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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: Two Memoirs

April 21, 2017

by Alexandra Bowie
This post reviews two different memoirs by women from very different parts of the country and very different backgrounds. The books share common themes of family and money.

Screen Shot 2017-04-21 at 12.28.41 PM“The Latter Days” a Memoir by Judith Freeman
Judy Freeman grew up in Ogden, Utah, one of eight children of a hard-working Mormon couple, cocooned in a wholesome but rigid community. Mormons famously don’t drink alcohol or coffee, and don’t smoke, but the ethos of this American-formed religion shelters some concerns: minimal roles for women and a history, disavowed but not entirely forgotten, of polygamy. Freeman was a tomboy, whose father could be angry and frustrated, and often punished whichever kid was nearest, regardless of who (if anyone) was at fault. Her mother was loving but distracted, what with all the kids.

Freeman didn’t question her background growing up though she reports ignoring many of the lessons – she smoked cigarettes, she drank, she made out with boys. One of her chief pleasures as a young adolescent was riding her horse up into the foothills on the edge of town with a group of friends. Freeman tried to fit in – she includes a moving chapter about a notebook she kept from a high school church-related course, in which she wrote about her efforts to comply with Mormon norms. You must try, her (older, male) teacher kept telling her. Since Freeman was writing about whether she enjoyed kissing boys too much one wonders, now, what prurient interest he might have had in his young female charges.

Freeman married at 17, and despite having the gumption to insist on a prescription for birth control pills didn’t like how they made her feel, took them inconsistently, and wound up pregnant. She and her husband gave up their plans to join the Peace Corps. But the baby also helped them with plans that might have been inchoate, to leave Utah and the church. He was born with a heart defect, and needed complex and advanced surgery that could be performed either in Texas or Minnesota. Freeman and her husband chose Minnesota, where her husband entered graduate school. And they became dorm parents at Macalester College in St. Paul.

Contact with the students at Macalester, and the classes she was able to attend – it was Freeman’s first experience of college – and an affair with her son’s surgeon combined to turn her life in an entirely different direction. Divorce at first forced Freeman home, but she didn’t stay.

Screen Shot 2017-04-21 at 12.29.38 PM“Beer Money: A Memoir of Privilege and Loss” by Frances Stroh
Frances Stroh grew up in Grosse Point, Michigan, a child of privilege – her family founded and ran the Stroh’s beer company from the mid-1850s until it collapsed in the 1990s, after poor management decisions resulted in too much debt. She was one of four children and the only girl; her father was an alcoholic who’d never had to work much, and in Stroh’s description her mother was distracted. Her parents divorced when Stroh was just leaving high school.

Although Stroh’s father Eric went to work, the family lived on dividends, and Eric Stroh liked to spend his money on antiques and collections. Stroh describes Christmas at her father’s house after he was remarried to a much younger woman:

Beautiful objects adorned every surface in the room: an antique partners desk stood in a bay window with a gilt-framed painting by Gari Melchers on the adjacent wall. Tasteful patterned fabrics covered the upholstered furniture. Eighteenth-century walnut side tables held needlepoint coasters for drinks. The tree sparkled with old family ornaments and colored lights…

Stroh and her brothers had just come from a meeting with the family’s attorney, who told them that their father’s remarriage, made without a prenuptial agreement, had in effect disinherited them. One brother spiraled into drug addiction and an early death; the other two appear to have stable lives.

As for Stroh herself: she married, had a son, divorced, and became first an artist and then a writer. And an investor: after that meeting fear made her take a hard look at her life, and she realized then that the only person she could depend on was herself. She writes, “Striving for something gives life its meaning, regardless of whether we succeed or fail. The problem was, my father had never had to strive for anything.”

Both books are skillfully written, and reading them close together reinforces several ideas: too much money is almost as much of a problem as too little. Children need their parents, but not all the time – the trick for parents, harder now than in the 50s, 60s and 70s, is knowing when to pay attention and when to let children figure things out for themselves – even at the risk of failure. Both women take deep and honest looks at their younger selves and the sometimes poor choices they made. That both found the resiliency to find their very different voices is a gift to readers.

