The Thrill Is Gone

8 Jul
Chandler wrote thrillers?

Chandler wrote thrillers?

The term ‘thriller’ was no doubt coined to describe a certain kind of genre fiction when car chases, high body counts and unlikely crimes and perpetrators were the stuff of ‘whodunits’. Roller coaster rides may be thrilling. Fireworks may be thrilling. And there are many pleasures to be derived from reading, thrills are not some that I can identify.’Thriller’ has become a term of art that, it seems to me, has outlived its usefulness.

There is a territory of the fiction landscape that deals with espionage, so-called ‘black ops’ (when did we realize that there were such things?) and cloakroom politics that has given good reason to remove it from under the implicitly deprecating rubric, ‘genre fiction’. No doubt commercial considerations influence the perpetuation of these categories (where, for instance, various titles are displayed at your small but mighty local bookstore) — but no one should be misled about the serious import and value of these narratives.

Our Man In  Havana by Graham Greene

Our Man In Havana by Graham Greene

The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon (movie directed by John Franken- heimer)

The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon (movie directed by John Franken- heimer)

Graham Greene (Our Man in Havana and The Comedians) was my first inkling that fiction revealed real truths about the real/practical world. But I came upon his novels after I had been fed a diet of Richard Condon (The Manchurian Candidate) and Fletcher Knebel (Seven Days in May) and the Terry Southern classic, Dr Strangelove. So the various plot twists and exigent conditions (the US Army drugging its men with hallucinogenics) of these ‘thrillers were improbable fictions.

Harlot's Ghost by Norman Mailer

Harlot’s Ghost by Norman Mailer

Years later when reading Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost, Mailer used some purported CIA espionage gambits in his narrative—in Berlin where the US dug a tunnel attempting to intercept Soviet communiques and in Miami where all manner of tricks and games were employed in the US’s anti -Castro vendetta. These things (exploding fountain pens, CIA/Mob collaborations) no longer seemed far fetched.

Our Tailor in Panama by John  le Carre

Our Tailor in Panama by John le Carre

John Le Carre’s Our Tailor in Panama was my introduction to this master novelist (Philip Kerr avers that Le Carre is the one author guaranteed immortality based on his accurate depiction of the dark and spooky world of security and spying agencies). That book is clearly an homage to Greene’s Cuban adventure and it reifies the deluded and self perpetuating nature of the world’s secret services.And it served to change my perspective of some fictional worlds( just as I began to see Gore Vidal’s Empire series as more descriptive of American history than any history texts I had read.)



Charles McCarry‘s Paul Christopher series and his stand alone Shelley’s Heart (which uncannily portends the debacle of the 2000 presidential election) depicts the tools and strategies of spy-craft as well as highlighting the amorality of spooks of all stripes. I chatted with McCarry ( A former CIA agent) a few years ago:

RB: There is a sense, and it is reiterated in your novels, that the Cold War struggle against the Russians and Communists was very affirmative for the intelligence community and that there was an absolute faith they were on the right side. And after the Soviet Union collapsed there was great self-congratulation. Somewhere in Old Boys you write, “They did a lot of good in the world, little of it except through stupidity and inadvertence.”

CM: I don’t remember saying that. Some of it by inadvertence at least. I never met a stupid person in the agency. Or an assassin. Or a Republican.

RB: No Republicans? [laughs] Are you serious?

CM: I’m serious. They were, at least in the operations side where I was, there were wall-to-wall knee-jerk liberals. And they were befuddled that the left outside the agency regarded them as some sort of right-wing threat. Because they were the absolute opposite, in their own politics.

RB: Isn’t there something about a secret police that is inconsistent with our notions of democracy?

CM: To begin with, they are not secret police.

RB: That’s the perception.

CM: They have no police powers. They can’t arrest anybody. They can’t kidnap people.

RB: They have no domestic jurisdiction.

CM: That’s right. Except in the case of Operation Chaos, which was presidentially mandated, I doubt we have very much unless they were chasing Russians or Chinese. But, of course, the thing that drives our society and has for a long time is a kind of paranoia that everything is a conspiracy. These guys were all nice boys who went to Yale and wouldn’t hurt a fly—in their own view.

RB: Those were not Republicans?

CM: No. I tell you I literally never met a Republican in the CIA.

The Power of The Dog by Don Winslow

The Power of The Dog by Don Winslow

As a culminating moment in my awakening Don Winslow’s magnum opus The Power of The Dog a well wrought tale of the drug war(s) and the complicity of government agencies, the Vatican, multi national corporations, South American revolutionaries in corrupt and illegal practices removed any doubts I had that there were many innocent players in world’s geo political grand opera (except, of course, the People)

So now we are inundated with dramas (Homeland, House of Cards, West Wing, 24 Hours) that simulate perpetual war/security state world. And, if you haven’t seen the excellent BBC 7 episode The State Within you will find a “fictional” treatment of vested interests contriving to bring the USA to war with
Kyrgyzstan in manner closely resembling the Iraq Debacle.

No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald

No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald

Of course there are also books being written, some published, that investigate and explicate the shabby nature of American Exceptionalism. Greenwald’s account of the Snowden case i sone an there is also Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars

Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill

Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill

There is also a documentary of the same name that is raises important and legitimate questions to which few journalists are pursuing the answers.

Noam Chomsky, steadfast critic of the American Security State, has the last word here in an essay published at TomsDispatch

… What about the security of the population? It is easy to demonstrate that this is a marginal concern of policy planners. Take two prominent current examples, global warming and nuclear weapons. As any literate person is doubtless aware, these are dire threats to the security of the population. Turning to state policy, we find that it is committed to accelerating each of those threats — in the interests of the primary concerns, protection of state power and of the concentrated private power that largely determines state policy.

Consider global warming. There is now much exuberance in the United States about “100 years of energy independence” as we become “the Saudi Arabia of the next century” — perhaps the final century of human civilization if current policies persist.

That illustrates very clearly the nature of the concern for security, certainly not for the population. It also illustrates the moral calculus of contemporary Anglo-American state capitalism: the fate of our grandchildren counts as nothing when compared with the imperative of higher profits tomorrow.

These conclusions are fortified by a closer look at the propaganda system. There is a huge public relations campaign in the U.S., organized quite openly by Big Energy and the business world, to try to convince the public that global warming is either unreal or not a result of human activity. And it has had some impact. The U.S. ranks lower than other countries in public concern about global warming and the results are stratified: among Republicans, the party more fully dedicated to the interests of wealth and corporate power, it ranks far lower than the global norm

Currently reading Station Eleven by Emma St John Mandel (Knopf)

For What Its Worth

3 Jul
Frank O'Hara in 1965 (Mario Schifano / Wikimedia)

Frank O’Hara in 1965 (Mario Schifano / Wikimedia)

City Lights, the now venerable, former bastion of the advance guard in literature, has reissued Frank O Hara’s Lunch Poems. In reference to this (dare I USE THIS WORD) IMPORTANT happenstance I noted one headline referred to the poems as “21st century poetry written in 1964″. Now I know less than “shit from shinola”, as they say in the gentler precincts of Chicago( I even contributed an awful personal statement on poetics in an issue of The Drunken Boat) but that book is worth noting.

