Black is Black-Racism Fatigue

31 Jul

Police response to demonstrations in Ferguson  MO.

Police response to demonstrations in Ferguson MO.

People who treat other people as less than human must not be surprised when the bread they have cast on the waters comes floating back to them, poisoned — James Baldwin

Last year during the heat of the Ferguson Missouri debacle I discovered that my teen aged son was very much lacking in any historical context for the civil rights movement and racial conflict that was filling the news cycle to overflowing. A lack I sought to begin repairing by watching with him, a PBS documentary on the murder of Emmett Till. Till, a black Chicago teenager, was brutally murdered in 1955, while spending the summer with relatives in Mississippi— a crime that went unpunished (the perpetrators were acquitted and though later confessing their guilt, they could not be tried again because of double jeopardy) and became a cause celebre for a nascent civil rights movement.

Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan

Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan

Among efforts to acknowledge this tragedy was a well wrought novel by Lewis Nordan , Wolf Whistle.And now, reportedly millionaires Jay-Z and Will Smith are proposing a six part mini series for HBO, based on the Till murder. Also as reported, there are two other groups looking to resurrect this story.What these efforts will add to the unglamorized body of work already existing is anyone’s guess…

As witnessed in my lifetime, I believe that there are three intractable problems that regularly make headlines— USA’s race problem (or as one commentator opines it the “U.S. war on its domestic black population”),USA’s drug problem, otherwise known as the War on Drugs and the Israeli-Palestine discord (or, if you wish,the Greek Turkey enmity, the Serb Bosnian vendetta, the India-Pakistan feud etc…)In the recent term, the US race problem has boiled over with a series of horrendous police killings of black folk, sparking both outrage and the usual mumbo jumbo punditry, notably by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Though greeted with choral approval, there is at least one nay-sayer(not including the ever smarmy convolutions of David Brooks):

What everyone says about the literary merit of “Between the World and Me” is correct. But if you refuse to simply stare at the book in wonder, you will realize that it is profoundly silly at times, and morally blinkered throughout. It is a masterly little memoir wrapped in a toxic little philippic.

Forgive my reluctance to take seriously what I take as Mr Coates’s sincere effort to expiate on race but I as a witness to the endless race problem and a serious reader of James Baldwin (whose comments and insights have not been improved upon)I am exhausted by the flood of verbiage that reduces to thew Shakesperean trope of ‘sound and fury’.If you are bent upon reading about USA’s race ‘problem you need to look beyond
the approved commentary of Coates commentators or the internecine hissy fits of Cornel West and Michael Edward Dyson and have a look at:

Writing on the Wall by Mumia Abu Jamal

Writing on the Wall by Mumia Abu Jamal

Former Black Panther and radio journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, a veteran of death row has just published Writing on the Wall, a comprehensive anthology of Mumia’s short prison commentaries from 1982 to the present, which among other things tracks the ignominious history of police sponsored terror from Haitian immigrant Amadou Diallo to 92 year old elderly Kathryn Johnston ,shot to death in her Atlanta home by narcotics officers to 12 year old Tammir Rice to Eric Garner to Freddie Grayand and on and on…

Editor of Writing on the Wall,History professor Johanna Fernández,introduces the collection:

…today, in this moment of renewed upsurge against racist state violence, [Mumia’s] voice is more dangerous than ever.” The danger he poses is not merely local. In exposing the structures of violence that underpin the globe, he covers topics ranging from corporate plunder to the neoliberal assault on workers’ rights to Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians to the enduring lessons of the slave revolt that brought independence to Haiti in 1804: “Masses make and sustain revolutions—often against ‘leaders’ whose every instinct is to betray them…

James Baldwin The Last Interview

James Baldwin The Last Interview

This collection brings together four previously published interviews with Baldwin. An in-depth interview conducted by Studs Terkel, shortly after the publication of Nobody Knows My Name, “Go the Way Your Blood Beats,” in which Baldwin is interviewed in 1984 by then editor-in-chief of the Village Voice, Richard Goldstein, “The Last Interview,” which has been published in expurgated form elsewhere but is now presented in full, is with the writer and poet Quincy Troupe’s who sat with Baldwin just days before he died at his home in St. Paul-de-Vence in the south of France in 1987.

A lengthening skein of films from Malcolm X, The Help, The Butler, 12 Years a Slave,Django Unchained to Selmapresume to elucidate for their presumptive audiences various aspects and nuances and yes horrors attached to the history of Africans dragged to the shores of the New World. Have their collective insights moved the needle from the festering, roiling infection that is race in the USA to toward some semblance of accommodation?

I fear that I have no comfortable answer…

One more item —through out my life one Leroi Jones later known as Amiri Baraka was a burning glowing presence. Thus


S O S by Amiri Baraka

S O S by Amiri Baraka

Black Dada Nihilismus

Cuba Si : Anniversary of the Triumphant Cuban Revolution

26 Jul

Since 1959 , I have been interested in Cuba and its manifold attractions— the beginning a 12 year old’s admiration for the nascent ‘Triumph of the Revolution’. So many years later that fascination has held its place, though I do have a more balanced view of the Castro Brother’s regime. Now, with the long overdue restoration of diplomatic and other relations between the USA and CUBA, there is a heightened if not frenzied focus on the largest island in the Greater Antilles. So in honor the 26th of July,the Cuban anniversary of the beginning of its unshacking from Uncle Sam, here’s an idiosyncratic and unscholarly bibliographical primer on many things Cubano.

Cuba by Hugh Thomas

Cuba by Hugh Thomas

Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom by Hugh Thomas

Published in 1971, this authoritative survey is an excellent introduction pre revolutionary Cuban history .Thomas is particularly exhaustive on the nexus of the Atlantic slave trade and Cuba’s biggest cash crop, sugar.

Cuba and Music by Ned Sublette

Cuba and Music by Ned Sublette

Cuban and Its Music From the First Drums to the Mambo by Neal Sublette

Musician/musicologist Sublette has already made a major cultural contribution with his Qbadisc recording label.The first volume of a projected series is described by the publisher

This entertaining history of Cuba and its music begins the collision of Spain and Africa and continues through the era of Miguelito Valdés, Arsenio Rodríguez, Beny Moré, and Pérez Prado. It offers a behind-the-scenes examination of music from a Cuban point of view, unearthing surprising, provocative connections and making the case that Cuba was fundamental to the evolution of music in the New World. The ways in which the music of black slaves transformed 16th-century Europe, how the claves appeared, and how Cuban music influenced ragtime, jazz, and rhythm and blues are revealed. Music lovers will follow this journey from Andalucía, the Congo, the Calabar, Dahomey, and Yorubaland via Cuba to Mexico, Puerto Rico, Saint-Domingue, New Orleans, New York, and Miami. The music is placed in a historical context that considers the complexities of the slave trade; Cuba’s relationship to the United States; its revolutionary political traditions; the music of Santería, Palo, Abakuá, and Vodú; and much more.

Smoke by Peter Balakian

Smoke by Peter Balakian

A History of Cuban Baseball by Peter Balakian

A History of Cuban Baseball
by Peter Balakian

A History of Cuban Baseball by Peter Balakian

In addition to cigars and revolutionary ardor, baseball remains am important feature of Cuban life and Balakian has made telling that story his life’s calling.

Los Gusanos by John Sayles

Los Gusanos by John Sayles

Los Gusanos by John Sayles

There is a plenitude of great literature about Cuba and by Cubans. I found John Sayles’s novel Los Gusanos (the Cuban word for ‘worms’, the official revolutionary designation for exiles) about Cuban exiles particularly engrossing. Here Sayles chats with Bookworm Michael Silverblatt about the book I consider Sayles’s magnum opus.

The Man Who Loved Dogs  by Leonardo Padura

The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura

The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Paduro

Cuban novelist Padura, best known for his noirish detective series Havana Quartet featuring Lt Mario Conde, creates a compelling and engrossing literary narrative featuring Leon Trotsky and his assassin traveling from the Soviet Union to the Spanish CivilWar to Mexico and finally to Cuba. Read Jon Lee Anderson’s (Che profile of Padura,which is an education in recent Cuban states of affairs:

“The Man Who Loved Dogs,” a fictionalized account of Leon Trotsky and his assassin, Ramón Mercader, who lived out his days in Cuba after twenty years in a Mexican prison. For half a century, official Cuba has seen Trotsky as the Soviets did: a traitor rightly consigned to the dustbin of history. Padura’s treatment of Trotsky is highly sympathetic, and his telling of Mercader’s life exposes the hideous legacy of Stalinism, which for decades amounted to a state religion in Cuba. These views are uncontroversial in much of the world, but in Cuba they are radical. The dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez wrote in a review, “There are books—I’m warning you—that open our eyes, such that we can never again sleep in peace.” Onstage, Padura acknowledged that he had frequently suffered from political anxiety: “Every time I finish a novel, I say, ‘This is the one they’re not going to let be published.’ ”

 Mea Cuba by Guillermo Cabrera Infante

Mea Cuba by Guillermo Cabrera Infante

Mea Cuba by Gulliermo Cabrera Infante

This is an anthology of some 60 articles written over a quarter-century and published in a variety of different periodicals. Despite some overlap and repetition, these essays and critiques are valuable snap shots of Cuban culture under the Castro reign. Cabrera Infante is an engaging polemicist with a penchant for the pun and an articulate opponent of the Revolution.My favorite piece is his recounting the great Cuban chess champion Capablanca‘s funeral.

Read Cabrera Infante (from a Paris Review interview) excoriating the Cuban Revolution:

There are too many people who go around saying that despite shortcomings the revolution has at least done a great job on education and public health. This is like praising Hitler for pulling Germany out of the economic quagmire of the Weimar Republic and exactly like those damned Italian trains that always arrived on time under Mussolini. Those fellow train travelers were saying this time that culture was now a big thing in Cuba because Fidel Castro had taught everybody to read and write. What’s the use of being literate if you lack the freedom to write, publish, and read what you want? The Sforzas, the Gonzagas, and of course the Medicis were upstarts and boors compared to this Cuban condottiere, this self-made patron of the arts and sciences. These were, of course, the lies of the land…


Cuba:Literary Companion edited by Anne Louse Bardach

Cuba:Literary Companion edited by Anne Louse Bardach

Cuba:Literary Companion edited by Anne Louise Bardach

Bardach, author of a number of books relating to Cuba — Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington and Cuba Confidential, and the editor of The Prison Letters of Fidel Castro assembles a thoughtful and useful compendium of Cuban literature. The seventeen selections include: Reinaldo Arenas, Alejo Carpentier,Calvert Casey, Christina Garcia, Pedro Juan Gutierrez. Jose Lezama Lima, Achy Obejas Vergilio Pinera and Zoe Valdes.

The Auto biiography  of  Fidel Castro by Norberto Fuentes

The Auto biography of Fidel Castro by Norberto Fuentes

The Autobiography of Fidel Castro by Norberto Fuentes

There are, of course, numerous biographies of Castro.Writer Norberto Fuentes, having spent many years as a close associate of Fidel, uses that experience to goo advantage to present a fictionalized autobiography. Tom Miller (Trading With the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro’s Cuba )writes:

Castro’s revolution was sui generis; nothing like it had ever happened before. Despite his dialectical approach to everything from inviting attractive women, the blonder the better, to assignations (“I don’t recall anyone ever turning down the invitation”) to organizing the Communist Party, much of what’s transpired since 1959 has been impromptu. He’s been winging it for more than half a century. Yet his Machiavellian philosophy, as laid out by Fuentes, has its own internal logic — instructive, perhaps, for military and intelligence strategists.

The book can be a slog, and it gets a little sloppy, but you never know if that’s Fuentes, or Fuentes channeling Castro, or a question of translation. I vote for the channeling theory. Since Castro has never written his memoirs, Fuentes’s version will have to do. Fidel couldn’t have written it better.