Have a book you want me to know about? Email me at asbowie@gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter @abowie917.

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Books, News

Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “News of the World” A Novel by Paulette Jiles

April 7, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-04-07 at 9.51.29 AMby Alexandra Bowie

They pop up in old stories, every once in a while, a child with blue eyes living among Native Americans, a survivor taken along after a raid, and there are historical records European children raised among Native Americans. A few of those children returned to their families. In her elegiac and poignant novel “News of the World” Paulette Jiles imagines the return home of one such child, blending her depiction of the psychological pressures with a portrait of a man whose moves through his life illustrate the connections that can be made among people of vastly different ages and cultures.

in 1870 Captain Jefferson Kidd makes his living reading from the newspapers to the inhabitants of the towns through which he passes. Kidd rides a regular route through Texas, up to Wichita Falls in the north and back down south to San Antonio. He’s past 70; his wife has died; his children live in Georgia, though he hopes to coax them home soon. Texas, recently part of the Confederacy, is still under martial law. Captain Kidd fought in the Georgia militia during the War of 1812, ultimately serving as a messenger. After the war he bought a printing press and settled in San Antonio as a printer. He returned to the Army during the Mexican-American War, this time to organize the couriers.

Kidd is a smart and cautious messenger, tailoring the stories he picks to each town’s politics and atmosphere. In Durand, for instance, where political passions still run high, he reads about railroads and tulip bulbs, but tries to avoid local politics. Kidd thinks hard about his customers and, Jiles says, “he had come to think that what people needed, at bottom, was not only information but tales of the remote, the mysterious, dressed up as hard information . . .Then the listeners would for a small space of time drift away into a healing place like curative waters.”

On one of his runs, Captain Kidd brings along a passenger: Johanna, a 10-year-old girl. She’s been living with the Kiowa since she was captured four years earlier, but now the Kiowa have been persuaded to return her, and Kidd agrees to bring her back to her family outside San Antonio. Johanna’s parents were killed in the raid, and now she’s been taken from the Indian woman who raised her. So it’s no wonder that she trusts Captain Kidd not at all. Johanna speaks Kiowa, and, the captain eventually figures out that she remembers a little German, but knows no English.

The trip south covers several hundred miles and they are not easy miles. Together, Johanna and the Captain must cross a river in flood, survive an ambush, make enough money to eat, and reacquaint Johanna with the requirements of European dress and modesty, and the Captain must persuade Johanna there’s no point in running away. Eventually, Johanna and the Captain come to an understanding.

Jiles’s writing is supple and fluid. “News of the World” is an adventure story – the pacing makes it hard to put down – but it’s also the tale of a man’s passage through the world. Don’t miss this beautifully written novel.

Have a book you want me to know about? Email me at asbowie@gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter @abowie917.

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Arts and Entertainment, Events

Exhibit “Deconstruction of the Third Avenue El” at Transit Museum’s Grand Central Gallery

March 20, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-03-20 at 1.51.52 PMAn exhibit of photographs by Sid Kaplan, who teaches at the School of Visual Arts, documenting the dismantling of the Third Avenue El, opens March 24th at the Transit Museum’s Grand Central Gallery Annex.The exhibit runs through July 9.

The Gallery Annex is located in the shuttle passage, adjacent to the Station Master’s Office. The Gallery Annex is open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and is closed for major holidays. and special events. Admission is free.

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “Bad Boy: My Life on and Off the Canvas” by Eric Fischl

March 17, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-03-17 at 9.34.49 AMby Alexandra Bowie

Memoirs can be tricky to write: assuming one’s history has been public or interesting, there’s the problem of finding a voice, not too shallow, not too knowing. Then there’s the equally imposing problem of violating the privacy of everyone else in your life without alienating them. Eric Fischl and his co-writer Michael Stone have solved both problems in the clear-eyed and well-written memoir “Bad Boy.”

