Factory Man (Macy)

For a book that is at least in some part about labeling, it is kind of stunning that the subtitle – How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local – and Helped Save an American Town – is so very wrong. Granted, it reflects the most interesting part of the book, but it is, at most, a third of it. Much time, too much time, is spent in covering the very much intertwined history of the Bassett Furniture Company. The family tree is next to impossible to follow, and at some point, I just stopped caring. This section could be summed up as such —

The Bassett Company has been around a while in the same place and has evolved a great deal.

A rivalry developed between two family members. One family member left and started on his own.

Globalization hit. This man, John Bassett III, for a wide variety of motives, fought back and made some impressive inroads. (Macy never really makes the case for his saving an American town.)

The book was more interesting to me on a macro-level. I am no economist. But it seemed to me that Macy’s driving question is one about priorities. By the end, she abandons any pretense of journalistic neutrality and lands firmly on the side of the worker. And she has a point. Many of these skilled craftspeople were too old for retraining and too distant from any opportunities that retraining – however kindly it was meant – could make possible for them. The question I thought about mostly is  – who is the economy for? The worker? The consumer? The owner? And therefore, who should our government work most to protect?

There is something very odd about exporting wood to China to have it return as furniture. Macy never really answers the challenge put to her by former furniture worker Wanda Perdue: “I want you to see what they do in Indonesia and explain to me why we can’t do that here no more.” That’s my bias  as well. Ms. Perdue’s question deserves an answer.


Apparently, Tom Hanks is going to produce a mini-series based on the book.

HBO & Playtone Take On Battle Against Offshoring With ‘Factory Man’ Miniseries


I Am Forbidden (Markovits)

Sometimes, I buy a book – probably because of a review – and then it sits for a while. Something made me pluck this one off my shelf, and I’m so glad I did. Markovits’ words are like watercolors, not only because they suggest so much with each brushstroke, but also because they change or evolve over time and as they are combined. She takes us into a world that is remote and deliberately so – a family of Jewish fundamentalists – and makes us see the humanity in those who choose to follow rules that would be difficult for many. I became so empathetic with three of the characters that when they each make a choice – each more desperate than the next – I felt both the necessity of their choices as well as the pain that the choices inflict on those who make them and subsequent generations. I wanted everyone to ‘win,’ and there was no way that could happen.

Even the cover photograph by Kate Isherwood is perfect.


Between the World and Me (Coates)

When I went to the bookstore to buy this, the clerk apologized. She apologized for two reasons. First, she said, the book hadn’t been put out on display yet, so she’d need to get it from the back. Second, she was sorry to say that though it was short, it was still going to be $24.

I’ve finished it now, and I’d like to go back to that store and back to that clerk and explain that sometimes there are books that are so grounded in time and place, and at the same time defy time and place, that they are so very valuable, whatever the cost.

There is not much I can for certain about this book. I finished it in one sitting, and I will return to it again. And again. I know that Cornel West has criticized it and its author, and I don’t know enough about West or the criticism to offer an opinion there.

The book is compact, to be sure, but that is because Coates’ language is both precise and economic. He wastes no words; he has no words to waste nor time to waste them. He writes to his son here; that is the frame. But he writes to all of us, I think, even me, one who, to thinks he is white. His words are meant to be between the world and him. That implies privacy. And it implies a barrier.

Coates’ book, like the work of Hank Willis Thomas (http://www.hankwillisthomas.com/WORKS/Photographic-/6), is focused on the power of the black body. Who controls it? What has been and continues to be built on top of it? How much time must be spent on keeping it safe?

The job of a reviewer is normally to say whether a book is good or bad – worth reading or not. I don’t think to call it good is to do it justice. It is, as Toni Morrison says on the front cover, “required reading.” It will also require re-reading.

My instinct is, as is so often the case when I read something powerful, to take it to school, to share it with my students. I know you can see the cliche coming, but that doesn’t make it less true. Most of my students (all of them, students of color) would not read the pages I offered them. Some, especially the young men, because they just don’t read; others because they can’t, at least not with the level of attention Coates’ words require. The schools have, at least until this point, failed them. But they show up – many of them, most of the time. So they have not been swallowed by the other form of education they experience – the streets. And that is what gets me going every morning.

It is a tangible thing, this book. I don’t mean to say that it’s because I don’t use an e-reader. I find that I am carrying this book with me. I need it by my side; we all do.

