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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


Storm (und Drang)

26 Nov


Through the advent of streaming platforms offering almost limitless access to the world’s film/video caches, my own dedication to reading has been somewhat curtailed. Or made me a bit more selective. On the plus sides, it must be said that the new technologies have made the limited amount of theatrical screens for filmmakers less of a hurdle to reach audiences.

War criminality has slipped out of any public conversation with the mayhem daily introduced by the present US regime. Not that North Americans are inclined to examine their country’s conduct of its foreign policy. Nor is there much interest in the International Criminal Court or the UN human rights inquiries in Africa. And yet sooner or later this country will have to reconcile its power politics with its professed human rights principles

One does wonder how the creators of Storm*, a dramatic film about the workings of International Criminal Court, specifically in the case of an accused Serbian war criminal went about raising the necessary cash to make this film. It certainly had to be pitched on the strength of a stellar (as in acting ability, not celebrity)cast. Kerry Fox’s Hannah Maynard as an unyielding prosecutor leads an outstanding cast(including one of my favorites Stephen Dillane)** in this riveting narrative which portrays the ethical dilemmas imposed by prosecuting events ten or 20 years past on present-day geopolitics.




Before she traded her niche in academia for a seat at the table of government apparatchiks (US Ambassador to the UN,) Samantha Power wrote a useful  (Pulitzer Prize-winning )book on the 20th-century origin of the concept of genocide, A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.*** I spoke with Ms. Power contemporaneously with the publication of that book



RB: What drew you to the war in Bosnia?

SP: It was nothing about the war—nothing about war as such. It was just that war, at that time. When I was in Washington, the person I worked for, Morton Abramowitz, was very concerned about what was going on there. As his assistant I had to learn the facts of the matter. The easy thing—which I have done for most of my life—is to block the facts out. Once you are in a position where you have to process the facts, you are stuck. It was so incredibly unjust, what was going on. And absurd, in my view—at the time, a very young view—that we were doing so little to stop the atrocities. The only skill I had was that of being able to write—just to go and be a reporter.

RB: At that time were you privy to any information that was not easily available to other people?

SP: In Washington? No.

RB: What I am trying to get at was that the information about Bosnia was available to anyone.

SP: Oh yes, yes, yes. It helped that I was tasked to process it. Before I went to work for Abramowitz the information was available to me and I ignored it. Knowledge is something you can possess on a continuum. I had in the abstract at one point and then it became very deeply personal to me, by virtue of working for him. But yes, it was all over the papers, the concentration camps, the murdering of civilians and so on.



Happy Holidays


** Dillane appears in the 2 seasons of the BC’s The Tunnel and in the well-wrought thriller Spy Game.




Three Women

4 Nov


Joan Didion (copyright  Robert Birnbaum,  circa 1995)


Joan Didion, who is an important figure in the small universe of literary culture became exponentially better known with her two memoirs of grief, one of which, The Year of Magical Thinking, won awards and apparently was a best seller.Having read most of her oeuvre to date, I was not impressed :


I am as near a Joan Didion fanboy as I can get (about anyone)— having read most of her books and had the singular pleasure of a chat with her around the time of the publication of her last novel The Last Thing He Wanted. But for some (I do shy away from stories fact or fiction, about parents losing their children) reasons I have had zero interest in reading her latest offering. I suppose if Ms. Joan were to offer her grocery list for publication, it would be more attractive to me.

Having said that, while it is no surprise to me that The Year of Magical Thinking won a National Book Award (actually, nothing about book awards is surprising), I am puzzled about what about this cultural moment has made this book a best seller. I am not aware that Didion’s acute political –cultural observations in the New York Review of Books (perhaps it’s the venue) have attracted the enthusiastic, near hysterical audience as for her more personal work, Where I was From and the newest book. Is it the fascination with the ineffability of death, grief and suffering that is the focus of Didion’s memoir? Or the harrowing experience of losing both one’s life partner and child? Or would it be a hunger for tramping around the private and personal matters of others? Does the numbing effect of a society working overtime, or in the current argot, 24/7, turning us into efficient consuming units make Didion’s hyper sorrowful meditation the ultimate cathartic antidote?

I suppose I should be able to answer these questions but at the moment I can not. Perhaps I’ll have to get around to reading Joan Didion’s book. But not now.


