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Forever in Fashion

I'll Drink to ThatI’ll Drink to That, the memoir from legendary Bergdorf Goodman personal shopper Betty Halbreich, is more than just a book about fashion. Sure, there are tons of stories of  little, lonely Betty playing in her mother’s closet among bottles of Joy perfume, of working for “Mr Beene” (no one would ever have called the mid-century designer anything else), of the golden sable coat that still, to this day, hasn’t turned color. (They do that, you know.) But equally interesting is the way Halbreich’s life unfolds, and how she managed to turn a  passion into a salvation. Halbreich’s voice – on the page and in person – doesn’t have a soupcon of little-old-lady; what I like best is that it’s peppered with barbs and idioms of her era. (Now that I’ve talked to Halbreich, I appreciate that co author Rebecca Paley is a genius channeler; Halbreich in person sounds just like Paley has made her read on the page.) Sure, she rambles a bit – but, as she reminds you often, she is 87. Besides, she says she’s not crazy about all this attention she’s getting. (Methinks the lady doth demur a bit.)  But all I can tell you is that the only thing better than a half hour conversation with Betty Halbreich might be Betty Halbreich looking around your closet for half an hour. But, alas: she doesn’t make house calls. (I asked.)


Q: You were featured in a beloved documentary (Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s) and have been the subject of an article in The New Yorker. Lena Dunham (of Girls fame) is developing a TV show around you. And now you have this book: can you say why you decided this was the time to write it?


A: I think this was a catharsis. It’s a strange thing about my life. I’ve never had to look for a job, I never wanted to write a book. Someone I knew always pushed me. I always have to be pushed.   Everything I do, someone has to take me with an invisible hand and leave me. I’m not a self motivated person, but once I start to do something, I always belong to the Clean Plate Club.


I'll Drink to ThatQ: Were you always obsessed with clothes?


A: I cared about clothes. I care visually about clothes. My mother loved clothes and was fashionable, and I guess I grew up in a world of looking around. It’s [the love of fashion and art] sort of inbred;  it’s truly something you’re born with. My daughter knows about painting and art. She’s the associate director of the Modern [Museum of Modern Art]. My son is a nonprofessional photographer. So we are sort of visual people. I don’t add, I don’t subtract, I don’t divide and I don’t use the computer. Visual people sometimes have a very difficult time. 

 
Q: You get the sense from the book that fashion advice is not the only kind of counsel that your clients are seeking...


A: Here in the dressing rooms, you wouldn’t believe what comes out. And they say things like: My husband says I should wear this or that, and what do you think? Half of the women cannot face themselves in the mirror... but they can face me. They can face the stranger, but not themselves. They don’t feel secure, but maybe I make them feel secure because of my age. They have nothing to fear from me.


Q:  Don’t you think we all grow up with “rules” in our heads about what we can and cannot wear, rules maybe our mothers or the fashion world told us.


A: Well, you can take those rules and scratch them right now! I said to young Emily (her assistant at Solutions, the personal shopping department at Bergdorf) who’s my right hand, my left hand and half of my brain: “Everybody is wearing white pants!” In my day you never wore white pants in the city. Maybe at the beach, but not tight ones. I see size 20s in white pants: where do they find them? They look like they’re going to be beached. I can’t wait until winter when everybody puts a coat on.

I'll Drink to That


Q: But size 20s have a right to be fashionable, don’t they?


A: Yes, of course, but it can be very difficult. I say my most difficult clients (to dress) are the 12s, 14s and 16s: they’re the lost ladies. Nobody wants to dress her, give her a sleeve, or some length. My department shouldn’t be called Solutions. It should be called Challenge.


I'll Drink to That Q: Do women dress for fashion, for men, or for each other?


A: Don’t you think people should be comfortable in their own skin? I always say it’s how you carry yourself. A lot of dressing is to make you feel good, but sometimes it has to do with your peer group.  You want to look like your group. And we’re all into a youth thing: I abhor what everyone’s doing to themselves: the injections and the redoing. There’s a lack of individuality. Do women dress for women or men? Both, I think, but when someone says to me that they took a dress home and Joe didn’t like it, I say, “You know. Don’t wear it around him. Don’t let him make you hate that dress!”


Q: If you had to pick your favorite item of clothing, what would it be?


A: Well, there’s that sable, still in my closet... The cabochon ring my mother gave me is the most important thing in my life. Every morning when I put it on I hear my mother saying, “You wear that every day of your life.”  My mother was one tough broad. I have a love hate relationship with the old world. I’m thrilled that I can be part of this [modern] world. I really don’t know how it happened.  Somebody is taking care of me. So many people my age, they’re in wheelchairs. I’m in heels!

YA Wednesday: Best Books of September

Labor Day weekend is always a bit of a double-edged sword--it's a nice long weekend to relax and eat lots of barbeque but the end of it means that it's actually September and the start of fall. Already. Here in Seattle this means crossing our fingers that we can stave off the fall rains for one more month (please, please, please...).  This September there are so many stellar YA books that the best books list for the month has a half-dozen that just couldn't be left out. GiveYouSun

I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
Our spotlight pick for the month and a book I'll continue to recommend for the rest of the year and beyond. The novel centers around boy-girl twins who are extremely close and also extremely competitive.  The narrative alternates between Noah filling in the time when they were thirteen and Jude telling their story three years later, at sixteen. Somewhere in the middle things went horribly wrong and picking up clues and peeling back layers page-by-page is an unforgettable experience. I'll Give You the Sun captures several complicated relationships in one remarkable story that has me wondering if it has left an indelible mark on my mind.  I hope so.

