The Saturday Read ‘The Prophet of Dystopia’ by Rebecca Mead

What if you had reached the “Gold Watch and Goodbye” phase of your career only to be catapulted back into the spotlight by current events?

That seems to be what’s happening to Canadian author Margaret Atwood as her ‘new’ literary sensation, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, originally published in 1985, leads the literary fiction category on Amazon and is number ten on The New York Times Paperback Trade Fiction list. A film version of the book will begin streaming on Hulu next week. And earlier this week Ms. Atwood was included in the list of  Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.

The Saturday Read is Rebecca Mead‘s multi-dimensional profile ‘The Prophet of Dystopia’.

The ‘Gold Watch and Goodbye’ career reference is evident as Ms. Mead brings us along on a March evening when Ms. Atwood received the National Book Critics Circle lifetime-achievement award. In her closing remarks the author asked, “Why do I only get one lifetime? Where did this lifetime go?”

The profile offers a panoramic view of this one lifetime; from one writers beginnings to mentor and evangelist for new writers.

“Atwood was born in Ottawa, but she spent formative stretches of her early years in the wilderness—first in northern Quebec, and then north of Lake Superior. Her father, Carl Atwood, was an entomologist, and, until Atwood was almost out of elementary school, the family passed all but the coldest months in virtually complete isolation at insect-research stations; at one point, they lived in a log cabin that her father had helped construct.”

In college she switched majors from philosophy to literature. She challenged the traditional canons of British and American literature with an argument for Canadian literature and its dominant theme of survival.

“Our stories are likely to be tales not of those who made it but of those who made it back from the awful experience—the North, the snowstorm, the sinking ship—that killed everyone else.”

She was an established writer before “the sometimes divisive years of second-wave feminism” and wrote an essay giving voice to colleagues.

“It’s not finally all that comforting to have a phalanx of women . . . come breezing up now to tell them they were right all along,” she wrote. “It’s like being judged innocent after you’ve been hanged: the satisfaction, if any, is grim.”

“Her feminism assumes women’s rights to be human rights, and is born of having been raised with a presumption of absolute equality between the sexes…

Atwood’s early years in the forest endowed her with a sense of self-determination, and with a critical distance on codes of femininity—an ability to see those codes as cultural practices worthy of investigation, not as necessary conditions to be accepted unthinkingly. This capacity for quizzical scrutiny underlies much of her fiction: not accepting the world as it is permits Atwood to imagine the world as it might be.”

It’s the fearless questioning that has resonated over time and reintroduced readers to the classic ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ this spring.

Rebecca Mead’s profile of the thoroughly modern, septuagenarian writer is required reading as a companion to the novel.

“In a photograph taken the day after the Inauguration, at the Women’s March on Washington, a protester held a sign bearing a slogan that spoke to the moment: “make margaret atwood fiction again.”

 

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@latimesfob this weekend:

The Handmaid’s Tale from Page to Screen: Margaret Atwood & Bruce Miller in Conversation with Mary McNamara, Conversation 2063 Sunday, April 23 @2:30PM in Bovard Auditorium on the University of Southern California campus

The Saturday Read – ‘The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds

The Saturday Read this week is the latest book from Michael Lewis, ‘The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds’. It’s the story of Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky; two men who baffled colleagues at their pairing from the early days of their academic careers until the point when the public perception “was now a Venn diagram, two circles, with Danny wholly contained by Amos”.

Reading ‘The Undoing Project’ I found myself underling and annotating as I went along, re-reading passages, flipping between chapters; engaged in an academic exercise vs. an enjoyable character-driven narrative.

It’s the first time I’ve read a Michael Lewis book where I heard the voice of a Princeton alum more clearly than those of the two main characters.

Here’s the strange thing, as painful as the first read was; I keep thinking about the practical applications of the pair’s research long after the final page.

“The way the creative process works is that you first say something, and later, sometimes years later, you understand what you said.”

Read something and sometime later you understand how it applies.

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Both of these men had exceptional origin stories. Each was a genius in his own right. Each started out where we all do, with a certain degree of uncertainty about what to do with our lives.

For Danny, “From the moment he thought what he might be when he grew up, he simply assumed he would be an intellectual. That was his image of himself: a brain without a body… He’d always sensed that he would be some sort of professor, and the questions he had about human beings were more interesting to him than any others. “My interest in psychology was a way to do philosophy…to understand the world by understanding why people, especially me see it as they do.”

“Aptitude tests revealed Danny to be equally suited for the humanities and science, but he only wanted to do science. He also wanted to study people. Beyond that, it soon became clear, he didn’t know what he wanted to do.”

In an interview with Stephanie Demming, published in December, he further clarified his path.

“My own love affair with psychology began after I graduated from university in 2009, as soon as I started working in the real world. It took all of two minutes to figure out the working world didn’t function like the school system. If you worked hard, you weren’t always rewarded. The new currency was whether or not people liked you. It was a system governed not by grades, but by people’s minds.”

For Amos, “Entering high school, Amos like all Israeli kids, needed to decide if he would specialize in math and science or in the humanities. The new society exerted great pressure on boys to study math and science. That’s where the status was, and the future careers. Amos had a gift for math and science, perhaps more than any other boy. And yet alone among the bright boys in his class – and to the bemusement of all – he pursued the humanities.”

