28 Nov


This is a brilliant if not optimistic observation by Michael Moore. Let it be tested by releasing those horrific photos…

After Newtown— I think this was the President’s finest moment, after the Newtown massacre of 26 children,

And now our President intones, “This is not normal. We can’t let it become normal,” he added. “Enough is enough.” Well, Jews,after WWII proclaimed, ‘Never again.” What they meant was, ‘Never again would Jews be herded into camps and liquidated in Europe in mid 20th century.”

You remember Columbine (these events are now known by one word). Here’s then President Clinton:

Clinton and his wife later visit Littleton Colorado (His speech begins at 31:21)

Don’t forget Michael Moore’s take Bowling for Columbine

Or Gus Van Zant’s Elephant

A few years ago I had a chat with Canadian writer/artist Doug Coupland about his novel Hey Nostradamus! set in 1988 about a high school cafeteria shooting that—as it must—profoundly alters a suburban community.

RB: You designed the icon that is on the cover of Hey Nostradamus! And on your website you have that photograph from the Columbine cafeteria that you entitle ‘Tropical Birds’ after the ATF agent’s observation about all the cell phones ringing. Why haven’t you put more visual elements into your books?

DC: What I am doing now is—I used to do a lot of non-fiction and short fiction and now it’s just long-form fiction, novels, and a lot of visual work. And it’s a conscious decision. The ‘Tropical Birds,’ that happened, I was in Harbor Front [literary festival] (I can’t wait to get to the telephone and find out what the hell is going on there) 400, 500 people and someone’s phone went off in the middle. And it just brought to mind that exact paragraph from the Rocky Mountain News…

RB: In which an ATF agent says the phones were going off and it sounded like tropical birds?

DC: Yeah. So without telling anyone in the audience why, I said ‘Okay, who’s got a phone’ and called them up. ‘Now go to your neighbor and find out their number and phone them and they’ll phone you back or whatever. House, could you dim down the lights?’ Everybody thought it was ‘hee hee, really funny.’ Or whatever, David Byrne-postmodern. And then it went on for a minute and it had its own texture. And then the lights came up and the phones turned off and I told them what I was basing this on. And there was this reaction like everyone had been kicked in the gut. Then in Paris, at the Parisian Literary Festival, I did the same thing except I told people in advance why I am doing it and they did it and then the lights came up and everybody was in tears. There was this gasp of astonishment. Like how often do you hear the singing voice of the human soul? That’s one of the few instances where visual stuff and written work have dovetailed so neatly….

Will this form of senseless killing ever end?

Turkey Day

23 Nov


In addition to Halloween and Columbus Day, I find Thanksgiving an abhorrent holiday, a celebration of the false notions that Europeans and Native Americans could and would live in harmony and comity ever after. We know better. Or some of us do.

Genocide by Other Means: U.S. Army Slaughtered Buffalo in Plains Indian Wars .

Genocide by Other Means: U.S. Army Slaughtered Buffalo in Plains Indian Wars .

So while the refugee population (330 million) of that exceptional nation its inhabitants like to call the United States of America (I prefer Gore Vidal and Emminem’s The United States of Amnesia) gobbles down the traditional high caloric deluge (one of such would probably would be sufficient to feed a village in Haiti or MesoAmerica) and watch young men and felons (check out the SEC football team rosters)beat out each others brains, all the while preparing for the hysteria and mania of the ineptly named Black Friday,let me offer a different path—perhaps one on the way to enlightenment.

I remain hopeful.

I am sending notice of three books that have found their way to me because of that hope

War is Beautiful by David Shields

War is Beautiful by David Shields

I have been following David Shields’s work* a good, long while now —his transmogrification from novelist to literary zealot**(see Reality Hunger and Fakes) has been an engaging development. His new opus is a riveting and unsettling look at one of the pillars of US main stream media,
War Is Beautiful: The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict*** Shield’s explains

David Hickey introduces the book:

…Shields analyzed over a decade’s worth of front-page war photographs from the New York Times and came to a shocking conclusion: the photo-editing process of the “paper of record,” by way of pretty, heroic, and lavishly aesthetic image selection, pulls the wool over the eyes of we its readers; with this discovery Shields forces us to face not only the media’s complicity in dubious and catastrophic military campaigns but our own as well. This powerful media mouthpiece, the mighty Times, far from being a check on governmental power, is in reality a massive amplifier for its dark forces by virtue of the way it aestheticizes warfare. Anyone baffled by the willful American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan can’t help but see in this book how eagerly and invariably the Times led the way in making the case for these wars through the manipulation of its visuals. Shields forces the reader to weigh the consequences of our own passivity in the face of these images’ opiatic numbing…

For decades, upon opening the New York Times every morning and contemplating the front page, I was entranced by the war photographs. My attraction to the photographs evolved into a mixture of rapture, bafflement, and repulsion. Over time I realized that these photos glorified war through an unrelenting parade of beautiful images whose function is to sanctify the accompanying descriptions of battle, death, destruction, and displacement. I didn’t completely trust my intuition, so over the last year I went back and reviewed New York Times front pages from the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 until the present. When I gathered together hundreds and hundreds of images, I found my original take corroborated: the governing ethos was unmistakably one that glamorized war and the sacrifices made in the service of war.

Juan Cole observes

After U.S. troops left Iraq, former Times Baghdad bureau chief John F. Burns wrote in a Times war blog: “America, for all its mistakes—- including, as so many believe, the decision to invade in the first place—- will at least have the comfort of knowing that it did pretty much all it could do, within the limits of popular acceptance in blood and treasure, to open the way for a better Iraqi future.” President Lyndon Johnson said about Viet Nam, “I can’t fight this war without the support of the New York Times.” A Times war photograph is worth a thousand mirrors.

Art is an ordering of nature and artifact. The Times uses its front-page war photographs to convey that a chaotic world is ultimately under control, encased within amber. In so doing, the paper of record promotes its institutional power as protector of death-dealing democracy and curator of Western civilization. Who is culpable? We all are; our collective psyche and memory are inscribed in these photographs. Behind these sublime, destructive, illuminated images are hundreds of thousands of unobserved, anonymous war deaths; this book is witness to a graveyard of horrendous beauty.


You may be unaware of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, a collection of more than 10,000 contemptible collectible. David Pilgrim’s Understanding Jim Crow: Using Racist Memorabilia to Teach Tolerance and Promote Social Justice corrects that gap in our cultural literacy:

The items are offensive and they were meant to be offensive. The items in the Jim Crow Museum served to dehumanize Blacks and legitimized patterns of prejudice, discrimination, and segregation. Using racist objects as teaching tools seems counterintuitive—and, quite frankly, needlessly risky. Many Americans are already apprehensive discussing race relations, especially in settings where their ideas are challenged. The museum and this book exist to help overcome our collective trepidation and reluctance to talk about race


Historian Paul Buhle’s ouevre is impressive and he adds to it with his editing hand of Kate Evans’s Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg

Rosa Luxemburg a revolutionary socialist theorist and activist was a German Jew who opposed the the First World War (as many others on the left did not) and thus was imprisoned and eventually murdered in 1919. There is not a lot of attention paid in our brave new free market, globalist world (there was a 1986 film Rosa Luxemburg by Margarethe von Trotta)

to dissident thinkers and activists which makes this wonderful tome all the more valuable. Here is a more complete sample from Red Rosa



Now if you are especially ambitious and concerned you might go to the fountain head of revisionist US History , Howard Zinn’s The People’s History.




