Talking with Sigrid Nunez and more…

2 Mar



Heller McAlpine, in her smart take* on Sigrid Nunez’s new novel, The Friend, echoes my exact experience with Nunez , albeit with an earlier novel, The Last of Her Kind. 

“One of the great joys of reading is discovering a new writer whose work speaks to you — whether an unknown debut novelist or a seasoned author whose many books you’ve somehow missed. Case in point: Sigrid Nunez. I was drawn to her sixth novel as a fresh addition to the literature of grief, but within pages realized The Friend has as much to say about literature as about grief, and was wondering how she’d slipped below my radar.”

The Friend is a rich, layered narrative that  with uncanny fluidity covers suicide, the joys and perils of writing (and is laden with thought provoking aphorisms**) and very significantly the nature of a human/canine relationship. Having a canine companion  I feel obliged to point out that Apollo the Great Dane that the protagonist adopts is  aging with his health on downward trajectory. As the passing of one’s pooch is possibly the worst day in your life, this part of the book may weigh heavily…



The novel begins brilliantly:

During the 1980s, in California, a large number of Cambodian women went to their doctors with the same complaint: they could not see. The women were all war refugees. Before fleeing their homeland, they had witnessed the atrocities for which the Khmer Rouge, which had been in power from 1975 to 1979, was well known. Many of the women had been raped or tortured or otherwise brutalized. Most had seen family members murdered in front of them. One woman, who never again saw her husband and three children after soldiers came and took them away,said that she had lost her sight after having cried every day for four years. She was not the only one who appeared to have cried herself blind. Others suffered from blurred or partial vision,their eyes troubled by shadows and pains

The doctors who examined the women—about a hundred and fifty in all—found that their eyes were normal. Further tests showed that their brains were normal as well. If the women were telling the truth—and there were some who doubted this, who thought the women might be malingering because they wanted attention or were hoping to collect disability—the only explanation was psychosomatic blindness.

In other words, the women’s minds, forced to take in so much horror and unable to take more, had managed to turn out the lights.

This was the last thing you and I talked about while you were still alive. After, only your email with a list of books you thought might be helpful to me in my research. And, because it was the season, best wishes for the new year.



Sigrid Nunez photograph by Marian Ettlinger



I have spoken with Sigrid a time or two — the first  time follows below:

Sigrid Nunez wanted to be a dancer, and lucky for her readers, that didn’t work out as planned. Nevertheless capable of some deft footwork, she explains to our man in Boston how the two pastimes are similar.
Somewhere in the conversation that follows, novelist Sigrid Nunez opines that great writing seems effortless. She might have been making reference to herself: When I finally picked up a Nunez novel, I was both surprised and pleased at the ease with which I was able to enter and quickly engage with this unlikely story of two college roommates in the volatile and hyper-exciting early 1970s. Apparently the odd gaggle of readers who make up the American literary classes concurred, pouring accolades and smart discussions on The Last of Her Kind. By the year’s end, it had made countless “best books of the year” lists.

Sigrid Nunez has published five novels: A Feather on the Breath of God, Naked Sleeper, For Rouenna, The Last of Her Kind, and the recently reissued Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury.

As befits her serious commitment to the writing life, her work is regularly published in leading periodicals as well as being anthologized. She has won numerous awards and has taught at Amherst College, Smith College, Columbia University, and the New School, and has been a visiting writer at Sarah Lawrence College and Washington University. She has also been on the faculty of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and the RopeWalk Writers Retreat. Sigrid Nunez lives in New York City.

Claire Messud, an able novelist in her own right, perceptively writes: Sigrid Nunez is a memoirist of considerable gifts, which is worth remarking only because she is the author of novels rather than of memoirs. Using an intercutting of meditation and careful reconstruction, she has written an impassioned and complicated recollection transformed, by the author’s skill, into a work of fiction rather than of history.Sigrid, who by the way is the child of a Chinese Panamanian father and a German mother, and I discuss her failure as a dancer, writing sequels (or not), what interests her, Susan Sontag and some of the usual things.

Robert Birnbaum: When I was thinking about what we might talk about, I was distracted by my recent acquisition of another iPod—watch me try to connect this [to something that makes sense]. And my big iPod has about 3,000 songs on it and my new one has a 400-song capacity. So I’m thinking about what happens when you try to narrow down your world to what you call your favorites. Though 400 favorites seems a bit much. But how is it as one gets older, that all the information and things that you have liked and that have filtered down, the songs, the literature, the poems, the life experiences? I wonder if they reduce down to just a few cherished things? Are you following me?
Sigrid Nunez: Yes you’re reminding me of one of my favorite quotes from Rilke, who said something like, “When a man is young he needs many, many books and when he is old he needs only a few books.” We all know what he meant, whether you agree with him or not. But at the time he said that life was very different. The universal library was a lot smaller, for one thing. And so the problem is you have to also take into account that now there is an overwhelming amount, an overwhelming number of books and songs and so on, we have access to. I am one of those people who is overwhelmed by all the choices.

RB: So what is your response to that?

SN: Well, to be overwhelmed, for one thing.

RB: [laughs] It stops there? You go, “Oh, I’m overwhelmed.”

SN: [laughs] My first response is to be overwhelmed; my second is to envy people like Susan Sontag, who had this enormous capacity to take it all in and who never narrowed her interests as she grew older, the way other people do, who was always open to everything, who spent all day and evening seeing everything and listening to everything, and reading everything. And for whom it was never enough. She was always interested and curious, always ready to look at the next thing. So, there’s envy of that. And then really just trying to keep up. If you are a novelist you need to pay attention to the culture. So it’s part of your job to take in as much as you can. And it’s a challenge, it really is. There are probably 400 favorites—there are so many great songs—

RB: I was looking for a reasonable number that didn’t trivialize the word “favorite.” Also, in regard to this particular appliance, I can keep changing my favorites. On my desktop I have 7,500 sound files. Which reduces to about a third of that on my mp3 player and additionally I got my son—he’s nine—a Shuffle that stores 250 files. So far he’s only identified 100 songs that he wants access to. What I want to get to in addition to being in touch with the culture, so you can grasp context and background—as you repeat in Naked Sleeper, “Background is everything.”

SN: As a novelist, you do want to keep track of everything that’s going on.If you are a novelist you need to pay attention to the culture. So it’s part of your job to take in as much as you can. And it’s a challenge, it really is.

RB: In the case of your five novels—do you remember them?

SN: I’m often surprised in what I have forgotten in them. For example, I have been trying to improve my German—so I said, “I know what I will do, I’ll read my own books in German. I will know a certain amount, which will help me, and my mind prints are all in them, which will help me to understand them and it’ll help my vocabulary and help get a sense of the structure of the language.” So I’ve been reading Naked Sleeper in German and I am surprised in what I have forgotten. The book came out in 1996. I remember a great deal, of course, but I have forgotten quite a bit. Which is actually all right with me except for the fear of repeating—which is bound to happen. I’m not going to read my own books to make sure—

RB: What might you repeat, situations, a character?

SN: No. A remark, an observation, maybe a name. Above all an observation of some kind, something I might have a character think or say that was already said by a character in an earlier book. That’s my fear. And you’d look foolish if you did that but—

RB: Maybe not, some things are worth repeating. [laughs]

SN: That might be, but I think you would look foolish if you inadvertently used something you’d already used in another book. But being a writer you have to accept that you are going to look foolish now and then.

RB: As opposed to other occupations that guard you from looking foolish.

SN: I mean in print.

RB: Speaking of the 10-year-old Naked Sleeper, do you have any interest in seeing where the characters went, what happened to them or the children in the story?

SN: That’s a very interesting question. The truth is, I have never cared what happens to my characters after I finish the book.

RB: I’m surprised—I assume that the writer invests so much in the characters, making them alive and vivid, that they care about them—

SN: Yes.

RB: So it seems odd that once the book ends you no longer care.

SN: Well, it’s not really that I don’t care about them but that the story that I set out to tell is over and I don’t find myself thinking about their fates after that last page. I really don’t. I can’t think of any character that I have written about that I later thought about the life of that character after the story I tell. I’m not sure why. It’s interesting—

RB: It’s interesting to me because I recall a number of novels that authors went back to, continued though the writers claim they never intended to carry the story forward. The most prominent of these is Richard Ford and his Frank Bascombe trilogy. Julian Barnes did the same thing with the couple from Talking It Over, revisiting them some 10 years later in Love, Etc. I’d bet there are other writers who have asked themselves what happened to a character years down the line. I don’t think Fredrick Busch intended to continue the story in Girls.

SN: That’s probably true. In most cases the writer didn’t know. Somehow that character returned and tugged at the writer’s sleeve and said, “Well I’m back. Deal with me.” I have to say I would be totally surprised if I were to return to any of the characters that I have written about.I can’t think of any character that I have written about that I later thought about the life of that character after the story I tell.

RB: Nona and Roy are left in such an interesting pregnant situation.

SN: Right, they are in a completely new life situation and you want to know how she is going to cope, that’s true. And yet when I now—since you have put this before me and I am thinking about them and actually I am seeing them—I have to say that that novel, which would be about their life with these children that they have adopted—

RB: No longer in New York City, to Minnesota?

SN: The idea of writing a novel—when I try to think about how it would be—it would be a novel about their marriage and the children, and I can see it doesn’t interest me.

RB: Because you have said everything that you wanted to say about them?

SN: I’d say because I feel that the issues I deal with have been fully explored by the end of the book. Also, I guess there’s something about the desire to leave some things open at the end, for the reader to imagine. Some people will think, “Well, they may have decided to stay together but I don’t believe they’re going to be happy.” And other people will say, “Well, Nona finally did the right thing and she and Roy are going to be happy.” I would prefer that both possibilities could exist—

RB: That’s not what I think. I wouldn’t presume to take on the novelist’s task and imagine a further story. All the possibilities are there—I wouldn’t speculate this or that. Why would I?

SN: I do think some readers will do that. They’ll make a judgment and the characters will have decided to do something—it will be the end of the book and some character will decide, “Yes, I’m going to do this.” Let’s say—how about Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester—were [laughs] they happy? Brontë has led you to this point where that is absolutely what you are supposed to assume about that story, but we would bring to it all kinds of other things. And we can imagine something. Would you want to read a book, even if it were by Brontë, about how Jane—

RB: Let me put it to you this way—I rarely think a story that I am enjoying is too long.

SN: I agree.




RB: So, in a sense, a sequel is an arbitrary division. It could have just been packed into the one volume. And also, I enjoy someone like William Kennedy or Faulkner, who will create—or Susan Straight—an imagined community. And in a very original way Edward Jones does that. Although not in an obvious way.

SN: Yes, that idea appeals to me more, though. That there would be a community created and then you are dealing with this part of it, this couple, this family of this community and then in an another book you focus on minor or peripheral characters from the first book.

RB: So you could see attending to the [orphaned] children that Roy and Nona adopt [in Naked Sleeper]?

SN: Yes, then you go on and deal with other characters. That would be interesting but isn’t that like Zola—I haven’t read Zola in years—
There you are, 17 or 18 years old, and you are going away from home for the first time and there is a lot at stake and you are very sensitive and vulnerable and all these things and there is this total stranger and you are told to live with them in a very intimate situation, that’s like an arranged marriage.

RB: I never have. I am now embarrassed.

SN: He wrote a series of novels that deal with several generations of the same family.

RB: What do you begin with when you write a story? Do you write short stories?

SN: I have written some but not many. I always start with a character. There is an idea about a character or two. It’s less what would I like to write about than who. So my first book, which didn’t start out as a book—the idea was I wanted to write about my father. I wrote about my father in the last line of that chapter or what would turn into a chapter, called “Chang” in Feather on the Breath of God. I wrote, “It would be so much harder to write about my mother.” That’s when I knew I was going to go on. Later that was not the right sentence to end that chapter—I had a better ending to “Chang,” and so that sentence had to go—but as soon as I wrote that sentence I knew what was coming next. So I knew I wanted to write about my mother and father in that first book. In the second book I knew I wanted to write about Nona, and in my third book I knew I wanted to write about Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s marmoset. But the marmoset, Mitz, was an excuse to write about “the Wolves,” as their friends called them. And then I knew absolutely I wanted to write about a woman who had served as an army nurse in Vietnam—I had been interested in that for years.

RB: Because?

SN: I came of age during the Vietnam War and knew certain things about it, but not much, it turns out. And then in the ’80s, when people who’d been there started talking and writing about it, there were some women among them. There wasn’t very much about the women, but I happened to read some of it and I thought, “This is something I’d really like to write about. A woman who lived through such an amazing experience, which only a handful of women had experienced.” And no one appeared to be writing any fiction about these women. So that’s how I ended up writing For Rouenna. And with this latest book, The Last of Her Kind, I knew I wanted to write about freshman roommates—that is an experience that we all take for granted, that nevertheless when you examine it is really pretty strange. That there you are, 17 or 18 years old, and you are going away from home for the first time and there is a lot at stake and you are very sensitive and vulnerable and all these things and there is this total stranger and you are told to live with them in a very intimate situation, that’s like an arranged marriage. And so I knew I wanted to write about girls in that situation. But I also wanted to write about that era, the late ’60s. So I decided to put them on the Columbia campus at the same time I was there. So all my ideas for books have started out with characters. And once you decide who you want to write about obviously your character has to have a life, and you have to give them things to do and thoughts to think and relationships to have and so on. And a lot of my work really could be described as fictional biography. I like the idea of covering a large number of years in a character’s life. I am fascinated by the various turns a person’s life can end up taking over a period of time. That’s what I like to write about.

RB: So is that fun?

SN: Much of it is fun and satisfying. And in many ways—if the work is going well or well enough—and I do think, I tell my students this and actually meant it, I do think in many ways it does get easier. Much of it gets easier.
When writers say that it doesn’t get easier what they mean is that is that it is always hard. That writing is always hard.

RB: Really?

SN: Yes, in the sense that you pick up your mistakes earlier as you are writing. And you are more alert to certain pitfalls.

RB: How about the part where you worry whether your audience will like what you are doing or whether you can deliver on what you began?

SN: Well, that’s not about writing, that’s about publishing.

RB: [laughs]

SN: What I meant was that the writing gets easier; you become more skillful unless something is wrong. And you waste less time. I can remember this and I see it in my students—this idea that I have spent all these hours, days, even weeks, on these pages, on this story, they must be good. Well, the truth is that it is quite possible that they aren’t. It doesn’t matter that you spent all this time on it. It still might not work. And after you have done this for a while, you are much more willing, much smarter, you know, to throw that away. You have to realize that that’s part of the process and not this big waste. You are able to say that won’t work and cut it. Whether it’s a sentence, a paragraph, a page or a whole story or chapter, you learn how to tell sooner when it’s not working. And you begin to feel more confident because you know you’re more skillful as a writer. But when it’s working, when the actual writing is going well and you know you’re doing a good day’s work, that’s enormously satisfying. And in that sense it is fun.

RB: What I hear you saying or that it suggests is that some people can keep those thoughts in the foreground, that is, a focus on the skills that they should have accumulated, so they can accelerate dealing with their mistakes and some people seem to start fresh with every project.

SN: True.




RB: No real explanation for that—just individual character.

SN: But I don’t know if you start fresh again each time—

RB: How to explain writers who say it doesn’t get easier? And that every start is fraught with angst.

SN: When writers say that it doesn’t get easier what they mean is that it is always hard. That writing is always hard. I interviewed Paula Fox at Symphony Space and I quoted something from an interview that I had read of hers with her—she writes children’s fiction, fiction and now these two memoirs—and people want to know what the difference was between the genres? The main thing she said, “It’s all hard.” In that sense it doesn’t get easier—

RB: It can be fun yet still hard?

SN: Part of it is—I wanted to be a dancer when I was young. And I failed at that. I have never gotten over that. I’ll never get over that.

RB: Meaning you feel badly about yourself? A failure?

SN: I don’t know how else to put it except to say that I wanted to be a dancer and I failed at that and I’ll never get over that. The thing is, there I am, a young person, a kid, studying ballet, and ballet is extremely difficult. It’s enormously difficult but there isn’t any dancer who wouldn’t say it isn’t fun. It’s more fun than anything could be. So in that sense to me, early on, the idea of something being incredibly difficult and physically painful certainly didn’t mean it couldn’t be the most fun and the most satisfying thing a person could do. I don’t think it’s a terrible thing that I will never get over it. I don’t see why I would get over it. Something that was so important to me I was not able to do, that I lost. It makes all the sense in the world that I would always have that.
Say you’re young and you fall in love with someone, and then you lose that person. Though you move on you don’t ever completely get over it. That loss is part of your life and who you are forever.

RB: It is accurate to say writing was a substitute for—

SN: No, I was a writer first. Maybe I feel like [laughs] if only I had been able to dance I would have saved myself from becoming a writer. When I was a kid, like most writers I know, I wanted to write and wrote these stories about animals and children and so on. And when I was a little older I prided myself on my ridiculous sentimental colorful—but then when I was about 12 and I started thinking about ballet and then a little bit later started studying it—I started too late as a ballet dancer. I didn’t actually start until I was in high school though it was in my mind before that. And then I went off to college and went to Barnard—I chose Barnard because it was in Manhattan and I thought, “Well, I don’t want to go to college, no dancer goes to college, this is ridiculous, but I will choose Barnard because I can continue to study on 57th Street,” where I studied. Almost immediately upon arriving at Barnard almost everything seemed to fall apart; not only did I stop taking [ballet] classes, I also didn’t go to my academic classes. I was just a little wreck.

RB: What year was that?

SN: 1968. Eventually I continued to take dance classes at Barnard—it had and has a very good dance department. But the dream of being a dancer was never real. I would have had to have started much earlier. It was something I could do—but that doesn’t mean that I could have had a good career at it.

RB: Does it weigh you down?

SN: No—

RB: So it’s a biographical detail that you keep in mind, but what’s its impact? That you have tasted disappointment?

SN: No, its impact is partly that I was a dancer.

RB: That simple.

SN: I still have that in me. I know I know what it is to dance and to be a dancer. But what I feel is probably close to other kinds of loss. Like say you’re young and you fall in love with someone, and then you lose that person. And you go on and love other people and have a life and so on, but you know that that person was the one you loved the most, and that you’ll never love like that again. And though you move on you don’t ever completely get over it. That loss is part of your life and who you are forever.

RB: Do you go to dance performances?

SN: Not as much as I used to. But yes, I am a huge dance fan. I live in a city where there is a lot of dance.

RB: What does the body of your work mean to you now? Five novels, and I will assume that you are working on one now.

SN: I am—

RB: So do you even think about what you have written before, other than not wanting to repeat?

SN: Not much. I think it’s very interesting how little it actually concerns me. I don’t know how other writers feel. I mean, the books I’ve published, I don’t think about them much. I don’t think that’s uncommon, though. It’s almost as if the only book you really think and care about is the one that you’re working on. People occasionally say your books must be like—


SN: Nothing can be farther from the truth. The idea would be you had five children and only cared about the one you were [laughs] pregnant with. Or that was just born. You could care less about the others. I don’t think it’s like having children at all.
By the time I am ready to make progress on a longer work I am already at a point at which I know I am going to stick with it. I have never worked for a year on a novel that I thought I was going to finish and have ended up having to drop it.

RB: There seems always to be a search for the appropriate metaphor for the things that we create. There must be a good reason for the French word oeuvre not being translated into English. It doesn’t strike me that American writers are occupied with the bodies of their works.

SN: Maybe some of them do. I wonder if it’s perhaps different for musicians, for composers. Or for painters. Whether it’s more likely for them to see their work in terms of a body of work. I have no idea.
RB: I was rereading a piece about science being progressive but the arts are not—meaning that they don’t build on themselves. And she was trying to figure out whether philosophy was progressive. So it’s the case that writing fiction is not progressive.

SN: No, I don’t think of it as progressive. You certainly don’t get better and better in that sense. There are plenty of writers whose early works are stronger than their later ones. Or the later work can still be very good but have more problems and weaknesses than early work. For novelists in particular, it’s not uncommon for success to be followed by failure.

RB: There are glorious or grand failures. Have you started something and not finished or something you finished that was not what you wanted and you put it in a drawer?

SN: I have work that I have tried to do that hasn’t worked out. Not even in a drawer.

RB: Hard drive?

SN: Not even—in the garbage. [laughs] On the other hand I don’t—by the time I am ready to make progress on a longer work I am already at a point at which I know I am going to stick with it. I have never worked for a year on a novel that I thought I was going to finish and have ended up having to drop it.


RB: Is that what it takes, a year? Is there a normal time frame for writing a book?

SN: No, what I meant by a year was that by that time I would be—it takes about two years. I don’t write very, very long novels. The Last of Her Kind was 375 pages, and that’s my longest book. And that took more than two years.

RB: Is that your most well-reviewed, well-attended book?

SN: It was. It received more attention than my first book.