Movie poster for Before Night Falls

Movie poster for Before Night Falls

Before Night Falls by Renaldo Arenas

Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria (The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball) wrote

BEFORE NIGHT FALLS” is an autobiography that covers the span of Arenas’s life, from early childhood to his suicide letter blaming Castro for all of his calamities, including his death. It is an absorbing book, with the fascination one finds in stories by survivors of death camps or in lives of the saints. Arenas is betrayed by friends, spied on by fellow writers working for state security, beaten by lovers and jailers, coerced into signing vile confessions, forced to labor in stifling cane fields and compelled to “reform” sexually and politically. He is such a pariah that he must seek escape in the most spectacular ways, from an attempt to swim across Guantanamo Bay to reach the United States naval base there to braving the Florida Straits in an inner tube. All his tries are thwarted by vigilant authorities and informers. Once, fleeing the police, he hides for weeks in Lenin Park, a Communist theme park on the outskirts of Havana. There he spends his time writing the first version of these memoirs (his manuscript is later confiscated) and reading Homer, a flight from reality that necessarily ends every day as night falls (hence the title of his book). To lure people into turning him in, the police announce that a C.I.A. agent and rapist is on the loose. Arenas is careful not to be seen by anyone, but is eventually caught and barely saved from a lynch mob. In episodes such as these Arenas appears as a kind of Jean Valjean, and his book reads like a romantic adventure novel.

Arenas died of AIDS in New York City. He was 36 years old

Julian Schnabel’s brilliant film adaptation is a extraordinary complement to Arenas’s opus as well as a fine snapshot of Revolutionary Cuba.

By the way, Schnabel’s film features a fine soundtrack, including the immortal Cuban crooner Beny More (called by some Yanquis, the “Frank Sinatra of Cuba”)Here he sings the classic ‘Como Fue’

Here’s some more of More, also known in Cuba as El Bárbaro del Ritmo and El Sonero Mayor:

A Planet For Rent  by Yoss

A Planet For Rent by Yoss

A Planet for Rent by Yoss

Here’s a novelty, contemporary Cuban science fiction.

A Legend of The Future  by Augustin de Rojas

A Legend of The Future by Augustin de Rojas

A Legend of The Future by Augustin de Rojas

More Cuban science fiction.

The Last Soldiers of The Cold War   by Fernando Morais

The Last Soldiers of The Cold War by Fernando Morais

The Last Soldiers of The Cold War by Fernando Morais

The story of Cuban political prisoners finally freed in December 2014, after being held captive by the United States since the late 1990s.

 Listen Yankee by Tom Hayden

Listen Yankee by Tom Hayden

Listen Yankee: Why Cuba Matters by Tom Hayden and Roberto Alacron

SDS founder, author of the Port Huron Statement, tried in a Chicago federal court in 1969 as member of the “Chicago Eight”, formerly married to (Hanoi)Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden has been paying attention to Cuban affairs as long as he has been revolutionary student leader turned progressive social activist.This tome covers the writings of Che Guevara, Régis Debray, and C. Wright Mills; the Cuban missile crisis; the Weather Underground; the assassination of JFK; the strong historical links between Cuba and Africa; the Carter era; the Clinton era; the Cuban Five; Elián González; and the December 17, 2014 declaration of normalization by presidents Obama and Castro.

Here’s a piece of a longer conversation with Hayden:

The Domino Diaries  by Brin Jonathan Butler

The Domino Diaries by Brin Jonathan Butler

The Domino Diaries by Brin Jonathan Butler

Here’s the publisher’s description of Butler’s riveting tome:

This book is the culmination of Butler’s decade spent in the trenches of Havana, trying to understand a culture perplexing to Westerners: one whose elite athletes regularly forgo multimillion-dollar opportunities to stay in Cuba and box for their country, while living in penury. Butler’s fascination with this distinctly Cuban idealism sets him off on a remarkable journey, training with, befriending, and interviewing the champion boxers that Cuba seems to produce more than any other country.

In the process, though, Butler gets to know the landscape of the exhilaratingly warm Cuban culture-and starts to question where he feels most at home. In the tradition of Michael Lewis and John Jeremiah Sullivan, Butler is a keen and humane storyteller, and the perfect guide for this riotous tour through the streets of Havana.

Butler traveled to Cuba in2000 to interview several of Cuba’s Olympic champion boxers — Teofilo Stevenson, Felix Savon, Hector Vinent — for his documentary Split Decision, contrasting the boxers who stayed in Cuba with those like Guillermo Rigondeaux, who defected for the promise of riches.

Here, from an interview with Brin Butler:

You wrote that Cuban boxers’ struggles in the ring are intertwined with all Cubans’ struggles. Is that one of the reasons you wrote this book?

I think the beauty and mystery of boxing is just the immediacy of how it reveals people unlike anything else. In the United States in the 20th century, every major event that America was going through, there was a boxer who seemed to symbolically represent it, from slavery to the Vietnam War to the Depression — all the way along, you just seemed to have boxers that carried the narrative. I think in Cuba, it was the same, but midway through my journey in Cuba, you had these boxers who were meant to be entered into Fidel Castro’s symbolic chessboard against the United States, to fight his war against the American system.

What I found important while I was there was that so many of them were leaving, finally, and I thought if Castro’s gonna hold them up when they’re winning Olympic gold and turning down millions of dollars as being symbols of all the successes of the Revolution, you have to then balance the other side of the scale and say if they left, and then people supported their reasons for leaving, then it had to represent failures in the Revolution. That story wasn’t permitted to be told in Cuba.

Revolutionary Cuba A History  by Luis Martinez Fernandez

Revolutionary Cuba A History by Luis Martinez Fernandez

Revolutionary Cuba A History by Luis Martinez Fernandez

Surprisingly (quoting the book’s website):

This is the first book in more than three decades to offer a complete and chronological history of revolutionary Cuba, including the years of rebellion that led to the revolution. Beginning with Batista’s coup in 1952, which catalyzed the rebels it brings the reader to the present-day transformations initiated by Raúl Castro…

…[he examines the circumstances that allowed the revolution to consolidate in the early 1960s, the Soviet influence throughout the latter part of the Cold War, and the struggle to survive the catastrophic Special Period of the 1990s after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. He tackles the island’s chronic dependence on sugar production that, starting with the plantations centuries ago, continues to shape Cuba’s culture and society today. He analyzes the revolutionary pendulum that continues to swing between idealism and pragmatism, focusing on its effects on the everyday lives of the Cuban people, and–bucking established trends in Cuban scholarship–Martínez-Fernández systematically integrates the Cuban diaspora into the larger discourse of the revolution.

José Martí: A Revolutionary Life

José Martí: A Revolutionary Life

José Martí: A Revolutionary Life by Alfred J. Lopez

There are some glaring gaps in English language Cuban scholarship This is first major biography of Martí (1853–1895) in over half a century and the first ever in English (there is another biography coming by the well regarded Esther Allen) which given Marti’s signifigance as the great pan American revolutionary and political thinker and a titan of Latin American letters, whose poetry, essays, and journalism still rank among the most important works of the region. Lopezs uses original Cuban and U.S. sources, including materials never before used in a Martí biography, López strips away generations of mythmaking and portrays While Martí was Cuba’s greatest founding father and one of Latin America’s literary and political giants, Lopez presents a clear eyed view including Marti’s rarely acknowledged missteps and personal flaws.

The Double Life of Fidel Castro   by Juan Reinaldo Sanchez

The Double Life of Fidel Castro by Juan Reinaldo Sanchez

The Double Life of Fidel Castro: My 17 Years as Personal Bodyguard to El Lider Maximo by Juan Reinaldo Sanchez

Here’s a made for the movies story or to quote the Daily Beast review “A new trash-talking biography by a disaffected bodyguard who says the Cuban leader owns houses galore, can’t dance, and always has to win when he shoots hoops.” Juan Reinaldo Sanchez,worked for Fidel for 17 years and now presents his memoir of those years. When he tried to retire 1994, displeasing the Lider maximo Castro, he was imprisoned and tortured. He managed to defect in 2008.

When Henry Kissinger was in The People’s Republic of China negotiating the Sino-American detente, he inquired of Chou En Lai Chinese Foreign Minister and revolutionary stalwart, his view of the French Revolution. Chou reportedly replied, “Its too soon to tell.”

And finally non- pareil hot zone journalist Jon Lee Anderson recently opined

We are in an age when, in the Middle East and elsewhere, the United States has had to grapple with the appalling consequences of some of its more egregious geostrategic mistakes. In return, it has also had to accept a diminished role in certain aspects of the world’s affairs. In that context, Obama’s decision to find a way forward with Cuba was not a sign of weakness, but of strength.

Cuban Flag

The Only Meaningful Summer Reading List

17 Jul
One  Bookshelf with photo of dead Cuban-American novelist [photo: RB]

One Bookshelf with photo of dead Cuban-American novelist [photo: RB]

My long battle with lists as journalism is obviously quixotic—which is not to say I am surrendering. I suppose some lists may be better than other others. Which does not include the ones that fall under the silly rubric of ‘summer’ or ‘beach’ reading (See Norman Mailer’s take on that silliness). My own opinion is that the only list that can be legitimately entitled summer reading is one of stuff actually read. Here’s an edited version of my Summer 2015 read books

The Kind Worth Killing   by Peter Swanson

The Kind Worth Killing
by Peter Swanson

The Kind Worth Killing: A Novel by Peter Swanson

A well told take on Patricia Highsmith’s classic Strangers on a Train—an excellent cat and mouse thriller set in the Boston area

My Sunshine Away  by M.O. Walsh

My Sunshine Away
by M.O. Walsh

My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh

Set in Baton Rouge in the summer of 1989, when fifteen-year-old Lindy Simpson is victim of a horrible crime, late one evening, near her home. A faqux summer idyll that keeps you guessing.

The Rocks by Peter Nichols

The Rocks by Peter Nichols

The Rocks: A Novel by Peter Nichols

Set in Majorca, one of The Balearic Islands off the Mediterranean coast of Spain, The Rocks is a double love story told in reverse over 60 years (2012 -1948). An engrossing ensemble of characters ranging from teenagers to octogenerians act out their lives and passions against the vivid land and seascapes of the Mediterranean and Morocco.

The Girl on the Train  by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Boring and trite

All the Old Knives   by Olen Steinhauer

All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer

All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer

Stenhauer belongs in the same class as John LeCarre and Charles McCarry. In this novel two CIA case officers stationed in Vienna who had been lovers meet six years after a hostage crisis and each tries to resolve who compromised the mission…


Palace of Treason  by Jason Matthews

Palace of Treason by Jason Matthews

Palace of Treason: by Jason Matthews

Matthews’s Red Sparrow introduced the notion of Soviet sexual espionage and the character (now) Captain Dominika Egorova of the Russian Intelligence Service (SVR). This follow up has Egorova trying to balance her complex relationship with her CIA handler (she is working for the CIA revealing the inner workings of SVR and the Kremlin), Nate Nash, with trying to stay alive in the shark pool of Putin’s governance. I suspect Matthews’s will run of steam in what I assume is an ongoing series

The Cartel  by Don Winslow

The Cartel by Don Winslow

The Cartel: A novel by Don Winslow

Read the Power of Dog also—don’t take my word of it. Read the press Winslow has received.And then there is Winslow believes …

fiction is a more powerful tool than journalism for understanding the devastation in Mexico. “As novelists, we have license to imagine people’s emotions and psychology and views of the world. I think that I can bring people closer to a story,” he says. “Journalism can give the facts, but fiction can tell the

Charlie Martz and Other Stories   by Elmore Leonard

Charlie Martz and Other Stories by Elmore Leonard

Charlie Martz and Other Stories: by Elmore Leonard

I never thought I would write this but this is not the stuff you want to read by the masterful Leonard. I suspect you haven’t read all of his body of work —that’s where I’d go…

Secessia by Kent Wasom

Secessia by Kent Wasom

Secessia by Kent Wiscom

This novel, set in the Confederacy’s largest city New Orleans, May 1862 as it is occupied by the Union Army lead by General Benjamin “the Beast” Butler. The story alternates between the perspectives of the five characters twelve-year-old Joseph Woolsack, his mother, Elise, his father, Angel, Cuban exile Marina Fandal,Dr. Emile Sabatier, a fanatical physician and not least, General Butler, who is charged with the task of overseeing an ungovernable city. This quintet’s interlocking relations are played out against the roiling Gothic madness and chaos of war-torn Louisiana. Wiscom’s prose helps the narrative keep its edge.

