A Mighty River to Cross

20 Jan

These occasional bibliographical reports of what publishers have seen fit to send my way are spurred by both a need to widen the scope of literary conversation and to make up for the narrowing coverage of literature (or at least book publishing part of it). Humble ambitions, I must acknowledge but fueled by my sense that I now read the few remaining newspaper book review pages to discover what is not being noticed more than to once again recognize that pretty much the same few books are being publicized.

Collected Essays & Other Prose by Robert Duncan

Collected Essays & Other Prose by Robert Duncan

Robert Duncan: Collected Essays and Other Prose by Robert Duncan , James Maynard (University of California Press)

The Hole  by Oyvind Torseter

The Hole by Oyvind Torseter

The Hole by Oyvind Torseter (Enchanted Lion Books)

Enchanted Lion Books are guided by a wonderful sensibility and I have all the titles I have had in my hands wonderful in everu way a book can be. The Hole is no exception.

Natural Takeover of Small Things  by Tim Z. Hernandez

Natural Takeover of Small Things by Tim Z. Hernandez

Natural Takeover of Small Thingsby Tim Z. Hernandez (University of Arizona Press)

Room 1219   by Greg Merritt

Room 1219 by Greg Merritt

Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood by Greg Merritt (Chicago Review Press)

The original Hollywood Scandal—surprising that there has been no movie version.

R

Red Sky in Morning by Paul Lynch

Red Sky in Morning by Paul Lynch

Red Sky in Morning by Paul Lynch (Little, Brown and Company)

Furious Cool   by David Henry  &   Joe Henry

Furious Cool by David Henry & Joe Henry

Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him by David Henry & Joe Henry (Algonquin Books)

Pound for pound Richard Pryor was the funniest man alive. I love his Mudball character an elderly black man who, in one routine intoned, “There are no old fools. You don’t grow old bein’ a fool.” Which, if understood correctly is a statement about survival.

Unfathomable City  by Rebecca Solnit  &  Rebecca Snedeker

Unfathomable City by Rebecca Solnit & Rebecca Snedeker

Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas by Rebecca Solnit & Rebecca Snedeker (University of California Press)

If you are not aware of Rebecca Solnit and her expansive ouevre now is the time to correct that deficiency.I was enthralled by A Paradise Built in Hell. And her righteouness was wonderfully expressed at the notion that Haitians, after another devastating natural disaster were described as “looters” as they were on the cusp of starvation and malnutrition. A rich sampling of her poltical essays can be found at Tom Dispatch

George Orwell  by Robert Colls

George Orwell by Robert Colls

George Orwell: English Rebel by Robert Colls (Oxford University Press)

A paradigm of journalistic integrity, George Orwell continues to fascinate biographers. Robert Colls is latest and one review points out

Bringing his expertise as a cultural historian to bear on Orwell’s early books on tramps in Paris and London and workers in the North of England, Colls details how middle-class leftists, literary, anthropological and photographic, were tumbling over one another in Lancashire and Yorkshire in a rush to document an “authentic” working class. He shows how Orwell wanted to get under the skin of the Northerners, but they spotted Eton a mile off and clammed up tight. Burma and the North discomfited Orwell, but he learned from both places.

David Aaronovitch credits Colls with pointing out

George Orwell was…“deracinated”. He went to Eton but he was not of the ruling class. He served as a colonial policeman in Burma but he was alienated from the Raj. He became an intellectual who disliked intellectuals, and a socialist who distrusted almost all forms of socialism. He belonged nowhere.

Mira Corpora   by Jeff Jackson

Mira Corpora by Jeff Jackson

Mira Corpora by Jeff Jackson (Two Dollar Radio)

Freedom Now!: Forgotten Photographs of the Civil Rights Struggle by Martin A. Berger

Freedom Now!: Forgotten Photographs of the Civil Rights Struggle by Martin A. Berger

Freedom Now!: Forgotten Photographs of the Civil Rights Struggleby Martin A. Berger(University of California Press)

Not quite forgotten as many people never paid attention to the Movement at the time. It’s doubtful whether public school systems have history texts with images of people being lambasted with water cannons or attacked by snarling German Shepards which makes this tome doubly
useful It is a hopeful sign that in recent years the photos of Charles Moore and Ernest Withers have landed in mainstream public view.

The Errand of the Eye: Photographs  by Rose Mandel,

The Errand of the Eye: Photographs by Rose Mandel,

The Errand of the Eye: Photographs by Rose Mandel, Susan Ehrens, Julian Cox (Introduction) (Prestel)

Orchard Beach: The Bronx Riviera by Wayne Lawrence

Orchard Beach: The Bronx Riviera by Wayne Lawrence

Orchard Beach: The Bronx Riviera by Wayne Lawrence, David Gonzalez (Foreword)(Prestel)

Will You Be Alive 10 Years from Now?: And Numerous Other Curious Questions in Probability  by Paul J. Nahin

Will You Be Alive 10 Years from Now?: And Numerous Other Curious Questions in Probability by Paul J. Nahin

Will You Be Alive 10 Years from Now?: And Numerous Other Curious Questions in Probability by Paul J. Nahin (Princeton University Press)

Dickens and the Workhouse    by Ruth Richardson

Dickens and the Workhouse by Ruth Richardson

Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor by Ruth Richardson (Oxford University Press)

The Metamorphosis  by Franz Kafka,

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka,

The MetamorphosisbyFranz Kafka, Stanley Corngold (Translator)(Modern Library)

The Metamorphosis: A New Translation by Franz Kafka, Susan Bernofsky (Translator), David Cronenberg (Introduction)( W. W. Norton)

Forgiving the Angel: Four Stories for Franz Kafka by Jay Cantor (Knopf)

Two new edition’s of Kafka’s most well known story—one a new translation which is only noteworthy because of a new tome by Jay Cantor which fictionalizes four people who were close to Franz Kafka. Is this effort Kafkaesque?

Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago's 99%

Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%

Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%by Kari Lydersen (Haymarket Books)

The feisty (or as some have said, profane)former chief of staff of the Obama White House carries on the tradition of craven power occupying the mayoral swat of the great city of Chicago. Mike Royko’s Boss is a wonderful background for this unsparing portrait of Rahm Emmanual

The Beast by Oscar Martinez

The Beast by Oscar Martinez

The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail by Oscar Martinez , Daniela Maria Ugaz (Translator) , John Washington (Translator) , Francisco Goldman (Introduction) (Verso)

The Taste of America   by Colman Andrews

The Taste of America by Colman Andrews

The Taste of America by Colman Andrews (Phaidon Press)

White Girls by Hilton Als

White Girls by Hilton Als

White Girls by Hilton Als (McSweeney’s)

Moments That Made the Movies  by David Thomson

Moments That Made the Movies by David Thomson

Moments That Made the Movies by David Thomson (Thames & Hudson)

David Thomson is the gold standard of film historians and scholars.Which plays out in his sure handed grasp of cultural history of the last hundred years or so. i spoken with him a few times here and here.

Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview by Jonathan Cott

Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview by Jonathan Cott

Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview by Jonathan Cott (Yale University Press)

I was surprised that I found this conversation with Susan Sontag, a reigning intellectual diva of the fin de siecle western culture, the likes of which we may never see again, boring and jejune.

New Concise World Atlas by Oxford University Press

New Concise World Atlas by Oxford University Press

New Concise World Atlas (Oxford University Press)

My favorite annual is the Oxford University Press’s Atlas of the world and this volume as it states is a concise version of the majestic complete edition

Around the World by Andrew Losowsky

Around the World by Andrew Losowsky

Around the World: The Atlas for Today by Andrew Losowsky (Editor) , S. Ehmann (Editor) , R. Klanten (Editor)( Gestalten)

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood   by Juliette Michaud

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by Juliette Michaud

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by Juliette Michaud , Michel Hazanavicius (Foreword)(Flammarion)

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf  by Gaito Gazdanov

The Spectre of Alexander Wolf by Gaito Gazdanov


The Spectre of Alexander Wolf ( by , Bryan Karetnyk (Translator) (Pushkin Press)

 The Big Book by Eugene Smith

The Big Book by Eugene Smith

The Big Book: Volumes One and Two [Facsimile] W by Eugene Smith, John Berger, William S. Johnson (Introduction), Katharine Martinez (Foreword) (University of Texas Press)

Eugene Smith was a master photographer during a period when photography was more thoughtful and deliberate.