“Hebrew University in the late 1950s required students to pick two fields of concentration. Amos had chosen philosophy and psychology.  But Amos approached intellectual life strategically, as if it were an oil field to be drilled, and after two years of sitting through philosophy classes he announced that philosophy was a dry well…There are too many smart guys and too few problems left, and the problems have no solutions.”

Later, in his mid-forties he was asked by Harvard professor Miles Shore how he became a psychologist.

“It’s hard to know how people select a course in life…The big choices we make are practically random. The small choices probably tell us more about who we are. Which field we go into may depend on which high school teacher we happen to meet…On the other hand, the small decisions are very systematic. That I became a psychologist is probably not very revealing. What kind of psychologist I am may reflect deep traits.”

The career choices of these two individuals resulted in a collaboration that challenged conventional thinking on human judgement and decision making.

“A part of good science is to see what everyone else can see but think what no one else has ever said.”

“Given the work on human judgment that he and Amos had just finished, he found it further troubling to think that “crucial decisions are made, today as thousands of years ago, in terms of the intuitive guesses and preferences of a few men in positions of authority.” The failure of decision makers to grapple with the inner workings of their own minds, and their desire to indulge their gut feelings, made it “quite likely that the fate of entire societies may be sealed by a series of avoidable mistakes committed by their leaders.””

This was the book that Michael Lewis had to write. It was the origin story of his best seller ‘Moneyball’. A writer is often compelled to follow his curiosity and tell the stories he finds as he explores the tangents. ‘The Undoing Project’ may not be his best narrative, but it’s his best connection to the reality of the decisions ordinary folk face @work every day.

“I’ve always felt  ideas were a dime a dozen…If you had one that didn’t work out, you should not fight too hard to save it, just go find another.”

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The Saturday Read ‘The Reader on the 6.27’ by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent (translated by Ros Schwartz)

Does our work define us? Many would argue it doesn’t and yet, we carry the bias of standard stereotypes throughout our work day toward those we encounter along the way.

This question of work identity and expectations forms the center of the story of ‘The Reader on the 6.27’ by French writer Jean-Paul Didierlaurent.

In this novel, I wanted to highlight the invisible, the battered lives, the ordinary people who often go unnoticed; and I wanted to show that each of them could have their own unexpected story. In a society where looks have become a religion and where we judge more on appearance, I wanted to highlight our prejudices and show that the clothes do not always make the man. But this book is also a declaration of love for words and for reading. All the characters have a close relationship with words – the words they read, the words they speak and finally the words of love. These words are the real cement of the novel.”

The novel’s hero is Guylain Vignolles whose workplace is dominated by an overbearing caricature of the worst boss ever, and ‘The Thing’.

“The Thing sat there, huge and menacing, right in the centre of the plant. In the fifteen years he had worked there, Guylain had never been able to call it by its real name, as if the simple act of naming it might be to acknowledge it, to demonstrate a sort of tacit acceptance, which he did not want at any cost. Refusing to name it was the last bastion he had managed to erect between it and himself, to avoid selling his soul for good.”

What if your job was to destroy the thing you loved most? That’s Guylain’s dilemma. ‘The Thing’ – the Zerstor 500 – is a hungry metal behemoth that turns books into sludge. (You will have a different view of recycling after reading the description.)

Guylain finds meaning in rescuing sheets of paper from the jaws of the “eleven-tonne monstrosity” and reading these disjointed narratives to his fellow commuters each morning on the 6.27.

Then, one day he finds a memory stick “through pure chance” as “it jumped out of the folding seat as he lowered it. A little plastic thing barely the size of a domino which bounced across the floor of the compartment and came to a halt between his feet..”

The contents of the USB are revealed as Guylain, the ‘reader on the 6.27’, replaces his daily narration from the remainders of ‘the thing’ with the story of a mysterious stranger.

“Once a year, at the spring equinox, I do a recount. Just to see, to make sure that nothing ever changes. At this very special time of year, when day and night share time equally, I do a recount with, lodged in the back of my mind, the ludicrous idea that perhaps, yes, perhaps one day, even something as unchanging as the number of tiles covering my domain from floor to ceiling might change.  It’s as hopeless and stupid as believing in the existence of Prince Charming, but deep down inside me is that little girl who refuses to die and who, once a year wants to believe in miracles.”

Julie’s domain is in the basement of a mall. And it’s her story that should forever challenge the reader’s preconceptions of society’s work identity assignments.

“When you’re a public lavatory attendant, wherever that may be, you’re not expected to keep a diary and sit there tapping away on the keyboard of your laptop. You’re only good for wiping from morning to evening, shining the chrome, scrubbing, polishing, rinsing, refurbishing the cubicles with toilet paper, and that’s it. A loo attendant is meant to clean, not to write…It’s as if there has been a misunderstanding, a miscasting. In the nether world, even a miserable twelve-inch laptop next to the tips saucer will always be a blot on the landscape…”

“I quickly had to come to terms with the fact that people generally expect only one thing of you: that you reflect back the image of what they want you to be.”

