Too Big to... you know the rest.

(Photo credit: The great O. Winston Link, "NW 1103-Hot Shot Eastbound, Laeger, West Virginia, 1956")

My review of Richard White's RAILROADED: Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (W.W. Norton, May 2011) appeared in the Boston Globe on 5 June 2011. You can read it there or just keep looking down... there it is.

RAILROADED by Richard White

“Overbuilt, prone to bankruptcy and receivership, wretchedly managed, politically corrupt, environmentally harmful, and financially wasteful, these corporations nonetheless helped create a world where private success often came from luck, fortunate timing, and state intervention. Profit arose more from financial markets and insider contracts than from” [505] — can you guess the final word in this sentence? “Financial products,” perhaps, a la Lehman Brothers? “Mortgage-backed securities,” as in the case of AIG? Or is this all about Enron and its fraudulent energy business? No, the final word in this sentence is “transportation:” we’re talking about the transcontinental railroads of the late nineteenth century. [505] Welcome to a scathing and wonderful new book about American business and its crimes over a hundred years ago: Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America. Stanford University professor Richard White, one of our country’s greatest historians, has written a book that will entertain and outrage its readers with scenes of corporate greed and mismanagement and the federal bailouts that enabled them. Even as the railroads went bankrupt, their owners grew rich — all subsidized by the United States government. Think of Railroaded as Michael Lewis’s Liar’s Poker, set in a Gilded Age just as fantastically sick as the bond-trading offices of Salomon Brothers in the newly-deregulated 1980s.

White’s argument is simple yet surprising. It was not the success of the transcontinental railroads that transformed America: it was their failure. These railroads - which, incidentally, were not even transcontinental (they stopped at the Missouri River and let the existing railroads take over from there to the Atlantic), were poorly conceived and often terribly executed. When they failed - and almost all eventually did — they brought the entire economy down with them, as in the case of the Panic (and resulting multi-year depression) of 1873 which was, in White’s words, “Above all… a railroad depression.” [83] The sources of their failure — incompetence and greed — were obscured from the public. The Central Pacific Railroad’s Annual Report for 1873 assured its investors that its prospects were “never brighter” even as it decided to pay its debts with money earmarked for taxes and workers’ wages. [86] White is straightforward in his assessment of the Central Pacific’s policy: “everyone agreed to lie.” [86]

White is not arguing that transcontinental railroads should never have been built; instead he asks, “Why were so many of these railroads built at at a time when there was so little need of them?” [xxiv] Yes, building railroads through land not yet settled by Euro-Americans (though long home to Native Americans) did bring new American farms and towns into existence, but many of those settlements lay in climate zones good for railroads but terrible for farmers. Thousands of bankruptcies and broken dreams followed. White uses the two Dakotas, North and South, as a case study of how the American West might have developed without federally-subsidized railroads. The subsidized transcontinentals ran only through North Dakota, where the railroad corporations were given public lands for free as a “right of way” and then charged settlers to live on them. In South Dakota, “the government aided settlers, not railroads, while securing a more efficient railroad network and denser settlement… Farmers paid less for land [in South Dakota], settled the better lands more quickly, and avoided marginal arid lands.” [486] That’s how capitalism is supposed to work, isn’t it: business emerges to meet demand? Not when it came to the transcontinentals. White doesn’t disagree with the idea that “railroads defined the age” [xxii] of an emerging modern America, but he has a different explanation for that belief: They were, like so much in the Gilded Age, corrupt.

Don’t pick up Railroaded expecting a romance of steam engines, lonesome whistles blowing, or poetic vistas glimpsed from the sliding doors of a boxcar. This is a story about the dark arts of accounting and the seemingly paradoxical fact that the transcontinental railroads were simultaneously “unsuccessful and powerful.” [505] Don’t look for a Darwinian model of business, either. White demonstrates “how the unsuccessful and the incompetent not only survived but prospered and became powerful… it was the triumph of the unfit, whose survival demanded the intervention of the state, which the corporations themselves corrupted.” [505]

The phrase “Too big to fail” irked most Americans when we heard it used to explain why taxpayers had to pay for the greed and incompetence of Wall Street in the early 2000s. “What were the results of a world dominated by large, inept, but powerful failures whose influence could not be avoided?” [505] White asks. In Railroaded, he provides answers to the nineteenth-century version of the same problem that plagues us today. Yet here we are again.

