More Beard?

26 Mar
Mr Potatohead

Mr Potatohead

I have sported a mustache continuously since my freshman year in college (except for a brief period of legal travail) and experimented with beards, off and on (moving some friends to refer to me aS Mr Potatohead), as my interest in shaving waxed and waned. Thus, the commotion about my locale’s baseball team’s proclaiming a hirsute image puzzled me.

Hair hysteria

Hair hysteria

On the scale of newsworthiness, I would rate that about as compelling as Kim And Kanje’s Vogue cover (and the attendant concerns that this might destroy Vogue magazine). Yikes!

Does this need a caption?

Does this need a caption?

Now even the above mentioned barely tickled any frontal lobe activity until I was watching a television advertisement/spiel for a money saving mobile phone “family” plan and one of characters proclaims, ‘We need more beard.” Now it’s not as if I had a Eureka moment but that ad did lead to some moments of cogitation(including reviewing current benchmarks of triviality).

Currently, I am sporting a full upper lip with a small inverted triangle sprouting from the crease in my chin below my lower lip. These facial features do not lead me to feel any kinship or bond with any other bewhiskered male or mustachioed female. Just so you know…

Because I am adverse to purchasing products whose companies buy naming rights to sports stadium or art museum curatorial positions, I was very pleased to discover an enterprise that dealt in shaving products (razors, blades, shaving unguents and by cursory inspection did not seem to wreak terrible environmental havoc on the planet or contract slave labor. And after sampling their products, I am no longer using the football stadium titled wares. Thanks to Harry’s

Harry’s offers reasonably priced shaving products and consistent with the newest trend in branding and/or service journalism, Harry’s publishes 5 O’Clock magazine. Which, if I may say, is worth having a look at.

From 5 O'Clock Magazine

From 5 O’Clock Magazine

My shower curtain

My shower curtain

Currently reading The Exiles Return by Elizabeth De Waal (Picador)

Talking with Anthony Marra

23 Mar

For what its worth. Anthony Marra‘s debut novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Hogarth) won numerous awards and accolades. A graduate of a Division One writing program (Iowa) and a Stegner Fellow at Stanford and is currently teaching there. His novel is set in war torn Chechnya a doctor observes Russian atrocities and then rescues a neighbor’s daughter teaming up with another doctor to survive the relentless barbarity.

Anthony and I met at my favorite neighborhood cafe, The Keltuc Krust. Basking outside in the late spring warmth and amid the outdoor sounds of passing traffic, we chatted about his childhood, Chechyna, how he writes,his early inspirations, Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, acknowledgements, “his” cats, Netflix and his next project

Anthony Marra (photo:Robert Birnbaum)

Anthony Marra (photo:Robert Birnbaum)

15 May 2013

RB: What was your feeling when you finished your first novel?

AM: Well, ‘finished’ is a relative term.

RB: What was your feeling when you finished the first draft?

AM: A feeling of relief, a feeling of accomplishment and a feeling of trepidation knowing how much more work there was to do. I knew from the beginning that my writing process has always been to write as much as I can and just keep moving forward and then go back and revise and revise. While I was writing the first draft I kept a record on my wall of my daily word count. My goal was a thousand words a day. The days I would get to over a thousand words I would mark in black ink. And on the days I got less, I marked in red ink. I grew up in a Catholic family and went to church and Sunday school and I had all this shame running through me.

RB: The days that were in red were days of shame?

AM: Exactly. I would just see it staring back at me, the red ink. So that kept me honest for the most part. When I finished the first draft, I printed it out, sat down at my keyboard and started retyping the entire novel from the first sentence. And I repeated that process four times.

RB: There was 4 different drafts?

AM: I wrote the book 4 full times— each time I felt the shifts and changes in the book occurred naturally, organically. By retyping the sentences I am able to tap into whatever creative well they first emerged from.

RB: What is your sense of how much the 2nd draft changed?

AM: It changed more in the language and the tone, the style, more than anything. IF you were to read the first draft and then read the current version, the final version, I think the greatest difference would be the language. And how the story unfolds and how much the point of view was fixated on one character and didn’t move into the points of view of minor characters or jump into the future. It was a bit sharper and had less of a total range. I had a different ending on the first drafts.

RB: What did you think as you did each draft? “This doesn’t have…” Or “I need to …” What was the approach to critiquing the drafts?

AM: Yeah, I would read through the previous draft and see what didn’t feel right.