“Fit docilely into the mould, slip into this lavatory attendant’s costume – which is what I am paid to do – and play the part, sticking closely to the script.”

Mr. Didierlaurent has filled the gap in workplace literature with a beautifully told story of memorable characters who reside in the periphery of vision, but will long linger in the reader’s memory. Here is a novelist providing the lesson that not all workplace advice is to be found in the business section of the bookstore.

After reading the novel, and becoming acquainted with a cast of characters who bring it to life, perhaps we can reorient our expectations, and look beyond the surface for the complementing prism of talent that defines us all.

Resist “sticking closely to the script”, and follow Julie’s advice.

“I advance in small steps. Not a single day goes by without my writing. Not to do so would be as if I had restricted myself to the role of loo-poo-puke cleaner that they want me to play, a poor creature whose only raison d’être is the lowly occupation for which she is paid.”

 

The Holiday Read ‘Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon’ by Larry Tye

Biographies are the stories of career transition. When we make a selection from a bookstore, library or electronic shelf we may not be seeking the secret to success. We may not even be thinking about work and career. A life story well told is one that surprises the reader with the unexpected; previously unknown challenges faced, and career crises resolved.

The ‘holiday read’ recommendation this season is the new biography of Bobby Kennedy by Larry Tye. It’s a life story well told, of someone we thought we knew.

If the current political landscape seems bleak, this trip back to 1950’s-1960’s America will frame the present within the historical context of our not too distant past. And perhaps offer a bit of hope.

Bobby Kennedy’s story is a career story that begins, as many do, following the expectations of others. At age 38 the carefully constructed career scaffolding collapsed and he faced a decision, what should I do with my life?

“He had spent the first twenty-five years with the world seeing him as Joe Kennedy’s boy, and the next dozen as John Kennedy’s brother. Now he would be his own man, one who was both more tempered and fiercer.”

The narrative reflects these two career/life phases. The first six chapters explore the less familiar territory of Bobby Kennedy, “…nurtured on the rightist orthodoxies of his dynasty-building father and started his public life as counsel to the left-baiting, table-thumping senator Joseph McCarthy. That younger RFK was a bare-knuckled political operative who masterminded his brother’s whatever-it-takes bids for senator and president.”

The remaining chapters relate the story of a man plotting a career path apart from the influence of his father and older brother.

The trauma of assassination “had loosed Bobby’s moorings, quelled his passions, and made him question even his faith…The values and qualities that would define him were present from the beginning, but they fully bloomed only after his father’s disability and his brother’s death…Now this man so shaped by others was reshaping himself, the way the existentialists said he could. He could finally ask what he wanted and needed. His public persona began to reflect the gentleness that family and friends say they had always known.”

In 1964 Bobby Kennedy was at that point we may recognize from personal experience. “The breadth of the choices he was weighing reflected the reality that for the first time, he didn’t know what he should do…He was also self-aware enough to realize the implausibility of his impasse: “It’s a hell of a thing, isn’t it? Thirty-eight years old and no place to go.””

Public service had driven his decisions in the past and on August 25, 1964 he embarked on the next stage of his career, announcing a run for senate from the State of New York.

Trailing in the polls, accused of being a ‘carpetbagger’, on October 5, he addressed “more than two thousand people at Columbia University’s Wollman Auditorium…Standing onstage alone in the glaring TV lights, a microphone in his hand, he looked younger and smaller than the student interrogators who threw him one hardball question after another for eighty-five minutes… His audience was filled with students from the most politically active generation ever in America, who four years later would help ignite the nation in protest over everything from the war in Vietnam to crumbling U.S. ghettos. For now, these fans of Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones sensed that Bobby was as authentic as a politician got.”

On November 3, Kennedy won the election, making history. “The Kennedys were the first family ever to send three brothers to the U.S. Senate, and the second to have brothers serving simultaneously…”

His senate career represented a historical catalog of the social issues facing the country: civil rights, anti-poverty programs, and eventual opposition to the Vietnam war.

“The senator from New York’s involvement with the Republic of South Africa was different. Unlike Vietnam, it didn’t matter to the White House or to most Americans. And in South Africa, it wasn’t Bobby but millions of oppressed blacks and thousands of their white allies who were desperate to speak our but had gagged themselves for fear of the consequences. Traveling there in 1966, Bobby gave them a voice in a way that nobody else had. The trip also freed him from the politics that clouded everything he did in America and brought him back to first principles.”

Once again, it was a crowd of university students at the University of Cape Town on June 6, 1966 that provided him a platform to deliver one of his most memorable speeches, ‘The Ripple of Hope’.

“It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice. He sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest wall of oppression and resistance.”

Larry Tye’s biography doesn’t dwell on the familiar in Bobby Kennedy’s history. He doesn’t rehash the work of previous biographers. What he delivers to readers is a life story, illuminated by contemporary journalists’ coverage, informed by historical fact, and imbued with Kennedy’s ceaseless career passion as an advocate for those with no representation.

“Bobby was a shaker-upper dedicated to the art of the possible. That he could change so substantially and convincingly over the course of his brief public life helped restore a changing America’s faith in redemption. In the end he could become this nation’s high priest of reconciliation precisely because he had once been the keeper of our darkest seekers.”

