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)

Not Good For the Jews

21 May
Jonathan Safron Foer (photo:Robert Birnbaum)

Jonathan Safron Foer (photo:Robert Birnbaum)

A friend apprised me of New Yorker “20 under 40″ annointee Jonathan Safron Foer’s crusade to save literature via a collaboration with corporate fast food dispensary Chipotles. A casual search-engining will bring you numerous citations of this noble campaign, I accessed Vanity Fair:

Jonathan Safran Foer was chowing down at a Chipotle one day, when he realized that without a book or magazine or a smartphone, he had nothing to do while munching on his burrito. “I really just wanted to die with frustration.” Surviving this terminal frustration, he was impelled into action and he contacted Chipotle’s C.E.O.:

“I bet a shitload of people go into your restaurants every day, and I bet some of them have very similar experiences, and even if they didn’t have that negative experience, they could have a positive experience if they had access to some kind of interesting text,’‘Wouldn’t it be cool to just put some interesting stuff on it? Get really high-quality writers of different kinds, creating texts of different kinds that you just give to your customers as a service?’

Chipotle Cups

Chipotle Cups

Thus was born the bold initiative, Cultivating Thought. The gist of which is that various Chipotles’s containers are festooned with original texts by Foer, Malcolm Gladwell, Toni Morrison, George Saunders, Michael Lewis,Sara Silverman, Sheri Fink and Judd Apatow.

Now this cutting-edge scheme has garnered some grousing and opprobrium some of which can be traced to Foer’s unerring ability to piss people off. Why a successful, well-meaning young author seems to raise hackles remains a small mystery. Because he’s a graduate of snooty Princeton? A Jewish person? Because he wrote a quasi vegetarian manifesto Eating Animals? Because other than Princeton’s Toni Morrison, there are mostly white boys included in this clique of genre pioneers (this no doubt will be corrected in the near future).

If you want to read further on this kerfluffle

Wall Street Journal

Chipotle’s press release




A Chipotles burrito

A Chipotles burrito

I am partial to this note to be found at The Concourse:

So fuck you, Chipotle. Fuck you and your overpriced diarrhea torpedoes and the overly earnest fart-sniffers you hired to pimp them out. Next time, just put a maze on the bag.


Currently reading Natchez Burning by Greg Ilses (Morrow)

It is Good for The Jews: The Money Graf

17 May
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour  by Joshua Ferris

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

Having just chatted with Joshua Ferris about his third novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (Reagan Arthur), I encountered what I call ‘the money graf” (a rubric adapted from the world of journalism).It doesn’t happen frequently that I find one small section so vastly more impressive that the rest of the book( I recall a section in Roth’s American Pastorale)but here it is:

You could be a non-practicing Jew and while I was not a non practicing Jew, because I had not been born a Jew and converting to Judaism just to persist in non practice would have been pointless, I could not be a non practicing Christian in any respect. You either believed or did not believe in Christ the Savior nd al his many miracles and prophecies. It was ironic, I thought, to talk about “practicing” Christians, when to be a Christian, you didn’t have todo much at all, you just had to profess your faith , while Jewish people, even non-practicing ones, did more in one single Seder than a full-bore Christian obedient in his pew might do all yea. Whether you were born a Christian or a Jew seemed tantamount to the same thing from the perspective of the newborn, but growing up made all the difference in the world. A Christian could slough off his inherited Christianity and become an atheist or a Buddhist or a plain old vanilla nothing, but a Jewish person, for reason beyond my understanding, would always be Jewish, e.g,an atheist Jew, or a Jewish Buddhist. Some of the Jews I knew… hated this primordial fact, but as a non Jew , I had the luxury of envying the surrender to fate that it implied, the fixed identity and tribal affiliations.


Joshua Ferris (photo: Robert Birnbaum)

Joshua Ferris (photo: Robert Birnbaum)

I didn’t even know if I could say the word “Jew”.It sound very harsh to me, to my Gentile ears,maybe particularly inside my indisputably Gentile mouth. I was afraid if someone Jewish heard me say it, they would hear a reinforcement of stereotypes , a renewal of the old antagonism and hate. It was a minor buy significant legacy of the Holocaust that non Jewish Americans born long after World War II with little knowledge of Judaism or the Jewish people had fear of offending by saying the word “Jew”.