RB: Do you read those reviews? I noticed there was quite a variety of venues—from the women’s magazines to the Wall Street Journal.

SN: I feel very lucky with the reviews that that book got. There were some very good reviews.

RB: I did like Elizabeth Benedict’s in the New York Times.
SN: Me, too.

RB: It was well written and hit the right notes.

SN: I was thrilled with it. It was in the daily Times and also, I agree, it was well written and generous. When I was young I remember hearing about writers who said they didn’t read their own reviews. I remember thinking, “I don’t know if I believe that. That seems so strange. How could you not read your reviews?” But when I started publishing I discovered that nothing could be easier than not reading reviews, and that in fact one had to force oneself to read them. Because even the good ones can make you cringe. I do read my reviews, but now I understand perfectly why some people don’t, or don’t want to. And sometimes what I’ll do is put off reading them. I’ll collect them and wait for the right moment and then sit down and read them all, getting it all over with at once.More novelists isn’t exactly what the world needs right now.

RB: Among other things, you have the good fortune to continue to be published, which is one of the fears that writers have about not getting reviewed.

SN: Exactly.

RB: Do you look at what you do as being important?

SN: Not as much as I would wish. In fact, I don’t think it has great importance. I very often wish I were doing work that would give me the sense of doing something more important. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to write about the combat nurse, someone whose work was saving lives. I can’t say my writing makes a big difference to the world, to the lives of people beyond myself. And I feel some regret about this, because you only have one life, and I very often wish I were engaged in some enterprise that was more meaningful—

RB: That made the world better?

SN: For example, once when I was at McDowell there was another resident there, a visual artist whose husband was an agricultural scientist, and one night at dinner she told us about his work—he was involved in trying to develop ways to produce hardier crops, which could help reduce famine in certain parts of the world—and as soon as I heard this I said, “How I wish I were doing something like that with my life!” Which did not go over well at that table.

RB: [laughs]

SN: People said things like, Art is just as meaningful, just as important, and so on and on. I’m not saying they were wrong. But I certainly didn’t feel that way.

RB: Could anything be more self-serving than artists saying how important their work is and art is?

SN: They weren’t saying how important their work was.

RB: Yes they were.

SN: [laughs] Well, man doesn’t live by bread alone. Fine, there just seems to be less and less bread. If it were a different world—

RB: If you go by the numbers and you see how few people pay attention to the sum total of all that artists create—

Sigrid Nunez, photographed by Robert Birnbaum

SN: Here’s the main thing: I feel I put my fiction out there, all fine and good. But there’s lots of fiction out there. There are a lot of good books. There are a lot of great stories. There are all these good writers; I know many of them myself. There is all this great literature already on the shelves. So, no, I can’t possibly feel as if I were doing something extraordinarily important. And the more you read the news, the more alarmed you are at what’s happening in the world, and it’s quite hard to be working as an artist and to think of that as being the most valuable contribution to society you could make. More novelists isn’t exactly what the world needs right now.

RB: Why do you think writing programs have exploded so much in the last generation? Why do so many people want to write?

SN: I’m not sure. I think about that all the time. It is certainly not for the money—they must know that writers don’t make a lot of money.

RB: Most don’t make any money.

SN: Right, but of course if you enter these programs there is a fantasy that you will be the big literary star. Sometimes I worry that for certain people this is a culture totally obsessed with fame and for certain people they have this idea that it is the only way they can become famous. They know they are not going to be a supermodel or get up on the stage and sing La Traviata.

RB: There is American Idol.

SN: Right. They are not going to write a great song and they can’t make visual art. But they feel that because everyone writes, and because they like to read, they had some idea that that is something they can do and it will get sold and published and that would make them feel all right. That’s what it is—it’s about the fact that everyone can write and they don’t think of it in the same way as people think about dancing or even sport. With writing they think—

RB: Everyone assumes there is a base level of competence at writing that they can improve—

SN: They do, they do. And that they have a story. I agree with that part: They do have a story. When they read other peoples’ stories, if the writing is good, it strikes them as effortless. And they get the idea that all they have to do is get in touch with their own inner writer and it will all come pouring out. Many people believe that, given enough time and lots of encouragement, they can write a novel, too, and that someone will want to publish it, and that lots of people will want to read it.


RB: Is there a noticeable change in your writing students—do you teach regularly?

SN: I teach fairly often. I don’t have a position. I do adjunct teaching—quite a bit. I taught at Columbia, undergraduate and the MFA program, Amherst, Smith, and the New School, Hofstra, and I’ve been a visiting writer at Washington University, Sarah Lawrence, and then I’ve done some of these conferences. And at the poetry center at the 92nd Street Y. Those are all different kinds of students. Different ages. So what was your question?

RB: Is there something about the students that has changed?

SN: The first time I ever taught was at Hofstra in ’93. People participating workshops are getting better all the time. But all this workshopping and people paying attention to the craft of writing has had an effect.

RB: But there is a backlash that argues that the fiction has become sterile and antiseptic and incestuous, and the stories are written to satisfy a certain benchmark—

SN: Yeah, there is such a thing as a workshop story. And I do see a lot of that. But it also depends whether it’s undergraduates or MFA students or people who take these workshops at the 92nd Street Poetry center—who are of any age. Gary Shteyngart was a student of mine at the poetry center. He was 27 at the time, and he was working on that first novel that became The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.



Sigrid Nunez circa 2007 copyright 2018 Robert Birnbaum

RB: We talked before about how you don’t refer back to your work much—and yet here you are, ostensibly on tour for a novel that you must have completed two or three years ago. So what does that feel like?

SN: I don’t know how it feels, exactly. It feels like business. [both laugh] It feels like what happens when a book comes out.

RB: Is it difficult for you to tear yourself away from your current work?

SN: Yes, but on the other hand I wouldn’t really want to talk about that novel, which is just in its earliest stage. And so in a way it’s interesting to talk about The Last of Her Kind at this point, a year after it was published, a year and three months after I handed it in.

RB: When authors go on tour for their books, I think the audience that comes to readings for the most part hasn’t read the book. But going out on tour for the soft cover, there is a good chance some or most of the audience has read the book.

Even if a book were thrilling, I would still rather hear the author talking and answering questions. I can read—I don’t need you to read to me.

SN: It’s true. It’s more interesting. In this bookstore in Kingston, Pa., The Tudor Bookstore, most of the people had read the book and the questions were very interesting. And also now there are book clubs—now I am in touch and talking with book clubs. But yes, it really is more interesting to talk to people who have read the book—the best part of any of these meetings or readings or whatever—it’s never the reading—

RB: For sure.

SN: Authors should read a little bit but talk a little bit more about the book, anticipating some of the questions that people will want to know. For example, “Why did you write this book? What is this book about?”

RB: As opposed to “How do you get an agent?” or “Do you use a computer or write longhand?”

SN: Exactly. So you begin by reading a very few pages and then asking for questions. And then it can become quite lively.

RB: It’s surprising that more readings haven’t adopted what is done in Europe—which is to have an interlocutor or interviewer talk to the visiting writer in front of an audience.

SN: We need more variety. For example, last month I did an event with Gary Shteyngart at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum—he’s written about immigrants, and I have written about immigrants. And we each read for five minutes. There was a moderator and we talked and then there were questions and it was terrific and much more interesting than it would have been if I had read for a half-hour and Gary read for a half-hour—Gary is one of the funniest writers around, so it is great fun to hear him read. But it was just much more interesting, and the audience questions and the discussion and getting more than one writer who has a book out at the same time—but just the minimal number of pages just to get a flavor of the book and then the talk—it so much better and interesting. I don’t enjoy going to readings.

RB: Amen. Though occasionally someone will do well, Charles Baxter and Jim Shepard come to mind.

SN: I have heard Charles at Bread Loaf. Colum McCann is very good. When he reads, he has his own special way of doing it.

RB: Those Irish guys have a gift. [laughs]

SN: But even if a book were thrilling, I would still rather hear the author talking and answering questions. I can read—I don’t need you to read to me.

RB: There is something to be said for getting the tone or coloration through an author’s reading.

SN: A bit. The standard thing, the standard book tour reading—it’s often not so conducive to discussion. The audience feels like they’re there to listen to a reading, and they aren’t prepared to ask questions. Whereas if it were more like “I’m here to discuss my book but before I do I will read just a few pages,” that would be different. And as I say, maybe it’s better when it’s more than one writer.

RB: It has gotten mechanical and pro forma. Writers are being thrown out there left and right. I imagine that the skies of America on any given day are full of literary minds. Anyway, is there a movie to be made of The Last of Her Kind?

SN: It’s been optioned.

RB: So is a movie going to be made?

SN: That I don’t know. I hope so. Nothing is in production now.

RB: Was it optioned by someone who read it?

SN: Indeed, and he said, “I will be totally honest with you, it wasn’t a review that made me think of reading this book, I was in a bookstore …and the cover of the book made me interested.” That pleased me because I found that Eggleston photo myself.

RB: The picture of the two girls?

SN: It’s from the ’70s. I forget what stage I was in with the book. I wasn’t finished yet. And there was this photo from Memphis and I clipped it—I had this idea that Farrar Straus could work with it because it seemed right. And then I went off to Berlin in January 2005 and sent it to my editor [Jonathan Galassi] at Farrar Straus and then I didn’t hear anything and time passed and I knew the book was being put together and I inquired and he said they were working with it. And the next thing I got the mockup of the cover, and people have responded well to that image. And they used it on the soft cover because Picador also really liked it. And it’s from the right era, and when you look at it you don’t know who’s who. I just like it. It’s beautiful. When it was published in Italy they said, “We also want to use the cover,” and they rarely use the same image.

RB: Any interest in your earlier novels?

SN: None of them. This was the first time. Who knows? I don’t know how these things work.

RB: People who are supposed to know how they work don’t know how they work.

SN: Yeah, yeah. We’ll see what happens. Many things get optioned and few things get made. Jawal Nga is the producer who got in touch with me and optioned the book. I’ve met with him twice, and I really like the way he talked about the book and his ideas for a film version.

RB: I took the hint that you don’t really want to talk about what you are working on now.

SN: I’ll just say it’s a new novel that I began writing in October. I was away at this wonderful place called Ucross, in Wyoming. It’s the first book of mine in which the main character is not female. And I have a contract now, and it’s due in about two years.

RB: Good, I hope to see you then.


Conversations with Authors: Sigrid Nunez, Boston, 2011


** Opening epigram: “The question any novel is really trying to answer is, Is life worth living?” Nicholson Baker, “The Art of Fiction No. 212,” The Paris Review

Barry Crimmins: Call Him Lucky

1 Mar




Barry Crimmins  (circa  2001) Photo Copyright 2018 Robert Birnbaum

(Originally published: May 21, 2001)

 In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that I 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 first met Barry in 1989 when, knowing his stand on the US war being waged against Nicaragua, I asked him to help out with an ad hoc benefit/organization called “Baseballs for Nicaragua.” He, of course, did and was part of an effort that, on a cold January evening in Boston, Massachusetts, raised $12,000 (to send baseball equipment to a war-ravaged Central American country). I have been fortunate to know him and see him ‘perform’ ever since.

Barry Crimmins was a central figure in the Boston comedy scene for years and was no small contributor to the launch of a number of careers. He has devoted and donated his talents to progressive causes for most of his life and continues his dedication and support for those causes. Recently, Barry has settled in rural New York State with his companion Karen and his dog Lloyd near Elmira, New York, where two people that have greatly influenced him are buried: Mark Twain and Ernie Davis.

For more information on Barry visit his web site or as he suggests, file a freedom of information brief with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, D.C.

Robert Birnbaum: We are sitting here in Troupsberg, New York. You grew up close to here?

Barry Crimmins: About two hours. Two hours northeast of here. The thing about getting around the Finger Lakes is, getting around the Finger Lakes. Nothing is the proverbial “straight shot.” Although, all directions around here are given in increments of straight shots. “It’s a straight shot to your first turn. Then you wanna take…” (laughs) But you gotta get around them, you know. You gotta figure what you are gonna cut up. So here, we would cut up, we’d probably go up 414, head up the west side of Seneca Lake and then, Christ, all the way up Seneca, then cut over, I don’t know, whatever Seneca Falls, Auburn…

RB: People don’t say, “As the crow flies”?

BC: No…Well, they do. There are some people that do. But, you know, they’re sophisticated. They’ve probably been to Canada.

RB: Is there a sense in which you living here now is—I hesitate to say coming full circle—that there is something symmetrical about it?

BC: Yes. I’ve been a lot of other places where a lot of other people are from, and I mouthed off a lot about what I thought should happen in those places. Now that I have practiced doing that enough, I’m going to risk it where I’m from. (Lloyd the dog barks)

RB: What do you mean by saying you are going to “risk it”? Are you going to run for political office?

BC: No! Certainly not. Run from it. I didn’t come to the country because I want to avoid conflict. I think that there’s conflicts to get in, out here, that a lot of people aren’t dealing with. There’s a lot of ignorance. There’s a real pro-gun, Christian Right, bigoted, anti-environmental sentiment in the country and this is where I’m from. This is my ‘hood, and I want some stuff to be straightened out around here. I’m sick of this part of the world—somewhere as beautiful as this—being dominated by two things, prisons and Wal-Mart. That’s basically what’s happening here. And animal-rights abuses. So, uh, there’s just some stuff to do. And it makes me think about it.

I don’t know how I’ll directly take people on here—as much as I need the stimulus—to comment on it. There’s a lot of things to comment on. It’s interesting how much a factor, for example, race is around here, when there’s such little diversity in the area. It becomes a real factor when people matter-of-factly presume you’re a racist and say racist things to you thinking you’re going to snicker with them at it. There’s a lot of stuff like that to think about. Plus I’m from the region and there is something primal about being where you are from. It stirs up stuff. Now that I’m doing more writing, in my old age, I feel this will be more provocative for me. The most provocative place that I can be. Or evocative. It’s deep in me. As annoyed as I can get with a lot of what goes on around here—the ignorance—there is still something where I feel like I belong here. So I’m happy to be here. I’m not up here to hang with a bunch of people that I’ve known for a long time. I’ve got a few old pals that will show up. But basically I’m far enough away from where I’m from that I might as well be in Tunisia to those people. [in dialect] “What’re you doing way down there? Two hours.”

RB: So this is like home, but it’s not really home?

BC: No. This is temporary. We will probably move closer, even closer. So it will be an hour or an hour and a half. But I’ll never be stupid enough to live in the snow belt. It’s clearly marked. All you have to do is live X amount away from Lake Ontario and you lose…Ithaca gets five feet of snow a year less than Syracuse. Yet, Ithaca is a smaller city than Syracuse. I don’t need to tell you anything more about people from upstate New York than that. (both laugh)

RB: There is one thing you can say. They must like snow.

BC: Apparently. Well, you know—[dialect] “I just sit in my house and work on my alcoholism ‘til I can get the door open again”—That’s winter up here.

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.

RB: Would you have had any compunction about saying she was Jewish, even if she wasn’t, as an investigative technique?

BC: Oh yeah. That guy was gonna get something for that, you know. (Both laugh) Something was coming, I just didn’t know what. Karen fit perfectly in the equation.

RB: What’s the name of the town you grew up in?

BC: Skaneateles. S-k-a-n-e-a-t-e-l-e-s. If you can spell it you are in the second grade. It’s an Indian word that means “beautiful lake surrounded by fascists.”

RB: And you went to school at Syracuse?

BC: No, I ended up at Miami. University of Miami. I took the intensive one-year smuggling program and then I went to colleges all over.

RB: And you when you told people where you were from, was the response usually, “Where?”

BC: Yes, either you say you are from New York and they immediately think you are a sophisticated person. People apologized to me around the country, “Oh, you’re from New York? You’re probably…”“No I’m from the Midwest, I’m from upstate New York.”

RB: I never thought of it that way. You could actually claim the Midwest began outside of Philadelphia. Or just outside of Boston?

BC: Oh yeah. It starts outside of Boston and it stops for a minute in New York and… New Jersey isn’t exactly the Midwest. But, there’s goobers there.

RB: Big deer-hunting area.

BC: That’s for sure. It’s just you hide behind junked cars more often.

RB: A lot of ’67 GM cars and a lot of Range Rovers.


BC: That’s right, they make a good blinds.

RB: Do you think about growing up in a small town in upstate New York in the 60’s in counterpoint to your travels?

BC: That’s the amazing thing, and it’s sort of part of why I’m back. I feel like I…I was thinking this yesterday, and I almost said this to you when we were driving around. I almost said, “Every kid I see, I feel like saying, ‘Get out of here! Just go away from here for a goodly period of time. Go elsewhere! Cuz there just isn’t enough here for you. Someday there will be more than enough here for you. But you have to bring a big chunk of that back with you. If you just stay here it’s not enough.’”

When I think of it, the stuff I’ve done, the people I’ve worked with, what my work is noted for and who I’m aligned with and where I come from, the odds against that—I think you are going to go a long time before you’re going to find another leftist political satirist of any note at all who hails from a town that is basically a permanent staging area for the Republican convention.

And that’s been a funny thing over the years, ‘cuz those people from my home town would see me on television and say, “Christ, we seen Crimmer on the TV.”

And then they’d lean forward and hear what I’d say and they’d get whiplash. “What’re you a Communist?”

There is the funny and true story about when I was at my high school reunion and some guys pulled me aside and asked me—first off I wouldn’t drink Coors with ’em—”Coors is the One.” So is Nixon. You know that old thing I do. Coors gives lie detector tests to its employees about their sex lives. “Do you masturbate?” “Not in the vat.” That’s all you’ve got to know, Adolph. I wouldn’t drink Coors with ’em. Then I wouldn’t eat meat with them. “You were on the football team, what happened to you?”

The same week I had appeared at the reunion of the surviving Attica inmates. Surviving and released inmates of the Attica Uprising in New York, at the Village Gate…we did a thing for them. A few days later I’m at my high school reunion, and I’m pretty sure I’m the only person who made both of those soirees. Fortunately, I went to the Attica one first, which mellowed me out for what I was about to deal with in Skaneateles. So anyway, I won’t eat meat, I don’t drink Coors with ’em. Finally, a couple of ’em pull me aside and say, “Crimmer, we gotta ask you a question. We heard when you were over to Boston you dun an AIDS benefit. Now this isn’t true, is it?” (Both laugh, heartily.) And I said, “Yeah, I’ve done dozens of AIDS benefits”… “You’re not a queer are you?”… “I’m whatever threatens you. I’m a Communist with AIDS and I bite.” But these guys are asking me if I’m gay. These are guys who couldn’t get laid in a women’s prison if they came with a truckload of cigarettes.

RB: Are they asking in benign amusement? Wonder? This all kind of friendly banter, isn’t it?

BC: No. they’re giving me a chance to clear my name. Absolutely. “You don’t say that about a man, not Crimmer.”

RB: The odds of someone like you coming from a place like this to do what you do…

BC: Everyone there isn’t like that. There are some all right people, too.

RB: And were they asking you questions?

BC: They don’t even know how to frame the questions. I’m in my hometown, there are so many funny stories since I’ve been there. I was there one time in 1988 to bury a friend of mine and I’m bummed out. I’m in a bar at the Sherwood Inn, which is a nice place. We’re watching a Syracuse basketball game on TV. People are just, “Nigger this and nigger that.” I couldn’t even take it on. First of all they’re all rooting for Syracuse, and there’s a bunch of black kids on the team, you know. That’s where my civil-rights roots come from, rooting for guys like Ernie Davis [Syracuse Heisman Trophy winner] when I was a kid. I met Ernie up at Syracuse. That inoculated me against all the racism that was rampant. I, in the pure heart of a child, thought it would be bad luck to think these hateful things about someone and then root for them the next minute because I wanted to be lucky. That’s all. That’s where it came from, it’s almost stupid on a certain level. But on another level it’s a very beautiful thing and really speaks to what a great thing Jackie Robinson did. That worked! That was a really great thing! That’s what saved me. Jackie Robinson saved me. Ernie Davis saved me. So, I went a cross the street—it being January, they were giving a way those little cheap calendars, for free, at the pharmacy—I went and got a box of ‘em and just handed em out to everyone at the bar, “Here it’s 1988. In case, you hadn’t noticed, 1988. It’s 1988. Oh, you better have two. It’s 1988…”

RB: We were talking about the unlikeliness of some with your point of view coming from here. We visited Mark Twain’s grave site in Elmira, what was the prevailing culture a hundred years ago when Twain lived and worked here?