RB: So when you arrived at draft number 4, you thought—

AM: When I got to 4, at that point this hyper-omniscient narrator came into being. Everything just felt alive and real to me, in a way that it hadn’t before. I felt the story was as complete as could be. After that I continued with my editor and ended up cutting 50 pages and condensing things here and there. But it was that draft where I made the breakthrough to what the book could be rather than what it might potentially be.

RB: How did you feel then?

AM: I felt pretty good. A sense of the vision meeting reality. I remember once hearing someone say that happiness is where your expectations and reality converge. And I took a literary sense of that—what the book could be and what the book was, came together.

RB: What was the working title?

AM: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

RB: Taken from a Russian medical encyclopedia?

AM: Well, I found it in an English medical dictionary

RB: In the book you wrote that it came from a Soviet encyclopedia.

AM: Yeah. I can’t recall the name of the text.

RB: That’s a splendid definition of life.

AM: Its one of seven definitions. I was on line, weighing various definitions, as one does on a Saturday afternoon…

RB: yeah, that’s what I would be doing—

AM: Who doesn’t? I went to the ‘L’ section and I found this definition and it struck me as so peculiar.

RB: Peculiar enough to sound fictional.

AM: I can send you the link—

RB: No, no, no. I am not doubting you
—that is, until you get really outrageous. What do you think of the dictum, “Write what you know?”

AM: I prefer the dictum, ”Write what you want to know.”

RB: (laughs) Good one. You present some wonderful images in the story— a toilet bowl over an unexploded bomb. Did you actually see that?

AM: I didn’t see that. I’d hear reports —someone using basins to cover unexploded mortar shells. The setting is a place where absurdities abound.

RB:(pause for fire sirens that are roto-rootering my inner ears —I am wearing headphones). That was deafening. You could say that about most of Eastern Europe. Dark humor seems to reign supreme.

AM: Yeah, it’s a gallows humor. When I visited Chechnya people were constantly cracking jokes, usually at my expense. There was this sense that we laugh because it makes things bearable.

RB: Reportedly you wrote this book because there were no English language novels that had been written about Chechnya.

A view from the mountains in eastern Chechnya. (photo: Anthony Marra)

A view from the mountains in eastern Chechnya. (photo: Anthony Marra)

AM: I came to Chechnya and started reading about it because I was a college student in St Petersburg Russia shortly after the journalist Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated a couple of block from my apartment. There was a Metro station where Russian veterans of the Chechynan War would congregate—it was very much in the air.

RB: ‘Congregate” meaning— smoking cigarettes, drinking. panhandling…

AM: All of the above.

RB: Were they homeless?

AM: Some of them. Some in wheelchairs would go through the train cars asking for change. It[Chevchnya] was in the air and I realized I knew nothing about it. I started reading history books and non-fiction accounts and came completely moved by these stories of ordinary people persisting in extraordinary circumstances.

RB: I am aware of world events—there was a hostage situation in a school that turned out very badly?

AM: Yeah, Beslan.

RB: By and large I was totally ignorant and unaware of the circumstances there. And then I thought I am not attending to what’s happening in Darfur; I am sure indigenous are still being murdered in Central America; I don’t know if the Tamal rebels have prevailed in Sri Lanka. Around the world there are numerous deadly tribal squabbles —did you think writing a novel about Chechnya would make a difference?

Location  of Chechnya in Caucasus

Location of Chechnya in Caucasus

AM: No, I wanted to write a story. I am not out to change the world. I am not an investigative journalist uncovering anything or trying to shine a light on anything as much as I just wanted to tell the story I don’t think has reached an American audience in this form.

RB: Recognizing that this is a novel, have you been criticized for a failure to adhere to the reported facts? Or that you have given a faulty picture?

AM: No, I have not heard any significant criticism.

RB: How about insignificant?

AM: I suppose of you read some of the reviews. The city and the village that the novel is based in are fictitious. I created them so that I could —originally I was going to set it in Grozny but I felt very uncomfortable setting a story there that wouldn’t match up to the historical reality. So I created my one city and village and region so that I would have the freedom to veer away, to create my own history.

RB: What language is spoken there, Chechnyan?

AM: Yes, it one of a series northern Caucasian dialects that split away from the European family and are not connected linguistically to any thing else.

RB: So how does the language deal with modernity?

AM: Its interesting when I visited, a lot of people my age—I am 28 are just learning Chechnyan now. The person I hired to show me around had grown up in Moscow coming to Chechnya as an adult. And was studying/taking the language. Another woman, when I asked about what billboard said shrugged and told me she didn’t speak Chechnyan.

RB: Was the exile of Chechnayans to Kazakhstan mentioned in the book, a real historical event?