Dreams to Remember by Mark Ribowsky

Dreams to Remember by Mark Ribowsky

Dreams to Remember by Mark Ribowsky

Ribowsky deifies the great Otis Redding in this bombastic hagiography and is fearless in opining on matters large and small. But early encounters with such opinions as Sam Cooke’s stage show was “bombastic”and that the Monterrey Pop Festival of 1967 was attended by record company “lice are a turnoff.

 Grace by Calvin Baker

Grace by Calvin Baker

Grace by Calvin Baker

I loved Baker’s novel Dominion. Here he risks banality with this story of 37-year-old Harper Roland recently retired war correspondent, searching for “enduring love.” Dale Peck effusively opines…

Calvin Baker…works in a rarefied strain of literature whose practitioners include Faulkner and Morrison, Calvino and Cormac McCarthy: allegorists whose stories are tinged by parable and psalm even as their sensibility remains keenly attuned to the avant garde. Grace is a tale of existential isolation juxtaposed against a sense of interpersonal connection that borders on the Brahmanic…a book so universal and timeless you could almost believe it had been unearthed from a medieval crypt, even as its critical but always compassionate observation of human folly positions it squarely within the increasingly fractious…postmodern world.

The Mulberry Bush by Charles McCarry

The Mulberry Bush by Charles McCarry

The Mulberry Bush by Charles McCarry

Former CIA operative Charles McCarry is a well regarded espionage novelists with an ouevre that includes his compelling Paul Christopher series and his prescient stand alone Shelley’s Heart. His latest opus opens in Buenos Aires when a nameless American “Headquarters” (CIA) black op agent and the daughter of a famous Argentinean revolutionary commence a star-crossed affair.The American is burdened with his commitment to avenge his father who was tragically wronged by Headquarters. The Latina’s father and mother were among the victims of Argentine military, reportedly victims of that countries unique contribution to “counter terrorism”—being thrown out of an airplane flying over the Atlantic Ocean. As one frequently discovers in the world of espionage very little is at it appears and The Mulberry Bush‘s protagonist after a successful stint hunting terrorists in the Middle East now must do battle with his own employers. Needless to say, McCarry knows how the game is played and tells it well.

Interview with Charle McvCarry

More Baseball Books

13 Jul
Norman Rockwell's cover for the Saturday  Evening Post

Norman Rockwell’s cover for the Saturday Evening Post

Apparently I am in the minority in my indifference to Major League Baseball’s annual All Star extravaganza (as well as the NBA and NFL versions). The players like it, for obvious reasons. And the fans, apparently enjoy this nearly meaningless contrivance (meaningless, except for the recent adoption of the winner’s league receiving home court advantage in the National Tournament) with the forgettable Home Run Derby and the Futures game added to the festivities.

It was hyperbole when Jacque Barzun pegged baseball, America’s once and past national pastime. as the useful codex to understanding the USA’s culture and society. Today with the apparent disintegration of its monoculture, there are not many truisms to be uttered about baseball’s place in our society. And frankly except for the most partisan devotees it hardly matters. One thing that does seem true is George Plimpton’s Small Ball Rule — the smaller the ball, the better the writing attached to the sport (though I am not aware of any books on ping pong). And, of course, baseball has validated Plimpton’s view.

As a regular practice I have ,for the past few years, been previewing books on baseball at the Daily Beast.* And as there are always more after my report in April, I amend that list in mid summer:

Pitching Around Fidel    by S. L. Price

Pitching Around Fidel by S. L. Price

Pitching Around Fidel: A Journey into the Heart of Cuban Sports by S. L. Price

No doubt the recent, long overdue thaw between Uncle Sam and ‘the Triumphant Cuban Revolution’ makes any information coming out of Cuba especially newsworthy (especially after over 50 years of misrepresentation and belligerence coming from the USA.) Cuban baseball is, of course, one area where all Americans (from the North and the South)can share a common pleasure. Sports Illustrated writer Price’s fine reportage—part travelogue, part social commentary, and part expose of Cuba’s athletes struggles— informs both on the game of beisbol and the politics and culture which surround it. Carl Hiassen blurbs,

…Offers a rare and provocative tour of the world’s most remarkable sports culture. It’s an unforgettable story of supremely gifted athletes, the utter madness of politics, and the scent of big money across the se

Teofilo Stevenson

Teofilo Stevenson

Price doesn’t limit himself to baseball and among other stories he reports on attending the great Cuban boxing champion Teofilo Stevenson’s 46th birthday party (Stevenson has since passed on to the great Gym in the Sk. The interview he records is a riveting snapshot of the the complicated Olympic champion.

The Game Must Go On by John Klima

The Game Must Go On by John Klima

The Game Must Go On: Hank Greenberg, Pete Gray, and the Great Days of Baseball on the Home Front in WWII by John Klima

Given the large amounts of money involved it takes a lot to delay and/or cancel the schedules of professional professional sports. In my lifetime I count three instances, labor issues, an earthquake and a terrorist attack. After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the impending world wide war canceling the 1942 MLB season was considered and for morale issues the season was played. But as is well-documented players like the great Hebraic slugger, Hank Greenberg and Ted Williams volunteered to serve in the armed forces. John Klima focuses on baseball’s history from 1941 to 1945 chronicling not only the stories of major leaguers who served but also replacement players like Pete Gray, a one-armed outfielder.

Klima explains:

The war years have often been characterized as a void in time where nothing significant happened. In fact, the war years featured some great teams, great races, great players and great stories and sparked a transformation that made the game modern. But in order to show this, I had to find a way to tell the story in a way that hadn’t been done before. The solution was on the field itself, in the story of three very distinct personalities – Hank Greenberg, Pete Gray and Billy Southworth Jr. All have wartime stories that reflected the journeys of so many other lives during the war. These human stories allowed me to show the interaction between the greater events of the war, how the ballplayers participated in the war and how the conflict shaped their lives, and how the war changed the game.

Crack of the Bat: A History of Baseball on the Radio  by James R. Walker

Crack of the Bat: A History of Baseball on the Radio by James R. Walker

Crack of the Bat: A History of Baseball on the Radio by James R. Walker

As a youth I was as much inclined to listen to a baseball game on the radio as watch on tv (in fact, watching a game frequently meant doing other things as well—the early seeds of multi-tasking). Part of that medium’s charm, besides the colorful and frequently informative announcers was that the sounds of the ball park came alive. Even today, when I am spectating a ball game, the sound of the crack of the bat, the ball smacking a glove, the roar of the crowd, the bellowing of the home plate umps add to pleasure of the game.

James Walker’s history harkens back to a time when radio was a useful medium, sans masturbatory sports talk shows and right wing carny barkers featuring men who actually knew whereof they spoke—like Red Barber, Vin Scully, Harry Caray, Ernie Harwell,and Bob Uecker,Mel Allen, Jack Brickhouse,Jack Buck
and Joe Garagiola. This account includes the television and Internet phases, when radio adjusted to remain relevant(now with mobile devices streaming video,one can only wonder how long baseball will be part of radio’s menu)

Pudge: The Biography of Carlton Fisk  by Doug Wilson

Pudge: The Biography of Carlton Fisk by Doug Wilson

Pudge: The Biography of Carlton Fisk by Doug Wilson

I wouldn’t think I need to tell you who Carlton Fisk ( also known as the ‘human rain delay’ for his, uh, deliberate approach to batting) is. This year Red Sox fans are being treated to two useful biographies of their recent Hall of Famers—one of Pedro Martinez and this one on Pudge, “…a leader who followed a strict code and played with fierce determination.”

The Set-Up Men: Race, Culture and Resistance in Black Baseball by Sarah Tremblaine

The Set-Up Men: Race, Culture and Resistance in Black Baseball by Sarah Tremblaine

The Set-Up Men: Race, Culture and Resistance in Black Baseball by Sarah L. Trembanis

From the publisher

This book is an examination of cultural resistance to segregation in the world of black baseball through an analysis of editorial art, folktales, nicknames, “manhood” and the art of clowning. African Americans worked to dismantle Jim Crow through the creation of a cultural counter-narrative that centered on baseball and the Negro Leagues that celebrated black achievement and that highlighted the contradictions and fallacies of white supremacy in the first half of the twentieth century.

Big Sam Thompson: Baseball's Greatest Clutch Hitter by Doug Kerr

Big Sam Thompson: Baseball’s Greatest Clutch Hitter by Doug Kerr

Big Sam Thompson: Baseball’s Greatest Clutch Hitter by Roy Kerr

As we learn year after year the long history of baseball remains rife with untold stories as is evident by this account of Sam Thompson (1860-1922) who was a five skills player before the term was invented. Kerr charts Thomspon’s childhood from rural Danville, Indiana, to Detroit where his post baseball career was spent as a U.S. deputy marshal. One of the greatest players in baseball’s long and storied history—he batted .331, was second among 19th century players in home runs, and ranks first all-time in RBI per game (.923) and in his prime, he averaged 25 steals a season.

The Dad Report: Fathers, Sons, and Baseball Families  by Kevin Cook

The Dad Report: Fathers, Sons, and Baseball Families by Kevin Cook

The Dad Report: Fathers, Sons, and Baseball Families by Kevin Cook

Almost two hundred father-son pairs have played in the big leagues. Aaron Boone followed his grandfather Bob, father Ray, and brother Bret to the majors. And of course there was Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey. Major Leaguers Dan Haren, Buddy Bell and Ike Davis report on their own view of sharing baseball with their children. And as the template for his survey sportswriter Kevin Cook recalls he and his father, a minor-league pitcher, having nightly conversations from road, which they called “the Dad Report ” and follows with poignant stories in which fathers and sons share the game.The lesson here is, of course, that the way fathers and sons talk baseball is a way of talking about everything—about life.

The Grind: Inside Baseball's Endless Season by Barry Svrluga

The Grind: Inside Baseball’s Endless Season by Barry Svrluga

The Grind: Inside Baseball’s Endless Season by Barry Svrluga


The 162-game Major League Baseball schedule(and a preseason that begins in February and post season that ends in late October is sports longest season. Washington Post baseball writer Barry Svrluga observes,“There is no sport with an everydayness, a drum-drum-drum beat like baseball,” Ballplayers call this the Grind and Svrluga wrote a series about how it affects people connected to the game.That series, with previously unpublished material and embellished is anthologized here. The Wife, The Scout, The Starter and others exhibit the effects of the long slog from April’s opening day to the season’s finale in late September.

Marvin Miller, Baseball Revolutionary  by Robert F Burk

Marvin Miller, Baseball Revolutionary by Robert F Burk

Marvin Miller, Baseball Revolutionary by Robert F Burk

To say that labor lawyer Marvin Miller changed major league baseball and the business of sport is faint comment on his contributions—there is a substantial undercurrent that may one day gain well deserved Hall of Fame status for him. In taking over the feeble Major League Baseball Players Association he secured decent workplace conditions, a pension system, outside mediation of player grievances and salary disputes, a system of profit sharing, and the dismantling of the reserve clause which led to free agency. All of which paved the way for the unionization of US professional sports —which you may or may not view as a good thing. Personally, I see this newly gained power for athletes preferable to the former plantations which competed for fan dollars. Now if someone would finally put down that corrupt establishment that is known as the NCAA…

Molina: The Story of the Father Who Raised an Unlikely Baseball Dynasty by Bengie Molina and Joan Ryan

Molina: The Story of the Father Who Raised an Unlikely Baseball Dynasty by Bengie Molina and Joan Ryan

Molina: The Story of the Father Who Raised an Unlikely Baseball Dynasty by Bengie Molina and Joan Ryan

It has not escaped my attention that the ranks of Major League catchers are filled mostly by Latino players, none more prominent then St Louis Cardinals backstop, six-time All-Star Yadier Molina. With brothers Bengie and Jose, the Molinas are the most successful siblings since the DiMaggios, garnering six World Series championships between them. Bengie’s memoir is a bittersweet rags to riches tale and emotional tribute to the family’s patriarch.