Reportedly having previously eschewed any interest in a documentary in which she was the main subject, she succumbed to her nephew. Griffin  Dunne’s request, the result being  Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold,  a title like her first essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968),  quotes the W.B. Yeats poem The Second Coming.  Glenn Kenny concludes his  take on Dunne’s film noting, “… reminded me of an observation by D.H. Lawrence: “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically.” Ms. Didion’s triumph, as a writer and a human being, has been to take the age for what it is, to pinpoint how she saw it, and to stick it out.”


There are many morsels of delight and wonder in this pastiche of questions and answers and contemporaneous images and clips and of course, the camera on Didion as she speaks and makes inscrutable gesticulations with her hands.One of my favorite clips is New York Review of Books editor Robert Silver being asked if he knew Didion could write a dispatch from El Salvador (which at the time was inflamed by a deadly civil war). To which he replied that he wanted to find out…A  small reminder of what a brilliant editor he was …

One more tangential digression, Martin Amis in reviewing Didon’s second collection of essays The White Album (1980) (some of you may remember that is also the title of the Beatles last album)  cannot conclude his notice without taking stage center in a piece putatively about someone else) with this pedagogical assertion:*


‘Slouching towards Bethlehem’ is, of course, a literary reference itself. As Miss Didion dramatically points out in her Preface: ‘This book is called Slouching towards Bethlehem because for several years now certain lines from the Yeats poem which appears two pages back have reverberated in my inner ear as if they were surgically implanted there.’ The whole of ‘The Second Coming’ is indeed printed a few pages back, along with a deflationary extract from the sayings of Miss Peggy Lee (‘I learned courage from Buddha, Jesus, Lincoln, Einstein, and Cary Grant’). The title essay duly begins: ‘The centre wasn’t holding.’ It doesn’t seem to have occurred to her with the necessary force that ‘The Second Coming’ was written half a century ago. The centre hasn’t been holding for some time now; actually the centre was never holding, and never will hold. Probably all writers are at some point briefly under the impression that they are among the first to live and work after things fell apart. The continuity such an impression ignores is a literary continuity. It routinely assimilates and domesticates more pressing burdens than Miss Didion’s particular share of vivid, ephemeral terrors.





Oriana Fallaci: The Journalist, the Agitator, the Legend  by Cristina De Stefano   Marina Harss (Translator)


Cristina de Stefano’s ( translated by Marina Harss) biography of  Oriana Fallaci: The Journalist, the Agitator, the Legend  would not have received Fallaci’s cooperation had she been alive as reviewer James Marcus **points out. When she came to the United States after the Second World War, spending time in Hollywood and as Marcus writes

It exposed her to a wider world and taught her that celebrities were often hollow shells: Potemkin Village personalities. It also seemed to crystallize her peculiar mixture of vulnerability and high-decibel truculence. “She was fragile,” recalled one companion, “but she used aggressiveness as a shield. She attacked first. As a result, Americans were often terrified of her.”

Eventually, she turned her gaze to the wider world, traveling through much of Asia .She ended up in Vietnam,  staying until  the North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon, observing presciently,“The Communists are splendid while they fight, and intolerable once they have won.”  Marcus points out some delightful career highlights:

While she continued to function as a war correspondent, Fallaci found another way to vent her rage at the abuse of power: the interview. There is a wonderful irony here. Having cut her teeth interrogating the merely famous, she upgraded to the high, the mighty, the Shakespearean movers-and-shakers. They were mostly men, and they were mostly intimidated by this wily, theatrical, fearless woman with a microphone. “To what degree does power fascinate you?” she asked Henry Kissinger. (The answer, predictably and unconvincingly, was not at all.) Talking with the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, she responded to a jeering comment about her respectability by ripping off her chador: “I’m going to take off this stupid, medieval rag right now. There. Done.” (Khomeini fled the room at once.)

He concludes

But her entire life was a war on the party line, the politically expedient, the prefabricated opinion, and she never stopped fighting, at least not on the page. Blame it on Uncle Bruno, perhaps, who drilled his main journalistic precept into Fallaci’s head as a child: “First of all, don’t bore the reader!” Early and late, she almost never did.



