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The Goldfinch by Donna Tart

October 14, 2020

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt · OverDrive: ebooks, audiobooks, and videos  for libraries and schools

It’s nice to have friends who know what books you’ll like. A few years ago, my friend Kelly gave me her copy of The Goldfinch after she read it. She said I’d like it. A few months ago, my friend Nicole read it and also said I’d like it. They were right. 

Despite this winning the 2014 Pulitzer Prize, a number of notable critics (and amateur critics) panned it for being superficial, overly long and over-hyped. I agree with some of their criticisms. At 780 pages (32 hours as an audiobook), it’s a commitment. And at the very end, Tart dredges some of the more interesting themes to the surface and waves them around in a few pages of heavy-handed dialogue. It’s like a preemptive defense against the “superficial” criticism–If you’ve gotten this far and haven’t picked up on it, here’s what the past 750 pages have been about. 

It’s a little too on the nose for me, and not really necessary. I don’t even think it’s necessary that a big book has a big theme. I just want it to be compelling. I need good characters or an engrossing plot. And in both regards, The Goldfinch delivers. 

Theo Decker is a 13-year-old boy visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York with his mother when a bomb goes off. His mother is killed, and in the chaos of the moment, a dying man gives Theo a ring and tells him to make off with a painting, The Goldfinch by Dutch master Carel Fabritius. 

Over the next 14 years, the painting is both a burden and a cherished possession for Theo as he is shuffled from place to place—first in with a schoolmate’s family, then off to Vegas with his deadbeat father, then back to New York, where he lives with and become the apprentice to a furniture restorer named James Hobie—the partner of the man who gave Theo the ring in the museum. 

Other characters move onto and off of stage—a girl Theo loves from afar, Pippa (a nod to Pip from Great Expectations?); a lovable and completely unhinged Ukrainian émigré named Boris (a “chaotic good” character if there ever was one); a high-society girl who becomes Theo’s fiancé out of convenience, mostly. It is a parade of characters that, again, some critics found to be superficial and stock, but that I mostly enjoyed. 

Tart also brings us in and out of some fascinating worlds as we tag along with Theo—the aforementioned world of furniture restoration; the world of high-end art collection; upper crust New York society; and at least two versions of skeezy criminal undergrounds (this last one the least convincing). 

I switched back and forth between the audio and physical books—something I rarely do—sometimes re-reading moments I’d heard or vice versa, because I just flat-out enjoyed spending time with these characters. Yes, Boris the Ukrainian wild card is a bit over-the-top, but that’s what makes him so fun. Yes, Pippa sometimes seems like the distant love interest from a thousand coming-of-age stories, but I grew genuinely hopeful in the moments she popped back into Theo’s life. And yes, the speech James Hobie gives at the end of the novel, about the significance of art and the personal connection people can have with a masterpiece, is a tad overcooked. But by that point, I liked Hobie so much, and I’d argue that his monologue is in character—he’s an erudite and artful man with so much passion about the subject that when he starts talking, he rambles on in an excited, semi-academic manner. Describing the way a piece of art connects with a person:

“It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you…four hundred years before us, four hundred years after we’re gone…a really great painting is fluid enough to work its way into the mind and heart through all kinds of different angles, in ways that are unique and very particular. Yours, yours. I was painted for you. Oh, I don’t know, stop me if I’m rambling.”

We haven’t necessarily waited 750 pages to get this lecture, but he’s waited his whole life to give it. 

And in all the stuffy criticism about superficiality of themes, stereotypical characters and pretension, I kept going back to one counter-argument: Yeah, maybe… but this book is so fun! Is it a timeless masterpiece, like the eponymous painting? Probably not. Is it wholly original? It fits squarely in the coming-of-age genre, so is not without precedent. But being like a modern Dickens or early John Irving isn’t a bad thing. I don’t remember where I heard someone say that you don’t see many novels like this anymore, which is true. And it’s a shame. Because as my two friends who recommended this to me know, this is the kind of novel I dig.

PORTRAIT: Volume 1 from the Brooklyn Art Library

September 12, 2020

My nine-year-old daughter and I signed up for the Brooklyn Art Library’s “Sketchbook Project,” where you submit a sketchbook and they keep it as part of an ever-growing exhibit of sketchbooks submitted from artists around the world. 