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em>The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform)

I don’t quite see the point of this iteration of Ambrose Bierce’s magnum opus. Its a lackluster paperback with not even the basic gestures of a dictionary. You’d be better served by looking at Library of America’s Bierce volume.

Respect Yourself by Robert Gordon

Respect Yourself by Robert Gordon

Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion by Robert Gordon ((Bloomsbury USA)

I am a fan of musical history books and biography that contexualize the music—Nick Tosches,Peter Guralnick and Arthur Kempton being writers particularly adept at cultural commentary. Last year Mark Kurlansky’s Ready For a Brand New Beat: How “Dancing in the Street” Became the Anthem for a Changing America (Riverhead) showcased Berry Gordy’s Motown plantation and now Robert Gordon’s new opus surveys the Memphis based Stax record label and the diverse characters that contributed to its success. Now that two major centers of late 20th century race music Detroit and Memphis have been spotlighted its time that Chicago’s rich scene have its day.

Currently reading Lost for Words by Edward St Aubyn (FSG)

Whose Holiday?

20 Jan

MayDayCartoon lg

I hope someone understands the allocation of federal holidays because they make no sense to me. Martin Luther King Day, of course, celebrates the great civil rights leader and conscience of a generation. President’s Day pays homage to the “father of our country” George Washington and Abraham Lincoln (though they originally were given separate holidays). Columbus Day celebrates the discovery and seizure of Cuba and the Greater Antilles by white men. And that’s it for holidays set aside for historical figures.

Mayday 1911

Mayday 1911

I am aware I have oblique perspective of holidays—my favorites are April 1st and May Day (International Worker’s Day)but it seems to me in the spirit of acknowledging the diversity of the peoples of these United States a few holidays might be added to the slate of days that wage slaves can take off from their labors. Here’s a few suggestions:

Sitting Bull,Crazy Horse and Geronimo
Cesar Chavez
Roberto Clemente
Isamu Noguchi
James Wong Howe
Betty Friedan

No doubt I have left out a number of nationalities and ethnic groups but one can only take this diversity thing so far. The point here being that its time to rethink whose memory we choose to honor and while offering merchants additional sale days to hawk their goods.

AbolishColumbusDay

Currently Reading The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura (FSG)

Best of Times? Or Worst of Times?

18 Dec
Derek Jeter's home (photo borrowed from ???

Derek Jeter’s home (photo borrowed from ???

The flying monkeys at entertainment mega-corporation Disney’s various sports entertainment venues were all exercised about reports (not, in particular, attesting to their validity) that senior New York Yankee infielder Derek Jeter asked visitors to his Tampa area mansion to deposit their smart phones in a basket at the entrance. Was this an excuse to act like reporters by citing the exact square footage, the size of the reclusive and retiring career-pinstripped ball player’s 30,875-square-foot, seven-bedroom, nine-bath habitat? Yes, I am still trying grasp the reason that this was a news item. Though it does raise questions of what does a 40 year old unmarried male need with 30, 875 square feet of living space (not to mention that this cottage is located on a small island). Or where the notion of privacy has wandered that one must set explicit bondaries for guests?

Gerbil WHEEL

Gerbil WHEEL

Recently, somewhere in the immeasurable information shit-stream, I came across a, uh, report that confirmed that, yes, “60 Minutes” the aged television news magazine has definitely gone down hill (no mention, meanwhile, of news methuselah Meet The Press with Anchorman 3, David Gregory.

Anyway, the example cited has escaped me—not that reaching such a conclusion really needed examples or evidence. But this this item did move me to wondering why no one had commented on Charlie Rose’s recent appalling book licking segment with Jeff Bezos, the ruler of all of Amazonia and now the owner of the Washington Post. I thought Rose has set new lows in journalism or entertainment when he devoted an entire week of his show to one of those gazillionaire Las Vegas casino owners on the occasion of his newest theme park. A whole week people!

Not to digress excessively, but the singular moment for me (of the very few moments that I could bear to watch) was Richard Branson joining Charlie and what’s-his-name to fawn over American culture’s newest marvel. So,as I was saying Bezos is making good use of the pleasant chat he is having (borrowing the example of the Dalai Llama’s inclination to laugh at just about everything) and his coup de media is to introduce Amazon’s plan to have offer same day delivery via, small drones.

Charlie was awed, “Wow!”And his awe no doubt distracted him from inquiring how this would affect Amazon’s warehouse workers. In case you have missed this bit of real news, there is a steady stream of reports alleging difficult working conditions and harsh managerial practices at Amazon. Just like another mega retailer currently anathema to American workers (can you guess who?),that union busts and accepts various state subsidies for their marginally compensated and impoverished workers.

Inquiry along that line would have been worth paying attention to—am I right?

Currently reading The Apartment: A Novel by Greg Baxter (Twelve Books)

“A window covered with raindrops interests me more than a photograph of a famous person,” Saul Leiter RIP

16 Dec
Taxi (photo: by Saul Leiter)

Taxi (photo: by Saul Leiter)

You will understand if I suggest that most of the great photography of the 20th century was rendered in black and white—most of the photography I came into contact with was by Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capra, Walker Evans and the FSA archives. Though color film was available early in that century most serious photographers didn’t make use of it until midcentury, apparently heeding Cartier Bresson’s disregard for that medium. And then there was New York street photographer Saul Leiter.

If you missed the New York Times notice of the 89 year old Leiter’s passing in late November, its another one of those bittersweet stories of a life as an artist. Relatively unknown (mostly by choice) there is a sufficient (for lack of a better word) of Leiter’s imagery to honor his place in photographic history (though like Garry Winogrand,thousands of Leiter’s images have gone unprinted). The latest Leiter monograph Saul Leiter by Vince Aletti, Adam Harrison Levy, Carrie Springer, Margit Erb, Rolf Nobel, Ulrich Rüter, Brigitte Woischnik, Ingo Taubhorn, Saul Leiter(Kehrer Verlag) was published in 2012 and no doubt more will follow

Saul Leiter by   Saul Leiter

Saul Leiter by Saul Leiter

There is also the 2012 documentary In No Great Hurry : 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter

My Father’s Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain by Patricio Pron (Knopf)

UNFORTUNATELY IGNORED or TRAGICALLY OVERLOOKED?

11 Dec

scribes-in-ancient-greece-granger

Adult onset solipsism can be distinguished from the youth version of self centeredness by the admission that,as Van Morrison croons in The Meaning of Loneliness, “it takes a lifetime just to know yourself.” Thus the one is beset with constant instances of self doubt and self interrogation. One coping mechanism or technique I have employed to gain a foothold on serenity and enlightenment is to regulate or gate-keep my intake of information, allowing my intuition to guide me. For example I am prepared to make decisions on what to investigate further past a snappy headline or synopsis. As in my immediate disinterest for going any further in the text when I encountered this fatuous mandate at Arts and Letters Daily—”Undergraduates should be kept away from theory at all costs,” says —— ———-. They should read Kael, not Derrida….” Immediately sensing its syllogistic unsoundness, I saw this bit of grandiloquence as the kind of Tourette’s outburst one might encounter at faculty meeting or party. Of course, one of the joys of engaging this form of short form journalism (web journalizing) is the opportunity to engage in such orotund pronouncements.

Some Ignored Titles (photo: Robert Birnbaum

Some Ignored Titles (photo: Robert Birnbaum

Ok, for the longest time I had an aversion to lists, viewing them as a lazy journalistic ploy to contribute to the ongoing dumbing down of everything (uh, I still think I am correct about that). On the other hand I can see some creative usefulness in lists— Umberto Eco creates some that interesting. And then there is Paul Zimmer’s poem Zimmer Imagines Heaven where in his recording of it introduces it as a “list” and encourages people to make their own lists:

I sit with Joseph Conrad in Monet’s garden,
We are listening to Yeats chant his poems,
A breeze stirs through Thomas Hardy’s moustache,
John Skelton has gone to the house for beer,
Wanda Landowska lightly fingers a clavichord,
Along the spruce tree walk Roberto Clemente and
Thurman Munson whistle a baseball back and forth.
Mozart chats with Ellington in the roses.
Monet smokes and dabs his canvas in the sun,
Brueghel and Turner set easels behind the wisteria.
the band is warming up in the Big Studio:
Bean, Brute, Bird and Serge on saxes,
Kai, Bill Harris, Lawrence Brown, trombones,
Klook plays drums, Mingus bass, Bud the piano.
Later Madam Schumann-Heink will sing Schubert,
The monks of bendictine Abbey will chant.
There will be more poems from Emily Dickinson,
James Wright, John Clare, Walt Whitman.
Shakespeare rehearses players for King Lear.
At dusk Alice Toklas brings out platters
Of Sweetbreads à la Napolitaine, Salad Livonière,
And a tureen of Gaspacho of Malaga.
After the meal Brahms passes fine cigars.
God comes then, radiant with a bottle of cognac,
She pours generously into the snifters,
I tell Her I have begun to learn what
Heaven is about. She wants to hear.
It is, I say, being thankful for eternity.
Her smile is the best part of the day.