 

Skink Skink--No Surrender by Carl Hiaasen
In his first YA novel, Carl Hiaasen introduces a new generation of readers to one of his most popular characters. Richard and his cousin Malley have always had each other's back, so after Malley disappears with a man she met on the internet, Richard knows he's got to get her back fast. Luckily, Richard stumbles (literally) upon Skink, a man who doles out his own brand of swamp justice to eco-terrorists and sleazy internet predators alike. Skink, No Surrender is classic Hiaasen: quirky, funny, thoughtful, and compulsively readable.

 

EvilLibrarianEvil Librarian by Michelle Knudsen
Imagine a super-hot guy high school librarian who has Cyn's best friend turning to the stacks like never before.  Now imagine the hot librarian is really a demon using the student body like a supermarket of souls and his source for a future wife.  Cyn finds herself somehow immune to his charms but she's definitely in the minority.  Add lots of laughs, crushes, more demons, romance, and unholy high school embarrassment opportunities, and you've got your next favorite read in Michelle Knudsen's clever horror/comedy.

 

EggSpoon  Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire
Gregory Maguire's new novel is one of those unique stories that readers in a wide range of ages will love and I've been recommending it to all of them.  Maguire is known for putting his twist on a familiar tale with Wicked, and in Egg & Spoon he does it again with the best known characters from Russian folklore, Baba Yaga and the Firebird.  Russian history and class disparity are explored through a fantasy adventure that has all the ingredients of a beloved fairy tale: mistaken identity, bravery, unlikely friendship, and a magical setting.  An utterly delightful read.

Afterworlds

 

Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld
Such a cool concept to this YA story-within-a-YA story, and Westerfeld lives up to the promise.  I'm not gonna lie, this book is a door stopper, but somehow it doesn't bog down despite the page count (don't even look).  All you want to know is what's happening next in the YA novel titled Afterworlds, written by the main character, Darcy, and in the story about Darcy that you are also reading in the pages of Afterworlds as written by Scott Westerfeld.  I hope that isn't too confusing, because it really works--you'll see.

 

InfiniteSeaThe Infinite Sea: The Second Book of the 5th Wave by Rick Yancey
For my reaction to this one just insert your favorite my-jaw-hit-the-floor phrase here. If you thought Yancey threw some curveballs in The 5th Wave, get out your catcher's mitt because he's on fire in the sequel.   And the best part is, this is a well-plotted, thoughtfully written story with deliberate twists that add to the puzzle just when you had all the border pieces filled in. I don't want to spoil anything, so let's just say this is another obsessive read that had me looking back through the pages after it was all over. We'll talk more once it's published on September 16th.

Ink in the Veins: Books by Newspaper Reporters

SimonFrom 1997 to 2002, I worked as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, capping a fifteen-year stretch in newspapers. One thing I loved about the job was getting paid to tell a story every single day, and to read great stories by writers I admired: crime stories, courtroom dramas, political intrigue, heartwarming features, longform investigations, profiles, and even the obits--I’m still a sucker for the well-crafted summary of a well-played life.

At the Sun, I had the privilege of working alongside an exceptional group of writers, from Pulitzer Prize winners to aspiring novelists. And in the years since, I’ve watched many of them transition from daily journalism into books. Leading the way at the Sun was David Simon, who, before going on to produce The Wire and Treme, was a helluva reporter who wrote two classics of immersive, journalistic nonfiction: Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood (both of which became television shows).

Simon is now married to one of my favorite writers, novelist and Baltimore Sun alum Laura Lippman, who told me by email that her success as an author “is rooted in the good habits I learned at The Sun and other newspapers.”

"Reporters in general are well-suited to publishing," Lippman said. "Deadlines, a commitment to clean copy--they're second nature to most of us. Or should be."

BobTwo of Amazon’s recent Best Books of the Month were penned by former Baltimore Sun colleagues: Bob Timberg’s amazing memoir, Blue-Eyed Boy, about his recovery from horrific injuries sustained in the Vietnam War--and his decision to become a journalist despite his disfiguring wounds; and Dan Fesperman’s timely thriller about drone warfare, Unmanned.

This two-fer from Baltimore comes on the heals of other books by Sun alumni: Cheryl Tan's recent Singapore Noir, David Folkenflik's Murdoch's World, and the latest from Sarah PekkanenThe Best of Us. Coming this fall is a memoir by David Greene (now at NPR), which will find a spot on my shelf beside other books by Sun reporters, former and current, including: Del Wilber, Sujata Massey, Stephen Hunter, Robert Ruby, Scott HighamScott Shane, Raffael AlvarezJim Haner, Fraser Smith, an Tom Waldron. (An honorable mention to Brigid Schulte, Washington Post reporter/author and wife of Sun alum Tom Bowman, now NPR's Pentagon correspondent. And Lippman pointed out that Russell Baker, William Manchester, and Anthony Lukas worked at the Sun or Evening Sun, too.)