If you don’t know his work, Fischl is an American figurative and representational painter (and sculptor and printmaker). One of his works, A Visit To/A Visit From/The Island, a 1983 diptych, is included in the Whitney Museum’s exhibit “Fast Forward: Painting from the 1980s” on view through May 14. It’s worth heading to the museum to see this captivating painting whose subject appears to be the contrast between the grinding poverty of a Caribbean idyll and the oblivious enjoyment of the visiting tourists. Its resonance is deepened for the contemporary viewer because the painting evokes a refugee crisis Fischl could not have anticipated when it was painted. Many of Fischl’s paintings are similarly disturbing (see here, here, and here, all discussed in the book.) In Fischl’s apt description, his early paintings “dealt with the fallout from middle-class taboos, the messy, ambivalent emotions couples felt, the inherent racism, the sexual tensions, and the unhappiness roiling below the surface of our prim suburban lives.”

Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner, the proverb says, and Fischl’s descriptions of his past and its reflection in his paintings provides a lens that helps the reader past the squeamish feelings and prompts another look. At first glance, “Sleepwalker” captures an adolescent boy standing naked in a child’s pool. A closer look reveals the boy’s hands on his penis. The contrast between the toy and the masturbation is shocking, and discomfiting for all kinds of reasons – the violation of privacy, the difficulty we have accepting adolescent sexuality among them. Fischl explains he was

[T]rying to explore the emotions behind that taboo. Though I knew I was being provocative and sensationalistic, I was sincerely trying to express what it felt like to be the boy at a time of momentous change. . . . I was trying to portray that transitional state in which a boy becomes a sexual being. . .

Fischl adds that he only figured out the boy was masturbating when he changed the setting to night, allowing him to make “the associations between darkness and privacy” that attend the boy’s coming of age. That’s also when Fischl added the chairs, bringing the viewer into the painting. “They pull the viewer into the pictures’ space, force him to bear witness, to anoint or condemn or identify with the boy’s action.” Without the explanation, the painting is something to pass by without engaging; with the explanation, that’s no longer possible.

There’s an argument to be made that the art should speak for itself, without the explanation, and on first glance at those early paintings it appears that Fischl is not a strong draftsman, though his use of color, mass, shadow and composition compensates. Unlike many artists, Fischl was not a childhood painter; he took up art only when he went to college. But his paintings are much more about what’s happening on the inside. He writes,

Painting is a process that guides me back through complex experiences that at the time I didn’t have words to describe or understand. It retrieves feelings and memories and brings them forward with clarity and resolution.

His experiences included sex, drugs, rock and roll, an alcoholic mother and distant father, and his mother’s suicide by car accident. But Fischl’s paintings are so close to our daily lives that the explanation, oddly perhaps, provides the distance necessary to engage with them more deeply.

After leaving school Fischl taught, and he sounds as if he must have been a demanding and creative teacher. He’s also thoughtful about the history of painting, and the place of his work and that of his contemporaries in it. In the late 80s Fischl gained fame and fortune – a blessing, but a decidedly mixed one, because, Fischl writes, it changed “my relationship to my work. Drawings and preparatory paintings began to look like money instead of studies . . The temptation to print money had entered my practice along with the cynicism to rationalize it.”

It’s not as if Fischl hasn’t enjoyed his celebrity – he writes of his friendships with John McEnroe (they traded tennis and painting lessons), Mike Nichols (who became a subject) and Steve Martin (ditto). Fishl’s painting has deepened and expanded since the 1980s, becoming more complex while still probing the difficult psychology behind the screens we show to the world. So it’s still not easy to look at. But it’s worth the look: as Fischl writes:

Art is cultural glue. It binds us to each other by revealing what is is we share, what we have in common on the most intimate levels of our being. But in order for art to work, an audience has to be able so see themselves in the artist’s creation . . . Artists create art because they are seeking resonance for their thoughts and feelings. They are seeking connection.

Do you agree?

Have a book you want me to know about? Email me at asbowie@gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter @abowie917.

