What The World Needs Now

27 Jul
Phillip Kerr [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Phillip Kerr [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Recently, I chatted with Philip Kerr, my favorite Scotch author , and he observed something to the effect that John Le Carre will be the author that is most remembered and read from this era (20th century).

The Constant Gardener by John Le Carre

The Constant Gardener by John Le Carre

I watched A Most Wanted Man last Friday afternoon and A Constant Gardener (again). I have previously read both these LeCarre novels and I am beginning to see Kerr’s point about LeCarre— A Constant Gardner is a precis’ of the foibles of (white) Western African policies and the immense corruption that has been rampant since the days of empire.

A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carre

A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carre

A Most Wanted Man is, plain and simple, a display of, in toto, the ineptitude of secret spy agencies (think back to the absurd machinations of the Czars’s secret police) and the self-serving nature of the security state. The bad joke in this story is that the CIA operative (Robin Wright) offers , when asked by the German anti terror unit agent(Phillip Seymour Hoffman) why they did what they did, “To make the world a little safer —isn’ that enough?”

Lecarre also reprises a notion that I first noticed in A Constant Gardener. Tessa want he husband to stop the car and give a ride to 3 Africans she knows have to walk 40 k to get home. He says. there are just too many to help. We leave it to the agencies.” She says,” But there are 3 people we can help now.” In A Most Wanted Man someone says, ‘“The fact that you can only do a little is no excuse for doing nothing.”

And then there is this gem from Russia House (which Howard Zinn pointed out to me)

I do not like experts. They are our jailers. I despise experts more than anyone on earth…They solve nothing! They are servants of whatever system hires them. They perpetuate it. When we are tortured,we shall be tortured by experts. When we are hanged, experts will hang us…When the world is destroyed, it will be destroyed not by its madmen but by the sanity of its experts and the superior ignorance of its bureaucrats.

John Le Carre The Russia House p 207

Currently reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Knopf)

Hill & Bill and “Chelle & Barry

22 Jul

People who make their livings examining the ashes and entrails of political roadkill and others aspiring to explain parts of the world to us, might make something of the morsel of information that Hilary Clinton’s Hard Choices (Simon & Schuste), her memoir qua campaign statement, has been supplanted by Edward Klein’s Blood Feud: The Clintons vs. the Obamas (Regnery Publishing) on one of the best seller’s lists.

Blood Feud by Edward Klein

Blood Feud by Edward Klein

Klein, a former New York Times magazine editor and the author of Hillary: What She Knew, When She Knew It, and How Far She’ll Go to Become President is apparently trying to make a living defrocking Hilary and derailing the Clinton Presidential campaign trail. The publisher asserts it “is a stunning exposé of the animosity, jealousy, and competition between America’s two most powerful political couples.”

Hard Choices by Hillary Clinton

Hard Choices by Hillary Clinton

I suppose there is something to glean from Ms Rodham’s 656 page effort to shine a roseate light on her public career and her fitness to aspire to be commander-in-chief of the most powerful country the world has ever known, though what that is escapes me. However of these two questionably useful books I am at least amused at the cover photo of Clintons as juxtaposed by Obama photo on Blood Feud. Not exactly a balanced editorial choice exhibited here

A Fighting Chance by Eliizabeth Warren

A Fighting Chance by Eliizabeth Warren

There is a current political autobiography A Fighting Chance (Holt) that I do think is worth of some attention though I must confess I am moved to it by my admiration for the junior senator of Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren, whose name is beginning to be bandied about as a legitimate populist and a very dark horse candidate for the 2016 presidential campaign—a kind of anti Hillary.

Senator Elizabeth Warren

Senator Elizabeth Warren

Currently reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Knopf)

“Try to Leave Out the Part that Readers Tend to Skip” -Dutch Leonard

18 Jul

Newton Minnow, who was the Federal Communications Commission chairman when John Kennedy was president, condemned the young medium of television, as a vast “wasteland”. That may still be true but there are significant outposts of intelligent and well told narratives that encourage continued interest. And its does seem that there is burgeoning of high quality series that followed (arguably) in the footprints of The Wire and the Sopranos. Recently, HBO’s True Detectives and FX’s The Bridge have have melded accurate casting and acting with convincing characters and transparent dialogue. Complemented by great montage, Nic Palazatti’s True Detectives and Patrick Summerville’s apt adaption of the Swedish series The Bridge are deep and powerful dramas.