A painting of the 1944 Soviet deportation of ethnic Chechens to Kazakhstan and Siberia

A painting of the 1944 Soviet deportation of ethnic Chechens to Kazakhstan and Siberia

AM; Yeah that’s true. It was in 1944 and Stalin decided as the German Army was moving in to the Northern Caucuses with hopes of capturing oil in Grozny and eventually Baku that the Chechnyans would side with the Germans.

RB: Was it a Soviet republic?

AM: It was a semi autonomous state.

RB: What were your aspirations when you were growing up in Washington DC?

AM: When I was a kid I started reading my parents’ John Grisham novels and Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy and all those guys, when I was in elementary school, it was not only my entry into long books but into the adult world. Novels and fiction have always been my way of understanding the world. I was an avid reader and as I grew up I started to try to write —the first story I wrote was the called “The Last Of The Bohemians”—

RB: —how old were you?

AM: Sixteen. It was a page and half long about a man walking up a staircase and I sent it to the New Yorker (both laugh)

RB: Good for you. Its better that you didn’t know what that process was.

AM: I got a rejection so quickly—they have very good taste there. It’s been downhill form there.

RB: Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Stanford—I can see that. I read your book’s acknowledgments (can I be acknowledged in your next book, if I give you money?)

AM: Sure.

RB: Why did you apply to Iowa?

AM: It has this reputation as being this place that—this crucible, where writers I have admired like Dennis Johnson who is one of my favorite writers…. As soon as I realized he went to Iowa wanted to apply.

RB: I started to say reading the acknowledgments that I have spoken with a lot of the writers you were surrounded by—Ethan Canin

ETHAN CANIN circa 2001(photo: Robert Birnbaum)

ETHAN CANIN circa 2001(photo: Robert Birnbaum)

AM: I had a short story with several of these characters [from the novel] that I work-shopped with him—it was the very first thing I work-shopped at Iowa. He told me, “This should be a novel.” It was something I was already doing—other people had expressed that sentiment.

RB: It seems that a lot of Iowa graduates go on to Stanford and get a Stegner Fellowship. How has that been?

AM: It’s been incredible. Getting to work with Tobias Wolff and Adam Johnson and Elizabeth Talent. And the other Fellows are just—extraordinary. Its two years and your only obligation is to your work. It’s where I completed the last draft of the novel.

RB: Are you out on your own now and having to earn a living?

AM: Thankfully I will be at Stanford for 2 more years—I’ll be teaching there.

RB: Are you at all concerned that this kind of a cloistered life?

AM: Um.

RB: You weren’t concerned until I mentioned it.

AM: Now I am terrified (both laugh). No, I more concerned about health insurance. I like to think that my fictional interests are outward looking enough that I could pursue them in any environment.

RB: That’s good to think—how much do you attend to the “real world? Read newspapers, watch whatever news sources?

AM: Yeah. I feel like I am generally interested—

RB: Can I quiz you?

AM: Absolutely not. You mentioned those other civil conflicts I know as little about them as you do.

RB: But you are aware that they are out there?

AM: Yeah—for whatever reason this corner of the world [Chechnya] touched me in a way that made me want to delve deeper.

RB: What are you aspirations now as we sit here? Finish this conversation?

AM: I have to write a new book so I can acknowledge you.

RB: Good answer— I am sorry to burden you (both laugh).

AM: I am working in a second novel, which Hogarth will be publishing probably on 2 years or so.

RB: They committed sight unseen?

AM: It started as a collection of stories and now its something between stories and a novel that deals with this similar time period

RB: “Linked stories”?

AM: I hate that term but yeah. After that, my dad keeps telling me I should set a novel in Hawaii so we can all go there.

RB: Has anything unexpected happened because of the very positive reception for your debut novel?

AM: I wrote this novel when I was in Iowa. I was teaching rhetoric.I was making $11,000 that year. I was writing a book set in a place that most Americans can’t find on a map. Full of characters, full of names that are a little difficult to pronounce. There is no point of view situated in a familiar perspective. There are no Americans walking in stage. So I really didn’t think that anyone would be interested in it. I just knew that it was something that deeply interested me that —I felt I personally had to—to write the novel for myself really. And for my own sense of what I wanted to achieve as a writer. If it connected with other readers, brought a little attention to this area, that’s great. But I began without any expectations of any of that.

RB: I found it curious that Ann Patchett wrote a blurb that connected your book to Jonathan Foer’s first novel.