Sandy Koufax (Purloined from the Internet)

Sandy Koufax (Purloined from the Internet)

…all I thought I would ever need to know about the Jews: they’d given the world a son, a southpaw by the name of Sandy Koufax, who pitched three Cy Young seasons for the Dodgers and hated the Yankee’s like a true American hero.

Joshua Ferris (photo: Robert Birnbaum)

Joshua Ferris (photo: Robert Birnbaum)

Currently reading Parallel Stories by Peter Nadas (Picador)

Talking with Ben Bradlee

24 Apr
Ben Bradlee (photo: Robert Birnbaum

Ben Bradlee (photo: Robert Birnbaum)

Ben Bradlee Jr. retired from a successful 25 year career at the Boston Globe to write The Kid:The Immortal Life of Ted Williams(Little Brown). It’s a useful and thorough study of Williams’s complicated and stormy life in and out of baseball— when it was still the National pastime and America’s game. Bradlee and I chatted at my local caffeine commissary (The Keltic Krust) touching on the challenges of writing this big and, for the time being, definitive biography of Ted Williams. We also spoke of the current state of baseball, cryogenics, the joys of sons who play baseball, his reading interests and future endeavors.

RB: I was amused at the lengths that various reviewers went to describe how big your book was. One writer compared the weight of your book [2.7 pounds] to the weight of Ted Williams’s bat [33 oz.].

BB: Yeah, that was sort of cheeky. But it is a long book. I was criticized for that by some people. The Washington Post, of all papers, said that no baseball player was worth 800 pages, period. The President of the United States, okay but no baseball player—that was the guy’s line.

RB: Do you think he read it?

BB: Probably not.

RB: That’s a judgment that you might reasonably make if you read the book [or let that judgment stand as the sum total of a review].

BB: Well, who knows if he read it or not. I can’t say that the guy didn’t. But once he formed that opinion, it’s all uphill from there.

RB: I wondered that [was any ballplayer worthy of a large and extensively detailed bio] before I read it. I am disposed to read 200 page biographical essays such the ones that James Atlas published with his Eminent Lives series. But I did read your book —speaking of big books, the New York Times did a piece on big biographies including The Kid with bios of Norman Mailer, Woodrow Wilson and Barbara Stanwyck, so apparently size is now a separate story. And the Guardian did a piece on the trend towards big novels.

BB: That’s interesting because generally I was encouraged by that Times piece on big bios—the essence of that was big personalities deserve big books. And that was counterintuitive because we live in an era of people having limited attention spans and the trend is toward shorter books. This was a labor of love. It took me an embarrassingly long time—ten years—600 interviews and 800 pages take a while. I had no idea it would take me that long.

RB: When you began how long did you think it was going to be?

BB: I went where the reporting took me. And Little Brown was really supportive as I missed deadline after deadline.

RB: What did you say when they asked, “Where’s the book?” “I’m not finished.” Or “Just a little more…”

BB: I spent the first three years solely reporting and interviewing. And finally the editor [Geoff Shandler] called up “Don’t you think it’s time to put pen to paper?” He did an amazing pencil job—which restored my faith I book editing. Earlier books I had done had no editing at all. They just hit the ‘Send’ button. And every writer needs editing. The depth that Shandler went—he would circle a sentence on say, page 800, of the double page manuscript and say, “I think that works better on page 267.” That level of detail—which was impressive.

RB: Your were a fan as a kid —you saw Williams play. That was your interest in the writing this book. Were you aware of how much part of the New England culture Williams was?

BB: Of course. How could you not be, growing up in this area?

RB: People would have conversations with you about Williams?

BB: I just knew about him. He had been—I said ”hero” in the book, which might have been the wrong word. I looked up to him. I had pictures in my bedroom—plastered with pictures cut out of Sports Illustrated and Sport magazine. I’d go to the park as often as I could. I followed him in retirement. I read his autobiography in 1969 when it came out. I followed him —I was interested in him. And in his death, I was struck how much interest there still was and how many lives he had touched. The Globe ran a page of letters after he died. They were from grandfathers talking about how they had introduced their sons to baseball through Williams. And their sons to their sons. He was a certain [kind of] glue in the social fabric. At that point I quickly read the early books on Williams. They were all by sports writers.

RB: Leigh Montville.