The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick  by Elizabeth Hardwick  edited and intro Darryl Pinckney


The  other great cultural paragon affiliated with the New York Review of Books,  Elizabeth Hardwick, has been  brought current with  her Collected Essays (ably introduced and assembled by Darryl Pickney )   Even before she became one of the founders of one of the truly respectable and useful literary journals her essay The Decline of Book Reviewing  (1959) sparked much-needed self-evaluation by more serious critics. Here is the opening paragraph of that seminal  critique,***

The reviewer and critic are still thought of as persons of dangerous acerbity, fickle demons, cruel to youth and blind to new work, bent upon turning the literate public away from freshness and importance out of jealousy, mean conservatism, or whatever. Poor Keats were he living today might suffer a literary death, but it would not be from attack; instead he might choke on what Emerson called a “mush of concession.” In America, now, oblivion, literary failure, obscurity, neglect — all the great moments of artistic tragedy and misunderstanding — still occur, but the natural conditions for the occurrence are in a curious state of camouflage, like those decorating ideas in which wood is painted to look like paper and paper to look like wood. A genius may indeed go to his grave unread, but he will hardly have gone to it “The Communists are splendid while they fight, and intolerable once they have won.”. Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns. A book is born into a puddle of treacle; the brine of hostile criticism is only a memory. Everyone is found to have “filled a need,” and is to be “thanked” for something and to be excused for “minor faults in an otherwise excellent work.” “A thoroughly mature artist” appears many times a week and often daily; many are the bringers of those “messages the Free World will ignore at its peril.”


Hardwick was no-sit-at-home armchair commentator as her piece on the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago exhibited (being a witness to some of the week’s festivities, I found her account to be judicious and insightful) In Dwight Garner’s piece on her craft, he opines:

It’s a mistake to boil a writer down to her best lines. No one is the sum of her entries in Bartlett’s or the quotation vaults. But a critic who can’t mint an original phrase is rarely worth heeding.

To move one’s way through Hardwick’s essays is to bump into brightness on nearly every page. On hypocritical politicians: “Family men, pictured a million times with their first ladies, die in the arms of their second ladies.” Chicago Mayor Richard Daley fretting about underground newspapers during the 1968 Democratic convention is “like a dinosaur choking on bubble gum.” The blank and oversexed young women in a Marge Piercy novel are “like a jar of peanut butter waiting for a thumb.”





*Apropos of nothing but amusing of you are enthralled by either Marin Amis or Joan Didion …One wonders if he could write about a woman writer in that tone today?






“Nothing is As Invisible as a Monument”

31 Oct








The publication of the second edition of Lee Friedlander’s The American Monument, some forty years after the original is propitious and coincidental. Besides making available an important work by a master photographer that has long been out of print  ( It is considered by many, including Lee Friedlander himself, to be one of his most influential books of the last five decades). the current controversies being paid to the icons of American history make this collection additionally useful. First published in 1976 by the Eakins Press, which has its own interesting history,*  this tome contains 213 black and white photographs on unnumbered pages and is designed to resemble a personal photograph album with the book held together by screw posts. It should not go unsaid that Lee Friedlander viewed his main project as the creation of books of which he published many. It was said of him,” Tireless photographer… the maniacally inclusive but blessedly nonchalant cataloguer of Americana–her monuments, jazz musicians, and urban landscapes-”


A quick scan of YouTube yields a number of videos constructed of Friedlander stills. There was one using Miles Davis’s All Blues as the soundtrack—which being elevn minutes long allows you to see many photos. Director David Lynch produced a five-minute clip entitled The Big Dream


The commentary on this work in addition to an elucidating afterword by Eakins Press founder  Leslie George Katz and a second afterword appended to this new edition by Museum of  Modern Art curator Peter Galassi who assembled the first Friedlander retrospective in 2005. Stephen Maine astutely observes**


As a category of objects, Friedlander seems to say, its distinguishing feature is contingency in relationship to its site. Thus even forty years ago, the very phrase “American monument,” if not exactly an oxymoron, carried a sense of the provisional, the negotiable. If the planners’ original vision was compromised over time, well — that’s just what happens when the idealized concept meets destabilizing patterns of actual, everyday use. It becomes a case study in perpetuity.
In the interim since 1976, the social landscape has also evolved, and the propaganda function of public monuments has received intense scrutiny. WhileThe American Monumenttakes no explicit political position on this issue, driven instead primarily by curiosity about affection for the genre itself, it is simply not possible to see some of these images in the same way we once might have. “People want leadership not only from the living but from the dead,” writes Leslie George Katz in the book’s original essay… But what people, and from which dead?




Lee Friedlander, “Mount Rushmore. South Dakota” (1969), gelatin silver print, 8 1/16 x 12 1/8 inches








Maine concludes

…but like the landmarks it documents, The American Monument has a dynamic relationship to its context. A quick Google search (as the reader will have surmised by now) facilitates casual research of the sites, which was far more difficult forty years ago. While a web search dispels some of the tantalizing mystery of these pages, it doesn’t diminish the power of the images. Their humor, awkwardness, and pathos remain intact. It’s the same book, but we use books differently now, and the user’s experience of The American Monument isn’t the same. And how could it be?