AM: I am huge fame of Ann Patchett’s work—she is a brilliant writer. She didn’t know me from Adam and that she would take the time —

RB: Sure, sure but its kind of misleading and lacking in imagination. Do you read a lot?

AM: Yeah.

RB: Fiction?

AM: Yeah.

RB: Contemporary?

AM: I try to read both. I am not very good about sticking to it but I try to rotate between reading a book that was written before 1985 and one that’s contemporary and then a non-fiction. I feel like it’s important to learn what your peers are doing and what’s happening in the world today. Its as important as revisiting and learning from the classics.

RB: I came across a recent quote by writer J Robert Lennon (Mailer bio) that asserted that most contemporary fiction is terrible…

AM: (laughs)

RB: And he’s a contemporary novelist. I see remarks like that I am immediately suspicious.

AM: Yeah, I feel like we are in the Golden Age. There are more wonderful books being published—

RB: —I share that view. Sure there are “bad” books being published out of the 150 thousand books a year. So, yeah. How many people read a hundred books a year? What contemporary fiction have you liked?

AM: I recently finished the Edward St Auybn, “The Patrick Melrose “novels.

RB: Its brilliant writing.

AM: Its as if the cast of Downton Abbey have gone on to become substance abusers. It’s so dark but so funny and really quite powerful. Also I read Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal —he is someone who influenced me. He is a very whimsical writer. Always with the backdrop of these horrific historical changes. He wrote Too Loud a Solitude. It’s about this trash compactor in Prague. And he basically trashes banned books. Along the way he saves them. He has this apartment that is built out of books—he has a canopy bed with 2 tons of books on top of it. He is afraid that quite literally, he will be crushed by these books. He’s great.

RB: Do you feel you have to read the books of the writers you are surrounded by at Stanford?

AM: Uh, yeah.

RB: Orphan Masters Son [Adam Johnson]?

AM: I read it when it first came out and I am in the middle of it now—I am rereading it. It’s absolutely brilliant—the sheer imagination and empathy. That book has become a measurement, a meter stick for what’s possible.

RB: Do you do anything besides read and write?

AM: I go running. Margaret and I have 2 cats. Well, she has 2 cats—

RB: You are not accepting any responsibility for the felines?

AM: I used to but yesterday I was talking about my cats and she was like, “Wait a minute.” [Laughs]

RB: So if you broke up, as has been known to happen, the cats go with her?

AM: Unfortunately. I probably would steal one.

RB: This is on the record.

AM: (laughs) One of them is this fat cat and the other one, periodically licks itself bald. He has bad allergies and we have been trying to deal with them. They make quite a pair, the two of these cats.

RB: So, you run and take care of 2 cats—do you watch movies?

AM: Actually, I am kind of a sucker for those superhero comic movies. I have loved comic books since I was a kid.

RB: The charm of those movies eludes me.

AM: What did you think of Ben Affleck’s Boston movies?

RB: I thought The Town was riveting base on a Chuck Hogan novel (Prince of Thieves )and Gone, Baby, Gone had great actors.

AM: I really like The Town. I saw it twice.

RB: Because of Netflix and have just seen a John Cusak movie that I had never even heard of—The Factory. The other one has a Philadelphia homicide cop who is diagnosed with a terminal disease who is persuaded to have himself killed by a hired killer but is not told when. Then he learns that the diagnosis was wrong and now wants to call of his own murder. Great cast, Tim Roth, Gabriel Byrne…

AM: Tim Roth is great—he has never really gotten his due.

RB: I agree (19.17.2). There was a moment in the epic Rob Roy when Roth, playing a fop and philanderer, transforms into a lethal and vicious swordsman. I’ve been an admirer of his ever since. Plus he did an understated movie with Tupac. Do you have Netflix?

AM: Yeah, I like watching documentaries especially Frontline. Its one of the great gifts of television

RB: HBO’s documentaries are impressive. I just watched a series on warzone photographers called Witness produced by Michael Mann. Riveting stuff! When will your next book be published?

AM: About 2 years.

RB: Now that I have a dog in that hunt please report your progress to me. A fairly recent development in authorial acknowledgments is to include publicists. Imagine the ground you would be breaking acknowledging me. There is Sharon Sternberg’s Leaning in book where she has 7 pages of acknowledgments for a 140 page book

AM: There has been some blowback on acknowledgments. In Cutting the Stone there must be over 10 pages [of acknowledgements] He goes through and lists this scene was influenced by this book. Its ends up becoming this

RB: —epilogue.

AM: This wonderful reading list —the books that influenced him and the books he loves—its great.