BB: He was the most recent and he was a colleague of mine at the Globe. He had left years earlier to go to Sports Illustrated and then he was writing books. I knew he was out there. He was out there with about a 9-month head start on me. We were tripping over each other on the road, interviewing the same people. He’s very fast [snaps his fingers]. He just turns it around. So he published 18 months after Ted died. He did a good job.

RB: In the scheme of things, I expect your book will be spoken of as ‘definitive’?

BB: You’ll make that judgment, not me. I’ll tell you this; I was trying for the word ‘definitive’. And when reviewers mentioned that, that pleased me.

RB: You take the reviews to heart?

BB: Well, sure. Don’t you?

RB: Well, yeah. I wanted to see if [as some writers claim] you were disinterested.

BB: Of course everybody reads them; I am not going to deny you don’t take them to heart. You want good reviews. Anybody does. And there were 95% good reviews.

RB: It gives me pause when you read a review by a writer who is not particularly a book critic— I was thinking of Bruce Weber’s review of The Kid

BB: That was in the daily Times as opposed to the Book Review piece by Charles McGrath.

RB: Where McGrath quotes his mother saying she would have left his father for Ted Williams.

BB: I thought that was a riot

RB: What about today? What’s the response to things about Williams today?

BB: The response I get? I have been enormously gratified to get letters from readers and emails, saying how much they liked the book and often sharing Ted stories and how he touched their lives.

RB: Any surprises?

BB: No. All of a type. But gratifying—people had obviously read the book and took time to write me and say how much it meant—how much they appreciated. I wasn’t sure I would get those types of letters. But I have a file now of those.

RB: There’s a sequel.

BB: No sequels.

RB: The annotated and updated edition. I asked about how Williams fits into today’s mélange of pop culture because I have a son who is a ball player—I am dismayed at the difference between the support of the high school football team and the baseball team. Which makes me wonder about the place of baseball—

BB: Yeah. I guess it must b e different in [different]pockets of the country. For example, I was down at the University of Mississippi at a book conference recently. And I was struck by how big college baseball is there. They have a 10, 000 seat college stadium.

RB: They are SEC [Southeastern Conference, not to be confused with the Securities and Exchange Commission].

BB: Yeah, the SEC. But around here you struggle to get fans. Its essentially just parents. I don’t know what the reasons are.

RB: Yet every year it seems that Major League Baseball sells more tickets.

BB: Generally, it’s considered less popular than football. And they do have a problem in the black communities. Really, a shockingly low percentage
of African Americans in the majors. That, despite [MLB’s] initiative to try and get into the inner city to interest more black kids to play baseball. It’s not happening.

RB: There were some inconsistent figures in a recent piece about Hank Aaron. He alludes to the last baseball draft and reported that there were 13 black kids in the first round [of 32 positions].

BB: In the last baseball draft? That’s encouraging.

RB: They are obviously really good players. Getting back to the talk about your big book, I read, “126 pages went by before Williams picks up a bat.” And, “Bradlee devotes over three hundred pages to Williams life after baseball.”

BB: Well, really the whole raison d’ etre for doing the book was to focus on his personal life. I didn’t skimp on the baseball, despite Bruce Weber’s claim [NYT]. He indicted me for not being a sports writer.

RB: He wrote that you didn’t explain the secret of Williams’s batting prowess.

BB: I plead guilty to not being a sports writer. But I brought a non-sports writing sensibility to the book—my background is on the news side. And his baseball life had been pretty well covered. The less plowed ground was the personal life. So that was my focus and that’s the new material. The turning point for me was getting his two daughters to talk. They had never talked before. And that opened up a whole new area. Once others learned that they [the daughters] were talking —they [others] who had held back, then came forward.

RB: Claudia has a book that has just come out (Ted Williams, My Father: A Memoir by Claudia Williams) I have an ARC.

BB: Its sort of a small memoir on growing up with Ted. She and I were practically married for a while. I spent so much time with her. We haven’t really talked since. But I talked with her husband and I gather that she is a little upset with me.

RB: Why do you think?

BB: Its inevitable. She feels that I don’t believe her account of the cryonics affair. You know how it is when someone gives you access. They think —

RB: —that you are going to represent the way that see things, the way they think.

BB: Yeah, but you have to write what you think is the truth.

RB: You get into that very early in the book. In gruesome detail. Its pretty sickening this cryonics process. As opposed to cryogenics.

