Friday, October 11, 2019

October reading log: Morris Day's memoir, Charles L Marohn, Jr's plea for public project financing reform, Deborah Levy's third Booker nom in a row

While I’ve read books with ghosts and books with ghostwriters, I don’t think I’ve ever before read both. Morris Day’s memoir, On Time: A Princely Life in Funk, was written with David Ritz and features the voice of Prince interrupting the narrative, complete with unique spellings. I understand why U would do this, as the Prince market is a good deal larger than the Morris Day market, but Day’s life sometimes seems a bit glossed over – a few hits, drugs, several marriages, affairs, six kids - I think I counted that correctly. Day lays out the straight, and I mean straight, scoop on Prince – he might be playing with sexuality but he only, only, only liked the ladies. He took sole credit for songs he didn’t fully write, and his record company noted that he played all the instruments on some tracks where he didn’t. He was a creative genius and an amazing guitar player, but he was also controlling. When it came 2 music, Day could handle the occasional missive to fire Jam and Lewis because they missed a concert while secretly producing the SOS Band, but once Prince became a Jehovah’s Witness (Thank Larry Graham for that), sessions led to a lot of boring lectures. Day notes that Prince was writing partly about him in "Pop Life," but I'm not sure that's a compliment. While I enjoyed it, whether you are the audience or not for On Time is etched in your own heart.


New Urbanism was once the hot thing in planning, but eventually was co-opted by developers who took the “village look” while leaving behind the actual tenets of small scale and incremental development that was pedestrian friendly. Charles Marohn Jr, in his new book Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity, offers a return to this philosophy, with added elements of social justice and a good amount of libertarianism. His argument is that government bodies have been building projects that send taxes and other costs forward to the next generation, and those projects actually rarely pay out the way they are supposed to. Just look at the many attempts to jump-start Grand Avenue or the acknowledged lack of success at Bayshore Town Center. Or just to include something we look at as a success, Miller Park, which we’re still paying taxes on eighteen years after its completion.

One of the byproducts of starting with infrastructure instead of building it up with revenues is that it leads to rampant NIMBY-ism. Because so many projects start off with below capacity projections and there’s rarely money for maintenance that there is for building, public works are always at their best when they first are opened. Whether you’re talking about a highway or a library, the experience is always better with less usage. So the solution is for existing residents to demand less building and that of course leads to lower tax base and that means that the projects are economic failures. Marohn also has the perspective that you should invest in places that bring the most economic return, and that often means unassuming city blocks over suburban megaprojects and distributor warehouses, which often employ far few people per acre. I’m just a bookseller; you can argue this out. More on Marohn's visit to the Wauwatosa Library on October 23 here. Note that Little Read Book will be selling books at this event.


I was talking with my friend Marcy, a longtime publishing friend who I worked with many years and of course, the conversation turned to books. I always think of her when Barbara Trapido’s Brother of the More Famous Jack comes up in conversation, and it does, about every ten years, which is actually good for a book like that. It got rediscovered and everything. She told me she liked Deborah Levy, whose books had been on the Booker Shortlist fairly consistently, and I remembered we had a couple of reader’s copies on our shelf of her forthcoming novel The Man Who Saw Everything, and the books were still there after several months on the galley shelf. I decided to share – one for her and one for me. Honestly, who’s a better advance read for a publisher than an avid reader who calls a lot of independent bookstores?

The story focuses on Saul Adler, who at the story’s opening is having an affair with a budding photographer. He’s what you’d call a dandy, very David Bowie. They decide to shoot on Abbey Road (Happy 50th anniversary to the Beatles album), where Saul is hit by a car. He is okay, but his girlfriend dumps him. Off he goes to East Germany, where he is doing historical research on Nazi resistance, but he’s a suspicious character – his mom was Jewish while his dad was a communist sympathizer, and he’s suspected on all sides. In fact, his handler is probably a spy. He has some sexual contact with this guy, and they betray each other, and I won’t say how.

The story starts up again thirty years later, he’s hit by a car again in the same spot and this time he’s in the hospital, falling in and out of consciousness, possibly dying. His ex-girlfriend is now a famous photographer, he’s now with a man but the relationship isn’t very good, and he gets frequent visits from his father, who I should say is dead. The key here is that Saul and Saul’s perception of himself do not link up very well. I think that’s pretty common for all of us, but his is rather extreme. I found the book interesting and funny, but it was one of those books where I didn’t think I quite got all the themes and nuances, so I’ve been reading a lot of reviews (like this one from Rachel Donadio in The Atlantic) to better understand what I just read. And if you're wondering, Marcy liked it as well.

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