DanI asked Fesperman for his thoughts on reporters becoming authors. “By the time I quit newspapers for good I was writing a lot of long-form narrative stories, which meant I had to set scenes, present characters and even develop a sense of pacing, dramatic tension, and so on. All of that was great practice," he told me. "But I think the most underrated skill you develop as a journalist is learning to be a careful observer and a good listener, even an eavesdropper at times.”

Of course, the Sun is hardly alone in employing reporters who also write great fiction or nonfiction. During my years as a journalist (in New Jersey, Virginia, Florida, Philadelphia, and Baltimore) I collected plenty of books by colleagues. I spent my first year after college sitting across from mob writer George Anastasia, at the Philadelphia Inquirer. More recent reporter-turned-author colleagues include Doug Most, Michael Hudson, and Beth Macy, who I recently interviewed about her bestselling book, Factory Man

We’re writers, after all. We tell stories. And most of the journalists I’ve known have yearned, at least now and then, to break free from the confines of the daily paper. Still, it's always seemed to me that the Sun in particular was a fertile breeding ground for authors.

LauraLippman agreed... "I've always thought there must be a reason that so many Sun reporters (my father included) wrote books 'on the side'," she said. "Part of it, I think, was that some people got to The Sun and didn't really have a burning desire to go further in newspapers. It was a good paper in a good news town. So if you removed the usual ambition of onward and upward through the newspaper hierarchy, I think it freed up one's ambitions to pursue other things. Novels, in my case."

In Lippman's case--and in mine--she got an unintended boost from the Sun toward writing novels. "I've always been grateful that I had a falling-out with the powers-that-be there because it forced me to choose books over newspapers, and that turned out to be a good choice for me,"  she said.

(Disclosure: When I started researching my first book, an angry editor told me it wasn’t possible to write a book and still be a good reporter. And I thought: but wait... David Simon? Bob Woodward? I soon left the Sun and started writing books full time, which may partly explain my devotion to books by writers with beats and bylines in their past.)

 

"You Don't Have to Lose Yourself": A Conversation with Gail Sheehy

Omni_Sheehy_300The author of 16 books, Gail Sheehy is probably best known as the author of Passages, a title that both codified and changed the conversation of the women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s. An original member of the team of “new journalists” that included Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe, Sheehy was also an early protégé--and eventual wife--of the legendary New York magazine founder Clay Felker.  (She has contributed to many other publications, and has been a contributing editor to Vanity Fair since 1984.) Sheehy’s latest book, Daring: My Passages, is a memoir of her life and times, her experiences as a chronicler of everyone from Margaret Thatcher to Hillary Clinton, and, of course, her life-changing relationship with Felker. Sheehy spoke to me at a restaurant near her rented summer home in Sag Harbor, New York. --Sara Nelson

Q: This book is very personal - it's about your experiences as a journalist but also about your personal journey. Did you have a specific plan for the book when you decided to write it?

A: I didn’t know that there was a theme in my life until I finished this book - and that theme is Daring. Daring to say cheeky things, like, for example, when I asked JC Penney (the legendary retailer) if he “paid girls the same as boys.” That was a daring question at the time. And then there was the first daring walk I took to see Clay Felker at the Herald Tribune. My editor in the women’s department – I call it the “estrogen zone” in the book – was a woman named Eugenia Sheppard and she could very well have fired me for taking my best stories to a competitor.  

Q: You worked, early on, with some of the greatest journalists of a generation: Talese, Wolfe, Nora Ephron, Gloria Steinem and others, including Clay, of course. What was that like? Did you realize you guys were making journalistic history?


A: Mostly we were just having great fun. I don’t think any of us knew what New York magazine would lead to; it took a while for city magazines to pop up. It was a scrabble to get stories every week, and one thing that happened that was exciting was that a lot of those stories became movies - Urban Cowboy and Saturday Night Fever came from stories in New York magazine. I think when Radical Chic hit (Wolfe’s famous 1970 story about a fund raiser at which Black Panthers mingled with the likes of Leonard Bernstein) we knew something was happening. It got sooooo much attention. It was the first time that political correctness had been challenged – but in such a humorous way that you couldn’t really fight it.


Q: Still most of the journalists at that time were men. Was it difficult being female in that environment?


A: I remember seeing Tom Wolfe in the elevator once, and of course I worshipped him – and I said I’m so excited to be writing for Clay. And he said: “This is the main Tijuana bull ring for competition between feature writers... so you have to be brave.” I’ve always remembered that.


Q:  What do you think about the state of journalism today?


A: It’s obviously in a major transition. Going to journalism school, learning how to write, working your way up in a little paper in Decatur, Georgia and then moving to Atlanta and then maybe to New York:  it’s just over. You have to have a whole other set of skills now. You have to be a videographer, you have to do social media. You can’t do a long, thoughtful, insightful piece if you don’t have the time to do reporting, particularly reporting around somebody who doesn’t want to be known or an issue that doesn’t want to reveal itself.