I don’t think I had ever heard of We network but the trailers that were aired to promote their new crime series The Divide, stirred my interest and the headlines I scanned in reports on the show, had me watching my video box at the appointed time.I am pleased that I did, as this story had an excellent beginning— evidencing many earmarks of a seamless and stirring crime story. I could, I suppose blather on with critical visual jargon but for your’s and my ease, I would opine that lawyer-to-be with a big-chip-on-her-shoulder Christa Rosa played by Marin Ireland it is the role and the actor that powers this narrative train.

Marin Ireland as Christine Rosa in the Divide

Marin Ireland as Christine Rosa in the Divide

I have watched innumerable shows in which Marin Ireland was part of the cast— her role in The Divide (not to be confused with Matt Taibi’s new opus or the post nuclear attack drama) was the first time I noticed her protean attributes. By moments, she is lovely to gaze at, and seductive, radiantly innocent, brittle, bleached out and haggard,sharp tongued and direct that encapsulates an engaging blend of Don Quixote, Joan of Arc, David, the Goliath killer and Rosanlind Russell in My Gal Friday.Which is to say, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.

Marin Ireland as Christine Roza in The Divide.

Marin Ireland as Christine Roza in The Divide.

The whole ensemble is convincing in taking on on a common crime story plot line—litigating (the Innocence Project is the model for the group looking into capitol cases) for a man on Death Row, some three weeks before his scheduled execution. As an aside , A State Within that superior BBC series handled the execution theme with great alacrity, nimbly shoe-horning it into the overall weave of the Iran war-like conspiracy that drives that narrative.

I recently noticed that the New York Times is regularly devoting coverage to these kinds (FX, HBO, Netflix) of shows which strikes me as a new level of journalistic pandering.

A couple of clinkers in the debut episode of the Divide— a news announcer is reporting on the forthcoming execution as “the first execution in Pennsylvania in the 21st century.” This is the kind of news coverage (of which I am more and more conscious)that has me saying an emphatic, “So what?”

Freddy Nietzsche

Freddy Nietzsche

And prefacing the show with a Nietzsche epigram (white type reversed out on a black screen) and subsequently having a character (a convict) quoting the testy Teuton is suggestive of a profundity that no crime series that I can recall has attained (though True Detectives come close).Better to cite Yogi Berra or Dutch Leonard as a marker of things to come.

Currently reading Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in America by (Harper Design)

Baseball by the Book

13 Jul


My take-away from weeks of World Cup hysteria is that futball is 1) truly the people’s sport and 2) that the organizations that purport to administer nonprofessional sports (The Olympic Committee, FICA, NCAA,International Cycling Union) are frequently reported to be corrupt or negligent in their oversight of their purviews ( read Dave Zirin or Franklin Foer for more on this). This can not be said about professional sports— as their obvious mandate to see the wheels of commerce (aka the profit motive) kept churning, obviates concerns about venality and criminality.

Geopolitically, it is an interesting turn that the nations most disliked on their respective continents (Germany and Argentina)are finalists for the World Cup. Any way, the annual Major League Baseball spectacle, The All-Star Game, is upon us. I see it as a pretty useless interlude in the long season (well, there is all that revenue generated) excepting that the winner is awarded home field advantage in the US National Tournament Championship (aka The World Series). And players have a few days of rest and who-knows-what.

Earlier this season I published an annotated array of new baseball books. As you will discover from what follows, there is an abundance of new books limning the century and a half of baseball’s history

When Baseball Went White by Ryan A. Swanson

When Baseball Went White by Ryan A. Swanson

When Baseball Went White: Reconstruction, Reconciliation, and Dreams of a National Pastime by Ryan A. Swanson (University of Nebraska Press)

University of New Mexico mentor Ryan Swanson did some fruitful research to tell the story of the few moments that baseball was bi-racial and its subsequent descent into its post Civil War racist iteration. Not surprisingly, segregating baseball was mostly about the money. Swanson spotlights three cities—Philadelphia, Washington DC and Richmond— metropolises with large black populations, to exhibit the implementation of Jim Crow in baseball.