BC: First off, I think he was with the Buffalo News but then he married Olivia Langdon and her family they’re all from Elmira, and they had the Quarry Farm up there where he spent his summers, and he did a lot writing up there and he loved it. He went on effusively talking about it. But that was, of course, right after the Civil War. During the Civil War this was a hot bed of abolitionism. This was a very progressive area. It was very vibrant, economically. People had jobs with living wages and they did well. The Industrial Revolution was doing okay by upstate New York at that point. But as one of the first places that made that “progress” it was one of the first places where that progress receded from because of the scurrilous nature of modern day capitalism—maybe capitalism is always scurrilous?—I suppose it is. Workers up here got organized sooner than most other places, so they got abandoned sooner. Before they [industry/capital] headed south and then further south…

RB: It was also a hotbed of feminism. What was it called then?

BC: Suffragettes, yeah up in Seneca Falls. Syracuse had a lot of abolitionist stuff. There was a riot there, to free a slave who had been captured in Syracuse. The underground railroad passed through my hometown and the house I grew up in was built in the 1830’s and had secret trap doors in it and stuff. I don’t know if it’s been established, but yeah, there were secret passageways in my house…

RB: So tell me, have you thought of this? An area represents certain social/political values…

BC: Right.

RB: …and then it changes. It seems as if those values should…

BC: This place has mirrored the Republican Party. It used to be the progressive party. Actually, Jim Jeffords mentioned it was the party of Lincoln the other day. I don’t think many of those other people think about that often or if they do they stay with it anyway. They stay with the Republicans anyway.

RB: Here’s one take on it. I have been observing for quite some time that most Americans are ahistorical. ‘Lincoln’ is just a name on a paper bill. The ‘Founding Fathers’ just words…

BC: Yeah, of course. And in fact they don’t know the real history. That’s where someone like Howard Zinn comes in so handy.

RB: Americans don’t even know the faux history…or the pop history.

BC: Well, what they know about the Civil War is what they saw in that horrible movie Gone With The Wind. “Oh, we’ll help ya, massa. Fight them Yankees….get them Yankees outta here. We don’ wanna be free” (Laughs) Right. Yeah. Right. That explains Nat Turner.


Barry and Lloyd Photo Copyright 2018 Robert Birnbaum

RB: In Walter Wetherell’s book, Morning, he writes, “Television has no history. It’s all immediate.” If you have people who, growing up, have been informed mostly by the TV, I think their ability to look into the past is challenged.

BC: Right. Without corny and manipulative music involving harmonicas …which aren’t really harmonicas now, the sounds are produced by software now. How can you expect people who can’t stay in the present to have the patience to deal with the past at all and to want to know anything about it? At this point—at least from what the media tells us—we can’t sit and watch a baseball game. We want sixteen other things going on. We got crap running across the screen. We want noisy stuff—every time you put up the score—it’s gotta go “Pshhhewww.” It has to have all these other dimensions to it. You couldn’t possibly just sit there and watch the game. Basically, by the time the game is on—god forbid some bad weather comes through the area—the game ends up on a postage stamp in the corner of the screen. And you’re watching sixteen separate things at once. On some level people are absorbing all of and absorbing none of it, and it keeps everybody distracted and sort of jarred. How are you gonna expect these people to sit down and read history, read a book, that’s not doin’ anything?

Whatever anybody could have said about TV ten years ago, those were the pastoral days of television compared to what they are doin’ now. Now they’re trying to make it look like the Internet. (in deep broadcast announcer voice) “Interactive. We care. About you. And we’re gonna talk to you during this and tell you you’re important and spend our time saying that so we don’t say a goddamn thing about anything that actually matters here because we wanna keep you distracted from the corporate scam that’s going on here. Look an eagle. Flying across the sky where Americans look in the land of our people and a wonderful place [Robert starts laughing]. This land of America. By the way, we just have this score…” During the Super Bowl, when I looked, they were showing who was finishing 19th in the Phoenix Open. The ball is in play, in the Super Bowl, and they are showing me who finished 19th in a golf tournament, at that point. They just won’t leave you alone. They won’t let you sit still…[Dogs interrupt, barking]…That’s what I like about the country.

RB: You’ve written for television.

BC: Oh yeah, for a little while. But I just basically wrote what I write. I would chime in a little bit on some of the other things, but mostly I wrote jokes for the monologue for the Dennis Miller Show. The old one, the syndicated one.

RB: Who was the genius at Miller’s show who wanted you?

BC: Kevin Rooney. Who is a genius, who really had a lot to do with establishing Jay Leno and then Miller. Rooney is one of the funniest stand-ups I ever saw. Consistently too smart for the room. But still, so smart, he could overcome it. Just one of the funniest people ever. And he was very helpful. And Miller wanted me, too. They started the show, I wrote some stuff for them from afar, and after the first week they were on the air they said, “Come on out here.” And so I went out and I did it. It was an—interesting—experience. That was when the Carson Show was in its last year. And then the Leno Show was in its first year. It was almost impossible to get decent guests on that show. We’d write a hip monologue and the first guest would be the swimsuit model from Sports Illustrated. That would contradict the pro-feminist jokes we just did.

RB: Why wasn’t that a great guest? By the producer’s standards…

BC: Right, right, right. Ten days into the thing—when I first got there I said that I didn’t want to go to meetings—ten days into it, I wasn’t allowed to go to meetings anymore.

RB: You wrote what you wrote…

BC: Well, I had to tool it a bit for him, but basically…

RB: I took what you meant that you didn’t write for the medium, for ‘television’. You didn’t concern yourself with how people saw it or heard it…

BC: I think about how people see or hear anything that I write in that sense. But no more or less, really. I probably learned a few tricks. With Dennis if you could smuggle a pop-cultural reference or two in you could smuggle in more content. They might not realize that until the calls came in that night. (both laugh)


RB: Is it safe to say that—I won’t ask for specificity—in general, that it’s possible that the deliverers of the jokes are not fully aware of the ramifications of the material?

BC: That could happen, on occasion. Dennis is a smart guy. In many ways. Like a lot of smart people he often gives you cause to wonder WHAT THE HELL HE’S THINKING. I left after a while because I just didn’t want to be out there. And they take it personally. I kept writing for the show until it ended. It was just one of these rules, “Oh you have to be on this lot everyday to do these things.” And I would do the same things I could do at my house at the show. I wasn’t allowed to go to meetings and…

RB: I don’t get that part. You had to be out on the West Coast…to do the promotional tour?

BC: No, just to be tortured. “Sit here, you must come here everyday.” I hated it. I hated having to be somewhere everyday where there’s these people and this vibe, and clearly after a point it was becoming a death march.

RB: You were out on the West Coast…

BC: For a little while…

RB: When you weren’t actively working on the show, what did you do? Besides surfing…

BC: Yeah, right, besides the surfing. I went to book stores and I hung with the few radicals. I have a lot of friends in L.A. between performers and writers and musicians. I tried to forget I was there and basically attempted to manage a crumbling personal life on the East Coast. It crumbled completely and has now been rebuilt in a new location.

RB: Were you tempted to pursue other writing opportunities in broadcast or film while you were there?

BC: I’m really a failure or I’m really hip to something. I’d like to think that I’m somewhat hip to something. And that is I just never expected the corporate powers that be to allow me to stand on their soapbox and tell everyone that their soap is polluting the river. Basically, that’s what I end up doing. I end up in trouble. I’m almost untouchable with those people out there. I can’t work with them for long ‘cuz there’s just such…lying is just so deeply ingrained…being phoney and showing false concern about and whatever, and I have an honest face and I’m easily bored and I just didn’t click. But I still think that if they wanted to do something good they could produce one—gimme one HBO special—and it’ll get good reviews and be a real nice piece of work. There are some people out there that are hip enough to do it. These people know how to insinuate themselves in situations where they can get some stuff done. And there’s a lot of good people who have gotten a lot of good stuff done.

My problem has always been that I am just too head-on. I’m too literal. I’m a non-fiction comic. I’m odd because I’m non-fiction and yet I’m sort of jazzy because I experiment with themes and riff a lot. But still it’s basically non-fiction and it’s head-on and you know where I’m coming from. And I’ll say, “Yeah, I’m a leftist.” And everyone is scared they’d getting the label ‘Hollywood Liberal’. I’m pretty sure Joseph McCarthy did his job. Even though they make a nice movie every ten years about Edward R. Murrow saving the world, he didn’t save that world. You still get red-baited in Hollywood. I get baited and get baited a whole bunch of other ways. I take shots at stuff that other people…well, others will sometimes…but I take ’em maybe at more subjects. I almost did the Tonight Show. The guy liked me but he goes, “We need to know a little more about you…Where you from? Bup bup ba.” And needless to say I didn’t do the Tonight Show. I probably should have. What it came down to back then—was Nicaragua. I wanted to talk Nicaragua and what was going on in Central America…

RB: Please, let me stop you. There is an irony in your reference to red-baiting in Hollywood given the frequent attacks on Hollywood as a spawning ground of leftism…

BC: As it makes another action movie about killing Arab terrorists, yeah…

(Big noisy truck rumbles by…)

BC: (semi-shouts) Nice to be out here in the country…That’s a milk truck though.

RB: Barbara Streisand and Alec Baldwin…

BC: By the way, that sort of element is terrified of me because I dump on their crap, too. I’m no limousine liberal.

RB: That’s “SUV liberal” today…

BC: SUV limo liberal. I suspend my beliefs concerning the death penalty if you are driving one of those things. At least they do something with their money, at times. And they help a bit. There’s definitely a line that’s drawn and they’re selectively morally indignant. If they had thorough moral indignation, I think they might live a little differently than they do. You don’t need as much stuff. That’s part of the thing with Hollywood. Once you are out there, you gotta live there and once you got to live there, you gotta spend a lot of money, and that’s how they get ya. And that’s how they whore ya up. You just gotta keep makin’ that nut. And, you know, the nut is ridiculous. It’s just a ridiculous amount of money…compared to what it costs to live here. So I can live here and be somewhere nice and leave whatever kinda trail I’m gonna leave. Or I could go out there and write—whatever. You name it. “…He writes the interstitial material on a reality show. And makes enough money to live in a little house in Hollywood Hills. Or the Valley, probably.” I know people out there and the amount of money they have to spend to live is just ridiculous. So here comes the game shows.

RB: That reminds me of a cover story of New York Magazine in the mid eighties, “Going Broke on A $120,000 a Year.” What’s the poverty threshold in this country?

BC: Yeah, right, and it’s way higher than that in L.A., obviously. You need two of those incomes to live there, shabbily.

RB: I once asked a writer who lives in Vermont why she didn’t live in Manhattan. She quickly made the connection between money and murder. She said, “She’d have to kill too many people.” She bypassed quite a few propositions on the causal chain to get to that conclusion.

BC: Right. [To the dogs] You boys all need to lie down. We’re over run with dogs, birds and frogs…In L.A., they got ya on a really nice treadmill.

RB: That mirrors the rest of what you are talking about.

BC: That’s the thing with everything. People get so paranoid about the media. Basically you are dealing with a bunch of people that, whatever way, they end up being these corporate drones, who are scared to death that they are going to lose their health insurance. That’s the bottom line. Everyone’s worried about keeping some sort of gig with some sorts of benefits. When people talk about “the press is this and the press is that”—I’ve got a lot of friends that work at daily newspapers around the country. All have, slowly but surely, been bought up by the same three or four concerns. They are all dealing with the same struggle that’s been blueprinted at the home office somewhere. Here’s how you screw over these workers, here’s how you threaten them, here’s how you undermine them. And it works.

I don’t know what’s going on now, but a couple of years ago at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, they weren’t even letting those people leave the building…without a really good excuse. It was like a detention hall. You wonder why your newspaper sucks, your reporters aren’t out on the street anymore because you won’t let them go on the street. They used to have reporters on the street because there used to be competition. It’s funny about these capitalists. They’ve gotten to the point where there’s no competition anymore and that’s exactly what they want. Their professed love for capitalism was a bunch of huey. They’re into competition as much as Stalin was. They wipe out and absorb everything.

RB: Sadly, they don’t see it that way. The CEO or the senior manager’s mandate is not to screw the workers or to oppress. Their mandate is to do little things that they rarely connect to the dire consequences that are visited upon their employees.

BC: Not in the front of his head.

RB: If you told a corporate manager he was imperiling lives, he would respond that he was giving jobs…

BC: There are some that would chuckle. There are a lot that need to delude themselves and are good at it. That delusion works. It’s the same thing everywhere…we’re getting told how great the economy has been, but I don’t know how good the economy is for real working people in this country. Or how good it’s been for years. I think it’s been crappy. Real wages have gone down, benefits have lessened. Workplace safety is deteriorating. They’re working longer, for less money. Oh yeah.

RB: Wow, a hummingbird.

BC: Yeah, they like those purple flowers. (A dog barks persistently in the distance.) That’s what ignorance can breed—mean Golden Retrievers. That’s what’s across the road. It takes really dumb people to make a Golden Retriever mean and they’ve done it. Those are the same people that set up a trampoline at an angle on a hillside, “Hey! This don’t work. Ow!”

RB: You’ve benefited. You are able to do know what you’ve had in mind for a while. Which is to come to a slightly isolated part of the country—in a specific sense of the word ‘isolation’—and be in constant contact with the immense informational pool that you need and desire. The phone lines and cable infrastructure and the software wouldn’t be available to you…

BC: It’s a beautiful thing. These greedheads have sold us so much crap that we didn’t need, that eventually they got around to selling us a few things we can use. And it’s blowing up in their faces. That’s the good part of the Internet.—Al Giordano’s Narco—him going down to Central and South America and covering the drug war for real, what it’s really about, and then putting it on the Internet everyday. And they can’t do a goddamn thing about it. They try but they’re gonna fail. All they’re gonna do is publicize it.


Barry in Color Photo Copyright 2018 Robert Birnbaum

RB: Perhaps he was poisoned by a Black Widow planted by some agent of the Mexican newspapers?

BC: He’s okay. No, the Mexican newspapers are actually with him. It’s the Mexican banks that don’t like him. Mexican newspapers are much hipper than American papers…We can record and transmit history—People’s History like Howard Zinn taught us about—in a way that we never could before. At least for now that genie is out of the bottle. And it does do wonderful stuff. I can sit here and be in better contact, get more information sitting here way out in the country than I ever used to be able to get sitting in Boston, ten or fifteen years ago. I’m going to use that. That’s fun. I literally have a nerve center way out here in the middle of nothing. A lot of other people can do that too.

RB: The paradox of our culture and way of life is that all kinds of information has always been available to us.

BC: Up until now it was much more managed, it had to go through a funnel a lot more than it does now. It turns out we didn’t need the citizen band radio, we didn’t need whatever…a lot of the other crap. We didn’t need that, but computer and digital technology is pretty good because we can take this audio and play it on the Internet. And it’s there and if somebody wants it they can go back and look at it. Somebody wants to know what this nut was all about—either Birnbaum or Crimmins—they can go back and find this, at some point. Should I be thankful to the big corporations for this?

RB: What is our responsibility to pay attention, to seek out information, to understand the world. Is it okay to say, “Well, huge forces brainwashed our culture”?

BC: There have always been people that have sought out the real information and corrected the record. We’ll always need to continue to do that. That will be more participation in that on an immediate basis now because of these advances in technology. We shouldn’t run away from them and we shouldn’t use fascist terms like ‘computer illiterate.’ A very interesting thing has happened over the past few years, with Columbine High School and Bill Gates and all these other things. We’ve learned that—we’ve had a myth destroyed for us—that myth is The Nobility of the Dork. It turns out that the dork—given an opportunity—will be just as much as a fascist as anybody else. Or certainly has the propensity, just like anyone else.

Sure, there are wonderful dorks and cruddy dorks. The good dorks are at Apple. You can just use your computer like you use your brain rather than have to ship your brain to Seattle every five minutes for clearance like Bill Gates makes you do. Then they come up with the term ‘computer illiterate.’ You know what that term really means? [in a whiney nasal voice] “Guess you gotta talk to me now. You would never talk to me in high school, but you gotta talk to me now, doncha. Hah, hah. You gotta talk to me now. Oh suddenly you want to talk to me. You’re talking to me now aren’t ya? Why? Yeah, Because I’m computer literate and you’re illiterate aren’t you?”

“No, I’m not illiterate, I just want to use this keyboard and type this crap…” When I use the Mac, I’m on the side of my brain I use to be creative and I can stay there. When I use those other things it’s like trying to repair a carburetor and write a poem at the same time. The two are in conflict with one another.

RB: Windows seem to be the long way around.

BC: It’s just like a fake Apple system on top of DOS. And DOS in Spanish is, “number two” (both laugh). I can get through and play it to a tie but why bother? I feel so bad when someone says to me, “I don’t have a computer, I’m computer illiterate.” Sort of hat-in-hand. Do you say you are car illiterate because you can’t take your manifold apart and fix it?

Years ago, my car, something happens and it’s steaming and I bring it in. And the guy goes, “Well, it’s gonna need a gasket.”

And I’m going, (raises voice) “Oh great, take my whole wallet. A gasket. Go ahead, take it! Gasket! I was gonna ago on vacation this year but I need a gasket. How much is that?”

“Eighty cents.”

“Get one for everybody!”

Am I car illiterate? Are you microwave-oven illiterate because you can’t repair that when it doesn’t work? It’s just ridiculous that you are supposed to be this technician with something that has too many moving parts that can get screwed up and conflict with one another. They can make them better. It’s just too bad Apple blew their marketing and made a lot of terrible decisions. They’re responsible in this thing, too. Their stuff works and makes sense. I can call a file what I call it. I write something, “Bush Sucks,” to me, that’s my little note. Hopefully what I wrote is more clever than that, but to me I know, “Oh that’s the ‘Bush Sucks’ essay.” Actually, I put in one the other day and found out there was already one from 1991, but that’s a different story. I never call anything ‘Doc.’ Except, if I’m sick. It’s too bad. though. It’s sort of like AOL. Inertia. People get that kind of computer, they stick with it. They’re on AOL, they stay there. You know how that goes…

RB: (Both laugh) Is this the part of the program where I foreswear AOL. “Okay, I’m giving it up, soon.”

BC: Good, good. See that yellow thing there. That’s called (fake announcer’s voice) The Sun.

RB: I’ve been reading David Hadju’s book about the Fariñas and Dylan and Baez. Which has a lot to do with creative relationships and relationships between creative people. Here you and I are roughly contemporaries of those people…

BC: Well, you do what you do. If you sit around. I don’t know, I never…

RB: Well, they were really influential people and the most fascinating [to me] character was killed in a motorcycle accident on his wife’s 21st birthday. What could he have been?

BC: I think. What do I think? Hmm. You can’t become overwhelmed with whatever the contemporary results of your art are, the obvious manifestations of your art. I think everyone you mentioned is a wonderful artist and has done great stuff, and as it happens their stuff has clicked and they’ve been able to have a good audience for what they’ve done and that’s wonderful. If you look at the history of all sorts of art and literature you find a lot of people who put things down and recorded things, painted things that they just did because they were obliged to do so. And not even in their entire lifetimes did they realize that they would have this profound effect upon people for generations after they were gone. Art in some ways has to be an act of faith and an act of responsibility and you don’t know when what you do is going to kick in or if it’s going to kick in. Maybe, it isn’t supposed to be all about that. I think all we can do is leave some sort of a trail. That’s where the technological stuff comes in handy, we can leave much better trails with that and maybe it’s for someone else to sort out. Who knows, maybe all your photos that you’ve taken, that’s an unbelievable piece of history, that stuff is there and it’s tangible…who knows what will come of it.

RB: I don’t.

BC: We are conditioned to think we suck because we are not completely celebrated everyday. I just celebrate because I don’t have to go to work at NormoCorp everyday. I’m sitting out here in the early morning with the sun, with the birds singin’, and the dogs lying here, talkin’ with you, about whatever we want to talk about. We already won. We already won. They didn’t get me. I’m not worried about dealing with some nitwit middle manager all day who’s makin’ me feel stressed out and screwin’ up my life. I’m sittin’ here. I have to fly to New Mexico tomorrow to talk about why the drug war is stupid. That’s all I gotta do.

RB: I think when you mount your final show, that the big production number ought to be that Sinatra tune, “My Way.”

BC: I was thinkin’ more of a Gordon McCrae song, (sings) “This is my country, land that I love…”—which I was singin’ the other day when Jeffords aced Bush. Being a good son of Vermont, Senator Jeffords knows when the sap is running and when to run from the sap. Right now my life is in inverse proportion to most people’s in one way. Professionally, something as dark and looming as the Bush administration come along, again. Everybody’s feeling pretty gloomy—everybody, being people that might be of like mind and heart—but for me it’s oddly invigorating. This re-energizes my audience, people want to hear from me now. It provides me with the opportunity to rail against stuff I enjoy railing against. It’s the ultimate mixed blessing. I would much rather remain in the background and not have something this terrible happen. It’s fun. It’s like being a hitter in baseball and you’re hot, you see everything, the rotation on the ball. I see the rotation on everything that these clowns throw at us. I could hit the hell out of the ball, before. I could hit this guy’s father and he was a better pitcher. Maybe the most optimistic thing you can say about it is: It will give us another chance to galvanize progressives and progressive thought and enlarge the progressive community. If we are going to do that, we have to repair a lot of stuff that’s wrong with progressives in the first place. A lot of that is just they’re no fun.