Lee Friedlander, “Father Duffy. Times Square, New York, New York” (1974), gelatin silver print, 7 1/2 x 11 1/4 inches (all photographs © Lee Friedlander, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery and Eakins Press Foundation)



Geoff Dyer, another erudite commentator on many subjects, including photography, delights

…Unlike [Gary]Winogrand, Friedlander hasn’t given up on editing, but he is more interested in taking pictures and getting them out than in scrupulously curating his own oeuvre. “It’s a generous medium, photography,” he is quoted as saying in the epigraph to the MoMA catalog. He was thinking particularly of a picture of his uncle, which also included a bunch of other, unintended information. “The American Monument” came about in similar fashion, when he noticed that memorials and statues of all kinds cropped up in multiple contact sheets, some of which were primarily concerned with other matters. After that, he began seeking out such monuments in the course of his travels throughout the States. Eventually he had enough pictures for a book — which, in Friedlander-ese, means more than enough. The original edition boiled thousands of potential candidates down to 213, the bulk of them taken between 1971 and 1975, supplemented by a brilliant afterword by Leslie George Katz. That essay still feels remarkably fresh in the reprint, even though Katz’s observations occasionally gleam with a faith in the assumption of the continued worth of monuments that may turn out to be “discredited,” “outmoded” or ironically apposite, as when he says of their power, “Something like racial memory is at work.”
Robert Musil wrote that nothing is as invisible as a monument, and Friedlander in the 1970s relished the simple and complex task of making the invisible visible. He did this by showing how monuments hide in plain sight: subsumed by traffic, by familiarity, by the abundance of incidental detail he “got” in that picture of his uncle. The poet Siegfried Sassoon expressed the cruel paradox of remembrance while contemplating the Cenotaph, dedicated to the dead of the First World War, in London: “Make them forget, O Lord, what this Memorial/Means.” Friedlander’s photos read like an almost-random survey of the aesthetics and meanings of all kinds of monument — and of how easy it is to forget what is meant to be remembered.





Lee Friedlander, “The Bronco Buster. Civic Center Mall, Denver, Colorado” (1972), silver print, 1 1/4 x 7 1/2 inches

Dyer observes


…The album is essentially the same as it was in 1976, but we view it rather differently. Monuments, after all, are also mirrors. So, for that matter, are the windows (often of cars) through which we see them — and few photographers have had more fun than Friedlander exploiting, exploring and reflecting on the capacities of these two pieces of technology to complicate what is shown in a frame. Dependent on all manner of mirroring, both felicitous and contrived, the slim volume Friedlander published before “The American Monument” was a collection of self-portraits. The self of which the pictures in the reprinted book offer a composite portrait is, of course, America.


John Szarkowski  who was  the Director of Photography at New York‘s Museum of Modern Art for  t thirty years  observes

But I think we are moved more deeply by Friedlander’s intuitions concerning the nature of America’s relationship to its past, concerning the vernacular materials out of which with attention we might fashion a culture, concerning the evidence of these countless attempts to preserve and nourish the idea of community. I am still astonished and heartened by the deep affection in those pictures, by the photographer’s tolerant equanimity in the face of the facts, by the generosity of sprit, the freedom from pomposity and rhetoric. One might call this work an act of high artistic patriotism, an achievement that might help us reclaim that work from ideologues and expediters. His work, in sum, constitutes a conversation among the symbols that we live among and that to some degree we live by. It reminds us of the strength of an alternative American tradition to that of Thoreau and Whitman and Stieglitz, with its constant insistence on the big I. His work recalls Thomas Eakins, the painter; and Walker Evans, the photographer; and Wallace Stevens, who said, “It is important to believe that the visible is the equivalent of the invisible….”
The American Monument is a  beautifully produced book (master printer Richard Benson produced the halftone negatives) It’s an important and engaging book and most of all ,its a great pleasure to look through. Again and again…

*  History of Eakin Press 

Eakin Press founder Leslie George Katz proclaimed its mission to be:

“The works of the Eakins Press Foundation are selected from classic and contemporary literature and art relevant to values currently embattled. In content and form they defend human excellence. Together they suggest that advanced technology is a tool and not a substitute for intelligence, that modernity need not outmode humane capacity. The symbol of the Eakins Press Foundation is a leaf and a hand, signifying nature and the works of man as counterparts. Man is and remains a creature of nature capable of cultivation, and art is the measure of his life.”

