On the Beach…Summer Reading

21 Jun




New York Daily News 1954



It appears I have lost the fire in my belly as the media attention to the well -worn rubric  ‘summer reading’ has come and gone> And unlike times past,  I have not excoriated the whole damn herd of literary commentators for this vacuous listicle-inducing category. Despite years of an inability to take seriously this meaningless category, it is clear that my meager efforts to staunch this yearly silliness have failed.


So, I am joining the herd … with some modification. While I am certain that my recommendation can be read on the beach and/or during the summer. I also positive that they can be read, in the bathroom, while waiting interminably at the Motor Vehicle Bureau (or at any government agency) or basically anywhere  there is ample light and a place to plant oneself out of the fray






The Force- Don Winslow

This new offering by Winslow may replace his important epic novel The Power of The Dog (and the sequel The Cartel) as his magnum opus. Set for the most part in that other country, the US-Mexican border such was its vivid depiction of the spider’s web of worldwide complicity in the so-called War on Drugs much like any good John LeCcarre story there is an abundance of truth packed into this fiction. In the new opus, Winslow has focused his ample powers of observation and narrative skills on the workings of and the psyches and pathologies of an array of characters of the New York Police Department— kind of  Prince of the City on steroids. When I received my copy I  was vexed by what I saw as blatant hyperbole best selling by thriller writer “Intensely human in its tragic details, positively Shakespearian in its epic sweep – probably the best cop novel ever written” —   After I read  the novel  I could understand Child’s enthusiasm ffor this story*

Heretics Leonardo Padura

Cuban novelist iPAdura is probably best known for his noir quartet featuring Havana homicide detective Mario Conde, which the Spanish have produced as a four part series as Four Seasons in Havana. Certainly entertaining, I was more impressed by his novel The Man Who Loved Dogs which followed the life of  Leon Trotsky’s assassin, with particularly heart-rending episodes set in Hitler’s dress rehearsal for  WWII, the Spanish Civil War. Now comes his new creation Heretics a story that radiates from the infamous incident surrounding the May 1939 voyage of the ocean liner St Louis with 937 ‘stateless’ Jews to Havana, radiating forward to 2007 and  traveling back in time a few centuries with fascinating tangent about a Rembrandt painting that ends up in a Polish stetl.  More revealing (as in real) about the perfidy of the Cuban officials in 1939 (and the later travails of Cuban exiles in Miami) than any documented history could provide, Heretics manages to convert  a few hundred years of history into a story, accessible and intelligible without an excess of factual data…And remember, much takes place in the  US amusement park, Havana…





Ancient Minstrel Jim Harrison


The recently departed Jim Harrison a true meat eating literary lion produced a series of volumes peculiar to him, three novellas ( you don’t know what a novella is?) tomes. This posthumous volume features as its entitled piece, a fairly accurate portrayal of Harrison and exhibiting him as the observant, good-natured, ravenous and droll to hilarious good fellow. You laugh *I’m not sure about crying), you smile, you ponder, you marvel. All the wonders of a well-turned page can evoke…


Augusttown Kae Miller


Jamaican-born poet and a well-travelled resident of Brixton London Kei Miller,  provides radiant snapshots and thumbnails of post-colonial village life proximal to Jamaican capital, Kingstown. It’s long on Race and Place, which for literary citizens of the world have great value…





There Your Heart Lies Mary Gordon



I think Mary Gordon has written eight novels but this is the first that I have read. Ostensibly I was drawn to yet another recent narrative set in the perilous center of the Spanish Civil War.To which, not sufficient attention is paid. There are numerous interesting plot twist and turns but the portrayal of the 90 year old Spanish Civil War veteran and her grandchild and their relationship is quite plainly, seductive.




Who Killed Pier Barol Richard Mason

South African born and London resident, novelist  Richard Mason completes his triptych about low-born Dutchman Piet Barol and his struggles to rise to the moneyed upper class. Set in pre-WWI  South Africa, Barol is a clever and multitalented con man who meets and marries a woman equally as talented and bent. This story takes you into the bush and into the lives the land’s original people at a time when they are beginning to suffer the depredations of what would soon become apartheid and genocide. Barol is a shrewd reporter on the class and racial conventions and his prose from the point of non-human sentients is a wonderful leap of imagination (something that Jim Harrison and the recently departed Brian Doyle did well with).




The Bones of Paradise Jonis Agee


A mystery and a history not set  in the favorite locale of Western writers— unacknowledged third nation that exists around the USA Mexican boundary—this narrative is set in a western state called Nebraska. All the major players are represented —Whites, Mexicans, Native Americans, Nomads Emancipated Women. Set ten years  after the US Army’s Seventh Cavalry’s infamous  massacre known as  Wounded Knee , Jonis Aggee’s great storytelling places the reader in the still wild  19th West and clears away some of the view obstructing mythology…


The Crossing Andrew Miller


Though I don’t  recall ever reading a review or a mention of an Andrew Miller novel in a US medium, I have without understanding why,  picked- up some of his novels in the past and been pleased that I did. I especially enjoyed Pure set in France in the late Eighteenth century witb character tasked a very unusual mission. His new opus, ostensibly begins with Scenes from a marriage but gracefully and seamlessly transits to a solo oceanic sail. Not having sailed  farther than the ocean around Manchester (MA ) harbor, lacking any particular interest in sailing or oceanic conveyance  I was still transfixed by the  by the vigilance and energy required to cross an ocean in a small ship. The last novel that I recall which had oceanic sailing as a vantage point  was Robert Stone’s.Outerbridge Reach— a story of one Stone’s troubled characters  involved in a world circumnavigating ship race



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


Despite Mexico’s  proximity (as Mexican’s intone, “So far from God and so close to the United States”) and various Latin BOOMS and BOOMLETS, Mexican novelists are just beginning to get recognition in USA.Imprints such as Deep Vellum and Restless Books are making valuable contributions and this award winning (in Spain)  does  for human sex trafficking and  hybrid modes of corruption what Winslow’s The Power of the Dog did for the narcotic drug  (Wall Street/Cartel industrial complex) industry. One would hope (against hope ) that the increasing presence of this pestilential activity in  contemporary crime stories (see Season Three of John Ridley’s American Crime would occasion some serious efforts by world’s power structures.But much like PEACE, there is no money in eradicating human trafficking. I leave to you to figure out what this quirky title is about.



So Much Blue Percival Everett


As such things go, I was unaware of writer Percival Everett until I saw mention of him in one of the early 2000’s  literary web sites, unfortunately saddled with the inelegant rubric  ‘blog .  Manned by a delightful mind whose name escapes me, The Minor Chord , The Major Fall was a many levels above the jejune unfiltered gibberish to which media careerists claimed the Internet gave license. It was resonantly valuable to me as I have been delighted to read most every thing Everett has written since. And at least once a  companionable conversation that you can find on line and anthologized in Conversations with Percival Everett. I came  across a  lucid  essay on Everet’s new novel by Jesse McCarthy. Here’s a snippet**


  In a characteristic Everett move, Kevin’s race is only glancingly evoked in the novel. The first overt mention of it unsurprisingly comes from The Bummer, a character in the El Salvador section who is the walking embodiment of crude explicit racism. “Don’t think I didn’t notice you’re a nigger,” he warns. When Kevin’s son Will asks him what he wanted to be when he was growing up, we learn that Kevin had an uncle Ty who was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, an illustrious heritage deflated by the knowledge that “Uncle Ty was a fucking asshole.” One of Everett’s great achievements has always been his unassuming portrayal of characters that defy the grotesque strait-jacket of racialized characterization, which so much of American fiction (or American culture in general) simply can’t give up. But racial invisibility is as pure a fantasy as racial stereotype…




  1. http://don-winslow.com/books/the-force/

2. https://nplusonemag.com/online-only/online-only/sad-and-boujee/

Pearls? Before Swine?