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Books

Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “What Belongs To You” A novel by Garth Greenwell

March 3, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-03-03 at 2.49.27 PMby Alexandra Bowie

All relationships with friends, family, lovers, carry the risk of betrayal, but must all relationships require betrayals? Is a man responsible for another person, someone he’s loved? Had sex with? Even though the other person is an independent actor, one who’s made his own choices? Garth Greenwell wrestles with these questions in his fascinating stream-of-consciousness novel, “What Belongs to You.”

The unnamed American narrator has come to Sofia, Bulgaria, to spend a year teaching at the American College, a place he describes as a prestigious stop on the way for those lucky Bulgarians able to get out of the country. The narrator picks up Mitko in the bathrooms of Sofia’s National Museum of Culture and pays for sex with him. That first encounter ends in a betrayal, if a minor one. Nevertheless, the relationship grows, though it can hardly be said to flourish; it takes root the way a tree grows through a crack in concrete.

The narrator provides brief and compelling descriptions of post-Communist Bulgaria, including Soviet-era apartment blocks that march through along the avenues, a gypsy’s horse cropping grass in his city neighborhood, a train made up of modern air-conditioned cars – all except the first-class one, which has old-fashioned compartments, with old-fashioned windows that open. His descriptions of attempts to get by in another culture are precise but not desultory. After his attempt to show he gets a joke fails, the narrator writes:

Wanting to regain my footing, and after pausing to arrange the necessary syllables in my head (which seldom, despite these efforts, emerge as they should . . . when I see surprise at my proficiency in a language that hardly anyone bothers to learn who hasn’t learned it already), I asked him what he was doing there. . . Mitko pulled out his wallet.

Mitko’s initial offer is drugs, but he segues easily to sex. As the relationship moves from transactional sex in a public bathroom to regular visits to the narrator’s apartment to a visit to Varna, the seaside city that is Mitko’s hometown it changes: Mitko needs more. The narrator gives him money, pays for food and drink, but it’s not enough, and Mitko leaves in anger. What he needs, though, is lost in the language barrier.

Another loss – the narrator’s father is dying – allows him to meditate on his family: his parents divorced, his father remarried and refused to accept his homosexuality. He decides against going home as neither will obtain comfort from it. Who has betrayed whom? The narrator’s parents had read his hidden diary, which described his realization of his sexuality; it also describes another betrayal of the narrator by a friend, K. As young boys, K. and the narrator shared eager if unfulfilled fumblings; as teenagers, K. ensured that the narrator was a witness to a sexual encounter with a girl.

Perhaps this history explains the narrator’s actions in the final section of the novel. Months after his disappearance Mitko returns, thin and ill, and confesses to the narrator that he has syphilis, and explains the narrator may have it as well. Mitko, it develops, has another condition as well – not HIV, not contagious, but it means he’s dying. In the end, both Mitko and the narrator behave in ways that are consistent with their earlier actions. This nuanced and contemplative novel will stay with the thoughtful reader.

Have a book you want me to know about? Email me at asbowie@gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter @abowie917.

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown” by Gerri Hirshey

February 17, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-02-17 at 9.34.45 AMby Alexandra Bowie

For women of my generation, Helen Gurley Brown, the editor-in-chief-forever of Cosmopolitan was close to a joke. Sure, she’d written a book, “Sex and the Single Girl,” that our mothers may have kept on their shelves, but she wasn’t serious, like Betty Friedan or Kate Millett or the authors of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” Learning that this view of Helen Gurley Brown seriously understates her role as a pioneer in writing about women’s sexuality, and as a champion of women’s reproductive rights, is only one of the many pleasures available in Gerri Hirshey’s well-written biography.