Recently, I had the great good fortune to see Mr. Coates in person (https://www.cityclub.org/events/between-the-world-and-me). With the cost of my ticket came a copy of his book and so I did as I always expected to do – I read it again. Much of what he said that night was familiar to me – from the book and his articles. His challenges: What if we destroyed the concept of whiteness? What if we stopped kicking the can down the road? — continue to resonate with me. I admired how he answered questions – particularly questions from students and particularly questions he knew he was not qualified to answer. He pointed to a phenomenon I’ve recognized before. When one author becomes successful, he becomes (and here he asked, despite the crowd of 700 or so, whether the cameras were turned off), the “head n—– in charge.” I was surprised to hear him say the word.

It was a question from an audience member that helped push me back into the book again. The audience member said that Coates had been criticized because his language in the book was too flowery for such a serious topic. That had not – as you may note above – been my first impression. (Around the same time, I was asked by a parent about teaching an AP class next year.) So this time, I read it with more of an eye on his writing, his carefully composed rhetoric and the diction throughout that established the parallel between that which is done to black bodies and that which is done to the earth.

The book tightened up for me. Coates said he wanted it to be short so it would pack a punch and it does. And now, after the second reading, I see a bit more clearly how it works. I hope the book comes out in paperback in time for me to use with my AP class – even if that class contains just one student.

Miami and the Siege of Chicago (Mailer)

I had never read any Mailer, and I am passionate about all things Chicago. And I’ve been pretty happy with the Classics series put out by the New York Review of Books. The combination was appealing. The book, however, was not.

Frank Rich, in the introduction, lauds Mailer’s style. I don’t know enough about the evolution of political journalism to comment, but if you are impressed by endless sentences and paragraphs as well as gaping holes in your logic, then this book is probably for you. Mailer spends a great deal of time on the appearance of things – the delegates, the candidates, etc. – and from there leaps to wild conclusions about their thoughts and chances for success. He does make an interesting chorus out of the phrase “politics is property,” but he carries it so far that it becomes easy to see just how thin of an observation it is.

But Mailer’s favorite subject is, in the end, Mailer. He calls himself “the reporter” throughout and after several cameos, he puts himself at the center of stage as the Chicago convention winds down. By the end, I was rooting for the guy, almost certainly (Mailer suggests) a plant – who hits him in the face.

NYRB Classics

Emily, Alone (O’Nan)

I think I admire O’Nan’s work so much because he writes like I’d like to. He writes about ordinary people and daily events in ways that are both funny and wise. Though his novels are often narrow in scope (and often short), they still do speak to larger questions about the way we conduct our lives. In this case, how do we go on when we are older, and our lives and actions are neither urgent nor necessary?

Emily tries to keep herself busy. Her errands, her dog, her family, and her garden – these all give shape to her days. And she’s aware of what she’s doing – looking back on her life as the end of her days approaches. She has not turned out to be the person she wanted to be. She can’t let go of some of her past. “Though everything faded,” O’Nan writes, “nothing was ever done” (56). She has her regrets and O’Nan expresses them so eloquently: “[S]he was struck by how long life was, and how much time had passed, and she wished she could go back and apologize to those closest to her, explain that she understood now. Impossible, and yet the urge to return and be a different person never lessened, grew only more acute” (65). Who among us hasn’t felt that way?

But Emily is not morose, and neither is O’Nan. A whole (albeit) short chapter about Emily strategically re-arranging kleenex boxes to reflect the needs and priorities of each part of her house is gentle and true. We all do these things. We all know people who do these things. O’Nan, here and elsewhere, describes us all.

The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece (Harr)

I’m not sure why I didn’t find this sooner. I loved A Civil Action. As in his earlier book, Harr turns narrative non-fiction into a kind of suspense story. We move back and forth in time as we learn about Caravaggio’s life as well as the efforts of a wide array of art historians – some of whom seem to have what Harr calls Caravaggio Disease – try to find and authenticate Caravaggio’s painting “A Taking of Christ.” There are characters galore and an equal emphasis on all kinds of forensic research. Harr’s short chapters keep the pace moving. Though I don’t see this one being made into a movie, I do think it’s a good read.


Go Set A Watchman (Lee)

I want to leave aside, for the moment, the biography of this book – how it was found, when, by whom, who approved its publication, etc.. I will return to it, though, since I believe that while biography is not destiny, it is still relevant.