27 Apr





The Bedlamite

Our President. Really.



Until I can get help for this condition, I find myself expending some effort on the so-called social media platform entitled FACEBOOK. This activity is troublesome as there are multitudes of useless monads of information (validating the notion that it pays to choose your friends wisely) and much silliness as well as bombast and, well I could go on… So…when I occasionally review my contributions to the din, I am pleased that some are worth anthologizing,  And thus, with some tweaks here are  my recent Facebook posts:


1 More from the dissident hymnbook for the choir…

Chomsky, “And it turns out that the most powerful country in human history, the richest, most powerful, most influential, the leader of the free world, has just decided not only not to support the efforts [Paris Conference, December 2015] but actively to undermine them. So there’s the whole world on one side, literally, at least trying to do something or other, not enough maybe, although some places are going pretty far, like Denmark, couple of others; and on the other side, in splendid isolation, is the country led by the most dangerous organization in human history, which is saying, “We’re not part of this. In fact, we’re going to try to undermine it.” We’re going to maximize the use of fossil fuels—could carry us past the tipping point. We’re not going to provide funding for—as committed in Paris, to developing countries that are trying to do something about the climate problems. We’re going to dismantle regulations that retard the impact, the devastating impact, of production of carbon dioxide and, in fact, other dangerous gases—methane, others.”


Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the UnIted States.”

It’s possible your high school history covered the US theft of a vast swath of Mexico in the 1846 invasion known Guerra de Estados Unidos a Mexico (“War of the United States Against Mexico”). And maybe even included the scam known as thew Gadsen Purchase. Novelist Carmen Boullosa’s elucidation in her novel Texas the Great Theft sets the record straight. Among other things validating the Mexican saying, “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the UnIted States.”


Some clever shit about some dumb shit  Lindy West writes the truth…

  We must keep calling these ideas what they are, and to do that we need a shared understanding of what words mean. That’s why Trump’s 100 days of gibberish aren’t just disorienting and silly – they’re dangerous. Trump approaches language with the same roughshod imperialist entitlement he’s applying to the presidency (and, by extension, the world) – as though it’s a resource that one man can own and burn at will, not a vastly complex collective endeavour of which he is only a steward.


4 HBO should submit this for a Pulitzer…

5. Too true... Perhaps Andy Borowitz can have a shot at being Press Secretary


CHICAGO (The Borowitz Report)—In an appearance at the University of Chicago on Monday, former President Barack Obama unloaded a relentless barrage of complete sentences in what was widely seen as a brutal attack on his successor, Donald Trump.


6 If I oppose inviting the Bedlamite president* to the US Holocaust Museum that is not censorship or some mysterious infringement on the 1st amendment…

Not only did the US Holocaust Museum follow tradition and invite POTUS to speak but  screechy clown Ann Coulter attempted to desecrate the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement. One writer demurs from the sophistry that this is a 1st amendment issue

“To treat the open forum of the classroom or the campus like just another town square—and thus to explain value judgment and knowledge prioritization on campus in terms of censorship or “shutting down” speech—is misguided. No one really thinks Coulter’s ideas are “shut down” if she doesn’t get a chance to talk to Berkeley students. Indeed, as I’ve argued, the marketplace of ideas is more likely to reward controversy than substance. It’s reasonable for us to disagree over the value of bringing someone like Coulter to campus; but it’s unreasonable to insist that if people make successful arguments for why Coulter shouldn’t have a campus platform, that’s tantamount to censorship. Obviously, students can read, watch, and hear professional provocateurs like Coulter without an institution of higher education hosting her speech. An education opens minds and expands horizons by introducing students to people and ideas they otherwise won’t find trending on Twitter over the latest monetized controversy.”


7. As I am enamored of Julie Buntin‘s debut novel Marlena, I thought I would share the joy but pointing you all towards another bright, young writer...

“Influence is a tricky thing. I think it starts with love, with resonance, with the exhilarating feeling that what you’ve read articulates something you’ve always felt but never had the words for. It’s reading something and jumping into the conversation to say, yes, it was this way for me too. Yes, and. The and is the writing. The and is the book that is your answer. There are details and moments in Marlena I hadn’t even realized I’d borrowed—a family of French Canadians, for example—and there are also more direct links. I remember knowing I wanted to write a scene where the girls just laugh, really hard, and for no good reason, and when I wrote it I thought of Berie and Sils as much as I thought of moments in my own adolescence when my best friend raising her eyebrow could make me sick with laughter. And writing about memory by structuring a book as a series of memories: I looked closely at Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? to try to figure how to do that, how the transitions might work, how to hide the seams.”


8 More reading for the choir…Henry Giroux:

“…What has often surprised me is not that it unfolded or the neo-liberal orthodoxy that increasingly made it appear more and more possible. What shocked me was the way the left has refused to really engage this discourse in ways that embrace a comprehensive politics, one that go beyond the fracturing single-issue movements and begins to understand what the underlying causes of these authoritarian movements have been and what it might mean to address them.

You have to ask yourself, what are the forces at work in the United States around civic culture, around celebrity culture, around the culture of fear, around the stoking of extremism and anger that give rise to a right-wing populism and neo-fascist politics? About a media that creates a culture of illusion, about the longstanding legacy of racism and terror in the United States. I mean, how did that all come together to produce a kind of authoritarian pedagogy that basically isolated people, and made them feel lonely? All of a sudden they find themselves in a community of believers, in which the flight from reality offers them a public sphere in which they can affirm themselves and no longer feel that they’re isolated.”:


9 Here’s a hymn book for the choir… ever vigilant dissident Tom Englehardt at Tomdispatch

“…America’s forever wars have now been pursued by these generals and others like them for more than 15 years across a vast swath of the planet — from Pakistan to Libya (and ever deeper into Africa) — and the chaos of failing states, growing conflicts, and spreading terror movements has been the result. There’s no reason to believe that further military action will, a decade and a half later, produce more positive results.

What happens, then? What happens when the war honeymoon is over and the generals keep right on fighting their way? The last two presidents put up with permanent failing war, making the best they could of it. That’s unlikely for Donald Trump. When the praise begins to die down, the criticism starts to rise, and questions are asked, watch out.”



Matt Taibbi, Keith Olbermann, Lucian Truscott and Charles Pierce are erudite commentators on US politics and  unabashed critics of the 45th POTUS and his regime Taibbi, Pierce and Keith hit the trifecta


10 Here’s Keith:

11. Charley Pierce‘s miscellany

. “If he’s done nothing else, this president* has given every Republican politician license to let their freak flags fly. (Lindsey Graham is anxious to tee it up on the peninsula, too, it seems. This is insane.) But Pence seems to be liberated more than most folks.”

12 Mask? What “mask”? Historian Eric Foner is interviewed


The Nation: In the introduction to Tom Paine and Revolutionary America, you say that your aim in writing about the history of American radicalism was, in part, “to provide modern-day social activists with a ‘usable past.’” What does that phrase mean to you?

Foner: The “usable past” is a term that became popular in the late 1960s. Howard Zinn used it; Jesse Lemisch used it. Radical historians began talking about it. I like the term because the past should be usable. That does not mean propaganda; a distorted past is not useful. A past like the one I was taught in school when I was growing up is not a usable past. It was just about how America was created perfect and has just been getting better ever since.