RB: Indeed. So we’ll meet back here in 2 years. Thank you

AM: All right, I’d love to. Thanks very much for taking the time to do this.

RB: This is my pleasure.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Currently reading, Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst (Knopf)

For Children of All Ages

14 Mar

A while back, amongst the outpouring of books and materials publishers send me, I took note of a slim and little tome, Advice to Little Girls(Enchanted Lion Books) from a text by Mark Twain and delightfully illustrated by Vladimir Radonsky.

 Advice to Little Girls by Mark Twain & Vladmir Radonsky

Advice to Little Girls by Mark Twain & Vladmir Radonsky

And last summer I received another Enchanted Lion book,The Hole by Norwegian illustrator Øyvind Torseter. The simple and engaging story line has the protagonist discovering a hole in his apartment and his attempts to find an explanation for this odd make this more vivid,The Hole features a hole punched through the book. As is the case with many of Enchanted Lions titles they are not age specific (the two books mentioned here are labeled “Kindergarten and up”)another way of saying for children of all ages.

The Hole

The Hole

Thus, when recently I received The River by Alessandro Sanna ,I felt justified, admittedly based on a small sampling, to conclude that Enchanted Lion was a special enterprise and this conclusion was the critical mass that moved me to look further into the particulars. Not surprisingly, as it turns out,(“…publishes books for people who really love books”)it is a small Brooklyn business operation driven by Claudia Z. Bedrick. You can read about MS.Bedrick here

Claudia Bedrick (photographer unknown)

Claudia Bedrick (photographer unknown)

The River by Alessandro Sanna

The River by Alessandro Sanna

page from the River

page from the River

Alessandro Sanna is an Italian illustrator whose work,if you pay attention to such things, has appeared in The New York Times and The New Yorker and is well known and well regarded in Europe.The River in 4 chapters exhibits, mostly through striking and dramatic images, the seasons and the notion of transformation. Ultra original literary oasis Brain Pickings extolls:

…Sanna exposes with remarkable sensitivity that gossamer connection between the physicality of the land and our transcendent experience of the passage of time, the inner seasonality of being human. Through his soft watercolors shines the immutable light of existence.

That (not inappropriate) gushing climaxes:

The River is easily the most breathtaking book to come out so far this year. Complement it with more of Enchanted Lion’s heartwarming treasures, such as My Father’s Arms Are a Boat and Little Boy Brown, both of which were among the best picture-books of 2013.

You can find many of the images from The River here.

Currently reading Prayer by Phillip Kerr (Putnam)

R.I.P. Dr. Shep Nuland: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

7 Mar
Sherwin Nuland circa 2003(photo: Robert Birnbaum

Sherwin Nuland circa 2003(photo: Robert Birnbaum

Dr. Sherwin (Shep) Nuland ,author of “How We Die,” which won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1994 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction in 1995, died this week. I had a emotionally fraught conversation with Nuland ( in 2003 about his book Lost In America: A Journey with My Father. which told of his father’s very troubled life. Here from that chat:

RB: There is the old saw that everyone has at least one book within them.

SN: I think it’s true. Whenever people ask me, “Should I do this?” Yeah do it, do it. You have no way of knowing how wonderful this might be for you, for a reader, whatever. Another reason I say I am not a writer, when I die there is going to be an obituary in the Times and there is going to be a picture. I won a prize. I noticed that National Book Award people get their pictures there when they die.

RB: (laughs)

SN: Well, I am a guy who has been fortunate to have been so sick that he has had to spend a very long time in accessing his unconscious mind, in trying to free up all of the entanglements to get to what he really thinks. And somehow in doing that, I have been enabled to just write spontaneously.

SN: The headline will say “Author of How We Die and/orLost in America.” You know what I want the headline to say? (long pause) I need a moment for this. I want it to say something about the fact that this man spent thirty five years of his life…taking care…of sick people the best way he knew how. That’s what I want it to say. (long pause, while SN struggles to control his emotions) Ridiculous. Uh, because that’s what I have done. That’s what my life has been about. I don’t want to be thought of as a writer. I want to be thought of as a doctor. Surgeon, yes, but a doctor. I know that it sounds self-exalting but a healer. Because that’s what I tried to be. Some of it, of course, comes from the story I tell in the book, about going to the clinic with my father and how awful that was —for everybody, not just for him.

You can find Nuland’s obituaries here and here.

Philo of Alexandria

Philo of Alexandria

Nuland once included the Philo of Alexandria quote in the title —”Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle”, in a note to me.