So, here’s a list (of sorts) I created. I thought to offer reasons for my choices but I decidedto rely on your good opinion of me and your curiosity. Additionally, I asked some bookish acquaintances for their recommendations of overlooked books that come to mind( they are pretty much reprinted as I received them). Onward:

Dog Boy by Eva Hornung

Dog Boy by Eve Hornung

Dog Boy by Eve Hornung

Burning Marguerite by Elizabeth Inness-Brown

 Burning Marguerite by Elizabeth Inness-Brown

Burning Marguerite by Elizabeth Inness-Brown

BULLET HEART by MICHEAL DOANE

Bullet Heart by Micheal Doane

Bullet Heart by Micheal Doane

MRS IVES’S XMAS by OSCAR HIJUELOS

Mrs Ives Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos

Mrs Ives Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos

MORNING BY WALT WETHERALL

Morning by Walt Wetherall

Morning by Walt Wetherall

COUNTRY OF WOLFES by James Carlos BLAKE

Country of Bad Wolves by James Carlos Blake

Country of Bad Wolves by James Carlos Blake

Once Upon The River by Bonnie Campbell

Once  Upon A River by Bonnie Campbell

Once Upon A River by Bonnie Campbell

Redemption Falls by Joseph O Connor

Redemption Falls by Joseph O'Connor

Redemption Falls by Joseph O’Connor

The Dog of War by Don Winslow

The Power of the Dog by Don WInslow

The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow

Darkest Jungle by Tod Balf

Darkest Jungle by Tod Balf

Darkest Jungle by Tod Balf

Valley of Bones by Micheal Gruber

Valley of Bones by Micheal  Gruber

Valley of Bones by Micheal Gruber

Elizabeth Cox</strong> novelist, Night Talk (Random House)

Hey 
 One overlooked novel I would like to add to the list is The Iguana Tree  by Michel Stone. My husband  (Mike Curtis) edited that novel and it is a good story…

The Iguana Tree  by Michel Stone

The Iguana Tree by Michel Stone

David Rieff, author, Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir (Simon & Schuster)

Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution

 Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell

Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell

Robert Stone, novelist, The Death of the Black Haired Girl(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):

     Off the top of my head, I recall only one, and I’ve forgotten the author’s name. There was a novel about a man in  Maine published some years ago, called HARBOR LIGHTS. It was reviewed in IN BRIEF in the NY Times Book Review. A short, excellent novel…

HARBOR LIGHTS  By Theodore Weesner.

HARBOR LIGHTS
By Theodore Weesner.

Katherine Powers, literary personage, author, Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life (FSG)

So, I don’t know about “tragically,” and by “overlooked” I would mean that most people haven’t heard of these–and they are all A+:
“20,000 Streets Under the Sun” – Patrick Hamilton
The Armstrong Trilogy – Roy Heath
“in Hazard” – Richard Hughes
“The Golovlyov Family” – Shchedrin

 20,000 Streets Under the Sun by Patrick Hamilton

20,000 Streets Under the Sun by Patrick Hamilton

Richard Russo,award winning novelist Elsewhere (Knopf), screenwriter (Ice Harvest)

But for my bookseller daughter Emily’s recommendation, I doubt I’d have come across A Marker to Measure Drift . You might want to check to see if it did better than I imagine, but sense is that it slipped into oblivion, and the last scene in the novel is as brutal and breathtaking as anything I’ve read in a long time.

A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik

A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik

Ron Rash , novelist, The Cove (ECCO)

With by Donald Harington –Harington is America’s Chaucer.

With by Donald Harington

With by Donald Harington

Edwidge Danticat novelist, Claire of the Sea Light (Knopf), humanitarian

I’d say many of Percival Everett‘s novels including Erasure. Everett is as a brilliant at creating narratives as he is at bending genres. He has one of the least classifiable careers, but one of the most brilliant, in American letters.Everett’s 2001 masterpiece, “Erasure”–a parody of the African-American urban novel, offers a lyrical critique of a publishing establishment which continues to pigeon hole writers, particular African-American writers. Everett is also a respected poet and painter. His previous honors include: ThemPEN Center USA Award for Fiction, The Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Fiction and the Dos Pasos Prize.

Erasure by Percival Everett

Erasure by Percival Everett

Joseph O’Connor ,overlooked Irish novelist, Where Have You Been? (Harvill Secker)

Tragically Overlooked Novels? Well, all of mine, for a start. But: do you mean Tragically Overlooked Novels from 2013 or in general? …In my view, DEATH AND NIGHTINGALES by Eugene McCabe is one of the great novels of the late 20th Century. It’s a story of thwarted love set in 1883 in rural County Fermanagh, on the border of Ulster and what is now as the Republic of Ireland. The events of a single day in the life of Elizabeth Winters provide the plot, which is so utterly gripping that you can’t stop reading. But McCabe smuggles in all sorts of darkness and depth. This is a truly brilliant book about racism, gender politics, and political rage, but the subtle (and supple) language weaves you into the story with such fierce and clever grace that you never feel you’re attending a lecture. It’s got touches of Coatzee and Faulkner but a mesmerizing smolder all its own. If you’ve ever doubted the novel’s power to express realities that politics can’t reach, you need to read this magnificent thing.

DEATH AND NIGHTINGALES by Eugene McCabe

DEATH AND NIGHTINGALES by Eugene McCabe

Stuart Dybek ,author, Northwestern University mentor,(forthcoming)Paper Lantern: Love Stories (FSG)

I don’t know how “overlooked” Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga is but i saw it on no lists whatsoever when the millennium nonsense was going on & i don’t think there’s been a change since.

 Far Tortuga  by Peter Matthiessen

Far Tortuga by Peter Matthiessen

David Thomson, cultural encyclopedia,author
Moments That Made the Movies (Thames & Hudson)

Troubles by J.G Farrell. If you don’t think it’s overlooked then The Purchase by Linda Spalding.

The Purchase by Linda Spalding.

The Purchase by Linda Spalding.

Darin Strauss ,author,Half a Life: A Memoir (McSweeney’s), NYU mentor

i don’t know what counts as forgotten anymore. THE FIXER, by–which is tough and beautiful and unsentimental in its treatment of something awful? MOMENTO MORI, which I just read, and which taught me about the consoling half-thoughts and cruelties, the passing cruelties of stupid people. (In other words, most dumbasses will act dumb and assy and never feel bad about it—will come up with reasons, in fact, to feel good about the immoral way they act.) Or maybe THE STATEMENT by Brian Moore, which is a perfect thriller, a smart philosophical treatment of evil and racism, a fun read, and about an afternoon’s read?

 THE FIXER  by Bernard Malamud

THE FIXER by Bernard Malamud

All of the above?

BRIAN DOYLE ,novelist, Mink River (University of Oregon Press) editor of Portland magazine

Hmmm. Maybe THE HORSE’S MOUTH by Joyce Cary. Best novel I ever read, period, but not one that many people have on their shelves. Also made into a terrific movie, which is a rare case of a glorious novel being made into a glorious movie. The few others I know: LITTLE BIG MAN, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT, LORD OF THE RINGS, THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY, maybe THE ENGLISH PATIENT, maybe MASTER AND COMMANDER.

THE HORSE’S MOUTH by Joyce Cary

Daniel OLIVAS, novelist The Book of Want (University of Arizona Press)

The Old Man’s Love Story by Rudolfo Anaya

I interviewed him for the first print. Enjoy the list-making edition of the Los Angeles Angeles Review of Books regarding this novel. It’s quite beautiful but did not receive the kind of coverage it should have.