Garden State

My review of Francine Prose's novel, MY NEW AMERICAN LIFE (Harper, April 2011), appeared in the Boston Globe on May 22, 2011. You can read it there or (much easier) below. - BJ

MY NEW AMERICAN LIFE by Francine Prose

Svetlana Kirilenko made me love The Sopranos. You remember Svetlana: the peroxided, chain-smoking, one-legged immigrant Russian home care nurse who became Tony Soprano’s lover. It wasn’t just her charmingly unsentimental personality; I liked the fact that she appeared in the series at all. Svetlana was exactly the type of person we come into contact with every day yet rarely see dramatized. Now Francine Prose puts a Svetlana-esque character at the center of her novel, My New American Life. Her Lula is Albanian, not Russian, and she’s a nanny, not a nurse, but she’s got a lot in common with Svetlana - which may not be a good thing, in the end.

On the novel’s very first page Lula refers to Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlen’s 1961 tale of a human born on Mars who returns to Earth and finds it a hostile home. Putting an immigrant at the center of a novel has always been a good strategy for seeing one’s native culture in a new light. Lula toils illegally as a waitress in lower Manhattan along with a staff of other illegal immigrants: Dunia, her fellow Albanian, Eduardo the Mexican busboy, and a bulimic model from Belarus. After work, “everyone got drunk and bet on who’d get deported first.” [9]

Lula is twenty-six, pretty, and her “visa problem was keeping her up at night.” [10] She answers a Craigslist ad for a nanny and is surprised to find that Mister Stanley is on the level, not like the guy who taught her English back in Albania in exchange for sex. What a country. Mister Stanley hires her to watch his teenaged son Zeke after school and in return she not only gets paid but he will also help get her U.S. citizenship. “The Balkans had no expression for ‘win-win situation,’” Lula muses. “in the Balkans they said, No problem, and the translation was, You’re fucked.” [17]

Lula’s glass-half-empty outlook on life serves as the novel’s central joke: she expects the worst, which never arrives. That’s the odd thing about the book: nothing terrible ever happens to her - undertipping is as bad as it gets. It’s puzzling, but somehow all the real drama ensues just out of frame: we hear secondhand that Eduardo the busboy gets deported. Lula’s friend Dunia prostitutes herself to a closeted, rich plastic surgeon: “The shopping is better [in America],” Dunia says. “The sex is worse.” [184], but this is all told after the fact. Lula, in contrast, lives in a bubble of suburban safety, surrounded by well-meaning Americans trying to help her. Her boss pays her well, she’s represented by the most famous immigration lawyer in New York City, and the only hint of danger comes from a brief encounter with her fellow Albanians.

This is a story about one woman’s inner world, and whether the outer world can change it. That’s the problem: not much changes. Lula’s pessimism can be endearing - “Paranoia was Balkan for common sense,” [127] Lula says - but it’s not original. The “Balkan shrug” [115] of resignation she employs so often is a familiar trope, an accurate portrayal of a certain kind of post-Communist apathy, no doubt, but not especially revealing. When Lula muses in Chapter Four that “[i]t was so hard to live among strangers with whom you shared no history, no knowledge of a way of life that went back and back,” [100], the passage suggests that Prose will explore this drama more deeply as the book goes on, but that doesn’t happen. A list of some of the non-events Lula experiences include: a college tour that’s a disaster - but only for the teenaged son (we hear about it secondhand); Lula’s lawyer making an inappropriate advance - or not (Lula isn’t sure); Lula being forced to hide a gangster’s gun and while, according to Chekhovian logic, the gun is eventually fired, no one is hurt and Lula’s is never held responsible; Lula being attracted to a seemingly dangerous man, but their relationship is never consummated and the extent of his criminality is never revealed. This picaresque tale of Lula’s non-adventures in suburbia leave us wondering if the main fact of Lula’s new life is its lack of excitement.

Prose makes a point of referencing The Sopranos throughout the novel, which only begs an uncomfortable question: what has Prose revealed about the inner lives of ethnic Europeans adapting to life in the Garden State that The Sopranos, an epic series spanning nearly the entire first decade of this century and described more than once as “novelistic,” didn’t already? It may not seem like a fair comparison - The Sopranos is generally recognized as a masterpiece -- but then, isn’t an actual novel supposed to have the advantage in this area? Surely the genre is specially designed for this purpose, to burrow deep inside the psyches of its characters in a way no other narrative genre can touch. As likable as Lula is, ultimately we know her about as well as we knew one-legged Svetlana Kirilenko, a minor character who appeared in just a few episodes. The time seems ripe for a great novel about immigration, yet after spending three hundred pages immersed in her new American life, we leave Lula (we never learn her surname) with little more than a Balkan shrug.

Poser. (A review.)

It was inevitable, wasn't it? The yoga memoir. Despite apprehension, I thought Claire Dederer's POSER was great. I reviewed it in the Boston Globe a few days back. You can read the review at their website or below.