Spend your holiday with ‘Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon’ and restore your belief in “the art of the possible”.

 

 

The Saturday Read – The National Book Award ‘Long List’

This past week The National Book Foundation announced the ‘long list’ of nominees for The National Book Award to be announced on November 16. The books nominated fall into four categories: Fiction, Non-Fiction, Poetry, and Young People’s Literature.

A quick review of the titles provides a cultural snapshot of the issues we face as individuals and society as a whole. ‘The Saturday Read’ this week offers a list those nominated in the  fiction and non-fiction categories.

The fiction nominees includes an Oprah Book Club pick, my favorite of the past year, and an anticipated new novel to be released in October.

In non-fiction, racism is a common topic; echoing the theme of last year’s ‘required reading’, 2016 award winner, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ ‘Between the World and Me’. The nominees in this category remind us why we read non-fiction: to listen, to understand the world in all its complexity, and to make thoughtful decisions about our future.

Fiction

Chris Bachelder, The Throwback Special (W. W. Norton & Company)

Garth Greenwell, What Belongs to You (Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Macmillan)

Adam Haslett, Imagine Me Gone (Little, Brown and Company/Hachette Book Group)

Paulette Jiles, News of the World (William Morrow/HarperCollinsPublishers)

Karan Mahajan, The Association of Small Bombs (Viking Books/Penguin Random House)

Elizabeth McKenzie, The Portable Veblen (Penguin Press/Penguin Random House)

Lydia Millet, Sweet Lamb of Heaven (W. W. Norton & Company)

Brad Watson, Miss Jane (W. W. Norton & Company)

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad (Doubleday/Penguin Random House)

Jacqueline Woodson, Another Brooklyn (Amistad/HarperCollinsPublishers)

Non-Fiction

Andrew J. Bacevich, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History
(Random House/Penguin Random House)

Patricia Bell-Scott, The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice (Alfred A. Knopf /Penguin Random House)

Adam Cohen, Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck (Penguin Press/Penguin Random House)

Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (The New Press)

Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation Books)

Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War
(Harvard University Press)

Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy (Crown Publishing Group/Penguin Random House)

Andrés Reséndez, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (Yale University Press)

Heather Ann Thompson, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy (Pantheon Books/Penguin Random House)

 

The Saturday Read ‘Wild Man: Patagonia’s conflicted philosopher-king’ by Nick Paumgarten

The Saturday Read this week is journalist Nick Paumgarten‘s profile of the “tiny terror”, Yvon Chouinard, founder of the outdoor clothing and gear company, Patagonia.

If you are not familiar with Patagonia, “Our Reason for Being” provides a concise tutorial.

“Patagonia grew out of a small company that made tools for climbers. Alpinism remains at the heart of a worldwide business that still makes clothes for climbing – as well as for skiing, snowboarding, surfing, fly fishing, paddling and trail running. These are all silent sports. None require a motor; none deliver the cheers of a crowd. In each sport, reward comes in the form of hard-won grace and moments of connection between us and nature.

Our values reflect those of a business started by a band of climbers and surfers, and the minimalist style they promoted. The approach we take towards product design demonstrates a bias for simplicity and utility.

For us at Patagonia, a love of wild and beautiful places demands participation in the fight to save them, and to help reverse the steep decline in the overall environmental health of our planet. We donate our time, services and at least 1% of our sales to hundreds of grassroots environmental groups all over the world who work to help reverse the tide.”

“Wild Man” is the story of how Chouinard’s career evolved over time, rooted in love and respect for nature. It’s an entrepreneur’s journey, with cameo appearances by familiar names: journalist Tom Brokaw, The North Face founder, Doug Tompkins, Royal Robbins and Tom Frost.

Nick Paumgarten’s first connection to Patagonia came in 1992 when he “had a job answering phones at Patagonia’s mail-order office, in Bozeman, Montana…As far as qualifications, I was another city kid, but I’d been out in nature a bit and was, in descending order of aptitude, a skier, whitewater kayaker, backpacker, mountain biker, and fly-rod flailer. I had come of age poring over the Patagonia catalogue, with its action shots and exotic locales, and I already had Yvon Chouinard right up there with Jack Kerouac and Jimi Hendrix on my list of great Americans. Plus, I liked the idea of getting good gear at a discount.”

When Paumgarten decides to leave the job early, he gets his first inkling of Patagonia’s corporate culture.

“I quit the job before I was supposed to, in order to go on a ski trip. Of the two women who’d hired me, one was angry and the other understanding. Their reaction embodied an intrinsic schizophrenia at Patagonia. Chouinard had always encouraged his employees to cut work and go surfing when the swell came in. But it was also a company trying to claw its way out of a hole.”

Patagonia survived the economic challenges of the early nineties with layoffs and loans “from a friend and from some Argentines who wanted to get their money out of the country.”

“It was hard,” Chouinard said. “I realized we were just growing for the sake of growing, which is bullshit.”

