The “Machine” in the title of Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book from 1982 is a minicomputer, but for anyone reading it now, it might as well be a time machine. The Soul of a New Machine takes the reader back 27 years, but in terms of the technology that is central to the book, it feels like we’re going back eons. Kidder’s book, once a riveting look into a fast-growing and mysterious industry, now reads as history. Kidder’s subject is a team of engineers at a now gone company called Data General (it was bought out in 1999). Under the brash instruction of their leader, Tom West, the engineers set out to design a computer even though the head honchos at Data General have put their support and resources behind another group. West’s Eagle group – made up of young, brilliant engineers – comes out on top. Though this book is quite dated now, I enjoyed it for a couple of reasons. Computer technology is so commonplace now that it is a part of our landscape, both essential and taken for granted. It was interesting to look back to a time before we had computers on our desks and in our pockets, when computers were as mysterious and awe inspiring as putting a man on the moon. The book was also compelling as a collection of character studies and a treatise on business theory. Kidder does a good job of putting the reader in the basement of the office building where this computer was born. If you’re interested, an excerpt from the book is available.
Anthony Bourdain is raw, silly, funny, delicate and unedited. And so is his latest book The Nasty Bits, a collection of three-to-five-page shorts – with a few longer exceptions. The collection does not come close to the revealing, unique and intriguing Kitchen Confidential (Emre’s review). It is still a good read that furthers the reader’s appetite for the unknown and reveals the idiosyncrasies of a celebrity chef, however.The Nasty Bits is a good, short escape if you are trapped in a fast-paced environment. Last fall I lacked time to enjoy a long novel that would require a certain level of attention. Bourdain’s writing proved to be loyal friend that left my taste buds wondering and my mind revisiting restaurants in New York. The Nasty Bits also provided for some hearty laughter.Bourdain’s style does not waver much. He sticks to a familiar, day-to-day usage of language, which makes the stories engaging monologues. The Nasty Bits provides some useful insight, as did Kitchen Confidential, into the restaurant industry. One practice I can claim prior to reading the collection is being nice to your waiter/waitress.The stories are more about Bourdain’s new found leisure activities and privileges as a celebrity chef. While it may not be as interesting as the misadventures of a drug addict and alcoholic in the New York restaurant world, Bourdain’s honest admission to reaping the benefits of his status and bashing of the new industry that enables him to take a break from breaking his back at Les Halles in New York are still interesting.The author’s misadventures in The Nasty Bits take the reader to some of the world’s best restaurants (Thomas Keller’s Bouchon, Ferran Adria’s El Bulli and many more), a love boat trip much resisted by Mrs. Bourdain (who I assume to be Buddha-like when it comes to putting up with Bourdain’s antics) and on the road with his TV show “No Reservations” (Vietnam, Las Vegas, Italy, etc.).Bourdain also fires salvos at U.S. food industry (for limiting people to McDonald’s and making them obese), Woody Harrelson (for maintaining a diet of “raw fruits and vegetables”) and dress codes (advocating a no-shoes policy). There is also his familiar theory for providing green cards to everyone south of the border to save the restaurant industry (I concur). Lastly, the author provides book suggestions to cooks, an unasked for commencement address to culinary school grads, and opinions on how chefs handle celebrity.The Nasty Bits is Bourdain, through and through. It is honest, entertaining and quick. The collection might not be as fascinating as Kitchen Confidential, but it is still worth your consideration – especially on your bedside table, coffee table or in your bathroom (that is, if you do not have qualms about reading about food while in the toilet).
1. Rise of a Tough Nerd
Rick Snyder is, for the time being, Governor of Michigan. He is also one of the handful of heroes in a tale teeming with villains, Detroit Resurrected: To Bankruptcy and Back, a richly reported and important new book by Nathan Bomey, who covered America’s largest municipal bankruptcy for the Detroit Free Press.
Snyder proudly calls himself “one tough nerd.” He’s an accountant by training, a businessman and venture capitalist, a rich Republican technocrat who had zero political experience and open disdain for the workings of government when he decided to run for governor in 2010. Snyder portrayed himself, according to Bomey, as a “job creator” and “the consummate outsider with the business sensibility to rehabilitate Michigan’s economy.” Rich Republican outsider with zero political experience and open disdain for government claims he has the business acumen to make [fill in the blank] great again — sound familiar?