13 Matt Taibbi reminds us of the real histiory of the USA


“Seventy years ago, affluent white people could huddle in the suburbs, watch Leave It to Beaver, and pretend that cops weren’t beating the crap out of people in East St. Louis or Watts or wherever the nearest black neighborhood was. But these days, the whole country regularly gawks at brutal cases of police violence on the Internet. Nobody can pretend it’s not going on, but millions of people clearly don’t want to do anything about it – just the opposite, in fact. They want more. Is this a twisted country, or what?”



Fuck this world, and fuck those who would impose their frail conceits of good and evil on it. Fuck the black man and the white, the junkie and the crusader, the philosopher and the fool. Fuck those who swagger and those who cower, those who pretend to truth and those who flee from it. Fuck the poet and the book burner, the leader and the led. Fuck God and justice and every other lie that ever held men back. Only when one set it all aflame and forsook it could one return, if only for a breath, to that time of purity when fire was the only philosophy…   from Nick Tosches’ Trinities

Books about Baseball Part II

10 Apr






Remember it was a tight sphinctered guy from St. Louis who opined that April was the cruelest month. Just ask any baseball fan about April. More than most, followers of the hardball understand failure and adversity.and yet… So, the 2017 Liges Grandes season has opened and the World Championship Chicago Cubs have already despoiled a perfect 162-0 season by losing in the Cardinal’s home opener (but eventually taking 2 out of 3). In any case, you will understand my focus on the books that follow below when I tell you that I am an expatriate Northside Chicagoan whose relationship with the Windy City’s National League outpost traces back to the time of Ernie Banks`and a team that never even achieved a .500 win-loss record.

So no surprise that a number of books have taken up some aspect of the Chicago Cubs…

The Chicago Tribune Book of the Chicago Cubs: A Decade-By-Decade History

Until further notice, this tome should serve as the semi-official record of the current MLB Champions. As one of Chicago’s two metropolitan dailies left standing in the 21st century, The Chicago Tribune has a vast archive of information dating back to the Cubs’S origins in 1876 as the Chicago White Stockings. The paper’s sports department culled through that archive, assembling a decade-by-decade  history and a paean to the “Friendly Confines” also known as Wrigley Field. A straightforward survey of the Cubs, for what its worth, this 336-page volume includes a good number of photographs never published before.





The Plan: Epstein, Maddon, and the Audacious Blueprint for a Cubs Dynasty by David Kaplan

The fact that Chicago Cubs President Theo Epstein was anointed  “The World’s Greatest Leader ” by Fortune magazine is, on the face of it laughable ( Alibaba’s Jack Ma came in second), but don’t tell that to northside Chicagoans and northern New Englanders. Having engineered the end of the championship droughts of two cities made him  (his religion notwithstanding)him eligible for beatification. Chicago journalist Dave Kaplan ( CSN Chicago and ESPN Radio) chronicles the team tear down, the hiring of an imaginative manager in Joe Maddon and the making crafty trades as well as investing in a farm system that five years into Epstein’s tenure (as in his posting in Boston) yielded a World Championship team built to achieve the exalted status of dynasty.





Teammate: My Journey in Baseball and a World Series for the Ages by David Ross

To anyone who watched the Chicago Cubs last season, 39-year-old, 15-year veteran backup catcher David Ross’s value to a team laden with young talent was obvious. Simply as ace Jon Lester’s personal catcher, Ross’s contribution was significant. Early on in his two-year stint, the young Cub studs Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, dubbed him  Grandpa Rossy”  extolling his positive presence in the locker room as well as on the field. And as is now part of baseball lore, Ross hit a key home run in his career’s final at- bat in the 7th game of the world series… that’s quite a feel good story.






The Cubs Way: The Zen of Building the Best Team in Baseball and Breaking the Curse by Tom Verducci

Amidst a gaggle of journeymen baseball announcers and reporters, Tom Verducci (Sports Illustrated baseball writer and FOX Sports analyst) presents himself as thoughtful and insightful and it is to his credit that he was given full access to the Cubs organization and Theo Epstein’s post-Moneyball team operating manual, The Cubs Way”. This approach was not a dismissal of the sabermetric revolution in sports but an expansion of the understanding and belief  in the value of team chemistry and clubhouse culture. Mix in the unorthodoxy of manager Joe Madden (known for coining prosaic phrases such as “Don’t Suck”) and you have substantial evidence of what a thoughtful blend of statistics and intangibles can achieve.



A Nice Little Place on the North Side: A History of Triumph, Mostly Defeat, and Incurable Hope at Wrigley Field by George Will

Gasbag 19th century Conservative,  bow tie wearing, pundit and Chicago Cub fan George Will (who has in some ways redeemed himself with his disavowal of the Bedlamite POTUS) had put together what he asserts is a “true, hyperbole-free history” (given his propensity to overblown prose and metaphorical acrobatics) updated to include “bonus material on the Chicago Cubs’ World Series win” Of course he missed a chance to comment  on  the abomination that is the “Budweiser Bleachers” (not even to comment on the irony of  naming rights being sold to the owner of the arch-rival St. Louis Cardinals.)

Here’s some copywritten hyperbole —

In the end, A Nice Little Place on the North Side is more than just the history of a ballpark. It is the story of Chicago, of baseball, and of America itself.


Oh my…



Tourette’s like Outbursts Posted to that Inescapable Social Media Platform

7 Apr




If you grew up on the mean streets of the 50th Ward in Chicago, Tucker Carlson, the embattled Fox Network Cerebus, comes off as a preparatory school prick. Now comes an article in the hallowed’ New Yorker magazine, providing more information and coloration than I ever wanted to know about a Fox headliner. Essentially learning that Tucker is a human being.

The big surprise for me is what the late, still great Christopher Hitchens observed about Tucker Carlson ( which is a timely reminder about the distortions of Television).

2. Syria is the nation, bordering Lebanon (in which arguably the USA has been complicit in that country’s destabilization) Yet another disgrace in which the world leader’s use human beings as shuttlecocks in their game of “World Domination.” Keep in mind this has happened before. There was even a time when the USA accepted refugees from areas where “national interest ” was allegedly operative, Hungary in, Cuba,1959 onward. Apparently also, unofficially, suburbs full of Persians (aka Iranians) landed in Beverly Hills. Need convincing of the awfulness of Syria and blaring moral failure attendant?

Here, from someone who knows…


3. Innovation without progress…Company Town tells about the bad shit that attends to the so-called sharing economy…

4.Pussy grabbing Bedlamite weighs in on one of the worst people in the world



5. Still your president

6 I expect many of us who view the Bedlamite regime as a nightmare wonder when the tipping point, the critical mass, the crossed Rubicon, the broken camel’s back, will come…

Enter Erik (the dark) Prince…(WAPOST to be commended for exposing this shadow play.

1. “…Current and former U.S. officials said that while Prince refrained from playing a direct role in the Trump transition, his name surfaced so frequently in internal discussions that he seemed to function as an outside adviser whose opinions were valued on a range of issues, including plans for overhauling the U.S. intelligence community.

He appears to have particularly close ties to Bannon, appearing multiple times on the Breitbart satellite radio program and website that Bannon ran before joining the Trump campaign.

In a July interview with Bannon, Prince said those seeking forceful U.S. leadership should “wait till January and hope Mr. Trump is elected.” And he lashed out at President Barack Obama, saying that because of his policies “the terrorists, the fascists, are winning.”

2. …War moves quickly: In less than an hour in Baghdad in the fall of 2007, American contractors working for Blackwater shot and killed 14 Iraqis, including children. Justice is slower, and it took until Monday [April 2015] for four of those contractors, who were convicted in August, to be sentenced to jail for 14 of those deaths. Three received 30-year sentences, while a fourth will spend his life in prison.

