Book Review: The Big Burn

Timothy Egan. The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. 352 pages.

Forest fires are a perennial concern, particularly in the American West, as is government stewardship of public lands. This was no less true in 1910, when the Forest Service was young and the worst fire in American history swept through three million acres of western forest-land.

In this book, Egan looks at the personalities behind the creation of the Forest Service, with a focus on President Theodore Roosevelt and the first Chief Forester of the US Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot. Conservation guru John Muir is a little more distant, but nonetheless important to the story, as are several “Little G.P.s,” Yale-trained foresters who fanned across the West in the 1900s spreading the word and deed of forest protection.

Those who wanted to create national forest reserves had their enemies, including those who owned railroads and timber companies. William Clark, who founded Las Vegas and for whom Clark County was named, was one of them; he strenuously opposed Pinchot’s efforts.

But this is all prelude to the big story: the “big burn,” a simply massive fire that scorched much of the forest that covered the Bitterroot Range (a northern arm of the Rockies in Idaho and Montana). Pinchot’s rangers fought heroically to contain the blaze, but they were completely overwhelmed by the size and savagery of this “once in a century” fire.

The Big Burn is at its center the story of the fire, told from a variety of sources. It’s a story of both horror and heroism at the same time, as mere humans confront–with little success–a force of nature several orders of magnitude greater than them.

The book does is good job of covering the fire; I’m not so sure that it sells the reader on the idea that this fire “saved America.” Indeed, the fire in many ways demolished Muir’s idea of preservation for the sake of preservation and eased the way for the “management” of forest reserves, which included commercial logging. Though Pinchot, in his tenure as top forester, hadn’t been opposed to this concept, he attacked one of his successors, Bill Greeley, for taken this agenda further than he would have liked. In this sense, the big fire led to a repudiation of Pinchot’s founding ideals, since fire control became more important to the USFS than conservation, so it’s hard for me to see how the fire vindicated Pinchot. It gave the Forest Service a new purpose, but it didn’t stop commercial use of forests.

That being said, this is a good book that tells an story that should be interesting to any Westerner, or anyone who is interested in the evolution of government control of the of forests.

Column in LV Weekly

I’ve got a new column out today in the Las Vegas Weekly. It’s an essay about why there’s such a stigma against Las Vegas visitors:

Three outside opinions, one conclusion: Las Vegas is the shallow end of America’s gene pool. Could they have a point?

After all, casinos offer negative-expectation games. Mathematically, it’s a certainty that most customers will lose most of the time. Even if they don’t set foot in a casino, pilgrims to Vegas still shell out a lot of money for expensive meals, flashy entertainment and boozy nights on the town—not the most rational contribution to their future well-being.

Does this make them stupid? In his NPR piece, Rothkopf mentioned that he’d appended his insight-producing trip to Vegas to a Colorado white-water rafting expedition—surely something that wasn’t cheap. Did his memories of navigating the raging rivers of the Centennial State offer him any more value than memories of a night at Tryst or a meal at Margaritaville? He’s reading his own personal value judgments into his social criticism: Those who are unlike me are beneath me.

via Las Vegas Weekly : – Are we swarmed by the stupid?.

This was a chance to tackle something in greater depth than I can here, and with a different emphasis than my Business Press pieces. I hope that it contributes to the discussion.

Book Review: Dreaming in Hindi

Katherine Russell Rich. Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. 384 pages.

In 2001, editor and author Katherine Russell Rich decided to spend a year in India learning Hindi as a way of better understanding both India and herself. The literary result is Dreaming in Hindi, a memoir of language, culture, location, and dislocation.

Rich enrolls in an immersion program in Udaipur, a small town in Rajasthan, and gets much more than she bargained for. In the aftermath of 9/11, Rich, a New Yorker, sees the terrorist attacks through an Indian lens, facing a major irony: she left New York, but now the city is all people talk about. Her host family is polite, but not entirely accommodating, and the language study school is less than top-notch.