Sometime in my crazy making romantic youth(years coinciding with Watergate, Gerald Ford, energy crisis panic,long gas lines, the downfall of the shah of Iran, Henry Kissinger’s glory days the a malaise afoot in the land) I glommed on to O Hara. Lady Day was the first poem that ever moved me:

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

Lunch Poems by Frank O"Hara

Lunch Poems by Frank O”Hara

Lunch Poems

And then “To The Harbormaster”

To the Harbormaster
I wanted to be sure to reach you;
though my ship was on the way it got caught
in some moorings. I am always tying up
and then deciding to depart. In storms and
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide
around my fathomless arms, I am unable
to understand the forms of my vanity
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder
in my hand and the sun sinking. To
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage
of my will. The terrible channels where
the wind drives me against the brown lips
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks, it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.

Brad Gooch wrote a splendid and perhaps the only biography of O’Hara that worth reading.I spoke with Gooch when I came out and that chat could be on the internet somewhere(its 20 years old)

City Poet by Brad Gooch [image purloned form the internet

City Poet by Brad Gooch [image purloined from the internet

Currently reading Wiliiam Giraldi’s forthcoming novel (WW Norton)

RIP Bobby Womack

30 Jun

Currently reading The Silkworm Robert Gailbraith (Little Brown)

Gabbing with Lewis Lapham circa 1999

29 Jun
Lewis Lapham (photo: TK]

Lewis Lapham (photo: TK]

Lapham Quarterly’s editor Lewis Lapham was born in San Francisco in 1935 and was educated at Yale and Cambridge Universities. After graduating college he worked as a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and later for The New York Herald Tribune. His second stint as Harper’s editor began in 1983 where in 1995 his monthly essays won a National Magazine Award for their “exhilarating point of view in an age of conformity”. He was the host and executive editor of Bookmark, a weekly PBS literary program broadcast between 1989 and 1991 (which he still complains shouldn’t have been taken off the air). His books of essays include, The Wish for Kings, Money and Class in America, Fortune’s Child, Imperial Masquerade, Hotel America, The Agony of Mammon: The Imperial Global Economy Explains Itself To The Membership in Davos, Switzerland and Waiting for the Barbarians.

I sat down and chatted with Latham in 1999 on the occasion of the publication of Lapham’s Rules of Influence: A Careerist’s Guide to Success, Status, and Self-Congratulation. I, then as now, find Lapham’s citation from T. H. White’s Once and Future King,as Merlin offers young Prince Arthur a cure for melancholy a resonant truth:

The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then-to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never dream of regretting.

In what follows Lapham and I chat about celebrity, the state of journalism, the teaching of history, Yale University, Michael Thomas and illiterate CEOs and more.

RB: Is this book a change in strategy for you?

LL: Yes, but it’s not a deliberate change. It’s an accidental change in strategy. I had signed a contract five years ago, with Random House, to write a large book on Yale University. On what happened to Yale in the second half of the twentieth century—Henry Luce’s American Century— and use Yale as a stage in which to talk about the change in American order of values. And that was planned as a…

RB: Tome?

LL…tome. I actually went up and taught a class at Yale for a year in the English Department. I took a train every week. I’ d go up there and use it for my own purposes, to get to know the students but also to use the library and begin to do the research. And then it got so unwieldy, that I couldn’t do it and do the magazine at the same time. So I wanted to work off the contract. I wrote a column in the magazine, three or four years ago, that had some of these notions [rules of influence] in it. It had an invented professor in it as a device. Suddenly I got called up by 6o Minutes asking if they could put the professor on the show. I had to explain there wasn’t any professor. They were shocked. Three publishers also called wanting the name of the professor. So I thought what the hell, I’ll write a short book on it. I owe Random House two books to make up for the advance for the Yale [book]. They took this one and another yet to be named. So I’m going to be working off my debt for the next(laughs)…two years. So, that’s how it came up. It came up because of the response to the column and also because of my debt to the publisher.

RB: And what happens to your ‘Yale as metaphor’ book?

LL: Probably nothing. The only thing that could happen to that is…I’ll never write that tome because the scholarship is beyond me. I began to talk to people and the more I talked the more difficult and complicated it became. And I would have to stay two years in New Haven, talk to a lot more people. I’d asked to see the correspondence between [Yale] Presidents Griswald and Brewster in the sixties. And they brought me boxes. They would fill this floor. You’re up against that kind of thing. I conceivably could write a short essay, thirty thousand words. Maybe. Random House is not interested in that.

RB: They’re not interested?

LL: No, they were interested in…well I don’t know..

RB: The big book..

LL: They wanted a big book. Now, that was Harry Evans. He’s left. So, if this thing has any success. Maybe they will entertain the possibility of a thirty thousand word essay which I might be able to pull off. As long as it doesn’t pretend to too much. The tome was going to have to be large and ambitious and therefore you open yourself up to every conceivable kind of attack.

Lapham's Quarterly Collector's Set Vol. I

Lapham’s Quarterly Collector’s Set Vol. I

RB: I’m going to make some assumptions here but why would Random House think that a book on Yale would be commercially viable? That all Yale graduates would buy it? Is it possible there is a pure motive here and that a publisher simply wants to provide useful information to the world?

LL: I made the deal with Harry Evans when he was running it[Random House]. Evans is a very split character and his attitudes about the American Establishment…he comes from a mining family in Wales. He has all of the class suspicions of the Protestant elite in New York. On the other hand, he loves this country and he loves money and he loves glitz. There are contradictions in Harry. Which is one of the things that makes him a charming guy. When I first started to think about it, Beno Schmidt was then the president of Yale, and the place was in uproar. Light planes were flying over the campus towing signs saying, “Schmidt Happens.” The graduate students were on strike. The junior faculty was complaining that Schmidt was no scholar. Schmidt was trying to reduce the budget. It was a mess.

RB: He went from there to work on the Edison Project with Chris Whittle?

LL: Yeah. And he resigned. He told The New York Times before he told the trustees. Looking at it from the outside, the simple line of the story was “a once glorious bastion of Protestant morality and wealth descends into the pit of corruption and multi-culturalism…courses in pornography”. And Harry loved that plot line. He thought it would sell. Of course, the more I found out the harder it was to maintain the clarity of that line. I mean, yeah some of that is true but there are a lot of other things that are also true. When was the University any better? The more I got involved in the history of Yale…you could have said a lot of the things that are now being said , you could have said in mid nineteenth century. And there’s always the saving remnant. And the saving remnant is the students. And a few faculty guys. But that’s always the way it is. So it got more interesting but it got less polemical. Meanwhile, Harry had moved on…

RB: To his new position.

LL: (laughs)… to his new position. So, that’s in limbo. I don’t know if they would be interested in an essay on it. I could conceivably could write a book on the social history of golf. Which might satisfy them[Random House] because there is clearly a market. That’s a commercial possibility.

RB: No one’s done it?

LL: No, no one’s done it. There’s a book on golf every year. That’s probably gonna be my next book.

RB: Why have the book and magazine industries become large subject matters of their own? Why is there so much interest in the ‘inside baseball’ stuff on book and magazine publishing?

LL: I don’t know. I don’t understand it. I don’t know who the audience is, for example, for [now defunct]Brill’s Content. It would never occur to me to read that magazine. I don’t want to know. I’m willing to read The New York Observer and that’s about it. That’s like the shiny sheet, like the Gossip Gazette. It is the world of the Court. In other words, it becomes the Hall of Mirrors and they become preoccupied with themselves. And a form of self promotion. They are all like the court people, they’re insecure. Trying to make themselves more than, I think, should be made of them. It’s self absorption. And I honestly don’t know who the hell is interested in it beyond those of us that are in the racket or in the same maze. I don’t think it sells. I can understand Hollywood people selling. I mean Vanity Fair works because Graydon[Carter, editor of VF] makes sure Nicole Kidman or someone like her is in every issue or on every cover. That gives you lovely photographs…I can understand that about movie stars. But I can’t really care about Peter Jennings. Or William Safire’s love life is not one that I’m following closely. Its the emphasis on the self. It’s self absorption.