 

Gail Sheehy

 

Q: You came of age as a working woman before Sheryl Sandberg was born. What do you think about “leaning in”?


A: My experience was largely dictated by the times in which I lived. It was hard to break the gender barrier, even in a profession as seemingly open as journalism; it took everything I had. That’s why I had to start a freelance career after only a few years at a newspaper: my daughter was 2 ½ and I couldn’t afford babysitters and I needed to be around. I think for women who have a good education and a lot of choices, they also need to be able to Lean Out for some time. I worry that the Lean In message is exclusive of taking the time to build a life. Young women who I think do the best job of balancing family life and a big career start businesses or work for themselves. That’s the best way of being in charge of your life.

Q: While Daring: My Passages is a memoir of your life, it’s also very much about Clay Felker, and the life you had together. It’s partly a love story...


A: Clay and I had a creative intimacy that drew us back to each other again and again. He was so much part of my life I couldn’t not write about him. So it is a book about him and that relationship, but I think it’s not just an autobiography or a memoir: it’s a book about going on, just going on. If there’s one message in this book it’s this: You go on when you think you have lost your life. I lost my house because I couldn’t afford to keep it [and still take care of Clay]. I lost a lot of my career to take care of him – and then I lost him. I wanted to write that there’s something beyond that. That you don’t have to give up your idenitity to be a caregiver. You don’t have to lose yourself. 

 

Author photo copyright Yolanda Perez

 

Daring: My Passages

 

Recipe Road Test: Honey Molasses Candied Almonds

SweetAlchemyI don't watch a lot of T.V. but Top Chef is one of my must-watch shows and when Top Chef: Desserts was on, I was equally obsessed because I have a serious sweet tooth.  Case in point, it's 9 in the morning as I'm writing this and I'm eating cake.  Don't judge.

Yigit Pura not only won the first season of Top Chef: Desserts (and was really fun to watch while he did it) but he also creates the most gorgeous--and delicious, let's not forget that--confections at his Tout Sweet Pâtisserie in San Francisco's Union Square.  You can add another star by Pura's name for his luscious new cookbook, Sweet Alchemy: Dessert Magic, our pick for one of the Best Cookbooks of August.

So many recipes I want to try...Baked Berry Meringue Kisses? The ones I've eaten from his shop are heavenly...Earl Grey Tea-Infused Chocolate Truffles? Lemongrass & Ginger Ice Cream? Every page has something wonderful on it and the way Pura presents the recipes is super straightforward and friendly-- he tells you exactly what to expect in each step and how to get it done. Voila!

When I was flipping through the pages of Sweet Alchemy for the third or fourth time, the Honey Molasses Candied Almonds recipe jumped out at me, even without one of the many brilliant photographs you'll see throughout the book.  Perfect recipe road test material before the holiday weekend. 

The instructions gave me the choice of microwave or stove top for melting the molasses and honey together (um, microwave, please), told me how to incorporate the nuts for even coverage, and how to roast them to golden perfection.   I didn't have the Maldon sea salt the recipe calls for, so I used Himalayan pink sea salt instead, but I'll get the Maldon next time (cook and learn...) for more salty contrast. Below is a picture of my new favorite cocktail snack, and since they can be stored for up to 2 weeks I'm flagging this page in my book for holiday hostess gifts. 

A word to the wise on making your own Honey Molasses Candied Almonds (bonus - you can use other nuts if you'd like): scarf some down right away because once other people get a taste of these nuts they'll be gone in a flash!  

   HoneyMolassesAlmonds

Honey molasses candied almonds

The sweet coating and a perfect pinch of sea salt combine with toasted almond flavor to create an addictive treat. I like to have a stash of these to set out for guests on a cheese board. Play around with your favorite nuts in this recipe. YIELD: 3 CUPS (500 G)

500 g/2 cups plus 2 tbsp water

500 g/2 1/2 cups granulated sugar

455 g/1 lb blanched whole almonds

20 g/1 tbsp honey

5 g/1/2 tsp unsulfured molasses

1 large pinch Maldon sea salt

Line a 9-by-13-in (23-by-33-cm)baking pan with a Silpat or parchment paper. Set an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).

In a medium stainless-steel or enamel-coated saucepan, combine the water and sugar. Place the saucepan over high heat, and when the mixture comes to a rolling boil, immediately turn the heat to medium. When the sugar is fully dissolved, about 30 seconds, turn the heat to medium-low.

Add the almonds to the saucepan and poach for 30 to 45 seconds to blanch them. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Pour the almonds into a large mixing bowl and let cool. When they are still warm to the touch but not hot, about 5 minutes, the almonds are ready to work with again.

While the almonds are cooling, combine the honey and molasses in a separate, small bowl. Microwave the mixture for 15 to 30 seconds, until it is viscous and easy to mix. Stir gently to combine. Alternatively, place the honey and molasses in a small saucepan over medium heat and stir constantly for 2 to 3 minutes, or until heated through and easy to stir.