BB: People confuse the two. Cryogenics is a mainstream science that studies how materials react to extreme cold. Cryonics is this crazy procedure. You know, my theory in starting the book that way was, that that was people’s last memory of Ted. ­ And I had new stuff—I had three people who were in the room giving” a fly on the wall” account of what was happening. It was a grabber. You want to hook your reader. I didn’t want to start the biography the conventional way, “He was born on…” I got to that—so that was my theory.

RB: Was there anything you were squeamish about publishing?

BB: No.

RB: Nothing existed in his life that was so awful that you couldn’t—

BB: —no, it’s a warts and all treatment. And there is shocking stuff in there about how cruel he could be. But ultimately, I think it’s a redemptive story because he had a good heart. And he was kind. He was probably bi-polar.

RB: You suggest that Ted’s mother was a religious zealot. But you steered clear of a diagnosis of him.

BB: I did engage in a little armchair psychology but only so far. But I think he was probably bi-polar before they knew or understood what that was.

RB: Before anger management was “Anger management”.

BB: Yeah. He plainly struggled with that. It was a double-edged sword for him. He used it productively on the baseball field because he always claimed to hit better “mad”. So he would pick a feud with a writer and go off on a tear and hit .500 for a month. In his personal; life it caused him great difficulty. His anger would bubble up at inappropriate times and places. He would just go off. The price of being in his orbit was that you had to endure these eruptions, these squalls. And they would go away but he could be brutal.

RB: Were they predictable?

BB: Um, no I don’t think they were predictable. A lot of it was born out of his being a perfectionist. He strove for excellence in anything he did. Like fishing—he was very inpatient with people he didn’t think were trying as hard as he was. Or understood as quickly or pick up as quickly. So he might pop off if he took you fishing and you didn’t get it. Bobby Doerr told me about some rages he had to endure, out fishing with Ted. I said to him “Did you ever challenge Ted and tell him not to treat people that way?” He said, “No, you just didn’t do that. That was who Ted was —he knew he had a problem. And if you were there for him on the other end he would love you forever.”

RB: Some people fought back.

BB: Yeah, his three wives. They couldn’t endure that. And others. Others worried in hindsight that they enabled him by not speaking out.

RB: Speaking with 600 people is awesome accomplishment and task. For prior books or reportage had you talked to that many people?

BB: No, no, never. This was a whole new kettle of fish.

RB: Did you have to discipline yourself to get that part of it done?

BB: Yeah. There were days where the muses weren’t firing on all cylinders. It’s a lonely enterprise. You’re by yourself and I didn’t have lot of people I was going to for guidance. My editor’s strength was on the back end—the pencil. Not in the front end. I did go to a former colleague of mine at the Globe, who went to the WSJ and then Bloomberg—Dan Golden. He gave me a really rigorous pre-edit before I turned it in. I wasn’t sure about the depth of the editing I would get. These guys are so spread thin with a lot of books plus administrative duties so I thought it made sense to do that. It was very valuable to me.

RB: You didn’t expect this book to take ten years— did you ever consider giving up?

BB: No, never.

RB: Were there times when it was really hard?

BB: Oh sure. It was hard. Again, I was laboring alone. It wasn’t until the end that I went to Golden with the finished manuscript. You have to trust your outline. You have to trust your concept and that was hard.

RB: Did the overlay of information you gathered give you confidence?

BB: I knew I was getting new material and good stuff. I was excited by that. Again, getting the 2 daughters was a turning point. I went deep on his childhood—the Mexican-American stuff, I found it fascinating. Tracking down his Mexican relatives. They told that wonderful story—they were proud of him on the one hand and they resented him for shunning them.

RB: He refused to acknowledge them when they came to the ballpark.

BB: And that wonderful story at the end of 1939, his rookie year and he comes back to San Diego—the conquering hero. 100 of the Mexican side of the family turn out at the train. He takes one look at them and turns and runs in the other direction

RB (Laughs)

BB: That sticks in their craw till this day.

RB: What is like to have completed this project after 10 years?

BB: Well, I have been hustling it hard for these months —I have 10 years invested in it and wanted it to do well. It made the Times list right out of the box. Which floored me I never thought that would happen. I hoped it would.

RB: So you re not really done with it yet.

BB: I’m going to hustle it for another month or two, trying to get a second bounce now that the baseball season has started. But I’m almost done. And its time to move on to the next thing.

RB: Thought about what the next thing is?