* 2002 Identitytheory conversation with David Shields

**my most recent conversation with David at the LA Review of Books

***in which the author explains why he no longer reads The New York Times

Count Us Lucky : Loving Barry Crimmins

14 Nov
Barry Crimmins ,circa 2001 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Barry Crimmins ,circa 2001 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]


..I’m of the country that feel like I do…and that’s why I don’t give a shit about American Dreams…I mean that’s who I am. I’m of the country of raped little kids. I’m of the country of the fucking heart-broken. And of the screwed over and the desperate with-no-chance to be heard. That’s what country I’m from.

From Call Me Lucky

I’d like to think (and certainly hope) that if you have not been rendered brain dead by the relentless onslaught of horrible news(terrorist attacks, plagues, homicidal natural disasters, homicidal man-made disasters[plane crashes, train wrecks]the ongoing traveling Know Nothing Circus & Gong Show, mass shooting sprees and the like) you would be aware of Bob Goldwaite’s bio documentary Call Me Lucky—his well crafted and loving paean to social activist, anti papist, comedic samurai/sensei Barry Crimmins* (now streaming on Netflix)

As a expatriated Chicagoan, there has not been much that has gladdened my heart about having lived in the Boston area( my sense of the Golden Corridor is that is a cosmic psyche experiment)—so I count myself fortunate to have met a number of special people here— Barry Crimmins being one (Howard Zinn being one if the others). In addition to occasionally seeing Barry do a stand up act, I have been present for him acting as master of ceremony at events (such as when Rosa Parks was honored). Or performed for benefits such as Baseballs for Nicaragua.I recall driving out to the Peace Abbey in Sherborn MA on a snowy winter day, joining an intimate group of well wishers to honor (as shown in the film ) Maya Angelou and Barry with Howard Zinn articulating the reasons for the awards

Sara Larson usefully synopsizes Call MeLucky and Crimmins admission to the comedians’s guild,The Friars Club:

The film introduces Crimmins in a succession of old clips—dark-haired and hollow-eyed, with a frown-shaped Meathead mustache—railing against ignorance and injustice while drinking, smoking, and whipping himself into a profane frenzy. These are interspersed with recent clips of comedians—David Cross, Patton Oswalt, Stephen Wright, Marc Maron, Margaret Cho, and others—talking about him.

“He was a guy who you heard about before you saw him,” Cross says.

“Barry Crimmins was this weird mythical force,” Maron says. “A judgmental sage of some kind that I didn’t quite get.” Cho says, “I feel like people should claim him more, because I think he has much more of an influence than anybody realizes.” Friends and peers describe him as looking like Ambrose Bierce, Charles Manson, Fidel Castro, “a cross between Noam Chomsky and Bluto.” …

I spoke to Barry in his upstate home a few years ago:

RB: My first thoughts about your move here from Cleveland was that you were using this as a place to recharge your batteries and make forays into the world at large. But this conversation suggests a greater intimacy with your locale. This is not a retreat, so much.

BC: I wouldn’t say it’s a retreat. But it serves that purpose because I feel like I belong here, so my personal rhythm is more in sync than it would be elsewhere. Therefore I think the batteries take a better charge here. Also, just being on this property, there’s a lot of stuff to take care of and that’s good. I have to do something other than just sit around and be a wise ass. I actually have to go out and mow the lawn and fix the gardens up and take care of things.

It’s interesting because you can go kind of snow blind just staring at a computer all day. You can do your work at the computer for a few hours and then you go out and do something worthwhile. Even if you don’t write anything worth a damn all day at least you get the lawn mowed. So, I like that.

There are things that are more jarring here, for me, than anywhere else. Particularly because I know the people and I know what goes on. Karen and I stopped at a yard sale. And this guy started telling us this story about selling his cows to this guy we know. “Jewed him down, a bit.” He just matter-of-factly said, “I Jewed him down.” And Karen was completely shocked, but I thought it was good for her because she romantically thinks everybody is wonderful, that they’re these rural pastoral figures come out of a Grandma Moses portrait. When in fact they are—vile.(laughs) Although this guy wasn’t completely hateful. That’s the complexity of it. That’s just a term he’s used his whole life. He’s a seventy-year-old man. But just matter-of-factly anti-Semitism rolled off his tongue. He’s completely fluent in it. Karen headed off and I stayed for a minute pretending I was looking at a tractor and then I told him afterwards, “Well, you know she’s Jewish.” (laughs)She’s a quarter Jewish, but that’s plenty Jewish. That’s enough to get you sent to a death camp, at one point. I figure that’s Jewish enough to refer to her as Jewish. And the guy felt badly, as if he had injured somebody. I could tell. So they are not all evil.

Barry’s website is chock-a-block of information about Barry including his Dec 29 appearance in Somerville MA

* As I have noted elsewhere, in the spirit of full disclosure, I feel obliged to say that I am proud to consider Barry Crimmins, social satirist, political parodist & activist, universal commentator, a friend and brother-in-arms in the struggle to promote social justice here and around the world and in the battle against the tyranny of ignorance and economic exploitation.

** I am highly pleased that the photograph I took of Barry(see above) is seen in the film on Barry’s mother’s dresser

Mucho Chucho

14 Nov
Chucho Valdes [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Chucho Valdes [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

If you weren’t one of the mature and discerning audience (as my amiga Priscilla observed) at Berkelee’s excellent music venue on November 12, you missed an extraordinary musical happening, The Boston Celebrity Series’s presentation of Chucho Valdés: Irakere 40, featuring Chucho Valdés & the Afro-Cuban Messengers.

People who know me will be surprised tp earn that I ventured forth fro, the friendly confines of my Wet Newton zipcode to the belly of the Beast at the periphery of Boston’s Back Bay and Fenway. On the other hand, people who are familiar with me and my life long cubanophilia will understand that such is my admiration for the great Chucho Valdes that were I to inhabit a graveyard I would move (heaven and) earth to attend a Chucho Valdes gig.

Chucho  & Irakere 40 [photo Robert Birnbaum]

Chucho & Irakere 40 [photo Robert Birnbaum]

Suffice it to say, that I was in attendance at the above referenced concert. The short of it is, Chucho and his aggregation of young players (the natural progeny of the group Chucho formed with Arturo Sandoval, Paquito D’Rivera and Carlos Emilio Morales forty years ago—even a cursory knowledge of contemporary jazz will reveal the great musical contributions these great Cuban players have made to the world of music) played for two wonderful hours— only the greediest of fans could have asked for more. Chucho’s pianistic virtuosity is well known( watching his humungous two octave hands dancing back and forth across the key board of the grand piano is a great display of why the rubric ‘grand’ is attached to that august instrument. And his band’s *(three trumpets, one tenor and one alto sax, one percussionist, one conguero one drummer and a base player )talents were exhibited on extended solo after extended solo and contributed to an extraordinary cohesion (as in tight). And it,goes without saying, that is the essence of this music to be propulsive marked by a great fluidity—the parts were every bt as fresh and engaging as the whole.

As I spied veteran music writers Jon Garelick and Bill Beuttler in attendance, I expect they will weigh in with their observations and insights and include more specificity (set list etc) about this great concert.