Don't forget to breathe.

Claire Dederer, POSER: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses Review by Buzzy Jackson

This book is going to be big. Claire Dederer manages to pack everything into this mom-oir: childbirth, money, schools, social class, career anxiety, parenting, sex, friendship, marriage, and yes, yoga. And don’t forget Dansko clogs – “always, always, [the] clogs… ” [31] Thousands of American mothers share Dederer’s clog-shod experience as they glance up from their darling, maddening new babies to find themselves in a new sphere: hip, progressive, trying-really-hard-to-do-it-right mom-world. POSER is written for them. “We were a generation of hollow-eyed women, chasing virtue. We, the mothers of North Seattle, were consumed with trying to do everything right… cook organic food, buy expensive wooden toys… Also, don’t forget to recycle.” [19] Dederer and her husband are freelance writers trying to make their creative careers mesh with the demands of raising two young children. Despite their creativity they find themselves sinking into traditional roles, “he was Earner, I was Mother, like characters in some phenomenally boring Ionesco play.” [33] As a writer, however, Dederer is never boring. POSER achieves a yoga-like balance between pain and humor. While she may skewer the pretentions of her fellow moms and yoginis, she never lets herself off the hook, either. Her honest descriptions of her own fears and shortcomings as a parent, wife, and daughter are at the center of this book. Dederer first attempts yoga to relieve an aching back (thrown out while breastfeeding, natch) but is soon seduced, despite her skepticism and aversion to Tibetan prayer flags, by the calming effect it has on her mind. “I didn’t think of it as an escape; I just felt the relief of moving and not thinking. There was also this relief: It was a room I didn’t have to clean.” [82] Dederer occasionally lapses into Erma-Bombeck-visits-the-ashram mode but in fact her experience with yoga teaches her something profound: how to recognize and face her own pain. “Discomfort, anxiety, dread – they had been lurking there all along, and I had been avoiding them, rushing away from them.” [231] Her acknowledgment of this pain forces her to realize something surprising: “In response to my 1970s mom” – who ditched Dederer’s father for a younger, hipper man and joined the counterculture post-divorce – “I had become a 1950s housewife.” [231] Dederer’s examination of this paradox is one of the most rewarding sections of the book. Her attitude toward her mother is both compassionate - “To be a young mother at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the ‘70s was to have missed it… They, like everyone else, wanted freedom and meaning.” [57] – and angry – “What happens… when a generation of children grows up with parents who want to be free, and who think that freedom is movement?” [58] For Dederer and her brother, what happened was a desire “to be good, all the time. We would stay married, no matter what, and drink organic milk.” [60] But her quest for total control over her family life, for “an uninterrupted story” in which “no one leaves… [and] everyone sticks together and follows the rules” [232] is nearly as destructive as her mother’s desire to have it all, 1970s-style. Yoga helps her recognize, if not solve, this central issue. From the bendier-than-thou instructors to the more-locavore-than-thou preschool parents, Claire Dederer captures everyone in her Dankso world with humanity and gentle wit. So many readers will relate to her story; not just the long minutes spent in downward dog or the hours lost wandering the aisles of Whole Foods, but the years of pondering the mysteries of family relationships, past and present. And the fleeting moments spent staying, as the yogis say, focused on the breath.

The Plastic Prophecy.

If it's December 27th where you are, you've probably seen enough plastic in the past week to last, well forever (I think it lasts forever, anyway). Credit cards, American Girl dolls, race cars, bubble wrap, clamshell packaging... it's all plastic, baby. So it seems an appropriate moment to assess our plastic culture.

My review of sociologist Laurie Essig's new book, AMERICAN PLASTIC: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and Our Search for Perfection (Beacon Books: 2010) appeared in yesterday's Boston Globe - you can read it at this link or below.

BOOK REVIEW: Laurie Essig, American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and Our Quest for Perfection