Currently reading Amerian Romantic by Ward Just (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Wes Anderson’s Grand(iose) Budapest Hotel

7 Mar
The Wes Anderson Collection

The Wes Anderson Collection

Wes Anderson has made some about a half dozen films(Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom) that have garnered good notices and him a devoted audience.His new film Grand Budapest Hotel judging from John Powers will not doubt do the same. Yet in his thoughts on Wes Anderson and the putative homage to the great and renascent Stefan Zweig that is tacked on this film ,David Thomson reminds me why his style of thought provocation is usually a fruitful ruminative effort. As Martin Amis points out quotes and citations make a review and Thomson no doubt unpopular assessment of Anderson is amply larded with shrewd and thoughtful observation:

So why is the name Zweig so startling at the end of The Grand Budapest Hotel? To put it simply, because this film is the work of a talented and vacant young director whose “brilliance” (I’m sure the word will be used) should not conceal his indifference to the depth of experience that preoccupied Zweig


So Grand Budapest Hotel is dazzling, exhausting but bereft. It relates to the atmosphere and texture of Stefan Zweig like an achingly sweet pastry on a tin plate at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is a rococo dead end, a ferment of decoration, unwitting complacency and ignorance.

So we know that David Thomson is not a fan and that this film borders on sacrilege (allow the hyperbole) using Stefan Zweig. Thomson’s notice ends with quote from Zweig’s Beware of Pity which is illustrative of his refined sensitivity— his character comes upon a sleeping invalid

But I must not disturb this sleep, which kept her from herself, from the dread reality of her existence! It is a most wonderful thing to be close, to be near to the sick during their sleep, when all their feverish thoughts are held captive, when they are so completely oblivious of their infirmity that sometimes a smile lights upon their parted lips as a butterfly upon a delicate leaf, a smile foreign to them, a smile which does not belong to them, and which, moreover, is scared away on the very moment of awaking.

The WES ANDERSON COLLECTION by Matt Zoller Seitz (Harry N. Abrams)

Here’s a melange of previously unpublished photos, artwork, and ephemera collected by Seitz including a lengthy conversation ( one reviewer noted, “The purpose of an interview is to allow an artist to illuminate his work. But the only thing illuminated by the conversations in this book is that Wes Anderson gives a terrible interview.) between Anderson and the book’s creator. And Michael Chabon contributes a 1200 word introduction. I can’t remember the last director whose art direction was codified in book form though Anderson’s work most certainly manifests countless interesting images and sets warranting this coffee table behemoth. Michael Chabon contributes a 1200 word introduction.

Image form The We Anderson Collection

Image form The We Anderson Collection

Currently reading Ripper by Isabel Allende (Harpers)

The Gaunt Spectre of Modernism*

5 Mar

I first became acquainted with the Pushkin Press when I received a newly published compendium of short fiction by Stefan Zweig and as it turns out, they also publish a number of other titles by Zweig including a recent biography and a also a haunting novel by Laurent Seksik about the last months of Zweig’s life (and death) in Brazil.

As these things happen, I found a copy of The Specter of Alexander Wolf by Gaito Gazdanov amongst the omenous accumulations of books that festoon the flat surfaces of my apartment. I don’t think I read about it because only the daily newspaper from that wonderful metropolis, Minneapolis chose to review it. On the other, hand the ever alert and fastidious Michael Ortofer at the Complete Review provided his commendable customary due diligence

The Last Days by Laurent Seksik

The Last Days by Laurent Seksik

Nicholas Lezard echoes my sentiments,

Another masterpiece from someone I’d never heard of before published by Pushkin Press; how many more do they have up their sleeve? This time it is by Gaito Gazdanov, a Russian émigré novelist whose work was not published in his native country until the collapse of the communist regime.

Suffice it to say that there is a lot going in this nearly 200 page novel detective story, a sly take on the life of a free lance writer, a existential rumination and even a love story.

It should not go unsaid that Pushkin Press exhibits a commendable respect for the paper and ink book by using good paper, crisp design and typography to produce handsome tomes. No small gesture in a tenuous, modern book world.

Currently reading Havana Black by Leonardo Padura (Bitter Lemon Press)

* I found this phrase in Rebecca Schuman’s rumination on Kafka, Susan Bernofsky and Jay Cantor’s new opus, Forgiving the Angel (Knopf) and like it so much that I expropriated it for the title of this piece that luckily has something to do with modernism ( whatever that is).