“The company, he worried, was straying from its hard-core origins. “I was faced with the prospect of owning a billion-dollar company, with thousands of employees making ‘outdoorlike’ clothing for posers,” he said early in 1991, in a speech to the employees, in which he outlined his misgivings and his new resolutions. These subsequently appeared in the Patagonia catalogue, as a manifesto, under the heading “The Next Hundred Years.”

This ‘long read’ is a primer for the aspiring entrepreneur. It’s a vivid narrative of the progression of one man’s career from childhood dreams of being a fur trapper, to climber, private detective, surfer and blacksmith; proving there are no straight career paths. Its also a lesson in failure, resilience and a realization over time that success can be a double- edged sword.

“Eco-conscious fun-hoggery, as an ethos, a culture, a life style, and an industry, spans the world, and even rules some corners of it. Chouinard is its best-known avatar and entrepreneur, its principal originator and philosopher-king, and is as responsible as anyone for guiding it from the primitive tin-can and hobnail aesthetic of the mid-twentieth century to the slackline and dome-tent attitude of today. He has made it more comfortable, and more glamorous, to be outside, in harsh conditions. His influence is way out of proportion to his revenue footprint. He has mixed feelings about all this—some apprehension about the world he has made. He celebrates the spread of an ecological consciousness but laments the disappearance of danger and novelty, and the way that the wilderness has become a hobby, or even a vocation. He disdains ski areas (“They’re golf courses”), the idea of professional climbing (“I just don’t like the whole paid-climber thing”), and the proliferation of extreme sports as programming and marketing (“Red Bull’s in the snuff-film business”).”

Malinda Chouinard, Yvon’s wife and business partner, was a pioneer in ‘on-site daycare’ and in 2012 her efforts resulted in Patagonia becoming “the first California business to become a B Corp.”

“Malinda is principally responsible for making the company a notably humane place to work. Many there cite the advantage of having day care on site. In 1985, Malinda created (and has since put aside a vast patchwork of space for) what became known as the Great Pacific Child Development Center, to which I didn’t give much consideration, until I got a tour. A staff of twenty-eight oversees some eighty kids, on sprawling grounds of more than twelve thousand square feet, roughly half of it outdoors, among the fruit trees. A recent baby boom had led to another expansion, which displaced the H.R. department to a trailer. “We’ve raised fifteen hundred kids so far,” Chouinard told me. “None of them have been in prison—that I know of, anyway.”

Chouinard’s management style?

“I’m just the owner.” He called his executive style “management by absence.” He used to read business books and study various executive styles and corporate structures, here and abroad, but he prefers to take his lessons from nature—from ant colonies, for example. “There’s no management,” he said. “Every ant just does his job. They communicate and figure it out. It’s like a Navy seal team. The whole team has to agree on what the mission is.” It’s also true, however, that Chouinard’s occasionally whimsical notions send the ants scurrying. Absent or not, he’s still the big ant.”

There are multiple gems of wisdom interspersed throughout the profile. When asked “if the prospect of death bothered him”, he shared his secret to a good life.

“Nah, I’ve always considered death to be a part of life,” he said. “Tell you the secret to a good life: always be the oldest one in the room.”

 

 

Photo credit: Patagonia annual report

The Saturday Read ‘New York Fashion Week: An Oral History’

‘The Saturday Read’ this week is an online interactive feature from the September 8, 2016 New York Times ‘Thursday Styles’ section, capturing a multi-media moment in fashion history as the baton is being passed to the next generation of designers. Ruth La Ferla brings us ‘Our Stories’, an oral history from fashion icons Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Carolina Herrera, Michael Kors, Issac Mizrahi and Alexander Wang.

This one is for all of you who are first to the newsstand for the September issues of Vogue and Harpers Bazaar, hoping to find a few classical wardrobe elements to update your look for fall. Designer outlets may be the closest most of us get to the runway, but many aspire to a career in one of the global capitals of fashion.

“As New York Fashion Week approaches its 75th year (the first official shows, massed under the heading of Press Week, were held in 1943), with 151 shows spread over nine days, many designers are questioning the future of this semiannual gathering. “We are facing the end of an era,” the designer Diane von Furstenberg said in a recent interview. “But there is nothing nostalgic about that. The future will be more exciting.”

The future may well be exciting, but for many in the industry, the past is one to savor and celebrate. Here, a crowd of fashion notables reflect on their experiences: the good, the bad, the awkward and the forever memorable.”

From their “first shows”, through the “unforgettable moments”, “growing pains”, “the glamour girls” and the “dark days” as AIDS devastated the industry, the top designers, models and fashion commentators share their success, and the mistakes along the way to being installed as icons. If you believe we learn from the wisdom of others, this interactive experience is required reading/viewing.

Here’s a sample.

ZAC POSEN

“In February 2002, when I showed my first collection, I did the setup preshow in my parents’ living room. I had done the collection with small seed money that was generally lent by friends, family and with my savings from the lemonade stand that I had started as a kid on Spring Street.”

ALEXANDER WANG

“Our first fashion week show, for fall 2007, was in a Chelsea warehouse. It was hectic backstage. I remember our casting director freaking out because all the models and dressers (who also happened to be my best friends) were eating greasy pizza, and the director was like, “Where’s Alex?” I was right there eating pizza, too. I guess I didn’t know any better.”