Joe Black: More than a Dodge by Martha Jo Black and Chuck Schoffner

Joe Black: More than a Dodge by Martha Jo Black and Chuck Schoffner

Joe Black: More than a Dodger by Martha Jo Black and Chuck Schoffner

Despite segregation, verbal harassment, and death threats, Joe Black worked his way up through the Negro Leagues and the Cuban Winter Leagues, voted National League Rookie of the Year in 1952 as well as becoming the first African American pitcher to win a World Series game. In his post baseball life Black became the first African American vice president of a transportation corporation when he went to work for Greyhound. This is first-ever biography of Joe Black, written by his daughter telling the feel good story of a baseball great who broke through the color line.

* Baseball Books 2013

Baseball Books 2014

Baseball Books 2015


Autobiography/Memoir in 365 Parts 17.0

19 Jun
Me  and Beny [photo: Cuba Birnbaum]

Me and Beny [photo: Cuba Birnbaum]

Literary journalist Robert Birnbaum has been kicking the stone down the road in Boston journalism/media since the waning days of the 20th century and further afield in the brave new world of the Third Millennium. Currently he is contributing to the literary way station, OUR MAN in BOSTON and others, shepherding his student-athlete son, Cuba, umpiring Little League baseball and dog-whispering his pooch Beny. You could ask him about his long rumored memoir, Just Talking: How To do Things With Words.

My son Cuba [photo Robert Birnbaum]

My son Cuba [photo Robert Birnbaum]

The Three Best Books…*

17 Jun

Tri Quarterly # 37

Tri Quarterly # 37

Sick In The Head by Judd Apatow

Sick In The Head by Judd Apatow

I am not a fan of the current schools of cinema comedies (for instance I haven’t seen such cultural mainstays asthe Hangovers Pt I Ptt etc or Bridesmaids),thus I would ordinarily be indifferent to a book by director Judd Apatow (Knocked Up,Freaks and Geeks). But an anthology of conversations he has collected over 30 years with —Mel Brooks, Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, Roseanne Barr, Spike Jonze,Sarah Silverman,Harold Ramis, Louis C.K., Chris Rock,Garry Shandling, Seth Rogen, Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham and on and on, is difficult to pass up.

I recall that Interview magazine, in what I thought was an inspired gesture, once published an interview with Charles Bukowski done by Sean Penn with Penn’s part of it redacted. Which is to say that even if Apatow’s conversational style is not to your liking, even as monologues, these testimonies are
amusing and illuminating.The publisher’s notes on this tome ring true, “What started as a lifetime’s worth of conversations about comedy becomes something else entirely. It becomes an exploration of creativity, ambition, neediness, generosity, spirituality, and the joy that comes from making people laugh.” And as Michael Chabon opines:

These are wonderful, expansive interviews—at times brutal, at times breathtaking—with artists whose wit, intelligence, gaze, and insights are all sharp enough to draw blood. Judd Apatow understands as well as any of them the pain that holds the knife, and the glee that wields it.

Muse by Jonathan Galassi

Muse by Jonathan Galassi

There is some risk involved with a novel set in the marginal world of writing and publishing. What makes Jonathan Galassi’s (poet and by the way, publisher of the fine literary house of Farrar,Straus and Giroux)Muse worth a look, is FSG’s deep roots in the literature of the 20th century and an out-sized character in the person of larger-than-literary life principal, founding partner, Roger W. Straus. I am not convinced that Muse is an effective a narrative for readers who are unfamiliar or unconcerned with the rules and mores of the literary game— the mechanics of big international trade shows, the ongoing efforts of publishers to poach authors from their rivals, the idiosyncrasies of authors, agents and editors of all stripes.On the other hand perhaps Galassi performs a valuable service by letting some light enter the dim and dusty corridors of old style book publishing

Francis Ha A Noam Baumbach  FILM

Francis Ha A Noam Baumbach FILM


Some years ago being friends with Larry Newman, a designer who served as Tri Quarterly‘s art director I was invited to join the crew working on Issue #37,Going to Heaven a photo narrative (pictured above). So off we went for a week, to a farm near Galena, Illinois. As Tri Quarterly was a literary magazine (now sadly only published on line by slave labor) the ideas of issue consisting of only pictures (four on each right hand page) could be construed as a bold idea.

Now, director of the film Frances Ha Noah Baumbach has created a book FRANCIS HA (Steidl) editing the movie down to one frame per scene, comprised of 688 black and white stills, recreating the film’s structure. Whether you have viewed this film or not is probably as irrelevant as whether one has reads the book from which a movie has been adapted. Which is to say this tome is a new twist on an old idea, offering as the publisher suggests a “commentary on the subtle but ordered beauty of Sam Levy’s cinematography.

Here are some stills from the book:





* at the time of this writing this (for lack of better title)

Good Poh-leece

16 Jun
Lincoln Park, Chicago. 1968

Lincoln Park, Chicago. 1968

Growing up in Chicago I had many occasions to witness the Chicago Police Department in action. From corruption scandals to the infamous Red Squad to the police riots in August of 1968 to the murder of Fred Hampton and a number of personal interactions in between, I formed an inchoate sense of police and no coherent thoughts about how policing big cities should be undertaken. Add to this pastiche, my long standing appreciation of crime stories by the likes of Elmore Leonard, George Pelecanos, James Lee Burke, Ed McBain and others and after all these years I am beginning to grasp some of the intractable dilemmas attached to crime and policing and the mine field that is US law enforcement. Not to dwell on this at the moment but these conundrums are what make crime stories so rich in drama…

The second season of True Detectives has two very high benchmarks with which it competes. One being, its first riveting season and the second,the universally lauded and extolled urban drama set in the cauldron of Baltimore’s racial divide , The Wire— especially now that the new blu ray edition has stimulated new conversations about its lofty literary status. One understated notion that is regnant in the Wire is that of being “good police” as in the statement that He/She is good police.” And we observe that in the case McNulty among other of the detectives one can be an alcoholic, ruin their marriage and exhibit numerous signs of dysfunction but obsessive focus on solving cases trumps almost everything.

Having watched the first three episodes of True Detective 2, its hard not to think of the genius pairing in the 1st season of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as detective partners—which is not how the new narrative unfolds.In the new 2nd season, the three poh-leece who meander into the main plot and central crime (one loses count of all the felonies committed by everyone from the street up to corporate suites and city hall offices. In this case Colin Farrell is Ray Velcoro a detective in the City of Vinci (even I know that ‘vinci” is latin for I conquered),Rachel McAdams is Ani Bezzerides a Ventura County Sheriff’s detective and Taylor Kitsch plays Paul Woodrugh a motorcycle cop for the California Highway Patrol. Toss in Vince Vaughn as a latter day Macbeth and you have the drama’s main players. It should not go unmentioned that the Mayor of Vinci is played with great gusto by Richie Coster in scene stealing moment, he rivals a riveting scene in Bugsy where Harvey Keitel playing the LA mobster Mickey Cohen goes off Warren Beaty’s Bugsy Seagal.

I suppose ahead of the imminent HBO broadcast of True Detective‘s 2nd season on Father’s Day (a holiday I would still like someone to explain to me), gainfully employed typists are doing their jobs by announcing and opinionating on Nick Palazotti’s new creation. From where I watched, the story continues to spotlight the damaged and troubled men and women tasked with solving our society’s most awful crimes—many that sink way below even the Reptilian.As always a vision from which it is difficult to turn away…

Michael Lewis No. 5…Better than Chanel

4 Jun
Michael Lewis [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Michael Lewis [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

In the course of my prolonged post graduate education (and adolescence) I have been privileged to discourse with countless accomplished, talented, creative and socially conscious people—some a number of times. I may have lost count, but the conversation (my fourth or fifth)that follows with Michael Lewis, author of Flash Boys, Money Ball,The Blind Side, Coach and more, fills in the gaps between Lewis’s published endeavors. At this writing he is awaiting the green light on a series for Showtime (which we discuss) and just started the reporting on what may not be his next book. Not to mention his dedication to the upbringing of his children…

My teenaged jock son (baseball, football), Cuba, joined our table at Boston’s Four Seasons and so in addition to an update on the frequency trading issues (Flash Boys), the talk turns to the awful NCAA, the commodification and monetization of kid sports and our kids performance arts, The Peaky Blinders, the golden age of TV, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and whither goeth the NFL and the sport of football.

After spending four or five hours with Michael Lewis, I continue to be impressed by his reportorial skills and narrative talents and abiding decency, which is good reason to make this chat part of an ongoing, unfinished skein that may yet continue…

Robert Birnbaum: Okay, we’re rolling. This is the 26th of March. My son Cuba is in attendance. He will inherit the business (laughs).

MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s all yours.


MICHAEL LEWIS: [to Cuba]Everything before you, the signed books and the microphone.[to RB] I’m sure you have a library.

Robert Birnbaum: I have a 100 cubic feet storage space —most of which is filled with signed 1st editions,art work and my photo archive.

MICHAEL LEWIS: They will have some value someday.

Robert Birnbaum: Maybe.


Robert Birnbaum: I remember when the man who was the director of the Toronto the International Festival of Authors was canned, after years of his service. And the organization tried to reclaim his[signed] book collection.

Flash Boys by Micheal Lewis

Flash Boys by Micheal Lewis

Robert Birnbaum: Okay, so is this a victory lap for Flash Boys?

MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s the paperback tour. I think the war is still being fought. That’s the problem, and you can see that this war is for trying to establish fairness in the market … these guys [I write about ]in the book, it’s going to take years for them to get big enough.

Robert Birnbaum: Really?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I think so. They’ll become a public exchange in the fall. I just made a bet with someone, and I took the over.

Robert Birnbaum: You’re talking about Brad—

MICHAEL LEWIS: —Katsuyama. There’s such inertia in the financial markets, and the regulators seem inclined to help them a bit but not that much.

Robert Birnbaum: I thought a big problem was that it’s hard to regulate technology.

MICHAEL LEWIS: That’s right. That would be the real risk — that the regulators try to regulate the technology and it ends up screwing up the system in some new, other way. What could be done is the current economic model of the exchanges and the dark pools could totally be challenged. They could ban a payment for order flow. They could ban the maker/ taker model on the exchanges, the bribes and the kickbacks.

Robert Birnbaum: So simply stated, the litigation would be a mistake, right?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I think that’s right, but the market itself, it’s just got lots of inertia. People who work at giant, mutual funds don’t want to tick off their banker by saying, “We’re not going to send you stock market orders anymore because that dark pool is fleecing us’. You would think it’d be easy.

Robert Birnbaum: So they’ll accept that?

MICHAEL LEWIS: They accept it as part of the packages of services. If you are a big bank with Morgan Stanley and they’re covering your firm in various ways, the equity business you give them is a way of paying them for a whole bunch of other services that they’re charging you for.

Robert Birnbaum: You’re saying it’s sort of a ‘tribute’, a hidden cost?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Commissions are already a tribute, but no one wants to get into it with a Wall Street firm because if you’re the person…

Robert Birnbaum: …They’re too big to fail and what else?

MICHAEL LEWIS:They’re too big to fail, and you’re one person, even if you’re a big person inside the giant mutual fund. You don’t want to be identified as the troublemaker in the market.

Robert Birnbaum: Like Brad Katsuyama.

MICHAEL LEWIS: You don’t want to be that because your career is unlikely to be at one firm. You’re going to be out in the job market again. You’re going to be one of those rabble-rousers. It’s just that people are very reluctant on Wall Street to pick fights, and when it happens, it’s so extraordinary. This is why BILL Ackman gets into it with Carl Icahn. It’s very strange.

Robert Birnbaum: How would you rank the litigation, the findings and such that’ve happened since the book came out?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I’ve never had anything like this happen before.