“I just want to say one word to you. Just one word… plastics.” When Mr. McGuire offers this advice, if you can call it that, to young Benjamin Braddock in the 1967 film The Graduate, is it possible he had “boob jobs, credit cards, and our quest for perfection” in mind? “[O]ne cannot understand America,” Laurie Essig writes, “without understanding plastic.” [x] Like Mr. McGuire, Essig believes that understanding plastic is the key to understanding contemporary America. Sound absurd, doesn’t it? But in this fast-paced book, sociologist Laurie Essig makes a strong case for the idea that plastic – both in the form of money (e.g., credit cards and other forms of easy credit) and in the form of surgery (e.g., boob jobs, nose jobs, etc.), has become Americans’ favorite problem-solving tool, whether they can afford it or not. “We wish the world were different. We wish we were different. The solution, it seems, is plastic.”[xiii] Essig’s style is breezy but her message is as pointed as a syringe full of Botox: the American Dream is a myth and our addiction to plastic conspires in obscuring that fact. “Our desire for plastic is the result of massive shifts in our culture and our economy that affect us all. Plastic money covered up the fact that most of us were getting poorer while a few of us were getting richer.” [xiii] Hers is at heart an argument about political economy. Essig’s approach adds a new facet to a growing argument about the complicated web of consumerism, health, and the American ethos of individualism expressed in recent books such as Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America and Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. As Essig argues, America’s cult of individualism “grew up alongside capitalism to free the state from responsibility to the individual and make the individual see failure as a personal, not a structural, problem.” [25] How all this relates to boob jobs is surprisingly straightforward: “This ideology says that we are responsible for ourselves, and that we all have a chance to make it if we just work hard enough. In this case, the hard work of beauty becomes something we all must do, and if we don’t, then we deserve our low pay, or lack of healthcare, or lonely, unmarried futures.” [25] If at first the reader finds this line of logic hard to take seriously, just spend some time with the many women Essig interviewed for the book (women make up 90 percent of the cosmetic surgery patients [xix]) who explain that they spent thousands of dollars on bigger boobs, smaller noses, and flatter stomachs because they hoped that by looking better they would be less likely to be fired from their jobs. Less likely to be dumped by their husbands. Less likely to hate themselves. It’s a sad story. And a common one. Essig’s strength is her humor, combined with real compassion for and identification with the average American woman who finds it hard to love her own body. She coins a term that’s stayed with me since I finished the book: “ordinary ugliness.” This is the state of being, well, normal: “stretch marks, cellulite, wrinkles, the downward pull of gravity, the realization that our bodies are not and can never be perfect.” [84] Ordinary ugliness has always been with us; it’s just plastic surgery that’s new. Essig notes that when her mother reached late middle age, she “believed it was acceptable to ‘let herself go.’” – to stop dyeing her hair, pulling on a girdle, and wearing uncomfortable shoes. “I don’t know at what age I can stop dying [sic] my hair or working out,” writes Essig, who is in her forties, “but it’s definitely not anytime soon, if ever.” [87] Of course, the next generation of American women – her daughters – started their “beauty work” earlier than their predecessors and will probably keep doing it into very old age. [87] Why? Because despite real advances in American women’s lives, women are still “trapped in a culture that insists happiness can only be obtained through the transformation of the body.” [159] That, plus the fact that we live in a world trying to sell us stuff, constantly. Essig can’t simply blame the media for the problem; as she observes, many of the women who cite the media as the root of their dissatisfaction with their own appearance go on to get unaffordable plastic surgery anyway. As one cosmetic surgery patient explained, ruefully, “The hard part is to distinguish between what I want and what society wants.” [166] In the past decade the popularity of plastic surgery (measured in the number of procedures) has increased by 465 percent. [xiii] Most of those procedures were paid for on credit. [xvii] You may read these statistics and scoff, having never gone in for “a little work” yourself, but as Essig notes, even if you’ve never considered plastic surgery, “chances are you’ve assumed debt” – whether in the pursuit of a house, nicer furniture, or more education – “in order to create a more perfect future.” [xiii] As the Reagan administration dissolved banking regulations in the 1980s and revised the tax code to benefit the richest among us, increasingly poorer working Americans turned to credit to finance their version of the American Dream. And we’re still doing it. Guess what, Benjamin Braddock? Mr. McGuire was right.

So where DO good ideas come from? A review.

Thomas Edison with one of his best ideas - an invention that came to signify inspiration itself: the lightbulb. In today's Boston Globe I review the new Steven Johnson book, WHERE GOOD IDEAS COME FROM: The natural history of innovation (Riverside: 2010). The one point I did not have space to make in my review was the unsung debt owed by Johnson (and many others) to the great James Burke, best known for his BBC television series, CONNECTIONS. Johnson's new book is in many ways a streamlined, sexier book version of CONNECTIONS, a show which traced the incredible paths of various scientific innovations from ancient times to the present. I can't recommend it highly enough.

My review of Johnson's book can be found on the Boston Globe site or, for your convenience, below.