The book’s chief focus is on how language can change perception and even, possibly, the brain itself. Rich weaves the latest in neuro-linguistics into her memoir of India, allowing the reader to learn the science behind second language acquisition as she wades into Hindi. This is where Rich is strongest–she is able to condense complex arguments and findings into an easily understandable summary.

The trials and travails of living in Udaipur are no less interesting but seem, ironically, less immediate. Perhaps out of sensitivity to her fellow students and friends in Udaipur, it feels like the people we meet are not fully fleshed out. I had the feeling of having wandered into a conversation already underway, having missed an important bit of characterization. I simply had trouble understanding the motivations of those around Rich, of appreciating them as autonomous human beings. This might also be a result of the mental fog that surrounded Rich’s Hindi learning; she describes how, in picking up Hindi, she lost bits and pieces of English. Her dislocation and confusion certainly come through, and much of what happens to her seems slightly flat, as if translated one time too many.

On the whole, though, this is a good, interesting book, particularly for readers who are interested in travel or language.

Book Review: Women Are Crazy, Men Are Stupid

Howard J. Morris and Jenny Lee. Women Are Crazy, Men Are Stupid: The Simple Truth to a Complicated Relationship. New York: Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2009. 240 pages.

Relationship books are always popular, and since a flood of books by purported experts hasn’t stopped couples from breaking up, why not a book by a boyfriend/girlfriend pair of comedy writers? This book’s basic premise is its title: women are crazy, but men are stupid. Put less bluntly, women can act irrationally, while men are often incapable of seeing more than the latest sports highlights.

It’s not a novel, or nuanced, view, but Morris and Lee put a new spin on it with their he said/she said style–each chapter by Morris is followed by a rebuttal from Lee. Both writers have some genuinely funny material that you could easily see turning up on a sit-com, as well as some insightful thoughts, like Lee’s epiphany, which came while watching a New England Patriots football game on Morris’s high-end television, that romance is “those moments in life that are in HD.” That’s certainly a language that Morris, and any other empathy-challenged, TV-loving male should be able to understand.

In the book, Morris and Lee tackle many of the major issues in relationships, including the difficulty of maintaining romance and the crippling effect of “grating expectations.” One of the most interesting chapters revolves around Morris’s brave decision to sit though the extended-version DVD of the Sex in the City movie with Lee, in an effort to prove his commitment and willingness to learn.

The tension and interplay between Morris and Lee is the best part of the book, particularly when they both share their perspective on the same incident. In a book like this, the characterizations are pretty broad: any author who reduces an entire gender to a single, over-riding quality (and a negative one at that) isn’t writing a psychology dissertation. Humor is inherently idiosyncratic, so not everyone may find this to their liking. The low point for me might have been Lee’s 12-page monologue about buying a pair of boots. This just didn’t work for me, although your mileage may vary.

On the whole, however, Morris and Lee come across as a likable couple. The reader wants them to be happy, and as we follow them through the conception and writing of the book, we really hope they work out the kinks in their relationship and find a happy medium. For couple who want a humorous way to start a serious discussion about how to make their relationship work better, this is a fun, provocative read.

Book Review: The Last Trials of Clarence Darrow

Donald McRae. The Last Trials of Clarence Darrow. New York: William Morrow, 2009. 422 pages.

Clarence Darrow was one of the most polarizing figures of the early 20th century. He was at the forefront of several of the era’s most widely publicized trials, including the McNamara brothers’ 1912 trial for allegedly bombing the LA Times building, the 1924 defense of notorious Chicago thrill killers Leopold and Loeb, Tennessee’s famous 1925 “Scopes Monkey Trial,” and the 1925-6 Detroit trials of Ossian Sweet and others, black men accused of killing a white man in defense of Sweet’s home.