Robert Birnbaum: In terms of effectiveness…

MICHAEL LEWIS: Maybe do it this way—what do I think the most important regulation, legal action that’s happened and what’s the least? I think the most important are the lawsuits brought by the New York Attorney General against the Barclay’s dark pool and probably will be followed up against other bank dark pools. Second, and this sounds, maybe a little loopy, but this class action suit that Michael Lewis, the big tobacco guy, is bringing against the exchanges, I think could be very interesting.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s still in process. How long does it take to litigate cases like this?

MICHAEL LEWIS: A long time. How long did the tobacco lawsuit take. So it’s slow moving, but I think that could be a big deal. The fines that the SEC have lobbied against various high-frequency traders for market manipulation are also really useful because you start to be able to see what’s going on so there’s transparency now.

Robert Birnbaum: Where does that money go, the fines that the SEC collects?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I asked this question yesterday, and I couldn’t get a straight answer. I asked the question of someone… people at MSNBC had calculated all the fines paid by banks as a result of the financial crisis to the Justice Department, and it comes to 82 billion dollars. That’s a piece of change, right?

Robert Birnbaum:Wow. You could buy a fighter plane with that, right? You can burn …

MICHAEL LEWIS: Someone had something for that. Sometimes the money is restored to victims, but most of the time it goes into the general treasury.

Robert Birnbaum: It wouldn’t go to the regulatory agency, like the SEC?

MICHAEL LEWIS: You would think it would be … I don’t think the SEC gets to keep it, and if they did, they’d be self-funded. They wouldn’t need Congress, so I doubt Congress would let them do it. It would actually be an interesting innovation, a way to free the SEC to do its job if it was allowed to keep the ..
Robert Birnbaum: It might incentivize them. Do you feel like you’ve become more of a crusader since you started writing?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I don’t mean to be, but I really do inevitably. I think it’s more that I stumble upon things that obviously need to be crusaded against, but the motive hasn’t changed.

Robert Birnbaum: Its because they end up being interesting stories, right?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yeah. The motive hasn’t changed. I think what has happened is I look for stories that I think are worthy, really long form and it just so happened the financial crisis has yielded a couple of stories.

Robert Birnbaum:You’ve said, I think, that Wall Street is the gift that keeps on giving, so are you done there?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Very cynically— the financial crisis has been very good to me, right? The last thing I want is for them to resolve all this. I don’t have any interest in writing another financial book right now. I’ve got a few other projects that I really want to do, and none of them are …

Robert Birnbaum: You haven’t started the next book?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I’ve been writing a TV show. I started the next thing in the sense that I’ve started reporting. I haven’t started writing it.

Robert Birnbaum: Are you still doing long articles as the first step to writing a book?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Sometimes I do do that, but in this case, I’m not doing that but I haven’t started writing another book. Again,[my] children [see Lewis’s Home Game] slow me down a bit.

The Blind Side by Michael Lewis

The Blind Side by Michael Lewis

Robert Birnbaum: I was hoping that somehow after you wrote The Blind Side that you would take on the NCAA.

MICHAEL LEWIS:I did write a little op-ed for the Times arguing they should pay players.

Robert Birnbaum: Where do you see all that going? Is somebody going to take on NCAA?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Here’s the problem with that. I never take on anybody really, right? If there was a Brad Katsuyama inside college football and he was a really interesting character, it’s conceivable there would be a narrative that would undermine the NCAA.
Robert Birnbaum: What about the Northwestern quarterback who started, I think he started union or was a ..
MICHAEL LEWIS: And there’s Ed O’Bannon, the the former UCLA basketball player. I’m totally on the side of the agitators here. I mean, the NCAA is a grotesque institution right now. If you think about it, actually back away from it, it’s even worse than just pure economic exploitation because in the case of football, it’s exploitation while these kids play a sport that’s probably going to damage them in the long term. And there’s this wall that is put up between poor black kids and the rich white boosters. If you took it down, at the very least there would be some social relationships developed that the kids, after their football careers were over, could go to and lean on, and they’d start to develop … they’d have jobs in the summer and all the rest and would develop careers. I was thinking about what the solution here. In a perfect world, I’d actually say open up pay for players. Let them capture their market value, but something so crude as that is not going to happen. What I could imagine happening is a movement to create trust funds or that they could be tapped when they were 40. Big, fat very fat, pensions so that if you were going to essentially tax the future of these kids by one, not allowing them an education because they just play football all the time and, two, damaging their brains while they play, set aside the money down the road so they’re taken care of. You don’t have to pay them right away, but have a fancy pension plan.

Robert Birnbaum: For all the talk of the student athlete, the NCAA doesn’t seem to really care about the players.

MICHAEL LEWIS: No. On an individual level, I’m sure there’s plenty [who do]. I’m sure coaches care about the ..
Robert Birnbaum: Mark Emmert. The head of the NCAA. He doesn’t strike me as being concerned about the athletes… it’s so hypocritical. It’s so duplicitous.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yes, it is. I would love to know if you just open it up and let the kids get paid what would happen to coaches’ pay. I’m sure it would decline, right? I’m sure it would decline, but by how much, I don’t know. Imagine a world where you say there are none of these rules anymore. If Alabama wants to be number one in the nation, you’ve got to buy the team. How much money would come into it? It would obviously cost the NCAA a lot of money and would probably cost the coaches who are being paid some money.

Robert Birnbaum: You’re assuming there’s a finite amount of money that they can take in, that any particular school could take it.

MICHAEL LEWIS: It would be interesting to price the athletes. I mean, this is an exercise, right, because it’s hard pricing an 18 year old. I guess the football players are more predictable than, say, baseball players are at that age, but even then, there’s lots of uncertainty. It would be an interesting intellectual exercise to decide what the star high school quarterback is worth in college football.

Robert Birnbaum: You might have to step back and figure out what is the whole university system worth today?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Well, our university system is much more complicated than the European, right? It exists for all sorts of reasons other than to educate people.

Robert Birnbaum: I just read that Tennessee is making its schools tuition-free — free college educations. The state of Tennessee …and Germany and Chile are also making college free.

MICHAEL LEWIS: I didn’t see that.

Robert Birnbaum: It seems to me that kids’ sports – I’ve become more aware because of my son – kids’ sports are big business, big money, and a lot of that money is made distinctly against the interests of the kids.


Micheal Lewis with Cuba Birnbaum [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Michael Lewis with Cuba Birnbaum [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Robert Birnbaum [to Cuba]: How much was your baseball program, the fee for one year? $4,000? [this does not include equipment, travel and other incidentals][

Cuba Birnbaum: They raised it to $5,000.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Where is this?

Robert Birnbaum: Near us.

MICHAEL LEWIS: [to Cuba] So which sports do you play?

CUBA BIRNBAUM: I play baseball and football.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Okay. Which is your better sport?

CUBA BIRNBAUM: I’d say now football is.

MICHAEL LEWIS: What position?

CUBA BIRNBAUM: I play offensive tackle and defensive tackle.


CUBA BIRNBAUM: I just got voted a captain so …I’m excited.


CUBA BIRNBAUM: Last year, 9 and 2.

Robert Birnbaum: They were beaten by the Catholic school teams.

CUBA BIRNBAUM: Yeah. Catholic conference team.

Robert Birnbaum: Those guys are always like Alabama, the Catholic schools[they can recruit].

CUBA BIRNBAUM: It’s crazy.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Do you have ambition to play in college?

CUBA BIRNBAUM: I do, yes. I have a big ambition. I’m definitely looking out there.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Is there a chance you’ll be recruited to play in college?

CUBA BIRNBAUM: I believe so, yeah. With my size projectability, I think I definitely have a shot. I need to start reaching out to schools, though. I’m doing a lot of camps in the summer, so I’m excited for that.

MICHAEL LEWIS: How big are you? What do you list at?

CUBA BIRNBAUM: Right now 6’2″, 265.

Robert Birnbaum: I try to put my arms around him, and I can’t … he’s pretty big. The reason I mentioned that baseball program is because now somebody is paying $5,000 a year. What’s the parent’s expectations? What do the people who have that program tell the parents? Of course, they tell the parents the kid’s got a lot of talent. He’s really good and he’s got a shot at Division 1 or something like that.

MICHAEL LEWIS: I’ve seen a slightly scaled down version of that in my girls’ softball a lot, and some sad things happen. Well, parents get too involved. It’s supposed to be fun. That’s the obvious problem, but beyond that, the kids start to get professional at a very young age and so when they’re on a team, they’re not actually teammates. They’re not rooting for each other. They’re rooting against each other because they want the playing time. They want to be the star, and there’s too much at stake.

Robert Birnbaum: The fun is being drained out of it. Now young kids are having pro sports aspirations.
Down in the Caribbean, a lot of these kids start playing seriously at8 or 9, 10,are funneled into academies. And they’re already in debt before they hit the age of 16 when they are eligible to be drafted by MLB.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Well, its also like now math, where you peak very young in life, and so it is a naturally tendency for the market to creep down to the children and professionalize it. Probably music is like this, too, right? Really gifted …

Robert Birnbaum: And tennis.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yeah, but I was thinking about things other than sports. It isn’t just sports where kids’ lives get disrupted by professionalism.

Robert Birnbaum: Chess.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Chess, yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: Dancing, ballet, gymnastics.


Robert Birnbaum: Yeah.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Have you seen Whiplash?

Robert Birnbaum: No.

MICHAEL LEWIS: So Whiplash is the musical equivalent of what we’re discussing. It’s like Juilliard. It’s kids playing until their hands bleed, and the joy is being drained. Sometimes when you hear kids talk about, who are really gifted, say, pianists when they’re really young, they sound a bit like really gifted football players or softball players. The joy gets beaten out of it. It’s something that’s started as that joy and, through the professionalization of it, it becomes something else.

Robert Birnbaum: Well, all this stuff has become commodified.

MICHAEL LEWIS: True. It’s been made to pay in extraordinary ways, right? And the winners do so well, it encourages lots of people to try for it.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, and of course, lots of disappointment. Your writing career started because of your ignorance of the financial world, right?


Robert Birnbaum: The basic core of your writing has always been about interesting people and them solving problems. I can’t [at the moment remember why you wrote Moneyball *. What was the spur for that?
MICHAEL LEWIS:The original spur had nothing to do with the book. It was when free agency came to baseball in a big way.

Moneyball by Michael Lewis

Moneyball by Michael Lewis

Robert Birnbaum: Curt Flood or Andy Messersmith…

MICHAEL LEWIS: I always think of Andy Messersmith, right, but actually it was in the mid-90s, we moved to California. I started to watch the Oakland A’s and noticed at one point that the left fielder was being paid 6 million bucks and the right fielder was being paid 200 million, and my first thought was, “I want to write a piece about whether the right fielder’s pissed off when the left fielder drops the ball.”
But it’s a piece of a class warfare about baseball and I started watching the money, on the field. That led naturally to seeing the discrepancies between the payrolls. Which then led to just idling. I thought it was going to be a magazine piece, and I would call Billy Beane, “Can you explain to me how you compete against 6 times the money?” His answer was so interesting, I started to hang around. Books all go that way. It starts with something … it doesn’t ever start as a book. It starts as a question, and then the question, the answer to the question is so interesting that I want to come back and ask more questions. At some point, I’ve got so many questions, I see this is going to take some time to unravel.

Robert Birnbaum: So you’re normally not inclined to write a book, right?

MICHAEL LEWIS: The things that started … the things that were conceived as books, “Liar’s Poker”, “The New New Thing”, “Moneyball”, “The Blind Side”, “Big Short”, “Flash Boys” and that’s it. The rest could be the collections of magazine pieces or little magazine pieces that were tossed between hard covers, and even those that were conceived as books, I think it’s fair to say that all of them with the exception of “Flash Boys” and maybe “The Big Short” – because I could afford to do it now – were started as little magazine pieces. They just got out of control.

Robert Birnbaum: You couldn’t stop?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Couldn’t stop. I have to spend so much time investing in the subject before I’m comfortable saying I want to write a book about it. It wouldn’t make any sense to go in thinking it’s a book. It’s always you’ve got to go in with small ambitions.