HGB, as Hirshey refers to her, was born in 1922 in rural Arkansas, to a family that had lived in the Ozarks for several generations. Her mother Cleo was a schoolteacher, at least until Helen’s older sister, Mary, was born. Her father pushed himself through law school, and was hoping for a career in state politics until his death in a stupid and unnecessary accident when Helen was 10. Her mother appears to have had some sort of communication or emotional deficits – Hirshey is careful not to supply a diagnosis based on behavior that occurred 80 years ago – and after her husband’s death tried several times to move with her children to Cleveland, then Chicago. Cleo gave up and returned to Arkansas twice, but succeeded in moving with Helen to Los Angeles.

After finishing high school in Los Angeles, Helen took numerous secretarial jobs – her sister had developed polio, and her mother’s second husband was ill with cancer. Helen took job after job, and eventually became an advertising copywriter – one of the first, and in her time one of very few, women to hold that position. She also flung herself, with gusto, into a world of dating and sex, sometimes with married men. HGB didn’t intend to marry or have children, and she was an early adopter of birth control methods as they became available. Not all of it was good for her soul, or her psyche, and Helen saved money so that she could afford psychotherapy. She tried out many different strands, and stayed away from the judgmental kind.

All this experience became the source material for her book and, later, for Cosmopolitan, which under Helen’s leadership changed from a failing publication to a magazine whose ad and newsstand revenues kept the Hearst company afloat. She did it by sheer hard work, grit and perseverance. More important, she was an advocate for making contraception available for all women and for making and keeping abortion legal.

Helen’s marriage to the movie producer David Brown, to whom she was introduced by a mutual friend, was equally unlikely. In Hirshey’s account, Brown supported his wife’s need to keep working – after her impoverished upbringing Helen refused to stop working. Brown encouraged Helen to write “Sex and the Single Girl,” and was thrilled for her success at Cosmopolitan. He played an important role behind the scenes, writing many headlines and helping her think through issues, even while he continued his career as a movie producer (Jaws, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Cleopatra). Like Helen, he knew as much about failure as he did about success.

Cosmo, Hirshey tells us, was famous for not using fact-checkers – the magazine’s editorial failure to see HIV/AIDS as a disease that reached beyond gay men is Hirshey’s main example – and the alert reader may notice errors in Hirshey’s book (the Kinsey Institute is located in Bloomington, Indiana, not Bloomington, Illinois, and the University of Illinois is located in Urbana-Champaign, not Bloomington). But the sourcing is detailed, and Hirshey is clear about where she’s quoting Helen’s friends. So it seems reasonable to assume that most errors, like this one are small – and not a reason to forgo this delightful book.

Have a book you want me to know about? Email me at asbowie@gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter @asbowie917.

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and our Energy Future” by Gretchen Bakke Ph.D.

February 3, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-02-03 at 11.14.03 AMby Alexandra Bowie

It’s a truism that the United States, like the rest of the developed world, is dependent on electricity to power our homes, our transportation systems, and our communications. In “The Grid” Gretchen Bakke, a cultural anthropologist, examines our electric grid, exploring how it developed and the cultural factors that maintain it (or, as she points out, fail to maintain it adequately). News reports focus on energy sources – coal, oil, gas – but rarely on what Bakke calls the “complex and expansive electrical delivery system”: the wires, substations, poles and transformers that bring power from distant sources to our wall outlets. This system, Bakke says, “is the world’s largest machine and the twentieth century’s greatest engineering achievement.” We mostly ignore it, until it breaks down, as it is doing with increasing frequency (measured both by number and the length of power outages). A green and sustainable energy future is achievable, Bakke reminds us, but not without the grid.

Many of the steps we need to take to reach that future are reasonably obvious: reduce demand, increase renewable energy, develop a way to store energy. But Bakke identifies some unexpected ones as well: widen the use of smart meters, don’t build energy sources to meet peak demand but try instead to level demand, improve the grid, and integrate electric vehicles into the mix. But none of these alone will be sufficient, and as each one is integrated, all the others need to be taken into account. Bakke spends most of her interesting, if occasionally feverishly written, exploration of the electric grid sketching the complex financial and infrastructure decisions that have brought us to a point where many competing demands place irreconcilable stresses on the grid.