This book is a collection of submissions from a previous project. Participants were challenged to create fourteen portraits of fourteen different people, using a different medium for each, over fourteen days. The sampling here represent some of the best. 

I bought this book mainly to support the library, but it’s also quite fun to just flip through and see the wide array of styles. There’s a lot to learn from studying any of the portraits for a few minutes. The subjects range from famous people to self portraits, and many of them are quite good. As someone who enjoys making bad portraits, I enjoy having this book around. 

Here are a few of my favorites…

Support the Brooklyn Art Library by purchasing this, or anything else from their shop.

Thing the Grandchildren Should Know by Mark Oliver Everett

September 10, 2020

My brother got me this book. I’d say I’m a moderate fan of Eels, the band of front-man Mark Oliver Everett, but would never have thought to read his memoir. Still I enjoyed it quite a bit. He’s a sarcastic dude, and he’s had enough family tragedy to fill a Dickens novel. Musician or no, the way he openly grapples with the loss he’s experienced feels very raw and human.  

Beyond the family stories, there’s a good deal of inside music stuff and stories of him wrestling with success. His experience turning down an offer to use one of his songs in a Volkswagen commercial. His realization that more and more of the crowd at his shows is made up of people he doesn’t like. His story of playing on a TV show in England with “the new faux soul singer” John Legend, at which “Mr. Legend” has a production assistant walk across the studio to tell Mark, “Mr. Legend wants you to put your cigar out.”

By far my favorite story, though, and worth the price of admission if you ask me, is Mark’s encounter with Tom Waits. He invites Tom to contribute to the album he’s working on. Tom agrees, but only if Mark will let him do it on the four-track so he can record the way he likes to—in his bathroom. So Mark buys the same model four-track Tom has on ebay, records two tracks of his own, including vocals, then leaves the other two tracks open for Tom. He sends the tape with detailed instructions of what he wants Tom to do. “He ignores my instructions completely, accidentally erases my lead vocal track, and sends me back a tape of him yelling and stomping on his bathroom floor and crying like a baby…He’s very apologetic about erasing my vocal and offers to do yard work at my house to make up for it.”

That’s good stuff right there.

Here’s Eels performing one of my favorite songs of theirs, “Blinking Lights (for me)”:

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

September 7, 2020

The only physical magazine I subscribe to is Bookmarks, a quarterly aggregator of the latest book reviews. If a book receives a four-star review there—meaning an average of four stars from a collection of independent publications—it’s almost always a sure bet. Slate, NPR, LA Times, Guardian, Washington Post and a few others all gave Mexican Gothic four stars. So I guess that makes me an outlier.

Mexican Gothic is the story of Noemi Taboada, a 22-year-old high-society woman enjoying a privileged life in Mexico City in the 1950s. She receives a disturbing letter from her cousin, who has married into a rather odd family and now lives with them in High Place, a once-magnificent mountain villa built on the wealth of a mining business. High Place has seen better days, as Noemi discovers when she travels to visit her cousin. And without giving too much away, let’s just say that strange things are afoot there. 

The construct is a fairly conventional haunted mansion setup (think Dracula or The Shining). An outsider visits creepy place where things are not as they seem. And to be fair, this is intended as a self-conscious piece that plays with convention—the title, after all, tells you exactly what genre is being torqued here. 

Other reviews praised the layered critiques of imperialism, economic exploitation and race science, the commentary on analogous “inbreeding” among the wealthy class, and the gender role-reversal of the main characters. Which is all find and good, if a little heavy-handed. 

Two things irritated me. The first was the over-written prose. At times it seems in line with period gothic horror convention, but often feels like regular over-writing of the modern sort. But more so than the writing, it’s a peeve of mine to still be world-building late into a novel. Though more acceptable in horror or fantasy, it’s irritating to be 80% of the way through a story and still be learning about its mechanisms. The eeriness of High Place and its inhabitants are good, and the macabre imagery is on par with H.P. Lovecraft at times, but secrets are revealed right up to the end in a way that, to me, felt like significant rug-pull after rug-pull. 

I want to call it “Scooby-Doo-ing,” since every episode of Scooby-Doo ends with an unmasking and long exposition about what was actually going on. This might be a personal hangup, and it might be more successful in film, but it just feels a little too easy here.  