RB: Is it possible that once someone’s name appears in type and they some how move up into celebrityhood than it no longer matters what the original instance of their celebrity was? This is a farfetched example, Peter Jennings might be a celebrity to some people who don’t know who he is?

Lapham's Quarterly, Collector's Set Vol. II

Lapham’s Quarterly, Collector’s Set Vol. II

LL: Yea, its possible. He might become part of the repertory company. One of the minor divinities sitting around on Mt. Olympus with…that’s of course the premise of George magazine. (Laughs)

RB:(also laughs) Politics without the policy?

LL: Yea, politics with nothing but the celebrity part of it, nothing but the gossip part. No politics in it at all. But you may be right. You reach a certain magnitude of celebrity and it doesn’t matter any more. You are ‘Peter Jennings’. It seems to me that the media people are the seediest of the lot. I can understand it with sports figures. I can understand it with uh…Business guys keep trying to do this too. Become the great lord of creation…poor Mortimer Zuckerman is constantly hoping be anointed. He never quite makes it. I don’t understand why. He’s in print all the time and he’ll show up at any television camera….

RB: Charley Rose will have him on his show as a commentator…

LL: Charley Rose…yea, so. There was a period there when corporate CEOs were actually appearing the ads. Thy were trying to sell their tire or their house, airline…

Lapham's Quarterly, Collector's Set Vol. IV

Lapham’s Quarterly, Collector’s Set Vol. IV

RB: Remember Rula Lenska? She was the most obvious TV commercial person —I had no I idea who she was…

LL: I agree with you. I mean, “Hi, I’m whoever…” McCluhan makes the point in Understanding Media, that with the electronic medium, television, the actor takes precedence over the act. It becomes personality, it becomes celebrity. Then there is the illusion of immortality. Because you can be in four places at once. You can be in New York, but on cable in Mexico City. And some movie you’ve done your in Africa…

RB: Celebrity doesn’t take place in rea time.

LL: No. I can remember walking into a party at [George]Plimpton’s. One of Plimpton’s sixties’ parties. And it was the super model of the day, someone like Verushka. Here was Verushka in the room. And it was set up with tv cameras that were in several rooms. So I could be in the room with Verushka and I could see her on the closed circuit tv. And there was also an ad that was running had appeared. Then she had some small part in a movie and that was playing too. It isn’t real time and therefore it becomes like Mt. Olympus, the Immortals. Omnipresent. Traveling effortlessly. Because you never get a sense of how they got to Mexico City or got to the summit conference. They’re just there. Godlike. It has that kind of an element to it. So people who crave that seek that kind of limelight and the public apparently…its like the ancient Greeks, when the wood nymph or the stream or the tree was supposed to have a trace element of divinity in it. You can think of People magazine as our little woodland shrine. A small temple. Or GQ. Look at all the magazines that are now doing this. The New Yorker. GQ. Esquire. And so on. People believe that to be next to celebrity or to be next to someone of great wealth is to be, for the moment, anointed. I can remember when I worked for the Saturday Evening Post in the sixties. I was assigned to the White House press corps for about four months. With Johnson. In those days the press corps was still allowed to travel on Air Force One. There were several veteran reporters who were afraid of flying. But when they were on Air Force One they were happy because they thought that in an orderly universe that god wouldn’t strike down the president’s plane, “I am here with Zeus and therefore for the time being I am safe”. It’s the only time these guys had an anxiety free plane ride. And I’ve met people who feel the same way if they’re with a CEO whose net worth is over two hundred billion dollars.[laughs] There is some number at which god no longer dares to erase you from the sky. There is something like that about celebrity. They walk into a room and suddenly you feel like instead of being nowhere, suddenly you are somewhere because Tom Cruise is also here. Therefore this has to be real.

RB: And there is the corollary phenomenon of six degrees of separation.

LL: Yea. I can remember I went to a cocktail party when Kennedy was president. You take a girl to dinner and then maybe you end up at the girl’s apartment after dinner. She would have a box of White House matches on the bedside table. This is to improve her own…somehow you make love to the girl and you go through the golden door and you get connecetd to Kennedy. It was the same kind of…

RB: One slept with someone who might have slept with Kennedy. In one of your essays you bemoan the lack of interest in American history and the failure of schools to be able to present this American narrative. Is there a way in which current publications despite their celebrity worship are still engaged in telling the American story? That they are journalizing what is happening.

LL: I see what you mean. You mean, it’s contemporary, it’s current history. Yea, they’re telling the story. Some of them tell it better than others. Most of them don’t tell it very well. If you write a…. the celebrity profile is an extremely dull form. Because it’s so repetitious. Because you know that the celebrity is lying to the journalist and the journalist is lying…it’s a terrible..

RB: And the intercession of the publicist who has introduced any number of lies and preconditions…

LL: So you’re dealing with some totally false form that everybody in the room knows is a false form. On the other hand if you can have…if you can tell a story in the hands of a good writer who has been three months in Kosovo or is Barbara Ehrenreich…we do that , the Atlantic does that, the New Yorker does that, Rolling Stone does that and they come at you from all angles…but in the hands of a good writer on almost any subject…that does give you…it certainly gives you a current narrative. How it fits in the larger narrative—not many people do that and that’s hard to do on a deadline. But there’s good writing there, you take all the magazines together.

RB: What’s the challenge in publishing Harper’s, which has a quarter of the circulation of The New Yorker which has a eighth of the circulation of People?

LL: Your challenge is to—our circulation is 216,000—The New Yorker’s is around 700,000…

RB: 813,000…

LL: Vanity Fair is a million three, a million four. I do it for the readers. I don’t expect it to make or break elections or bring down Archer-Daniel-Midland. I started out in life wanting to be a history professor so I’m doing what you said. I’m trying to give an account of the world in which we all find ourselves. And I’m trying to do it in a way that will make…I’m doing for people who take pleasure in reading, who don’t read for data but who appreciate the uses of language. And you can do things in writing that you simply can not do in film. You can’t do it, it won’t work. I think of it as an audience, I don’t think of it as a market. There’s no product. It’s not like Road & Track. Or The American Beagle or Vogue. It presumes a literate curious and a knowledgeable reader. And that’s the person I think I’m writing for. Walker Percy wrote a piece for Harper’s magazine many year’s ago about the art of writing fiction. And he says the whole point is to tell it like it is between men and women, how it is within themselves, how it is with their relations between people, where we are now. And he thought of writing as a diagnostic—he was talking about Chekhov—so he was thinking of it in terms of [being] a doctor. It’s not therapeutic necessarily. It’s not necessarily going to cure you but it might help you find out where you are. A navigational device. I just enjoy it. I like finding good writing.

RB: Aren’t you frustrated that your observations and critiques don’t redirect or affect policy?