BB: Well, yeah I have thought about it— I have another book in me. I am trolling around for the right idea. The idea is key—you have to get the right idea. Biography interests me as a genre.

RB: I like the oral biography like Mitchell Zuckoff’s bio of Robert Altman and Crytal Zevon’s bio of Warren Zevon, both relying on the accounts of a wide swath of people from their lives.

BB: It’s a different way to do it.

RB: In a way you did do that.

BB: Yeah but I wrote a narrative. To just publish quotes seems like a short cut to me. You’re cheating the reader—

RB: —unless the quotes are really good and well contexted. (contexualized)

BB: —out of your supposed skill for producing a narrative.

RB: That may not be a biographer’s intent. Perhaps the intent is lay open someone’s life relatively unmediated. So that’s what you’re going to do next, a biography?

BB: Probably. You have to look carefully at what’s been done, if anything. But ultimately, you make the judgment that you can do it better and make a contribution.

RB: Something else about Williams—in your interview with Charlie Rose, he seemed to become a little kid—

BB: —yeah, he loved Ted.

RB: His enthusiasm overwhelmed his interlocutor persona. He had to tell some stories and display an expertise in baseball lore.

BB: Yeah, maybe there is something about baseball that brings out the child in all of us. You feel it, you have your son playing ball.

RB: My favorite thing is watching my son play.

BB: Me too (BB’s son Joe, plays for Union College) By far, I’d much rather watch him than the Red Sox.

RB: I like watching Puig, the Cuban player with the LA Dodgers—he’s electric.

BB: I didn’t put this in the book but for some reason but my favorite story involves Ted and a Cuban player named Pedro Ramos. Remember him?

RB: Pitched for the Washington Senators.

BB: It was the mid Fifties and the Senators were in town playing the Sox and Ramos was a rookie at the time. And Ted comes up and Ramos struck him out.

RB: (laughs)

BB: Which was rare. He [Ramos] was beside himself with excitement. After the game in an act of great chutzpah, he takes the ball he had struck out Ted with, barges into the Red Sox clubhouse, approaches the great man and asks him to sign the ball. Ted says, “Get the fuck out of here, are you crazy?” But somebody prevailed upon him to sign the ball. Ramos was delighted. Fast forward 2 or 3 weeks later, the Senators are back in town and Ramos is pitching again. Ted comes up and puts the first pitch 20 rows deep into the bleachers. He’s rounding 3rd and yells at Ramos, “I’ll sign that son of a bitch too, if you can find it” (Both laugh)

RB: Do you miss the newspaper world?

BB: No I don’t. I left at a good time. Last story I was in charge of the Catholic Church/Sexual abuse thing we received a Pulitzer for in 2003. That happened to coincide with my 25th anniversary at the paper. I qualified for my modest pension and I quit to write the book.

RB: Millionaires have always owned newspapers but have any thoughts about Bezos and John Henry (Red Sox owner) buying major papers?

BB: Ordinarily I might be alarmed at their lack of journalism experience but given the dire straits that newspapers are in, what we need now (we in journalism) is someone who can solve the structural economic problem that newspapers face in the Internet era. You are dealing with 2 or 3 generations of people, who grew with the idea that news should be free and won’t pay —when papers try to experiment with a pay wall, they won’t pay. What business can survive by giving away their product for free, we need some one (those of us in journalism), Bezos has more Internet cred than Henry but Henry is a smart savvy guy. We’ll see what he can do

RB: Not worried that this could be further blurring of the division between church and state—if that still even exists?

BB: Yeah, that ‘s a legitimate concern but I liked Henry’s 3000 word op-ed about why he bought the Globe. There was an attractive civic mindedness in that. I take him at his word and its good that he’s rich because he can carry the paper if it starts losing money that it could. These circulation declines are really rough and you wonder if they can be reversed. It’s a fine line but you have to be really creative. I don’t know— I ‘m a dinosaur I read the physical paper and I am comfortable doing that.

RB: Any interest in teaching?

BB: I’ve thought about it. I had offers to teach locally— ¬its got to be the right situation. I am not interested in teaching journalism 101. More [interested in] the nexus of politics and journalism, if anybody still cares.

RB: Are you concerned about the people coming in to journalism and what they are being taught and what their values are? Students today look at the world very, very differently. The generational divide seems much greater than in the past.
BB: It’s troubling. And it isn’t just kids, its filtered up. Whenever I go on an elevator, everybody is just punching away—there’s no eye contact.