Sea of Hooks

19 Feb
Sea of Hooks

Sea of Hooks

Admittedly, I spend some time grousing about the literary journalistic community’s tunnel vision and the prevailing narrow focus of book coverage . Just as I was going to offer the reasonable explanation that “Well there are so many books maybe its better to concentrate in a few?” (which in reality serves neither the authors nor readers) I chance upon a tidbit in the New York Times which the headline offers that Japanese novelist Hari Murakami has a new novel being published in the US in August. August, people! Am I Rip Van winkle and the months have flown by?

The point here being that there are more than enough books already published that have not gotten their (or a) fair( reasonable people can agree what ‘fair’ would be)share of attention and discussion. A case in point is poet Lindsay Hill’s first novel Sea of Hooks (Mc Pherson and Company) published last November. I took up my copy on this last weekend and (avoiding an obvious pun) I was charmed by the book’s epigraph:

A boy grew up
beside a sea of hooks
and he learned to swim
in that sea
and to notice the hooks
as they rose
and fell
and twisted in the tides

And he learned
to feel his way
at first very slowly
in the sea of hooks

And he noticed
that all around him
people had hooks in their skin
and were being pulled
in many directions

And many of the hooks
were small and hard to see
barely silver in the glinting
light down deep
barely visible
and numerous

And some
from the place of his birth
would not put a toe
in the sea

And some lived
their entire lives
full of hooks
in the underneath

For what it’s worth Sea of Hooks was one Publisher’s Weekly’s top five novels:”Best Books of 2013″ and in New York Magazine‘s list of top 10 novels of 2013. And Publisher’s Weekly‘s “Most Underrated book of 2013

And to their credit the Seattle Times:

The book jacket tells us that Hill spent nearly 20 years writing “Sea of Hooks,” and it shows; every paragraph seems to glimmer with a phrase that reminds us why we read literature. Christopher, pressing his tongue to a hailstone, finds that it tastes like “icy smoke”; as a small child, he collected forgotten bits of paper and debris, calling them “messengers” and keeping them in his pockets “until he understood what they were saying.” And then, one day, he didn’t pick the messengers up anymore.

and the LA Review of Books took Hill’s book seriously:

Sea of Hooks is a coming-of-age story about a turbulent, secretive boy marred by trauma and loss. Christopher Westall, a boy in mid-century San Francisco, is the son of a severely depressed and anxious mother and a disinterested father. He appears to fall somewhere on the autism spectrum, but has a talent of imagination and a mind “well beyond his years,” tutors say; he struggles to read and feels his brain is broken. (“He would slide from the well-marked roadway of the page to the fields on either side where a kind of fragmented movie was in progress all the time.”) His secret, interior life brims with vivid ideas that ricochet off whatever he encounters, but his public life is solitary.

You can read excerpts here

So if you can tear yourself away from the the news of books coming out in August and so forth grab this book that has already been published and is waiting for you…

CURRENTLY READING Boss by Mike Royko (Dutton)

“I’m A Stranger Here Myself”

1 Feb
The Mystery of the Ordinary-MOMA

The Mystery of the Ordinary-MOMA

Common sensical (as opposed to ontological) notions of reality seem to have become less commonsensical with the advent of reality television and in no small part the cavalier approach the Bush regime took to defining current political reality — there is that famous anecdote about a senior Bush administration official admonishing Ron Suskind for being part of the reality based community). Digital imaging and manipulation may have dimmed the lights on surrealist painters such as Yves Tanguy,Giorgio de Chirico, Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte but in my view comparisons with modern technological toys (movies and video games)enhance the stature and appreciation of those artists.

If you were proximal to the universe’s center of ambition, Manhattan, up until a few weeks ago you could have gone to the Museum of Modern Art to take in the Magritte exhibition , The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938 (If you live in Houston the exhibit will be there February 14–June 1, 2014 or in Chicago June 25–October 12, 2014). Failing that you can still get a fair sense of Magritte’s ouevre through the fine exhibition monograph ( assembled by Stephanie D’Alessandro, Michel Draguet,Anne Umland) and also the wonders of the Internet as seen here

 René Magritte. The Menaced Assassin. Brussels, 1927. Oil on canvas, 59 1/4" x 6' 4 7/8"

René Magritte. The Menaced Assassin. Brussels, 1927. Oil on canvas, 59 1/4″ x 6′ 4 7/8″

René Magritte's "This is not a pipe."

René Magritte’s “This is not a pipe.”

Currently reading Lionheart by Justin Cartright (Bloomsbury

What Did You See?