Should you be interested in expanding your acquaintance with Chucho Valdes highly engaging website is here

And the 74 year old Chucho contextualizes his musical journey and recounts his life story

And (lucky you) there is a performance film of Valdes and his very talented aggregation

Wait, there’s more. Earlier this year Valdes joined with Michel Camillo and Gonzalo Rubalcaba (with the impassioned vocal support of divas Ana Belen, Omara Portuondo and Esperanza Fernánde)to pay tribute to the great Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona. The result is a film and a recording entitled Playing Lecuona

Playing Lecuona with Chucho Valdés, Gonzolo Rubalcaba and Michel Camilo

Playing Lecuona with Chucho Valdés, Gonzolo Rubalcaba and Michel Camilo

* Irakere 40 Lineup
Gaston Joya -bass
Rodnet Barreto -trap drums
Yaroldy Abreu -hand drums and percussion
Dreiser Durruthy- batas and vocals
Manuel Machado -trumpet
Rena;do Melian -Trumpet
Carlos Sarduy -trumpet
Ariel Bringuez – tenor saxophone
Rafael Aguila – alto saxophone

Chomsky’s 13th 

9 Nov
Noam Chomsky [photo: Oliver Abraham]

Noam Chomsky [photo: Oliver Abraham]

I recently made mention of the Haymarket Books Noam Chomsky collection (12 titles) and it makes sense to acknowledge a recent volume published in City Lights Open Media series, Because We Say So . Its the third in that series by Chomsky, collecting thirty short pieces written between 2011 and 2015 for the New York Times Syndicate and News Service, on such pressing subjects as climate change, Edward Snowden, nuclear politics, cyberwar, terrorism and the Obama Doctrine.Naturally no U.S. papers publish Chomsky’s reports.

Because We Say So by Noam Chomsky

Because We Say So by Noam Chomsky

The inestimable dissident scholar Henry Giroux introduce this volume

Chomsky incessantly exposes the gap between the reality and the promise of a radical democracy, particularly in the United States, though he often provides detailed analysis of how the deformation of democracy works in a number of countries that hide their diverse modes of oppression behind the false claims of democratization…
…Chomsky has been relentless in reminding society that power takes many forms and that the production of ignorance is not merely about the crisis of test scores or a natural state of affairs, but about how ignorance is often produced in the service of power… he points to the efforts of the financial elite and their marketing machines to atomize people so they will be complicit in the destruction of the commons. Drawing on his expansive understanding of history, Chomsky cites the political economist Thorstein Veblen’s emphasis on “fabricating wants” in order to not only manufacture ignorance but also define consumption as the major force in shaping their needs…. Chomsky has been telling us for over 50 years: Resistance demands a combination of hope, vision, courage and a will- ingness to make power accountable, all the while connecting with the desires, aspirations and dreams of those whose suf- fering is both structurally imposed and thus preventable…Throughout his commentaries, he demonstrates that it is not only democracy and human decency that are at risk, but survival itself. In do- ing so, Chomsky makes clear that the urgency of the times demands understanding and action, critique and hope. This is a book that should and must be read, given the dire times in which we live. For Chomsky, history is open and the time has come to reclaim the promise of a democracy in which justice, liberty, equality and the common good still matter.


Noam Chomsky will be a participant in Building Sustainable Security,A One-Day Conference on Saturday, November 21, 2015. This conference will explore three pillars of sustainable national and world security:

• A fairly-shared global prosperity based on economic, social, and racial justice
• Emergency action to address climate change and build a new, fossil-fuel-free energy system
• A Foreign Policy for All based on even-handed diplomacy, ending our disastrous military interventions, abolition of nuclear weapons, and reclaiming war resources for the urgent needs that face our world

Dis n Dat

9 Nov

Diogenes of Sinope

Diogenes of Sinope

Hide your head in the sand but some terrible shit is happening in Gaza

Palestinian youth set up barricades in Surda, the Ramallah-area hometown of Muhannad Halabi, who killed two Israelis in the Old City of Jerusalem, as Israeli forces surrounded his family’s house on 6 October. Halabi, 19, was shot dead by police during the 3 October attack. Muhannad Saleem APA images

Palestinian youth set up barricades in Surda, the Ramallah-area hometown of Muhannad Halabi, who killed two Israelis in the Old City of Jerusalem, as Israeli forces surrounded his family’s house on 6 October. Halabi, 19, was shot dead by police during the 3 October attack. Muhannad Saleem APA images

Jason Kottke revisits a great moment in Web history, recalling And bemoans the disappearance of that Web

Formerly disgraced, former Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnacle writes about the heroin (overdose)epidemic in Nashua New Hampshire

Pete Dexter’s story about what working in a hospital is about doesn’t resemble those TV shows. Surprised?

Every October I await the announcement of the new gaggle of MacArthur Fellows, hoping against hope I will be anointed. To hear Thomas Frank tell it, I have a better shot at winning the state lottery

Baffler # 29

Baffler # 29

John Summers introduces the latest issue of the Baffler #29

..And in the lighter-fare department, we offer a more down-market patrimonial putsch. Close observers of the upcoming dynastic square-off for the presidency have noticed the word “cuckservative” bandied about throughout the endless season of GOP presidential primaries and caucus debates.

The “cuckservative” coinage, we learned, is an unholy blend of “conservative” with “cuckold,” intended to neutralize right-wing candidates believed to be lacking the cojones to stand up to the Man, or something like that. Demonstrating yet again the fatal incompatibility of conservatism with irony, “cuckservative” also derives from a Christian persecution complex rooted in the psychosexual racial perversions of the dwindling patriarchy.

Speaking of the Baffler, Kathleen Geier’s The Family Plot refreshes our understanding of a fundamentally rigged electoral process:

If there is anything salutary about Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, it is his occasional refreshing honesty about our pay-to-play political system. In the first Republican debate, Trump said, “I will tell you that our system is broken. I give to many people. I give to everybody, when they call I give, and you know what? When I need something from them, two years, three years later, I call, they are there for me.” He added that after he donated to Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign, he invited her to his wedding, “and she came to my wedding, she had no choice, because I gave.”

It was little remarked upon at the time, but that particular bon mot summed up just about everything amiss with the new millennium’s reversion to family-based patronage. There was, of course, the casual endorsement of campaign checks as the premier currency of elite influence-peddling: “When I need something from them . . . they are there for me.” The equally matter-of-fact invocation of Trump’s own wedding as another occasion for pressing flesh and granting political favors served to highlight the rampant mingling of moneyed prerogative and romantic rites of passage among America’s family-based power elite.

Who would have thunk it? Pappy finally spanks 41. Juan Cole observes:

In interviews given for a new biography, George H. W. Bush, 91 lets loose against Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, whom he clearly blames for many of the failures of the presidency his son, George W. Bush. But if you attend carefully to what he said, it is clear that he actually was slamming the Neoconservative cabal that Cheney and Rumsfeld brought to Washington with them. He said:

“I don’t know, he just became very hardline and very different from the Dick Cheney I knew and worked with . . . The reaction [to 9/11], what to do about the Middle East. Just iron-ass. His seeming knuckling under to the real hard-charging guys who want to fight about everything, use force to get our way in the Middle East.”

There is a lovely new recording of the music of Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona by three masters of the piano. Entitled Playing Lecuona it features Chucho Valdés, Gonzolo Rubalcaba and Michel Camilo with the impassioned vocal support of divas Ana Belen, Omara Portuondo and Esperanza Fernánde. Happily, there is a performance movie of this gifted aggregation.