3. “Using a catchall term for the company, which keeps changing its name after successive scandals, the FBI’s Chris Briese didn’t mince worlds in court. “For an extended period of time, Academi/Blackwater operated in a manner which demonstrated systemic disregard for U.S. Government laws and regulations,”


Life isn’t fair, right? And sports, well…




Oliver saved his harshest critique for the defense that Nunes’ fellow House Republican Ted Yoho delivered on MSNBC, in which he tried to claim that Congress members work for the president and not their constituents.
“No! You absolutely do not! You do one of them, and explicitly not the other. That is literally the point of Congress,” Oliver exclaimed. “And that’s why this story is Stupid Watergate: It could very well take down the government, but nobody involved understands why, or how to cover it up, or what the government fucking is, or possibly how to breathe without getting regular reminders.”

Baseball Books 2017 Part I and more

30 Mar

In a few days the valiant ( relatively) few who enjoy what once was the NATIONAL PASTIME and of which scholar Jaques Barzun opined the dubious  and simplistic, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.” will have the pleasures of the opening of  the 2017 Major League  Baseball’s regular season. From now through November we will have sanctuary and perhaps some relief from the metastasizing toxicity emanating from the Bedlamite regime. But since almost all the owners of major league baseball franchises are billionaires there is no guarantee that that some faux patriotic  gesture might not make its way into some of MLB’s consumer-oriented spectacles (think All Star game, Home Run Derby etc)

As has been the case for a long time, Baseball has attracted talented insightful writers to produce a substantial bibliography about the nuances of the sport and the people who are associated with it. And that circumstance makes reading about the sport as enjoyable as watching, Every year there is a plethora of new tomes and before I get onto noting the new there are a handful of books that have acquired the status of classics.Or at least I place thek in my pantheon of ur-texts,


1. The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (Third Edition)  by Paul Dickson with Skip McAfee

Dickson’s well-researched and comprehensive compendium of baseball information features more than 10,000 terms with 18,000 individual entries, and more than 250 photos.



Baseball: A Literary Anthology .ed Nicholas Dawidoff

This Library of America volume is a gem. Here’s the publisher’s description,

“… offers a lively mix of 70 stories, memoirs, poems, news reports, and insider accounts about all aspects of the great American game, from its pastoral nineteenth-century beginnings to its apotheosis as the undisputed national pastime. Here are the major leaguers and the bush leaguers, the umpires and broadcasters, the wives and girlfriends and would-be girlfriends, fans meticulously observant and lovingly, fanatically obsessed…

Drawing from the work of novelists from Ring Lardner to Don DeLillo, sportswriters from Damon Runyon to Red Smith, and poets from William Carlos Williams to Yusef Komunyakaa, and gathering essays and player profiles from John Updike, Gay Talese, Roger Angell, and David Remnick, Baseball: A Literary Anthology is a varied and exuberant display of what baseball has meant to American writers….”



3. Moneyball by Michael Lewis

Lewis is as good a writer/reporter as there is publishing today—which a quick scan of his bibliography will validate. This book became a seminal work in the field of talent evaluation and helped fans to some understanding of the burgeoning sabermetric approach to building a baseball roster as well as game management. All wrapped up in a readable narrative focusing on the small-budget Oakland A’s and their wily general manager, Billy Beane Lewis recounts

I wrote this book because I fell in love with a story. The story concerned a small group of undervalued professional baseball players and executives, many of whom had been rejected as unfit for the big leagues, who had turned themselves into one of the most successful franchises in Major League Baseball. But the idea for the book came well before I had good reason to write it—before I had a story to fall in love with. It began, really, with an innocent question: how did one of the poorest teams in baseball, the Oakland Athletics, win so many games?




4. The Bill James Handbook 2017 by Bill James and Baseball Info Solutions

Bill James is the most prominent practitioner in the sabermetric world and his annual includes annual Fielding Bible Awards, insightful essays, and lots of statistical analysis you won’t find anywhere else. Lifetime stats (including playoff stats) for every player in the major leagues (plus a few others) through the end of the regular 2016 season. Plus cover features a photo of Big Papi Ortiz arguably the most popular ball player of his era.


5. American Jews In America’s Game  by Larry Ruttman

 This is useful and well-crafted work of oral and cultural history, featuring the life stories of well-known and as well as lesser known and unheralded Jews. Compiled from 50 engaging interviews and arranged by decade “…each person talks about growing up Jewish and dealing with Jewish identity, assimilation, intermarriage, future viability, religious observance, anti-Semitism, and Israel. Each tells about being in the midst of the colorful pantheon of players who, over the past 75 years or more, have made baseball what it is…”


3 Mar


This is solidarity




This is your leader


“The change in tone was the overall theme of this morning’s coverage. The Washington Post noted the president’s “muscular but measured tone.” The New York Times said Trump “appeared restrained and serious.” At the top of the hour on “Morning Edition, the anchor took note of the president’s “more optimistic tone.”

Yeah, those assessments were really stupid and make me wonder if the people writing them actually listened to that pack of lies. Judging that speech on the basis of performance is massive journalistic malpractice. And, if NPR really thought the speech had any kind of an “optimistic tone” at all, then Morning Edition is two tote bags short of a spring fundraiser.

[POYNTER] Watch the references to Trump’s physical appearance and the quirks of his speech.

One of the “quirks of his speech” is that he lies like most people breathe. Is there a strategy you have for handling this?”


Blah, blah, blah…






Cold to hot…

“… the primary reason for Trump, for Brexit, and for growing right-wing über-nationalism throughout Europe is that…

prevailing neoliberal policies have destroyed the economic security and future of hundreds of millions of people, rendering them highly susceptible to scapegoating and desperate, in a nothing-to-lose sort of way, for any type of radical change, no matter how risky or harmful that change might be.

But all of that gets to be ignored, all of the self-reckoning is avoided, as long we get ourselves to believe that some omnipotent foreign power is behind it all.”


4. In his quiet and effective way, James Fallows demurs from the chicken shit press that called the Bedlamite POTUS ‘presidential’—
“…But because this was by Donald Trump, and because stylistically it was such a contrast to his other big-deal rhetorical presentations, it is in my view receiving a significant grading-on-the-curve benefit. For other presidents, sticking close to the pre-released text was a routine expectation.

…I’ll pass over Trump’s inclusion of a group prominently featured at the Republican convention: relatives of those who were killed by illegal immigrants. This is hateful in my view—you’d have a much larger pool to draw from if you were choosing relatives of those killed by domestic violence, or by drunk drivers, or by accidental or intended gunfire, or by opioids or heroin, or by suicide and depression, or by other modern evils—but I know this (and the related, odious VOICE program) are part of the Trump brand…”



The father of the Navy SEAL killed in useless incursion into a sovereign nation

5. For those who have not yet come to the realization that checking in with Chas Pierce on a daily basis is a useful balm to the vexations generated by the neo-fascist regime of the Bedlamite prexy and his goon squad of predators, thieves, mountebanks and sub-humans I offer you this—

“Presidential, was it?

Even I didn’t believe they could lower the bar far enough that an otherwise sensible fellow like Van Jones would take the indecent exploitation of a war widow’s fresh sorrow and turn it into Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. Even I didn’t believe they could sink the bar far enough into Middle Earth that otherwise critical observers would look at a pile of deceptive leaves and see a coherent tree. Every day in every way, this administration and this president* taxes the far limits of even my cynicism. For example, it is not true that nobody profits from “lawless chaos.” How do you think Vladimir Putin created the gangster’s paradise that helped Rex Tillerson and Wilbur Ross get even more wealthy?