** Stephen Mine American Monuments Then and Now


Here’s a clever, entertaining video preview of The American Monument




A five minute collage of Friedlander photos with a great monolgue  of how Friedlander worked backed by a jazz soundtrack



























Fly Over Zone Stories

27 Oct

Kent Haruf (copyright Robert Birnbaum)

Kent Haruf tells stories of charming simplicity with characters who cope with real-world problems. Plainsong, his third novel, for which he won great praise and big awards, is his much-loved story set in the fictional town, Holt, Colorado and concentrated on a handful of townspeople trying to work out basic problems of abandonment, teen pregnancy, alcoholism. adultery and such. This group includes two endearing bachelor brothers, Raymond and Harold McPheron who end up being the mainstays of Plainsong’s sequel Eventide.   The National Book Award nomination  for Plainsong observes: “From simple elements, Haruf achieves a novel of wisdom and grace—a narrative that builds in strength and feeling until, as in a choral chant, the voices in the book surround transport and lift the reader off the ground.”




I talked to Haruf in 2004:*

RB: I think about the novels that are written on the East coast, close to New York City and the ones that are written in the rest of the country— the novels on the East Coast have certain predictable, banal problems. They fall into a type that makes them hard to take seriously. Your characters, and in Jim Harrison‘s True North, these were characters I wanted to know more about and how they resolve their lives.
KH: Well that’s an interesting generalization. I don’t know how far you can go with that. There is nothing in these books that I am trying to write that is cynical or satiric or ironic. I am not interested in that. There is a place for that. But in my view that is a kind of easy out. You are not really trying to talk about the human condition, which is what I am after. I am trying to talk about, to write about the kind of universal problems that people have everywhere. And I am not interested in being hip or paying any attention to technology or any of that stuff. None of these characters ever talk about cell phones or computers or any of that.
RB: No brand names appear in these novels.
KH: No, there aren’t any. And that’s quite deliberate. So what I am after is something different, and if you care about these characters, then I am pleased. Because I hope that’s going to happen. And that’s how I feel about them. I do care for them. I don’t think I am blind to their foibles or their flaws. I am quite clear about that, but nevertheless I have some sympathy and compassion about them, I think.

RB:… I’m still working with the notions that there is a polarity —the stuff that is written in and around NY and what’s written in the rest of the country.
KH: It may well be. I don’t want to think of myself as a regional writer.
RB: The rest of the country isn’t ‘regional.’ [laughs]
KH: That’s right. But there is a kind of—maybe this has been so for a long time—I don’t know if you saw the review in the Sunday New York Times by Jonathan Miles—it was a smart-ass review. A quintessential hip cynical eastern view of things. The following Tuesday Kakutani wrote her review, which for her, was a rave. A very positive review. So I figured her review cancelled his out.
RB: Aren’t you review proof, at some point?
KH: Well at some point, I guess. I don’t know whether I am or not.
RB: I don’t mean personally.
KH: They still cut you.
RB: I am thinking more of the sales of your books would not be dependendt on such reviews or that they have a marginal effect.
KH: I would think so. Besides that if you get away from New York City, away from the small literary pond, who reads those reviews any way? People out where I come from, they don’t read the Sunday book reviews.



RB: I have read that you wrote Eventide and weren’t happy with it and then you rewrote it. What was the form of the original that you found it so totally wrong?

KH: I had done what I thought was a finished draft. My method of writing is that I write each sentence endlessly until I get them done, and then move on. So when I get done with the final chapter, I believe I am done with the whole book. And that there is no real compelling reason to go back to it. My wife and I were going to California and I was doing a reading out there or something, and this was back last fall. And I had her read it [the manuscript] aloud on the way out there.

RB: Is she a good reader?

KH: She’s good reader [laughs]. And that’s one of the things I thought about. The more she read, the more discouraged and distressed I was with that book.

RB: It must have killed the trip.