Four Decades

8 Nov

After forty years of plowing and sowing, plowing and sowing, in the outlying fields of literary journalism and reportage,I dare say my recommendations should be sufficient to send you (else how did you arrive at this way station?)post haste to your nearest book purveyor, shekels in hand…or in an equally useful move, going to your local library (the existence of which is one small but powerful signal that our civilization may yet have life)

I have neither the time nor inclination to exegete on the fictions that follow. I can say I have been pleased to read previous works by the authors and, in fact, I (what loosely are called interviews* though I prefer conversations) spoken face to face with Bonnie Jo, Ron,and Louis—delightful experiences all.

Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash


A Clue to the Exit by Edward St. Aubyn


Mothers, Tell Your Daughters: Stories
by Bonnie Jo Campbell


The Dust That Falls from Dreams by Louis de Bernieres


* which can be found on the Internet.

The Noam Chomsky Dozen

6 Nov
The Noam Chomsky Collection (Haymarket Books)

The Noam Chomsky Collection (Haymarket Books)

In some way, everyday is like that so-called Christian holiday which drives the consumer economy to new heights of frenzied greed and status-seeking and is marked by the ominous sounding Black Friday (which as a godless Jew, I don’t celebrate).Parcels arrive daily with rich fruits from domestic publishers and, occasionally, from far flung places. This long winded lead-in is for me to glory in the great pleasure and privilege of having received Haymarket Books’s “Noam Chomsky Collection,” updated editions of twelve of his classic books”:

Rogue States

The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism

On Power and Ideology

After the Cataclysm

The Fateful Triangle

Year 501

Turning the Tide

Pirates and Emperors, Old and New

Propaganda and the Public Mind

Rethinking Camelot

Culture of Terrorism

Powers and Prospects

NOAM CHOMSKY,MIT linguist and progressive critic of, among other things, US foreign policy, along with his compatriot Howard Zinn, has long been a whipping boy of US reactionaries. And they have labored to marginalize him, tarring him as a disloyal and wild-eyed radical. Clearly, a good number of Americans and the rest of the world do not agree. The International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest (2009) observes:

For the past five decades, Chomsky has offered a searing critical indictment of US foreign policy and its many military interventions across the globe, pointing out that the US’s continued support for undemocratic regimes, and hostility to popular or democratic movements, is at odds with its professed claim to be spreading democracy and freedom and support for tendencies aiming toward that end. Indeed, as Chomsky argues, the current concern from Washington with so-called “Rogue States,” as much as the stated goal of aiding democratic movements in other countries, is not supported by successive administrations’ support (either direct or indirect) for political and military dictatorships across Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia. As Chomsky stated: “As the most powerful state, the US makes its own laws, using force and conducting economic warfare at will.” It also threatens sanctions against countries that do not abide by its conveniently flexible notions of “free trade.”

Here’s an interview with C.J. Polychroniou a political economist/political scientist just published. From that interview:

Some have argued that Obama’s wars are quite different in both style and essence from those of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Is there any validity behind these claims?

Bush relied on shock-and-awe military violence, which proved disastrous for the victims and led to serious defeats for the US. Obama is relying on different tactics, primarily the drone global assassination campaign, which breaks new records in international terrorism, and Special Forces operations, by now over much of the globe. Nick Turse, the leading researcher on the topic, recently reported that US elite forces are “deployed to a record-shattering 147 Countries in 2015.”

Destabilization and what I call the “creation of black holes” is the principal aim of the Empire of Chaos in the Middle East and elsewhere, but it is also clear that the US is sailing in a turbulent sea with no sense of direction and is, in fact, quite clueless in terms of what needs to be done once the task of destruction has been completed. How much of this is due to the decline of the US as a global hegemon?

The chaos and destabilization are real, but I don’t think that’s the aim. Rather, it is a consequence of hitting fragile systems that one does not understand with the sledgehammer that is the main tool, as in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and elsewhere. As for the continuing decline of US hegemonic power (actually, from 1945, with some ups and downs), there are consequences in the current world scene. Take, for example, the fate of Edward Snowden. Four Latin American countries are reported to have offered him asylum, no longer fearing the lash of Washington. Not a single European power is willing to face US anger. That is a consequence of very significant decline of US power in the Western hemisphere.

However, I doubt that the chaos in the Middle East traces substantially to this factor. One consequence of the US invasion of Iraq was to incite sectarian conflicts that are destroying Iraq and are now tearing the region to shreds. The Europe-initiated bombing of Libya created a disaster there, which has spread far beyond with weapons flow and stimulation of jihadi crimes. And there are many other effects of foreign violence. There are also many internal factors. I think that Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn is correct in his observation that the Wahhabization of Sunni Islam is one of the most dangerous developments of the modern era. By now many of the most horrible problems look virtually insoluble, like the Syrian catastrophe, where the only slim hopes lie in some kind of negotiated settlement towards which the powers involved seem to be slowly inching.

And if you prefer to watch here’s recent talk by Noam Chomsky at New School

Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers, 1860-1960 on Chomsky’s work in linguistics

Talking with Mary Karr

4 Nov
Philo, aka Philo of Alexandria, Philo Judaeus, Philo Judaeus of Alexandria,

Philo, aka Philo of Alexandria, Philo Judaeus, Philo Judaeus of Alexandria,

… Everybody dies, everybody loves, and fails to love, and loves in the wrong way, the wrong person at the wrong time. There’s enough loss in any life for all of Shakespeare…Mary Karr

Some two decades I was delighted to read Mary Karr’s literary debut, Liars Club, so named after her raconteur father’s group of story-telling friends. And I did sit down and converse with her about her East Texas life and upbringing and matters to do with writing a book about a “terrific family of liars and drunks … redeemed by a slow unearthing of truth.” A number of poetry collections and two memoirs — Lit:A Memoir and Cherry:A Memoir—later, Ms Karr has recently published, The Art of Memoir.

As it happens I was able to catch up with poet and Syracuse mentor Karr recently, for a pleasant and digressive chat on, of course, writing memoirs, her recent turn to music , the proposed film treatment of her initial memoir, Liar’s Club, her mother and her wide ranging experiences including coaching Little League baseball.

Here is a snippet from her Mary Karr Thinks You Shouldn’t Google Yourselfher recent interview with Ann- Marie Cox

You are friends with a lot of today’s memoirists. Have you ever appeared in another person’s memoir?

Oh, I’ve appeared in all kinds of [expletive].

What’s that experience like for you?

Well, obviously, I would like my every portrait to be of me dispensing food to the poor. Believe it or not, I’m actually not that interested in representation of myself in other people’s writing. I’ve also never Googled myself. It wouldn’t occur to me to do so. It’s the same reason I don’t watch pornography. It’s not that I occupy some moral high ground. I just think: Down that road lies madness.

As someone who reveals so much, is there a time that an interviewer has gone too far with you?

Oh, yeah, but I have no problem saying, ‘‘I’m not going to discuss that.’’ I would never talk about anybody’s penis. You can ask me about my relationship with David Wallace all you like; I’m not going to talk about his penis.

That’s one of the least interesting things about any man, really.

If only they knew that.

Mary Karr: I was just on with Terry Gross. She’s really a good interviewer, I’ve got to say. You never know what she’s going to ask you. She always makes me think… You don’t know—you probably do know, but when you go out on the road now, the people who used to interview you were book people, you know? Michael Silverblatt,[The Book Worm at KCRW](1) or somebody like that. Real bookworms. Now you get some chirpy, twenty-five-year-old who says, “What would your ad for your book be?” I’m like, “Well, I wouldn’t write an ad for my book.”