MOTHERS OF INVENTION Since there’s no copyright on book titles, Steven Johnson could have called his new book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions even though Thomas Kuhn used it in 1962. Instead, he went with Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. Although indebted to Kuhn, Johnson is interested in much more than just scientific revolutions. This book covers everything from the history of reading to the influence of Brian Eno on hip hop producer Hank Schocklee. But mostly it’s about Charles Darwin. Where Good Ideas Come From begins and ends with Darwin, the intellectual hero of our day (and yesterday and presumably tomorrow), the genius whose insights into everything from the formation of tropical atolls to the process of evolution underlie so much of modern life. Darwin is the perfect foil for Johnson, both for his creative ideas as well as his creative habits. If that sounds confusing, consider how Johnson describes his book “This is a book about the space of innovation… If we want to understand where good ideas come from, we have to put them in context. Darwin’s world-changing idea unfolded inside his brain, but think of all the environments he needed to piece it together: a ship, an archipelago, a notebook, a library, a coral reef. Our thought shapes the spaces we inhabit, and our spaces return the favor.” [15] “The space of innovation” is a pretty abstract concept. Johnson knows it and equips himself with an entire ordnance depot full of examples in order to explain. He’s not interested in merely recounting the well-known tale of how seventeenth-century coffeehouses fueled the European Enlightenment; no, this is a rapid-fire tour of “spaces” large, small, mental, physical, and otherwise -- we’re talking reefs, webs, brains, networks, platforms, and quadrants. Johnson steps back now and again to remind us of the bigger picture. He’s distilled seven patterns or properties and assigned a chapter to each: The Adjacent Possible; Liquid Networks; The Slow Hunch; Serendipity; Error; Exaptation, and Platforms. “The more we embrace these patterns,”Johnson argues, “the better we will be at tapping our extraordinary capacity for innovative thinking.” [15-16] Johnson has been interested in these ideas for a long time – nearly every book he’s written addresses an aspect of human innovation or the properties of intellectual networks, from his very first book, Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate (1997) to The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America (2008), and it’s clear that his research on the subject runs very deep. Where Good Ideas Come From may be the ultimate distillation of all his thinking on these issues and at times that’s the book’s challenge: it can read less like a book and more like a series of interesting concepts. Take the first five paragraphs of the Exaptation chapter, for example, in which Johnson leaps from Pliny the Elder and the invention of the screw press (for making wine) to fifteenth-century Rhineland and the bubonic plague to a first-century C.E. Chinese blacksmith named Pi Sheng (the inventor of movable type) and finally Johannes Gutenberg, who “took a machine designed to get people drunk [the Greco-Roman screw press], and turned it into an engine for mass communication.” [151] One admires the intellectual athleticism of Johnson’s maneuvers here, yet one can’t help wishing for a bit more time with each of these fascinating characters and their inventions. Distillation is a fine thing, but it’s also nice to sit back and slowly enjoy a tumbler of whiskey. Johnson achieves a more pleasing balance of story and factoid in the chapter entitled The Slow Hunch. Here, he constructs a dramatic and chilling set piece about the “Phoenix Memo,” the unheeded July 2001 warning from an Arizona FBI field agent named Ken Williams who tried to alert the U.S. government to the presence of suspicious foreign students enrolled in American flight schools. Johnson threads the tale of the Phoenix Memo throughout the chapter, visiting along the way with (naturally) Charles Darwin’s journals, John Locke’s indexing system, a Victorian England how-to book entitled Enquire Within Upon Everything, Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web, and the corporate environment of Google. Although packed with wide-ranging details, the narrative shadow of the doomed Phoenix Memo is always present, adding weight and a sense of foreboding to Johnson’s larger argument about the power of the “slow hunch.” It’s one of his most important ideas: that great innovations do not usually appear in a flash of inspiration but instead they accrete “by stealth, in small steps. They fade into view.” [79] By the end of the chapter, I was convinced. Steven Johnson must occasionally wonder why he’s not Malcolm Gladwell; that is, why his bestselling books haven’t become zeitgeisty pop blockbusters in the manner of Gladwell’s. Surely “The Adjacent Possible” is just as catchy a concept as “The Tipping Point”… then again, maybe not. While Johnson and Gladwell write about many of the same issues (they’re equally obsessed, for instance, with “the strength of weak ties”) and bring their ideas to life through the use of capsule biographies, Gladwell lingers on the unexpectedly interesting quirks of a high school basketball coach or a forgotten nineteenth-century scientist (and yes, sometimes he lingers too long, but that’s another review). Johnson, meanwhile, speeds through the connections between the coach, the scientist, and fifteen other seemingly disparate people across time to make his point about creativity, about communication, about idea-making. Johnson’s concepts are strong and his explanations are credible. But after a while one tires of explanation. Ultimately, good ideas come from people. Johnson is most convincing when he slows down to let us spend time with them.