Pour the honey mixture over the almonds and toss gently until the almonds are evenly coated. Sprinkle the sea salt over the nuts and toss to coat. Spread the almonds evenly in the prepared baking pan. Toast in the oven for 10 to 12 minutes. Every 4 to 6 minutes, gently shake the pan so that the almonds roll around and cook evenly. When the almonds are golden brown, remove the pan from the oven and place it on a cooling rack. Cool completely.

Once cool, the almonds are ready to serve, or store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place for 1 to 2 weeks.

Sweet Note: This recipe can be used with most nuts, including hazelnuts or pistachios or even pumpkin seeds. The molasses lends a complex flavor to these sweet little nuggets.

Graphic Novel Friday: Sci-Fi Summer

There are still a few days of summer to enjoy, and everyone is talking about science fiction and the blockbuster that ruled them all: Guardians of the Galaxy. Heck, we covered the comics, too! If you’ve seen the film and want to read the next big things in the genre, then turn your star-gazer below to our top three picks of new graphic novels that explore space, time, and beyond:

Trillium by Jeff Lemire (Vertigo): Writer/artist Lemire goes off the deep end, and readers who follow him will be richly rewarded by the journey’s end in this 2014 Eisner Award Nominee for Best Limited Series. Protagonists Nika (from the year 3797) and William (from 1921) find themselves at a cross-time crossroads, their destinies impossibly intertwined. Lemire plays with the book packaging and panel structures to literally shape the two narratives, and he invents his own alien language (a key is provided in the collection). It’s heady, daring, and satisfying.

The Bunker Vol. 1 by Joshua Hale Fialkov and Joe Infurnari (Oni Press): Originally released via comiXology, this title gained a strong following thanks to its topsy-turvy plot: five friends hike into a forest to bury a time capsule, only to find one already there when they start digging—and it’s big. The bunker they unearth holds envelopes with letters written by their future selves, detailing an impending apocalypse. Initially, the letters seem to encourage extinction prevention, but the present-day friends quickly realize that ulterior motives may color the messages. Can they trust their future selves—and if the letters are true, can they trust each other?

Letter 44 Vol. 1: Escape Velocity by Charles Soule and Alberto Jimenez Alburquerque (Oni Press): Two disparate stories, one set on Earth and one in space, rely heavily on paranoia and action. On Earth, President Blades takes office only to discover that the previous regime kept many disturbing things hidden from the American public—chief among them a mysterious, alien space cannon and the American crew sent up to intercept it. As Blades encounters increasing subterfuge and danger the deeper he looks to the stars, the crew engages not only alien technology but the terrifying truth behind it. Plus, one of the crew members is pregnant, and nobody will name the father’s identity. The tension mounts with each chapter, and the tiny moments of payoff only serve to keep the pages turning.

My oxygen tank is just about dry, Omni readers.  What summer comics have you searching the stars for more?

--Alex

How I Wrote It: Beth Macy’s “Factory Man” and 5 Books for Labor Day

BethBeth Macy's Factory Man is the inspiring story of brash and feistyJohn Bassett III, who strives to save his family’s embattled furniture company by fighting back against the cheap Chinese imports that had contributed to the loss of tens of thousands of factory and mill jobs in Southwest Virginia.

Macy is an award-winning reporter who writes about outsiders and underdogs. (She and I worked together at the Roanoke Times for a spell.) She’s also the daughter of a displaced factory worker, and her passion for this story shines through on every page. Factory Man has received rave reviews--Bryan Burrough in the New York Times called it “a great American story”--but Macy is most proud of the support from factory workers who thanked her for telling their story.

“No one in Washington had noticed, or cared, or even bothered to look and see what all those free-trade policies had wrought on mill towns across America,” she said. “The people of Bassett wanted that story told, and it was an honor to help bring it to light.”

In advance of Labor Day weekend, I spoke with Macy via email about the writing of Factory Man. I also asked her to recommend some books that inspired her.  

~

FactoryWhat sparked your initial interest in the story of Bassett Furniture Company?

I set out initially in late 2011 to write a newspaper series on the aftermath of globalization in Henry County/Martinsville, Va., which had had the highest unemployment rate in the state for a decade. I was inspired by the work of freelance photographer Jared Soares, who’d been documenting what he saw there: textile plant conveyor belts-turned-food pantry delivery devices and the like. Early in my interviews, I heard there was a third-generation furniture maker named John Bassett III who’d singlehandedly bucked the trend and fought China to keep his factory in Galax, Va., going, saving jobs and his family legacy. When I heard he said things like, “The [expletive] Chi-Comms aren’t gonna tell me how to make furniture!” my story Spidey sense went on high alert. He’d done the counterintuitive thing, and he’d done it during a time of huge cultural/economic change. I knew right away his story was BIG, the kind of piece where you could thread together history, economic relevancy and even memoir (I’m the daughter of a displaced factory worker myself).

How did you convince John Bassett III to cooperate and give you access?

Polite persistence and baby steps. He was going to give me 15 minutes of his time the first time we met, but I won him over by being prepared: I knew all about the family feud with his brother-in-law, about his insanely twisted family tree. I knew but didn’t quite understand how he’d taken on China. And we all know how irresistible it is to be listened to by someone who’s genuinely curious. Something like 700 phone calls later and dozens of visits and not a few arguments — including one in which we very nearly came to blows — we’re still talkin’.