Robert Birnbaum: There’s a hilarious book trailer for Alan Arkin,(2) the actor, who has also written a couple of memoirs. It opens up with him laying in a hotel room bed ,it’s 6:00 … the phone rings, he fumbles for the phone, picks up the phone. It’s a guy from the radio station, wants to do an interview, which Arkin hadn’t even known about. ..the radio guy proceeds to ask questions that make clear he doesn’t know who Arkin is or that he has even looked at the book…

Mary Karr: …The way I look at it, these people are doing you a favor. You’re always responsible for ponying up.

Robert Birnbaum:That’s very nice. You’re never put off by somebody’s ignorance?

Mary Karr: No, I don’t mind people who haven’t read the book.Somebody like that is just stupid, actively stupid. You don’t have to have read The Art of Memoir to have three or four questions about memoir. How do you deal with your family? Those are normal questions— a normal person would want to know the answer to those questions. [It’s]Just a total absence of curiosity. It’s hard to be an interviewer when you’re not curious.

Robert Birnbaum: A propos of nothing, where is Mark Costello today [David Foster Wallace’s best friend](3)?

Mary Karr:He lives in New York City, he’s married to somebody I fixed him up on a blind date with, Nan Graham, who’s a big editor at Scribner. They’ve got two kids. I fixed him up on a blind date like twenty years ago.

Robert Birnbaum: I see. Because I talked to him in 2002 and he had published a novel and hadn’t heard of him since.

Mary Karr:Yeah,Big If, which is a terrific book. I think he teaches at Fordham Law School.

Robert Birnbaum: Has he written or published anything since?

Mary Karr: He’s finishing a novel now. I mean, he’s the dad of two kids and he teaches full-time, and his wife is high-powered enough that he gets a lot of the kid duties. I love Mark. One of the great human beings.

 Mary Karr [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Mary Karr [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Robert Birnbaum: When you write a book called the Art of Memoir, who are you thinking will want to read it?

Mary Karr: You know, it’s funny, people think of it as a how-to book, but the how-to stuff is kind of peppered in. I want to say maybe eighteen percent of it is how-to, maybe eighteen percent of it is a memoir about writing memoir, because people do ask me, “How did your family react?” Anybody with a family imagines how you deal with your beloveds, you know? But I think it is also, in a way, for anybody with an inner life, anybody who ponders how what’s happened to them is affecting how they see the world. Trying to determine what’s true and what isn’t true and what’s real and what’s not real in the course of your day. I have a big inner life and I am always … my tendency is to project onto the landscape what I want to see. I’m like an all-giving loving saint and everybody else is an asshole, but …


Robert Birnbaum: Do you know of the old Jew, Philo of Alexandria? Have you heard of him?

Mary Karr: No, I mean I know the name. He had the library, right?

Robert Birnbaum: I came across a quote of his, and I thought it was a very Dalai Lama like, “Be kind to everyone you meet, because everyone in life is going through a great battle.”

Mary Karr: That’s exactly right.

Robert Birnbaum:I thought of that when I was reading the latter part of your speech at Syracuse,(4) which, by the way, I think an excellent speech. I think some commencement speeches are a new literary genre. There’s are some great commencement speeches by writers, by novelists and writers.

Mary Karr:Steve Jobs also did a great one. I think.

Robert Birnbaum: I was focusing at writers. I put Aaron Sorkin in that group…

Mary Karr: He was also at Syracuse. He gave a really good speech.

Robert Birnbaum:I started noticing with the David Foster Wallace/Kenyon College speech, and then I started seeing others. George Saunders.(6)

Mary Karr:George Saunders’ speech—to me, that’s the pinnacle. That’s as good a commencement speech as I’ve ever heard.

Robert Birnbaum:In the first three lines of yours you said something like, “Memoir takes you from a scary place, it’s a zip line to a truer place,”

Mary Karr:Poetry. Not memoir but poetry. That poetry hopefully takes you to a truer place. I mean, all art should, right? Any art should take you somewhere truer.

Robert Birnbaum: Your speech can stand alone…it’s the kind of piece that would be included in David Shields’s anthology, Fakes.(7) All these odds and ends— a letter from George Saunders, customer relations department. All these odd writings, somebody’s laundry list, you know? But they all seem to become literary, you know?

Fakes edited by David Shelds

Fakes edited by David Shelds

Mary Karr:That’s very funny. That’s a great … And David Shields edited it?

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, Here’s the thing, I’m not inclined to read memoirs. I’m not hungry for them. I read yours, but it turns out if you wrote an instruction manual on how to assemble a tricycle, I be inclined to read it…

Mary Karr:That’s so nice. I’m not much of a writer, but I’m a dogged little re-writer. Everything I have written is about as good as I can make it.

Robert Birnbaum:I gave particular credence to your first chapter and your last chapter, so I hear you.

Mary Karr:Don’t you wish more people rewrote?

Robert Birnbaum: One forgives people for their infelicitous writing.

Mary Karr:Sure, of course, you’ve got to. I mean, journalists or people writing on a deadline, that’s a different kind of writing.

The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

Robert Birnbaum: What’s the difference between autobiography and memoir?

Mary Karr:Everybody makes that distinction, I don’t. I don’t think there is a distinction. I think they’re the same thing. I think there are good memoirs and bad memoirs. I think when they think of a one-off, I think the way it’s used when people make the distinction, is when it’s some film star with fake boobs tells her tale of woe. They think of that as an autobiography, and then they think of somebody who does a literary thing as a memoir. But that’s just using a French word for … I think they’re the same thing. There’s just good ones and bad ones.

Robert Birnbaum:Yeah. I hesitate to make the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, although I know there’s a hard line. I say this is because, I think Gore Vidal’s Empire series is as good a history of the United States as any.

Mary Karr: Really funny.
Robert Birnbaum: So, do you want to read David Herbert Donald or other biographers on Lincoln? Or do you want to read Gore Vidal’s Lincoln?

Mary Karr: Yeah, it’s true. I’ve read a lot of books on Lincoln. I love reading about Lincoln.

Robert Birnbaum:I was thinking, besides Jesus Christ, I think Lincoln has the second most amount of books written about him. How many memoirs do you have in you?

Mary Karr:Exactly. I don’t know. Maybe I have as many books as there are advances publishers are dumb enough to give me. All those books, after The Liar’s Club, I wrote the proposal for that book, but every other book, including this one, I wrote because somebody called and offered me money for them.

Robert Birnbaum: Good for you.

Mary Karr: That’s not a bad reason to write a book.

Robert Birnbaum:That’s also pretty flattering.

Mary Karr:Yeah, exactly.

Robert Birnbaum:That does remove a little bit of the anxiety about whether or not the publisher is going to support the book once they publish it.

Mary Karr: Right, that’s true. If you can gouge them for enough money, then maybe they’ll try to do it. Yeah, but then your editor leaves and other people have other problems, so …

Robert Birnbaum: Do you have much contact with the publishing world, and the business of books? When you have completed and delivered the book, while you’re writing the book, do you have contact?

Mary Karr:I have a wonderful editor, and certainly for this book, she really helped me think about how to shape it and put it together.

Robert Birnbaum:So it wasn’t you wrote the book and presented it to her, you start crying and saying, “Shit, shit, shit, fuck, shit,” and then you call her.

Mary Karr:Right. With this book. Well, I say, “Shit, shit, fuck, shit,” for every book.

Robert Birnbaum: I gathered that.

Mary Karr: Every book is like that. I’m always in a state of torment. She and I basically did a bunch of outlines back and forth over about a four month period. I would work on one and then send it to her, and then she really helped me, the outline that she gave me isn’t how the book ended up, but George Saunders actually helped me a lot, to structure The Art of Memoir.