DONNA KARAN

“The turning point came in 1985 when I left Anne Klein. At the time I said to my bosses, “I have this vision for a little company.” Women in those years were wearing shirts and little ties to the office. I asked myself: “Where is the sexuality? Where is the comfort? Where are the clothes that go from day into night? How do you travel with your wardrobe in one bag?” And that’s how the Seven Easy Pieces came about.”

ALEK WEK
Model in the 1990s

“When I started modeling, people kept saying, “Oh, she’s so different, she’s bizarre,” like I wasn’t quite normal. Of course there was a racist element to those conversations. People were beating around the bush. But if I focused on that, I don’t think I would have stayed in fashion. Being viewed as different only gave me more incentive. I wanted people to know that your features or your color don’t make you less beautiful. My motivation was deeper than me just putting on makeup and clothes and doing shows.”

SIMON DOONAN

“All those people perished, and now many young people maybe don’t even know that Perry Ellis was an actual person. Many young African-American designers would be inspired to know how many great African-Americans had careers at the time.

These people didn’t all just get on a bus and drive off somewhere. They died excruciating deaths, some in the hallways of hospitals without help or support. In many instances, their families rejected them. I distinctly remember people who didn’t have a funeral or memorial. I had a friend who was buried in an unmarked grave.

It’s always troubled me that these supertalented original thinkers weren’t adequately memorialized.

They were Patrick Kelly, Angel Estrada, Isaia, Clovis Ruffin, Halston, Antonio Lopez and Juan Ramos, Tina Chow, Tim Hawkins, Robert Hayes and Laughlin Barker. And the photographers: David Seidner, Barry McKinley, Herb Ritts, Bill King and so many more. They were window-dresser friends: Bob Currie, Michael Cipriano, Bob Benzio, Stephen Di Petrie. The list goes on.”

 

 

The Saturday Read ‘Rome 1960:The Olympics That Changed The World’ by David Maraniss

For the last weekend of summer 2016, the Saturday Read takes you to ‘Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed The World’ by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, David Maraniss.

In the summer of 1960 only 15 years had passed since the end of World War II. The superpowers were angling for global influence, and the XVII Olympiad in Rome provided one more stage to showcase the benefits of competing forms of government.

“History is replete with moments that ache with misplaced optimism, and that seemed true of the period of the 1960 Summer Olympics even as signs of a troubled world riddled those days of late August and early September. The Games were bookended by the Soviet spy trial of American U-2 pilot Frances Gary Powers and Khrushchev’s threat to stir up things at the UN, while in between came increasing tension in divided Berlin and violence in the rebellious Congo. Whatever Avery Brundage’s wishes, the Olympics were in no way isolated from the eruptions and disruptions of the modern world. Rome had its share of spies and propagandists looking to turn every situation to their advantage. Yet those days in Rome were infused with a golden hue nonetheless. The shimmering was literal – emanating from the autumnal sun; the ancient coloration of the streets, walls, and piazzas; the warm angles of refracted light – but it was also figurative, an illumining that comes with a moment of historical transition, when one era is dying and another is being born.”

The reader experiences the eighteen days of the Rome Olympics through Maraniss’ chronicle of events, athletes, coaches, sports writers, and a few nefarious government players. The narrative introduces us to the Americans and their competitors. It’s quite a cast of characters including then Cassius Clay, Rafer Johnson, C.K. Yang, Wilma Rudolph, and Abebe Bikila.

“The pressures of the cold war played an underappreciated role in forcing change in culture and sports, all much in evidence in Rome. At the opening Parade of Nations at the Stadio Olympico, the crowd was stirred by the sight of Rafer Johnson marching into the arena at the head of the U.S. delegation, the first black athlete to carry the American flag. Johnson’s historic act reflected his unsurpassed status as a world-class decathlete, but it also served as a symbolic weapon at a time when the United States was promoting freedom abroad but struggling to answer blatant racism at home, where millions of Americans were denied freedom because of the color of their skin.”

The author is at his best when sharing the story of Coach Edward Temple and his ‘Tigerbelles’ women’s track team from the Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State University in Nashville. We time travel to an American South before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when women’s sports were viewed as unimpressive adjuncts to the men’s competition.

“When Temple was named head coach at Tennessee A&I State after graduating in 1950, it was because nobody else wanted the job. His starting salary was $150 a month, which when added to his pay for teaching social science courses, brought a yearly sum of $5,196…By the mid fifties, even after Temple had established his program and led it to a national title, the athletic department still would not give him a desk, let alone an office. “

In Rome, as Olympic coach, Temple could only see a segment of the track from his position at the opening of the tunnel. One of his runners, Wilma Rudolph, who had overcome polio as a child, was competing in the 100 meter race. The day before, ‘Black Tuesday’, the U.S. men’s track and field team suffered its worst losses in the 100 meter, 200 meter, and 4×100 meter relay.

“Wilma won! Wilma won!” someone shouted at Temple in the tunnel. “You’re joking,” he said. Then he stepped into the golden late afternoon sunlight, and “they flashed it on the big scoreboard and put the time, the new Olympic record, ‘Wilma Rudolph, USA.’ and I said, ‘Hot Dog!’.

