A fascinating new book; an inspiring but embattled project; some worthwhile articles.
This post is a list of some recommendations and pointers. They’re completely different from one another but all on my mind right now.
1. ‘The Boys,’ by Katie Hafner.
I’m biased, because the writer Katie Hafner is a long-time friend. Twenty-plus years ago, we co-taught a course in magazine writing at UC Berkeley, when our mutual dear friend Orville Schell was the dean of its journalism school. We’ve stayed in touch.
Bias declared, I am here to tell you that Katie’s new novel, The Boys, is very much worth buying and reading — and reading in hardcover, if possible. Its compact layout and elegant “form factor” are ideally suited to hardcover reading. (I continue to believe that people of any age absorb material differently, and maintain a different kind of attention, when looking at a physical page rather than a screen.)
The book got a very positive and perceptive review last month in the New York Times. It is gracefully written, and funny. It is wholly original, fantastic-yet-plausible, and tender and moving, in a way you might not expect when you begin it, or even when you’re most of the way through.
It’s a novel I think you will remember, and reflect upon. Congratulations to Katie Hafner, and please add it to your lists.
By the way: one of the book’s non-human characters is a beloved (and senescent) pet named Mike the Cat. The original Mike the Cat of our household, whom we’ve discussed with Katie over the years, is pictured below, in his prime. Mike is no longer with us except in memory, but he would be honored by his connection to this new book.
2. Project Fighting Chance, in San Bernardino.
The very first segment in our HBO movie, Our Towns, featured an innovative and important organization in San Bernardino, California, called Project Fighting Chance, or PFC. You can see Ian Franklin, founder and president of PFC, in this trailer of the movie from West City Films. The PFC web site is here, and that is Ian Franklin below.
There could hardly be a better illustration than PFC of Americans trying hard, at the local level, to use limited resources for the greater good. Its trademark is teaching boxing, but it also instructs young people, from very tough neighborhoods, in music, math, chess, and other skills. It serves as a haven and safe-space home.
At the Our Towns foundation website we’ve just published a new podcast led by Evan Sanford with Ian Franklin and Terry Boykins, the PFC executive director, about what their project is doing, and why it has had such effect. For instance: It was recognized as California’s “non-profit of the year” two years ago; it has been invited to offer programs in San Bernardino schools; graduates of its boxing-training programs have won many national titles.
But recently PFC has learned that it might be pushed from its headquarters site in San Bernardino within a few weeks. The situation is strange, as detailed in two very good local-news reports: this one from Brian Whitehead in the San Bernardino Sun, and this from Dianne Anderson of Precinct Reporter. The short version is that the religious group that owns the building, and the nonprofit organization that manage it, seem to have suddenly changed the terms of PFC’s rental.
There is much more information in those local stories—and in our new podcast, which I hope you will listen to here. I have put out queries to the landlord groups and will report back if I learn more. For the moment, check out what Project Fighting Chance has done, and consider supporting them.
3. Sarah Smarsh, ‘New York Times.’
The landslide vote against the Kansas anti-abortion proposal was nearly two weeks ago. Last week, in the New York Times, Sarah Smarsh, of Kansas (and author of Heartland), made a point that can’t be made often enough.
It was about the reductionist, destructive assumption that the country is starkly divided into “red state people” and “blue state people,” and that when you cross one state or county line, you have gone into wholly alien terrain, full of people you cannot deal with.
Her whole op-ed is worth reading, but I am thinking of this (emphasis added):
In a state where registered Republicans far outnumber Democrats, the results reveal that conservative politicians bent on controlling women and pregnant people with draconian abortion bans are out of step with their electorates, a majority of whom are capable of nuance often concealed by our two-party system.
This is not news to many red-state moderates and progressives, who live with excruciating awareness of the gulf between their decent communities and the far-right extremists gerrymandering, voter-suppressing and dark-moneying their way into state and local office.
Too often, election results say more about the conditions of the franchise — who manages to use it, and what information or misinformation they receive along the way — than they do about the character of a place.
American politicians and the machinery of national politics—especially the money-raising part, and the news-environment part—are indeed more and more polarized, as everyone including me has noted.
It’s a natural leap, but a mistaken one, to assume that every detail of national life is flattened and polarized in the same way.
This temptation to oversimplify is all the greater when Americans know the parts of the country where they don’t live only through red/blue Electoral College maps, or “guy in a diner” / “angry people at a rally” set-piece stories.
It’s a big, diverse country, which has dire problems, but most of whose people are less inflamed and crazy than you’d think by watching the worst of them on the news. I am grateful to Sarah Smarsh for making this point. And to the voters of Kansas for reminding us.
4. Noah Smith, Substack.
The economist and blogger Noah Smith is always worth following on Substack and elsewhere. I call out in particular his recent piece on why the “CHIPS” act, promoting US-based semiconductor manufacturing, is an important step in the right direction. Even though it represents that anathema, “industrial policy.”
This is a debate I’ve joined over the decades, for instance in this Atlantic cover story from nearly 30 years ago on that era’s semiconductor wars. I plan to weigh in further, and am suggesting the Noah Smith link as a valuable marker for now.
Substack is also reviving a practice known in the blogging era as the “Blogroll,” or standing lists of other sites you learn from. Substack is calling it the Recommendations list. I’ve just now begun populating mine, which includes Noah Smith.
A book; a civic project; a podcast; some articles and posts—I hope you find at least some of them engaging and valuable, as I have.