When one calls that speech “presidential,” whose presidency are you summoning? Pierce? Buchanan? Rufus T. Firefly? Jesus, people, at least try to sound like you graduated middle school.”



The Shadow President

6. Not that I would begrudge them this payoff but still…




Barry and Michelle hit the number

7. A person who is a Facebook friend, who I don’t know, announced he had reached the 5000 friend threshold. I responded,”You should join a support group.” Another Facebook friend who I don’t know ‘liked’ my rejoinder. Tell me this isn’t a little nuts…


8. Judging from the unreliable sampling of my Facebook timeline, I am struck by the what seems to me to be much wasted words and emotional energy. Much of it is eloquent and heartfelt and if they help energize a resistance to an apparent neo-fascist regime, great. Fabulous. Rock on. Yes, we can. Power to the Peaceful. Keep in mind the not oft-quoted remark by Edmund Burke, “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.






11. POTUS 45’s lying liar causes a stir—big fuckin’ deal—


There is fake news and then there is “who cares”news…



From My Buddy Howard…

1 Mar



Howard’s response to last night’s (by the Bedlamite POTUS) performance art,

It was inevitable that as soon as President Treblinka managed to speak for more than a minute and not to sound like he is suffering an incurable intellectual deficit or a cognitive disorder that he will calm a lot of people down and demonstrate that quality so highly revered called “presidential.” Actors do a better job of it. Reagan proved that.

What’s incontrovertible and unchanging—and horrifying in the prospect of seeing how people are reassured by a measured expression of the same insane and intemperate political goals for our country—is that virtually all of his “hopeful” speech last night is simply unfeasible, which is to say, impossible, economically. That is, not without doing what will, finally, be irredeemable damage to the social and democratic integrity of our country.

Howard’s a nifty guy (he is, after all, my friend). He has his own piece of web real estate, 1 Standard Deviation. One would do well to  take a peek as he is an accomplished photographer as well as luminous wordsmith…


Effluvia : Or My Last Ten Posts on Facebook

8 Feb


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

Philo of Alexandria,

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” ..





1 “Count me in the resistance…

“I am Spartacus… “I am Spartacus”, I am Spartacus,” I am Spartacus …”

2.  Is there still such as thing as mail order brides? If so, how do I order one from Iowa?
3.  MY MAN!

4. Earlier today I posted an article by Jay Postman, Neil Postman’s (author of Amusing Our Selves to DEATH)son reviewing his father’s thoughts on Orwell’s dystopian view. Now comes Henry Giroux explicating both Orwell and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World— be warned there is some heavy lifting, but that’s what’s required to the scourge of the Bedlamite regime—

“What will American society look like under a Trump administration? For Huxley, it may well mimic a nightmarish image of a world in which ignorance is a political weapon and pleasure as a form of control, offering nothing more than the swindle of fulfillment, if not something more self-deluding and defeating. Orwell, more optimistically, might see a more open future and history disinclined to fulfill itself in the image of the dystopian society he so brilliantly imagined. He believed in the power of those living under such oppression to imagine otherwise, to think beyond the dictates of the authoritarian state and to offer up spirited forms of collective resistance willing to reclaim the reigns of political emancipation. For Huxley, there was hope in a pessimism that had exhausted itself; for Orwell optimism had to be tempered by a sense of educated hope. History is open and only time will tell who was right.”
6. Jay Postman points out his father’s [Neil Postman] prescience:
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.
…Our public discourse has become so trivialized, it’s astounding that we still cling to the word “debates” for what our presidential candidates do onstage when facing each other. Really? Who can be shocked by the rise of a reality TV star, a man given to loud, inflammatory statements, many of which are spectacularly untrue but virtually all of which make for what used to be called “good television”?

7.  You missed this, didn’t you? How could you?

8. For what its worth, this year marks the 100 anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution and next year the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Chicago Police Riots—

9. I agree with Emma Baccellieri,

“Most of the pace-of-play changes proposed would shave a few minutes off per game, if even that. People who aren’t watching baseball probably aren’t going to start if the average game drops from 3 hours to 2 hours and 45 minutes. The pace-of-play conversation is likely only going to keep picking up steam from here, but it’s worth questioning why it’s a conversation we’re having in the first place. “
10. The Brit Speaker of the House of Commons is a Jew…what verbal turds will flow from the 140-digital-characters mind of The Bedlamite?


Reading Tim Gautreaux…

3 Feb

6b850004-35f8-4819-b902-ac73d851a3efIn this dark time of the Bedlamite reign, I have found it useful and necessary to modulate my attention to the nightmarish absurdities daily presented in the unending toxic digital shitstream— of course, relying on a tried and true standby—reading*. This morning I delved into the new collection of short stories, Signals by Tim Gautreaux, that the kind peeps at Random House were kind enough to send me.

I was privileged to conversate** (sic )with Tim a few years back, a conversation that you can find anthologized in University Press of Mississippi’s excellent “Conversations with…”***



Here’s a snippet from that chat:

RB: If you were currently living in Seattle would you be writing about the bay and the ocean, the mountains or about mangrove swamps and alligators and Cajun fisherman?

TG: You’ll notice that when I gave the little North Dakota spiel I said, “If I had been born and raised in North Dakota…” Wherever you are born and raised tends to have profound effect on your fictional world. I don’t know why. Ernest Gaines left Louisiana when he was sixteen. And the only fiction he writes that seems to be really powerful and effective and moving is fiction that is set in Louisiana. And he knows this and he has tried to write about California and San Francisco, where he has lived, by this time probably as much or more than he has lived in Louisiana. And it just doesn’t seem to work for him. He has said this himself. One reason he has come back to Louisiana in his later years and is living there at least half the time is so that he can write and get in touch with what matters to him— the rhythms of speech. The music of the language around him and the feel of the weather. It’s in his bones. We are talking about a man who really didn’t write at all before he left here. He never thought he would be a writer. But everything that has magic to it in Ernest Gaines writing stems from a period before he was sixteen years old. I think that is the same with me. You really learned every thing you need to know about human nature directly or indirectly by the time you are fifteen or sixteen. You know what your family history is, what your structures are, whether you are paying attention to it or not, what their values are. And, of course the language of your region and all that is in your literary bones, so to speak. You know the cadences of the relatives’ parlance and you can go somewhere and you can live a long time, and it just doesn’t ring true. I used to spend summers with my sister out in California. In my first novel, The Next Step in the Dance, which did really well, I had a long section in Los Angeles, and my editor, who was originally from Los Angeles, said she found it unconvincing, “No, the Louisiana stuff is fine and has heart, but this LA stuff is kind of one dimensional. Let’s trim it back.” And trim it back. And trim it back. And finally, the novel, which was maybe thirty per cent in California, was maybe seven percent.


Tim Gautreaux [PHOTO:Robert BIRNBAUM]

The story ,”What We Don’t See in the Light”,  the last of the  22 in state environment (as well as the horrors of a landscape despoiled by the chemical industry) , But additionally, as the protagonist’s health problems impel him to move to remote New Mexico, that Mars-like landscape is rendered vividly in crystal clear images. “What We Don’t See in the Light”, is a story laden with humor, substantial characters, attention to the small acts that comprise long marriages, and a steady narrative arc ending in an unexpected place —which is a good recipe for good reading.You might even say it’s a bitter-sweet love story—the best kind.