I should say straight off that I am a huge fan of To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve read it and taught it numerous times. I’ve seen the movie a half dozen times, and I’ve even seen the stage version at least twice. I’ve read Charles J. Shields’ Mockingbird, Marja Mills’ The Mockingbird Next Door, and Loretta Ellsworth’s In Search of Mockingbird.

Over the years, I have come to recognize some of the flaws of the novel – in structure (the shifts in time are sometimes less than graceful), in content (anyone who has ever taught it knows there are certain sections we’d like to cut), and in Lee’s treatment of race issues. Is Atticus too much of a white knight? Is Calpurnia – who has an absolutely powerful scene in this book – too underdeveloped? Is Tom Robinson too one-dimensional? Still, the book holds me. Recently, my daughter asked when she could read it.

As I was reading it, I saw someone comment that he was reluctant to read  because he saw Watchman as a sketch on the way to the wholeness of Mockingbird. I think there’s a lot of truth in both parts of his statement. The book often seemed like one of those studies you see in a museum next to the main attraction. Lee often seems in a hurry to get from one conversation to the next. And there are, unlike Mockingbird, relatively few characters of substance. Perhaps it was from re-reading it too often, but over the years, I began to be more and more interested in some of the minor characters in Mockingbird, like Dolphus Raymond and Mr. Underwood. Perhaps because it’s not fully fleshed out, Watchman is centered on a just few characters. Some names of others are familiar – Cunningham, for example – but most are there as props.

I have tried my best to avoid reviews of the novel since its publication, but it’s been difficult to avoid one – bigot. I am hesitant about labels like that one; I’m just never sure what they mean. There’s a discussion of the meaning in this book as well. Is a bigot someone who holds fast to her (and I mean her) beliefs and has no room for others? Or is a bigot someone who holds views on racial issues that we now find deplorable? Is Jean Louise (and she’s mostly Jean Louise here) one kind and her father, the other? And how much does my own bias influence my reading of this?

But there is no doubt that Atticus says and does things that are difficult for Jean Louise and the reader to understand. And he and another character claim a kind of contextual necessity. Jean Louise has run off to New York. They have chosen to remain in Maycomb. Can this excuse or temper our reaction to their choices? That’s why I put the word ‘now’ in bold above. How much does historical and geographical context matter? But there are some very personal reasons Atticus makes himself more fully known to his daughter, and I accepted one quite readily. She needs to separate herself from him. It is not enough to move to New York; she must develop her own views of the world. Atticus, once her watchman, no longer wants the job. He has gotten old. Aunt Alexandra now lives with him. She sometimes has to button his shirts. Sometimes, he spills his drink. This is not the Atticus (or Gregory Peck) we want. “There are,” Lee and Atticus are telling us, I think, “no more angels in America.” It’s time we stop thinking of Atticus as one.

The other reason – put forth by her Uncle Jack (who commits a despicable act of violence that passes with relatively little comment or reaction) – is that Atticus is somehow amoral in that his highest calling is the law – race issues or ethics or morality be damned? Again, perhaps because this notion is not developed, it remains unconvincing.

Though I am generally not fond of the review that boasts that a novel set in another time resonates with today’s world (it always seems like hyperbole and like its covering for a book’s deficiency), there are some exchanges here that absolutely reminded me much of the recent dialogue around the Confederate flag that until recently hung outside the state house in South Carolina about what the South means, the role of the Federal Government, and the NAACP. Lee tentatively introduces a thread of, in my mind, redemption for Atticus. There are a few suggestions that his actions reflect a kind of ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer’ mentality, but Atticus’ own words largely overwhelm that notion (and our hopes).

Lee’s writings, especially her descriptions of place, often have a great deal of beauty. I would even argue that there’s not enough of that here. What does the South mean to Jean Louise? Will she stay?

As for the circumstances of the book’s publication that I alluded to in the beginning, though we know a great deal, I’m fairly certain we will never know the truth. We are at a point where we would even be skeptical if the words came from Lee herself.

Am I glad I read the book? Yes. It is, like that sketch on the wall next to the painting, a chance to see an author developing her style and her ideas. Does it tarnish my view of To Kill a Mockingbird in general and Atticus, in particular? I think my views, like the character of Atticus, needed some tarnishing. After this book, I think we are both more fully human. And that’s what literature is for, isn’t it?