RB: An Oscar Wilde anecdote comes to mind. He was asked why he wasn’t a socialist and responded, “I prefer to keep my evenings free.”

BC: Whether it’s the Dennis Miller Show or politics—meetings, that’s the problem with the left. Meetings are group therapy for a couple of dominant malcontents. Whoever the Type A misfits are. “I have a few things I’d like to share before we get on with discussing that BABIES ARE BEING BOMBED OVER THERE. A few personal issues first.” The first thing I do when I go to one of those meetings is say, “The first thing I want is consensus on consensus. Unless everyone agrees to there being consensus we don’t have consensus. Okay. That’s not what we’re gonna use.” That screws ‘em all up. So please, everybody remember that ploy. Consensus. Why don’t you just call it what it is. Paralysis. We have to make it seem fun and attractive to be progressives. We have to welcome converts. We have not to treat people in a condescending manner when they show up and seem interested. Not, “You don’t know about this. You don’t know about that.” There are so many people that are so cutting and negative and cruel to people who come in. “I just wanted to help. But now that I realize that was scum for not being here three years ago like you, I guess I’ll leave,” And we’re back down to havin’ nobody. There’s a lot of people in the Movement. Or the Stagnant or whatever you want to call it that are happy. They know how to fail. They’re good a failure and so they’re scared of succeeding. They would rather spend their whole life fightin’ over little chunks of turf than lift up their heads and see that the whole world is there to gain.

RB: Isn’t part of the pathology of a progressive that they have to be self-critical, sometimes self-hating and certainly contentious. Consequently social skills seem to suffer…

BC: You can be skeptical without being self-loathing. You have something there because you end up discussing all the time how much people hate themselves. That has be sorted and gotten over to realize they’re okay and were just some nice kid who got betrayed in one way…

To be continued.




All fotos by Robert Birnbaum / Duende Publishing.



Taking Back Our Country

15 Feb
“There were two Americas in Chicago, but there always are.”
Arthur Miller / 1969



Youth International Party  (Yippie) logo




Abbie Hoffman, radical activist,  provocateur


This August will mark five decades (50 years) since the Democratic National Convention convened in Chicago and was the scene of massive anti war protests and the rioting of the Chicago Police Department. And culminating in the nomination of Hubert Humphrey for the presidency
Chicago’x Mayor Richard J Daley (Democratic king maker)
As a  college junior who was already becoming radicalized by a growing consciousness of the oppression of blacks and latinos and indigenous peoples and an ill conceived war (that was consistent with an imperialist foreign policy) I took to streets and the parks that week and witnessed events  have stayed with me the past 50 years. The chanting of “The streets belong to people” —by demonstrators  who were assaulted by the Chicago Police Department in Grant Park and chased into the streets, ending up at the  Conrad Hilton Hotel, is yet an uplifting memory

 Another great moment that I recall vividly was dark horse presidential candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy crossing the street from the Conrad Hilton to the park to address the crowd as the US government in exile…
Sparked by the memory of that event and acknowledging the dark time that has overtaken the United States, I would like to join anyone who is willing to create a celebration/rally two months before the crucial 2018 mid term elections with the goal of energizing a movement to throwing the bums out and  taking back the country.



Aug. 28, 1968: During the Democratic National Convention, Chicago police charge into crowd of antiwar demonstrators in Grant Park. This photo was published in the Aug. 29, 1968 Los Angeles Times.




Norman Mailer at Grant Park Band Shell (Copyright 2018 Robert Birnbaum)


 C. Natale Peditto opines:

Reading… Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago, we recognize a writer at the peak of his literary and journalistic talents. This was a period in Mailer’s career that included the remarkably wrought Armies of the Night, which earned both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize; both books remain to this day preeminent, although unorthodox, examples of the New Journalism style. What Mailer accomplished in these titles was to put himself, the author, in direct relationship to the events he was reporting—a third-person observer and simultaneous participant dedicated to revealing the public psyche while unraveling his own tangled motivations and ideology. In Armies of the Night, as the novelist and historian, he writes in measured prose with acuity and strength; in Miami and the Siege of Chicago, as “the reporter,” he is caught up in the pathos of the event…

The penultimate chapter of Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Mailer’s gossiping with the journalists at the bar as they pronounce their cynical assessments about the future of American politics, is a last call for the author to self-reflect among the petty Mafia in the cocktail lounge, regarding organized crime as the alternative to the military-industrial corporations (“if one had to choose between the Maf running America and the military-industrial complex, where was one to choose?”) and expressions of bad faith when faced with the writer’s bitter task of completing his assignment. These are the final notes of Chicago’s brutal night song, a confrontation with the local police that almost puts Mailer in their clutches for a beating or arrest, or both. Mailer’s parting shot, “we will be fighting for forty years,” is prescient enough and ample reason to take him at his word


  This Land Is Your Land
Words and Music by Woody Guthrie

This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.

I’ve roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts;
And all around me a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling,
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting:
This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.


Let’s Play Two: Reading About Baseball

12 Feb


Baseball’s off season, also known as the hot stove league, featured  unusual dormancy, leaving a number of significant free agents unsigned (Yu Darvish[until today], JD Martinez, Jake Arrieta ,  sparking claims of owner collusion and hints of  the coming of labor strife. Serious baseball fans and fantasy baseball geeks care about this stuff —which is understandable as there are no other sports in which to immerse oneself (football being a whole other thing [and may not exist in a decade])

Well, spring training starts this week with pitchers and catchers reporting to camps beginning the long 162 + game campaign for the joy of playing October baseball .By the way, if you are hungry for real baseball, the Caribbean regional tournament (“world series”) where there is spirited competition (which Cuba no longer dominates) and high quality play.

A few times during a MLB season* I take the opportunity to pay attention to new baseball books — so I am going to kick off 2018 with   a handful of publications, historical, analytic and imaginary that illuminate the joys and traditions of America’s once and future pastime








Baseball Beyond Our Borders: An International Pastime  Edited and with an introduction by George Gmelch and Daniel A. Nathan


Publisher’s notes:

Baseball Beyond Our Borders celebrates the globalization of the game while highlighting the different histories and cultures of the nations in which the sport is played.

This collection of essays tells the story of America’s national pastime as it has spread across the world and undergone instructive, entertaining, and sometimes quirky changes in the process. Covering nineteen countries and a U.S. territory, the contributors show how each country imported baseball, how baseball took hold and developed, how it is organized, played, and followed, and what local and regional traits tell us about the sport’s place in each culture.

But what lies in store as baseball’s passport fills up with far-flung stamps? Will the international migration of players homogenize baseball? What role will the World Baseball Classic play? These are just a few of the questions the authors pose.

Editor’s note : The next (5th) World Baseball Classic is scheduled for 2021. Maybe by that time this international tournament will be recognized as the true world series…

The Year of the Pitcher: Bob Gibson, Denny McLain, and the End of Baseball’s Golden Age  by Sridhar Pappu
Publisher’s notes:
In 1968, two remarkable pitchers would dominate the game as well as the broadsheets. One was black, the other white. Bob Gibson, together with the St. Louis Cardinals, embodied an entire generation’s hope for integration at a heated moment in American history. Denny McLain, his adversary, was a crass self-promoter who eschewed the team charter and his Detroit Tigers teammates to zip cross-country in his own plane. For one season, the nation watched as these two men and their teams swept their respective league championships to meet at the World Series. Gibson set a major league record that year with a 1.12 ERA. McLain won more than 30 games in 1968, a feat not achieved since 1934 and untouched since. Together, the two have come to stand as iconic symbols, giving the fans “The Year of the Pitcher” and changing the game. Evoking a nostalgic season and its incredible characters, this is the story of one of the great rivalries in sports and an indelible portrait of the national pastime during a turbulent year—and the two men who electrified fans from all walks of life.

Legends Never Die: Athletes and their Afterlives in Modern America (Sports and Entertainment)  by Richard Ian Kimball

Publisher’s notes:

With every touchdown, home run, and three-pointer, star athletes represent an American dream that only an elite group blessed with natural talent can achieve. However, Kimball concentrates on what happens once these modern warriors meet their untimely demise. As athletes die, legends rise in their place.

The premature deaths of celebrated players not only capture and immortalize their physical superiority, but also jolt their fans with an unanticipated intensity. These athletes escape the inevitability of aging and decline of skill, with only the prime of their youth left to be remembered. But early mortality alone does not transform athletes into immortals. The living ultimately gain the power to construct the legacies of their fallen heroes. In Legends Never Die, Kimball explores the public myths and representations that surround a wide range of athletes, from Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio to Dale Earnhardt and Bonnie McCarroll. Kimball delves deeper than just the cultural significance of sports and its players; he examines how each athlete’s narrative is shaped by gender relations, religion, and politics in contemporary America. In looking at how Americans react to the tragic deaths of sports heroes, Kimball illuminates the important role sports play in US society and helps to explain why star athletes possess such cultural power.



The Draw Of Sport   by Murray Olderman

Publisher’s notes:

The Draw of Sports compiles, in art and text, more than 150 of nationally syndicated columnist Olderman’s favorite personalities (of an estimated 6,000 potential subjects) from the sporting world. Each full-page illustration is accompanied by Olderman’s own personal reminiscences of those illustrious stars. Amongst the many names readers will recognize: Abdul-Jabbar, Ali, Berra, Chamberlain, Dempsey, Elway, Koufax, Lombardi, Mantle, Robinson, and Wooden. As a nationally syndicated columnist, Olderman met ― and in many cases, got to know ― most of the greatest sports personalities of the 20th century, going back as far as Jesse Owens and Babe Ruth, up to present-day superstars like Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant. Black & white illustrations throughout.

Big League Dream by Roy Berger


Cindy Adams- New York Post- May 16, 2017:

 Big League Dream.” Its author, Roy Berger, is not your usual non-famous, unheard-of, starving-in-NY, fresh-out-of-college baseball writer.He’s president/CEO of MedjetAssist, the global air medical transport tied in with AARP, which, in an emergency, flies you home fast — aboard one of 200 private ambulances or aircraft with medical attendants — from anywhere on Earth to the US hospital of your choice.OK — so why do a “play ball” book?

Berger: “I’m 65. Grew up in Long Island dreaming of the Major Leagues. My whole life I’ve wanted to play baseball. I played high-school first base … poorly. In 2008 — for 5 grand — I went to one of those baseball camps, which was like a lone fantasy week.“Living everybody’s dream, coached by a former Major Leaguer, I was in heaven. And for my age, I was pretty good. I could … almost … run. Then I met Bucky Dent, who lives in Florida and in ’73, at a party, Fritz Peterson. I’m like a hotshot these 20 years, but what I always wanted was to be a shortstop for the Yankees.”

Who’s Fritz Peterson?After hearing about Peterson of the Yankees and Bucky writing this book’s forward … why this book, which sells on Amazon and Apple’s iTunes?

“‘Big League Dream’ is like sitting with Bucky, Ron Swoboda, John Mayberry, Jim ‘Mudcat’ Grant and those who were kids’ idols and hearing stories from the talented few who earned the shot to play while the rest of us could only watch from the stands.”

Right. Great idea. So who’s Jim “Mudcat” Grant?



The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper, and the Making of a Classic  by Richard Sandomir

Publisher’s notes:

On July 4, 1939, baseball great Lou Gehrig delivered what has been called “baseball’s Gettysburg Address” at Yankee Stadium and gave a speech that included the phrase that would become legendary. He died two years later and his fiery widow, Eleanor, wanted nothing more than to keep his memory alive. With her forceful will, she and the irascible producer Samuel Goldwyn quickly agreed to make a film based on Gehrig’s life, The Pride of the Yankees. Goldwyn didn’t understand–or care about–baseball. For him this film was the emotional story of a quiet, modest hero who married a spirited woman who was the love of his life, and, after a storied career, gave a short speech that transformed his legacy. With the world at war and soldiers dying on foreign soil, it was the kind of movie America needed.

Using original scrips, letters, memos, and other rare documents, Richard Sandomir tells the behind-the-scenes story of how a classic was born. There was the so-called Scarlett O’Hara-like search to find the actor to play Gehrig; the stunning revelations Elanor made to the scriptwriter Paul Gallico about her life with Lou; the intensive training Cooper underwent to learn how to catch, throw, and hit a baseball for the first time; and the story of two now-legendary Hollywood actors in Gary Cooper and Teresa Wright whose nuanced performances endowed the Gehrigs with upstanding dignity and cemented the baseball icon’s legend.

Sandomir writes with great insight and aplomb, painting a fascinating portrait of a bygone Hollywood era, a mourning widow with a dream, and the shadow a legend cast on one of the greatest sports films of all time.

Off Speed: Baseball, Pitching, and the Art of Deception by Terry McDermott


Publisher’s notes:

In August 2012, Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners pitched a perfect game against the Tampa Bay Rays in what Terry McDermott calls “one of the greatest exhibitions of off-speed pitches ever put on.” For McDermott, a lifelong fan and student of baseball, the extraordinary events of that afternoon inspired this incisive meditation on the art of pitching.

Within the framework of Hernandez’s historic achievement, Off Speed provides a vibrant narrative of the history and evolution of pitching, combining baseball’s rich tradition of folklore with the wealth of new metrics from a growing legion of statisticians who are transforming the way we think about the game. Off Speed is also the personal story of a fan’s steadfast devotion, first kindled in McDermott by his father at the local diamond in small-town Iowa and now carried forward with the same passion by his own daughters.

Approaching his subject with the love every fan brings to the park and the expertise of a probing journalist, McDermott explores with irrepressible curiosity the science and the romance of baseball

Fail Better: Why Baseball Matters by  Mark Kingwell

Publisher’s notes:

Taking seriously the idea that baseball is a study in failure—a very successful batter manages a base hit in just three of every ten attempts—Mark Kingwell argues that there is no better tutor of human failure’s enduring significance than this strange, crooked game of base, where geometry becomes poetry.
Weaving elements of memoir, philosophical reflection, sports writing, and humour, Fail Better is an intellectual love letter to baseball by one of North America’s most engaging philosophers. Kingwell illustrates complex concepts like theoretically infinite game-space, “time out of time,” and the rules of civility with accessible examples drawn from the game, its history, and his own halting efforts to hit ‘em where they ain’t. Beyond a “Beckett meets baseball” study in failure, Kingwell crafts a thoughtful appreciation of why sports matter, and how they change our vision of the world





Kill the Ámpaya! The Best Latin American Baseball Fiction by Dick Cluster (Translator),‎ Eduardo del Llano

Publisher’s notes:

A rich variety of baseball fiction exists south of the Florida Straits and the Rio Grande, but almost none available in English. This collection translates for the first time stories ranging from the highly literary to the vernacular. These inventive and entertaining stories reveal the place of baseball in Latin America. Mixing fan and fandom, baseball and politics, rural and urban life, sexism and poverty, Kill the Ampaya! reveals how baseball shapes the social fabric of everyday Latin American life.
The collection includes well known writers such as Leonardo Padura from Cuba (The Man Who Loved Dogs), Sergio Ramírez from Nicaragua (Divine Punishment, A Thousand Deaths Plus One). Others are well known writers in their home countries such as Arturo Arango and Eduardo del Llano in Cuba, Alexis Gómez Rosa and José Bobadilla in the Dominican Republic, Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro in Puerto Rico, Vicente Leñero in Mexico as well as emerging literary figures such as Salvador Fleján and Rodrigo Blanco Calderón in Venezuela, Sandra Tavarez and Daniel Reyes Germán in the D.R., Carmen Hernández Peña in Cuba.

Cuban born Chicagoan Achy Obejas (The Tower of Antilles and Other Stories) “If baseball is really a metaphor for life, then Kill the Ámpaya — Dick Cluster’s wonderful collection of Latin American baseball stories — is an astonishing record of its beauty and coarseness, redemption and tragedy. You don’t have to be a baseball fan to appreciate these stories, each one hinged on baseball directly or indirectly, and delight in this reading.”—Achy Obejas, author of The Tower of Antilles and Other Stories


Editor’s  note: It should come as no surprise ro people who areaware of  my predilections that this tome is my favorite

The Streak: Lou Gehrig, Cal Ripken Jr., and Baseball’s Most Historic Record  by John Eisenberg

Publisher’s notes:

When Cal Ripken Jr. began his career with the Baltimore Orioles at age twenty-one, he had no idea he would someday beat the historic record of playing 2,130 games in a row, a record set forty-two years before by the fabled “Iron Horse” of the New York Yankees, Lou Gehrig. Ripken went on to surpass that record by 502 games, and the baseball world was floored. Few feats in sports history have generated more acclaim. But the record spawns an array of questions. When did someone first think it was a good idea to play in so many games without taking a day off? Who owned the record before Gehrig? Whose streak—Gehrig’s or Ripken’s—was the more difficult achievement?
Through probing research, meticulous analysis, and colorful parallel storytelling, The Streak delves into this impressive but controversial milestone, unraveling Gehrig’s at-times unwitting pursuit of that goal (Babe Ruth used to think Gehrig crazy for wanting to play every game), and Ripken’s fierce determination to stay in the lineup and continue to contribute whatever he could even as his skills diminished with age.

The question looms: How do these streaks compare? There were so many factors: the length of seasons, the number of teams in the major leagues, the inclusion of nonwhite players, travel, technology, medical advances, and even media are all part of the equation. This is a book that captures the deeply American appreciation—as seen in the sport itself—for a workaday mentality and that desire to be there for the game every time it called.




From 2013

From 2017

Surviving Old Age Part I: Too Many Moving Parts

7 Feb

Selfie (also known as self portrait) of Robert Birnbaum


“I ain’t dead yet, my bell still rings…” Early Roman Kings-Bob Dylan

One begins to suspect that one has gained entrance to a new universe when health providers and insurers begin one’s examinations inquiring if “…you have fallen  down recently”. And that jarring inquiry is followed, at some point, with instructions to remember three words which you would shortly be asked to recall . Excepting, of course, serious illness or injury— to which everyone is susceptible, the great malady for which one is unprepared but inevitably encounters, is Old Age. Symptoms of this affliction—hearing the sobriquet ‘old geezer’ or  alte kaker regularly: running the obfuscating gauntlet of  (so-called) health insurance providers: a world, that in the name of efficiency, has made it difficult to communicate with a living person  (as opposed to a messaging labyrinth or a live chat )when encountering the quotidian vexations and infelicities of life.
The self-help industry and its cash cow adjunct, self-help publishing, are at the ready to offer all manner of solutions and strategies for your ‘issues’  . To which, if you are susceptible,  you will infinitely regress a  into a mind numbing labyrinth of buzz words , jargon and imperatives from a variety of self identifying gurus . Personally, I have never thought to avail myself  of books categorized as self help.    Among the  books (in addition to well crafted fiction) I have found helpful in the  resolutions of life’s problems are is writing that comes from different cultures.—like Lakota shaman, Black Elk’s Black Elk Speaks , or the  wisdom of the Dalai Llama or yogi B.K.S. Iyengar..
There is an issue that one may confront earlier in life but almost always presents with seniors. That is, the inordinate amount of stuff that accumulates as we wend our way through life,  finally , for  some of us hitting a critical mass 0f unsustainability.
 Chris Lehmann* opines
There is, it seems, a raging crisis of careless acquisition and chaotic storage afoot in the land, even eight years into the austerity-addled “recovery” from the economic calamity of 2008 and in the wake of a generation’s worth of wage stagnation and steadily worsening inequalities of wealth and income. More precisely, there’s a movement afoot to orient us more serenely and mindfully (as the present mass-therapeutic term of art would have it) amid our storehouses of stuff—to coax forth a Platonic balance between the things we love and the streamlined, clean, and open domestic spaces we crave. They call it decluttering, and true to its unassuming-yet-officious name, it has quietly set up shop everywhere.
And so came,


As a reportedly international  best seller, you can read about this book and its campaign for DECLUTTERING everywhere. As this is an issue that I am  currently struggling with after a lifetime of curating and acquisition and thoughtless consumption and despite my lack of regard for self- help books  (especially ones that offered life changing magic) I dipped into this small tome. Which I quickly put down as 1) “cheerfully ruthless”  Marie Kondo Conde’s tone was not one that I found I could take advice or  instruction from and 2) the first step recommended was to do this declutter all at once…well, good luck with that…


The most recent entry to dealing with the storage/clutter problem comes from Swedish artist Margareta Magnusson, who describes herself as being between 80 and 100. That’s a nice age…


 Publisher’s note (annotated)

In Sweden there is a kind of decluttering called döstädning, dö meaning “death” and städning meaning “cleaning.” This surprising and invigorating process of clearing out unnecessary belongings can be undertaken at any age or life stage but should be done sooner than later, before others have to do it for you. In The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, artist Margareta Magnusson, with Scandinavian humor and wisdom, instructs readers to embrace minimalism. Her radical and joyous method for putting things in order helps families broach sensitive conversations, and makes the process uplifting rather than overwhelming.