*  The New Yorker rounds up what their writers are reading

** Talking with Tim Gautreaux

*** Conversations with Tim Gautreaux 


Chatting with Elizabeth Cox

27 Jan


Elizabeth Cox (photo: Robert Birnbaum

Elizabeth Cox [circa 20o2](photo: Robert Birnbaum

Back at the turn of the century when she was still living in the Bostin area, I dialogued with Elizabeth Cox* whose fiction I  had chanced to come across and take pleasure in reading. Betsy’ has since moved to South Carolina and her  new novel A Question of Mercy has recently been published: Here’s the publisher’s synopsis


Adam Finney, a young man who is mentally disabled, faces sterilization and lobotomy in a state-supported asylum. When he is found dead in the French Broad River of rural North Carolina, his teenaged stepsister, Jess, is sought for questioning by their family and the police. Jess’s odyssey of escape across four states leads into dark territories of life-and-death moral choices where compassion and grace offer faint illumination but few answers. A Question of Mercy, set in a vivid landscape of the mid-twentieth-century South, … challenges notions of individual freedom and responsibility against a backdrop of questionable practices governing treatment of the mentally disabled,… also stretches the breadth and limitations of the human heart to love and to forgive.
Jess Booker, on the run and alone, leaves the comfort of her home near Asheville, recklessly trekking through woods and hitchhiking her way to a boarding house in tiny Lula, Alabama, a perceived safe haven she once visited with her late mother. Pursued by a mysterious car with a faded “I Like Ike” sticker, Jess is also haunted by memories of her mother’s early death, her father’s distressing marriage to Adam’s mother, the loving bond she was able to form with Adam despite her initial resistance, and her boyfriend Sam’s troubling letters from the thick of combat in the Korean War. In Lula, Jess finds, if only briefly, a respite among a curious surrogate family of fellow displaced outsiders banded together under one roof, and there she finds the strength to heed the call homeward to face the questions she cannot answer about her stepbrother’s death.


Elizabeth Cox was born and raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee and is a professor at Duke University. She has taught creative writing at Boston University, Tufts University, Bennington College, The University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina (at Chapel Hill).

 Bargains in the Real World.

Bargains in the Real World.



Robert Birnbaum: What do you want to talk about?

Elizabeth Cox: Talk about what I read instead of what I write?

RB: We have to talk about what you write, but not a lot.

EC: You can ask me anything you want…

RB: Okay. Are you a Southern writer?

EC: I’m a Southerner and I’m a writer. I write about the South because I grew up there. The setting includes the fauna, the gestures, and idiosyncratic habits of southern culture, but I hope the subject matter is universal. I don’t mind being called a southern writer, but I don’t want it to limit my readership. I’ve tried to create a setting in New England but can’t do it yet. I haven’t lived here long enough, I guess.

RB: It is a loaded question. Calling someone a ‘Southern’ writer seems to have a ghettoizing effect.

EC: Or sometimes it helps. People say, “Oh I like to read southern writers.” I mean there is a strong backload of writers behind me that are very good.

RB: Seemingly every subdivision of human activity has its own politics and its own hierarchy. In publishing in the USA, who gets relegated to the forefront and who gets the attention and who gets the support of their publisher and the publicity engines seem not to be southern writers…I think of Reynolds Price, who has written many many wonderful books, and I see no reason why he is not as well known as John Updike or Philip Roth. I mention him to my acquaintances that are readers and they go, “Who?”

EC: Those must be people that read the potboilers. The ones that read literary writing know him, I think. He’s a colleague of mine, you know. I have great admiration for him as a writer and a person. He is someone who is read by both literary and popular culture. Years ago, the publishing houses would use books that made money to support and bring in the literary writers. I don’t know if that’s done so much anymore. Now, everyone needs to bring in money in order to stay viable.

RB: Maybe we can come back to talking about ‘Southern’ writing… I found it charming that you dedicated Bargains in the Real World to your students.

EC: I do love teaching. If someone asks me what I do, I usually answer, “I teach.” Or rather I say, “I’m a teacher.” I hardly ever say, “I’m a writer.” I’m not sure why. I spend much of my physical time writing, but still I define myself as a “teacher.” Everyone in my family was a teacher.

RB: …you grew up in Tennessee?

EC: Uh huh. I grew up in Chattanooga where my father was the headmaster of a boy’s private school. Baylor School. I have two brothers. Both have written books of poetry. When their books came out, I thought: Maybe I can do that. One brother, Coleman Barks, is a poet. He translates the 13th century Persian poet, Rumi. My other brother was a minister, but now he is the head master of a school. When I began writing poetry I was in my early thirties, My children were already in school. I published a few poems in small magazines and decided to go back to school to earn an MFA. During that time in graduate school, I decided I would try writing a story. I worked with Robert Watson and Fred Chapell.

RB: After you got your MFA did you look to teach? Or start your first novel? Or did you join the Merchant Marine? What did you do?

EC: (laughs) During that time in graduate school I decided I would try writing a story. My first story was “Land of Goshen,” which is in this collection. When I wrote it, I felt that I had moved into a slot. I immediately felt more comfortable with story than with poetry.

RB: That’s one of your first stories?

EC: That was my first story. It received some attention. I began writing stories and then I met E.L. Doctorow and he read “Land of Goshen” and he encouraged me, along with a man named Charles Simmons and they suggested I try a novel. I had no idea how to write a novel, but that kind of thing had never stopped me before. That didn’t seem to hurt anything. I knew myself well enough to know I would not read books on “how to write a novel.” I wouldn’t read Wayne Booth’s Rhetoric of Fiction or something like that. I came home — I lived in Durham, N.C., so, I enrolled in a course at Duke in the Sonata and the Symphony. I listened to and studied the form of sonata–noticing the statement, development and reiteration as well as the reminding phrases that kept coming back. I listened to a lot of Dvorak and Beethoven. Just listened. I didn’t try to deliberately apply anything I was learning. I was just trying to hear something about form and then use it in my own way. I didn’t care if anybody knew that I had listened to sonatas and symphonies, I was just learning something.

Then with my next book,

The Ragged Way People Fall out of Love

The Ragged Way People Fall out of Love

 I took a course in astronomy. I read a lot of physics, which was hard…very hard. I learned something about form by reading that material. I can’t tell exactly how this method teaches me, but it does. I look at one thing in order to learn another. The third book, Night Talk, I read a lot of biology and nature writing, and much of that material was incorporated into the novel. The short stories–I wrote them all along. I’ve been writing these short stories for twenty years. That’s all of them. That’s all of them, here in this book. I don’t have them somewhere in a drawer. That’s it. The novels, that’s it. That’s all I’ve done! And I’ve written some essays, and then, of course, the poetry.

RB: What do you teach?

EC: I teach fiction writing.

RB: When you teach, do you suggest the same methodology to your students?

EC: Sometimes after I see a student’s work I ask, “Do you like jazz?” And usually, it’s yes. Or they’ll say, “No, but I like blues.” I urge the student to listen and learn something from the music. And they know what I mean. I don’t explain it. If the student doesn’t get it, they won’t know what I mean anyway. In one class I had where I told them to bring in some principle of physics or biology… something… photosynthesis, the uncertainty principle, and explain it. And they all did. And then I said, “Okay now, write a story that has that plot.” I didn’t explain it anymore. There is no right or wrong way — just a way of noticing the way things happen in the world that is natural and organic. Plot can come pretty easily out of this exercise.

RB: When you started you didn’t have a theory or a methodology, but twenty years later as you teach you have refined a point of view. Is it that you don’t want your students to focus on “writing the story”?