I also may enjoy horror genre mashups more in theory than in execution. Looking at my book lists from the past couple years, I had two similar books—Alma Katsu’s The Hunger, a 19th Century wagon trail horror; and Andy Davidson’s Texas noir/vampire mashup In the Valley of the Sunon my list. Both great pitches, but the novels didn’t quite live up. 

So if most reviewers of Mexican Gothic gave it four stars, I’m going to be contrarian and give it just two. 

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor

August 30, 2020

“I don’t believe in censorship, but I do believe in warnings,” Gabino Iglesias writes in his review of Hurricane Season. It captures how I felt about this compelling but brutal story. It’s a good novel, unique and especially well-crafted, but I would hesitate to recommend it to anyone without emphasizing that this novel isn’t for the faint of heart. 

Living up to its title, Hurricane Season is a violent and gritty force-of-nature. In the eye of the hurricane is a witch who lives in a dilapidated house outside a small village in the state of Veracruz, Mexico. It is a poverty- and crime-stricken region, a town that is an out-of-the-way pass-through for truckers. Prostitution, drug use and a lack of opportunity have strangled the hope out of the community. 

From multiple points of view, we circle around the mystery of this witch—who she is and what happens to her. Each chapter shifts point of view from one character to the next. Each narrator gives a different, revealing aspect of the story, but none of them are fully reliable. As the layers are stripped away, the reality gets uglier and uglier.   

The book is written in a kind of tangential stream of consciousness, a “torrential flow of language,” as Ted Hodgkinson aptly puts it. Sentences go on for pages and meander from topic to topic. It’s like a meth-fueled, staggering ramble down a jungle path, where eyes can deceive and each turn might hold a surprise, a unique turn of phrase like how the “houses in town shone like tiny red carbuncles,” or a brutal characterization like the description of a character’s siblings as “six mistakes that her mother made one after the other, each in a desperate attempt to hold onto a man who in almost every case wouldn’t even admit to being the father.” 

But beyond their run-on construction, the sentences also feel strung out and beat up, unruly and unkempt, like mismatched parts tied together with bailing wire. These are dilapidated sentences, crafted to perfectly capture the setting. Much credit goes to Sophie Hughes, the translator of Hurricane Season.

Adding to the squalor (and sometimes more disturbing than the violence), is the mutated concept of masculinity. A shocking surface-level homophobia—bullying, slurs and violence—coexists with male prostitution and the weaponization of sex and rape as weapons of dominance. Like other aspects of human life here, intimacy is either transactional or entirely devalued. There is an emptiness and desperation that permeates it all, and the warped attitudes about how a man should act indicates a future that is as bleak as the current state. None of these characters are on their way to great epiphanies, and only one seems to have any inkling that there is a better way of life outside this scene. 

Finally, Melchor seems to be taking an axe to magical realism, the genre often associated with Latin-American literature. With the introduction of the witch, one naturally assumes Hurricane Season will include elements of the supernatural. But as the mystery of the witch is revealed, any hope of grand magic is extinguished. The reality is that the witch’s powers are herbal remedies for the local women in need of a special kind of help, and a wholly different offering for the men.

In the end, Hurricane Season probably owes more to the American Southern Gothic tradition, with its examination of the grotesque. But most direct comparison I could draw was with Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, the grisly epic that circles the murders in a fictionalized version of Juarez, Mexico. 

Hurricane Season was a finalist for the 2020 International Booker Prize, a testament to its strength, though it may leave some devastation in its path. 

Intimations by Zadie Smith

August 18, 2020

It would be a shame if the most talked-about aspect of this book were its timeliness, though that is definitely worth noting. Intimations is a short collection of short essays about this strange, unprecedented, unsettling, disorienting, disruptive (all the clichés) moment. How long does it take for a normal book to be written, sold, edited, published, purchased and ultimately read? Years, months? It’s a little eerie to read a book—not an article, blog post or tweet—about the George Floyd protests or living in Coronavirus lockdown, or the way we think about each other, the way we think about life in what we continually refer to and think of as a moment. Forget that this moment contains within it different storylines, different seasons, different phases and years. Time has become elastic, speeding up and slowing down at random. We ask “What day is it?” several times a day. This is likely to continue until next summer. But we’re still in a moment, with a very specific feel to it. And it’s the feel of that moment this book captures.