Magnusson writes.

“A loved one wishes to inherit nice things from you,  Not all things from you.”

“Save your favorite dildo — but throw away the other 15! There’s no sense in saving things that will shock or upset your family after you are gone.”

Margareta suggests which possessions you can easily get rid of (unworn clothes, unwanted presents, more plates than you’d ever use) and which you might want to keep (photographs, love letters, a few of your children’s art projects). Digging into her late husband’s tool shed, and her own secret drawer of vices, Margareta introduces an element of fun to a potentially daunting task. Along the way readers get a glimpse into her life in Sweden, and also become more comfortable with the idea of letting go.

Dwight Garner **observes

 I jettison advice books after I’ve flipped through them. This one I will keep. I’m a sucker for a good title. Though I’m not old enough to begin my own death cleaning, I am glad to have the phrase. I plan to let my children know they’re in for a big day of cleaning the apartment when I summon them for a (cue the reverb) “death clean.”

See that My Grave is Kept Clean

Well, there’s one kind-a favor I’ll ask of you
Well, there’s one kind-a favor I’ll ask of you
There’s just one kind favor I’ll ask of you
You can see that my grave is kept clean

And there’s two white horses following me
And there’s two white horses following me
I got two white horses following me
Waiting on my burying ground

Did you ever hear that coughin’ sound?
Did you ever hear that coughin’ sound?
Did you ever hear that coughin’ sound?
Means another poor boy is underground

Did you ever hear them church bells tone?
Have you ever hear that church bells tone?
Did you ever hear them church bells tone?
Means another poor boy is dead and gone

And my heart stopped beating and my hands turned cold
And my heart stopped beating and my hands turned cold
And my heart stopped beating and my hands turned cold
Now I believe what the Bible told

There’s just one last favor I’ll ask of you
And there’s one last favor I’ll ask of you
There’s just one last favor I’ll ask of you
See that my grave is kept clean

Next Pt II of Surviving Old Age : Death Be not Proud




** ttps://

Literature as Song, Song as Literature

28 Jan

The brouhaha surrounding Bob Dylan’s 2016 Nobel award for literature reinforced my belief that songs were as much about story-telling as any novel or poem (will films ever be considered?) So I amused myself this afternoon by picking some of my favorites…



Nobody is better than this guy for framing contemporary life in a  blues form…


Two cars, three kids, six phones
A whole lot of confusion up here in my home
Five-hundred stations on the TV screen
Five-hundred versions of the same ol’ thing

Y’all know it’s crazy
And it’s drivin’ me insane
Well, I don’t wanna be a superman
I just wanna go somewhere, use my hands
And keep it simple
Oh real simple

You know I called my doctor on the telephone
The lines were open, but there was nobody home
Press one, press two, press pound, press three
Why can’t somebody just pick up the phone and talk to me?

Y’all know it’s crazy
You know it’s driving me insane
I don’t wanna be a superman
I just wanna go somewhere, use my hands
And keep it simple
(Yes I do)
Real simple

(Play the blues)

Well I went down to the local coffee store
The menu went from the ceiling all the way down to the floor
Decaf, cappuccino, or latte said the cashier
I said gimme a small cup of coffee and let me get the hell up outta here

Y’all know it’s crazy
Oh it’s driving me insane
Well, I don’t wanna be a superman
I just wanna go somewhere, use my hands
And keep it simple
Oh lord, real simple

Well now I don’t wanna be a superman
I just wanna go somewhere, use my hands
And keep it simple
Real simple
Real simple

Warren Zevon – My Shits Fucked Up

Zevon bad a penchant for the perverse  ,  Werewolves of London, Life will Kill You , Gorilla |You re A Desperado… 


Well, I went to the doctor
I said, “i’m feeling kind of rough…”
“Let me break it to you son,
you’re shit’s fucked up!”
I said, “My shit’s fucked up?!
Well, I don’t see how!”
He said, “The shit that used to work,
won’t work now!”
I had a dream; aw shucks, oh well
Now its all fucked up, its shot out to hell
yea-eah, my shit’s fucked up
It has to happen to the best of us
The rich folk suffer like the rest of us
It’ll happen to you.



Warren Zevon Excitable Boy


Well, he went down to dinner in his Sunday best
Excitable boy, they all said
And he rubbed the pot roast all over his chest
Excitable boy, they all said

He took in the four a.m. show at the Clark
Excitable boy, they all said
And he bit the usherette’s leg in the dark
Excitable boy, they all said
Well, he’s just an excitable boy

He took little Suzie to the Junior Prom
Excitable boy, they all said
And he raped her and killed her, then he took her home
Excitable boy, they all said
Well, he’s just an excitable boy
After ten long years they let him out of the home
Excitable boy, they all said
And he dug up her grave and built a cage with her bones
Excitable boy, they all said
Well, he’s just an excitable boy

But I Was Cool -Oscar Brown Jr

Chicago’s Brown was uber talented, A great voice , impeccable phrasing and , well ;listen to this …

I’ve always lived by this golden rule
Whatever happens “don’t blow your cool”
You’ve got to have nerves of steel
Never show folks what you honestly feel
I’ve lived my whole life this way
For example, take yesterday

I breezed home happy
Bringing her my pay
Her note read “so long sappy
I have ran away.”
I threw myself down across our empty bed
And this is what I said

(shrieks, screams, hoots)

But I Was Cool

So I one-for-the-road it
At an all night bar
Wound up so loaded
I tore up my car
The judge threw the book at me
And when I read his sentence there I said

(shrieks, screams, hoots)

But I Was Cool

So I said she’s the only one I have to thank
So I found her and pulled my gun and fired point blank
The shot whistled straight passed that woman’s head
And killed my hound dog dead

(shrieks, screams, hoots)

But I Was Cool

As they carried me away
I was overhead to say
Be cool, stay cool, keep cool
Play it cool

I Don’t Worry About a Thing –Mose Allison

Easy going , smooth tenor, great sense of humor ( Your Mind is on Vacation)


If this life is driving
You to drink
You sit around and wondering
Just what to think
Well I got some consoloation
I’ll give it to you
If I might
Well I don’t worry bout a thing
‘Cause I know nothing’s gonna be alright
You know this world is just one big
Trouble spot because
Some have plenty and
Some have not
You know I used to be trouble but I finally
Saw the light
Now I don’t worry ’bout a thing
‘Cause I know nothing’s gonna be alright
Don’t waste you time trying to
Be a go getter
Things will get worse before they
Get any better
You know there’s always somebody playing with
But I don’t worry about a thing
‘Cause I know nothing’s gonna be all right


“Now I don’t worry ’bout a thing ‘Cause I know nothing’s gonna be alright”

The Waterboys – Strange Boat

This Scottish ensemble led by Mike Scott produced this gem…

We’re sailing on a strange boat
Heading for a strange shore
We’re sailing on a strange boat
Heading for a strange shore
Carrying the strangest cargo
That was ever hauled aboard
We’re sailing on a strange sea
Blown by a strange wind
We’re sailing on a strange sea
Blown by a strange wind
Carrying the strangest crew
That ever sinned
We’re riding in a strange car
We’re followin’ a strange star
We’re climbing…
We’re living in a strange time
Working for a strange goal
We’re living in a strange time
Working for a strange goal
We’re turning flesh and body
Into soul



In a long career Dylan has written more than a handful of great  songs …

You may be an ambassador
To England or France
You might like to gamble
You might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight
Champion of the world
You might be a socialite
With a long string of pearls
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Yes indeed, you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well it may be the Devil
Or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Might be a Rock-n-roll addict
Prancing on the stage
Money, Drugs at your command
Women in a cage
You may be a businessman
Or some high degree thief
They may call you doctor
Or they may call you chief
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Yes you are, you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well it may be the Devil
Or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

Might be a Rock-n-roll addict

Prancing on the stage
Money, Drugs at your command
Women in a cage
You may be a businessman
Or some high degree thief
They may call you doctor
Or they may call you chief
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Yes you are, you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well it may be the Devil
Or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
You might be a young Turk
You may be the head
Of some big TV network
You may be rich or poor
You may be blind or lame
Maybe livin’ in another Country
Under another name
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Yes you are, you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well it may be the Devil
Or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Maybe a construction worker
Workin’ on a home
Might be livin’ in a Mansion
You might live in a dome
You may own guns
And you may even own tanks
You may be someone’s landlord
You may even own banks
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Yes, you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well it may be the Devil
Or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
You may be a Preacher
Preaching Spiritual Pride
Maybe a City Councilman
Takin’ bribes on the side
Maybe working in a Barbershop
You may know how to cut hair
You may be somebody’s mistress
Maybe somebody’s heir
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Yes, you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well it may be the Devil
Or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Might like to wear cotton
Might like to wear silk
Might like to drink whiskey
Might like to drink milk
Might like to eat caviar
You might like to eat bread
Maybe sleeping on the floor
Sleepin’ in a king-size bed
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Yes indeed, you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well it may be the Devil
Or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
You may call me Terry
You may call me Timmy
You may call me Bobby
Or you may call me Zimmy
You may call me RJ
You may call me Ray
You may call me anything
No matter what you say
You’re still gonna have to serve somebody
Yes, you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well it may be the Devil
And it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Ohh Yeah
Serve Somebody

Early Roman Kings Bob Dylan

All the early Roman kings
In their sharkskin suits
Bow ties and buttons
High top boots
Drivin’ the spikes in
Blazin’ the rails
Nailed in their coffins
In top hats and tails
Fly away, little bird
Fly away, flap your wings
Fly by night
Like the early Roman kings

All the early roman kings
In the early early morn
Coming down the mountain
Distributing the corn
Speeding through the forest
Racing down the track
You try to get away
They drag you back
Tomorrow is Friday
We’ll see what it brings
Everybody’s talking
Bout the early roman kings

They’re peddlers and they’re meddlers
They buy and they sell
They destroyed your city
They’ll destroy you as well
They’re lecherous and treacherous
Hell-bent for leather
Each of ’em bigger
Than all them put together
Sluggers and muggers
Wearing fancy gold rings
All the women goin’ crazy
For the early Roman kings

I can dress up your wounds
With a blood-clotted rag
I ain’t afraid to make love
To a bitch or a hag
If you see me comin’
And you’re standing there
Wave your handkerchief
In the air
I ain’t dead yet
Ma Bell still rings
I keep my fingers crossed
Like them early roman kings

I can strip you of life
Strip you of breath
Ship you down
To the house of death
One day
You will ask for me
There’ll be no one else
That you’ll wanna see
Bring down my fiddle
Tune up my strings
I’m gonna break it wide open
Like the early roman kings

I was up on black mountain
The day Detroit fell
They killed ’em all off
And they sent ’em to hell
Ding dong daddy
You’re coming up short
Gonna put you on trial
In a Sicilian court
I’ve had my fun
I’ve had my flings
Gonna shake em all down
Like the early roman kings

“I ain’t dead yet… my Bell still rings”

Woodstock by Joni Mitchell

Camille Paglia included the 60’s anthem, Woodstock in  Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World’s Best Poems   which moved me to reconsider the song and Mitchell… “But you know life is for learning”

By the way, John Legend has a new version of Woodstock which is spellbinding…


I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him where are you going
And this he told me
I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm *
I’m going to join in a rock ‘n’ roll band
I’m going to camp out on the land
I’m going to try an’ get my soul free

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Then can I walk beside you
I have come here to lose the smog
And I feel to be a cog in something turning
Well maybe it is just the time of year
Or maybe it’s the time of man
I don’t know who I am
But you know life is for learning

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration
And I dreamed I saw the bombers
Riding shotgun in the sky
And they were turning into butterflies
Above our nation

We are stardust
Billion year old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devil’s bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves
back to the garden

“God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)” Randy Newman

Probably best  known for his Toy Story score and theme song, Newman has a mordant sense of humor, as the following tune exhibits…

Cain slew Abel, Seth knew not why
For if the children of Israel were to multiply
Why must any of the children die?
So he asked the Lord
And the Lord said:

Man means nothing, he means less to me
Than the lowliest cactus flower
Or the humblest Yucca tree
He chases round this desert
‘Cause he thinks that’s where I’ll be
That’s why I love mankind

I recoil in horror from the foulness of thee
From the squalor and the filth and the misery
How we laugh up here in heaven at the prayers you offer me
That’s why I love mankind

The Christians and the Jews were having a jamboree
The Buddhists and the Hindus joined on satellite TV
They picked their four greatest priests
And they began to speak
They said, “Lord, a plague is on the world
Lord, no man is free
The temples that we built to you
Have tumbled into the sea
Lord, if you won’t take care of us
Won’t you please, please let us be?”
And the Lord said
And the Lord said

I burn down your cities-how blind you must be
I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we
You all must be crazy to put your faith in me
That’s why I love mankind
You really need me
That’s why I love mankind

Anthem Leonard Cohen

There is a crack in everything,  that’s how the light gets in …”


Kazuo Ishiguro My, Twentieth Century Evening – and Other Small Breakthroughs

26 Jan

Sadly, missing from the contemporary array of amusements and entertainment is the loss art of oratory and declamation. Probably one of the more attractive aspects of Barack Obama’s persona—if there are even a handful of people who can speak eloquently in public, I haven’t been able to identify them. Nonetheless, book publishers occasionally (for reasons that escape me, only occasionally) see fit to offer speeches in attractively designed chapbooks (see below for a partial list). Now comes My Twentieth Century Evening and Other Small Breakthroughs: The Nobel Lecture  (the only other Nobel lecture I have come across in this form is  JM Coetzee’s 2003 oration)



Kazuo Ishiguro – Nobel Lecture

7 December, 2017
My Twentieth Century Evening – and Other Small Breakthroughs


From Random House


The Nobel Lecture in Literature, delivered by Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day and When We Were Orphans,The Buriecd Giant) at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, Sweden, on December 7, 2017, in an elegant, clothbound edition.

In their announcement of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy recognized the emotional force of Kazuo Ishiguro’s fiction and his mastery at uncovering our illusory sense of connection with the world. In the eloquent and candid lecture he delivered upon accepting the award, Ishiguro reflects on the way he was shaped by his upbringing, and on the turning points in his career—“small scruffy moments . . . quiet, private sparks of revelation”—that made him the writer he is today.
With the same generous humanity that has graced his novels, Ishiguro here looks beyond himself, to the world that new generations of writers are taking on, and what it will mean—what it will demand of us—to make certain that literature remains not just alive, but essential.
An enduring work on writing and becoming a writer, by one of the most accomplished novelists of our generation.


Sampling the speech


So here I am, a man in my sixties, rubbing my eyes and trying to discern the outlines, out there in the mist, to this world I didn’t suspect even existed until yesterday. Can I, a tired author, from an intellectually tired generation, now find the energy to look at this unfamiliar place? Do I have something left that might help to provide perspective, to bring emotional layers to the arguments, fights and wars that will come as societies struggle to adjust to huge changes?

I’ll have to carry on and do the best I can. Because I still believe that literature is important, and will be particularly so as we cross this difficult terrain. But I’ll be looking to the writers from the younger generations to inspire and lead us. This is their era, and they will have the knowledge and instinct about it that I will lack. In the worlds of books, cinema, TV and theatre I see today adventurous, exciting talents: women and men in their forties, thirties and twenties. So I am optimistic. Why shouldn’t I be?

Now as you will note below, through the wonders of the digital world, Ishiguro’s valedictory is available at the Nobel Prize site (as are all the previous Nobel orations). There are, I think, many good reasons that the orations of Nobel laureates should be iterated in the way that Ishiguro’s is—if you  are enthralled by books, then it is self evident that some things belong in books…

My Twentieth Century Evening – and Other Small Breakthroughs


If you’d come across me in the autumn of 1979, you might have had some difficulty placing me, socially or even racially. I was then 24 years old. My features would have looked Japanese, but unlike most Japanese men seen in Britain in those days, I had hair down to my shoulders, and a drooping bandit-style moustache. The only accent discernible in my speech was that of someone brought up in the southern counties of England, inflected at times by the languid, already dated vernacular of the Hippie era. If we’d got talking, we might have discussed the Total Footballers of Holland, or Bob Dylan’s latest album, or perhaps the year I’d just spent working with homeless people in London. Had you mentioned Japan, asked me about its culture, you might even have detected a trace of impatience enter my manner as I declared my ignorance on the grounds that I hadn’t set foot in that country – not even for a holiday – since leaving it at the age of five.
That autumn I’d arrived with a rucksack, a guitar and a portable typewriter in Buxton, Norfolk – a small English village with an old water mill and flat farm fields all around it. I’d come to this place because I’d been accepted on a one-year postgraduate Creative Writing course at the University of East Anglia. The university was ten miles away, in the cathedral town of Norwich, but I had no car and my only way of getting there was by means of a bus service that operated just once in the morning, once at lunch-time and once in the evening. But this, I was soon to discover, was no great hardship: I was rarely required at the university more than twice a week. I’d rented a room in a small house owned by a man in his thirties whose wife had just left him. No doubt, for him, the house was filled with the ghosts of his wrecked dreams – or perhaps he just wanted to avoid me; in any case, I didn’t set eyes on him for days on end. In other words, after the frenetic life I’d been leading in London, here I was, faced with an unusual amount of quiet and solitude in which to transform myself into a writer.

In fact, my little room was not unlike the classic writer’s garret. The ceilings sloped claustrophobically – though if I stood on tip-toes I had a view, from my one window, of ploughed fields stretching away into the distance. There was a small table, the surface of which my typewriter and a desk lamp took up almost entirely. On the floor, instead of a bed, there was a large rectangular piece of industrial foam that would cause me to sweat in my sleep, even during the bitterly cold Norfolk nights.
It was in this room that I carefully examined the two short stories I’d written over the summer, wondering if they were good enough to submit to my new classmates. (We were, I knew, a class of six, meeting once every two weeks.) At that point in my life I’d written little else of note in the way of prose fiction, having earned my place on the course with a radio play rejected by the BBC. In fact, having previously made firm plans to become a rock star by the time I was twenty, my literary ambitions had only recently made themselves known to me. The two stories I was now scrutinising had been written in something of a panic, in response to the news that I’d been accepted on the university course. One was about a macabre suicide pact, the other about street fights in Scotland, where I’d spent some time as a community worker. They were not so good. I started another story, about an adolescent who poisons his cat, set like the others in present day Britain. Then one night, during my third or fourth week in that little room, I found myself writing, with a new and urgent intensity, about Japan – about Nagasaki, the city of my birth, during the last days of the Second World War.

This, I should point out, came as something of a surprise to me. Today, the prevailing atmosphere is such that it’s virtually an instinct for an aspiring young writer with a mixed cultural heritage to explore his ‘roots’ in his work. But that was far from the case then. We were still a few years away from the explosion of ‘multicultural’ literature in Britain. Salman Rushdie was an unknown with one out-of-print novel to his name. Asked to name the leading young British novelist of the day, people might have mentioned Margaret Drabble; of older writers, Iris Murdoch, Kingsley Amis, William Golding, Anthony Burgess, John Fowles. Foreigners like Gabriel García Márquez, Milan Kundera or Borges were read only in tiny numbers, their names meaningless even to keen readers.
Such was the literary climate of the day that when I finished that first Japanese story, for all my sense of having discovered an important new direction, I began immediately to wonder if this departure shouldn’t be viewed as a self-indulgence; if I shouldn’t quickly return to more ‘normal’ subject matter. It was only after considerable hesitation I began to show the story around, and I remain to this day profoundly grateful to my fellow students, to my tutors, Malcolm Bradbury and Angela Carter, and to the novelist Paul Bailey – that year the university’s writer-in-residence – for their determinedly encouraging response. Had they been less positive, I would probably never again have written about Japan. As it was, I returned to my room and wrote and wrote. Throughout the winter of 1979-80, and well into the spring, I spoke to virtually no-one aside from the other five students in my class, the village grocer from whom I bought the breakfast cereals and lamb kidneys on which I existed, and my girlfriend, Lorna, (today my wife) who’d come to visit me every second weekend. It wasn’t a balanced life, but in those four or five months I managed to complete one half of my first novel, A Pale View of Hills – set also in Nagasaki, in the years of recovery after the dropping of the atomic bomb. I can remember occasionally during this period tinkering with some ideas for short stories not set in Japan, only to find my interest waning rapidly.