EC: Right. Or to focus on “being a writer.” That kind of self-consciousness is death to the story. Fred Chappell once said, “writing can’t be taught, but it can be learned.” I think what’s learned is a kind of waking up. I try to teach them to observe the world more intensely. I ask, “Does it matter to you the way light comes into a room? Does it matter a lot? And do you notice and can you describe it different times of day?” I try to make them be aware of people around, of gestures, of the way someone’s face looks when they are embarrassed or when they’ve told a lie or when they are angry…to know all those little moments and to get these details on a page. I teach how to read differently. The way a writer reads instead of the way a critic reads. Even if they are reading stories they’ve read before — sometimes I give Flannery O’Connor’s story, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” — and they say, “Oh, I’ve read that.” And I’ll say, “No, you have not read that the way we are going to talk about it.” And I warn the students that it is not that you have to talk about the story, you have to write one. You have to do this. First they have to read it and enjoy it and check the places where something visceral was felt, something sad, where they laughed or where they were afraid. Then to go back and look at how that was accomplished. Was it a description of place and followed by dialogue? What is the author doing there? The student has to be aware of craft until craft becomes part of their day. Every student processes differently. My job is to listen — most of teaching is listening.

RB: Do you use the same core readings and, can I say, exercises?

EC: Yeah, they are. I start with an exercise that emphasizes dramatization of characters. Otherwise — at least as undergraduates — they will just write “what I did this summer” or it’s a therapeutic thing. It’s not from the imagination. Sometimes I use an exercise that involves two people having an argument… it can be father-son, it can be lovers, it can be brother-sister. And there’s been a betrayal and during that argument they may not be talking about what actually happened. They may be talking about what they had for dinner. But I want to feel the betrayal. Then I suggest let someone come in and interrupt and then see how it changes the emotions. That’s an exercise I give because it forces them to dramatize immediately right off the bat. I just want to get immediately into the imagination. But I do love teaching, and I do love watching them wake up.

RB: It’s a powerful gesture for you to dedicate your book to your students. Imagine what your students must think…if they see it…they must see the book…

EC: I hope they do. I don’t know if the dedication will mean anything to them. I hope it does. I’ve been teaching at Duke for seventeen years. Mainly, I teach the short story, but in almost every class I tell at least one student that what they’ve started is a novel more than a story. I don’t want the work to be turned into a story. I just want him to know the difference between the development of a longer and shorter work. Mostly though, we focus on stories.

RB: How much are your students preoccupied with being a writer and having a career?

EC: I try to discourage that so much. I don’t even let them talk about it. (laughs) The writing suffers under that kind of self consciousness, I think. I failed one student a Duke. His mother called me and said, “He doesn’t usually fail. He’s a good student, and he wants to be a writer.” I said, “Yes he wants to be a writer, but he doesn’t want to do the hard work of writing. And he doesn’t want to revise, and if we tell him anything he doesn’t like to hear, he doesn’t come back.” She was real quiet and finally said, “I think he needs to work at McDonald’s.”

RB: How much does teaching affect your writing?

EC: It hurts my writing. I lose my writing energy by giving it away to my students. I can write at the beginning of the semester, but when they start turning in their work, I don’t get writing done.

RB: You are forced to write seasonally?

EC: I can write down ideas, I can work on characters and images. I can work on images. I take notes all the time. But when I get into the place of a story I have to be inside it. And live there. Teaching takes me out of that. Now that I’m back from Duke, I’ll begin again…this summer I’ll go back to revise a novel I’m working on.

RB: Have you been doing this trip between Massachusetts and North Carolina…

EC: Since I married my husband seven years ago, almost eight now. I kept my job at Duke but come back only one semester a year. They were very accommodating to me and I’m grateful.

RB: How much does Duke University affect North Carolina’s culture?

EC: North Carolina has so many good writers. Reynolds Price, Allan Gurganus and Lee Smith, Max Steele, Jill McCorkle, Tony Earley and so many others.

RB: Why is that? Is it the water?

EC: When I arrived with my first novel in New York, publishers and agents said, “We will look at anything from North Carolina. If it has North Carolina post mark we will look at it.” And Reynolds Price has been there a long time…

RB: Why did you decide to publish a collection of short stories now?

EC: I wrote short stories over the years, and I noticed that I had thirteen, most had been published. I had a collection. I was starting a novel and I thought, “Well, why not put this together, the stories first?” A few of them had to be reworked, and I did that and sent it out. I thought maybe it might be very difficult to publish a book of short stories and found it wasn’t. Random House gave me a two-book contract.

RB: The conventional wisdom is that publishers want a novel and will take a short-story collection to get a novel…

EC: Yes, right.

RB: But they still publish short stories.

EC: I was glad to bring together years of work in one book.

RB: I am curious about the reworking and also how you decided the order of the stories.

EC: I first thought of putting the stories in chronologically.

RB: In the order they were written?

EC: But I didn’t want to do that. I arranged them by subject matter and sometimes by the style of writing. In some of them the language is very dense. In a couple, there is a lot more dialogue, and some of them have a little humor. I wanted to put those throughout. I don’t think anyone reads stories in order, do they? I don’t. I like to pick and choose.

RB: There’s a story that takes place around the Gulf War, one shortly after the Civil War…one in 1949. I am surprised that they all seem contemporary…wherever they are set…the historical time doesn’t mean that much.

EC: Right. That’s what I hoped to do, though often the time or place is dictated to me…it’s just what I see. I hope that the relationships are always recognizable — mother-son, father-daughter, family.

RB: In an essay you wrote about Richard Yates, you recall apologizing to him because all you wrote about was family.

EC: Yes, and he said, “That’s all there is to write about.”

RB: The stories are all mature, there is no way I can tell that this early Cox or later Cox…

EC: I don’t know either…My approach to every story (and to every novel) is that I come to it with a kind of ignorance. Ignorance rather than “knowing.” I have no idea how to write this story or this novel. And I’ve learned some things about character and place and dialogue but each task presents new demands. And the main thing I learned in the last story is that I learned how to write that particular story. And I trust that way of working.

RB: So you are not the writer bellying up to your writing desk going, “Okay!” with the arrogance that because you have written in the past that…

EC: No, no. I like to come to new work with freshness. I like to come to it with a freshness of, “Okay, how do I do this? What do I look at, what do I read?” Right now I’m reading a lot (sighs) of Van Gogh’s letters. I’ve been reading them for about year, a few each day. The other day Van Gogh mentioned how he was always seeking the color blue. So I started the day looking for blue. And sometimes seeing a blue truck, something that was actually blue. But sometimes actually seeing it in the way Van Gogh might have seen it, in the aspect of blue…in a cornfield, and a red barn. So that he teaches me (as Anne Dillard teaches me) a way of looking at the world. Which is what I teach students, too.

RB: A madman.

EC: Oh, he’s not mad. Everyone else might be, but… (both laugh)…he is the sanest person I have ever seen except that moment when he cut off his ear and took it to a prostitute. He comes across as kind and compassionate and he is not worried what other painters think of him.

RB: Really?

EC: It pains him but in his letters to his brother…it’s not that he doesn’t get depressed about it, but in those letters you see how it doesn’t stop him. It doesn’t stop his vision that he wants. The world told him not to paint the peasants, he doesn’t stop painting peasants. It saddens him that no one sees what he is doing, but his vision stayed clear.

RB: Why did you start reading Van Gogh?

EC: Well, I saw his exhibit. I read Delacroix’s journals, he’s a wonderful writer, you know. I like discovering the way artists look at the world. I like to experience the way scientists talk about…forces. I read physics. I bought Richard Feynman’s lectures and I’m listening to them though I don’t understand everything he says, but what I love is his way of acknowledging his ignorance. He will be explaining some principle of quantum physics and he will say, “So you would think that this is true but — this isn’t true.” And so that as he creates this arc of understanding, of logic, then he changes the arc or rearranges or breaks it down. He lectures on how little we know and unsure we are of that. I love the excitement of a process that opens the door for anything, really.