Robert Birnbaum: One of the things I thought about in reading your,what might be construed as a manual sort of, is that you are suggesting that everyone may have a memoir in them, but not necessarily a book.

Mary Karr:I think, I really believe, as I say in the book, that the most privileged person in any room, as I said in that speech, suffers the torments of the damned. Just like you said, they’re engaged in a great struggle. Everybody dies, everybody loves, and fails to love, and loves in the wrong way, the wrong person at the wrong time. There’s enough loss in any life for all of Shakespeare. Not everybody is going to be a good enough writer to write a great one, but I think certainly in terms of … I think I said I’m always amazed when I’m on an airplane, yes, by the people who you meet who are boring, but also by boring people who you meet who become interesting when they talk with great feeling. Do you know what I mean?

Robert Birnbaum:You never know. I agree with your notion of truth, that there is something, there is a truth that makes everyone, when someone encounters something they think is true, it really does refresh one with great energy. It’s a good place to land.

Mary Karr: Right.

Robert Birnbaum:It may be sort of counter intuitive to the way human beings are constructed. My judgment about, my sense of human behavior is that many people are continuously running away from the truth or pursuit of truths?

Mary Karr: Well, let’s say all of us are running away from the truth. The fact that we’re all going to die, and we’re not all screaming every second of day, is running away from the truth in a way. I think we all are.

Robert Birnbaum: How old are you?

Mary Karr:Sixty.

Robert Birnbaum: Do you find yourself thinking about aging? Will that be the next memoir?

Mary Karr: People keep asking me—Terry Gross just asked me this, two smart people. I don’t know, I don’t have any plans. I don’t know, I’m trying to finish a book of poems.

Robert Birnbaum: Do you think a lot about it?

Mary Karr: More so since I turned sixty. I never really, I thought about it as anybody does, but …I’m not in the middle of anything. When you’re sixty you’re not going to live to be 120, so you can’t bullshit yourself.

Robert Birnbaum: Sixty is the new forty.

Mary Karr:You might live to be eighty, but you’re not going to live to be 120, so it becomes a different thing when you can’t double it, when you don’t have that much left. You’re definitely on the losing end of it. I play all kind of games with myself where I say, “I sort of became a person when I was thirty, so I probably don’t have another thirty years left in me, but maybe I have another twenty.” You know what I mean?

Robert Birnbaum:Yeah. Joseph Epstein, wrote a piece when he was seventy,(8) talking about, it was a take-off on film producer Robert Evans’s memoir/autobiography The Kid Stays in The Picture . Epstein’s was called The Kid Turned Seventy. He said every time he has a birthday he just wants ten more years. It seems like a reasonable figure to ask for.

Mary Karr:I think that’s the way I feel. Instead of people thinking I want another fifty years, I do think if I could just make it to seventy I will have accomplished something.

Mary Karr: How old are you?

Robert Birnbaum: 68—two thirds of a century.

Mary Karr: Do you think about it?

Robert Birnbaum: Yes. I don’t feel my age at all, whatever that’s supposed to mean. I see people who are younger who are in terrible shape. Can hardly walk, have blank facial expressions and flat affects… I do a lot of stuff,umpire little league, work the sticks at home high school football games, walk my dog regularly..

Mary Karr: What a great thing to do. I bet that’s a great thing to do. I coached little league, and I always said it was one of the great spiritual experiences of my life. It was really one of the funniest things I ever did in my life.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah. Being around ten-year-olds on a regular basis. Plus, I get to push them around.

Mary Karr:Yeah, exactly.

Robert Birnbaum: I have a lot of fun doing that, but it’s hard to be a good umpire.

Mary Karr: It’s hard to know what’s true.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s a test, you know? A 68-year-old guy who can still bend down over 100 times in two hours and remember things from instant to instant while attending to countless other things …

Mary Karr:It’s testing your short-term memory all the time, which is deteriorating.

Robert Birnbaum:I don’t know what your worst fears is, but one of my worst fears is losing my sentience.

Mary Karr: Your marbles?

Robert Birnbaum:Yeah, and even my memory, you know?

Mary Karr:I remember stuff so well, I kind of aspire to it. I have way too good a memory. I wish I could forget more. I’m better at it now.

Robert Birnbaum:I’m amazed at what I remember. Especially when a smell triggers something.

Mary Karr:That’s the amazing thing, right? It’s the most primitive sense.

Robert Birnbaum:You smell something and you go back forty years.

Mary Karr:It’s in your snake brain. No, it is. It’s like the most primitive part of you, smells.

Robert Birnbaum:I think I’d be willing to say we don’t forget anything. It’s not a question of forgetting. Everything we need to encounter is somewhere there, but the ability to access it.

Mary Karr:Yeah, that’s a problem.

Robert Birnbaum: Right.I’m amazed sometimes at the distinctive, vivid way that I remember stuff.

Mary Karr:Oh yeah. And especially the further back the more vivid often, right?

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, yeah.

Mary Karr: I know, me too.

Robert Birnbaum: How much do you still recall the life that you talked about in The Liar’s Club? Is that still vivid to you?

Mary Karr: I think the traumatic memories remain very lucid, because they’re probably stored in another part of the brain, actually. You now how when people who have strokes, they keep all the curse words. You’ll often hear, go in the nursing home, you’ll hear cursing . It’s because those emotions— my daddy, when he had a stroke, if the World at War came on or something, and there was all this World War II stuff, he would say, “Cannons your tank, ” and he couldn’t say yes or no. He would say, “General Montgomery.” He would name, “Luftwaffe.” He could say things from having been in the war. Those memories, he couldn’t say he wanted a cup of juice or not, but I think those things seared in your brain meat from a very emotional time. I always say you remember the most important things to you. Things that are most important to you, to who you are.

Robert Birnbaum: Do people remember their funnest, wonderfullest, most loving moments in their life?

Mary Karr: People unlike us do. Regular people do. We don’t. We remember all the … Every time we were knocked in the dirt. Exactly.

Robert Birnbaum: You mentioned a time in your family when it was somewhat healed ?

Mary Karr:I think we were as healed as we could’ve been without everybody going into therapy. But I mean, I think to the extent that we took care of aging parents and buried people, showed up and did stuff, kids went to graduations, that’s pretty healed for a family like mine.

Robert Birnbaum: It was your mother, father and your sister. Did you count your mother’s husbands?

Mary Karr:No.

Robert Birnbaum: Once they left …

Mary Karr: Gone, that was the end of it.

Robert Birnbaum:How about your mother? Did she maintain memories of past husbands?

Mary Karr: Not that she ever shared. I think they were dismissed by my mother. I think once she divorced she opens that door and…

Robert Birnbaum: She had seven husbands?

Mary Karr: I know, right? Who know how many? There were seven she told us about.

Robert Birnbaum: And you didn’t lose touch with her once you started going to school, moved to Minnesota.

Mary Karr: It’s weird, I still, for much of my life, when I could afford it, I talked to her every day. She was an interesting person.

Robert Birnbaum: Sounds like.

Mary Karr: Not a great mother as a mother, but she’s very smart and she was curious. She was extremely curious and could be very charming. She was fun to talk to.

Robert Birnbaum: How is it that your mother and your father met?

Mary Karr:She had a flat tire. Yeah, I think she had a flat tire and he came out to fix it and …

Robert Birnbaum:That was it.

Mary Karr: That was it.