KH: It did. I hated it. I was in despair about how far I had missed the book. It wasn’t the story line—it had to do with the quality of the prose. And I could have said, “Oh, Cathy is just not a good reader.” But it wasn’t that, clearly. And she and I both recognized it. I did, intensely. So as soon as we got to California, rather than do the things I had intended to do—her kids live out there, and I was going to spend time with them. I didn’t do that. I went into a motel and began to rewrite, right away. I think what had happened was that I had begun to read some things while I was writing and I am usually more careful about that. I had read, in particular, Cormac McCarthy. I admire him, and I think he is probably one of the very best living writers at work in America today. But I was sort of under the influence of his prose. I suppose I made some attempt to write in a more lyrical way. And it wasn’t my writing. I saw that as soon as I heard Cathy read it. And I began to go back and prune and sharpen and clarify what I had done, in terms of each sentence.


Haruf’s last novel Our Souls at Night in 2015 was published a few months after his death in 2014. It’s story of two of Holt Colorado’s elders navigating the solitude of old age and negotiating a thoughful and charming approach to their needs: Addie Moore shows up at Louis Waters’s house and asks if he will sleep (sex not being point) with her. Addie is moved by recognizing her loneliness and inquiring if Louis might also feel that way—Louis surprised asks to think about it…

A.O Scott has  opines,

He and Addie are solid, respectable people of a kind who usually show up in movies to be mocked or sentimentalized. The disappointments and satisfactions they have lived through are etched on their faces, which are also the faces of two very famous movie stars — Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. Viewers with long memories or heavy TCM habits will recall that 50 years ago they starred as New York newlyweds in “Barefoot in the Park.”In 1979, they reunited, with a touch more denim, in “The Electric Horseman.” The intervening decades have hardly diminished their charm or their skill, and part of the pleasure of this film, directed by Ritesh Batra (“The Lunchbox”), lies in the rediscovery of what wonderful actors they can be, and how good they are together.


Our Souls at Night is a bittersweet story and given the age of its protagonists I wonder if anyone under the age of 60 will understand the dynamic at play here. It certainly worked as a novel and its the coupling of two fine actors that hold this iteration together…





By George…

18 Oct

George Saunders circa 2013 (photo: Robert Birtnbaum)

Actually, as we said in the  Chicago of my youth, I could give two shits about awards, literary or otherwise.  However, when someone like George Saunders is the recipient, attention must be paid…

It has been one of the joys of my long post-graduate career to have spoken with George at least three times**  Not to mention the great pleasures derived from reading his writings and other of his creative activities. In case it has escaped your attention, the commencement speech delivered by fiction writers is a burgeoning literary genre. Here Saunders declaims at Syracuse University in 2013:





Which was subsequently published as a  chapbook  (as was David Foster Wallace’s This is Water) and  spawned  an animated adaptation…***



George Saunders and my pooch Rosie  circa 2006 (photo: Robert Birnbaum)


From my chat with George (2006)

RB: The last Batman was a rated as a kid’s movie. My son was terribly upset at the shooting scene of Batman’s parents.

GS: Right.

RB: We walked out. Was that supposed to be okay? Not to mention that there are Army commercials with the coming attractions for kids’ movies. Maybe that is the culmination of Neil Postman’s ideas in Amusing Ourselves to Death, “And now, this just in…”

GS: I see it in my own very limited brain. I can’t really do two things at once. In my view the whole O.J. and Monica thing was a kind of prep—a stupidity prep. And we said, “Oh, that’s important? It’s interesting? I can really lower myself to worry about the sperm-covered dress and not have to stop myself and I can actually pretend that’s serious cultural stuff?” All right, so then you lower yourself into that vat. And then 9/11 comes. And we are totally ready to be fed this bullshit and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. So a lot of that stuff was coming out in this book. And some of the reviews are, “Oh, it’s a poke at advertising.” Which to me—that’s not enough. Something about this idea that you said—you can’t wallow in shit and then come out smelling clean. I think culturally we somehow stupified [or stupidized] ourselves and now we are paying the price.

RB: The ubiquity of marketing is the most obvious thing. Consumerism seems to be a [government-sanctioned] religion.

GS: That’s right. We are of the same generation, and I remember thinking if we could just get rid of this religious stupidity, our wonderful humanist nature would rise up. And that didn’t happen. What happened was our materialist nature rises up.




George Saunders,  circa 2013 (photo: Robert Birnbaum)


From another conversation…

RB: Is there a clear relationship between the writing and your personality as you move around in the world? You have been writing 20 years and you have been doing it in a certain way to refine certain things that you want to communicate, so are you a different person because of your writing?

GS: Yes, yes. What happens is that the things that get brought forth when you are working in a story then become things that you can drape your personality around in a certain way. But you knew that this was a tendency in yourself—having written it, then, it’s concrete and you can jump to that next level.