The Old Man's Love Story by Rudolfo Anaya

The Old Man’s Love Story by Rudolfo Anaya

Micheal ORTHOFER ,editor, eminence gris The Complete Review

Way too much gets way too overlooked, but I guess I’d suggest: “Where Tigers are at Home” by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès (which seems to have gotten almost no review- and little reader-attention). Runner-up: “Tirza” by Arnon Grunberg, which got a bit more attention but nowhere what it deserves (it’s a best-of-year-contender) — perhaps overshadowed by Herman Koch’s somewhat similar (and considerably inferior) “The Dinner”.Still: that’s just the tip of the overlooked iceberg.

 Where Tigers are at Home by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès

Where Tigers are at Home by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès

BEN FOUNTAIN, award winning author, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ecco)

…Several come to mind:

Little Big Man by Thomas Berger. I don’t know if it could be called tragically overlooked, given that it was made into a blockbuster movie in the late 60s, but nobody talks about it much these days. I think it’s one of the great American novels. Top ten for sure, maybe top five.

We Agreed to Meet Just Here by Scott Blackwood. A lovely, short novel that came out about 7-8 years ago. It won the AWP award, and Scott subsequently got a Whiting Award on the strength of it. It’s just about perfect. His forthcoming novel from Knopf is even better.

The Gay Place by Billy Brammer. A novel of Texas politics, published 1961 or ’62….

"We Agreed to Meet Just Here" by Scott Blackwood

“We Agreed to Meet Just Here” by Scott Blackwood

Robert Mccrum , editor, The Observer, author, Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language (WW Norton)

Hadrian the seventh by Frederick Rolfe

Hadrian the Seventh by Frederick Rolfe

Hadrian the Seventh by Frederick Rolfe

ALLAN Gurganus ,novella-ist, Local Souls

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page By G.B. Edwards—this is the single novel by a bureaucrat who spent his life on the Isle of Guernsey. G.B. Edwards imagined a trilogy of such works but he died in a mainland boarding house with this manuscript under his bed. The landlady got it published in 1981. The work is erotic, tumultuous and heroic as a Beethoven symphony. We get the twisted history of incestuous island families. We get the German occupation of the island during World War II. Love stories are offset by men battling the ocean and its creatures. This novel, a rare instance of Folk Art in narrative, deserves a larger readership, a secure place in our literature.

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page   By G.B. Edwards

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page By G.B. Edwards

Gary Fisketjon ,veteran editor at Knopf

Indeed, I could fill a volume in that category with many new additions every fucking year. But given that we’re in 2013, I’d say that Steve Yarbrough’s THE REALM OF LAST CHANCES has been overlooked most tragically. That’s one reason my only lingering resolution – to quit smoking – always fails to get any real traction. …

The Realm of Last Chances by Steve Yarbrough

The Realm of Last Chances by Steve Yarbrough

Billy Giraldi ,novelist, Busy Monsters (WW Norton) critic , essayist, long form journalist editor, Agni

Indeed. Caleb Williams by William Godwin and The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Neglected masterworks of suspense both of them. Divinely written.

Caleb Williams by William Godwin

Caleb Williams by William Godwin

Hari Kunzru ,novelist, Men Without Gods (Knopf)

I’ll nominate Walter Tevis’s The Man Who Fell To Earth. Bowie fans have seen the movie, but the book is beautiful, poised. As if Richard Yates wrote SF.

The Man Who Fell To Earth  by Walter Tevis

The Man Who Fell To Earth by Walter Tevis

Joseph Epstein ,short fiction writer,The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff: And Other Stories (HMH), essayist, former editor, American Scholar

1. Lampedusa’s The Leopard 2. Sandor Marai’s Embers. I’m not sure if these are tragically overlooked or merely insufficiently well known, but both are swell novels.

 Embers by Sandor Marai

Embers by Sandor Marai

Sven Birkerts, Literary Man for All Seasons, editor, Agni memoirist, writing program administrator (Bennington),

I’m Not Stiller by Max Frisch
The German Lesson by Siegfried Lenz
The Death of a Beekeeper Lars Gustafsson

I'm Not Stiller  by  Max Frisch

I’m Not Stiller by Max Frisch

Tom Piazza ,novelist, City of Refuge (Ecco) screenwriter (Treme), musical connosieur

I’d have to vote for Buddenbrooks, by Thomas Mann, in the H.T. Lowe-Porter translation. Mann is underread in general these days, but Buddenbrooks was a masterpiece. People tend to think it’s just a 19th-Century family saga, but it’s really a book that combines 19th-Century techniques and sonorities with startlingly modern technical strategies that get missed because they work wholly in the service of the narrative. It’s almost like a Mahler symphony — one foot in the 19th Century and one stepping off the cliff into the unspooling chaos of the 20th. Very important to get the old Lowe-Porter translation. Random House made the mistake of letting somebody “update” the translation and they ruined it, sort of the way Pevear and Volokhonsky ruin the Russians.

Among contemporary books, Lives of the Monster Dogs should have made Kirsten Bakis a big literary star.

Lives of the Monster Dogs by  Kirsten Bakis

Lives of the Monster Dogs by Kirsten Bakis

Susan Bergholz, non-pareil and sage literary agent (Eduardo Galeano et al)

Here you go; can’t do just one!LOG OF THE S.S. THE MRS. UNGUENTINE by Stanley Crawford, simply the best book about marriage ever written in the US by a living treasure POWER OF THE DOG by Thomas Savage/dead now, extraordinary workAN IMAGINARY LIFE by David Malouf–a pitch perfect novel, except for the Afterword.THE TIME OF OUR SINGING by Richard Powers, our most brilliant and amazing male novelist; makes Franzen and company sound as though they are writing soap operas. Prepare for his novel out in January, ORFEO/stunning!!!

I forgot one very impt novel: CARAMELO by Sandra Cisneros
And another one: IN THE PALM OF DARKNESS by Mayra Montero
And: AND THEIR DOGS CAME WITH THEM by Helena Maria Viramontes.
Ok–I’ll stop now!!!!!!!

LOG OF THE S.S. THE MRS. UNGUENTINE by Stanley Crawford

LOG OF THE S.S. THE MRS. UNGUENTINE by Stanley Crawford

href=”http://www.identitytheory.com/blake-bailey/”&gt;,literary biographer Farther & Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson (Knopf)

THE LOST WEEKEND, of course, and Anthony Powell’s first novel, AFTERNOON MEN<a.

THE LOST WEEKEND by Charles Jackson

Yesterday’s World: A Stefan Zweig Festshrift (Nov 28)

29 Nov
Stefan Zweig caricature

Stefan Zweig caricature

The titanic edifice of information (not to confused with the Tower of Babel)constructed over the millennia of human history is now instantaneously available to those privileged to have access to current technology. One consequence of this is an overflowing dustbin of history—it seems that the more there is to remember the more there is to ignore or forget. But for two small (but mighty)publishers,Pushkin Press and New York Review Books, Viennese writer Stefan Zweig, who was born amidst the splendor of late 19th century high culture and died as the horrors of mid 20th century enveloped the world, might be consigned to dusty book stacks occasionally accessed by a dwindling population of scholars.Leo Carey in the New Yorker</em comments:

Zweig’s death arguably marked the high point of his literary standing: to most English-speaking readers, he is now little more than a name.

The Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen

The Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen

Upon seeing Jonathan Franzen’s recent The Kraus Project(Farrar Giroux Straus)it occurred to me that perhaps the wrong fin-de siecle Viennese Jewish intellectual was being rescued from the aforementioned dustbin of history. Now it is the case that for a time in my impressionable youth I was a fan of Karl Kraus whose iconoclastic aphorismswere nourishment to hungry, young dissidents (“How is the world ruled and led to war? Diplomats lie to journalists and believe these lies when they see them in print.” Or “A writer is someone who can make a riddle out of an answer.” Or, “Psychoanalysis is that mental illness for which it regards itself as therapy). Michael Hoffman, poet, scholar, translator< writes authoritatively on Kraus and the middle European culture and in the process puts Franzen and his co-conspirators in their places:

It is rare for Kraus to be called anything less than brilliant, even though it’s sometimes said with a there-now-go-away-please undertone. I find his writing too artificial, too conniving, and above all too squalid to rate brilliant. Surely nothing brilliant would accommodate as much opacity (or shameless triviality…

Another commentator, Jacob Mikanowski,also has fun with Franzen:

.