Here’s one example. Home solar panels feed power into the grid, enough (if the sun is out) to offset that home’s electricity use. But instead of paying the power company (a regulated monopoly) the homeowner pays the installer. From the homeowner’s perspective, solar panels are a good deal: their price will not go up, the way electricity bills do. From a public policy perspective, it’s also a good deal: increased use of solar power means less use of expensive and polluting fossil fuels. But from another policy perspective, it’s missing something: the power company must maintain the poles and wires and transformers – the grid. But the utility receives no money from the solar companies to maintain the grid, even though electricity from those panels feeds into the grid. Less money for maintenance means more infrastructure problems down the road, and higher costs for the utility’s remaining customers.

That’s just one example; every one of the solutions is similarly multi-faceted. Can we solve the problems, or at least come up with new ways of generating and transmitting electricity? Bakke believes yes, with a concerted effort that will require acceptance of new ways of thinking even while we continue to pay to maintain old infrastructure. Electric cars can play a bigger role, for example, as they can be seen, in Bakke’s words, as “great big batteries on wheels.” With enough of them, she writes, car batteries, if engineered to return power to the grid (yes, it’s possible), can act as storage units. Charged, they can be driven; plugged in while parked, the excess can be returned to the grid as power. The car can be recharged overnight. It’s not enough, alone, especially now, but it’s plausible – cars spend most of their time parked.

“The Grid” provides an engaging look at a system we take for granted. Readers interested in the environment, in global warming, or just worried about when the next blackout is coming should add it to their lists.

Have a book you want me to know about? Email me at asbowie@gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter @abowie917

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Books

Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “A Gambler’s Anatomy” A Novel by Jonathan Lethem

January 20, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-01-19 at 11.04.21 AMby Alexandra Bowie

Bruno Alexander, the central character of Jonathan Lethem’s novel “A Gambler’s Anatomy” is a professional gambler – backgammon is his game of choice – who grew up in California but now travels the world. His shadowy controller, Edgar Falk, arranges games with wealthy men who feel they’ve learned enough to play Bruno for hundreds (of dollars or euros) a point. Bruno works the odds, and the doubling cube, and usually walks away with a great deal of money.

When the novel opens, Bruno is in Germany. On a ferry to an opponent’s lakeside house, he meets a woman, Madchen, whom he chats with and intends to call – she gives him her number before they part. To Bruno’s surprise Madchen turns up again later that night. It’s good she’s there, because Bruno has a seizure mid-game, and winds up in a hospital where he’s diagnosed with a meningioma, a tumor of the membranes that cover the brain. Bruno’s tumor is behind his face, and causes a blot in the center of his vision.

Blots are bad: a man-made structure is a blot on the landscape, or one blots one’s copybook or escutcheon. In backgammon a blot is a risk: it’s a single stone left unprotected on the board. (If you need a refresher on the rules of backgammon look here.) The blot has caused problems for Bruno, including an unprecedented losing streak to a player in Singapore, Keith Stolarsky. Stolarsky is not a stranger to Bruno, who was two years ahead of him at Berkeley High School.

After a week in the hospital Bruno finds himself on a plane home to Berkeley, where Keith, who paid for the plane ticket, meets his plane. Keith arranges an apartment, clothes, and walking-around money while Bruno awaits surgery. Keith is able to do that as he’s been buying up Berkeley real estate, monetizing the area’s anti-capitalist and student mindset.

Without thinking much about it, Bruno undergoes a phantasmagorical advanced surgery, in which his face is peeled away like a mask and a specialist neurosurgeon who loves rock and roll removes the film of tumor. The surgery consumes the central section of the novel, and it’s the one part that feels researched and a tad forced. Afterwards, of course, things are not the same for Bruno, and he puts the smarts and insight that once supported his backgammon career to other uses.

Those other ends are two-fold – Bruno slowly unveils his past as the only child of a single hippie mother and finds that her example has influenced him in ways that perhaps he hadn’t considered. Bruno spends the rest of his time tracing Keith’s neighborhood-sized empire.