RB: It’s like saying, “I didn’t know I thought that.”

GS: Exactly and when I was younger I thought it was the other way around. I thought you had to figure out who you were and then type it.




RB: [laughs]

GS: Now it feels much more like you don’t know who you are until you have worked—and it’s not even—it happens for me over a course of months. You finish something and then you go—and even then it’s not the intellectual part, it’s the visceral part. You have made this thing. Like I just had this “CommComm” story in the New Yorker; through the long process of working on that, I figured out something about how I want to proceed with my life from here. Just a small, I couldn’t express it, a small thing. I kind of knew it before but having written the story there is no looking back. So the process of having the subconscious purify that—

RB: I don’t think I have heard anyone say that—that is, to talk about the intimacy of their own thinking process affecting their life decisions—they always seem so separate.

GS: It is discrete but then I noticed—well, for me it has to do—it never happened when I was young and I wrote a story quick. But as I get older and I am taking longer and longer, I have a feeling that the subconscious mind is sort of forming itself behind the story that you are working on in some way. And if you go slow enough it overtakes the story at the end and that’s that epiphanic thing that people talk about. And then for me that’s nice that happens—

I always think if you write a story about a clown being decapitated, it doesn’t mean that you have anything against clowns.



“best book of the year.” Feb 2013


RB: You wrote the “best book of the year.”

GS: Yeah so far. But it’s only one month in.

RB: I can’t decide whether you were a victim or a beneficiary of two pieces of press earlier this year. There was the New York Times, which asserted that your book was the “best book of the year.” And the other was a piece at Identity Theory opining that you are now repeating yourself.

GS: No I’m not. No I’m not. No I’m not. I don’t know that piece.

RB: (laughs) I didn’t read it—if had read it I wouldn’t have had time to read something else. I read the Times piece and it didn’t read like a review. It read like a press release.

GS: That was in the magazine. It wasn’t really a review as such.

RB: Oh right. It was a profile.

GS: It had a different slant.

RB: And then your publisher took out a full page ad in the Times citing that “best book of the year” quote, reminiscent of movie reviewers who write reviews with lines they hope will be quoted in ads.

GS: Sure.

RB: That was a big expenditure for a short story collection.

GS: Yeah, yeah, I though the whole thing was—


GS: Fun. At 54, at a certain point in your career it’s just nice to see action. It’s more interesting to have something energized happening than not. I kind of think, “Whatever, whatever happens” and—

RB: From where I sit the world of books, literature, and publishing, I think of you as being significant and important. But maybe from where you sit, teaching at a university in the middle of New York state plowing away at your work, you don’t think of yourself as being significant and/or important.

GS: No. Most of the time you are writing, writing the next thing. Or teaching, so it doesn’t seem…maybe if we’d had talked a year ago, before this book came out, I would have said something like “I don’t have a huge audience.” I wonder why not. I wonder if it is—

RB: (laughs)

GS: No, really. Is it something I’m doing wrong—?



Saunders 1st novel and awarded Booker Prize 2017

Hari Kunzru does Saunders’s novel justice…

Since the days of the beats, the Bardo Thodol has been known in the west as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. A more accurate if less catchy title is “Great Liberation on Hearing in the Intermediate State”. Waking life, dreams, meditation and in particular the period between death and rebirth are all bardos, states of consciousness sandwiched between other states of consciousness. We are always in transition, from dreams to wakefulness, from life to death. When someone dies, Tibetan Buddhists believe that they enter the bardo of the time of death, in which they will either ascend towards nirvana, and be able to escape the cycle of action and suffering that characterises human life on earth, or gradually fall back, through increasingly wild and scary hallucinations, until they are born again into a new body. The Bardo Thodol is intended to be read to them during this journey, an instruction manual to assist them on their way.



George & George and Rosie (photo Robert Birnbaum)



  * Everything you ever wanted to Know  about the Booker Prize

**  Interview # 2 with George Saunders   Interview # 1 with George Saunders    Interview # 3  with George Saunders

***     An animated adaptation of  Saunder’s 2013 commencement speech

****   Hari Kunzru  0n Lincoln in Bardo

MLB Playoffs Get Interesting When…

16 Oct


The real live ivy-covered outfield walls of Wrigley Field



The CHICGO Cubs have gone 0 and 2 in their weekend visit to Dodger Stadium (in Chavez  [Emminent Domain]Ravine, evidencing once again what my friend Steve Fagin identifies as their Achilles heel —namely top-tier pitching. Scoring a total of three runs in two games both via the long ball.. clearly, a seven games series is an inopportune moment for a slump.