Lawrence Wright’s book about a pandemic, The End of October, which he sent to the publisher last summer, was prescient. This book is urgent. And yet the speed is not the thing to focus on with this book. It doesn’t feel hurried. Quite the opposite, it feels like the kind of thing someone writes when they have time to think. To step back and note the peculiarities of our everyday lives, which is relatable since we’ve all stepped outside our everyday lives.

Zadie Smith, always an insightful writer, is as bewildered about the moment as any of us. But while many of us spent the first few months of the pandemic thinking about how long it might go on, or whose fault it was, or whether or not there would be live sports, Smith looks at smaller moments and draws from them bigger questions. An innocuous claim from the President that before the pandemic “we didn’t have death” leads to a provocation about the exceptional linkage of wealth and a quest for longevity in America.

The observation that everyone now faces the challenge that artists face on a daily basis—what should I make in this time?—leads to an essay about the utility (or lack thereof) of art as tool for political change and the idea that many of us, with so much time to fill, must confront the notion that we fill much of our days with things that just fill the day, not things we actually love. And if we are not doing things we love, or making things we love, then what are we doing? “I do feel comforted to discover I’m not the only person on this earth who has no idea what life is for, nor what is to be done with all this time other than filling it.”

Spending all this time with our loved ones, who we do love, also makes us realize that we need to be away from them sometimes. Our mundane commutes, the random passersby on the street, the utilitarian errands we run, these all serve a purpose beyond their obvious purpose.

Smith observes that privilege and suffering are both bubbles, but with different consequences. The nail salon she loves but cannot go to now, this is a mere inconvenience for her but a life-altering reality for the owner of the salon.

An essay that starts with a description of the nerdy IT guy she enjoyed seeing on his hoverboard in the park ends with a disappointed thought—“what modest dreamers we have become” when decent public housing, health care and access to higher education have been recast as revolutionary concepts.

A chance encounter at a bus stop with a mother of an old friend is a jumping-off point for a meditation on the immigrant experience. A man in a park with a sign that reads “I am a self-hating Asian. Let’s talk!” opens an essay on the nature of hate and the strange concept of “hate crimes.”

Her strongest essay portrays contempt as a virus. A virus that diminishes the object of one’s contempt to a level below hate. The object of contempt doesn’t merit the energy required to hate. Contempt is the ultimate devaluation. “Patient zero of this particular virus stood on a slave ship four hundred years ago, looked down at the sweating, bleeding, moaning mass below deck and reverse-engineered an emotion—contempt—from a situation that he, the patient himself had created. He looked at the human beings he had chained up and noted that they seemed to be the type of people who wore chains.” It’s contempt that allows a country to continually vote for “policies that ensure the permanent existence of an underclass.” It’s contempt that allows a country to make sense of a segue from a space launch to a riot in the same breath.

Much of what bubbles up here is what is bubbling up every day for all of us, what many of us are feeling if not able to eloquently express. The pressures of 2020 are like the pressures of a traumatic experience on a family. The fissures show. The underlying issues are exposed.

There are hopeful thoughts, but often they are instructive—what we can do, what we must do to turn this around. The idea that it is possible to act, to “use your imagination to build practical structures that will in some form improve the lives of the people who enter them.” Or the observation that “knowing all your neighbors’ names is an art.”

This will not be the definitive book of the pandemic, but as a piece produced within it—somewhere in the first few months even, it’s a pretty remarkable collection of thoughts.

Books you have started

August 8, 2020

I have a note over my desk that lists what my priority should be when it comes to book reading. It says:

  1. Books you have started
  2. Books you have been given
  3. Other books

It’s a nice idea. I mostly ignore it.

I buy new books and start them constantly. I like to jump back and forth between books depending on what I’m in the mood for or what my attention span will allow.

So I typically have a lot of books “in progress,” especially in the middle of the year. Then around mid-year (now), I grab all the books I’m “currently reading” and decide what to finish for the end of the year book list.

A few of these—especially the collections of essays and short stories—are easy to pick up and read an essay or a single short story. Other books are good for certain settings. The Shining goes to the pool with me. The little red edition of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations has gone on vacation with me every year for the past 6 years or so.

These are the books I’m currently reading. There’s no way I’ll finish all of them by the end of the year, but I hope to knock off at least half of them.