Earlier in the competition, Ed Temple’s greatest hope was just to get one of his runners on the medal stand. A bronze would do. But in the four days since Wilma Rudolph  won gold in the 100, all of that had changed. From a relative unknown, Rudolph had risen to international stardom, belle of the Olympics, the favorite in anything she did.”

Her success resonated with other athletes, including Anne Warner, a gold medal swimmer.

“I had read the stories about her fight against polio and what she had done. She was really a hero for a lot of us. It didn’t matter that it was a different sport. She was just such a beautiful runner. And I think that polio was such a part of our lives then, too, because we were swimmers. A lot of times your parents were nervous about going to swimming pools in that era. And there was no Salk vaccine yet when we were starting out. So the fact that she had polio meant something special to us.”

Maraniss’ command of the story places the reader ‘on location’ as events unfold.

Rafer Johnson was student body president at UCLA and a member of the track and field team along with CK Yang. On September 5, 1960 they met as competitors for the title of the world’s greatest athlete; Johnson representing the United States and C.K. Yang, Formosa. At the end of the first day of decathlon competition  Johnson led Yang by a slim 55 points.

“Few Olympic athletes know one another as thoroughly as Rafer Johnson and C.K. Yang. It was not that both had trained at UCLA for the same event under the same coaches. A deeper sensibility seemed at work in their symbiotic relationship, a spirited blend of admiration and competitiveness that pushed them to greater accomplishments together than they may have achieved apart.”

Across town, Cassius Clay was the unanimous winner in his bout with Zbigniew Pietrzkowski of Poland.

“Everyone seemed up and about early Tuesday morning. Cassius Clay paraded through the village before breakfast, gold medal dangling rom his neck. “I got to show this thing off!” he kept boasting…He was on his way to signing a professional contract, earning serious money, and becoming even more famous as the heavyweight champion of the world.”

Tuesday was day two of the decathlon.

“After back-to-back fourteen-hour days, ten events, draining humidity, evening chill, rain delays, unbearable tension, and the accumulation of an Olympic record 8392 points, (by the scoring system in 1960), Rafer Johnson left the Stadio Olimpico for the last time at eleven o’clock that night, retracing the steps he had taken nearly two weeks earlier as the captain and flag bearer for the U.S. Olympic team. As he trudged, relieved and exhausted, along the moonlit Tiber and over the bridge, C.K. Yang, now just a friend, no longer a competitor, walked once again at his side.”

The marathon was held on the final full day of competition in 1960. It was to produce one of the most remarkable stories in Olympic history.

Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia waited at the start, barefoot.

“Marathons traditionally were held during daylight and ended with the runners entering the main stadium…In the heat of Rome, the race began at twilight and proceeded into darkness; the finish line was not inside the Stadio Olympico but at the Arch of Constantine amid the Roman ruins.

The British writer Neil Allen, from his seat jammed amid his fellow journalists, feeling “the sudden chill of the night” and looking “dazedly at the floodlit Arch of Constantine,” could not believe it when the loudspeaker crackled the name of the leader, Abebe Bikila…”A completely unknown athlete from Ethiopia was going to win the Olympic marathon…Journalists and officials edged forward in their wooden stands, peering along the darkness of the Appian Way hoping to be the first to spot this last and most unexpected hero of the Games.” At last the lights of a convoy could be seen…There was a brief tussle with one of the persistent Lambretta scooters before it was bundled our of the way, and then – here he came!

The Rome Olympics were the first commercially televised summer games in history. In New York, Jim McKay was beginning his career in TV sports from a small studio in New York.

“It was all so minimal in Rome, with McKay in that little studio in New York, tapping our his own scripts on a portable typewriter, drawing information fro the Encyclopedia Britannica; and with Peter Molnar’s crew of fewer than fifty in Rome filming and editing on the fly, literally trying to beat the clock every night with their canisters winging west toward New York City in the bellies of commercial jets. The televising of the Olympic games grew from that infancy in Rome to an extravaganza, expanding every four years into an ever-larger enterprise that eventually entailed a broadcast army…”

As Rome prepares it’s bid to host the 2020 Olympics, enjoy David Maraniss’ account of the  first time the world came to compete for gold in ‘The Eternal City’.

 

 

The Saturday Read -‘How to Be an Explorer of the World: Portable Life Museum’ by Keri Smith

This is the first ‘Saturday Read’ that comes with a warning.

“! Warning to whomever has just picked up this book. If you find you are unable to use your imagination, you should put this book back immediately. It is not for you. In this book you will be repeatedly asked to…suspend your disbelief, complete tasks that make you feel a bit strange, look at the world in ways that make you think differently, conduct experiments on a regular basis, and see inanimate objects as alive.” 

If you need to improve your CQ (curiosity quotient), this week’s selection from author, illustrator and guerrilla artist, Keri Smith‘How to Be an Explorer of the World: Portable Life Museum’ is for you.

Author Smith invites the reader on a journey of discovery, loosely following a 13 point guide, which includes a “fieldwork section in the back of the book to record and discover findings.”