What was his reaction to the book? How have employees responded?

He calls it “Peyton Place” meets “Gone With the Wind.” He gives me no credit for all the business analysis and anti-dumping case sorting-through I had to do — all the economists and business professors I interviewed, including going to Indonesia to interview the replacement workers. He had trouble initially with some of his family secrets being unearthed, as well as some details about his wealth. But he’s come around. He enjoys the attention he’s getting, and he’s no dummy: He understands that the book could help him sell more furniture! He also wants this country “to kick ass and take names” again, and he thinks he’s the guy to tell ‘em how to do it.

I was at a signing at the Galax Fiddlers Convention last weekend, and the Vaughan-Bassett veneer department showed up and gave me a commemorative plaque they’d made, embossed with galax leaves and tiny strips of walnut and white pine veneer. I think they see “Factory Man” as job security; surely, he can’t close the factory now, right? They appreciate that someone bothered to tell this story from the ground up.

What can other smaller, family-owned businesses learn from Bassett?

Relentlessness, in a word. When the guy at the top cares enough to sleep (or not sleep) with a legal pad next to his bed so he can jot down (or better yet call an employee) an idea that has just occurred to him for the betterment of his company in the middle of the night, that work ethic trickles down. He’s in his factory every day, communicating constantly with employees, challenging them to change and improve over and over again. It’s a live-wire organization, and I think the investments he makes in that factory (mentally, fiscally, emotionally) make it a fun place to work.

How long did you work on the book, and what one thing surprised you the most about what you learned?

I had 11 solid months to turn in the first draft, then the back-and-forth editing continued for another six months or so (between my day job duties). Surprises? There were so many, mostly revolving around just how rich the material was — the maid who wore two girdles, the corporate pilot landing without landing gear, all the “Mad Men” in the mountains behavior. The overarching theme I was left with, though, was this palpable desire that people in the ghost town of Bassett, Va., still have to tell their story. No one in Washington had noticed, or cared, or even bothered to look and see what all those free-trade policies had wrought on mill towns across America. The people of Bassett wanted that story told, and it was an honor to help bring it to light. You should see the “Factory Man” Facebook discussion group started by one reader — in the span of week, there were thousands of heartfelt comments on it: memories and grievances, hot political debates and loads of nostalgia (old pictures of factories and gathering spots, as well as the grassy fields where the factories once stood). Twenty-thousand jobs evaporated in that one county alone, and along with them dozens of gathering spots, from factories and restaurants to mom-and-pop shops. And here was this unlikely virtual watering hole helping reunite people again. “This book has literally set my soul on fire,” one reader posted.

Factory Man has been compared to the work of Laura Hillenbrand, Katherine Boo, Michael Lewis, and David Simon – congrats, and: who’d you write the book for?

Thanks, that’s truly humbling company. I wrote the book for those 20,000 people I mentioned above. I wrote it for my mom, who soldered airplane lights when the economy was good and babysat other people’s kids when it wasn’t. She didn’t whine, she didn’t take any crap, and she could stretch a dime farther than anyone I’ve ever known. She didn’t have the benefit of higher education, or the social capital that comes with it, that I’ve enjoyed. But she was my first editor, and every bit of grit and heart I have as a reporter — I got it from her.

~

Recommended books:

Hairstons1. Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, by Leslie T. Chang — from the ground up, this journalist chronicles the largest migration in human history, documenting the heartaches and triumphs of young rural women migrating to China’s cities, trying to do right by their families and experiencing the growing pains associated with entering the working/middle classes. 

2. The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, by Henry Weincek — an astonishing social history of race in the Southern Piedmont, told through a single family (black, white and mulatto) grappling to understand the legacy of slavery and its contemporary relevance. 

3. The Hard Way On Purpose, by David Giffels — the Akron-bred journalist writes hilarious, painstaking and moving essays about his decision not to flee the Rubber Belt when most of his contemporaries did just that. A beautiful portrait of a region on the mend. 

4. The Unwinding,” by George Packer — The New Yorker writer’s illuminating take on America’s recent economic history, told through a series of portraits of hard-working Americans and corporate greed-heads, in the style of John Dos Passos. 

5. Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder — the journalist’s profile of Dr. Paul Farmer’s work in Haiti is a portrait of a fascinating (and fiery tempered) do-gooder, interspersed with telling exchanges between the interviewer and the interviewee and woven with spot-on narrative and surprisingly complex social/medical/business analyses. 

~

> Visit Macy's website

> Follow her on Twitter


 

Five Tips for Dinner Party Success

BigBeautifulMessHandmadeHomeI have a crafty spirit but if I'm REALLY going to make something it better have simple instructions and require a minimum of easy-to-find supplies.  This is why I love Elsie Larson and Emma Chapman's book, A Beautiful Mess Happy Handmade Home (an August Best of the Month pick). 
 
In sections for each room of the house, as well as outdoor spaces, the authors emphasize making the design fit your lifestyle and offer enough ideas to cover about any decor direction.  From how to revamp a piece of garage sale furniture, arrange pictures or collectibles in an interesting way, or take a plain vase and turn it into something special, the ideas in this book are all things even I feel like I could do--and I'm actually inspired to do them!  
 