Robert Birnbaum: The Heisenberg Principle says something about the observer changing what is observed by observing. Years ago, people didn’t know who you were. I suppose exponentially “Moneyball” put you …

MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s changed. It’d definitely changed.

Robert Birnbaum: Right. When you talk to people now, do you feel like …

MICHAEL LEWIS: I’m changing what I’m watching?

Robert Birnbaum: Well, they’re changing themselves because of you.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Ah. Yes. The answer is yes, and the way to get around the problem is to spend so much time with them that your presence becomes normal. The first 10 hours of interviews are not all that useful in getting the character. Sometimes you get a lot of information, but if you move into their lives, eventually they surrender.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s like the photographer shooting blanks the first few minutes

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yeah. That’s exactly right. It’s just like that. I try to make my presence so normal that they just forget what it’s all about, and it takes long enough that there’s no way … it’s really hard if I’m with them for a year for them to … things happen. The kind of person who I’ve tended to write about is intelligent enough to realize that’s going to happen, so they just give up and they give up very quickly.

Robert Birnbaum: Most of the time when I talk to people, it’s an hour, hour and a half, and maybe the first half hour is just back and forth. It’s like a cop interrogating someone. At the 5th hour, the guy is not going to give up anything, but by the 20th hour, he’s going give up whatever you want…
MICHAEL LEWIS: You know, it’s funny you say that because I was just thinking about this because I’ve done several episodes of Charlie Rose in the last year, — the 25th anniversary of “Liar’s Poker” came out, the hardback, “Flash Boys”, paperback. I realized when I was sitting there talking to him two days ago that I had actually just completely forgotten I was on television. I was talking to him as I would talk to you in a private situation. Afterwards, I thought, “What the hell did I just say?” How is that going to play? It was very odd.

Robert Birnbaum: Thomas Jefferson, I think he said, “If you never tell a lie, you don’t need a memory.”

MICHAEL LEWIS: This is true. It’s true.

Robert Birnbaum: But we all need to shade some things and maybe not reveal other things.

MICHAEL LEWIS: No. It was more … I was talking about friends. I was talking about other people, and I just didn’t … without a filter.

Robert Birnbaum: He [Charlie Rose] did an interview* with Henri Cartier Bresson. He went to France for it, and Bresson is an incredibly charming old man — it was a great interview. Rose was never more attentive and sensitive to his subject than I saw him then.

MICHAEL LEWIS: He’s got a gift for making people comfortable, and it brings out … you know what it reminds me of? There are interviewers who think that the way you get things out of people is to needle them and the interviewers who realize it’s the opposite. I’m more like Charlie Rose when I talk to people. Do you know the Traveler’s Tale? It was a kid’s story, I think, but the story was about a man who was walking through the landscape with a cloak and the sun and the north wind challenge each other to see who can get him to remove the cloak. The north wind blows and blows, and he just holds the cloak more tightly around him. The sun comes along and makes it nice and gentle, and he removes it voluntarily. This is my approach. I’d rather be the sun.

Robert Birnbaum: The sun?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Right. I’d rather get people to remove their cloaks voluntarily.

Robert Birnbaum: Who actually does decent interviews these days in the mainstream media?


Robert Birnbaum: You’d expect, given some of his guests, you expect a little more persistence [he did hold reporter Judith Miller’s feet to the fire]… His great moment, I thought, was when he was on Crossfire and he just let those guys have it. Colbert is the same thing. I don’t know if John Oliver actually interviews people, …
MICHAEL LEWIS: Did you see his show on NCAA sports?

Robert Birnbaum: Yes. That was great. That was really great.


Robert Birnbaum: He did a show on the US drone program that was also really convincing. Chilling and funny at the same time—the effect is to see the absurdity .
MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s important journalism. It’s actually important journalism.

Robert Birnbaum: Which I think is an evolutionary step from the Colbert/Stewart thing which are still comedic.

MICHAEL LEWIS: It is still funny, though.

Robert Birnbaum: Absolutely.

MICHAEL LEWIS: My 8 year old doesn’t have any idea what the NCAA is or what is going on. He’s rolling with laughter as he’s watching the thing.

Robert Birnbaum: I wonder if there’s a critical mass of media that will affect them, affect the NCAA?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yes. Oh, I think so.

Robert Birnbaum: I know that Joe Nocera at the Times is hammering them. Shelby … it wouldn’t be Shelby Foot, somebody in the Atlantic a couple of years ago wrote a scathing take down on the NCAA, and now some of the more articular players – Richard Sherman. Do you remember the guy at Houston, the runningback, Avery something talked about how they didn’t have enough food? He’s going, “My coach is driving an expensive car, an Infinity or something like that, and I’m here …” So we told the coach, we said, “Coach, we don’t have any food.” He went out and got us 50 McDonald’s burgers… Anyway … What would the critical mass be? The government’s not going to take them on

MICHAEL LEWIS: Well, except the culture’s shifting on the subject. You can feel it just like you can feel the culture shifting on football. Generally, its to your detriment if you want to play, I think it’s this … we move slowly. You might have said exactly the same thing about smoking in the 1950s. You know this because you’re intelligent and on the edge. You know the studies that show there was a link between smoking and cancer. You’d be outraged that the big tobacco companies were able to rig the system and prevent change, then one day it all come collapsing down. I feel like that’s where the NCAA is headed. I feel that’s where football is headed, with concussions. Its not just concussions either. The thing about that sport is if you go and see a former professional football player at the age of 50, it is depressing. It’s not just their brains. It’s their knees. It’s their shoulders. You take such a beating. [to Cuba] With any luck, you won’t be good enough so you can only get so far.

Robert Birnbaum: I’m not a great fan. Cuba gets a lot out of it, and he’s good at it —so what are you going to do? And these kids, you tell them not to lead with their head, they lead with their head.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Right. They’re immortal. That’s the problem.

Robert Birnbaum: Right.

MICHAEL LEWIS: They think it.

Robert Birnbaum:He’s been lucky. You’ve had no serious injuries, right?

CUBA BIRNBAUM: Not a thing.

Robert Birnbaum: But also I have to say, to his credit, he’s not suicidal. He’s not one of these guys who gives up his body in every play. He’s the polite kid who pulls people up from the ground at he end of the play.

CUBA BIRNBAUM: Sometimes. Sometimes.

Robert Birnbaum: If he likes them. I noticed the NFL now has a neutral trainer at games.

MICHAEL LEWIS: To evaluate the players.

Robert Birnbaum: Evaluate the players and make a decision.

MICHAEL LEWIS: They’ll do whatever they can do to …

Robert Birnbaum: To masquerade.

MICHAEL LEWIS: … to put lipstick on the pig.

Robert Birnbaum: Why do Americans like football so much? What happened? Is this just brainwashing over year to year after year after year, spectacle upon spectacle?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I mean, I plead guilty. I think it really works on TV.

Deep Crossers by Nick Dawidoff

Deep Crossers by Nick Dawidoff

Robert Birnbaum: Right. I like the game, too, and I liked it a lot more after I read Nick Dawidoff’s book on the Jets* — the year he spent with the Jets. Did you read that? It’s a terrific book.

MICHAEL LEWIS: I bet it is a terrific book. He’s a great writer.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, and he seemed to do it with the right group, too. Ryan is actually a lively and likable subject, I think, from what I could tell in this book.

MICHAEL LEWIS: I think there are a handful of football subjects I would love to go after… that aren’t polemical… Why do people like it so much? It’s simulated warfare with enough violence to make it plausible. You’re watching generals command armies. You’re watching armies fight.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s interesting. For fans, I think that’s the case. One of Cuba’s coaches stated that he didn’t buy that comparison, and I think maybe that’s okay to tell the players.

CUBA BIRNBAUM: It’s giving respect to those who actually fight in actual war — not calling it warfare in that sense. We’re …

MICHAEL LEWIS: Well, in the olden times, you did give respect to your opponent in warfare.

Robert Birnbaum: Right. That’s right. They were more formality. There were more rules.

MICHAEL LEWIS: You’re obeying a chivalric code.

Robert Birnbaum: Now they have people that bite each other’s ears, break fingers.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Biting seems to be one thing that an athlete does, and his reputation never recovers. You don’t want to bite your opponent. There’s something about a guy biting that just disturbs people.

Robert Birnbaum: Do you think Mike Tyson’s suffered?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert Birnbaum: Really? Well, look at him now. Interesting character, huh?


Robert Birnbaum: Yeah.

MICHAEL LEWIS: I haven’t looked that closely.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah. He’s … a Broadway show. I’ve seen him speak.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Is he on Broadway now?

Robert Birnbaum: He had a Broadway show, I think.

MICHAEL LEWIS: He was good in The Hangover.

CUBA BIRNBAUM: Yeah. The tiger. The tiger is my .
Robert Birnbaum: Did you see Boyhood?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yes, I did see it, and I thought it was extremely good. I still want so badly to know how Richard Linklater did that because how he plotted it, scripted it, whether he let the characters decide … there’s no way he could know where they were going to be or even if they were alive.

Robert Birnbaum: It was a total flier, right?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yeah. It was a total flier. Shocked that it didn’t get the Oscar.

Robert Birnbaum: I’m shocked that Citizenfour won an Oscar.

MICHAEL LEWIS: That it did? That’s interesting. Why?

Robert Birnbaum: First of all, it’s controversial. Second of all, because as a film, it’s pretty flat.

MICHAEL LEWIS: True, except the period when he’s actually in that hotel room.

Robert Birnbaum: Yes, there’s that tension.

MICHAEL LEWIS: There’s a real tension there when it’s actually happening. After that it goes flat.

Robert Birnbaum: I come away certainly from that thinking the guy’s a hero, and I think he should get the Nobel Peace Prize for what he did because he’s just blown open something that people were taking for granted. Maybe they’re still taking it for granted just like high-frequency trading still seems to be acceptable but people are looking at it. I think this NSA invasion of everything is starting to sink in.

MICHAEL LEWIS: One of the great things about that film is it totally undermined the public perception of Edward Snowden which was that he was a sneak.

Robert Birnbaum: And a traitor.

MICHAEL LEWIS: That he was a ne’er-do-well. That he wasn’t thinking when he did it.

Robert Birnbaum: And he had a character flaw, which is why he whistle blew. How did that happen? This big reversal about whistle blowers that are now treated like pariahs.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Well, it depends on the whistle blower, right? Whistle blowers have never, ever been extremely popular. My daughter right now who’s writing a paper for her 10th grade history project is writing about The Pentagon Papers, and Daniel Ellsberg happens to live blocks away.

Robert Birnbaum: Did she get to talk to him?

MICHAEL LEWIS: She more than talked to him. She’s turned her project into a piece about Daniel Ellsberg.

Robert Birnbaum: Wow. Like you. She found a character.

MICHAEL LEWIS: She found a character. That’s right. Her history teacher said, “Actually, forget about the Pentagon Papers. If he’ll talk to you, go do it about him.” There’s even ambivalence about him now. He’s a hero in Berkeley. There are places where they’ll lynch him in America. We have an uncomfortable relationship with people who turn on institutions.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah. That film Michael Mann did on tobacco… The Insider, he lost almost everything, right?

MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s not a good … usually being a whistle blower is not a good career move. It’s brave.

Robert Birnbaum: They are mostly viewed as turncoats.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yes. Some subset of our population views blind loyalty as an admirable character trait, the capacity for it. Disloyalty, no matter what you’re being disloyal to, is a sin, but it’s funny. Even those people if you give them extreme cases – von Stauffenberg’s attempt to assassinate Hitler – they’ll say, “Oh, that was great,” but when there’s more ambiguity to it, people fall back on their emotional, core response.

Robert Birnbaum: There’s a great novel by Justin Cartwright about the most famous plot to kill Hitler, and it involves Isaiah Berlin and some fictitious German. He really gets inside that story. I think it’s called
The Song Before it is Sung (2007)

MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s an incredible story.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah. Didn’t they put Tom Cruise in the movie called Valkyrie ?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I don’t know.