RB: You place a high value on originality. You are not reading biographies, you are reading the original works. Difficult, but at least unmediated by someone else’s interpretation.

EC: That’s right. In fiction, you can’t explain. The subtlety of the imagination is different from the subtlety of the intellect, it gives an experience to create understanding. Music does this best, maybe, but I have to try to make it happen in the only way I know how — with words.

RB: Your stories are moving and compelling, and I want to go back and see how you did it. What words you used to get to get under the rational radar…

EC: Sometimes it’s a matter of getting lost in the moment. There’s a story called “Old Court,” a boy shoots a horse. I did not plan that moment. When I wrote that moment, nothing was changed in that paragraph. I just saw it and wrote it. That’s the best part of writing discovering the moment and then to let the writing be part of what is seen. This sounds very mystical — it isn’t.

RB: There was one word you used in this book that didn’t work for me.

EC: What?

RB: In the story “Biology” you have the character — a young girl — remarking on the ‘timbre’ of the preacher’s voice. Her use of that word didn’t sound right to me. Do you remember that?

Night Talk.

Night Talk.

EC: Yes. That story came from my novel, Night Talk. Though I made it into a story. The book is first person, but she is an adult, and the word fits more into her adult mode, and that might have slipped in that story. I do like that word though.

RB: What’s it like to reread stories you wrote twenty years ago?

EC: Oh, well it’s odd. I did rework some of “Land of Goshen” and took out places that felt cluttered. But it was what I was writing then and it seems right for that story. There were some I was reworking because they weren’t finished. “The Last Fourth Grade” is a new story.

RB: Would you say there was something of a bittersweet tone that runs through these stories?

EC: Yeah. And dark.

RB: I don’t know about dark. Not what comes to mind though there is tragedy and sadness. Is that dark? Dostoyevsky is dark…Jim Crace is dark…

EC: Cormac McCarthy is dark. I find that telling the truth brings in darkness. I try to present something that is true. A difficult thing to do. A writer once gave me some good advice: “Don’t worry whether or not it’s good: worry whether or not it’s true.” People experience pain and they usually come out of it. It’s hard for me not to get them out of it. I see the human spirit as very resilient.

RB: I see these stories as distinctly southern because there is a unique sense of community and human interaction…there isn’t a lot of American narrative, outside the South, allowing for decent and thoughtful interaction between human beings…

EC: I guess, if there is anything I long for it might be, a strong sense of community. I’m working on a novel now that struggles with the violence of kids toward other kids. But at the end the community comes together in a way that is different. It isn’t the answer and it probably won’t change anything — the boys are still going to jail — but there is something…it’s the only hope I can think of. Hearing people lament video game, violence on TV and movies, latch-key kids and divorce, though they are legitimate concerns I wanted to look further. When I did, I saw something about a change in community. I don’t know if that’s southern…I think it could be anywhere. It’s certainly Jewish, isn’t it?

RB: Yeah, sure. It could be anywhere other than the Northeast. And the West Coast. (both laugh)

EC: When I first moved up here I asked my husband, “Where is everybody with the pies?” He informed me, “They’re not coming with the pies.” I said, “Well, I’ll invite everybody over.” So I put invitations in mailboxes of people — I had no idea who they were or how many were in their family. I asked them to RSVP, how many. My husband came home and said, “Oh Betsey, they’re not going to understand this.” They did, of course. Everybody came and we had a great time. We had fried chicken and lasagna. Wonderful neighbors, I love them.

RB: That reminds me of Mark Twain’s notion of a secret kindness in everyone…

EC: I keep wondering why everyone is in such a hurry and the competitiveness is fierce. Who cares who wins? I don’t care who wins…you can win. What’s the big deal Winning never lasts very long. What does last long is the friendships. But there is a loyalty to the friendships. If you have a friend here, you have them forever.

RB: Are you traveling to publicize your book?

EC: I’m not touring this summer, but I’ ve given readings in North Carolina, Georgia and Massachusetts. This fall I go to Tennessee and Indiana. I love to read, though! I’m such a ham! I love to get up in front of an audience. I’m a ham. I love it. I just love to read a story. I doesn’t have to be mine. It could be anybody’s.

RB: Do you read to your students?

EC: Yes, I usually read a couple of stories just to get the language of fiction into their heads.

RB: What do you read to them?

EC: I read one by Fred Chapell and I read one by Max Steele because he wrote it when he was nineteen and it’s full of humor. A German writer Borchardt has a story I’m beginning to incorporate called “The Clock.” At Bennington Seminars I require students to memorize something that they love. I don’t tell them what to memorize, but I give poetry to read or… and they have to memorize it for me. I think if they get language that they love and admire into their bodies, it will change their writing.

RB: How much do you think of your writing career?

EC: It distracts me to think career. I just want to write the next thing. I want to finish this next novel and then begin some stories — stories I’ve already begun. I have ideas for stories, for another novel, I’ve got ideas for a book of essays. I’m trying to get a book of poems published. I would like some time and money to write. I would like to make some money on my work so I wouldn’t have to teach so much.

RB: You could get one of those wonderful Lannan or MacArthur grants…

EC: I don’t ever expect that, but it would be nice.

RB: Those people who have blurbed your work are an impressive choir of writers who may get some foundation’s attention. If Bargains in the Real World became a runaway best seller would you stop teaching?

EC: Oh gosh I said I wanted that but that would be hard…I couldn’t stop. I’d miss teaching.

RB: Do you have a timetable for your next novel?

EC: Yes, I never had a deadline before. It’s taken me five years to write each novel. This one was written in a year. And I thought, “Oh, I can do it faster than that.” It’s finished but I’m probably going to work on it another year. I like to go back and handle every word, again. I want the language, the sound of it, the rhythm that hits the gut, I want that to be right. It takes a lot of work. Not only the story, but the way the language sings.

RB: Is there a title?

EC: No, I don’t know the title yet.

RB: Is that normal for you?

EC: No, I usually know a title. I had about ten titles for this and none of them seemed to be working.

RB: You want to take the same amount of time it took you to write it to now…

EC: Well, I have the summer then I’ll be teaching. I hope to get a big chunk of revision behind me this summer. I may get it ready because I have a lot of stories that I want to write and another novel…the title is The Jealous Wife. I wanted to write that one, but I don’t know if it’s a novel or a novella. Feels like a novella, but I don’t know yet. But I want to get on to new work. That usually helps me to finish, to get the other thing behind me.

RB: Does it seem as if you have a greater backlog of stories now…

EC: More than ever, right.

RB: Any idea why?

EC: I have no idea. I’m just getting ideas like crazy. I’m even dreaming stories, getting up in the middle of the night and writing them down. And one story, I dreamed “whole”: a boy in a wheel chair and a man in prison. And I got the whole story. And right before I woke up a voice in the dream said, “This is from Chekhov.” Now is that pretentious or what? But I’m gonna need a little more help from Anton in order to finish it. (laughs) Actually it’s finished. The whole thing is there, but there are some transitions that need improvement. I’m not sure yet what it’s about. I can’t revise it until I’m sure of that last piece. That’s how I write though — discovering all the way. I resist any kind of agenda. It’s none of my business.

RB: Alan Lightman says that readers complete stories. And Jim Crace says that the writer doesn’t experience the writing the way readers do.

EC: I know. Well, I don’t really know how readers experience my writing. I only know how I experience the writing of others and how I experience putting down on the page my own stories. I know this though: I like fiction that disturbs more than entertains…though it’s nice when both can happen — as in Shakespeare. I like characters who struggle and stumble toward something larger than themselves even if they don’t know they are doing so. In writing or in reading I like to discover something honest. That’s all.


*Eizabeth Cox’s website