Besides all the great projects, A Beautiful Mess Happy Handmade Home also has a few ideas for hosting a simple gathering with ease.  Here are a handful of suggestions from the authors on how to set yourself up for a fun, low stress, dinner party that still has those special touches but won't leave you regretting the cost.

 

Five Tips for Hosting a Budget-Friendly Dinner Party
By Emma Chapman and Elsie Larson, authors of A Beautiful Mess Happy Handmade Home


When faced with the task of hosting a dinner party it can be easy to have a freak-out moment. What if you don't have enough chairs and someone is left standing all night? What if you run out of food or booze? What if everyone is bored? What if someone is allergic to sugar, garlic AND gluten? Also, what is gluten? Why does all your furniture all of sudden look threadbare and cheap? Or worst of all, every host's biggest fear, what if no one comes?

First off, take a deep breath. Next, know that you already have what it takes to throw the most epic dinner party—you just need to think creatively. No matter your budget here are five tips to host the perfect dinner party. WineCheese

1. Make personalized menus. These could be handwritten, formatted like a ransom note or crafted from nothing more than construction paper and crayons. Get creative. Be funny or formal, whatever your style. For a few dollars you've just elevated your dining room into a restaurant-grade atmosphere. You've shown your guests there was thought and planning put into the night and it's gonna be delicious.

2. Get creative with seating. Oh, you don't already own a million fancy chairs? Not to worry. Why not rearrange your furniture to suit your night's needs? It will totally add a bit of whimsy to the evening. You could even enlist guests to help you if needed. Or what about hosting your dinner party on the floor or around a camp fire in your backyard? Whatever you decide, you can be sure it will make the night more memorable to guests.

RecycledCenterpieces3. Reimagine items to use for decor. Sometimes people call this upcycling. The basic idea is you reuse an old item that you would have discarded for another purpose. Save all your empty wine bottles, beer bottles, or soup cans, then clean them and reuse as flower vases for a pretty and inexpensive centerpiece.

4. Fancy up your table settings. Even if all you own are mismatched plates from various flea market trips, add unity, color and personality to your table with handmade cloth napkins. You could sew your own or purchase plain napkins and add designs with fabric paint. You could even make extra sets and send some home with guests!

5. Collaborate with food costs. As fun as it would be to create a seven course meal paired with a different wine for every course, it's likely your budget just isn't going to stretch that far. It doesn't need to. Allow guests to help provide a portion of the meal or make it BYOB. A true friend never expects others to pick up the full tab on everything.

Above all, have fun and focus on connecting with your guests. Dinner parties, despite the name, are not actually all about the dinner, they’re about creating memories with people you love. So get out of the kitchen and don't stress about all the little details: be fun, have fun and enjoy the ones you’re with!

Weird Science

What if everyone on earth aimed a laser pointer at the moon at the same time? What if you could drain all the water from the oceans? What if all the lightning strikes in the world hit the same place at once? What if there was a book that considered weird, sometimes ridiculous questions, and it was so compelling that you found yourself skimming its pages to find out what would happen if you threw a baseball at light speed?  With What If, Randall Munroe has written such a book. In the same style of his extraordinarily popular xkcd webcomic, Munroe applies reason and research to hypothetical conundrums ranging from the philosophical to the scientific (often absurd, but never pseudo) that probably seemed awesome and inscrutable in your elementary school days--but were never sufficiently answered. 

Enjoy this exclusive thought-experiment from the author (and it's not even included in the book). What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions will be available in hardcover and Kindle on September 2, 2014.

 

Q: If you built a very smooth ramp from the highest point on Earth (Mt. Everest) to the lowest (Dead Sea), then stood at the top on a rolling office chair, would you roll down? How fast would you go?

So you got bored in a meeting and decided to take your chair for a ride.

What If by Randall Munroe



Bring oxygen tanks. And food.

A ramp connecting Mount Everest to the shore of the Dead Sea would have a very gentle slope of only 1/10th of a degree. If you were standing on it, it would seem flat.

The slope would be so gentle that the chair would need precision bearings or a pneumatic air cushion to reduce friction enough to roll—and even then, air drag would limit you to a terminal velocity of about running speed.

What If by Randall Munroe



You'd also need the ramp to be enclosed. The top of Mount Everest pokes up into the jet stream, a river of hurricane-force wind wrapped around the planet. Unfortunately for you, that wind is going in the wrong direction. Without something to shield you from it, it would blow you back up the ramp.

Ok, let's go!

What If by Randall Munroe



You depart the peak of Everest, trundling slowly west, and the ground falls away beneath you. You glide out over the peaks and valleys of the Himalayas without coming close to touching another mountain.

After two days, you leave the mountains behind and slide across the Punjab region of India and Pakistan.

What If by Randall Munroe



You then cross southern Afghanistan and pass into Iran, where you finally sink low enough to breathe without oxygen tanks.

In central Iran, you hit the ground for the first time since you started rolling. Your track intersects a mountainside near the peak of Shahan Kuh. You pass through a convenient tunnel and emerge on the other side.

