need for you to go read it — BI can be a bit herky-jerky, for one, and Blodget's endorsement of unions is preceded by his somewhat predictable explanation of Why Unions Suck.  They are management-heavy, they are intractable, they are seniority-based, etc.  You may have heard that before, from everywhere.  But, Blodget grits his teeth, grins and bears it:

Like many religions, the "shareholder value" religion started well: In the 1980s, American companies were bloated and lethargic, and senior management pay was so detached from performance that shareholders were an afterthought.

But now the pendulum has swung too far the other way. Now, it's all about stock performance--to the point where even good companies are now quietly shafting other constituencies that should benefit from their existence.

Most notably: Rank and file employees.

Blodget points out that real wages are depressed while corporate earnings (and executive compensation, BTW) are skyrocketing, which is confusing because the consumer consumption that should be fueling corporate profits just isn't there, as this consumption is the result of workers having enough money to spend.  And, as he notes that historically income inequality has an inverse relationship with union membership, maybe increased union membership would come to the rescue.

This is really neat, because as much as Blodget admittedly hates unions, he is underscoring the primary reason that they must exist: without some protection, capital will crush labor like a bug.  Capital has no reason to have a concern for the welfare of the employee, and if they could get away with paying not a red penny, they would (or do).

Blodget sees this, gently, as a failure of the business entities to plan for the long-term, and instead being obsessed with the short term.  That's sweet.  I see it as a failure of design in the system.  Business entities are blind to such discrete concepts.  The work force is nothing but an expense to be lowered at any cost.  Without the ability to bargain collectively, the individual worker, whether low-skilled or high-skilled, is living in a modern recreation of the Gilded Age.

So good on Blodget, being right for the wrong reason.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:21 AM