LL: No. If you get into that you’re lost. I come into…I’m 64. That was never in my mind when I got into writing. I had the notion that a writer or a journalist was not a policy maker. It was in order to see it and say what you saw and maybe what you think but not to direct politicians. That’s a wholly different…nobody that went into the newspaper business in the fifties—I won’t say nobody, there was Walter Lippmann, of course, pouring wisdom into the ears of kings—but for the most part when I started out at the San Franscisco Examiner in 1957, I was the only Ivy League guy in the whole building. I’d been to Yale, I’d been to Cambridge in England. We were all about telling stories. In the sixties, you began to get people from Harvard and Yale…

RB: And the era of Me journalism…

LL: Yea, that starts too. And money goes up. All of a sudden the communications industry begin to…when I first came to New York in 1960, if you wanted to think you were in the inner circle, where it was happening, you’d want to go to dinner with the chairman of U.S. Steel. Or General Motors, or Banker’s Trust Co. Five years later you’d want to go to dinner with Kate Graham or Arthur Sulzburger. So that reporters who were making $50 a week in 1955 were by 1965 were making $250.00 a week and the television guys are making three or four times that. So not only is the money moving them into the possessing class— in the fifties the point of view was the point of view of Will Rogers, the man in the bleachers. His suspicion of the ‘swells’ and the boxes[boxseats]. And nobody in the city room of the San Francisco Examiner ever thought that he or she would become a ‘swell’. Ten years later reporters are beginning to become ‘swells’. And they are showing up from Harvard and Princeton and they are bringing with them the bound volumes of the truth that they’ve been given. And they’re also having their suits tailor made and these guys start thinking about giving advice, “We know how to conduct the Viet Nam War and we know what the American people really think” and so on. I missed that, I was ten years earlier. I went into the newspaper business because I wanted to become a novelist. Because it was romantic…I was thinking of John O’Hara, the young Ernest Hemingway or even the young James Thurber…of all of the novelists who had started as reporters. I also was in it to learn. I had had a protected education… I didn’t really know how a city worked or where the water came from or how the lights went on or how you got bill through the city council or what a dead body looked like. It was a graduate school for me, also. But was there to learn and I’m still there to learn. When I write a column every month I know where I start it…I never know how it’s going to end. I’m educating myself in public and I learn from the writers. In a little way it’s like children because…the young ones, the old one’s— if they keep up their curiosity—the best way to cure your depression is to learn something. So the writers if they’re god are teaching you something—they’re themselves something, they’re teaching you something as your children will do. You learn more from them than they do from you. I promise you. Another cliche, but a golden one. It’s a little like that when you’re editing a magazine.

RB: You regularly make reference to Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce and H.L. Menken. And you are associated with that style of iconoclasm. Are there writers today who have that kind of attitude and social critique?

LL: There’s [Christopher] Hitchens. I’m an admirer of his. Others may not be , but I am. I admire him because he is fearless. And he writes well. I forgive anybody who writes well. Kurt Anderson writes some good things for The New Yorker. There not many…Hitchens comes right to mind.

RB: Michael Thomas [The New York Observer]?

LL: Michael Thomas. If only Michael Thomas would listen to me. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve tried to get Michael to write a piece for Harper’s magazine. Michael was my brother’s roommate at college. I think he is an enormously talented guy. I think Ron Rosenbaum is an enormously talented guy too. When he is talking about things he knows about…Shakespeare, Nabokov,theater…I didn’t read his book on Hitler so I don’t know. But Thomas…

RB: Am I confused, is there a Roger and a Ron?

LL: Oh no you’re thinking of Roger Rosenblatt who’s a horror. He’s the PBS guy. No, Ron’s at the Observer. If you want to really understand how to do a cliche read aloud the essays of Roger Rosenblatt. He’s the essayist on Lehrer or one of them…

RB: Let’s get back to Michael Thomas.

LL: Alright, Michael Thomas has great wit and is very fluent but he won’t get off attacking the same four rich Jews in East Hampton. He get’s started on a column and somehow he has to stab…

RB: Ron Perleman, Mort Zuckerman….

LL: And Kravits. Cramer. There’s a whole row of these guys.

RB:L When he not trashing Charley Rose and Barbara Walters, which he does really well….

LL: …he does really well. I’ve tried to commission him two or three times. There was an art show in Soho, the Hugo Boss show. Hugo Boss now thinks he’s an art collector. Right. And it was the worst possible modern art. And Michael really knows about painting. He was a young curator at the Met and he taught art history right after he graduated from Yale, at Yale. I said, ”Michael you’re always complaining about modern art. Go see the Hugo Boss show. Start there.” He had interesting idea about the infantilization of the culture. He had a large idea that everything has been made baby-soft and risk-adverse, the writing as well. He started the piece with three pages of driving to NY past the houses of Cramer, Kravits, all of the them. He stabbed all of them before he got into town. I said, Michael can we please cut the drive?” He wouldn’t do it…. Yes, he does have that edge.

RB: Anyone else?

LL: David Foster Wallace. Nick Von Hoffman? I don’t think Tom Wolfe has it. Somehow he never quite draws blood. Everybody gets off the hook at the end. He always on stage. You see this edge show up in the novels of Charles Portis. The dialogue of Elmore Leonard. [Carl]Hiassen can do it too. You start thinking about and you can come up with ten or twenty names. They’ re all working in different venues…

RB: Harper’s has corporate sponsors. Do you think that anyone at your corporate sponsors—from the marketing department to the CEO— reads your essays?

LL: No. I doubt it.

RB: So why do they support Harper’s magazine?

LL: We have a good salesman. Peter Kendall. There’s a way of selling it as a thought leader magazine… I wouldn’t expect the CEO types to read it. I know a number of CEO types, I see them…

RB: You’ve been to Davos..

LL: I don’t go to dinner with them. But I play golf. And nobody has ever mentioned anything about what I’ve written. Ever. They think it’s kind of curious and quaint that I’m the editor of Harper’s. No idea what’s in it. If I write a book on golf maybe they’ll talk to me. It is[Harper’s] addressed to people who read and a lot of those people don’t read. I can remember being impressed by that in the 70’s, as a member of the Council on Foreign relations. And I listened to Henry Kissinger one night. Talk about the Fashoda affair, Bismarck, and Metternich. He gave one of these seminars to a group of fifty very important corporate executives. And they listened to him with their mouths open. What Kissinger was doing was a kind of high table conversation you would have at Cambridge or Harvard. Perfectly routine bullshit. None of it held water. But it sounded great. And he has the accent. But it went down like chocolate ice cream. Because these people—at least in that group—didn’t know anything. They weren’t readers of history, they were so preoccupied with running their [business] affairs.

RB: In Waiting For the Barbarians, one of your essays makes mention of Governor Morris in revolutionary Paris saving himself from a frenzied crowd by waving his wooden leg as proof of his fighting for liberty. He, of course, hadn’t. But it’s a very amusing story that makes that era more real or human…The stories in history are every bit as vivid and funny and entertaining as prime time t.v. or trashy novel. Why hasn’t that message gotten across?

LL: We don’t teach it properly.[Benjamin] Franklin would fuck anything that moved. You could not leave a chambermaid in a room with that guy. Washington took a shine to a girl at a dance at Newport. The war was on. He was working his way slowly from Massachusetts back toward Long Island and eventually New Jersey and Valley Forge. The woman happened to be to married General Nathaniel Greene. At nine o’clock at night, by candle light Washington suddenly assigned Greene to an urgent message. The general was suddenly called away. These people drank…but we don’t teach it that way.

RB: Why the imperative to sterilize our history? Those who taught the teachers of history didn’t think it dull. The teachers don’t think it dull. How does it end up being dull and uninteresting.