..the Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid of cultural criticism drawn together across the gulf of a century to take on all comers. It doesn’t quite work out that way though. Reading Kraus’s sinuous, hectoring, almost impenetrable prose alongside Franzen’s peevish, ill-spirited footnotes is a strange and rather discordant experience, like receiving a deep tissue massage while being spat on from a great height.

Portrait of Karl Kraus by Erich Lessing/Art Resource

Portrait of Karl Kraus by
Erich Lessing/Art Resource

But I digress.

Stefan Zweig was born in Vienna in 1881 (November 28) to wealthy Jewish parents “My mother and father were Jewish only through accident of birth”, Zweig later wrote. He studied philosophy at the University of Vienna and in 1904 earned a doctoral degree writing his thesis on “The Philosophy of Hippolyte Taine”. Though not an observant Jew, he did write repeatedly on Jews and Jewish themes and though he was an internationalist and espoused pan-europeanism, he was friendly with Zionism’s founder Theodore Herzel when Herzel was editor of the Vienna’s influential Neue Freie Presse and published some of Zweig’s early writing. For a time, in the nineteen-twenties and thirties, Zweig was the most translated writer in Europe. For example, he was able to fill Carnegie Hall and among other things spoke at Sigmund Freud’s funeral. Zweig’s pacifism saw him serving in the Archives of the Ministry of War during WWI and he maintained a commitment to pacifism his entire life. Zweig married Friderike Maria von Winternitz in 1920 and though they divorced in 1938 she remained an important figure in his life, writing a memoir Married to Stefan Zweig after his death. Helen Epstein points out:

… I find Friderike’s memoir an invaluable document. In The World of Yesterday, Stefan aimed to write a memoir of his generation; in Married to Stefan Zweig, Friderike was interested in portraying the man, filling in details in her memoir that Stefan left out of his. Her book has provided a template for subsequent biographers, including Donald Prater, who often drew verbatim from it in European of Yesterday (1972) and Oliver Matuschek in Three Lives: A Biography of Stefan Zweig (2011).

Friderike  & Stefan Zweig( Getty Images)

Friderike & Stefan Zweig( Getty Images)

Zweig fled Austria following the rise of the Nazis, living in London later moving to Bath when England entered the fray(one of the cruel absurdities of the war,Zweig was classified an enemy alien. As the Nazis conquered Western Europe, Zweig and his second wife, Lotte, traveled to New York — he briefly resided in Ossining NY, and shortly thereafter (Aug 1940) he further removed himself to Brazil, to the then backwater town of Petrópolis. On February 23, 1942, the Zweigs were found dead in their bed, holding hands. Nearly a decade of rising totalitarianism , escalating depression , overpowering feelings of hopelessness had taken its toll:

I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labour meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on Earth.

News of Zweig’s death was carried on the front page of the New York Times.

Three Lives: A Biography of Stefan Zweig by Oliver Matuschek

Three Lives: A Biography of Stefan Zweig by Oliver Matuschek

Three Lives: A Biography of Stefan Zweig by Oliver Matuschek,translated by Allan Blunden(Pushkin Press)

This recent biography gets good marks for a conscientious account of the details of Zweig’s live and lesser ratings for his indifference to Zweig’s body of work.. Stoddard Martin complains,

…An archivist and documentary film-maker,[Matuschek] this youngish man musters sources and facts but has neither the maturity nor the imagination to take the kind of speculative leaps that Zweig-as-biographer rarely shied from. He gets something of the “lebenskurve” which his subject always sought in his subjects but fails to show how the “internal soul blazes and glows” . He tells us that Thomas Mann suspected a sexual kink had resurfaced in Zweig which he could not face…but its non-specificity leads the biographer only to muse on unsubstantiated rumours of Zweig being a serial exhibitionist.The most credible explanation for suicide may be a feeling of exhaustion of powers and/or sense that the best words had been written and more could only mean less – something like what drove Hemingway to a similar act at the same age nearly two decades on.

Nietszche by Stefan Zweig

Nietszche by Stefan Zweig

Nietzsche by Stefan Zweig, translated by Will Stone (Hesperus Press)

This is a new translation of Zweig’s well-regarded biographical essay on the much misunderstood philosopher. In fact, Zweig could be said to have perfected the genre which has become more popular in recent times (see Penguin Lives series and Harper’s Eminent Lives as well as Amazon’s forthcoming Icons series).

The Struggle with the Daemon: Holderlin, Kleist, and Nietzsche

The Struggle with the Daemon: Holderlin, Kleist, and Nietzsche

The Struggle with the Daemon: Holderlin, Kleist, and Nietzsche by Stefan Zweig, translated by Eden and Cedar Paul(Pushkin Press)

Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman

Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman

Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman by Stefan Zweig,translated by Cedar Paul, Eden Paul(Pushkin Press )

Decisive Moments in History: Twelve Historical Miniatures by Stefan Zweig(Ariadne Press)

Casanova, Stendhal, Tolstoy: Master Builders of the Spirit: Adepts in Self-Portraiture by Stefan Zweig, Laurence Mintz (Introduction)(Transaction Publishers)

Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky: Master Builders of the Spirit by Stefan Zweig,Laurence Mintz (Introduction)(Transaction Publishers)

Mary Stuart by Stefan Zweig,translated by Eden Paul, Cedar Paul(Pushkin Press)

Magellan by Stefan Zweig, translated by Eden Paul, Cedar Paul(Pushkin Press)

The World of Yesterday   by Stefan Zweig

The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig

The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig, translated by Anthea Bell (University of Nebraska Press)

Zweig’s memoir of about Austria at the beginning of the twentieth century which was seen alternately as the work of a “name dropping fake” or as one reviewer commends, “There are cameo appearances from almost all the major writers of the era (and quite a few musicians too): Gorky, Rilke, Hoffmansthal, Joyce and countless others appear, but, with typical generosity, Zweig prefers to dwell on those whom he fears posterity will overlook.”

The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig

The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig

The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweigby Stefan Zweig,translated by Anthea Bell(Pushkin Press)

While Stefan Zweig wrote numerous biographies he wrote only one novel, Beware of Pity) Collected Stories presents 22 of Zweigs short fictions and these have been well published in a handsome 700 page volume with a bright orange colored cover.

Chess Story by Stefan Zweig

Chess Story by Stefan Zweig

Chess Story by Stefan Zweig, translated by Joel Rotenberg , Peter Gay (Introduction)(NYRB Classics) also known as The Royal Game

Rachel Cohen who wrote on of my favorite books A Chance Meeting reviewed this famous novella by Zweig. Cohen recently published a biographical essay on Bernard Berenson andhas a novel and a book on painting in the works.

The Governess and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig, translated by Anthea Bell(Pushkin Press)

Confusion by Stefan Zweig, translated by Anthea Bell, George Prochnik (Introduction)(NYRB Classics)

Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig

Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig

Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig, translated by Phyllis Blewitt and Trevor Blewitt ,Joan Acocella (Introduction)( NYRB Classics)

Journey Into the Past by Stefan Zweig, translated by Anthea Bell, Andre Aciman (Introduction)( NYRB Classics)

Fear by Stefan Zweig, translated by Anthea Bell(Pushkin Press)

Amok and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig,translated by Anthea Bell(Pushkin Press)

Stefan and Lotte Zweig's South American Letters New York, Argentina and Brazil, 1940-42

Stefan and Lotte Zweig’s South American Letters
New York, Argentina and Brazil, 1940-42

Stefan and Lotte Zweig’s South American Letters : New York, Argentina and Brazil, 1940-42 by Stefan Zweig, Lotte Zweig edited by Darién J. Davis & Oliver Marshall(Continuum)

Brazil: A Land of the Future by Stefan Zweig (Ariadne Press)

Did Zweig write this hagiography to lubricate the road to his exile? Who knows , but is a departure from the main body of his work.