What If by Randall Munroe



You cross from Iran into Iraq, sinking lower and lower. Because the air is several times denser here than at your starting point, your terminal velocity has dropped from running speed to jogging speed.

A little over two weeks after you started rolling, your ramp sinks low enough to touch the desert. In western Iraq, you fall beneath ground level and enter another tunnel. You cross from Iraq into Jordan over 600 meters below the border.

What If by Randall Munroe



You roll through the darkness for four days, passing completely under Jordan, and finally emerge into the light on the shores of the Dead Sea.

After twenty days, you and your faithful chair have reached the end of your journey from Earth's highest land to its lowest. You take a swim; in the dense saline water, you float much higher than normal. Be careful not to get any in your eyes.

What If by Randall Munroe



And now you should probably get back to that meeting. They'll get mad if you don't return the chair.

What If by Randall Munroe




What If by Randall Munroe

"We Should Have Brought More Pemmican." (Polar Voyages Gone Wrong)

August 2014 marks 100 years since Ernest Shackleton and his crew set out in the Endurance on the "Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition," a mission to trek 1,800 miles from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea on the far side of the continent, crossing the South Pole on the way. The events are well known. The ship was trapped, eventually sinking under the hull-wrecking pressure of the ice. Shackleton's men were forced to make camp on the floe, drifting on the sea before reaching the barren rock of Elephant Island--more than a year since the boat had first become ice-bound. Only a desperate and heroic effort by Shackleton and a few of his men saved the crew from certain death: a 15-day, rough-water sea journey in a small, ramshackle craft, followed by a 36-hour mountain crossing to reach the whaling stations on the Island of South Georgia.

While Shackleton's tale has earned the most fame over the last century, his is not the only story of a Voyage Gone Very Wrong. Here we present six books chronicling the pitfalls of the age of polar exploration.

 

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible VoyageEndurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfed Lansing

Widely considered the definitive account of Shackleton's ordeal. Lansing's exhaustive research--including information drawn from interviews with 10 surviving members of the expedition, and the diaries and personal accounts of eight more--resulted in this immediate and engrossing account of disaster, courage, and redemption.

See also:
--South: The Endurance Expedition
--The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, by Caroline Alexander 
 
 

 


In the Kingdom of IceIn the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

Amazon's Spotlight selection for the Best Books of August, 2014. Award-winning author Hampton Sides recounts the tale of George Washington De Long and the U.S.S. Jeanette: Sailing out of San Francisco Bay and into the waters of the Arctic, the ship was was abandoned by its crew after becoming locked in the pack ice--setting the stage for a gripping story of perseverance and survival. Amazon senior editor Chris Schluep says Sides has done "a masterful job of setting up the voyage against the backdrop of the Gilded Age, developing fascinating characters along the way, and delivering a true triumph of narrative nonfiction."


 
 
 

 Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin ExpeditionFrozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition by Owen Beattie and John Geiger

In 1845 Sir John Franklin set out for the Artic to “penetrate the icy fastness of the north, and to circumnavigate America.” It didn't work out. Despite the best scientific equipment the day had to offer, the crew and the expedition’s two ships disappeared without a trace. The mystery persevered for more than a century, until the makeshift graves of a few missing sailors were discovered on a remote island, and modern forensics unlocked the grisly secret of their demise: Franklin's expedition had resorted to cannibalism in an attempt to survive the unforgiving landscape. (The link above is for the Kindle edition. A new paperback edition is due in October.)

 

Fatal Passage: The Story of John Rae, the Arctic Hero Time ForgotFatal Passage: The Story of John Rae, the Arctic Hero Time Forgot by Ken McGoogan


Poor John Rae. Perhaps the most successful Arctic explorer of his day, the largely self-taught Hudson Bay man charted thousands of miles of previously unknown territory along the northern Canadian coast in ships, on snowshoes, and canoes. He also uncovered the fate of Franklin's crew. Unfortunately for Rae, Franklin's cabal of dogged supporters suppressed the truth through a campaign of character assassination, effectively obfuscating Rae's achievements for more than a century.

 

 

 

 The Lost Men: The Harrowing Saga of Shackleton's Ross Sea PartyThe Lost Men: The Harrowing Saga of Shackleton's Ross Sea Party by Kelly Tyler-Lewis

Almost everything about the Shackleton expedition went sideways. Sent on a mission to cache supplies for Shackleton's Antarctic traverse, the men of the Aurora were stranded when their ship broke from its moorings during a storm, vanishing into the sea. The Lost Men vividly recounts the two years before they were rescued, drawing on journals to recreate not only the objective hazards they faced, but their mental, emotional, and  interpersonal challenges, as well.

 

 

  

The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the KarlukThe Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk by Jennifer Niven

The Gilligan's Island of all the ill-conceived polar expeditions, with sadly predictable results. A year before Shackleton launched his own wildly-successful-by-comparison voyage, the Karluk--a ship deemed inadequate by it's apparently incompetent captain--set forth to prove the existence of a continent beneath the Arctic ice. They didn't find it. Not just because it doesn't exist, but because their ship was locked in the ice and pushed north before succumbing to Siberian waters. And that's when things got really dark.

Omnivoracious™ Contributors

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