Robert Birnbaum: He plays a Wehrmacht Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. (laughs) What’s the television production writing part of your life now?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I’m a failed screenwriter. That’s the sad truth.

Robert Birnbaum: Most screenwriters are failed screenwriters.

MICHAEL LEWIS: I haven’t given up. I’m on my 4th or 5th pilot, Commissioned. Two for CBS. One for TNT. One for HBO, so this is the 5th, for Showtime. I’m getting better. I’m starting to figure out how to rig the system in my favor, and I’m handing in the pilot next month. It’s done. It just needs some touching up, and I haven’t had time because I’ve been on tour. I think there’s a real shot this time.

Robert Birnbaum: You’re just the writer. You’re not producing, you’re not casting?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Produce and writing.

Robert Birnbaum: So if you’re producing ..
MICHAEL LEWIS: I’ll help run the show if anything. That’s what I will do as a job, and I won’t write a book for a while. I’m that interested in it. I tell you, these are my ambitions. I would love to have a really great drama on the air and then use it as an excuse to write a play. I’ve always been interested in the theater, and I would love to do that. On the other hand, it’s nice to have things you still want to do, so maybe I should wait so I still have things I want to do. If I got to write a play right now, I wouldn’t have anything left.

Robert Birnbaum: (laughs) Well, something might come up. What are the great dramas that you think are on television now? Are there any for you?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Oh, my God. The ones that are … some have come and gone. Breaking Bad.

Robert Birnbaum: I never got that one, but I’m the only one.


Robert Birnbaum: Yeah. The Wire?

MICHAEL LEWIS: The Wire and The Sopranos were the originals. The Wire especially.
The Wire was just a breathtaking achievement.

Robert Birnbaum: Dostoevskian, I think.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Or Dickensian or … it was a novel on the screen, and it showed what you could do. In the moment, when they’re creating that thing, it didn’t attract, in the beginning, that much attention or that much of an audience.

Robert Birnbaum: They weren’t almost going to do a 4th or 5th season.

MICHAEL LEWIS: But they’ll sell DVDs of that thing forever, and it’s nice that model now exists because it means that you can do that kind of quality work and not go whoring after eyeballs right away and find a home for it. It’s the golden age of television… Well, Homeland, I think Homeland is fantastic.

Robert Birnbaum: Netflix stuff is getting interesting.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Mm-hmm (affirmative). House of Cards lost me the moment it became … it detached so far from whatever could happen.

Robert Birnbaum: I thought the 1st season was okay, but the 2nd season … it does have strong—it’s very strong casting.

MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s beautifully performed.

Robert Birnbaum: Everybody looks good on screen— there is a 3rd season coming.

MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s amazing what you can get away with if you have really talented actors. I was just watching … two nights ago, I went to a play in New York, The Audience, which is with Helen Mirren, a Queen Elizabeth thing.

Robert Birnbaum: She’s magnificent.

MICHAEL LEWIS: If you just read … I haven’t read the play. If you just read the play, you’d think, “This is going to be the most boring play ever produced. There could be nothing on paper that would be all that interesting,” and the performances are riveting. I mean, you’re totally captivated because of what the actor is doing.

Robert Birnbaum: I get that—I could never read Shakespeare, but I love watching the plays performed. I don’t get reading it. I guess I don’t have enough imagination to enliven the characters, but I love it. I love the drama. Netflix did that woman prison movie. Not bad.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Orange is the New Black? I have only seen a few of them, and it was really good.

Robert Birnbaum: Certainly an unexpected place to go. I don’t know if you’ve seen this one, Peaky Blinders?

MICHAEL LEWIS: What’s it called?

Robert Birnbaum: Peaky Blinders. This is about criminal gangs in Birmingham, England post World War I, and they’re all competing and one of them, the Peaky Blinders, is trying to get big enough to go to London.


Robert Birnbaum: They have Tom Hardy. Tom … is in this. Great actor. He just did this film called Locke where he does a movie entirely in a car. I don’t know if you’ve heard of that one. Anyway, he plays a Jewish mobster. He’s like Fagan. He’s funny, and he’s also an Elmore. Leonard character He’s funny, but he’s …

MICHAEL LEWIS: Where did it air?

Robert Birnbaum: Netflix. They’ve done two seasons, and I think they’re doing a 3rd. Yeah. You’re right. It is the golden age of television, and I think it’s finally because whoever’s doing it is letting writers write.

MICHAEL LEWIS:The shows no longer require big audiences. They require passionate audiences, and that is the key.

Robert Birnbaum: Right. That’s right.

MICHAEL LEWIS: The people who are producing or creating, producing these things are paid to understand that. All I need is a passionate following.
Robert Birnbaum: They’re enlarging the shelf life of these shows . I think ‘hit; used to mean we’re grabbing the money and six months from now, no one will remember, but now these things all have a longer life. Is your stuff fictional or …

MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s fictional.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s all fictional?

MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s fictional, but it’s drawn from …

Robert Birnbaum: Based on true stories? Or the ever popular “Inspired by a true story”?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Based on a true story. It’s actually not based on a true story. The characters are based on true characters. They’re characters pulled out of the 1920s on Wall Street. They’re some great characters. They’re characters who are worthy of being dramatized, and the situation rhymes with net (????). It’s a way of describing how the financial system first came to be, and there’s enough of an echo in that time with what’s happening now. You get at what’s happening now through that in a much more concrete, simpler way.

Robert Birnbaum: So you say you’re waiting for approval?

MICHAEL LEWIS: So Showtime hasn’t seen it. They’ve seen an outline with which they were very pleased, and the script will go in in the next couple of weeks and then we’ll wait and see.

Robert Birnbaum: You can do a lot more in a film version of something, of a story…

MICHAEL LEWIS: Each medium has its strengths, right? There are things that are hard to get across in film. There are things that are easier. I get a lot of pleasure out of figuring out how to do new things well, and it actually is informing the books and the magazine pieces because the storytelling that goes on in a script, it’s got to be so compressed. It’s so unforgiving, and everything has got to have a point and drive the story forward. That discipline is really useful to just have in the back of your mind when you’re writing something where you actually don’t have that constraint. I think I’m going to get better at keeping the reader because of it.

Robert Birnbaum: You just reminded me that now, these days, when I see the dog in the story in a film, I know something bad’s going to happen. I think these directors are including this as a cue … seriously. What’s the point of having a dog in the story unless something terrible could happen
MICHAEL LEWIS:Marley and Me.

Robert Birnbaum: Well, that was totally bad. Oh, yeah. Yeah.

MICHAEL LEWIS:Give me an example. I don’t even know what you’re talking about.

Robert Birnbaum: God, I just saw a movie [Mister Pip] and they shot the dog.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Where the dog got shot?

Robert Birnbaum: The dog got shot
MICHAEL LEWIS: Like Old Yeller. Actually, maybe you’re onto something here.

Robert Birnbaum Percival Everett* used a funny dog thing his Western send up In God’s Country the dog’s fate receives the most sympathy …

MICHAEL LEWIS: A sudden doom came over you.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, and I think I’ve been set up like that before. You’re still doing magazines? Are you exclusive to Vanity Fair?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yes. I will write columns for Bloomberg, and I can imagine there might be some piece that Vanity Fair wouldn’t want that I’d have to go somewhere else.

Robert Birnbaum: Do you have to give it to them first?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I don’t have to, but I like them.

Robert Birnbaum Your were friendly with Adam Moss at the New York Times. He is gone, right?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I did stuff with Adam and my editor there was Gerry Marzorati who then took over for Adam.
Robert Birnbaum: They redesigned it didn’t they?

MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s funny. There was a time pre-internet or even when the internet was in its early days when that magazine felt like the center of the universe. If you put something there, everybody you knew saw it, and now it feels like no matter where you put something, because it’s on the web everybody’s going to see it. Placement means much less than it used to. A lot of the value of that magazine has been undermined, I think, by the internet.

Robert Birnbaum: I do have a digital subscription to the Times and so when I look at the thing I just see so little to read that I want to read.
MICHAEL LEWIS: I think they’ve changed their minds about this – but they basically abandoned their commitment to long format. They shortened the articles. They shortened the magazine. They didn’t trust the attention span of the reader, and that was a huge error because that’s all they had. They can’t compete with the internet. If you want a distracted reader, you’re never going to beat the internet, but they could run a 10,000 word piece and make it big and say this is important and demand you turn off everything and read it. People did, and that was very, very valuable and they should never have walked away from it.

Robert Birnbaum: Well, I think the magazine is now designed for the net. It’s not designed for print.

MICHAEL LEWIS: That’s true.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s not designed to be held.

MICHAEL LEWIS: This is true.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s a sad thing. Have we missed any medium that you’re not in? Books, magazines, television.

MICHAEL LEWIS: I’m not really in television. I’m trying.

Robert Birnbaum: Well, I’d say you were in. You’re spending your time doing it. You’re in.

MICHAEL LEWIS: On Monday, the film for “The Big Short” starts shooting in New Orleans. I think it’s going to be really good, but I don’t have anything to do with it.

Robert Birnbaum: They just optioned it and that was it?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Paramount bought it with Brad Pitt. Brad Pitt’s in it, but the only reason it’s happening is this fellow, Adam McKay, who’s Will Ferrell’s writer and partner in crime on the Funny or Die website got obsessed with it. He wrote this spectacular script, and he’s attracted all this talent to it.

Robert Birnbaum: So they showed it to you? They showed you the script?

MICHAEL LEWIS: They did. It’s not a broad comedy like he’s done before. It’s different. It’s very powerful. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be fun.

Robert Birnbaum: Well, there are comedies that have punchlines and jokes and there are comedies that are comedic because the situations are comedic. As a New Orleansian, I meant to ask you, have you watched Treme?

MICHAEL LEWIS:Yes, the first couple of episodes.

Robert Birnbaum: What do you think?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Didn’t do it for me. My wife really likes it and swears that I would, if I sat down with the whole thing and tried to watch it in a gulp, I’d care about it and I may one day, but it felt … so often when people come from the outside in New Orleans, they notice the stuff that’s picturesque, picaresque and are drawn to it, and they direct it at the expense of getting at the actual soul of the place. They think that’s the soul of the place, and he isn’t that far off but it felt like very much an outsider’s take.

Robert Birnbaum: Did you watch Spike Lee’s movie on Katrina?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yeah. It seemed crazy, I thought. I don’t think the government tried to blow up the levees.

Robert Birnbaum: He’s does leave you with that impression.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Anybody who I think is being honest about New Orleans now would say the city is in so much better shape now than it was before the storm, so much better shape. There’s still problems, but it’s a vibrant place with a future instead of a charming place with a past.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s sort of like knocking down all the old projects. In Chicago, they knocked down a bunch of old housing projects. That had to be done.

MICHAEL LEWIS: You couldn’t have done it. You couldn’t have replaced the school system with a charter school system. You couldn’t have upgraded the healthcare system.

Robert Birnbaum: The charter school initiatives are taking a beating, a lot of bad examples of corruption and …
MICHAEL LEWIS: There are a lot of bad examples. There’s no way it could be worse than what was there before in that case, and I know because my mother helped create one of them, two of them. I’ve spent some time in these places, and there was no public school – well, maybe there was one, but for very gifted kids – but they’re basically so much better than before …

Robert Birnbaum: When do you have to leave for the airport?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I have to go now.

Robert Birnbaum: Thank you.

MICHAEL LEWIS: All right, Robert.

Robert Birnbaum:I hope it isn’t 10 years until the next time.

MICHAEL LEWIS: No, no. It won’t be. It really won’t be. Good to see you.

Robert Birnbaum: Good to see you.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Thanks for making the time for me.

Robert Birnbaum: Oh, absolutely.

MICHAEL LEWIS: It was a pleasure as always.

Robert Birnbaum: I feel the same way.

MICHAEL LEWIS: [To Cuba] If you ever get your bell rung, get yourself out of the game.


* My [2nd]and most recent conversation with Nick Dawidoff here

* My conversation with Percival Everett here.