24 Jan
Nick Dawidoff (photo: Robert Birnbaum)

Nick Dawidoff (photo: Robert Birnbaum)

Though I am a sports fan I am not a fan of football— especially the comic operatic machinations of an endlessly monetizing NFL. Why, you ask? Mostly to do with the greed and violence attached to the sport. That said, I must confess that I have been unable to kick the life-long habit of watching televised games. Thus,I spent last Sunday watching the two conference championships. I came away with two small questions which a few days later are still lingering.

When I first watched the now famous play where Bronco’s Wes Welker cut Patriot’s Aquib Talib, which was just on the periphery of the live action shot, I thought it looked like an illegal pick. Now I had a fleeting view and my recollection was that the play(which effectively and seriously reduced the Patriot’s defense) went without commentary.

I am a fan of Fox’s blonde sports reporter Erin Andrews an upbeat sports gal/reporter, who has shown much pluck and mettle as a sports journalist, none more vivid than her being drenched on screen, during the Red Sox post victory doings. A sousing she accepted with aplomb and good humor. By now sports fans probably have seen Andrews post game exchange with Seahawk’s fiery star Richard Sherman. Lasting all of 30 seconds or so, Andrews asked 2 questions and then quickly passed back to the dull chatter of colleague Joe Buck. Andrews’s expression led me to think that there was something off about the way Andrews dumped very quickly out of her moment with the vociferous Sherman. And in the ensuing chatter with Fox’s committee of experts, Michael Strahan commented that, “Sherman scared Andrews…” And if you look at the countless versions of the the clip that last instant where she says something like “Back to you…” has been edited out and shifted to an image of QB Russell Wilson.A minor curiosity but no big thing…

The only sports books I have ever read were Dave Meggysey’s seminal Out of Their League and Charles’s Pierce’s Tom Brady biography, and Tito Francona’s post Red Sox tenure apologia. Yet despite my antipathy to football, I picked up Nicholas Dawidoff’s Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football (Little Brown) on the obvious premise that good writers are able to make almost any topic worthy of attention. And Davidoff does exactly that—as he embeds himself for an intense year spent with the NFL’s New York Jets.

In Matthew Klam’s introduction for Dawidoff’s recent appearance at the celebrated DC independent bookstore, Politics and Prose, he observes that the author approached his subject from a nerd point of view—which should mean that there is an amplitude of useful facts and information and shrewd cogitation.

I spoke with Nick for the second time recently (the first time about his homage( (The Fly Swatter: How My Grandfather Made His Way in the World)to grandfather, the great economist Alexander Gershenkron.

Currently reading Havana Gold by Leonardo Padura (Bitter Lemon Press)

American Dicks

21 Jan

It makes sense that there is no consensus about the great contributions to civilization made by America aka United States. Some people have claimed Saran Wrap. The great Czech director Milos Forman offered the Zippo lighter, the Remington rifle and the Harley Davidson motorcycle.At the end of a clever little film entitled Not Fade Away the narrator offers up the atom bomb and rock and roll. All reasonable suggestions.

My vote goes to the detective/crime story. You may argue that the English were there first, the tight sphinctered, polite bloodless who-dunnits of Wilkie Collins,Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle but cast against the cadre of Edgar Allen Poe, Raymond Chandler, Dash Hammett,and the late and great Elmore Leonard, we’re talking bananas and broccoli.For a long time there was American Detective fiction and then that of the rest of the world.And as an additional pleasure there is the ease of adaptability which produced such film gems as The Maltese Falcon,The Big Sleep, The Postman Always Rings Twice (2 versions),The Long Goodbye, Out of Sight

Which brings me to HBO’s newest crime story series True Detective with Woody Harrelson (as Martin Hart) and Matthew McConaughey (as Rustin Cohle) and most importantly created and written by novelist Nic Pizzolatto (Galveston).On the surface a straightforward story (horrific crime, a detective partnership but not a buddy relationship and the surround of rural Louisiana and the colorful way that locale affects crime detection. But from the get go the monologues offered up by the two principals suggest a subtle overview or subtext (you decide) on the nature of crime and a dark existential nihilism offered up by the deeply damaged Rust. There is a delicate equilibrium that needs to be maintained here or the whole narrative devolves into the kind of flatulent gibberish that damned Ridley Scott & Cormac McCarthy’s The Counselor.

I’ve only seen four of eight episodes and in addition to compelling performances by Woody (this one is reminiscent of Harrelson’s role in Rampart ) & Matt the supporting cast does what it is supposed to do with excellent cinema photography and sound-track supervised by T Bone Burnette.

True Detective is an almost pitch black bleak story, well lt. Sometimes that fits the mood…

Currently Reading Forgiving the Angel: Four Stories for Franz Kafka by Jay Cantor (KNOPF)


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