I do the same with audiobooks, though I usually only have a few audiobooks in progress, usually at least one fiction and one non-fiction. For really long audiobooks like Andersonville, I usually find good stopping points and then listen to something else for awhile, then come back to it. Here’s my currently listening list:


I’ve heard other people say they don’t like to read more than one book at a time. Curious what you do. Do you have a system?

2020 Q2 Movie Report

July 18, 2020


My movie list from Q2 2020 is dominated by Westerns, as I make my way through my list of 50+ of the best (a compilation from several “Best Westerns” lists and recommendations from friends). I’ll do a more in-depth review of them once I finish the list, but I’ve listed them below with a few notes.

One of the highlights of the quarter was introducing my kids to the Back to the Future trilogy during my picks for our weekly family movie nights. The original Back to the Future is one of my favorite movies ever, and it holds up well. The acting is great, and the plotting is so well-done. Every little detail, every scene has a purpose, a payoff somewhere else in the movie. The second is also pretty good, and the third is watchable but not great. The kids loved them. Coincidentally, The Rewatchables podcast released a Back to the Future episode. Hard to believe that movie is 35 years old.

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The other masterpiece I re-watched was There Will Be Blood, the Paul Thomas Anderson film based on the 1927 Sinclair Lewis novel, Oil! It’s virtuosic in its ambition and craft, from Daniel Day Lewis’s incredible turn as the maniacal oil baron, Daniel Plainview, to Robert Elswit’s cinematography to Jonny Greenwood’s (Radiohead) anxiety-inducing score. The degree to which you hate the main character by the end, yet remain obsessed with his quest for power, his contentious relationship with the religious zealot who lives nearby, and his angry loneliness—it all makes for a mesmerizing movie. And there is no backstory to any of it—everything is created the moment the characters step into frame. One of the best films of the past 20 years.


I watched a four documentaries. The 13th is a necessary watch that argues that mass incarceration is an extension of slavery. It’s a good companion to Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow. If you believe that criminal justice in the U.S. is fair, equitable, and/or not driven by corporate profit and lobbies for the prison industrial complex, this will be eye-opening.

Alt Right examines right-wing extremism in America. Centered on the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, it shows the current struggle between alt right groups and the groups trying to drive them back underground.


The Hornet’s Nest is 2014 documentary about a father-son team of journalists embedded with the 327th Infantry Regiment in the Korangal Valley. The film is rough, gritty hand-held cameras on the front line in some intense combat. “Harrowing” is both cliché and appropriate.

Mountain examines our fascination with mountains, particularly with climbing them. Some beautiful imagery, but Free Solo set the bar for movies about climbing. Watch that first.


We continued our weekly family movie night, with rotating picks from all of us. We watched Spiderman: Into the Spider-verse. Of all the super-hero franchises, Spiderman has been the worst, but they finally got it right with this extra post-modern take on the Spiderman story. An enjoyable watch.


I picked The Neverending Story (1984), which doesn’t hold up so well, especially with the special effects. It also makes you realize how fast kids movies are today compared to back then.

During the pandemic, Disney released Onward straight to video. It’s a pretty entertaining story about some Dungeons & Dragons-type nerds finding real adventure. My girls have watched it a couple times sense.

Trolls: World Tour is surprisingly watchable, mostly for the music. Whatever Barbie movie it was that my five-year-old picked was not watchable.

Here’s the list of Westerns I watched in Q2. Just one overall observation—I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve really enjoyed them. I figured some would be good and others would be like being forced to suffer through The Birth of a Nation for film class. But I’ve enjoyed all of them, even the exercise of watching back-to-back the originals and remakes of True Grit and 3:10 to Yuma.

Here’s my Q2 Westerns list, ranked with favorites on top:

  1. The Wild Bunch
  2. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
  3. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
  4. Once Upon a Time in the West
  5. One-Eyed Jacks
  6. True Grit (Coens’ 2010 remake with Jeff Bridges)
  7. The Cowboys
  8. 3:10 to Yuma (1957)
  9. The Magnificent Seven
  10. Ride the High Country
  11. The Ox-Bow Incident
  12. Hell or High Water
  13. Unforgiven
  14. The Proposition
  15. True Grit (John Wayne, 1969)
  16. 3:10 to Yuma (2007 remake)
  17. How the West Was Won
  18. Jeremiah Johnson





American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division by Michael A. Cohen

July 10, 2020


“A Year of Turmoil and Change.”