* One of my conversations with Michael Lewis here.

*Charlie Rose interview with Henri Cartier Bresson here

Same Old New Thing or Same New Old Thing

25 May

Young Elephant Playing on The Beach [photo: John Linde]

Young Elephant Playing on The Beach [photo: John Linde]

You’d think that by now someone (not necessarily a clever someone) would have come up with a rubric having a little more pizzazz than the tired old equine that is regularly beaten around this time every year—beach read, summer reading. Personally, I have run out of fresh ideas of how to mock this empty category but as this annual light literary lifting does speak to the existence of the demand for such froth. – Thus I would feel remiss, as a responsible literary journalist, in ignoring,

A Game of Their Own  by Jennifer Ring

A Game of Their Own by Jennifer Ring

A Game of Their Own: Voices of Contemporary Women in Baseball by Jennifer Ring Softball so early cuts girls out of hardball it appears to be a little acknowledged that some women actually play and compete both nationally and internationally. In fact, Team USA captured a bronze medal at the fourth Women’s Baseball World Cup in Caracas, Venezuela, in 2010. Jennifer Ring, political science mentor at the University of Nevada, Reno( Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don’t Play Baseball)via interviews unpacks the previously unobserved history of women in baseball as well as making clear the challenges facing women hard ball players—the the relentless pressure to switch to softball as well as lack of support.

The Note Book  by Jeff Nunokawa

The Note Book by Jeff Nunokawa

Note Book by Jeff Nunokawa I am quite certain that this book may be one of the more unusual books I come across in the near term (additionally there is The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May by Mark Z. Danielewski and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s The Notebooks to this very short, short list) Princeton English mentor Jeff Nunokawa has been has posting brief essays on the Internet every single morning for the last eight years. This tome is something of a loose anthology of 250 of the most “powerful and memorable” of these essays, many augmented by various images originally posted alongside them. Nunokawa often begin with a quotation from writers such as —George Eliot, Henry James, Gerard Manley Hopkins, W. H. Auden, Robert Frost, or James Merrill and so on. Structurally, this collection (for lack of a better word) offers a purposeful incompleteness—allowing endless revision of the entries into this inadverdant journal). As the good professor advises early in his almost opaque introduction—go to the text, pick any item, in any order. Holding this virtual weave together is its creator’s sense of alienation. He offers:

The hunger for a feeling of connection that informs most everything I’ve written flows from a common break in a common heart, one I share with everyone I’ve ever really known.

The Notebooks  by Jean-Michel Basquiat

The Notebooks by Jean-Michel Basquiat

The Notebooks by Jean-Michel Basquiat & Larry Warsh Although I viewed the young artist Jean-Michel Basquiat as a sympathetic figure (an addict and young suicide0 it took me two decades to gain an appreciation of his paintings and point of view.Through August 23, 2015 the Brooklyn Museum exhibits Brooklyn-born Jean-Michel Basquiat’s (1960-88)Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks. The exhibition curated by Dieter Buchhart guest curator with Tricia Laughlin Bloom,is described here:

From 1980 to 1987, he[Basquiat]filled numerous working notebooks with drawings and handwritten texts. This facsimile edition reproduces the pages of eight of these fascinating and rarely seen notebooks for the first time.The notebooks are filled with images and words that recur in Basquiat’s paintings and other works. Iconic drawings and pictograms of crowns, teepees, and hatch-marked hearts share space with handwritten texts, including notes, observations, and poems that often touch on culture, race, class, and life in New York. Like his other work, the notebooks vividly demonstrate Basquiat’s deep interests in comic, street, and pop art, hip-hop, politics, and the ephemera of urban life. They also provide an intimate look at the working process of one of the most creative forces in contemporary American art. The notebooks are filled with images and words that recur in Basquiat’s paintings and other works. Iconic drawings and pictograms of crowns, teepees, and hatch-marked hearts share space with handwritten texts, including notes, observations, and poems that often touch on culture, race, class, and life in New York. Like his other work, the notebooks vividly demonstrate Basquiat’s deep interests in comic, street, and pop art, hip-hop, politics, and the ephemera of urban life. They also provide an intimate look at the working process of one of the most creative forces in contemporary American art.

Fellow 90’s celebrity painter Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic Basquiat provided rich snapshots of downtown Manhattan’s art scene in the time of Warhol along with an impressionistic thread of the young artist’s short life And the recent documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child filled in some blanks

Sweet Mary Jane: 75 Delicious Cannabis-Infused High-End Desserts  by Karin Lazarus

Sweet Mary Jane: 75 Delicious Cannabis-Infused High-End Desserts by Karin Lazarus

Sweet Mary Jane: 75 Delicious Cannabis-Infused High-End Desserts by Karin Lazarus As legalization train gains speed the book publishing business will no doubt follow with an outpouring of pot inspired titles.

From Bauhaus to Buenos Aires  by Grete Stern &  Horacio Coppola

From Bauhaus to Buenos Aires by Grete Stern & Horacio Coppola

MOMA’s Bauhaus to Buenos Aires: Grete Stern and Horacio Coppola is the first major exhibition (May 17–October 4, 2015) to focus on the German-born Grete Stern and the Argentinean Horacio Coppola, two leading figures of avant-garde photography As MOMA”S site points out,”The couple effectively imported the lessons of the Bauhaus to Latin America, and revolutionized the practice of art and commercial photography on both sides of the Atlantic by introducing such innovative techniques as photomontage, embodied in Stern’s protofeminist works for the women’s journal Idilio, and through Coppola’s experimental films and groundbreaking images for the photographic survey Buenos Aires.” The exhibition catalogue features a selection of newly translated original texts by Stern and Coppola, and essays by curators Roxana Marcoci and Sarah Meister and scholar Jodi Roberts.

Divine Punishment  by Sergio Ramirez &  Nick Caistor

Divine Punishment
by Sergio Ramirez & Nick Caistor

Divine Punishment by Sergio Ramirez, translated by Nick Caistor The benighted Central American nation of Nicaragua is a land of poets and baseball and the home of writer Sergio Ramírez , who served his country as Vice President under the beleaguered Sandinista regime. He is known for Divine Punishment, which Carlos Fuentes opined, the quintessential Central American novel.Ramirez used a famous criminal trial —the alleged murders in 1933 of two high society women and his employer by a social-climbing bon vivant named Oliverio Castañeda to examine Nicaraguan society at the brink of the first Somosa dictatorship. As the publisher describes ” Passion, money, sex, gossip, political intrigue, medical malpractice and judicial corruption all merge into a novel that reads like a courtroom drama wrapped in yellow journalism disguised as historical fiction posing as a scandal of the first order.”

 I Was a Child: A Memoir by Bruce Eric Kaplan

I Was a Child: A Memoir by Bruce Eric Kaplan

I Was a Child: A Memoir by Bruce Eric Kaplan Seemingly cartoonists are increasingly (or at least New Yorker cartoonists ala Rox Chast )creating memoirs mixing their offbeat experiences and points of view with their signature drawings,in Kaplan’s case family outings and life at home-road trips, milk crates, hamsters, ashtrays, a toupee, a platypus, and much more.The following video illuminates:

Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World   by Eduardo Galeano

Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World
by Eduardo Galeano

Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World by Eduardo Galeano With the recent passing of the great Uruguayan author, soccer fan and social justice activis,t Eduardo Galeano the world has lost one of its most eloquent and humane critics of the regnant social order. His major works Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent and his Memories of Fire Trilogy should be must reading for anyone aspiring to some level of social consciousness. But perhaps as an introduction. The publisher describes Upside Down:

In a series of mock lesson plans and a “program of study” Galeano provides an eloquent, passionate, funny and shocking exposé of First World privileges and assumptions. From a master class in “The Impunity of Power” to a seminar on “The Sacred Car”–with tips along the way on “How to Resist Useless Vices” and a declaration of the “The Right to Rave”–he surveys a world unevenly divided between abundance and deprivation, carnival and torture, power and helplessness. We have accepted a “reality” we should reject, he writes, one where poverty kills, people are hungry, machines are more precious than humans, and children work from dark to dark. In the North, we are fed on a diet of artificial need and all made the same by things we own; the South is the galley slave enabling our greed

Eduardo Galeano and my  beloved Dalai Labrador, Rosie [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Eduardo Galeano and my beloved Dalai Labrador, Rosie [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Here’s Eduardo on Democracy Now

A Narco History  by Carmen Boullosa &  Mike Wallace

A Narco History by Carmen Boullosa & Mike Wallace

A Narco History: How the United States and Mexico Jointly Created the “Mexican Drug War” by Carmen Boullosa and Mike Wallace There is no more an intractable problem than the so called war on drugs or narco terrorism or whatever ever you choose to call the homicidal (but murder on a massive scale). Even the fundamental racism built into the American system offers the possibility of redress in a few generations. Mexican novelist Carmen Boullosa (she has written 15 novels,the latest isTexas:The Great Theft )Pulitzer Prize winning historian and a co-founder of the Radical History Review Mike Wallace concisely survey this debacle that has now killed well over 100,000 people. They even offer a solution. There is no shortage of literature that spotlights the Drug war and the separate foreign country that is the Mexican American border. Don Winslow’s magnum opus The Power of the Dog reads like John Lecarre with it plausible take on the complicity of the CIA and DEA,The Vatican, Wall Street, US organized crime, The Mexican Government and security agencies, Columbian Leftist guerillas—did I leave anyone out? Winslow’s long awaited follow up The Cartel is soon to be published (with a film version not far behind) The late Charles Bowdon made a career (in a good way) of spotlighting the deepening abyss of the Borderland. His bibliography is a rich wellspring of information and insights into this dark subject and a good place to start is Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields In Roberto Bolano’s epic 2666, that novel’s middle section “The Part about the Crimes” (some 200 pages) is a litany of the women murdered in Ciudad Jaurez in one year. And Teresa Rodríguez’s The Daughters of Juarez: A True Story of Serial Murder South of the Border chronicles this deadly mayhem Former Boston journalist Al Giordano has done the thankless work of focusing on this ‘story’ for years at The Narco News Bulletin Here’s report that is as good as fiction:

The current scandal over Colombian narco-traffickers paying prostitutes to provide sex services to DEA agents has an even deeper footprint in the agency than the current head of the DEA has conceded, court records stemming from past DEA operations reveal.

My Fight / Your Fight  by Ronda Rousey &  Maria Burns Ortiz

My Fight / Your Fight by Ronda Rousey & Maria Burns Ortiz

My Fight / Your Fight by Ronda Rousey with Maria Burns Ortiz Touted as the “the toughest woman on Earth” former Olympic judo medal winner Rousey tells her story.As these things go, its a good one. Ronda is a fighter. She competes in MMA (that’s mixed martial arts) She’s big (as in celebrification). She’s smart. Here she talks with male chauvinist pig: She appears to speak from the heart. Here with Mike Tyson. And the camera loves her. She’s going to be really big.


20 May

painting of Red Diaz  [by Eric What's his name]

painting of Red Diaz [by Eric What’s his name]

Robert Birnbaum received his first 35 mm camera (a Pentax)in 1967. The subjects of his first attempts at photography were everything—neighborhood characters,political demonstrations,be-ins,passers-by and what not.The then current model for photographers was right out of Antonioni’s film Blow Up. Robert’s visual sensibility developed in earnest during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.

Norman Mailer et al, Grant Park, August 1968 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Norman Mailer et al, Grant Park, August 1968 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Honeywell Pentax 35 MM (circa 1967)

Honeywell Pentax 35 MM (circa 1967)

All these many years later he has amassed an inchoate archive of images of famous and unheralded writers, Cuba , Nicaragua, Israel, my dogs Rosie and Beny and a gargantuan trove of stupid Party Pics drawing on Boston’s demimonde replete with poseurs and strivers circa 1983-1998. His favorite best pictures are of Howard Zinn, Joan Didion, Studs Terkel, William Burroughs and Eduardo Galeano

Studs Terkel [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Studs Terkel [photo: Robert Birnbaum]


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