Which leaves the reader with questions to contemplate: Why does Bruno value the blot that transformed his brain and altered his vision, especially after it’s gone? And why is Keith willing to underwrite Bruno’s treatment? Lethem’s power is such that there are several possible answers to each of these questions, leaving the reader thinking about this novel long after finishing it. If you have a theory about who the gambler of the title is, by all means let us know in the comments.

Alexandra Bowie is a writer living in Brooklyn. Have a book you want me to know about? Email me at asbowie@gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter @abowie917.

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike” by Phil Knight

January 6, 2017

Screen Shot 2017-01-06 at 12.32.53 PMby Alexandra Bowie

“Shoe Dog,” Phil Knight’s memoir of his life up until approximately the time Nike became a public company, has turned up on a number of ‘best books of 2016’ lists for a good reason: it’s lively, suspenseful, and the voice Knight presents is both humble and engaging. Knight didn’t set out to form a behemoth public company but back in 1962 he did have a good idea, one he refers to as his Crazy Idea: Japanese running shoes could dominate the market the way Japanese cameras had displaced German ones. He wanted to make that happen.

Knight grew up in Oregon and attended the University of Oregon – where he was a member of the track team, coached by the legendary Bill Bowerman. Knight describes Bowerman as “a genius coach, a master motivator, a natural leader of young men” and a tinkerer – someone who was always working to make his team members’ shoes better and lighter. Knight says:

There were four or five of us on the track team who were Bowerman’s podiatry guinea pigs, but I was his pet project. Something about my feet spoke to him. Something about my stride. Also, I afforded a wide margin of error. I wasn’t the best on the team, not by a long shot, so he could afford to make mistakes on me. With my more talented teammates he didn’t dare take undue chances.

The Crazy Idea grew out of a presentation Knight made in his final year of Stanford Business School, in an entrepreneurship class. He followed it, in 1962, with a trip around the world – after a long layover in Hawaii with a friend, he went on alone to Japan where he pitched his idea to a Japanese shoe company, which, after some persuasion, gave Knight a trial as American distributor of its shoes. To make money, Knight took an accounting job; to add to his credentials, he studied for a CPA. He does not elide over the hard work and long hours – Knight had a full-time job, and when work finished, he’d spend evenings and weekends selling shoes.

The book is organized chronologically, a chapter for each year, and Knight tells his story with great humor. By 1968 he was married, and his first child was on the way. The business was growing, and required a great deal of time away on the road. Relations with Knight’s Japanese bankers were challenging; his bankers were demanding, and a growing family and growing business both require real estate. The switch from distributing shoes to manufacturing them did not come in one blinding flash of illumination (neither did the design of the now-iconic swoosh) but rather each was the result of a series of small decisions. Knight is also good about sharing credit – with Bowerman for shoe designs, with his early employees and investors. Most important, Knight credits his first employee with coming up with Nike as the name of the company (Knight was pushing for “Dimension Six”).

Nonetheless, the description of the thinking behind the switch from importing and distributing to manufacturing – is minimal, as are many later business decisions, including the details of how Nike went about developing athlete endorsement relationships and team uniform purchases. There’s no discussion of Nike’s sweatshop or child labor controversies. That’s consistent with Knight’s approach to his memoir, which virtually ends in 1980 with the decision to take Nike public. Knight describes himself as fundamentally shy and very private person, an unexpected yet persuasive self-description of someone who has a very public role. Knight writes broadly but not deeply about his family life, describing family tensions – his parents’ difficult marriage, the cost to his family of all his time on the road, and the death of his oldest son Matthew in a diving accident – but leaving the reader to draw her own conclusions about his feelings.

Knight’s advice to himself as a twenty-five year old is still good advice. “Don’t stop,” he writes. “Don’t even think about stopping until you get there, and don’t give much thought to where ‘there’ is. Whatever comes, just don’t stop.”

Have a book you want me to know about? Email me at asbowie@gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter @abowie917.