The Last Days by Laurent Seksik

The Last Days by Laurent Seksik

This new novel focuses on the end game of the increasingly tortured Zweig and draws heavily on the accounts of the Zweigs’s last six months in Brazil. Skillfully, he includes the young Lotte’s interior fears and insecurities a portrayal that echoes the increasing dissolution of her husband Laurent Seksick is a Parisian radiologist who continues to practice medicine. Reportedly plans are afoot to make a film based on The Last Days .

THE IMPOSSIBLE EXILE BY GEORGE PROCHNIK

THE IMPOSSIBLE EXILE BY GEORGE PROCHNIK

The Impossible Exile by George Prochnik(Other Press)

George Prochnik (In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of NoiseDoubleday) has taken it upon himself to write a biography of Zweig in which he suggests some crucial connection with Zweig’s tortured life, with a spotlight on his life in exile. This book will be published in May 2014 (if you’re anxious to read it, I will send you my copy).

Currently reading Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football by Nicholas Dawidoff (Little Brown)

Miracles of Drollery or Tourette’s Syndrome ?

21 Nov

The trade-off for the penurious life of a common scribbler (meaning one has not ascended to the rarified heights of a by-line in the New Yorker, the New York Times or the Guardian Observer) means that one is the beneficiary of books, recordings and videos with no monetary cost attached (not free, because as one learns sooner or later you pay for everything in this life)In any case, the peeps over at HBO sent me the Sarah Silverman’s forthcoming (Nov. 23)especiale We Are Miracles.

Having over the years caught bits and samples of Silverman (which I usually found hilarious and occasionally brilliant, watching her perform standup)—dare I call it a routine— for an hour was an excitable experience. Having no fear of vernacular or seemingly oblivious of any taboos, Silverman delivers pungent well, targeted observations spiced with manifold off-the-cuff, top-of- mind outbursts and occasional comments about the audience’s reactions. The stage performance ended with her solo rendition of her infamous/famous aria “Cunt.” Oddly, it works. Lenny Bruce would be proud. Here’s the orchestral/choral version:

Silverman leaves the stage and walks outside to resume (the show opens with her outside the venue, bouncing a tennis ball when three low riding vatos drive up thinking she is working girl) the conversation with her new Mexican friends. The chicos drive off and Sarah walks down the street, away from the camera…Fade to black.

Want more Sarah? Here’s A Perfect Night:

Currently reading The Impossible Exile by George Podonik(Other Press)

Maybe Socrates Was Wrong—Maybe Poets Should Rule

15 Nov
Dog Poems by Mary Oliver

Dog Poems by Mary Oliver

From Mary Oliver’s Dog Poems (Penguin Press)

The Poetry Teacher

The university gave me a new elegant
class room to teach in. The only thing,
they said. You can’t bring your dog.
Its in my contract, I said. (I had
made sure of that.)

We bargained and I moved to an old
classroom in an old building. Popped
the door open. Kept a bowl of water
in the room. I could hear Ben among
other voices barking, howling in the
distance. Then they would all arrive–
Ben, his pals. maybe an unknown dog
or two, all of them thirsty and happy.
They drank, they flung themselves down
among the students. The students loved
it. They all wrote thirsty, happy poems.

Good contract.

My Neighbor, Winston (photo: Robert Birnbaum)

My Neighbor, Winston (photo: Robert Birnbaum)

Currently reading Permanent Member of the Family by Russell Banks (Harper Collins)

Me and Allan (Gurganus) Part I (Local Souls)

12 Nov

I am going to assume that if your gaze has landed on this page, you know something about novelist Allan Gurganus (Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All).Thusly relieved of the task of introducing this fine writer I need only add that this is my third conversation with him, a skein that commenced in 1997 with his second published novel Plays Well With Others and has continued now with his recently published litter of novellas, Local Souls.

Chatting with Allan, a warm and courtly North Carolingian, has all the feel and ambience of the kind of thing one enjoys passing a leisurely afternoon on his front porch—which is to say his joyfulness in conversation matches that found in his prose.

Local Souls by Allan Gurganus

Local Souls by Allan Gurganus

RB: How are you?

AG: I’m pretty good. Being with readers is very reassuring. You forget that they still exist.

RB: This is early in the publication life of Local Souls; you assume that the readers that show up at events know your work?

AG: Many of them do, because they bring their copies and see they are dog-eared and with pieces post it attached—

RB: —coffee circles on the cover.

AG: I love that. And sun tan lotion makes me very happy.

RB: In the book collecting world that’s frowned upon. I guess in the 19th century the most valuable books were those that hasn’t had the plats split apart

AG: Exactly, that right. The uncut pages. Premiums on virgins. Virginity is highly overrated.

RB: I have vast multitudes of signed 1st editions and they are besmirched with all sorts of substances.
AG: I love that. People apologize. You must have an amazing collection by now.

RB: Well yeah, it’s pretty good.

AG: Isn’t it thrilling about Alice Munro winning the Nobel? I am so happy about that.

RB: Every laureate makes a speech but she is not going to the ceremony. I wonder if she will provide some kind of valedictory.

AG: Oh, is she not going? She has cancer, apparently. Such a shame. It happened maybe 2 years too late. Her lover is dead. I can’t believe it when writers say they’ve stopped writing. Philip Roth and Alice Munro.

RB: Well, we’ll see. Vonnegut announced he would stop writing and didn’t.

AG: I think it’s an impossible habit to break. Even if you know you are writing stuff that you know is not your very best. It’s an irresistible habit. I find not writing on tour excruciating.

RB: Early in Local Souls (the 1st novella) you say a writer is always writing.

AG: Yeah, exactly. You are always gathering and eavesdropping and spying. And formulating.

RB: Is that true of all writers? Or is that your definition of a writer?

AG: That’s what draws you to the occupation.

RB: An excuse to be nosey? (laughs)

AG: Absolutely. I saw a thing in Memphis —I saw 2 things is Memphis that were exciting to me fictionally. One was a bail bondsman whose company was “Free At Last Bail Bonds”. I don’t think Dr. King had that in mind when he said that.

RB: It was put to good use

AG: That’s right. The other thing was I saw a very well dressed 68-year-old society lady in patent leather pumps at an ATM machine being trained by a man who was about 70, in how to use her 1st ATM cash card. And it was clear that she was terrified. She was putting it in the wrong way. It’s a wonderful beginning of a story.

RB: What do you imagine her life was like? Did she know how to operate a vacuum cleaner?

AG: Oh, never. I don’t think she knew how to write a check to t he maid who ran the vacuum cleaner. But the man with her seemed to me to be the brother of her husband who just died. And she’d been one of these coddled impeded people. And was terrified—

RB: What do you mean by impeded?

AG: By making people helpless you foot bind them.

RB: Infantilize them?

AG: Absolutely.

RB: That reminds me, did you make up the word ‘sogged’ [to describe a rain soaked coat]?

AG: I did, yeah; it seemed the only word that I could think of.

RB: What’s a novella?

AG: It’s a work of a certain length that has something wrong with it.

RB: (laughs)

AG: Ideally it’s a unit that you can pick up after dinner and finish by bedtime. That’s Peter Taylor’s definition.

RB: Kind of an ad hoc description—it depends on how long you stay up after dinner.

AG: I think it means that you leave out the secondary characters. It’s ideally suited for stories about obsessions—single-minded quests—“I love my child too much.” “I made a fatal mistake and spent my life trying to recapture what I gave away.”

RB: Jim Harrison is the only author I can think of who regularly writes novellas.

AG: Steven Millhauser does a lot—he’s really good.

RB: Andre Dubus just published a volume [Dirty Love] with a novella.

AG: My friend Lee Smith was a t a 5th grade school session as a visiting writer. And her 1st question came from a little girl, “Is a novella a novel written by a girl?”
Lee said it would have been too cruel to say,”No.” The girl was so game to ask the 1st question.

RB: I like the definition that says there is something wrong with a novella. Had the stories in Local Souls gone right they would have been novels?

AG: I think it’s a service to the reader to gut out the carbs and give you pure protein—like eating tuna fish out of a can at the kitchen sink.

RB: That sounds like one of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for writing

AG: Oh does it, good?

Allan Gurgnaus (photo by Robert Birnbaum)

Allan Gurgnaus (photo by Robert Birnbaum)

RB: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

AG: That’s great. A lot of green scenery needs to go. I am not really interested in purple mountains majesty on the page. It aerates too much the interior obsessions and struggles of the writer. I want people to be completely in the reality of the character.

Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All by Allan Gurganus

Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All by Allan Gurganus

RB: In the first story, you are the narrator/character.

AG: Oh absolutely. There is no question .Its an invitation to the reader to participate in the construction of the piece. And that piece was fascinating to write. It was an attempt to simulate a documentary by gathering the clues; you are with him as he makes it all up out of bare- boned reality. I am very interested in Jim Thomson. He’s an underestimated crime writer and really a great writer in his best book. The Killer Inside Me is a terrifying —a beautiful book. And in a way the whodunit still has tremendous vitality as a pattern for how me move through fiction. A crime is created on the first page and resolved on the last page.

RB: I really enjoy crime stories. There is the tendency of crime writers to create series —which lost their vitality more or less quickly. And by the way, in Elmore Leonard, the crime is not important to his stories.

AG: In a way the crime is the fillip, the sorry excuse— so you can hear those guys who are so stupid and so smart at the same time, talk. It’s so thrilling to see on the page.Since Flannery O’Connor he has best ear in American fiction—maybe with Grace Paley. I love reading that dialogue.

RB: And Leonard makes it easy for screen adaptation—the dialogue doesn’t need to be tampered with. Getting back to ‘sogged’ when I went back to reread your stories I was struck by the wonderful solecisms.

AG: Shakespeare was always turning nouns into verbs.

RB: That would be the beauty of the English language.

AG: Exactly, that’s how it happens —the regeneration, the resurrection. There are instances where there is no legal verb. In White People I have an angel falling out of the sky on to green grass. And I used the word ‘twunk’, I had a dream in which an angel fell and that was exactly the sound. I think what we are trying to do as writers, in a way, is develop an idiomatic language that’s separate from conventional Strunk & White language. That’s a kind of emotional short hand for the characters and should vary from piece to piece but it takes a while for the reader to learn this news language. But once they have got it they are that much closer to the center of the character.

RB: Is there a conscious effort?

AG: In the heat of the moment you develop—

RB: For the reader?

AG: It shouldn’t be too conscious. It shouldn’t be like reading Finnegan’s Wake. You have to meet people half way.

RB: I didn’t catch some of this on my first reading. What’s mind set when you are reading something for the 2nd time?

AG: You see the construction much more consciously. I am always doing battle with copy editors —you know, in Saints Have Mothers, the self reported IQ of Jean Mulray keeps rising by 22 points by the end. The copyeditors were having an orgasm having caught me in this mistake. I told them there may be accidents in my work but there are no mistakes. I really meant that. I had to right a whole new chapter to justify myself to this anonymous lady.

RB: You could have simply pointed out that this was a novel, a fiction.

AG: I tried to do that but those distinctions are breaking down. Americans are so fact loving as a people that most of the questions you get at readings are, “This is pretty much what happened, right?” No, this is not. The very phrase ‘fiction’ is based on the word ‘fashioned’ meaning forged or created, hand made. The question is what of the inventions that you have put in this book, is the craziest and the most successful to you? That would be the question I ‘d like asked. I have handy example, which for me was mind-boggling. In Decoy, I needed a disease—this is what I do to my poor characters. Drowning, mortification of the flesh is not enough. N-n-n-n-n-no, they have to have a fated inherited disease. So I made up a disease. Exercising all rights of fiction. The disease was patrilineal —you got it form your dad, from male to male. It’s a heart disease that retains all the cholesterol you have ever eaten, in your body. It turns you into a crystal palace of cholesterol. And I had a great Gothic Edgar Alan Poe time imagining this. I actually had dates when the body began to be impeded—about 30-35. Then dead, conventionally by 50-51, something like that. I have a next-door neighbor who is a retired famous cardiologist. He is entering his 80’s. He is so famous he did a triple by pass on the Sultan of Brunei. When he came to Duke University, he brought his wives, his children his rugs and his security force. And he rented the university hotel. The rugs were stacked so high that you had to crawl into the rooms (that’s his wealth). It’s like traveling with Metropolitan Museum. And they have to use them to make them better. Anyway, —

RB: Anyway—

AG: Moving right along—you see, you thought I lost the thread. You thought I had, but n-o-o-o-o I hadn’t.

RB: No, I was thinking there’s a story.

AG: Exactly. So I decided I have the world’s leading cardiologist living next door, idled. I take advantage of his expertise and humor him and build bridges as father used to say, by asking him if such a thing could be possible. So went over with my little note pad and laid out this fictitious disease. It took me about 10 minutes to lay out all the specs of the disease. So I asked is such a thing possible. And he said is such a thing possible along side familial chloresterolemia? And I said, “What’s familial chloresterolemia?” “The disease you just described for the last 10 minutes.” To the day, I had described a disease that preexisted me. I never read about it. Or known anyone who had it. I made it up. Its real.

RB: But rare.

AG: It’s rare, thank god for the poor sufferers. But even the name chloresterolemia, to put the Latin up front like that—I couldn’t have done better in my wildest dreams. So when people say, “This story is real, you read in a newspaper, right? Right! Wrong! The mystical stuff is the stuff that you invent most fancifully and that somehow comes to validate you and the fiction.

RB: I hear from writers that readers seem to have an expectation that everything is factual.

AG: Oh god, its tedious. I think it’s a great age for non-fiction but I also think it’s a great age for fiction. But in the horserace —

RB: May be not a great age for reading.

AG: Its not. I have seen in the —I read in Seattle 12 years ago, I had 120 people. I read in Seattle, that if anything has gotten more praise than the last book, 11 people turn up. I flew 3000 miles to Seattle, which is supposed to be one of the great book towns —

RB: At Elliot Bay?

AG: At Elliot Bay.

RB: What explains that?

AG: I don’t know but I see that the promise of the book has receded. For instance, I have never not been on All Things Considered. For every book I have written since ’89. They don’t really do books anymore. Only books about the burning of the Koran. Or something sensational.

RB: Tiger mothers?

AG: Yeah, exactly. And Terry Gross is retired. So now we have to do things like writing essays for the Times and the Wall St Journal.

RB: Like “On Collecting”[written for the NY Times].

AG: Like that and inventing diseases and whatever else, in order to see your name in the paper. It’s changed. Unfortunately it’s too late for me to retool. All I ever wanted to do was write a great book. And I’m not changing.

RB: Are you going take in boarders or something?

AG: I guess so. Or become a callboy. Except nobody called—I hate when that happens.

RB: We have it wrong. Its not about the decline of reading its about the decline of education.

AG: Well, it’s true.

RB: As long as the emphasis radically shifts from creating the whole person and the humanities to vocational guidance and training what is in it for students to read?

AG: It’s great to put it in that context. That’s what the Republican majority is doing by cutting education

RB: Everyone is doing it—the great majority of policy makers see education as a career strategy, there is no learning for learning’s sake. Nicholson Baker wrote in Harpers that Algebra shouldn’t be required as part of the Core. Which is considered a gateway course (but mostly and obstacle) to college. How much do you use Algebra in your life?

AG: I couldn’t use it. That’s a great point. Talk about the dumbing down of America as something in the future—that happened decades ago and we are reaping the benefit. Its scary it really is. And the absolute passivity of whatever comes down it’s a scary time. Those 40 representatives, so-called, could have just pushed right on into full coup. That was the idea. Its spooky and we are entranced and narcotized with our gizmos and I am as guilty as the next person. I never had an IPhone until I went on this tour and now I feel like I have a little white kitten upstairs and I leave milk and cookies for it in a shoe box by the bed. That’s my favorite little thing.

RB: I just realized I hate football. My son plays for his high school.

AG: Oh god.

RB: And I can’t stop watching it because I have been watching it since childhood. But I hate it.

AG: Its horrible. It’s gladiatorial. Its white people in the stands watching under cashmere blankets watching the underclass kill each other. Its bear baiting, is what it is.

RB: Daniel Woodrell in The Bayou Trilogy has a funny take on college football —essentially characterizing the games as between Alabama’s felons and Florida States’ criminals.

AG: I was just in Oxford, Mississippi before the LSU game. LSU fans are notorious for coming with broken coca cola bottles and throwing them into the stands. People are afraid to go out on the street. The marauding hordes have arrived.

RB: Wow, sounds like English soccer fans.