“Tumultuous.”   “Chaotic.”

Most clichés about 1968 focus, rightly, on the social upheaval, the violence and the pivotal historic events—the assassinations of Dr. King and Robert Kennedy, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the Civil Rights Act., etc. Michael A. Cohen, political journalist for the Boston Globe (not to be confused with the other Michael Cohen), posits that it was also the defining year for the narratives that would define American politics for the next 40 years. This book was published in 2016, but it’s now clear that Cohen could have said “fifty years and counting.”

Lyndon Johnson’s defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964 was one of the most decisive victories in the history of U.S. presidential politics. At the outset of 1968, President Johnson was the clear frontrunner for re-election, with a strong record on social issues and civil rights (despite his personal racism). But Vietnam had become an albatross around his neck. After a weak showing at the New Hampshire primary and, as Cohen reports, concerns about his own health, Johnson shocked the world. On March 31, he announced his withdrawal from the race.


Johnson’s exit left the door open for a field of fascinating candidates—Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Robert Kennedy and the intellectual Eugene McCarthy on the left; Richard Nixon, California Governor Ronald Reagan and wealthy businessman Nelson Rockefeller on the right; and the southern segregationist, George Wallace running as an independent to the far right.

Cohen focuses on the political race. He brings to life the character of each of the candidates, then charts their courses as they tried to outmaneuver each other. Noting that they’ve been widely covered, he only mentions the defining events of 1968 when they impacted the presidential race.

But Cohen’s main point is that the party narratives that emerged in the 1968 election—narratives largely, successfully defined by conservatives—would impact American politics for decades. The stereotypes of Republicans as strong and resolute, tough on crime, defenders of cultural values and proponents of small government; of Democrats as “liberal elite,” tax and spend, unpatriotic, morally loose, beholden to special interests and supporters of the welfare state—these phrases have dominated politics as long as most of us can remember.

Nineteen sixty-eight was also the year that the GOP’s “southern strategy” was realized. Though it’s debatable whether it was a top-down strategy or a bottom-up demographic realignment, the GOP courted working-class whites in the south, traditionally democratic voters. Many, unhappy with the social unrest they saw connected to an unwelcome Civil Rights movement, unpatriotic protests against the Vietnam War, and the loose morals of the counterculture, were drawn away by the one-two punch of Nixon and George Wallace.


George Wallace stands in the door of the auditorium at the University of Alabama, 1963, blocking the entry of African-American students Vivian Malone and James Hood to symbolically oppose integration.

Wallace had promised “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” in his 1963 inaugural address as governor of Alabama. He led the charge in stoking white fear, anger and resentment. Famous for standing in the door of the auditorium at the University of Alabama to symbolically block integration, Wallace had no qualms about blatantly racist appeals. He portrayed Civil Rights as a direct threat to America and pointed at the “activists, anarchists, militants and revolutionaries” protesting Vietnam as the enemy.

He also had a hardline stance on how to deal with protesters, peaceful or otherwise: “The people know the way to stop a riot is to hit people on the head,” he said.

Wallace’s stance against demonstrators was an ominous precursor to Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daly’s own approach at the notorious Democratic National Convention that year. Daly said that arsonists and looters should be shot, and he defended the police who, many of them after discarding their nameplates, beat on protesters, bystanders and journalists alike.

Richard Nixon pulled several pages from Wallace’s playbook, but he knew the more inflammatory, card-carrying racism would not fly beyond Wallace’s home turf. “To be effective, racial signaling must be done subtly. Welfare, special interests, law and order, soft on crime, affirmative action quotas and bussing all became part of an emerging political lexicon and the dog whistle politics of the era.” Nixon, then Reagan, became adept at speaking about “law and order” in a way that allowed mainstream Republicans to embrace the platform, while old-school racists could still interpret “law and order” to mean what it had always meant—protection from Black people.

Eleven years later, in a speech to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Reagan said “For all our science and sophistication, for all our justified pride in intellectual accomplishment, we should never forget: the jungle is always there, waiting to take us over.” This is a directly racist, fear-based appeal. Yet, it’s vague enough that, if called on it, one could argue that people are being overly sensitive, or, at worst, Reagan poorly chose his words. But it is neither. The words were very precisely chosen. Conservative politicians became skilled at giving a nod to civil rights while playing directly on the fears of anxious white voters (e.g. George H.W. Bush’s infamous “Willie Horton” ad).