Those months were crucial for me, in so far as without them I’d probably never have become a writer. Since then, I’ve often looked back and asked: what was going on with me? What was all this peculiar energy? My conclusion has been that just at that point in my life, I’d become engaged in an urgent act of preservation. To explain this, I’ll need to go back a little.
I had come to England, aged five, with my parents and sister in April 1960, to the town of Guildford, Surrey, in the affluent ‘stockbroker belt’ thirty miles south of London. My father was a research scientist, an oceanographer who’d come to work for the British government. The machine he went on to invent, incidentally, is today part of the permanent collection at the Science Museum in London.

The photographs taken shortly after our arrival show an England from a vanished era. Men wear woollen V-neck pullovers with ties, cars still have running boards and a spare wheel on the back. The Beatles, the sexual revolution, student protests, ‘multiculturalism’ were all round the corner, but it’s hard to believe the England our family first encountered even suspected it. To meet a foreigner from France or Italy was remarkable enough – never mind one from Japan.

Our family lived in a cul-de-sac of twelve houses just where the paved roads ended and the countryside began. It was less than a five minute stroll to the local farm and the lane down which rows of cows trudged back and forth between fields. Milk was delivered by horse and cart. A common sight I remember vividly from my first days in England was that of hedgehogs – the cute, spiky, nocturnal creatures then numerous in that country – squashed by car wheels during the night, left in the morning dew, tucked neatly by the roadside, awaiting collection by the refuse men.

All our neighbours went to church, and when I went to play with their children, I noticed they said a small prayer before eating.

I attended Sunday school, and before long was singing in the church choir, becoming, aged ten, the first Japanese Head Chorister seen in Guildford. I went to the local primary school – where I was the only non-English child, quite possibly in the entire history of that school – and from when I was eleven, I travelled by train to my grammar school in a neighbouring town, sharing the carriage each morning with ranks of men in pinstripe suits and bowler hats, on their way to their offices in London.

By this stage, I’d become thoroughly trained in the manners expected of English middle-class boys in those days. When visiting a friend’s house, I knew I should stand to attention the instant an adult wandered into the room; I learned that during a meal I had to ask permission before getting down from the table. As the only foreign boy in the neighbourhood, a kind of local fame followed me around. Other children knew who I was before I met them. Adults who were total strangers to me sometimes addressed me by name in the street or in the local store.

When I look back to this period, and remember it was less than twenty years from the end of a world war in which the Japanese had been their bitter enemies, I’m amazed by the openness and instinctive generosity with which our family was accepted by this ordinary English community. The affection, respect and curiosity I retain to this day for that generation of Britons who came through the Second World War, and built a remarkable new welfare state in its aftermath, derive significantly from my personal experiences from those years.

But all this time, I was leading another life at home with my Japanese parents. At home there were different rules, different expectations, a different language. My parents’ original intention had been that we return to Japan after a year, perhaps two. In fact, for our first eleven years in England, we were in a perpetual state of going back ‘next year’. As a result, my parents’ outlook remained that of visitors, not of immigrants. They’d often exchange observations about the curious customs of the natives without feeling any onus to adopt them. And for a long time the assumption remained that I would return to live my adult life in Japan, and efforts were made to keep up the Japanese side of my education. Each month a parcel arrived from Japan, containing the previous month’s comics, magazines and educational digests, all of which I devoured eagerly. These parcels stopped arriving some time in my teens – perhaps after my grandfather’s death – but my parents’ talk of old friends, relatives, episodes from their lives in Japan all kept up a steady supply of images and impressions. And then I always had my own store of memories – surprisingly vast and clear: of my grandparents, of favourite toys I’d left behind, the traditional Japanese house we’d lived in (which I can even today reconstruct in my mind room by room), my kindergarten, the local tram stop, the fierce dog that lived by the bridge, the chair in the barber’s shop specially adapted for small boys with a car steering wheel fixed in front of the big mirror.

What this all amounted to was that as I was growing up, long before I’d ever thought to create fictional worlds in prose, I was busily constructing in my mind a richly detailed place called ‘Japan’ – a place to which I in some way belonged, and from which I drew a certain sense of my identity and my confidence. The fact that I’d never physically returned to Japan during that time only served to make my own vision of the country more vivid and personal.

Hence the need for preservation. For by the time I reached my mid-twenties – though I never clearly articulated this at the time – I was coming to realise certain key things. I was starting to accept that ‘my’ Japan perhaps didn’t much correspond to any place I could go to on a plane; that the way of life of which my parents talked, that I remembered from my early childhood, had largely vanished during the 1960s and 1970s; that in any case, the Japan that existed in my head might always have been an emotional construct put together by a child out of memory, imagination and speculation. And perhaps most significantly, I’d come to realise that with each year I grew older, this Japan of mine – this precious place I’d grown up with – was getting fainter and fainter.

I’m now sure that it was this feeling, that ‘my’ Japan was unique and at the same time terribly fragile – something not open to verification from outside – that drove me on to work in that small room in Norfolk. What I was doing was getting down on paper that world’s special colours, mores, etiquettes, its dignity, its shortcomings, everything I’d ever thought about the place, before they faded forever from my mind. It was my wish to re-build my Japan in fiction, to make it safe, so that I could thereafter point to a book and say: ‘Yes, there’s my Japan, inside there.’
Spring 1983, three and a half years later. Lorna and I were now in London, lodging in two rooms at the top of a tall narrow house, which itself stood on a hill at one of the highest points of the city. There was a television mast nearby and when we tried to listen to records on our turntable, ghostly broadcasting voices would intermittently invade our speakers. Our living room had no sofa or armchair, but two mattresses on the floor covered with cushions. There was also a large table on which I wrote during the day, and where we had dinner at night. It wasn’t luxurious, but we liked living there. I’d published my first novel the year before, and I’d also written a screenplay for a short film soon to be broadcast on British television.

I’d been for a time reasonably proud of my first novel, but by that spring, a niggling sense of dissatisfaction had set in. Here was the problem. My first novel and my first TV screenplay were too similar. Not in subject matter, but in method and style. The more I looked at it, the more my novel resembled a screenplay – dialogue plus directions. This was okay up to a point, but my wish now was to write fiction that could work properly only on the page. Why write a novel if it was going to offer more or less the same experience someone could get by turning on a television? How could written fiction hope to survive against the might of cinema and television if it didn’t offer something unique, something the other forms couldn’t do?

Around this time, I came down with a virus and spent a few days in bed. When I came out of the worst of it, and I didn’t feel like sleeping all the time, I discovered that the heavy object, whose presence amidst my bedclothes had been annoying me for some time, was in fact a copy of the first volume of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (as the title was then translated). There it was, so I started to read it. My still fevered condition was perhaps a factor, but I became completely riveted by the Overture and Combray sections. I read them over and over. Quite aside from the sheer beauty of these passages, I became thrilled by the means by which Proust got one episode to lead into the next. The ordering of events and scenes didn’t follow the usual demands of chronology, nor those of a linear plot. Instead, tangential thought associations, or the vagaries of memory seemed to move the writing from one episode to the next. Sometimes I found myself wondering: why had these two seemingly unrelated moments been placed side by side in the narrator’s mind? I could suddenly see an exciting, freer way of composing my second novel; one that could produce richness on the page and offer inner movements impossible to capture on any screen. If I could go from one passage to the next according to the narrator’s thought associations and drifting memories, I could compose in something like the way an abstract painter might choose to place shapes and colours around a canvas. I could place a scene from two days ago right beside one from twenty years earlier, and ask the reader to ponder the relationship between the two. In such a way, I began to think, I might suggest the many layers of self-deception and denial that shrouded any person’s view of their own self and of their past.

March 1988. I was 33 years old. We now had a sofa and I was lying across it, listening to a Tom Waits album. The previous year, Lorna and I had bought our own house in an unfashionable but pleasant part of South London, and in this house, for the first time, I had my own study. It was small, and didn’t have a door, but I was thrilled to spread my papers around and not have to clear them away at the end of each day. And in that study – or so I believed – I’d just finished my third novel. It was my first not to have a Japanese setting – my personal Japan having been made less fragile by the writing of my previous novels. In fact my new book, to be called The Remains of the Day, seemed English in the extreme – though not, I hoped, in the manner of many British authors of the older generation. I’d been careful not to assume, as I felt many of them did, that my readers were all English, with native familiarity of English nuances and preoccupations. By then, writers like Salman Rushdie and V.S. Naipaul had forged the way for a more international, outward-looking British literature, one that didn’t claim any centrality or automatic importance for Britain. Their writing was post-colonial in the widest sense. I wanted, like them, to write ‘international’ fiction that could easily cross cultural and linguistic boundaries, even while writing a story set in what seemed a peculiarly English world. My version of England would be a kind of mythical one, whose outlines, I believed, were already present in the imaginations of many people around the world, including those who had never visited the country.

The story I’d just finished was about an English butler who realises, too late in his life, that he has lived his life by the wrong values; and that he’s given his best years to serving a Nazi sympa-thizer; that by failing to take moral and political responsibility for his life, he has in some profound sense wasted that life. And more: that in his bid to become the perfect servant, he has forbidden himself to love, or be loved by, the one woman he cares for.
I’d read through my manuscript several times, and I’d been reasonably satisfied. Still, there was a niggling feeling that something was missing.

Then, as I say, there I was, in our house one evening, on our sofa, listening to Tom Waits. And Tom Waits began to sing a song called ‘Ruby’s Arms’. Perhaps some of you know it. (I even thought about singing it to you at this point, but I’ve changed my mind.) It’s a ballad about a man, possibly a soldier, leaving his lover asleep in bed. It’s the early morning, he goes down the road, gets on a train. Nothing unusual in that. But the song is delivered in the voice of a gruff American hobo utterly unaccustomed to revealing his deeper emotions. And there comes a moment, midway through the song, when the singer tells us that his heart is breaking. The moment is almost unbearably moving because of the tension between the sentiment itself and the huge resistance that’s obviously been overcome to declare it. Tom Waits sings the line with cathartic magnificence, and you feel a lifetime of tough-guy stoicism crumbling in the face of overwhelming sadness.

As I listened to Tom Waits, I realised what I’d still left to do. I’d unthinkingly made the decision, somewhere way back, that my English butler would maintain his emotional defences, that he’d manage to hide behind them, from himself and his reader, to the very end. Now I saw I had to reverse that decision. Just for one moment, towards the end of my story, a moment I’d have to choose carefully, I had to make his armour crack. I had to allow a vast and tragic yearning to be glimpsed underneath.

I should say here that I have, on a number of other occasions, learned crucial lessons from the voices of singers. I refer here less to the lyrics being sung, and more to the actual singing. As we know, a human voice in song is capable of expressing an unfathomably complex blend of feelings. Over the years, specific aspects of my writing have been influenced by, among others, Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Emmylou Harris, Ray Charles, Bruce Springsteen, Gillian Welch and my friend and collaborator Stacey Kent. Catching something in their voices, I’ve said to myself: ‘Ah yes, that’s it. That’s what I need to capture in that scene. Something very close to that.’ Often it’s an emotion I can’t quite put into words, but there it is, in the singer’s voice, and now I’ve been given something to aim for.
In October 1999 I was invited by the German poet Christoph Heubner on behalf of the International Auschwitz Committee to spend a few days visiting the former concentration camp. My accommodation was at the Auschwitz Youth Meeting Centre on the road between the first Auschwitz camp and the Birkenau death camp two miles away. I was shown around these sites and met, informally, three survivors. I felt I’d come close, geographically at least, to the heart of the dark force under whose shadow my generation had grown up. At Birkenau, on a wet afternoon, I stood before the rubbled remains of the gas chambers – now strangely neglected and unattended – left much as the Germans had left them after blowing them up and fleeing the Red Army. They were now just damp, broken slabs, exposed to the harsh Polish climate, deteriorating year by year. My hosts talked about their dilemma. Should these remains be protected? Should perspex domes be built to cover them over, to preserve them for the eyes of succeeding generations? Or should they be allowed, slowly and naturally, to rot away to nothing? It seemed to me a powerful metaphor for a larger dilemma. How were such memories to be preserved? Would the glass domes transform these relics of evil and suffering into tame museum exhibits? What should we choose to remember? When is it better to forget and move on?

I was 44 years old. Until then I’d considered the Second World War, its horrors and its triumphs, as belonging to my parents’ generation. But now it occurred to me that before too long, many who had witnessed those huge events at first hand would not be alive. And what then? Did the burden of remembering fall to my own generation? We hadn’t experienced the war years, but we’d at least been brought up by parents whose lives had been indelibly shaped by them. Did I, now, as a public teller of stories, have a duty I’d hitherto been unaware of? A duty to pass on, as best I could, these memories and lessons from our parents’ generation to the one after our own?

A little while later, I was speaking before an audience in Tokyo, and a questioner from the floor asked, as is common, what I might work on next. More specifically, the questioner pointed out that my books had often concerned individuals who’d lived through times of great social and political upheaval, and who then looked back over their lives and struggled to come to terms with their darker, more shameful memories. Would my future books, she asked, continue to cover a similar territory?

I found myself giving a quite unprepared answer. Yes, I said, I’d often written about such individuals struggling between forgetting and remembering. But in the future, what I really wished to do was to write a story about how a nation or a community faced these same questions. Does a nation remember and forget in much the same way as an individual does? Or are there important differences? What exactly are the memories of a nation? Where are they kept? How are they shaped and controlled? Are there times when forgetting is the only way to stop cycles of violence, or to stop a society disintegrating into chaos or war? On the other hand, can stable, free nations really be built on foundations of wilful amnesia and frustrated justice? I heard myself telling the questioner that I wanted to find a way to write about these things, but that for the moment, unfortunately, I couldn’t think how I’d do it.

One evening in early 2001, in the darkened front room of our house in North London (where we were by then living), Lorna and I began to watch, on a reasonable quality VHS tape, a 1934 Howard Hawks film called Twentieth Century. The film’s title, we soon discovered, referred not to the century we’d then just left behind, but to a famous luxury train of the era connecting New York and Chicago. As some of you will know, the film is a fast-paced comedy, set largely on the train, concerning a Broadway producer who, with increasing desperation, tries to prevent his leading actress going to Hollywood to become a movie star. The film is built around a huge comic performance by John Barrymore, one of the great actors of his day. His facial expressions, his gestures, almost every line he utters come layered with ironies, contradictions, the grotesqueries of a man drowning in egocentricity and self-dramatisation. It is in many ways a brilliant performance. Yet, as the film continued to unfold, I found myself curiously uninvolved. This puzzled me at first. I usually liked Barrymore, and was a big enthusiast for Howard Hawks’s other films from this period – such as His Girl Friday and Only Angels Have Wings. Then, around the film’s one hour mark, a simple, striking idea came into my head. The reason why so many vivid, undeniably convincing characters in novels, films and plays so often failed to touch me was because these characters didn’t connect to any of the other characters in an interesting human relationship. And immediately, this next thought came regarding my own work: What if I stopped worrying about my characters and worried instead about my relationships?

As the train rattled farther west and John Barrymore became ever more hysterical, I thought about E.M. Forster’s famous distinction between three-dimensional and two-dimensional characters. A character in a story became three-dimensional, he’d said, by virtue of the fact that they ‘surprised us convincingly’. It was in so doing they became ’rounded’. But what, I now wondered, if a character was three-dimensional, while all his or her relationships were not? Elsewhere in that same lecture series, Forster had used a humorous image, of extracting the storyline out of a novel with a pair of forceps and holding it up, like a wriggling worm, for examination under the light. Couldn’t I perform a similar exercise and hold up to the light the various relationships that criss-cross any story? Could I do this with my own work – to stories I’d completed and ones I was planning? I could look at, say, this mentor-pupil relationship. Does it say something insightful and fresh? Or now that I was staring at it, does it become obvious it’s a tired stereotype, identical to those found in hundreds of mediocre stories? Or this relationship between two competitive friends: is it dynamic? Does it have emotional resonance? Does it evolve? Does it surprise convincingly? Is it three-dimensional? I suddenly felt I understood better why in the past various aspects of my work had failed, despite my applying desperate remedies. The thought came to me – as I continued to stare at John Barrymore – that all good stories, never mind how radical or traditional their mode of telling, had to contain relationships that are important to us; that move us, amuse us, anger us, surprise us. Perhaps in future, if I attended more to my relationships, my characters would take care of themselves.
It occurs to me as I say this that I might be making a point here that has always been plainly obvious to you. But all I can say is that it was an idea that came to me surprisingly late in my writing life, and I see it now as a turning point, comparable with the others I’ve been describing to you today. From then on, I began to build my stories in a different way. When writing my novel Never Let Me Go, for instance, I set off from the start by thinking about its central relationships triangle, and then the other relationships that fanned out from it.
Important turning points in a writer’s career – perhaps in many kinds of career – are like these. Often, they are small, scruffy moments. They are quiet, private sparks of revelation. They don’t come often, and when they do, they may well come without fanfare, unendorsed by mentors or colleagues. They must often compete for attention with louder, seemingly more urgent demands. Sometimes what they reveal may go against the grain of prevailing wisdom. But when they come, it’s important to be able to recognise them for what they are. Or they’ll slip through your hands.

I’ve been emphasising here the small and the private, because essentially that’s what my work is about. One person writing in a quiet room, trying to connect with another person, reading in another quiet – or maybe not so quiet – room. Stories can entertain, sometimes teach or argue a point. But for me the essential thing is that they communicate feelings. That they appeal to what we share as human beings across our borders and divides. There are large glamorous industries around stories; the book industry, the movie industry, the television industry, the theatre industry. But in the end, stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?
So we come to the present. I woke up recently to the realisation I’d been living for some years in a bubble. That I’d failed to notice the frustration and anxieties of many people around me. I realised that my world – a civilised, stimulating place filled with ironic, liberal-minded people – was in fact much smaller than I’d ever imagined. 2016, a year of surprising – and for me depressing – political events in Europe and in America, and of sickening acts of terrorism all around the globe, forced me to acknowledge that the unstoppable advance of liberal-humanist values I’d taken for granted since childhood may have been an illusion.

I’m part of a generation inclined to optimism, and why not? We watched our elders successfully transform Europe from a place of totalitarian regimes, genocide and historically unprecedented carnage to a much-envied region of liberal democracies living in near-borderless friendship. We watched the old colonial empires crumble around the world together with the reprehensible assumptions that underpinned them. We saw significant progress in feminism, gay rights and the battles on several fronts against racism. We grew up against a backdrop of the great clash – ideological and military – between capitalism and communism, and witnessed what many of us believed to be a happy conclusion.

But now, looking back, the era since the fall of the Berlin Wall seems like one of complacency, of opportunities lost. Enormous inequalities – of wealth and opportunity – have been allowed to grow, between nations and within nations. In particular, the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the long years of austerity policies imposed on ordinary people following the scandalous economic crash of 2008, have brought us to a present in which Far Right ideologies and tribal nationalisms proliferate. Racism, in its traditional forms and in its modernised, better-marketed versions, is once again on the rise, stirring beneath our civilised streets like a buried monster awakening. For the moment we seem to lack any progressive cause to unite us. Instead, even in the wealthy democracies of the West, we’re fracturing into rival camps from which to compete bitterly for resources or power.

And around the corner – or have we already turned this corner? – lie the challenges posed by stunning breakthroughs in science, technology and medicine. New genetic technologies – such as the gene-editing technique CRISPR – and advances in Artificial Intelligence and robotics will bring us amazing, life-saving benefits, but may also create savage meritocracies that resemble apartheid, and massive unemployment, including to those in the current professional elites.

So here I am, a man in my sixties, rubbing my eyes and trying to discern the outlines, out there in the mist, to this world I didn’t suspect even existed until yesterday. Can I, a tired author, from an intellectually tired generation, now find the energy to look at this unfamiliar place? Do I have something left that might help to provide perspective, to bring emotional layers to the arguments, fights and wars that will come as societies struggle to adjust to huge changes?

I’ll have to carry on and do the best I can. Because I still believe that literature is important, and will be particularly so as we cross this difficult terrain. But I’ll be looking to the writers from the younger generations to inspire and lead us. This is their era, and they will have the knowledge and instinct about it that I will lack. In the worlds of books, cinema, TV and theatre I see today adventurous, exciting talents: women and men in their forties, thirties and twenties. So I am optimistic. Why shouldn’t I be?

But let me finish by making an appeal – if you like, my Nobel appeal! It’s hard to put the whole world to rights, but let us at least think about how we can prepare our own small corner of it, this corner of ‘literature’, where we read, write, publish, recommend, denounce and give awards to books. If we are to play an important role in this uncertain future, if we are to get the best from the writers of today and tomorrow, I believe we must become more diverse. I mean this in two particular senses.

Firstly, we must widen our common literary world to include many more voices from beyond our comfort zones of the elite first world cultures. We must search more energetically to discover the gems from what remain today unknown literary cultures, whether the writers live in far away countries or within our own communities. Second: we must take great care not to set too narrowly or conservatively our definitions of what constitutes good literature. The next generation will come with all sorts of new, sometimes bewildering ways to tell important and wonderful stories. We must keep our minds open to them, especially regarding genre and form, so that we can nurture and celebrate the best of them. In a time of dangerously increasing division, we must listen. Good writing and good reading will break down barriers. We may even find a new idea, a great humane vision, around which to rally.