In this book, McRae looks at the last three of those trials, with a new spin: he brings in Mary Field Parton, Darrow’s lover. Parton and Darrow had an affair from 1908-1912 and rekindled it, though Parton was happily married.

McRae portrays Darrow as an eloquent, complicated warrior for justice, and makes good use of existing accounts of his career and personality. We see a man devastated by his 1912 trials for alleged jury-tampering begin to rebuild his reputation with the Leopold and Loeb case. The two men had already confessed to murdering a 14-year-old boy as an experiment, and their conviction and execution was widely considered a done deal. Yet Darrow, through ingenious legal footwork and emotive argumentation, was able to spare them the electric chair.

Here lies one of the unspoken contrasts of the book. Darrow is constantly lauded by his admiring contemporaries and the author as a brilliantly logical lawyer. Yet most of his triumphs came as a result of his openly emotional rhetoric and oratory. Several times in the book, Darrow ends an hours-long summation in wiping away tears, along with members of the jury and even the judge. It’s just one of the complexities of Darrow that is hinted at here.

It’s an unvarnished, though largely uncritical portrait, of one of the major legal and political figures of the period, and a introduction into that time.

Book Review: Quiet Kingmaker of Las Vegas

Jack Sheehan. Quiet Kingmaker of Las Vegas: E. Parry Thomas. Las Vegas: Stephens Press, 2009. 346 pages.

Wow. That was my reaction to finding out that a biography of Parry Thomas was coming out. Thomas, the man who it said said “flipped the switch that turned on the lights in Las Vegas,” is easily one of the most important figures in the city’s first hundred years. Thomas was the banker to the casino industry during its most formative period–the 1950s to 1980s–and one of the guiding forces in the city’s philanthropy.

Let’s try to imagine Las Vegas without Parry Thomas. From the mid-1950s, no banks lend money to casinos, so they can’t grow any bigger than two or three hundred rooms. Mainstream financiers aren’t interested in investing in such dodgy joints, so its possible that, in the 1960s, there’s no influx of outside capital into the business. Without Thomas’ intervention, it’s possible that Howard Hughes doesn’t choose to stay in Nevada after Moe Dalitz tries to evict him from the Desert Inn in December 1966. Steve Wynn still comes to Las Vegas in 1967 at the Frontier, but without Thomas’ encouragement it’s entirely possible that he and Elaine decide that they’re going to return to the East Coast and try their luck in another business. At the very least, there’s no Roger Thomas to help design Wynn’s resorts (Roger is Parry’s son). In the late 1960s, there’s no one to champion the corporate gambling acts, or to persuade Bill Harrah to drop his opposition to them, so you don’t get publicly-traded companies owning casinos. UNLV is likely either crammed into 55 acres on Maryland Parkway (instead of the 400 it currently operates) or divided into several campuses throughout the valley.

There’s still a city there, and it probably has a casino industry, but it’s going to look much different, and probably not for the better. That’s the impact that Thomas had.

Onto the book itself: it’s not a biography in the usual sense, but rather a combination autobiography and oral history. Basically, Thomas talks about his life, and friends, family members, and business associates chime in. Sheehan, as an author, yields the spotlight to Thomas and the others. It’s hard to imagine that there was a better way to do this book. Thomas, like Steve Wynn, is a master storyteller, with a keen recall and an eye for detail that will gratify the reader.

There is introductory material about Thomas’ youth and young adulthood in Utah, and closing material on Thomas’ family life, but most of this book is a personal history of Las Vegas 1955-1995 or so, as told by Thomas with others adding their perspective when appropriate. As such, it might be one of the most important books about Las Vegas history that you’ll ever read. Thomas sets the record straight on many fronts and is candid about his battles with the IRS and his dealings with alleged organized crime figures.

Without Thomas, Las Vegas as we know it would not exist. It’s fortunate that he was persuaded to share the story of his life and career, both so that his contributions are not forgotten and so that students of history have a better idea of what really went on in Las Vegas as it grew into prominence.