Miracle at Fenway    by Saul Wisnia

Miracle at Fenway by Saul Wisnia

Miracle at Fenway: The Inside Story of the Boston Red Sox 2004 Championship Season by Saul Wisnia and Dave Roberts (St Martins)

Career sports writer Saul Wisnia (his web journal is Fenway Reflections) assembles a useful oral history of the now ‘legendary” 2004 Boston Red Sox National tournament champions. Ten years is a sufficiently elapsed period of time to take a look back and enough (for Bosox fans) to revisit and refresh the time when long suffering fans’s dreams came true.

Wild Pitches  by Jayson Stark

Wild Pitches by Jayson Stark

Wild Pitches: Rumblings, Grumblings, and Reflections on the Game I Love Hardcover by Jayson Stark (Triumph Books )

Philly homeboy and Phladelphia Inquirer scribbler turned ESPN talking head Jayson Stark, anthologizes some of his columns on baseball. Here’s fellow Philly sports guy Stan Hochman on Stark’s new opus:

Stark did 21 years of hard time here, covering baseball for the morning paper. Made the move to ESPN, the worldwide leader, in 2000. Digs out nuggets all the time. Uncovers a lot of baubles, bangles and beads. Weird stuff, funny stuff.

The next best thing to watching memorable baseball is reading Stark, writing about memorable baseball. And now they have gathered a sampling of those nuggets in an anthology called “Wild Pitches: Rumblings, Grumblings and Reflections on the Game I Love.”

The job has gotten tougher as the players have gotten richer, more aloof, more hostile. The job has gotten easier with technology. Tony Gwynn struck out fewer than 20 times in eight different seasons. Ever done before? Never done before? Often? Seldom? Stark can find out in 90 seconds.

Bull City Summer by  Alex Harris, Frank Hunter, Kate Joyce, Elizabeth Matheson, Leah Sobsey, Alec Soth, Hank Willis Thomas and Hiroshi Watanabe

Bull City Summer by Alex Harris, Frank Hunter, Kate Joyce, Elizabeth Matheson, Leah Sobsey, Alec Soth, Hank Willis Thomas and Hiroshi Watanabe

Bull City Summer: A Season at the Ballpark by Howard Craft,Adam Sobsey,Emma Miller,Sam Stephenson (Daylight Books)

This 200 page monograph is the culmination of the Bull City Summer documentary project, inspired by the 25th anniversary of the movie Bull Durham, documents the 2013 season of the Durham Bulls, one of the most successful minor league teams in the US. A number of artists collaborated to contribute 129 photographs to this handsome and well produced book— some of which can be found here.

The Closer by Mariano Rivera and Wayne Coffey

The Closer by Mariano Rivera and Wayne Coffey

The Closer by Mariano Rivera and Wayne Coffey (Little Brown)

Even the most casual baseball fan knows of the legendary New York Yankee reliever Mariano Rivera and his omnipotent cut fastball, and perhaps his 5 national tournament rings and his record 652 career saves and 1173 career strikeouts. His is a true rags-to-riches story— from a poor Panamanian fishing village to becoming one of the most popular New York Yankees ever—admired by fans and opponents alike. Colin Fleming opines:

The book vividly sketches out his origin story: a Panamanian kid, smelling of fish from working on his father’s boat, coming to America to begin what seems, from any perspective, a most unlikely baseball career. There’s real terror in the early pages as Rivera, without any command of the English language, gets a flight for Florida when he’d never been more than six hours from home.

He’s anxious, you’re anxious, and no matter what team you usually root for, you’ll root for Rivera in the early pages of “The Closer.” It’s the kind of baseball odyssey that leaves readers with a sense of the Homerian that later extends to the stuff of clutch strikeouts, “Casey at the Bat”-style grandeur and fallen records.

American Jews and America's Game  by Larry Ruttman

American Jews and America’s Game by Larry Ruttman

American Jews and America’s Game: Voices of a Growing Legacy in Baseball by Larry Ruttman (University of Nebraska Press)

Being a god-less Semite, it would a fool’s errand for me to dismiss Larry Ruttman’s diligent effort to document (and not so subtly, lionize)the Jews place in what was once America’s National Pastime (certainly no longer America’s Game, a rubric invented to for the NFL). By and large an oral history, Ruttman includes the testimonies of Bud Selig, the late Marvin Miller, Kevin Youkilis, Ian
Kinsler, Ken Holtzman(the second coming of Sandy Koufax), Al Rosen, Art Shamsky, Gabe Kapler, Ron Blomberg, Shawn Green, and Brad Ausmus, Jerry Reinsdorf Stuart Sternberg, Randy Levine, Theo Epstein and Mark Shapiro , sportswriters Murray Chass, Ira Berkow, Roger Kahn, Ross Newhan ,Alan Dershowitz and Barney Frank.
Alan Dershowitz and Barney Frank? Ruttman even manages a Gay Talese stroke (“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”) with a chapter on what a mensch Sandy Koufax is for personally calling him to refuse an interview.