To the Swedish Academy, the Nobel Foundation, and to the people of Sweden who down the years have made the Nobel Prize a shining symbol for the good we human beings strive for – I give my thanks.



In case you are not familiar with Kazuo Ishiguro…



List of speeches in books. This is the Water, David Foster Wallace, Literature is Freedom Susan Sontag,

Congratulations, by the way: Some Thoughts on Kindness  by George Saunders, You Are Not Special: … And Other Encouragements
by David McCullough JR  (originally a speech, expanded into larger book)  The announcment is made in five languages, kind of impressive speech text

Kazuo Ishiguro (Lannan Literary Video Series) VHS VIDEO  Kazuo Ishiguro  , Pico Iyer  , Dan Griggsc(1990 video)


Its Not Only Rock and Roll…And I Like It

24 Jan





Music has been an important part of my life from an early age—first Afro Cuban music (Dizzy Gillespie), then Chicago soul (Curtis Mayfield) and then the ecstatic boundary busting psychedelic era which opened my tastes to include everything except European polka music (except for the Schmengy brothers). Nonetheless, I have never been much interested in reading about music or musicians, even the ones that became part of my musical diet. Partly that was due to what I viewed as the less than stellar biographical offerings. That changed with writers such as Nick Tosches, Peter Guralinick *and David Hadju.**




Hadju’s bio Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn  (profiled closest Duke Ellington’s collaborator. Among Strayhorn’s credits is  the non-pareil ballad ,Lush Life,  which he wrote at the age of 19)



and Peter Guralnick’s Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke by Peter Guralnick



were both vivid accounts of very original musicians and to some degree (more so with Guralnick) ethnographic studies that made sense of the cultural terrain that spawned their talented subjects.


Back when notes of patchouli and cannabis wafted through the hip universe and tye-die t shirts and bell bottom jeans were the uniform of the day and a regnant slogan was “ Don’t trust anyone over 30” and music was available on 8 track cassettes (the worst format ever), thought s od the future were relegated to speculative fiction . Since then the Walkman, the iPod , Spotify have delivered a future that is a music lovers paradise.


Three recent biographies of  musicians—Stephen Stills, Joni Mitchell and Lou Reed, unpack careers that spanned the years from the roiling 60’s to our fin de siecle era (Reed died in 2013). Had they just been remembered  for the iconic For What its Worth (Stills), Woodstock, (Mitchell)  and Walk on the Wild Side (Reed) they would still belong in the pantheon of great songwriters . But of course these American (and Canadian) originals contributed so much more as these profile…


Stephen Stills Change Partners: The Definitive Biography by David Roberts


Stephen Stills is one of the last remaining music legends from the rock era without a biography. During his six-decade career, he has played with all the greats. His career sky-rocketed when Crosby, Stills & Nash played only their second gig together at Woodstock in 1969. With the addition of Neil Young, the band would go on to play the first rock stadium tour in 1974. From Lorrie Moore’s piece on Stills:

…Stills is one of the last remaining rock-and-roll geniuses from a time when rock music was the soundtrack to an antiwar movement—“For What It’s Worth,” “Woodstock,” “Ohio” (about the 1970 Kent State shootings)—back when the global counterculture was on the left rather than the right. Roberts’s book makes this inexactly clear. Stills has been on the scene from the start, forming Buffalo Springfield when Jimi Hendrix was being booked as the opening act for the Monkees on tour. He has seemingly played with everyone—from Bill Withers to George Harrison. He was the first person to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice in one night, for his work in Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills & Nash. “What a wonderfully strange and beautiful cast of characters life has handed to me,” he said in his acceptance speech.



Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell by David Yaffe





From the Publisher

Joni Mitchell may be the most influential female recording artist and composer of the late twentieth century. In Reckless Daughter, the music critic David Yaffe tells the remarkable, heart-wrenching story of how the blond girl with the guitar became a superstar of folk music in the 1960s, a key figure in the Laurel Canyon music scene of the 1970s, and the songwriter who spoke resonantly to, and for, audiences across the country.
A Canadian prairie girl, a free-spirited artist, Mitchell never wanted to be a pop star. She was nothing more than “a painter derailed by circumstances,” she would explain. And yet, she went on to become a talented self-taught musician and a brilliant bandleader, releasing album after album, each distinctly experimental, challenging, and revealing. Her lyrics captivated listeners with their perceptive language and naked emotion, born out of Mitchell’s life, loves, complaints, and prophecies. As an artist whose work deftly balances narrative and musical complexity, she has been admired by such legendary lyricists as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and beloved by such groundbreaking jazz musicians as Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter, and Herbie Hancock. Her hits―from “Big Yellow Taxi” to “Both Sides, Now” to “A Case of You”―endure as timeless favorites, and her influence on the generations of singer-songwriters who would follow her, from her devoted fan Prince to Björk, is undeniable.
In this intimate biography, drawing on dozens of unprecedented in-person interviews with Mitchell, her childhood friends, and a cast of famous characters, Yaffe reveals the backstory behind the famous songs―from Mitchell’s youth in Canada, her bout with polio at age nine, and her early marriage and the child she gave up for adoption, through the love affairs that inspired masterpieces, and up to the present―and shows us why Mitchell has so enthralled her listeners, her lovers, and her friends. Reckless Daughter is the story of an artist and an era that have left an indelible mark on American music.

In what Francine Prose calls a “protective biography , she opines


Uncritical admiration can make “Reckless Daughter” seem like a 400-page fan letter, though one certainly prefers Yaffe’s approach to that of biographers who despise their subjects. Championing Mitchell, right or wrong, and trying to stay on her good side is not exactly the same as taking her seriously as a composer and performer. Ultimately, it hardly matters. The person who wrote and sang “Blue,” “Court and Spark” and “Hejira” doesn’t need protection from readers who, decades after those albums appeared, remember Mitchell’s songs. Anthems not only of restlessness and heartbreak but also of intelligence, insight and courage, they are tributes to the power of music to imprint itself indelibly on the consciousness of its listeners.


Lou Reed: A Life by Anthony DeCurtis



From the publisher

As lead singer and songwriter for the Velvet Underground and a renowned solo artist, Lou Reed invented alternative rock. His music, at once a source of transcendent beauty and coruscating noise, violated all definitions of genre while speaking to millions of fans and inspiring generations of musicians.

But while his iconic status may be fixed, the man himself was anything but. Lou Reed’s life was a transformer’s odyssey. Eternally restless and endlessly hungry for new experiences, Reed reinvented his persona, his sound, even his sexuality time and again. A man of contradictions and extremes, he was fiercely independent yet afraid of being alone, artistically fearless yet deeply paranoid, eager for commercial success yet disdainful of his own triumphs. Channeling his jagged energy and literary sensibility into classic songs – like “Walk on the Wild Side” and “Sweet Jane” – and radically experimental albums alike, Reed remained desperately true to his artistic vision, wherever it led him.

Now, just a few years after Reed’s death, Rolling Stone writer Anthony DeCurtis, who knew Close Reed and interviewed him extensively, tells the provocative story of his complex and chameleonic life. With unparalleled access to dozens of Reed’s friends, family, and collaborators, DeCurtis tracks Reed’s five-decade career through the accounts of those who knew him and through Reed’s most revealing testimony, his music. We travel deep into his defiantly subterranean world, enter the studio as the Velvet Underground record their groundbreaking work, and revel in Reed’s relationships with such legendary figures as Andy Warhol, David Bowie, and Laurie Anderson. Gritty, intimate, and unflinching, Lou Reed is an illuminating tribute to one of the most incendiary artists of our time.


David Yaffe spotlights what he describers as Reed’s “cantankerous” nature

The songs of Lou Reed are a manual of sorts for how to keep living after you have let yourself and everyone else down, or after the world has done that for you. Reed doesn’t judge anyone for shooting heroin or defying societal norms, or for making sweet, gentle love to someone right before they OD. His songs are not sentimental about death, and they never, ever try to make you like the person who is singing them. He was more lacking in guile than most in rock and roll and he was notoriously cantankerous. When he had a liver transplant a few months before his death, The Onion ran a satirical piece

“It’s really hard to get along with Lou—one minute he’s your best friend and the next he’s outright abusive,” said the vital organ, describing its ongoing collaboration with the former Velvet Underground frontman as “strained at best.” “He just has this way of making you feel completely inadequate. I can tell he doesn’t respect me at all. In fact, I’m pretty sure he’s already thinking about replacing me.” The joke worked because it was so true: anyone who got close to Lou—bandmates, lovers, archivists—invariably had such an experience after a while.

Along with with access to all the world’s music  digitalization has fractured the categories of music and has reduced artistic name recognition to near anonymity. Whether 50 years hence we will celebrate musical giants like Mitchell, Stills and Reed, of course remanis to be seen…



Mavis at 70 plus years is still  performing. Warren Zevon passed a few years ago and his wife put together a very original collection of testiments by people who knew Warren . Mingus was/is a giant who should occupy  the Amerian musical pantheon with Duke Ellington George Gershwin. Charlie “Bird ” Parker ‘s life is the template for tragic lives of the creative originals The books below are excellent examples of the shift from hagiography to ethnography.









The Last and Best List of “Best” Books for 2017

15 Jan


In 2009 ,when Umberto Eco was in residence at the French Louvre he chose to study the  theme  of “the vertigo of lists.” His reflections  on an enormous trove of human achievements and his investigation of the phenomenon of cataloging and collecting resulted in The Infinity of Lists: An  Illustrated History.* Paul Zimmer says his  poem  Zimmer Goes To Heaven is a list So  far those are the only examples of  lists that are useful in the cultural world


 Attaching superlatives to  creative endeavors has been a pet peeve of mine ever since so called  best lists came to  cultural preeminence. Finally, someone (Thomas Morris ) has articulated better than (and more kindly), I ever have the issues I have with these  Books of the Year.


…that these lists would benefit from getting rid of the ‘best’ tag. It’s not that I don’t believe some books are better than others; it’s just that I don’t believe we adequately express our love when we invoke criterions of betterness; and that such claims are frankly absurd when each individual is drawing from such a small, subjective pool.

**Books of the Year lists are a key factor in the spread of blurbese: a language written in a register completely separate from actual spoken word-of-mouth recommendations. In 2015, when I was first asked to write a few lines about my Books of the Year, I found myself typing words like “haunting”, “lyrical”, “exquisite”, “innovative”, “poignant” “handsome” and the kind of phrases that I would usually strike out of a work of fiction: “bowled over”; “blown away”; “left dazzled by”. I heard the Song of Praise, and I duly danced the steps. 

I am not naive enough to think that the writing industry can exist outside of the machinations of capitalism, but I do think these kind of lists are in a ragged service to a skewed, misguided market-logic whereby literary “product” values are something measurable and commensurable—and inherently related to newness. And it is disappointing to me that we all—in trying to recommend good books that we genuinely like—do so by participating in a narrative that most of us surely don’t really go along with. …

However, since my railing against these and other aesthetic misdemeanors has gone unheeded let me offer my own selections for your perusal and consideration** :



News of the World by Paulette Jiles


It is 1870 and Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd travels through northern Texas, giving live readings to paying audiences hungry for news of the world. An elderly widower who has lived through three wars and fought in two of them, the captain enjoys his rootless, solitary existence.

In Wichita Falls, he is offered a $50 gold piece to deliver a young orphan to her relatives in San Antonio. Four years earlier, a band of Kiowa raiders killed Johanna’s parents and sister; sparing the little girl, they raised her as one of their own. Recently rescued by the U.S. army, the ten-year-old has once again been torn away from the only home she knows.

Their 400-mile journey south through unsettled territory and unforgiving terrain proves difficult and at times dangerous. Johanna has forgotten the English language, tries to escape at every opportunity, throws away her shoes, and refuses to act “civilized.” Yet as the miles pass, the two lonely survivors tentatively begin to trust each other, forging a bond that marks the difference between life and death in this treacherous land.

Arriving in San Antonio, the reunion is neither happy nor welcome. The captain must hand Johanna over to an aunt and uncle she does not remember—strangers who regard her as an unwanted burden. A respectable man, Captain Kidd is faced with a terrible choice: abandon the girl to her fate or become—in the eyes of the law—a kidnapper himself. Exquisitely rendered and morally complex, News of the World is a brilliant work of historical fiction that explores the boundaries of family, responsibility, honor, and trust.


Heretics: A Novel by Leonardo Padura,‎ Anna Kushner  Translator

Padura follows his magnificent The Man Who Loved Dogs a sweeping novel of art theft, anti-Semitism, contemporary Cuba, and crime ping ponging from the 17th century to 1939 to the present. You can watch his Havana  Noir Quartet on Netflix, Four Seasons In Havana

In 1939, the Saint Louis sails from Hamburg into Havana’s port with hundreds of Jewish refugees seeking asylum from the Nazi regime. From the docks, nine-year-old Daniel Kaminsky watches as the passengers, including his mother, father, and sister, become embroiled in a fiasco of Cuban corruption. But the Kaminskys have a treasure that they hope will save them: a small Rembrandt portrait of Christ. Yet six days later the vessel is forced to leave the harbor with the family, bound for the horrors of Europe. The Kaminskys, along with their priceless heirloom, disappear.

Nearly seven decades later, the Rembrandt reappears in an auction house in London, prompting Daniel’s son to travel to Cuba to track down the story of his family’s lost masterpiece. He hires the down-on-his-luck private detective Mario Conde, and together they navigate a web of deception and violence in the morally complex city of Havana.

In Heretics, Leonardo Padura takes us from the tenements and beaches of Cuba to Rembrandt’s gloomy studio in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, telling the story of people forced to choose between the tenets of their faith and the realities of the world, between their personal desires and the demands of their times. A grand detective story and a moving historical drama, Padura’s novel is as compelling, mysterious, and enduring as the painting at its center



Augustown: A Novel by Kei Miller 


I found this more acessible than the highly celebrated Marlan James story. Miller’s poetic language packs a big story in this slender tome

11 April 1982: a smell is coming down John Golding Road right alongside the boy-child, something attached to him, like a spirit but not quite. Ma Taffy is growing worried. She knows that something is going to happen. Something terrible is going to pour out into the world. But if she can hold it off for just a little bit longer, she will. So she asks a question that surprises herself even as she asks it, “Kaia, I ever tell you bout the flying preacherman?”

Set in the backlands of Jamaica, Augustown is a magical and haunting novel of one woman’s struggle to rise above the brutal vicissitudes of history, race, class, collective memory, violence, and myth. Containing twelve new stories and nine classics from previous collections, Signals is Tim Gautreaux at his best. Effortlessly conjuring the heat and humidity of the author’s beloved South, these stories of men and women grappling with faith, small town life, and blue-collar work are alternately ridiculous and sublime. For both longtime fans and readers lucky enough to encounter him for the very first time, Signals cements Gautreaux’s place as an American master.



Signals: New and Selected Stories   by Tim Gautreaux

Signals is Tim Gautreaux at his best. Effortlessly conjuring the heat and humidity of the author’s beloved South, these stories of men and women grappling with faith, small town life, and blue-collar work are alternately ridiculous and sublime. For both longtime fans and readers lucky enough to encounter him for the very first time, Signals cements Gautreaux’s place as an American master.

I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Gautreaux (to be found in Conversations with Tim Gautreaux). Here’s sample


RB: Let’s talk about the subject at hand, The Clearing. Is it a Southern novel or a Louisiana novel or a bayou novel? Or none of the above.

TG: I hope none of the above. Because of I am very wary of the label “Southern writer.” Of course, I live in Louisiana and I was raised in south central Louisiana, born and raised there. I was raised in every cliché known to man about the Deep South. Once you allow yourself to be labeled, you begin to believe the label and then when you compose you feel duty bound to include as many of the usual cliches as you possibly can about your region. That’s a terrible thing to happen to a writer, and I hope that it doesn’t happen to me too much. When people interview me they ask if I consider myself a Southern writer. This seems like an honest question. Well, it is an honest question. But it’s a hard one to answer. I prefer to put a little different spin on it— I consider myself a writer first who happens to live in the South. If I had been born in North Dakota I would still be a writer. I would probably have had a similar life. But my people and my settings, my moods, my skies, my waterways would be from North Dakota or South Canada. I would still be writing something.





The Feud is the ironic (and sad) tale of how two literary giants destroyed their friendship in a fit of mutual pique and egomania. Having conversated with Alex Beam a number of times , he impresses with his acute sense of a good story (Gracefully Insane: Life and Death Inside America’s Premier Mental Hospital, American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church, and A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books) frequently told with Beam’s sly sense of humor.

In 1940, Edmund Wilson was the undisputed big dog of American letters. Vladimir Nabokov was a near-penniless Russian exile seeking asylum in the States. Wilson became a mentor to Nabokov, introducing him to every editor of note, assigning him book reviews for The New Republic, engineering a Guggenheim Fellowship. Their intimate friendship blossomed over a shared interest in all things Russian, ruffled a bit by political disagreements. But then came the worldwide best-selling novel Lolita,and the tables were turned. Suddenly Nabokov was the big (and very rich) dog. The feud finally erupted in full when Nabokov published his hugely footnoted and virtually unreadable literal translation of Pushkin’s famously untranslatable verse novel, Eugene Onegin. Wilson attacked his friend’s translation with hammer and tongs in The New York Review of Books. Nabokov counterattacked. Back and forth the increasingly aggressive letters flew, until the narcissism of small differences reduced their friendship to ashes.

Alex Beam has fashioned this clash of literary titans into a delightful and irresistible book—a comic contretemps of a very high order and a poignant demonstration of the fragility of even the deepest of friendships.





A Boy in Winter: A Novel by Rachel Seiffert  


Having some personal experience with the stories of Holocaust, I occasionally  consider whether the  stories and history’s that rise from that horror are an  exhaustible and can continue to bring new light to bear. This harrowing novel by Seiffert expands the sense of  barbarity of a well troden subject.

Early on a grey November morning in 1941, only weeks after the German invasion, a small Ukrainian town is overrun by the SS. This new novel from the award-winning author of the Booker Prize short-listed The Dark Room tells of the three days that follow and the lives that are overturned in the processPenned in with his fellow Jews, under threat of deportation, Ephraim anxiously awaits word of his two sons, missing since daybreak.Come in search of her lover, to fetch him home again, away from the invaders, Yasia must confront new and harsh truths about those closest to her.Here to avoid a war he considers criminal, German engineer Otto Pohl is faced with an even greater crime unfolding behind the lines, and no one but himself to turn to.And in the midst of it all is Yankel, a boy determined to survive this. But to do so, he must throw in his lot with strangers.As their stories mesh, each of Rachel Seiffert’s characters comes to know the compromises demanded by survival, the oppressive power of fear, and the possibility of courage in the face of terror.

A Boy in Winter is a story of hope when all is lost and of mercy when the times have none.









The Savage: A Novel by Frank Bill

I came to Frank Bill through his literary debut, The Crimes of Southern Indiana a bracing story collection tracking the mayhem and appalling lives of life in the so called flyover zone. The Savage is his second novel.

The dollar has failed; the grid is wiped out. Walmarts are looted and homes are abandoned as common folk flee and bloodthirsty militias fight for power. In a twenty-first century America gone haywire, Darwinian struggle for survival is the law of the land.

Van Dorn, eighteen and running solo, was raised by his father in the old ways: to value survival, self-reliance, and righteousness. Determined to seek justice, he fights through a litany of horrors to save those captured by Cotto, a savage, drug-crazed warlord who has risen among the roving gangs, gaining territory while enslaving women and children. As destinies collide and survival becomes an increasingly distant fantasy, battling ideals of right and wrong come to an explosive head.

Chock-full of the razor-sharp prose and bloodlust that made Donnybrook[his first novel] impossible to put down, The Savage nonetheless finds Frank Bill raising the stakes. Here, one of America’s most iconoclastic young storytellers presents an unnerving vision of a fractured America gone terribly wrong, and a study of what happens when the last systems of morality and society collapse.




Who Killed Piet Barol? by Richard Mason

Set in early twentieth-century colonial South Africa, and a forest full of witch doctors, stingless bees, and hungry leopards., this novel continues the story of Piet Barol begun in History of a Pleasure Seeker and despite the title a story Mason intends to continue in a third novel.