RB: It would be hard not to argue that there has been a serious degradation of the social fabric, as we knew it. Can we reverse it?

BB: Reverse what, the coarseness of the culture?

RB: The rampant consumerism, replacement of cynicism with a healthy skepticism. I just did my taxes and I tried to identify anyone in government I found admirable and trustworthy [Senator Warren came to mind later].

BB: Well Washington is very depressing these days. The stalemate of government, the gridlock—you know, the House Republicans trying to destroy Obama at every turn. It’s depressing. It makes for cynicism.

RB: Who are these people?

BB: Tea Party types.
RB: Sen. McConnell?
BB: He has a fight on his hands. We’ll see what happens to him.

RB: I recall Joe Conason described Trent Lott’s reign as Senate majority leader, “he ran the Senate like a juke box.” I don’t know if you distinguish cynicism and skepticism—

BB—there’s an important difference between skepticism, which is proper, and cynicism, which suggest that you have given up. I still think voting matters.

RB: What do you read?

BB: I am reading a book by Denise Kiernan called The Girls of Atomic City. An interesting period piece about women working on the Bomb in WWII at Oak Ridge. I like biography—Caro’s latest LBJ installment.

RB: The fourth one?

BB: The current one, after JFK was assassinated, he assumes the presidency. Caro’s mastery of detail is awe-inspiring
RB: What ‘s biggest biography Fay Malone’s Jefferson [10 volumes]? You have to wonder, how much is there?

BB: Yeah. Well, I have always admired Caro—ever since The Powerbroker. I am reading a memoir by an old colleague of mine from the Globe, Curtis Wilkie, and a southerner. He wrote a memoir called Dixie. Which was a sort of cry of the heart of a Southern liberal. Those guys grow up thinking they are the only ones in the fight, surrounded by red necks.

RB: The “Southern liberal” always makes for a good character in a southern novel. Well, thank you very much

BB: Well, thank you for your interest in the book. I appreciate it.

RB: My great pleasure.

The Kid by Ben Bradlee

The Kid by Ben Bradlee

Currently reading All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Scribner)


More Beard?

26 Mar
Mr Potatohead

Mr Potatohead

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

Hair hysteria

Hair hysteria

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

Does this need a caption?

Does this need a caption?

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

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

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

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

From 5 O'Clock Magazine

From 5 O’Clock Magazine

My shower curtain

My shower curtain

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

Talking with Anthony Marra

23 Mar

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

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

Anthony Marra (photo:Robert Birnbaum)

Anthony Marra (photo:Robert Birnbaum)

15 May 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: There was 4 different drafts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: How did you feel then?

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

RB: What was the working title?

AM: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

RB: Taken from a Russian medical encyclopedia?

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

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

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

RB: That’s a splendid definition of life.

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

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

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

RB: Peculiar enough to sound fictional.

AM: I can send you the link—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AM: All of the above.

RB: Were they homeless?

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

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

AM: Yeah, Beslan.

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

Location  of Chechnya in Caucasus

Location of Chechnya in Caucasus

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

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

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

RB: How about insignificant?

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

RB: What language is spoken there, Chechnyan?

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

RB: So how does the language deal with modernity?

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

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

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

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

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

RB: Was it a Soviet republic?

AM: It was a semi autonomous state.

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

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

RB: —how old were you?

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

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

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

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

AM: Sure.

RB: Why did you apply to Iowa?

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

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

ETHAN CANIN circa 2001(photo: Robert Birnbaum)

ETHAN CANIN circa 2001(photo: Robert Birnbaum)

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

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

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

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

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

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

AM: Um.

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

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

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

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

RB: Can I quiz you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RB: They committed sight unseen?

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

RB: “Linked stories”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

AM: Yeah.

RB: Fiction?

AM: Yeah.

RB: Contemporary?

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

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

AM: (laughs)

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

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

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

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

RB: Its brilliant writing.

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

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

AM: Uh, yeah.

RB: Orphan Masters Son [Adam Johnson]?

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

RB: Do you do anything besides read and write?

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

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

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

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

AM: Unfortunately. I probably would steal one.

RB: This is on the record.

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

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

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

RB: The charm of those movies eludes me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AM: About 2 years.

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

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

RB: —epilogue.

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

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

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

RB: This is my pleasure.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

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


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