But tough-on-crime language wasn’t just a mainstay of conservative politics. It was eventually adopted by Democrats from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, eager to demonstrate that they too were serious about crime. It manifested in policies like the War on Drugs, stop and frisk and “three strikes laws,” all which contributed to ballooning prison populations and the deterioration of urban communities.

While the political landscape has evolved, the shift of the right toward anti-government, anti-elite populism that emerged in 1968 “maintains its stranglehold over the nation’s politics.” Add the distrust of authority, evisceration of expertise, strategic voter suppression and flogging of the media, and you have a democracy that has been rotting from the inside out for a half century.

Which brings us to today.

This book was published in May of 2016, which means Cohen submitted it before Donald Trump took center stage. When I read Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, I was shocked by how much Trump pulled from Nixon’s playbook. But reading this, I realize I was wrong. Trump pulls from George Wallace’s playbook. Wallace made purposefully inflammatory speeches to draw the outrage of the press and the populace. He wasn’t afraid to stoke the fires of anger and resentment. And his racism wasn’t a flaw—it was a feature. The angrier the other side got, the more they looked like an angry mob, the more he could paint them as the enemy, coming to encroach on the way of life of good, patriotic (white) citizens. Wallace never offered a real cure for any of society’s ills. He just gave people an opportunity to get angry. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan may be a notion that conjures a vague image of a time—possibly a mythical 1950s—where life was ideal, but his political tactics are an echo of one of the nastiest candidates in modern history. Again, these comparisons are mine, not included in the book, but they are plain as day.

For a broader look at the social and political upheaval of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, I’d recommend Nixonland. But for a book specific to the election of that crazy year, American Maelstrom is enlightening.

Of note, 1968 brought the most dramatic flip of the electoral map since 1932. Both elections marked a new order for at least one of the political parties and had long-term ramifications. Will we look back on 2020 and say the same?

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The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller by Marc Levinson

July 9, 2020


A co-worker recommended this book to me, and from the title you might think the first thing I did: “A book about shipping containers? Sounds exciting.”

Nobody would read this if they think it’s just about shipping containers. It’s a book about innovation and the interconnectedness of our global economy. In Steven Johnson’s How We Got to Now, he traces the impact of six streams of innovation—the way phones impacted architecture, for example. This book is similar, only Levinson uses one example: the shipping container.

Why the shipping container? It’s a simple idea. It’s just a box. But the breakthrough innovation is that the box would be the same exact size all over the world, and that it could detach from its method of shipping and be transferred as a unit to the next method of transport. Lifted from a ship to a train to a truck without unloading and re-loading the contents of the container. It seems simple, maybe even a little obvious in retrospect. But the implementation of it changed so many things.

It changed freight shipping, making moving goods essentially costless in the calculation of their value. It changed labor unions as it created, then replaced jobs for thousands of longshoremen. It changed manufacturing, making it feasible to have parts for a single product made all over the globe. It changed the storage industry. It transformed cities—giving smaller cities that built massive shipping infrastructure—like Oakland, Long Beach and Rotterdam—a huge advantage over cities that didn’t move fast enough. It changed crime (when the idea of containerization was in its infancy, shippers of whiskey were among the first supporters, because so much of their freight was stolen in the shipping). It changed global trade policy. It changed, and continues to impact, the environment.

Levinson tells the full history of cargo shipping, from the days when men would gather at the docks, hoping a ship might come in, to what you see now. I lived in Oakland, and to see the speed at which the computerized cranes pluck containers from a massive ship and gently place them onto trucks or trains is marvelous to watch. Or to watch the impossibly large cargo ships pass under the Golden Gate Bridge and head out for China—or wherever their destination—scrambles one’s sense of scale. The fact that Coronavirus upset the supply chains of so many products is partly a testament to the efficiency of modern shipping, which normally ensures that products arrive precisely when they are needed.

So no, this isn’t a boring book. But maybe the greatest insight to take away from The Boxis that the idea of the shipping container existed long before it was feasible. Technology, geopolitics, standardization, and literally hundreds of other things had to line up and fall into place before the economic, political and technological environments were right for the shipping container to become a reality. Innovation is as much about timing as it is about ideas. This book is a perfect (and interesting) case study in that.