LL: I don’t know. Part of it is because of the standardization of the texts. As recently as fifteen years ago if you wanted to teach 6th grade history in California you would have had a choice of possibly 16 texts. Today it’s down to four. The text books are geared to California and Texas, because they buy for the whole state …intellectually we want to present history as a science rather than an art…as a series of facts rather than as an always changing story. It’s the scientific approach to the humanities. With history, in the earlier grades, if you told stories you might offend someone. What do you mean George Washington drank too much? What do you mean 20% of the population of New York in 1773 were slaves? These people were being followed around by little black guys. That doesn’t show up. They don’t have time. They have to get through it in 13 weeks. I can remember my history teacher explaining the Battle of Cannae, where Hannibal triumphed over the Romans. He drew it on the blackboard and he took a week to explain. Today, they don’t have time…and what difference does it make anyway. So the story drains out of it…

Currently reading The Dog Killer of Utica by Frank Lentricchia (Melville House)

More JD Salinger . And Less

26 Jun

Those reclusive figures who have chosen to forgo the trappings and burdens of celebrity and fame have naturally, become attractive as subjects of narrative scrutiny. The famously hermetic author of The Catcher in the Rye, J.D Salinger qualifies as one of such people. And it is likely that such scrutiny will increase exponentially, as the Salinger estate has announced plans to publish works long lying fallow in his papers

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Last year found David Shields and Shane Salerno offering a full bodied biography, Salinger (Simon & Schuster)

Salinger by David Shields and

Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno and

And a movie, Salinger

Salinger directed  by Shane Salerno

Salinger directed by Shane Salerno

Former Manhattan literary bon vivant (he founded the late lamented Open City) turned Tulane University mentor, Thomas Beller has his own offering for the Salinger bibliography, J.D. Salinger:The Escape Artist (New Harvest [which I should point out, is an Amazon publishing imprint]). As I have frequently noted I have a preference for concise biographies—more like essays, written by thoughtful and knowledgeable writers. And as Beller’s tome is 181 pages as opposed to the Shield’s 700 plus pages opus— I am more inclined to The Escape Artist especially as the film vividly covers a lot of the germane material about Salinger.

J.D. Salinger by Thomas Beller

J.D. Salinger by Thomas Beller

Currently reading California by Edan Lepucki(Little Brown)

In My Solitude: Esoterica & Fragments

23 Jun
Pete Dexter circa 2009 [photo:Robert  Birnbaum]

Pete Dexter circa 2009 [photo:Robert Birnbaum]

I am a big fan of writer Pete Dexter, whom I discovered around the time his National Book Award-winning Paris Trout was published. I was pleased to have a conversation with him for his novel Brotherly Love circa 1991.The publication of one of Dexter’s fictions causes me to suspend my required reading to take it up. Happily, Dexter has never disappointed. Here’s one of his droll insights from his 2003 novel Train:

He runs the Cassidy crime family. Little people with enormous heads, every one if them. And they’ve all have been shot in the head, and they never die They believe it’s the luck of the Irish—they walk around thinking they were all born lucky—and it never occurred to any them yet that if they were that fucking lucky, they wouldn’t keep getting shot

The Daily Beast has re-published a 34 year newspaper column A Dog Dies, A Boy Grows up

…reading Dexter’s columns you can see why he’d go on to become one of our great novelists…this story, which originally ran in the [Philadelphia] Daily News on June 2, 1980 appears as it did in the paper. In just under 1,000 words it stands as a stirring example of powerful newspaper writing at its best.”

Pete Dexter’s last novel Spooner which had autobiographical overtones was a wonderful story full of his Talmudic humor.

Claire Trevor from Farewell My Lovely

Claire Trevor from Farewell My Lovely

It take it on board that writing /creating a must read oracular 800 word column year after year is a challenge. Maureen Dowd has been at it for while and while I no longer feel she is a must-read (like her colleague Gail Collins) occasionally I check in with her commentary. Her June 14 exposition opened with:

The Bush Gang of Four

The Bush Gang of Four[/caption

NO one wrote about blondes like Raymond Chandler.

“There is the small cute blonde who cheeps and twitters and the big statuesque blonde who straight-arms you with an ice-blue glare,” he wrote in “The Long Goodbye.” “There is the blonde who gives you the up-from-under look and smells lovely and shimmers and hangs on your arm and is always very, very tired when you take her home.”

There’s the pale, anemic, languid blonde with the soft voice. “You can’t lay a finger on her,” Chandler notes, “because in the first place you don’t want to and in the second place she is reading ‘The Waste Land’ or Dante in the original.” And when the New York Philharmonic is playing Hindemith, he writes dryly, “she can tell you which one of the six bass viols came in a quarter of a beat too late. I hear Toscanini can also. That makes two of them.”

Can you guess who Dowd was writing about?

[caption id="attachment_5093" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Beyonce on Time magazine's 100 "Influential People" Issue Beyonce on Time magazine’s 100 “Influential People” Issue

The circumstances under which Time magazine become irrelevant never occurred to me—until I saw a recent cover for its “100 Most Influential People” issue. Beyonce, the entertainer graces one version.

Jay Z  on Mad magazine's spoof of Time magazine's 100 Most Influentiai covers

Jay Z on Mad magazine’s spoof of Time magazine’s
100 Most Influentiai covers

recent issue  of  the New York Review of Books

recent issue of the New York Review of Books

Novelist Tim Parks offers some cogent rumination in Reading: The Struggle, concluding:

I will go out on a limb with a prediction: the novel of elegant, highly distinct prose, of conceptual delicacy and syntactical complexity, will tend to divide itself up into shorter and shorter sections, offering more frequent pauses where we can take time out. The larger popular novel, or the novel of extensive narrative architecture, will be ever more laden with repetitive formulas, and coercive, declamatory rhetoric to make it easier and easier, after breaks, to pick up, not a thread, but a sturdy cable. No doubt there will be precious exceptions. Look out for them.

I wonder how many times Dick Cheney has to remind the world he is still a free man before someone gets the idea that he should be tried as a war criminal. Maybe the same brave Spanish magistrate who issued summons to Henry Kissinger and General Augusto Pinochet?

Bob Shaccochis [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Bob Shaccochis [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

I had the pleasure of chatting with Bob Shaccochis last year on the occasion of his grand novel The Woman who Lost Her Soul where he talked about his rancher neighbors’ antipathy to dogs. The recent reports of a mad dog cop in Baltimore killing a dog reminded me of that chat:

Other than your wife, are there long periods when you don’t speak to anyone?

Yeah and there are two, two and half months when my wife isn’t there. Her professional life is centered around Florida, and she has to be there. But I am not lonely. I do get horny. My dogs are all I need to be happy. Then her, in that order (laughs). It’s the same for her — dogs first, me second. I made some friends downhill from me — people who live in a village that is their ancestral home. They are Spanish. If you say Mexican, it’s like calling them “niggers.” They told me, “We got rid of the Indians and we are not through yet. You are on our land.” They have grazing rights in the forest and sometimes they will yell at me because my dogs upset the cattle, “Control your dog or we’ll kill it.” I said, “If you kill my dog, I am burning down your house and killing everybody in it. And after we burn down your house I’ll get a bulldozer destroying what’s left and then I’ll be salting the fucking earth.”

It turns out that a few months later said neighbor did shot one of Shaccochis’s Irish Setters and he had him charged, tried , convicted and incarcerated for that murder.

Baltimore Atrocities
And in an incidence of cosmic confluence , I received a novel entitled The Baltimore Atrocities( Coffee House Press) by John Dermot Woods.Here’s what I found on the Web (his own web site seems to be out of action). He declares:

JDW: Like a lot of creators, I make myself reinvent the wheel for each project. It’s partially an attempt to overcome my tics and ingrained narrative habits. Of course, it doesn’t really work. But, if I didn’t try to change my approach completely each time, then I think my work would be exceptionally repetitive. I like control, structure, and dioramas–worlds I can control. This can lead to an over-emphasis on constraint and smallness. I’m not naturally inclined to improvise and let things fly. I have to give myself little challenges to open up my work. (Working with J.A. on No One Told Me was great in this way. He encouraged me to just push forward. I didn’t even pencil out those drawings before I committed ink and paint to paper.)