It is 1914. Germany has just declared war on France. Piet Barol was a tutor before he came to South Africa, his wife, Stacey, an opera singer. In Cape Town they are living the high life, impersonating French aristocrats—but their lies are catching up with them.The Barols’ furniture business is on the verge of collapse. They need top-quality wood, and they need it cheap. Piet enlists two Xhosa [pron. KO-sa] men to lead him into a vast forest, in search of a fabled tree.The Natives Land Act has just abolished property rights for the majority of black South Africans, and whole families have been ripped apart. Piet’s guides have their own reasons to lead him through the trees, and to keep him alive while he’s useful to them.Far from the comforting certainties of his privileged existence, Piet finds the prospect of riches beyond measure—and the chance to make great art. He is sure he’ll be able to buy what he needs for a few glass trinkets. But he’s underestimating the Xhosa, who believe the spirits of their ancestors live in this sacred forest. Battle lines are drawn. When Piet’s powers of persuasion fail him, he resorts to darker, more dangerous talents to get what he is determined to have. As the story moves to its devastating conclusion, every character becomes a suspect, and Piet’s arrogance and guile put him on a collision course with forces he cannot understand and that threaten his seemingly enchanted existence.




There Your Heart Lies   by Mary Gordon


The Spanish Civil War, which you will recall preceded the the Second Great War, glorified by Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, continues to be a source of fascination by novelists,filmmakers and historians alike. Leonardo Padura’s The Man who Loved Dogs takes us from  Republican Spain to the assassination of Leon Trotsky,  Antonio Chavarrías’s 2016 film The Chosen, which focuses on the Stalinist takeover of the Republican resistance as a pathway to the Trotsky murder. And there is Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, (1936-1939) by Adam Hochshild telling the story of the   band of idealists known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

Now comes There Your Heart Lies  a  novel about an American woman’s experiences during the Spanish Civil War, the lessons she learned, and how her story will shape her granddaughter’s path Marian cut herself off from her wealthy, conservative Irish Catholic family when she volunteered during the Spanish Civil War—an experience she has always kept to herself. Now in her nineties, she shares her Rhode Island cottage with her granddaughter Amelia, a young woman of good heart but only a vague notion of life’s purpose. Their daily existence is intertwined with Marian’s secret past: the blow to her youthful idealism when she witnessed the brutalities on both sides of Franco’s war and the romance that left her trapped in Spain in perilous circumstances for nearly a decade. When Marian is diagnosed with cancer, she finally speaks about what happened to her during those years—personal and ethical challenges nearly unthinkable to Amelia’s millennial generation, as well as the unexpected gifts of true love and true friendship.Marian’s story compels Amelia to make her own journey to Spain, to reconcile her grandmother’s past with her own uncertain future. With their exquisite female bond at its core, this novel, which explores how character is forged in a particular moment in history and passed down through the generations, is especially relevant in our own time. It is a call to arms—a call to speak honestly about evil when it is



The Force by Don Winslow

Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog (the first of his projected trilogy and apparently slated to be come a film is a muscular, full-bodied masterpiece elucidating  the so-called war on drugs, convincingly includes all the institutions complicit in a nexus of criminality. Winslow rivals  John LeCarre in his expose of the corruption and hypocrisy in the established institutions of modern society. Now Winslow brings his skills and narrative talents to an uncompromising and vivid cop novel of the NYPD.  Before you even get into the text, there are two attention getting elements — an aphorism by Raymond Chandler, ” Cops are just people,  …they start out that way.”  And a  dedication to all the police personnel murdered while Winslow was writing this book which takes up two and a half page pages…


Our ends know our beginnings, but the reverse isn’t true . . .All Denny Malone wants is to be a good cop. He is “the King of Manhattan North,” a, highly decorated NYPD detective sergeant and the real leader of “Da Force.” Malone and his crew are the smartest, the toughest, the quickest, the bravest, and the baddest, an elite special unit given unrestricted authority to wage war on gangs, drugs and guns. Every day and every night for the eighteen years he’s spent on the Job, Malone has served on the front lines, witnessing the hurt, the dead, the victims, the perps. He’s done whatever it takes to serve and protect in a city built by ambition and corruption, where no one is clean—including Malone himself.What only a few know is that Denny Malone is dirty: he and his partners have stolen millions of dollars in drugs and cash in the wake of the biggest heroin bust in the city’s history. Now Malone is caught in a trap and being squeezed by the Feds, and he must walk the thin line between betraying his brothers and partners, the Job, his family, and the woman he loves, trying to survive, body and soul, while the city teeters on the brink of a racial conflagration that could destroy them all.



White Tears   by Hari Kunzru




British transplant Hari Kunzru caught my attention with his previous novel Gods Without Men, an ambitious narrative that ping pongs between high powered stock market speculators and native anthropology of  the first peoples of the American Southwest. I spoke with Kunzru about the book and about all manner of things. Here’s a morsel of that conversation


RB: I was interested in how you acquire information — how actively you  pursue  expanding your pool of general knowledge. The core of Gods Without Men is about a mixed marriage couple — a Punjabi Sikh and a Jewish American woman, and then a 17th century Spanish priest makes an appearance, and there is the Wall Street firm developing a program that searches for discontinuous connections that may be predictive. And then there are UFO/Alien visitation people. And hippy communes. And at the end you have a disclaimer that Fray Garcia’s report was never redacted, as it was in the novel — a fact whose reality I was never concerned about.

HK: That I felt was necessary because he is a historical character. He did make that journey across the Mohave, and the diary of his journey exists. So I inserted two missing weeks. I am holding my hands up to say that’s a clear determinate case of fabrication there. Novels always have a kind of oblique relationship to research material and sources of all kinds. There many other echoes of stuff that I found and used.

RB: The native people’s mythology — did you make those myths up?

HK: Again, yes and no. There was an extraordinary woman named Carobeth Laird who was an anthropologist, and in the years before the first World War married a much older anthropologist. She was a young college girl in San Diego. He was a kind of mean character, very cold, who wanted a research assistant and taught her how to do field work. He would dump her in Indian communities in the desert while he went off and did other research. And then eventually she fell in love with her informants. Fell in love with a Chemehuevi Indian guide called George Laird. And told her husband, this guy Harrington, that she was leaving him. And then disappeared off the map for many, many years. And then in the late sixties, when people were going through Harrington’s papers, he had left this huge mass of unpublished research. People realized that there were two sets of handwriting and thought to ask who she was, and whether she was still alive. And someone went and found her. She was in her nineties, and she had been working that whole time. She had produced the most extraordinary — it seems to be regarded as the best — ethnography of any Southwestern native people in existence. In the first little section of the novel, I used the way a Chemehuevi storyteller would work. Not necessarily naming a character directly to the audience, but to speak in a certain way and with a certain vocal tone and everyone would know who was speaking.


In White Tears, two twenty-something New Yorkers. Seth is awkward and shy. Carter is the glamorous heir to one of America’s great fortunes. They have one thing in common: an obsession with music. Seth is desperate to reach for the future. Carter is slipping back into the past. When Seth accidentally records an unknown singer in a park, Carter sends it out over the Internet, claiming it’s a long lost 1920s blues recording by a musician called Charlie Shaw. When an old collector contacts them to say that their fake record and their fake bluesman are actually real, the two young white men, accompanied by Carter’s troubled sister Leonie, spiral down into the heart of the nation’s darkness, encountering a suppressed history of greed, envy, revenge, and exploitation.






The Bones of Paradise by Jonis Agee    

A multigenerational family saga set in the  Nebraska Sand Hills in the years following the infsmoud massacre at Wounded Knee—this is an ambitious tale of history that fills in the large spaces left by the histories of the latter  half of the 19th century American West

Ten years after the Seventh Cavalry massacred more than two hundred Lakota men, women, and children at Wounded Knee, J.B. Bennett, a white rancher, and Star, a young Native American woman, are murdered in a remote meadow on J.B.’s land. The deaths bring together the scattered members of the Bennett family: J.B.’s cunning and hard father, Drum; his estranged wife, Dulcinea; and his teenage sons, Cullen and Hayward. As the mystery of these twin deaths unfolds, the history of the dysfunctional Bennetts and their damning secrets is revealed, exposing the conflicted heart of a nation caught between past and future. At the center of The Bones of Paradise are two remarkable women. Dulcinea, returned after bitter years of self-exile, yearns for redemption and the courage to mend her broken family and reclaim the land that is rightfully hers. Rose, scarred by the terrible slaughters that have decimated and dislocated her people, struggles to accept the death of her sister, Star, and refuses to rest until she is avenged….Jonis Agee’s novel is a panorama of America at the dawn of a new century. A beautiful evocation of this magnificent, blood-soaked land—its sweeping prairies, seas of golden grass, and sandy hills, all at the mercy of two unpredictable and terrifying forces, weather and lawlessness—and the durable men and women who dared to tame it.



  The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit has written about 20  books on an impressively diverse  array of subjects ranging from  feminism, western and indigenous history, popular power, social change and insurrection, wandering and walking, hope and disaster, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. In A Paradise Built in Hell , Ms. Solnit unpacks five disasters in depth: the 1906 earthquake and fires in San Francisco, the Halifax munitions cargo ship explosion of 1917, the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, the events of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. She also writes about the London blitz, Chernobyl and many other upheavals and examines the growing field of disaster studies.

In “A Paradise Built in Hell” Ms. Solnit probes five disasters in depth: the 1906 earthquake and fires in San Francisco, the Halifax munitions cargo ship explosion of 1917, the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, the events of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. She also writes about the London blitz, Chernobyl and many other upheavals and examines the growing field of disaster studies. As different as these events  are there was a consistent altruism in evidence and Solnit observes the odd joy of living in their wake to existing in benign anarchies of the kind Thomas Paine described in “The Rights of Man.”

 In Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit offers indispensable commentary on women who refuse to be silenced, misogynistic violence, the fragile masculinity of the literary canon, the gender binary, the recent history of rape jokes, and much more.She has received a Guggenheim, the National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism, and the Lannan Literary Award). , she is also contributes the “Easy Chair “column at Harper’s and is a regular contributor to the Guardian.




Milena, or The Most Beautiful Femur in the World  by Jorge Zepeda Patterson ,‎ Adrian Nathan West (Translator)

When Milena’s lover and protector, the chief of Mexico’s most important newspaper, dies in her arms, she knows it’s only a matter of time before the ruthless thugs behind the human-trafficking ring that kidnapped her from her Croatian village catch her and force her back into sex slavery.Soon, three comrades bound together by childhood friendships, romantic entanglements, and a restless desire for justice are after her as well—but for different reasons. The new chief of the newspaper, columnist Tomás Arizmendi, must retrieve Milena’s mysterious black book before the media empire he has inherited is torn asunder, while dubious intelligence expert Jaime Lemus wants to use the sensitive information the book contains about the crimes of the world’s power elite to further his political puppeteering. Lastly, the noblest of the trio, rising politician Amelia Navarro has made it her mission to protect women and children from the abuses of men in power.Told at a heartracing pace and full of the journalistic detail and sly humor  Milena, or The Most Beautiful Femur in the World is a romp across Europe and the Americas that traces the vast networks of capital, data, crime, and coerced labor that bind together today’s globalized world. Yet, in the beautiful and tenacious Milena, we are reminded that the survivors of the darker facets of modernity are not mere statistics, but living, breathing, individuals. What Don Winslow  did for the nexus of complicity in the so called War on Drugs , Zepeda has done for the nightmare depravity of human sex trafficking in exposing its ultimate beneficiaries…





Sing, Unburied, Sing   by Jesmyn Ward


Ok I won’t hold it against this fine novel that  it gained Jesmyn Ward’s  second National Book Award. Its an intimate portrait of three generations of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle.

Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. He doesn’t lack in fathers to study, chief among them his Black grandfather, Pop. But there are other men who complicate his understanding: his absent White father, Michael, who is being released from prison; his absent White grandfather, Big Joseph, who won’t acknowledge his existence; and the memories of his dead uncle, Given, who died as a teenager.His mother, Leonie, is an inconsistent presence in his and his toddler sister’s lives. She is an imperfect mother in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is Black and her children’s father is White. She wants to be a better mother but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use. Simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high, Leonie is embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances.When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another thirteen-year-old boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.



Texas: The Great Theft  by Carmen Boullosa,‎ Samantha Schnee (Translator)


Carmen Boullosa  is one of Mexico’s leading novelists, poets, and playwrights (“Mexico’s greatest woman writer.”—Roberto Bolaño.) She has authored seventeen novels, a handful of which have made their way into English translations  Boullosa is currently Distinguished Lecturer at City College of New York. An imaginative writer in the tradition of Juan Rulfo, Jorge Luis Borges, and Cesar Aira, Carmen Boullosa shows herself to be at the height of her powers with her latest novel. Loosely based on the little-known 1859 Mexican invasion of the United States, Texas is a richly imagined evocation of the volatile Tex-Mex borderland. Boullosa views border history through distinctly Mexican eyes, and her sympathetic portrayal of each of her wildly diverse characters—Mexican ranchers and Texas Rangers, Comanches and cowboys, German socialists and runaway slaves, Southern belles and dancehall girls—makes her storytelling tremendously powerful and absorbing. Shedding important historical light on current battles over the Mexican–American frontier while telling a gripping story with Boullosa’s singular prose and formal innovation, Texas marks the welcome return of a major writer who has previously captivated American audiences and is poised to do so again.



The Crossing  by Andrew Miller 


The lack of acknowledgment  that accompanies Andrew’ Miller’s the publication of his novels in the USA is a source of wonder  . I count at least three that  books that exhibit masterful story telling including his latest, The Crossing. Of all his Robert Stone’s novels, Outerbridge Reach was the one i found least acessible. Its a story of  global race of solo sailing. The Crossing manages to make the travails a of solo Trans Atlantic riveting


The Crossing  is a modern tale of a brave and uncompromising woman’s attempt to seize control of her life and fate.Who else has entered Tim’s life the way Maud did? This girl who fell past him, lay seemingly dead on the ground, then stood and walked. That was where it all began. He wants her—wants to rescue her, to reach her. Yet there is nothing to suggest Maud has any need of him, that she is not already complete. A woman with a talent for survival, who works long hours and loves to sail—preferably on her own.When Maud finds her unfulfilling marriage tested to the breaking point by unspeakbale tragedy, she attempts an escape from her husband and the hypocrisies of society. In her quest she will encounter the impossible and push her mind and body to their limit.









Atlas of the World  (24th edition) Oxford University Press

Having discovered this geographic compendium a few years ago, I now look forward to the yearly updates and find great pleasure in browsing through the updates that include  non pareil NASA Earth Observation Satellite, Landsat 8 images.On a regular basis, studies and essays make reference to the #1 nation in history containing a citizenry woefully ignorant in some area or  other. World  (Earth, the planet we are told by  pesky scientists) geography is no  doubt close to the top of any of list of ignorance. New Yorker illustrator Saul Steinberg was not kidding with his New York City Centric map of the East Coast.

The only world atlas updated annually,   Oxford’s Atlas of the World is the most authoritative atlas on the market. Full of crisp, clear cartography of urban areas and virtually uninhabited landscapes around the globe, the Atlas is filled with maps of cities and regions at carefully selected scales that give a striking view of the Earth’s surface. It opens with a fascinating look at world statistics, a six-page special on “Land and Maritime Boudaries,” and satellite images of earth, including 8-10 stunning new images sourced from NASA’s latest Earth Observation Satellite, Landsat 8, launched in 2013. The extraordinarily extensive front matter continues with a “Gazetteer of Nations” that has been comprehensively checked and updated to include recent economic and political changes, and a 48-page “Introduction to World Geography,” beautifully illustrated with tables and graphs on numerous topics of geographic significance, such as climate change, world religions, employment, industry, tourism, and travel. The hundreds of city and world maps that form the body of the Atlas have been thoroughly updated for this 24th edition.


One more thing from TH White/’s  The Once and Future King:

“The best thing for being sad…is to learn something.

That is the only thing that never fails.

You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, You may lie awake listening to the disorder in your veins,

you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds.

There is only one thing for it then—-to learn.

Learn why the world wags and what wags it.

That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust,

and never dream of regretting.”


 *This book  is a philosophical and artistic sequel to Eco’s recent acclaimed books, History of Beauty and On Ugliness, books in which he delved into the psychology, philosophy, history, and art of human forms. Eco is a modern-day Diderot, and here he examines the Western mind’s predilection for list-making and the encyclopedic. His central thesis is that in Western culture a passion for accumulation is recurring: lists of saints, catalogues of plants, collections of art. This impulse has recurred through the ages from music to literature to art. Eco refers to this obsession itself as a “giddiness of lists” but shows how in the right hands it can be a “poetics of catalogues.” From medieval reliquaries to Andy Warhol’s compulsive collecting, Umberto Eco reflects in his inimitably inspiring way on how such catalogues mirror the spirit of their times.

** What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Books Of The Year

*** Book descriptions courtesy of publishers with some annotation…


Tales from the Dark Side

4 Dec

A number of our 17 security agencies (aka as the secret police)  are enjoying a rare moment of approval as they actually support the conclusion that the Russians interfered in the 2016 presidential election. However, before you start to view the CIA and NSA as benign, warm and cuddly entities consider the overlooked report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (always a troubling word) released a few years ago on the popular subject, torture.




“Meticulously formatted, this is a highly readable edition of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation of Central Intelligence Agency interrogation and detention programs launched in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Based on over six million internal CIA documents, the report details secret prisons, prisoner deaths, interrogation practices, and cooperation with other foreign and domestic agencies. It also examines charges that the CIA deceived elected officials and governmental overseers about the extent and legality of its operations.

Over five years in the making, and withheld from public view since its declassification in April, 2014, this is the full summary report as finally released by the United States government on December 9th, 2014.”




Human Rights activist Larry Siems, (no doubt one of the 12 people who actually read this report) authored The Torture Report: What the Documents say about America’s Post 9/11 Torture Program and created a website which I suspect is only used by those few people dedicated to human rights offers  concludess,
Here’s what I learned from writing The most senior members of the Bush administration, up to and including the President, broke international and domestic laws banning torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. Worse, they had subordinates in the military and in civilian intelligence services break these laws for them. . .
I am hardly the first to learn these things or reach these conclusions. Dozens of outstanding journalists, lawyers, human rights investigators, bloggers, and members of Congress have discovered and reported similar conclusions for years. But I have reached them for myself, doing what I believe every citizen of conscience ought to do at moments like these, reading the documents themselves.

I learned one more thing as well, something that anyone who reads the record will also discover.Over and over again, men and women in Afghanistan and Iraq, in Guantánamo, in secret CIA black sites, in Langley, in the Pentagon, in Congress, and in the administration itself recognized the torture for what it was and objected, protested, and fought to prevent, and then to end, these illegal and ill-advised interrogations. While those who devised and oversaw the torture program insist their decisions were colored by the consciousness of impending danger, these men and women, who spent their days in far closer proximity to deadly threats, decried the cruel treatment as ineffective, shortsighted, and wrong. . . .This sense of betrayal permeates the documents—not just of abstract values and principles, but of the women and men we commissioned to represent these values and principles to the world.

The Dark Side: How The War on Terror Became a War on American Ideals”



Jane Mayer, who writes about counterterrorism for The New Yorker, offers , “The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals,” reveals more details of about its secret detention program—iIncluding the intragovernmental debates on this efficacy of this program. After September 11, 2001 Vice President Dick Cheney (in an interview with Tim Russert on “Meet the Press.” describes the  Bush regime’s rationale—on the continuing threat and US response,

  “We’ll have to work sort of the dark side if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies… if we are going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in. And, uh, so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal basically, to achieve our objectives.”




“Since 2001  Jane Mayer has been investigating and reporting on what the dark side really means. For the first time, she pieces together the full story of how Cheney, and a handful of extraordinarily powerful, but almost unknown lawyers including his Chief of Staff David Addington, took command of the war on terrorism. They seized on the mood of national fear to institute a top secret, covert program that twisted or ignored 221 years of constitutional history. She chronicles the behind-the-scenes meetings in the White House, Justice Department and CIA, and shows how the decisions taken behind closed doors in Washington spiraled out around the world, often with unintended consequences, violated the Constitution…”








Jane Mayer introduces this iteration of the Torture Report

“The more who learn the truth the better off the country will be because there is no better safeguard against the revival of torture than a well-informed public.”

On December 9, 2014, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a report that strongly condemned the CIA for its secret and brutal use of torture in the treatment of prisoners captured in the “war on terror” during the George W. Bush administration. This deeply researched and fully documented investigation highlighted both how ineffective the program was as well as the lengths to which the CIA had gone to conceal it.

In The Torture Report, Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón use their graphic-storytelling abilities to make the torture report accessible, Their adaptation adds to the original Senate report. There are brief chapters on how the CIA, Congress and the Justice Department responded to the committee’s report and how the media represented the program while it was classified. Explaining the significance and possible aftermath of the CIA program are an introduction by Jane Mayer and an afterword by Scott Horton.


Horton points out,

“The experience of Latin America is instructive. “Practices like those used by the CIA were hidden, covered with national security classifications, and amnestied in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, among other nations. It took a full generation — thirty years — before a formal process of accountability began to take hold and octogenarian intelligence officers were dragged before courts and sent to prison.”






Relevant links