Robert Birnbaum: Did he charm her, do you think?

Mary Karr:I think they charmed each other. I think they both charmed each other. He was labor organizing then, working class hero. Handsome, kind of Clark Gable-type guy.

Robert Birnbaum: And told good stories.

Mary Karr:Tells good stories. A lot of fun to be with. She was beautiful and wild, I think it was like seeing a great thoroughbred somewhere.

Kin Songs by Mary KArr & Rodney Crowell

Kin Songs by Mary KArr & Rodney Crowell

Robert Birnbaum: What is your foray into songwriting and recording about, is that a one-time thing (9)?

Mary Karr: No, I have at least one song on Rodney’s Christmas album, and he and I have worked on a couple of other songs. We’re actually meeting tomorrow night to talk … I think we’re going to get together this winter and work on another album.

Robert Birnbaum: Where do you do it, in Syracuse?

Mary Karr:No, no. He’s in Nashville. We mostly met on the road though. He and I were both on the road, and so I’d be in Berkeley, he’d be in San Francisco, we’d meet. Or I’d be in LA, he’d be in Orange County, we’d meet in some hotel. Or I would go stay with him and his wife down in Nashville, or he would come to New York a lot, quite a bit. So wherever we were, found ourselves, we’d work on the side. We did a lot on the phone too.He would call me and send a recording of a guitar thing, and then I’d call him back, and we’d go back and forth and then we’d arrange to meet.

Robert Birnbaum: Who do you like singing your songs?

Mary Karr: I had so many great people sing my songs. I’ll be honest with you, there’s nobody who did a shitty job. There’s really nobody who did a shitty job. I mean, I think Norah Jones and Lucinda Williams, and Emmylou Harris, and Vince Gill, Kris Kristopherson, Rodney, Lee Ann Womack, I mean, it doesn’t get much better, Rosanne Cash. Couldn’t get much better than that lineup.

Robert Birnbaum:That’s true. Does that fuel your interest or urge in writing more songs, doing more music?

Mary Karr:Yeah. I would love to do it. It was really fun. The fun part was going on the road with the band. That was really fun. I did that for a couple of weeks. That was the most fun I ever had.

Robert Birnbaum: How did you do that and stay sober?

Mary Karr: Rodney doesn’t drink.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, but musicians are known to drink and such. What did you do?

Mary Karr: His musicians he travels with, don’t.

Robert Birnbaum: What’s the fun part of being on the road?

Mary Karr: They call it playing.

Robert Birnbaum: Oh, the playing is the fun part?

Mary Karr: It’s fun, and also you’re traveling. You’re with the band, you’re in a band where the .. He has very smart, interesting musicians play with him. He doesn’t have just anybody. Stuart Smith is a guitar player for the Eagles now. He’s an incredible classically trained guitar player, an incredibly smart human being. He reads everything. His crew … It’s not like being with the drummer from AC/DC. It’s not a lot of booze and girls. It’s a lot of smart people reading books and talking about them. I’m sure it was a lot of booze and girls …and coke [at one time].

Poster from Kinetic Playground Chicago  circa 1969

Poster from Kinetic Playground Chicago circa 1969

Robert Birnbaum: Well I can tell you about tne music scene because after I graduated college, I worked in one of the first, sort of. psychedelic dungeons[like the Fillmore] in Chicago, it was called the Kinetic Playground, and every big group at that time played there …

Mary Karr: Psychedelic dungeon?

Robert Birnbaum: Uh huh. I took drugs as part of a regular diet of loud music, late nights and mindless sex…

Mary Karr:So did I. But that’s the name of a memoir. Psychedelic Dungeon, that’s a great memoir title.

Robert Birnbaum:The first time that Led Zeppelin played in America, they played there, Santana, everybody… you know.

Mary Karr:Wow, Santana.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah. That was my experience. And then the drugs, of course.

Mary Karr: And then the drugs.

Robert Birnbaum: You weren’t in Plainfield, Vermont (Goddard College) in 71 were you?

Mary Karr: I was in Plainfield, Vermont in ’78.

Robert Birnbaum: I attended the now famous Alternative Media Conference there in ’71 or ’72.(10 It was just outlandish and unfettered and hopeful…

Mary Karr: That’s the way things used to be.

Robert Birnbaum: I had never really taken Goddard seriously. I didn’t get a sense of there there. It seemed so ethereal.

Mary Karr: It was, it was. I still remember Ray Carver, there was a little pond, and there were these women who would go shirtless in their kayak. The pond was from here to the back of the deli, and they would paddle back and forth about thirty yards. It was the strangest thing, with no shirts on. Ray just couldn’t get over it. He called them the Nudie Veggies. That’s what Goddard was like. When you read the list of professors I studied with there, they’re all MacArthur Fellows, you know, Bob Hass, Charlie Simic, it’s nuts … Heather McHugh, they’re all amazing.

Robert Birnbaum: You were lucky in the people that you ran into as a student.

Mary Karr: Unbelievably lucky, unbelievably lucky. Geoffrey and Tobias [Wolff]. Frank Conroy was there. In terms of memoir, that was probably one of the planet’s most interesting conversations about. Three memoirs of that caliber, in one spot, you’d be hard to come by.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah. I never read Stop-Time [by Frank Conroy], but I did feel like his …

Mary Karr:You have to read Stop-Time. It’s so good.

Robert Birnbaum: Okay, okay. I read his novel and I really liked his essays.

Mary Karr: His essays were great.

Robert Birnbaum:The Dogs Bark and the Caravan Rolls On, that kind of thing. Just thought that was spot on.

Mary Karr:I liked it too.

Robert Birnbaum: He interviewed Keith Jarrett, and he asked him how he prepared, and Jarrett says, “I walk out on the stage and I sit down on the piano, and I try to clear my mind of everything. No, I don’t want any notes in my head. I just want to not think about [what I am going to do]. That approach to doing something …

Mary & Rodney Crowell [photo: Debra Feingold]

Mary & Rodney Crowell [photo: Debra Feingold]

Mary Karr:Takes some big brass ones. That’s how Rodney is. Rodney is very … I mean, he’s not a jazz musician, but he hates to put together a set list. He’d rather just go out there and play what hits him.

Robert Birnbaum:Has he worked on any movies?

Mary Karr: No, but he just was music director in the new Hank Williams movie.

Robert Birnbaum: What’s the name?

Mary Karr:I can’t remember.

Robert Birnbaum: I think a lot of the narratives in movies and films and TV now are really making good use of the music, not necessarily well known songs. I think of T Bone Burnett’s stuff for True Detectivesor Nick Cave on Peaky Blinders.

Mary Karr: Right, right. I heard T Bone Burnett in Cambridge, I think. I also saw James Brown and the Famous Flames in 1966.

Robert Birnbaum: I saw him at the Regal Theater at about that time.

Mary Karr:That was amazing.

Robert Birnbaum:Yes it was. I think back now, and I think, I was afraid of black people. I don’t know why, because when I went to the Regal Theater, which is all black, me and three other white people, we never had a problem.

Mary Karr:I went with my daddy. We were the only white people there. You qualified yourself by being there, to be there by liking the music. I think that’s … You know what I mean? You had to be a different kind of person to be that into African American music.

Robert Birnbaum:Yeah. Why did I feel any anxiety? Where did all that come from? Who told me that black people were scary … You know?

Mary Karr: Well, it’s the same way, certainly they feel that way about us, with better reason. You know what I mean?

Robert Birnbaum:Yes.