My problem with political correctness is not the correctness part—its the kind of knee jerk response that dismisses the shadings of meaning and value in the world. Take for instance the rage of all right thinking Americans that the Washington Redskins nomenclature is a slur on the existence of America’s native peoples. And the campaign by assorted parties to shed that rubric has now included the US Patent Office. Personally I think it matters not one bit whether the Washington NFL franchise is called the Redskins, The Kikes, The Darkies or the Gooks. At least billionaire owner Dan Snyder is throwing some money in the pot with the creation of a foundation to benefit native americans. And perhaps all those rallying to this cause would redouble their efforts to raise our benighted Indian peoples from the sorry state that the US government has put them in. Its worth noting that Indian fighter US Army General Sherman observed of the Indian reservations “…are worthless patches of land surrounded by scoundrels.

1/ 3 of San Antonio Spurs[photo borrowed from Hardwood Paroxysm]

1/ 3 of San Antonio Spurs[photo borrowed from Hardwood Paroxysm]

Coverage of professional sports, especially championship competition produces produces tonnage of verbiage I( one thinks of the Manila [Philippines] Municipal Dump). The recent San Antonio Spurs versus Miami Heat was no exception. I don’t recall one memorable column or thought except this clever observation from the fifth game of the series,

“They[Spurs] turned their defenders from the Miami Heat into well-compensated traffic cones.”

No Place to Hide by Glen Greenwald

No Place to Hide by Glen Greenwald

The New York Times chose Micheal Kinsley to review Glen Greenwald’s book about the Edward Snowden affair and NSA/US government spying. Kinsley trashes the book, calls Greenwald is a “self-righteous sourpuss” and validates the government’s right to massive unfettered surveillance of its citizens.

Greenwald and others respond here:

Do I need to continue to participate in the debate over whether many U.S. journalists are pitifully obeisant to the U.S. government? Did they not just resolve that debate for me? What better evidence can that argument find than multiple influential American journalists standing up and cheering while a fellow journalist is given space in The New York Times to argue that those who publish information against the government’s wishes are not only acting immorally but criminally?

Though I am no fan of soccer I did pay attention to the books on the sport. And thus I came across public blowhard Ilan Stavans self serving piece Why Has Literature Ignored Soccer? first he dismisses Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow, “

Soccer in Sun And Shadow by Eduardo Galeano

Soccer in Sun And Shadow by Eduardo Galeano


“Translated into English last year, it is his usual impressionistic hodgepodge of politics and history, less an insightful investigation that a series of forgettable haikus.”

Then this advertisement for himself

In my estimation, the best, most intelligent—and reliable—observer of the role of soccer in Latin American society is Juan Villoro. He has been in all the most recent World Cups as a TV commentator, including the last one in South Africa in 2010. Villoro and I recently published a book-long dialogue, El ojo en la nuca (2014), which talks, in passing, about his experiences.

Ilan Stavans is a Putz

Currently reading My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard and translated by Don Bartlett(Archipelago Books)

Big Round Ball

11 Jun

You have probably noticed football aka soccer is much in the news. And will continue to be for the duration of the world wide tournament known as the World Cup. Personally. I don’t know what any true blue, red blooded nortamericano can find attractive about this sport.But that’s me.

Steve Fagin (photo: Robert Birnbaum

Steve Fagin (photo: Robert Birnbaum

On the other hand cultural polymath David Thomson seems to find beauty in the sport. And, one of my best friends, multi visual media artist Steve Fagin,also a lover of baseball, is a soccer zealot. And sage progressive writer and activist Eduardo Galeano has written brilliantly on the sport he so loves in “Soccer in Sun and Shadow” excepts pf whihc ypu may find at Mother Jones and Tom Englehardt’s web magazine Galeano explains about writing a book about soccer:

Eduardo Galeano (w dear, departed hound Rosie) (photo :Robert Birnbaum

Eduardo Galeano (w dear, departed hound Rosie) (photo :Robert Birnbaum

For years I have felt challenged by the memory and reality of soccer, and I have tried to write something worthy of this great pagan mass able to speak such different languages and unleash such universal passion. By writing, I was going to do with my hands what I never could accomplish with my feet: irredeemable klutz, disgrace of the playing fields, I had no choice but to ask of words what the ball I so desired denied me.

From that challenge, and from that need for expiation, this book was born. Homage to soccer, celebration of its lights, denunciation of its shadows. I don’t know if it has turned out the way soccer would have liked, but I know it grew within me and has reached the final page, and now that it is born it is yours. And I feel that irreparable melancholy we all feel after making love and at the end of the match.

Soccer in the Sun  and Shadow by Eduardo  Galeano

Soccer in the Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano

Though I know virtually nothing about soccer (something that rarely restrains me from commentary and forming opinions) I note a handful of recent books on soccer that appear to rise above the level of fan’s notes. And my unscientific view is that soccer may challenge George Plimption’s Law of Inverse Proportionality (the smaller the ball the more books that have been written about the sport. Marbles? Billiards?)

Among the Thugs by Bill Buford

Among the Thugs by Bill Buford

In addition to the above mentioned classic by Eduardo Galeano, Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs rates some attention as Buford gives a smart account of the sociopathic underclass that afflicts soccer (at least in England)Here’s some excerpts:

…the day had consisted of such a strange succes- sion of events that, by this point in the evening, it was the most natural thing in the world to be watching a football game surrounded by policemen: there was one on my left, another on my right, two directly behind me, and five in front. It didn’t bother me; it certainly didn’t bother the supporters, who, despite the distractions, were watching the match with complete attentive- ness. And when Manchester United tied, the goal was witnessed, as it unfolded, by everyone there (except me; I was looking over my shoulder for missiles), and jubilation shot through them, their cheers and songs suddenly tinny and small in that great cavity of the Juventus football ground, its sev- enty thousand Italians now comprehensively silent. The United supporters jumped up and down, fell over each other, embraced.

But the euphoria was brief. In the final two minutes Juventus scored again. The exhilaration felt but minutes before by that small band of United supporters was now felt-magnified many times~by the seventy thousand Italian fans who, previously humiliated, directed their powerful glee into our corner. The roar was deafening, invading the senses like a bomb.

And with that explosive roar, the mood changed…

There is a truism bandied about that more people like to read about baseball than watch it. Perhaps that’s true of soccer as well, especially as there are long stretches during matches when men in shorts are running willy nilly around a field.

Here some recent soccer books:

Why Soccer Matters by Pele

Why Soccer Matters by Pele

Why Soccer Matters by Pelé with Brian Winter(Celebra)

The Ted Williams of soccer, Edson Arantes do Nascimento aka Pelé, is certainly one to represent the sport—three World Cup championships and the all-time scoring record, with 1,283 goals in his twenty year career.

Futebol Nation: The Story of Brazil through Soccer by Dave Goldblatt

Futebol Nation: The Story of Brazil through Soccer by Dave Goldblatt

Futebol Nation:The Story of Brazil through Soccer by David Goldblatt (Nation Books)

The World Cup returns to Brazil for the first time in 60 years and historian Goldblatt( The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer) provides context for that nations singular contribution to the sport now known the world over as O Jogo Bonito—the Beautiful Game.