AG: The thugs. Its inevitable that they imitate on the street what they see on the field.

RB: Wasn’t there some incident where an opposing fan chopped down a tree on the Auburn Campus?

AG: That was horrible.

RB: You wrote somewhere you liked to find humor in the most horrible circumstances

AG: Yeah. I want to write the funniest books possible about the worst things that can happen.

RB: Why is that?

AG: There’s where the energy is and redemption is and that’s where the truth is. We are all in for a terrible row of disasters. The flood that I described in Decoy is predicated on flood that took out 30% of the houses in my hometown overnight. 17 feet of water hit the town. Essentially the Atlantic Ocean came 150 miles inland in 1999. It preceded Katrina—by the time Katrina hit everybody in my town had been there and done that. They will never get back into their houses. We just move on.

RB: I just read Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly’s The Tilted World. Its about the 1927 flood of the Mississippi River. And in the last chapter one of the characters talks about what he will tell his children and mentions that this greatest of natural disasters was very much ignored around the country and would have been dealt with differently had it taken place in New England.

RB: What struck me living through this real flood—I was not living in the town at the time. My brother got on the phone and said, ”Come now.” And I said, “Well I have a dentist appointment.” “Cancel. Come now.” [He] Being a man of few words, I got in the car and went. And instances of such heroism from the least likely people. And like Doc in the novella [Decoy], the person who seems the most set up and most revered can bear anything but to lose what he’s hand made. He can’t sacrifice his art. And its sort of way of subjecting your art work to difficulty. It has to float—I mean, you carve a decoy so it can float away on a flood. And it floats away; a highly successful and you’re devastated because you have lost your beauty—

RB: Do you know Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Paradise Built in Hell?

AG: I know her name but I don’t know the book.

RB: She chose 6 historic natural disasters from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to Katrina and pointed out that in those calamities, that people banded together and formed communities of aid and comfort.

AG: Think about 9/11—people carrying wheelchair victims 90 floors down the stairs. We forget that. Those instances of beauty and of community inspire me. Its what I have instead of god. Community is real, god is fiction. It’s thrilling to see how imaginative people can be. I lived through a lot of hurricanes growing up in North Carolina. One of the most recent, Fran, took out all of the electricity for 8 or 9 days. Which in and of itself is a huge cataclysm for most of us. But I had a gas range and a lot of coffee, which I had ground up in advance, very cleverly.

RB: You could have used a hammer.

AG: That takes a long time—like a mortar and pestle. I had filled the bathtub, so I had a lot of water. And I made coffee for my neighbors. I am a total coffee addict. And I learned when they need their coffee and what they took in their coffee. And I have never had such gratitude. It was like doing a sexual favor for old lady next door.

RB: That’s pretty thoughtful. Do you use a burr grinder or a blade [grinder]? Or the old hand burr grinder?

AG: Exactly. It was so simple top do and so powerful. And I felt closer to the people and we also did the thing that we did in Decoy of pooling all our frozen food, delicacies, and putting them in a giant pot. It was one the best things I have eaten I my life. Sitting outside behind a darkened house-

RB: A peasant meal.

AG: Right, whatever you have, squirrel, okra, weeds, what the hell—it was thrilling

RB: People get great pleasure from doing acts of kindness.

AG: I love the most basic definition —which kin and kindness are from the same root. So to the extent that you are kind to somebody you are demonstrating how like them you are. And that lines up the pheromones like nothing else in the world—to know that you are part of a huge tribe.

RB: That’s what makes the Dalai Llama so attractive —preaching kindness.

AG: Absolutely. It’s a profound concept. And it’s difficult to practice. I swear this is my mantra, my daily activity, to try to make everybody you contact in a course of a day, incrementally better about themselves for having seen you. It’s incredible—

RB: A lesson often learned later in life.

AG: It does come later. The slash and burn days are gone, yeah.

Waiter tries to take our stuff—we humorously protest.

RB: We were somewhere

AG: —before they took our food away. We were talking about kindness
RB: There is that old saw about having two lives, one is the life you learn with and one is the life you live what you have learned.

AG: I am 66. I love this age. I love it.

RB: I am older than you. So remember that.

AG: All right sir, I can take lessons. Can I sit in your lap and get counsel, Santa?

RB: How often do you run into people that you don’t know?

AG: Not all the time. I live in a village of 6 thousand and when I walk around town the bookstore has my books in the window. It’s a Jimmy Stewart kind of reality.

RB: Is there a street named for you?

AG: Not yet.

Allan Gurganus (photo by Robert Birnbaum)

Allan Gurganus (photo by Robert Birnbaum)


RB: Anything that commemorates your existence?

AG: Yes, my hometown library has a life size portrait of me. I should say that with shame—its actually quite a good painting apart from its likeness to me.

RB: And the bronze statue?

AG: That comes later. I don’t care about post humus; I want it now, baby. You know that Thomas Wolfe says you can’t go home again. The reason he has to say that is because he used every secret about Ashville in his trashy book. He was so mean to the people who helped him. I work from an opposite principle—kin and kindness have their rewards. Not just on the page but in reality and community.

RB: Did you think this was what you were going to when you were a young pup in NYC?

AG: I though I was going to be a painter until I was inducted into the US Navy.

RB: I meant did you think you were going to return to rustic North Carolina?

AG: I didn’t think that until the AIDS pandemic. Until I lost 30 of the most adorable people that I had known. You reach a point where you have to start over. You are lucky of you can start over—if you are one of the survivors who can say I will remember all these people and I will take these memories into my new friends. But I couldn’t do it on the same streets where all this terrible stuff had happened.

RB: And now when you are in New York?

AG: I enjoy it. I love it. I feel very quickened by it. It sis much more congested and expensive, needless to say. But every block has associations for me. There is a kind of default setting. I think we all have. The people who go back to Ireland to die, and they haven’t seen it in 60 years. The minute they get to the dock they are like, ”Hah! Bye bye.” For me the course of least resistance was to know all the sounds and smells of this particular landscape. And it’s been extremely consoling. I have a garden and old house that I fixed up. I love it. I love being there. And I learn a lot. Its almost the narrative inspiration is permeable. You get through the skin.

RB: Well, North Carolina has a lot of writers living there

AG: Well, in my little town it could be 30 %. When I moved there 21 years ago it was me and the hardware store. I like living where I do and then going from there. The book is being translated into a lot of languages. I’ll go to countries, each in turn—there is no way like getting to know a country like having a book in their language. Its exciting dealing with translators and the questions that they ask.

RB: Any non-traditional languages?

AG: Mostly French, German, And Italian. I have things in Japanese. I just love to look at the text though I have no idea what I am seeing. The questions that come are fascinating. Word choices and—

RB: You’ll get questions about ‘sogged’.

AG: I’m ready. I am prepared to defend it in any language. It’s an underpaid and under appreciated occupation. Astonishing artistry.

Allan Gurganus circa 1991 (photo, Robert Birnbaum)

Allan Gurganus circa 1991 (photo, Robert Birnbaum)

Note to you: I am suspending my customary practice of publishing an interview in totality. In this case my conversation with Allan Gurganus was about 90 minutes in duration (which flew by as we were engaged in it) and I fear that a complete transcript would tax all but the most devoted readers. Thus, you can, if you made it this far, in the fullness of time, look forward to a Part II.

Currently reading The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig
by Stefan Zweig translated by Anthea Bell (Pushkin Press)

“Our Republic, If We Can Keep It”

11 Nov
 Spying on Democracy by Heidi Boghosian

Spying on Democracy by Heidi Boghosian

Spying on Democracy: Government Surveillance, Corporate Power and Public Resistanceby Heidi Boghosian, Lewis Lapham (Foreword)(City Lights Open Media) Michael German, Senior Policy Counsel, ACLU and former FBI agent observes this book “… is the answer to the question, ‘if you’re not doing anything wrong, why should you care if someone’s watching you?’ It’s chock full of stories about how innocent people’s lives were turned upside-down by public and private sector surveillance programs. But more importantly, it shows how this unrestrained spying is inevitably used to suppress the most essential tools of democracy: the press, political activists, civil rights advocates and conscientious insiders who blow the whistle on corporate malfeasance and government abuse.”

Read excerpts here

Currently reading A Permanent Member of the Family by Russell Banks(Harper Collins)

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