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Review: “Aim High in Creation! A One-of-a Kind Journey inside North Korea’s Propaganda Machine” by Anna Broinowski

December 17, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-12-17 at 12.47.05 PMby Alexandra Bowie

Winston Churchill famously described Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma;” add to that several layers of a cloak of darkness and you have North Korea. After ending most contact with the outside world in 1953, North Korea has been the subject of some interest from western filmmakers and policy makers. But unless ours is among the thousands of families cut apart more than 60 years ago, most of us ignore North Korea. The other half of Churchill’s dictum, less well known, that there may be a key, the national interest, turns out to apply equally as well. Anna Broinowski, an Australian documentary maker, leveraged Kim Jong Il’s little-known fascination with films and filmmaking to get into North Korea to film a documentary about the surprisingly robust North Korean film industry. In this book, a kind of movie tie-in, she explains how she did it.

The first problem was gaining entry to the country. A documentary about North Korea or its propaganda machine alone would not be enough, but another issue was at hand: New South Wales officials were in the process of allowing fracking in Sydney Park. Yes. In a park in the middle of a large city, one that happened to be a short walk from Broinowski’s home. Broinowski decided to make a film to stop it – a film using North Korean film propaganda techniques. A film about North Korea would find an audience, Broinowski thought, and a film using North Korean propaganda techniques would persuade audiences that fracking is dangerous. There was only one way to make such a film, Broinowski decided: get North Korea’s film industry to help.

Broinowski followed every thread she could to unravel the veil: westerners who have studied North Korean films, Koreans actors and directors North Korea kidnapped and brought to the country to make films, defectors. She studied Kim’s book “On the Art of the Cinema.” That book is the source of this memoir’s title; it’s one of Kim’s rules for making films. Other rules cover the role of the director (in charge, or, as Broinowski puts it, Creative Commander), the source of emotions (defined by the directing – no Method acting for North Koreans), and the importance of music and song (central).

Broinowski’s quest takes her through South Korea and Japan, and ultimately on two visits to North Korea, the second time with a film crew. Staring out the car window, Broinowski looks for signs of the dark, starving North Korea she’d imagined. Instead, she finds Pyongyang beautiful, with no advertising or billboards, landscapes on the bus stops, propaganda, and clean air. If her minder, Ms. K, is strict and on her guard, she can be also be coaxed to laugh.

In the course of describing the challenges involved in making the film, Broinowski also fills in the reader on the transfer of power from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un in 2011. (In a purge worthy of an Ottoman sultan, Kim Jong Un consolidated his power by killing his uncle, his uncle’s children and grandchildren, and possibly a former girlfriend.) She finds the North Korean film industry folk she comes into contact with friendly, generous, deeply human, while marvelling at and confronting the cultural crevasses. Broinowski brings a bottle of Kim Kardashian perfume with her on the second trip – it’s a joke gift to her – and describes what happens when her young interpreter sees the bottle:

Sun Hi, who’s been studying me closely . . . squeals with delight. “Oh!” she says, gazing at the word Kim on the bottle. “You have a perfume named after the Dear Leader.” [My cinematographer] and I share a look. How do you explain Kim Kardashian to someone who has never heard of reality TV?

In the end, the film is made (it’s available on Netflix and YouTube). Broinowski describes a struggle with her conscience when her minders suddenly insist on deleting some images of Kim, and also provides a rare glimpse of life behind the curtain. On one of their last nights in Pyongyang the van drops the North Koreans at their various homes before taking Broinowski and her team back to their hotel, and she describes watching him walk across “a desolate stretch of dirt and barbed wire” to his home. The movie is made, the fracking in Sydney Park stopped, the North Koreans who helped are not allowed exit visas to see the premiere, but a friend delivers a DVD to them. They’re allowed to watch the film-within-a-film, about fracking, Broinowski writes, but not the larger documentary about their work. But their voices come through in this loving and perceptive memoir.

See you in the new year. In the meantime, email at asbowie@gmail.com if you have  a book you want me to know about. Follow me on Twitter @abowie917.

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