Fear and Loathing in La Liga by Sid Lowe

Fear and Loathing in La Liga by Sid Lowe

Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Barcelona, Real Madrid, and the World’s Greatest Sports Rivalry by Sid Lowe (Nation Books)

Yankees vs Red Sox? Lakers vs Celtics? Cubs vs Cardinals? If you think these are the greatest sports rivalries, guess again. Apparently, two Spanish soccer teams fall under that rubric.Spanish soccer expert and historian Lowe covers 100 years of that rivalry and as seems to obtain in most intense competitions, it is never about just the game.

The  Country of Football by Roger Kittleson

The Country of Football by Roger Kittleson

The Country of Football: Soccer and the Making of Modern Brazil by Roger Kittleson ( University of California Press)

Jacues Barzun might have transposed his observation about the United States and baseball—”Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball—to apply to Brazil and soccer. Roger Kittleson details the inextricable link between sport and history in this well researched account. And yet all the sports news about soccer is about the big money money franchises in Britain and Spain. Hmmm.

Dance with the Devil- Dave Zirin

Brazil’s Dance with the Devil- Dave Zirin

Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, The Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy by Dave Zirin (Haymarket Books)

Dave Zirin (People’s History of Sports in the United States, Welcome to the Terrordome)is an astute and dependable sports observer who can be counted on to provide an incisive critique to the world of sports and the blather and cliche that obscure the financial underpinnings of almost all organized sports. In his new opus, Zirin travels throughout Brazil shedding light on why ordinary Brazilians are holding the country’s biggest protest marches in decades about the proffered benefits of hosting the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics

If you are interested in background on the world of soccer there are a trio of books that should be useful Inverting The Pyramid: The History of Soccer Tactics by Jonathan Wilson (Nation Books) ,The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer by David Goldblatt (Riverhead ) and New Republic‘s editor Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization (Harper Perennial)

Currently reading Euphoria by Lily King (Grove Atlantic

Great Day in Mudville

31 May
Newton North Tigers Baseball squad celebrates 14th inning win vs Catholic Memorial (photo: Cheryl Clegg)

Newton North Tigers Baseball squad celebrates 14th inning win vs Catholic Memorial (photo: Cheryl Clegg)

I grew up in Chicago near Wrigley Field. Cubs’s fans cheers resounded though out the neighborhood with a Cubbie home run. I remember one of Mayor Daley’s patronage office holders (the fire commissioner?) turning on the the toddling town’s air raid sirens to celebrate the 1959 White Sox American League championship (the White Sox lost to the by-thenThen LA Dodgers 4 games to 2).

But that’s where my troubles began—when I was afflicted by the baseball germ.

Of course, I wanted to play baseball and tried out for my high school team where my dissonant relationship with the coach reached its logical conclusion. I played one season of Pony League and switched over to bar league softball.

Anyway, yesterday I watched my hometown high school baseball team, the Newton North Tigers, complete their two day (the game was called in the 13th inning on account of darkness,* with the score tied 4-4) first playoff game in the 14th inning vs Catholic Memorial—an inning that lasted all of 20 minutes(the teams spent more time warming up)with an exciting bit of baseball magic.

Ben Porter purloins 2nd Base (photo; Robert Birnbaum)

Ben Porter purloins 2nd Base (photo; Robert Birnbaum)

With two outs in the Tigers’s half of the penultimate inning, the speedy and crafty Ben Porter, worked the count to 3-2 and with amazing speed beat out a grounder to the shortstop. As he has been known to do his entire baseball career, Ben stole 2nd base handily. This brought second basemen Johnny Little( aka Johnny Baseball) to the plate. Now my son played one season of Babe Ruth Baseball(on Paul Howley’s Warriors) with Johnny and we both shared the opinion that this Little kid was a quintessential ballplayer. Anyway, Little singled up the middle, Ben Porter scored from second easily. Game over,Tigers, 5 CM 4.

Ben Porter scores the winning run (photo Robert  Birnbaum)

Ben Porter scores the winning run (photo Robert Birnbaum)

Thankfully, unlike most high school baseball games this 2 day affair was well-attended( school football games are like Friday Night Lights. And the sense of joy was palpable—reminding me that watching kid sports were the closest one could come to enjoying the purity of sports. Parents, friends relatives, scouts,media, the town’s altekockers comprised the audience and the Tigers’s victory—both its exciting manner and the fact that the team battled back after falling behind early, brought joy to the land.

This championship season, no doubt, has many authors, not the least the players on the squad. But it should not go unsaid that the Tigers’s coaches clearly have melded a diverse pack of boys into a high functioning team. The Tigers’s season earned run average was 0.50 over 20 games. A number I find as impressive as Ted Williams’s life time on base percentage (.452)…

Up until recently, all I knew about head coach Joe Sicliano was that during this run he had achieved 300 career victories as a coach and that he had been at Ted Williams’s last game at Fenway Park, an event immortalized by John Updike. Thanks to a unusually straightforward piece by the acid-penned Dan Shaughnessy, I know a bit more—such as Siciliano was inducted into the Massachusetts Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame last winter.

The Tigers play next on Sunday in Brockton MA—games I will have to miss as I am umpiring 2 Little League games. Hopefully some of those Little Leaguers will be playing for the Tigers in a few years.

Go you Tigers!

*imagine a $200 million dollar school campus with unlit athletic fields ( a throwback move or a funding problem?)

Norman Mailer’s Summer Reading List

27 May
Norman Mailer @ Grant Park Bandshell, Chicago, 1968 Democratic Convention (photo: Robert Birnbaum)

Norman Mailer @ Grant Park Bandshell, Chicago, 1968 Democratic Convention (photo: Robert Birnbaum)

I have no doubt come late to the party—the beach/ summer reading lists having been proffered by the usual experts on beach/summer reading. I am not versed in this genre (though I can recall reading Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost and Foster Wallace’s magnum opus at a beach in Rincon Puerto Rico).Late, but not empty handed. Here’s a list (scroll to the bottom of this article if the name of the list confuses you):

The Light We Can’t See -Anthony Doerr

The Light We Can’t See -Anthony Doerr

The Light We Can’t See -Anthony Doerr (Scribner)

Excellent narrative, riveting characters and the use of WWII Europe and Nazi depredations are not cliched.

Everything I Never Told You by  Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never told You -Celeste Ng(Penguin Press)

Ng’s debut novel about a teenager’s death and its reverberations in the family and community is nimbly told (no small feat with such a weighty subject.

The Man Who  Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura

The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura

The Man Who Loved Dogs-Leonardo Padura(FSG)

Trotsky, his assassin, The Spanish Civil War, Stalin and the Moscow show trials, an aging Cuban writer, two wolfhounds— its a far flung story (times and places) written with Carribbean alacrity.Don’t believe me? Here’s Ann Louise Bardach take:

A global epic set mostly in Havana, Barcelona, Moscow and Mexico City, Padura’s novel is grounded in a trifecta of storylines: We have the grim saga of Trotsky’s 11-year flight from Stalin; the recruitment and creation of an assassin in the form of Catalonian communist Ramón Mercader; and the marginalization of Iván Cárdenas Maturell, a Cuban novelist who learns early in his career the hazards of writing in his homeland.

The Exile’s Return by Elizabeth De Waal

The Exile’s Return by Elizabeth De Waal

The Exile’s Return-Elizabeth De Waal (Picador)

Adam Kirsch’s paean to Ms De Waal should move you. Or not:

…appearing now, as a historical document, it gains an additional interest, as Elisabeth de Waal’s imaginative response to her own exile…This is not, perhaps, a new story, but in The Exiles Return it is told with sharpness and authenticity.