Mary Karr:I can’t believe what happened to the tennis player (James Blake, who was mistakenly and forcibly arrested) in New York. It’s unbelievable.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s actually not unbelievable Ever been asked to write a film treatment?

Liar's Club by Mary Karr

Liar’s Club by Mary Karr

Mary Karr:Many people have. I’m currently working on Liar’s Club at Showtime with Mary Louise Parker slated.

Robert Birnbaum: What’s your participation?

Mary Karr: Executive producing and writing. I’ve written a pilot, so we’ll see, we’ll see if they do it.

Robert Birnbaum:Yea,there is that.

Mary Karr: There is that.

Robert Birnbaum:Is there a subject or a theme or person that you’d like to create … Is there a biography you’d like to do? Is there one person that you learned about, that you think other people should know about, learn about…have you discovered somebody who’s been undiscovered?

Mary Karr:Oh, in memoir?

Robert Birnbaum:Yeah.

Mary Karr: Maybe Harry Crews, Childhood Biography of a Place. I think Black Boy, the Richard Wright book, isn’t undiscovered, but I think it’s in some ways a better book than Native Son, which I know is scandalous to say, but I think that’s a brilliant memoir.

Robert Birnbaum:I remember reading Richard Wright. I remember things about it very vividly. They were part of my, the images was part of my growing up. I look at it and I go, the Sixties would be such a small window, cultural literacy. How do people know about James Baldwin, who are twenty years ,twenty-five years old?

Mary Karr:I think everybody who reads. Anybody who is a reader.

Robert Birnbaum:That’s only 400,000 people in the world.

Mary Karr:I was going to say, yeah exactly. There’s nobody left.

Robert Birnbaum:I’m assuming that all the memoirs you listed in the back of The Art of Memoir and the people are ones you admire.

Mary Karr:Yeah, I wouldn’t list them if I didn’t.

Robert Birnbaum:Would it be impolitic to ask you what are some memoirs that you think fall short?

Mary Karr:Yeah, I probably wouldn’t say that. We all know what they are. We all know the … Mostly the memoirs of the liars are mostly badly written, even if they had good stories to them. They are mostly pretty bad, pretty shabby written. I mean, a memoir like Black Boy, Richard Wright, you’re not going to forget, Dispatches, Michael Herr’s book, Maxine Hong Kingston Woman Warrior, Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, I mean those are books nobody is going to forget…

Robert Birnbaum:You mentioned Mary McCarthy’s memoir, and I’ve always been fascinated by her, what I know about her, what I’ve read about her. That memoir doesn’t sound very promising…

Mary Karr:Really? She’s so smart, so funny, and so well-written. And it was right at the time when the notion of subjective truth hadn’t really been invented, in a way. She spends a lot of time correcting herself and second-guessing, and you see her idea of truth eroding, over the course of her book.

Robert Birnbaum: I read a piece she wrote for The New York Review of Books, from Saigon in ‘66, when she did a stint in Saigon. I thought it was just brilliant.

Mary Karr:Oh, she’s so brilliant.

Robert Birnbaum:Do you have a routine where you sort of engage the news of the day? Do you read newspapers?

Mary Karr: Just The New York Times, you know. I’m not a big news junkie. In fact, I kind of don’t like the news. I’m much more interested in history. I prefer everybody to sift experience and tell me what’s interesting fifty years later, sadly.

Robert Birnbaum:I’ve come to think that people like Stewart and Colbert and now John Oliver, are the news.

Mary Karr: Well, the people watching it think they are, so yeah.

Robert Birnbaum:. How much time do you have spend talking about this book in the coming months?

Mary Karr:Probably just this week and next week, and then I go back to sitting around in my pajamas, so not so long.

Robert Birnbaum: What’s your schedule at Syracuse? You go there, what, one semester a year?

Mary Karr:I do a fall semester there, yeah. But I also supervise students, often in the spring, so that involves them coming to New York, or me going there.

Robert Birnbaum: I gather you travel a lot, for any number of reasons.

Mary Karr:I do, I do. My gentleman caller is a big traveler. He’s the head of a real estate development firm, and so he builds big buildings all over. But he’s also just an inveterate adventurer. I think I get to Asia more than I would have done with a different gentleman caller.

Robert Birnbaum: Have you read anything good lately?

Mary Karr: Other than the Art of Memoir? Yeah, I just taught Black Boy, I just read that, and I’m teaching Mary McCarthy next week, so I’m reading that.

Robert Birnbaum: You don’t have any particular inclination to read newly, fresh-off-the-press books?

Dear Mr. You by  Mary-Louse Parker

Dear Mr. You by
Mary-Louse Parker

Mary Karr: Sure I do. I mean, sure I do, but not in the middle of teaching. When I’m teaching, I’m reading what I’m teaching. Actually, Mary Louise Parker has a great book called Dear Mr. You that I think is a terrific kind of …Very poetic. She reads a lot of poetry and it shows in the prose, very poetic memoir. Oh, Dana Spiotta has a novel coming out called Innocence and Others.

Robert Birnbaum: Anything else you want to tell me, that you want might to confess to me?

Mary Karr: I’m going to have to take my sins with me when I leave.

Robert Birnbaum: That’s okay. I really wasn’t expecting a confession

Mary Karr: A smooth exit, there we go.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah a smooth segue.

Mary Karr: You can absolve me. Well, happy new year.

Robert Birnbaum: Happy[Jewish] New Year to you. Thanks

Mary Karr: Thank you. Shabat tova…

End Notes

(1) Michel Silverblatt, long time host of LA radios’s Bookworm

(2) Alan Arkin book trailer

(3) Mark Costello Interview at Identitytheory

(4 Commencement speech at Syracuse

(5)George Saunders 2013 Syracuse Commencement speech

(7)David Shields interview at Our Man in Boston

(8) Joseph Epstein The Kid Turns 70 in the Weekly Standard

(9) Kin Recording of songs written by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell

(10) Alternative Media Conference, 1971

O Canada

3 Nov


What a wonderful country Canada is. Being exceptional us nordamericanos most certainly take other nordamericanos for granted. But what can one think about a country that elects Gary Trudeau it’s prime minister but only the rosiest thoughts. And they even have a (winning) baseball team and one of its key players (Russell Martin ) is even Canadian.

Daddy Lenin and Other Stories by Guy Vanderhaeghe

Daddy Lenin and Other Stories by Guy Vanderhaeghe

And while I am at it, extolling the US’s northern neighbors it should not go unsaid that news has reached me that Guy Vanderhaeghe, a writer whose books I have enjoyed immensely has won one of Canada’s major awards(of which they appear to have many), Governor Generals-Literary-Award for fiction for Daddy Lenin and Other Stories, his first story collection is twenty years

Quartet for the End of Time by Johanna Skibsrud

Quartet for the End of Time
by Johanna Skibsrud

And actually while Canadian writers occupy my and your attention, former Giller Prize Winner Johanna Skibsrud’s Quartet for the End of Time (the soft cover edition) is now in bookstores. The title refers to Oliver Messiean’s famous composition, which as everyone knows, was composed in a Nazi concentration camp

It is, of course, one of the marvels of literature how this novel skillfully transports us from the 1930s Bonus Army riots to the Siberian Expedition of World War I to the underground world of Soviet espionage in the 1920s and 1930s to the occultist circle of P. D. Ouspensky and London during the Blitz and finally to the Nazi concentration camp where Messiaen composed and performed his famous Quartet for the End of Time.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 33 other followers