2. The Grand Bargain
Snyder won the election in a blowout, and one of the first things he did when he got into office was to push a piece of legislation that had huge implications for the battered, teetering city of Detroit. Snyder convinced the Republican-controlled state legislature to give state-appointed emergency managers the power to usurp the authority of locally elected officials, including the power to revoke union contracts, suspend collective bargaining, control budgets, and sell assets. It was, in essence, the power to suspend democracy. Snyder also deepened already severe cuts in state aid to cities, and he signed a right-to-work bill that made it illegal in union-friendly Michigan to require anyone to join a union as a condition of employment.
The other shoe dropped in March 2013, when Snyder introduced Kevyn Orr as his choice to become Detroit’s emergency manager, a likely prelude to a Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing. Orr is a self-proclaimed “yellow-dog Democrat,” in many ways Snyder’s opposite. But he is also a battle-hardened bankruptcy negotiator who had helped save Big Three automaker Chrysler by mercilessly shuttering dealerships and cutting jobs, then leveraging a government bailout. In a city that’s more than 80 percent black — and historically distrustful of white takeover attempts — the fact that Orr is black was no small consideration.
By the time Orr hit town, Detroit was in free fall. Half a century of population decline, lost manufacturing jobs, a shrinking tax base — coupled with corruption, mismanagement, and a harrowing crime rate — meant the city was broke and broken, with no way to pay its mountainous debts or provide the most basic services. The city was taking in $1 billion a year in revenue — and it owed three times that amount to pensioners.
Bomey does a superb job of laying out the origins and depths of Detroit’s fiscal and political woes. He has done prodigious research into archives and court documents, interviewed all the players, and woven a tangled mass of facts into a narrative that reads like a thriller. Other heroes emerge from his narrative. One is Judge Steven Rhodes, who handled the bankruptcy case in a manner that was both tough and fair; another is federal Judge Gerald Rosen, who served as mediator in the bare-knuckled negotiations over pension cuts, debt reductions, and union contracts. Rosen’s most ingenious contribution to the case was conceiving what came to be known as the Grand Bargain — nearly $1 billion in pledges from philanthropic organizations, private citizens, and state government that permanently shields the Detroit Institute of Art’s cherished collection from creditors.
“With the debt reductions, cost cuts and projected new revenue,” Bomey writes, “the city would have $1.72 billion over 10 years to spend on services it would not have had without the bankruptcy.” He concludes: “Bankruptcy resurrected Detroit.”
3. A Swift Fall
While it can be argued that Kevyn Orr’s deft handling of the emergency manager’s duties was crucial to turning Detroit around, emergency managers in another blighted, post-industrial, predominantly black Michigan city have not fared as well. The relatively sunny Detroit Resurrected is crying out for a dark sequel. It should be called Flint Contaminated, and I nominate dogged Nathan Bomey to write it.
It’s now been revealed that in an effort to slash costs, emergency managers in Flint made a disastrous mistake in 2014: they stopped buying water from the Detroit system and began pumping water from the Flint River, despite publicized safety concerns. Then, inadequate treatment of the river water caused lead from water lines to leach into the city’s drinking water, poisoning an unknowable number of residents. General Motors stopped using Flint city water in its factories because the water was ruining engine parts. Though Snyder, the hands-off technocrat, was alerted to the potential hazard in October 2014, nearly a year passed before he acknowledged the seriousness of the threat to public health.
On March 17, Snyder and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy were called before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, where they were both blistered by congressmen for failing to identify and rectify the problem. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, had words that must have stung the tough-nerd governor: “If a corporate CEO did what Governor Snyder’s administration has done, he would be hauled up on criminal charges.”
A week after the hearing, an independent commission appointed by Snyder last year delivered a 116-page report, suggesting that environmental racism may have played a role in officials’ slow response to the Flint crisis. The New York Times described the collective resentment of emergency managers: “The issue has long been a sore point in Michigan’s minority communities, who point to Flint and the Detroit Public Schools as evidence that the state’s imposition of emergency managers leads to bottom-line decisions, rather than overall governance.”