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Fourth of July Creek- Smith Henderson (Ecco)

I am partial to American novels set outside urban cultures and with a minimum of consumer activities. Like this one, set in the Fly over zone.

The Cairo Affair by Olen Steinhauer

The Cairo Affair by Olen Steinhauer

The Cairo Affair- Olen Steinhauer (St Martin’s

As sure-handed as Le Carre reporting on the activities of spooks and various secret police. A world normally Byzantine in its alliances and
fluidity of loyalties, this plot set in Cairo seems especially volatile

Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women's Prisons-  edited by Robin Levi and Ayalet Waldman

Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons- edited by Robin Levi and Ayalet Waldman

Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons (Voice of Witness)by Ayelet Waldman , Robin Levi (Editor)

In case you were charmed into seeing incarceration as a vacation by the Netflix series Orange is the New Black here’s a corrective. Or Christina Rathbone’s A World Apart Women,Prison and the World Behind Bars

They Don't Kill You Because They're Hungry, They Kill You Because They're Full    by Mark Bibbins

They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full by Mark Bibbins

They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full by Mark Bibbins (Copper Canyon)

Fishermen on Sea of Galilee

A citizen said, Every action
born out of pure spontaneity
is correct. It’s possible
he said corrupt but I was
eavesdropping. Correction:
minding my business: he was
performing, saying, also,
to his fellow citizens, I know
you agree with me on this.
Look, it’s autumn in our
hairlines and some smear
on the pavement’s been run
over so many times we can’t
tell whether or not it started
out as an animal.
My heaven is populated
with conures, llamas,
and adolescent bears
but is otherwise
fairly quiet. I’m done
looking for approbation
from people for whom I have
no respect and would respect
less if I met them.
Was this the sea they parted.
Understatement, so rarely
biblical: there is no quill pen
half as sinister as the lone
piece of penne in a dish
of farfalle. Today we rock
anonymity and tomorrow find
further evidence of same
dying in the comment fields.
Wake me when you can
tell me whether every taxi
must engage in a dialogue
with all previous taxis,
when you do something
impossible, when you leave
the party, when you take
my worst advice. This is,
friends, this was the sea.

Midnight  in Europe by Alan Furst

Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst

Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst (Random House)

Since I discovered Furst I have continued to read his regularly published and dependably entertaining and instructive war time “thrillers” I confess that was a brief period when I wasn’t entertained or instructed but the probability is high that was a shift in my attention or something even more subjective. But his latest opus, I can report is up to (my) snuff. Paris,1938 and the Spanish Civil War goings-on make for a great setting. And that infamous place where the Bulgarian waiter is shot is per Furst’s practice, cleverly insinuated into the plot.

Natchez Burning- Greg Iiles

Natchez Burning- Greg Iiles

Natchez Burning- Greg Iiles (William Morrow)

A densely plotted post racial novel set in Natchez—that’s in Mississippi for all you Yankees that is thick on Civil Rights Movement era history as well lots of things you didn’t know about Natchez. Frankly I thought it was about 200 pages too long (800 pages). Reportedly, this is the first volume of a trilogy

Death of The Black Haired Girl by Robert Stone

Death of The Black Haired Girl by Robert Stone

Death of The Black Haired Girl- Robert Stone (houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Robert Stone is the gold standard of American fiction. That’s it.

The Last Date by Laurent Seksik

The Last Date by Laurent Seksik

The Last Date by Laurent Seksik (Pushkin Press)

Writer Stefan Zweig has garnered lots of attention recently not the least because of Wes Anderson’s film Grand Hotel which in turn reportedly owes something to The Impossible Exile by George Prochnick (Other Press). I like this novel about Zweig’s last few months of life very much

A Permanent Member of The  Family by Russell Banks

A Permanent Member of The Family by Russell Banks

A Permanent Member go there Family by Russell Banks (Ecco)

Russell Banks is also the gold standard of American Fiction.

Kill Anything that Moves- Nick Turse

Kill Anything that Moves- Nick Turse

Kill Anything that Moves- Nick Turse (Picador)

Sorry to saddle this book under the rubric of Important book but if you are in doubt about whether the perpetrators of the Indochinese Debacle were/are war criminals a few chapters of Turse’s exhaustively researched
account should shake up your belief in American moral superiority.

The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams  by Ben Bradlee JR

The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams by Ben Bradlee JR

The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams by Ben Bradlee JR (Little Brown)

See my chat with Ben Bradlee

Euphoria   by  Lily King

Euphoria by Lily King

Euphoria by Lily King (Grove Atlantic)

Author Alice Greenway expiates

Euphoria is a love story set against the scramble by anthropologists in 1930s New Guinea to record or map the traditions and beliefs of societies coming apart under the brutal onslaught of miners, traders, missionaries and colonialists. Lily King writes with astonishing insight and authority about a number of New Guinea tribes and particularly about their distinct gender relations. At the same time, she delves into the intellectual flights and passions of three anthropologists – as complex, rivalrous and brutal as any of the cultures they study. Euphoria is a brilliantly written book and entirely fascinating from start to finish. The character of Nell Stone, slight, wracked with fever and insect bites, with a slight limp from a fall in the jungle and large cuscus-like eyes, capable of joy and huge intellect, is extraordinary.

 American Romantic by Ward Just

American Romantic by Ward Just

American Romantic by Ward Just (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Ward Just is a dependable novelist who chronicles both remote and familiar pockets of American Life, in this case the life of an American foreign service officer who’s brief tryst with a German nurse in Vietnam seems to haunt him through his years of world wide diplomatic postings to his pleasant but solitary retirement in France

Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything  by Barbara Ehrenreich

Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything by Barbara Ehrenreich

Living With A Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything by Barbara Ehrenreich (Twelve)

Who doesn’t love Barbara Ehrenreich‘s smart and compassionate views on the world? This,Living with a Wild God, would be her most personal book and reaches into an area that many people who spend time thinking, think many hours about. To quote one review

The questions in the world may be infinite, but perhaps the answers are few. And however we define that mystery, there’s no escaping our essential obligation to it, for it may, as Ehrenreich writes, “be seeking us out.”

“When I am asked what’s on my summer reading list… I read the all year long” Norman Mailer

Note on “Girls Standing on Lawns”

21 May
“Girls Standing on Lawns” by Maira Kalman &  Daniel Handler

“Girls Standing on Lawns” by Maira Kalman & Daniel Handler

I’ve enjoyed the scope of Maira Kalman’s creations from her own work to her collaborations with her late husband, Tibor Kalman and others. Among things that stand out there is her splendid embellishment of that old war horse Strunk & White’s Elements of Style

The Elements of Style illustrated by Maira Kalman

The Elements of Style illustrated by Maira Kalman

I and the legions of other of Kalman’s admirers will be uplifted by Kalman’s “Girls Standing on Lawns” (The Museum of Modern Art, New York)her joint effort with Daniel Handler(Lemony Snicket). Its a compelling blend of vernacular photography (40 images)(of which MOMA has a an extensive collection ) and Kalman’s illustrations (12 paintings). Handler provides the text.

Perhaps she stood there  so that she could stand still

Perhaps she stood there
so that she could stand still

The good news is that this book is the first of series that Kalman is doing with the Museum of Modern Art.

We believe this, there is nothing else we believe more at this moment, that we should be standing here.

We believe this, there is nothing else we believe more at this moment, that we should be standing here.

Currently reading American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church by Alex Beam (Public Affairs)


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.