“You might want to think of this book as you metaphorical suitcase. A place to collect and document your findings. How do you see? It is also a museum. Your very own museum that will contain your unique vision of the world.”

After a couple of incredibly depressing weeks of global events, I was browsing the selection at Main Street Books in ‘downtown’ Davidson, North Carolina last weekend, when this book cover demanded I stop, open, and return to the wonder of our world; starting right where we sit. I was ready to pack my “metaphorical suitcase” and explore an alternate reality.

Here’s the other warning that should come with this book. ‘May be habit-forming.’

On page 13 ‘your mission’, if you choose to accept, is explained.

“The following pages include a variety of prompts and assignments that will help you on your travels. There is also a section on tools and techniques that will help you with documenting methods. You may use the worksheets included or create your own. Remember, all of your most important tools exist in your body! Use them. Collect as much data as you can – it may come in handing later on. Good luck on your journey.”

How to be an explorer? “Always be looking. Everything is interesting. Notice patterns, make connections. Use all of the senses in your investigations.” (and more)

Here’s an example, from the page I opened to first. “Exploration#7 World of Color”

“Collect paint chips from a paint or hardware store. Find colors you respond to in the world. Attempt to match them using the chips. ( You can also match the colors using a portable paint set.) Make notes of where you saw the colors. (Example: color #573 four leaf clover – My scarf, color #308 golden vista – Sunset 01/09/08)

Alternate: document colors from your favorite books, your dreams, your memories.”

There are 59 explorations that tease your inner Picasso or Shackleton, the last being “How to Wander Aimlessly”. This is a book for those of you on vacation, who missed the point of your break :“freedom or release from duty, business, or activity.”

How do you wander aimlessly? “Pay attention to the details. Lose all sense of time and place.” Reinhabit you inner four year old.

This book will plaster a smile on the crankiest visage.

In a month when the release of Pokemon Go has launched thousands of new adventures, ‘How to Be an Explorer of the World’ will reconnect you with a simpler time when all you needed for entertainment was a big box and an imagination to occupy yourself for hours.

 

The Saturday Read ‘The Missing of the Somme’ by Geoff Dyer

Geoff Dyer has a new book out this summer, ‘White Sands: Experiences From the Outside World’ , but it’s a book originally published in 1994 that is The Saturday Read this week – ‘The Missing of The Somme’.

Dyer may defy categorization as an author, but one constant in his writing, is a theme of travel, highlighted by his publisher in a description of the current title.

“Weaving stories about places to which he has recently traveled with images and memories that have persisted since childhood, Dyer tries “to work out what a certain place—a certain way of marking the landscape—means; what it’s trying to tell us; what we go to it for.”

‘The Missing of the Somme’ begins with the images and memory of his grandfather and continues on a road trip through the great war battlefields, pristinely kept, to ensure memory.

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The title comes from the memorial at Thiepval, France to ‘The Missing of the Somme’. The 131 pages explore the landscape of France and Belgium in an extended essay exploring the monuments, cemeteries, and literature that materialized from a time of “fear that people would forget”. A time when ‘soldier poets’ emerged from the battlefields to create a literary narrative of events, in contrast to the propaganda of the media.

This is Dyer’s strength in storytelling. You think you have opened a ‘war book’ and you find you have signed on for an unexpected adventure. The ‘origin’ story of the book is itself a tangent. He originally moved to Paris in the early 90’s to write a novel based on Fitzgerald’s ‘Tender is the Night’, and ended up writing a book about world war one. (F. Scott does make an appearance.)

In a 2013 Paris Review interview, Dyer addressed reader’s expectations, as a function of a publisher/marketer definition.

“I think the distinction between fiction and nonfiction is less about “Did it really happen or was it made up?” than it is about form. And, more than form, it’s about the expectations that are brought to certain forms. According to how a book is presented, packaged, or identified, readers have certain expectations. Following from that they expect books within broadly identified categories to behave in certain ways. So people can find it quite disconcerting when a book isn’t doing what they think it’s meant to be doing, even if the book is completely fine on its own terms and has no desire to conform to some external set of expectations. My books are often disappointing in that regard.”

You may read Dyer for the element of surprise, but it’s in his prose that your investment in time is rewarded, as illustrated in this short excerpt.

“But history does not lie uniformly over events. Here and there it forms drifts – and these drifts are at their deepest between the years 1914 – 1918. Watching footage of the Normandy landings, we can experience D-Day as it happened. History hangs in the balance, waiting to be made. The Battle of the Somme, by contrast, is deeply buried in its own aftermath. The euphoric intoxication of the early days of the French Revolution – ‘Bliss was it in that dawn’ – remains undiminished by the terror lying in wait a few chapters on. The young men queuing up to enlist in 1914 have the look of ghosts. They are queuing up to be slaughtered: they are already dead. By (Johan) Huizinga’s terms, the great war urges us to write the opposite of history: the story of effects generating their cause.”

“Even when it was raging, the characteristic attitude of the war was to look forward to the time it would be remembered.”

When ‘The Missing of the Somme’ was published in Great Britain, there was no American interest. The first world war still competes for attention in American culture. Fortunately, we have Geoff Dyer to remind us that “the war’s true subject is remembrance”.