Getting to the point

It’s never too early to start planning your next writing workshop, particularly if you’re planning to be in Cape May, New Jersey next January 15-18. If you’re inclined towards brief non-fiction (and who isn’t…except for those of us who like lengthy fiction?) you may want to consider beating the crowd and registering now for one of the eight seats in this session:

To the Point: Short Creative Nonfiction – NEW!

Limited to 8 participants

Have an idea for a story or article but not sure how to get started? Have a mix of personal experiences and outside research but don't know how to combine them? Thoughtful prodding, expository exercises, group workshopping and inspired revision will help you build your ideas and notes into a finished 500-2,000 word piece suitable for publishing in a magazine or newspaper. (Led by Dave Schwartz)

via Prose Workshops | Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway in Cape May, NJ.

Visit the Winter Poetry and Prose Getaway site to learn more about this and every thing else that goes on at the Getaway. There are a great many other workshops, including one led by Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Stephen Dunn. The faculty is an incredibly diverse and talented group of poets and writers, so no matter what your literary interest, you should be able to find something to suit your tastes and level.

If you are an educator, you can get professional development credit for attending, and you can even earn graduate credits through Rutgers University. Even if you’re not, it’s a relaxing, rewarding weekend writing retreat that stacks up pretty well next to a weekend in Las Vegas. Registration and a single room package (which includes three days of breakfast and lunch and evening receptions) is $795. If you want to share a room, the price per person drops to $635. Register by November 15 and get a $25 Early Bard discount. That’s not bad for three days of dining, writing, and entertainment. The only extra thing you pay for is dinner. No exorbitant charges for bottle service, no need to try the $20 trick to get a sweet room (most have ocean views), and no worries about getting trick-rolled by your new “friend” who wants to “party” with you. Good times.

There are some great deals in Las Vegas right now, but this is a pretty good deal, too. The Grand Hotel in January is sort of the anti-Strip, so this might be a nice change of pace for some of my readers who usually gravitate to the glitz of the Strip.

Book Review: I’d Trade My Husband for a Housekeeper

Trisha Ashworth and Amy Nobile. I’d Trade My Husband for a Housekeeper: Loving Your Marriage after the Baby Carriage. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2009. 176 pages.

It’s another Amazon Vine review, and another advice book. If you wonder why I review so many of these, its because there seem to be a lot of them published.

Ashworth and Nobile have geared this book for the married mother who’s finding that, amid rushing out to play dates and managing the household, she’s lost the magic in her marriage. Their ideal researcher is probably a formerly-professional, stay-at-home mom who’s not struggling to make ends meet. It’s not just the authors’ own stories and opinions–they draw on “authorities” (mostly other authors, not all of whom have obvious academic or professional credentials) and have interviewed more than 200 married women with children (as well as a few men). This gives the book a broader feel than a simple personal reminiscence.

It’s not a particularly dense book, with super-sized quotes, short quizzes, and checklists of important points filling up much of the space. Essentially, it’s a guide to how to make a marriage succeed, and it feels like a combination of the management-success book with the matrimonial advice tome, with key takeaways highlighted and repeated for emphasis.

There isn’t much revolutionary in here. Basically, it comes down to: don’t have unrealistic expectations, be patient with each other, and listen to each other. Though it’s not new, that’s never bad advice, and reading about how other people have navigated the obstacles in their marriages–or haven’t–might give married couples some advice for overcoming adversity in theirs.

That being said, you might find some of the stories similar to your own situation, or not at all. There’s a tendency to pit the valiant overworked mom against the stereotypical SportsCenter watching, emotion-denying, dinner-demanding ogre-husband. Luckily, input from real husbands counter-acts some of this bias, but the assumption is, more often than not, that the husband is a big part of the problem. If you’re a guy, it’s an interesting look into how you might seem to your wife, but it’s not necessarily going to correspond to your situation.