The Yankee Way BY  Willie Randolph

The Yankee Way BY Willie Randolph

The Yankee Way: Playing, Coaching, and My Life in Baseball by Willie Randolph (It Books)

Brooklyn born and raised Randolph’s credentials as a Yankee are slightly tarnished as he was a one time manager of the New York Mets.Nonetheless, he was a Yankee when some great baseball personalities were in the game, that’s worth something. And universally regarded as a good guy.

Double Play by Ben Zobrist

Double Play by Ben Zobrist

Double Play by Ben Zobrist, Julianna Zobristand Mike Yorkey (B&H Books )

Christianity and baseball. That’s Tampa Bay’s Ben Zobrist’s story.



Throwback: A Big-League Catcher Tells How the Game Is Really Played by Jason Kendall, Lee Judge (St. Martin’s Press)

Jason Kendall was star Major League catcher from 1996 to 2004, playing with six different teams and suffering some terrible injuries, garnering accolades and awards and some dubious achievements (a career 254 times being hit by a pitch, fifth all time). Given the notion that catchers are the smartest and most aware players on the field you an be sure that Kendall’s revelations bring a new insights to viewing baseball.

Ted Williams, My Father BY Claudia Williams

Ted Williams, My Father BY Claudia Williams

Ted Williams, My Father: A Memoir by Claudia Williams(Ecco)

Personally, I would recommend Ben Bradlee’s excellent biography on Ted Williams, The Kid.

Blood Sportby Tim Elfrink  &    Gus Garcia-Roberts

Blood Sportby Tim Elfrink & Gus Garcia-Roberts

Blood Sport: Alex Rodriguez, Biogenesis, and the Quest to End Baseball’s Steroid Era by Tim Elfrink, Gus Garcia-Roberts (Dutton)

This is a compelling true crime story that involves the universally despised Alex Rodriguez, the highest paid and the most overpaid major league player and 14 other ball players, in their acquisition and use of performance enhancing drugs and their unsuccessful efforts to cover up these practices.Taking place in a Miami clinic, Biogenesis,of course, adds a frisson of decadence to the alleged criminality and reporters Elfrink and Gus Garcia-Roberts flesh out the tawdry details. If you can stand reading yet another word about Rodriguez, by all means have at Blood Sport.

The Forgotten History of African American Baseball by Lawrence Hogan

The Forgotten History of African American Baseball by Lawrence Hogan

by Lawrence Hogan (Praeger)

Its a misleading title, as in order to be forgotten something first has to be known—maybe “The Ignored History…” would be more appropriate. In any case, baseball historian Hogan who has also written Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African-American Baseball delves into the origins of African-American participation in baseball, from southern plantations through the Jim Crow era and onward.To say this a valuable and much needed piece of work is an understatment.

Black Baseball Entrepreneurs, 1902-1931 by Micheal Lomax

Black Baseball Entrepreneurs, 1902-1931 by Micheal Lomax

Black Baseball Entrepreneurs, 1902-1931: The Negro National and Eastern Colored Leagues by Michael E. Lomax ( Syracuse University Press)

A solid piece of scholarship that fills in big gaps in baseball historiography.

Outsider Baseball  by Scott Simkus

Outsider Baseball by Scott Simkus

Outsider Baseball: The Weird World of Hardball on the Fringe, 1876–1950 by Scott Simkus (Chicago Review Press)

This tome might also have been entitled Oddball Baseball as it accounts for a segment of baseball history populated by the likes of independents and novelties such as the Cuban Stars, Tokyo Giants, Brooklyn Bushwicks, Negro league teams,the House of David and Bloomer Girls and heretofore ignored. Its a world that vanishes by the mid 20th century and Simkus does history and the game a great service with this book His Outsider Baseball Bulletin is on hiatus and he plans to start up again in 2014.

currently reading Perfidia by James Ellroy (Knopf)

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)


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.