This was an astonishingly swift fall for a man who was perceived as one of the heroes of Detroit’s bankruptcy. Though term limits will prevent Snyder from running for re-election in 2018, two petitions are now circulating in Michigan to put his recall to a statewide vote on this November’s ballot. The governor has become the poster boy for everything that can go wrong when voters elect an outsider with no political experience and open disdain for the gritty negotiation and hands-on oversight that are the essence of running a government. Detroit’s resurrection notwithstanding, Snyder’s botched handling of the Flint water poisoning crisis should serve as a cautionary tale to Donald Trump and his growing army of supporters: be careful what you wish for. As events in Michigan have shown, the triumph of a political outsider does not always play out happily.
In Sexual Personae, a landmark work in the field of pseudo-intellectual posturing, Camille Paglia claims that Da Vinci carried the Mona Lisa with him everywhere he went. To DaVinci, the painting was more than just a pretty smile, it was a power object, an “apotropaion,” a totem with the power to protect its bearer from harm. This sort of fetishization is hardly unique to Italian artists. Rather, it seems almost fundamental to human nature, perhaps even that which, in the final analysis, separates us from the animals. After all, what member of the animal kingdom would ever display the same unflagging devotion to an object as a child to its security blanket or would seek to define itself by its clothes? Perhaps the fact that dogs and monkeys don’t wear Armani (at least not consentingly) is definitive proof that they have no sense of self.Roger Morris’s Taking Comfort could easily be titled “Apotropian.” The protagonist is a marketing man (shades of Morris himself) who, after witnessing a suicide, begins to collect objects associated with tragedy in the belief that they have the power to protect him from disaster in his own life. A novel about materialism may sound, at first, cliche, but it’s carried off with a deft touch, the material presented in a way that is at once fresh and familiar. Morris plays a dangerous game with his narrative, constantly switching perspectives and focusing the action in each chapter on the relationship between a character and an object. The gambit pays off, as we’re shown the inner life of a multitude of characters, both incidental and essential to the main action of the story, a tactic that allows Morris a hard-to-achieve combination of introspection and brisk pacing. Inevitably, the objects the book fetishizes become part of the characters, even characters themselves. Everything from birth control pills to a coffee mug exert a powerful influence over their owners/users, contributing to identities that possess, in their reliance on the things with which they surround themselves, an alarming malleability.Whether these relationships are good or bad, Morris never makes clear. What is unavoidable, though, is his thesis that our relationships to things are meaningful, whether we like it or not. Although other authors, notably Brett Easton Ellis have sought to comment on the moral emptiness of modern life by describing their characters with brand names and designer goods, Morris’s characters’ relationships with their possessions rise above cynical manipulations, achieving something like poetry. Morris has a gift for spare, vital prose, and both characters and objects are described with the loving precision of a man who makes his living selling things. The book is written in the language of the marketplace, and it possesses an odd lyricism, ripped off of billboards and television spots, that in some ways predicts the future, a time when the low culture of advertising, god help us, merges with the high culture of literature (much to the delight of the late Andy Warhol, no doubt).Perhaps this is Morris’s greatest accomplishment, one that could have only been carried off by a marketing man: he makes us believe in things, not as mere manifestations of our material culture, but as incarnations of hope, desire, and courage. He makes us believe they’re important. By the sex scene in the middle of the book, even the body is, inevitably and with great power, reduced to nothing more than an object, over which the main protagonist’s girlfriend floats observing. With this epiphanic out of body experience, one of the book’s most stirring images, Morris makes it clear that our bodies themselves are nothing more than things, our possessions mere extensions of ourselves.Although the ending lacks the feeling of inevitability that distinguishes a truly masterful novel, Morris’s book is as good as, if not better than, most of the Booker and Whitbread (now Costa) winning novels I’ve read over the last few years (Life of Pi, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Vernon God Little come to mind) and deserves all of the attention that has been heaped on those projects.With his soon to be released second book, The Gentle Axe, a high concept thriller starring Inspector Porfiry Petrovich of Crime and Punishment, already garnering praise, Morris is a name to keep an eye on.