Bottom line: it’s an interesting read, but doesn’t have any magical secret or anything revolutionary to say about marriage. If you’re having doubts about your marriage, you will probably benefit from the perspectives found within this book.

Book Review: Managed by the Markets

Review of Gerald F. Davis’s Managed by the Markets: How Finance Re-Shaped America,

Gerald F. Davis. Managed by the Markets: How Finance Re-Shaped America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 304.

We live in a world where finance has outstripped production, where it is more important to make money than to build cars or refrigerators. In Managed by the Markets, Gerald Davis tries to make sense of this transition. He raises some interesting points, but ultimately the book is short-sold by needless repetition. It would make an intriguing 30-page article, but there’s not nearly enough material here for a 300-page book.

Case in point: an 8-page preface introduces the arguments of the book: “finance had become the new American state religion,” and citizens had been transformed into investors, as “the expansive use of financial markets has shaped the transition from industrial to post-industrial society in the United States over the past three decades.” This is followed by a chapter-by-chapter outline of the book’s structure. Fair enough. But then, the 30-page first chapter does the same thing, in expanded form, including an even longer summary of the chapters to come.

The author has a tendency to, as Gorilla Monsoon might have put it, “go to the well once too often.” For example, on page five he describes the change to a financial-market based capitalism as a “Copernican revolution.” It’s a fine analogy for the world-shifting rise of markets as the arbiters of capital. But he then re-uses the metaphor three more times in the next 50 pages. It’s overkill. He also has a tendency to find amusing instances of finance run amok–David Bowie issuing $55 million in bonds against future royalties, or a Norwegian town investing in American mortgages–and use them repeatedly, suggesting that there’s not much depth to his research outside the small circle of factoids that are rotated in and out of the text. There is some really interesting material here, but it’s run into the ground over the course of the book.

The book’s highlights are Davis’s analyses of the rise and fall of corporate “social responsibility,” the profound impact of the shift from bank financing (loans) to market financing (stocks and bonds) on the world’s business, and the rise of the vendor state. Each of these developments has serious implications for public policy, and Davis advances thoughtful ideas, though they are rooted in the concept that bigger is better (there’s a great deal of nostalgia for the big corporations of the mid-20th century) and it is difficult to see how any amount of regulation or planning could put the genie of finance back into the bottle at this point.

In short, the ideas are of interest, but the presentation leaves something to be desired.

The book is interesting to me because it informs recent developments in the gaming industry. Massive over-leveraging and what now seems a foolish optimism in the real estate market aren’t unique to the Las Vegas Strip–these trends have shaped American (even global) business for the past decade. Is there anyway that this mess could have been avoided? With shareholders demanding value, and executives having few options to create value but mergers and expansion, probably not–companies that didn’t try to grow quickly were, for the most part, acquired by others or threatened with shareholder revolt. Nor is there much to suggest that the future will be any different, though as I’ve suggested before managers could learn a thing or two from the players at their tables: they need to understand that, no matter how hot the dice have been, it’s just as possible to seven out five times in a row, so it’s best to take some chips off the table during a lucky run. Letting it ride–whether on the pass line or on condo-hotels–can be rewarding, but it’s a risk that often ends badly.

Another interesting point was Davis’s discussion of OEMs, or “Original Equipment Manufacturers.” With the market demanding companies that have few assets and high profits, many manufacturers have outsourced the actual production of the goods that they sell, allowing a second party to own the factory and build the equipment to their specs before slapping their label on it. The original manufacturer, then, is primarily concerned with advertising and brand management, not the headaches of production. This sounds a great deal like what MGM Mirage is doing with its brand name overseas. You can see that the company is positioning itself not as a hotel builder, but as a hotel brander–which is smart, given the vicissitudes of the real estate market and construction. Seeing what the company is doing against the context of what other companies are doing, you can see the logic in the process, though it remains to be seen whether a company that has no physical control over the products bearing its name will, in the long run, have a recognizable brand.