However, one would be well advised to not despair and keep in mind that a seven-game series doesn’t really commence until one team breaks serve.


I don’t know how you make a whole book out of this story—no doubt those fans enthralled by the endless minutia that baseball produces will be happy with this book. A review in the venerable weekly Chicago Reader frames the story in more literary/anthropological terms*


About three-quarters of the way through Rich Cohen’s new book The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse comes an epic clash of baseball philosophies and worldviews.

On one side is Theo Epstein, president of the Cubs. A Red Sox fan since childhood, Epstein was also, during his formative years, a devoted reader of the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, a thousand-page compendium of statistics and rankings from more than a century of baseball history. James and his disciples have no patience for legends and tall tales. In their world, there are no called shots, no rally squirrels, no ill omens, and, especially, no curses. There’s an explanation for everything, and usually it involves numbers.

Cohen is the other kind of baseball fan—the romantic. He attended his first Cubs game in 1976. He was eight years old. The Cubs lost to the Reds, 8-3. On the way home from Wrigley Field, his father, a Yankees fan, warned him that falling in love with the Cubs would ruin his life. But Cohen had already seen the ivy. Later he came to realize that the Cubs were not just a team, they were a way of life. “A Cubs fan understood the futility of ambition,” he writes. “He was a kind of Buddhist. . . . A Cubs fan appreciates every August afternoon, because, for him, there is no October.”




The series resumes in the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field Tuesday evening.






  • Review in the Chicago Reader

Unabomber: Based on a true story?

10 Oct




Perhaps it was disaster (of which there is never shortage) fatigue*, but the Unabomber story escaped my attention, in what may loosely called ‘real time’. I must have recognized this lapse when I chose to read Alston Chase’s Harvard and the Unibomber: The Education of An American Terrorist, which revisitsx’s story. You know,  the terrorist who in 1978 began a campaign of bombing that the FBI spent 17 years tracking down. Need I point out that it is a very interesting story…Here’s a Publisher’s Weekly review:


This is a radically new interpretation of the life and motives of the infamous Unabomber. Alston Chase’s gripping account follows Ted Kaczynski from an unhappy adolescence in Illinois to Harvard, where he was subject not only to the despairing intellectual currents of the Cold War but also to ethically questionable psychological experiments. Kaczynski fled academia to the edge of the wilderness in Montana, but Chase shows us that he was never the wild mountain man the media often assumed him to be. Kaczynski was living in a book-lined cabin just off a main road when he formulated the view of the world that he used to justify murder. Through Chase’s compelling narration of the planning and execution of Kaczynski’s crimes, we come to know a thoroughly cold-blooded killer, but one whose ideas were uncannily close to those of mainstream America. Originally published in hardcover as Harvard and the Unabomber.





And now comes a documentary drama (based on a true story?), Manhunt, which retells the FBI’s lengthy investigation from the perspective of the profiler who successfully narrowed down the suspect pool, ultimately to Kaczynski which led his to capture and arrest. So the question arises, are we getting an accurate picture of this brilliant mind who saw fit to mangle and kill in pursuit of abhorence of modern life and technology**

Interestingly, the soft cover edition of Chase’s tome elides mention of the greatest university in the world and is now entitled A Mind for Murder: The Education of the Unabomber and the Origins of Modern Terrorism. Apparently Harvard was not pleased with the attention paid to the psyche experiments conducted by Henry Murray (which mimicked questionable CIA tests, possibly using Lysergic acid diethylamide). Perhaps there is some liability here?



I have spoken with Alston Chase—here’s a sample:***

AC: before Kaczynski was known, when the [Unabomber] Manifesto came out, I was approached by a former editor friend of mine who was by that time chief story editor for Diane Sawyer on ABC Prime Time. The FBI had just come out with a profile, and the ABC people asked me to give my own analysis. And I came up with a very, very different one. The FBI suggested this person was in his ’40s. I suggested, no, he was older because the Manifesto was right out of Gen Ed of the 1950’s. And they said he was probably an academic, and I said that he was an academe long enough to learn that he hated it. And wrote too well to be an academic. So I gave a different interpretation, and it turned out to be pretty accurate.

RB: What was the FBI response?

AC: Of course they weren’t listening to me. And the problems of the FBI— and I point this out in my book— is that they have all of these psychologists doing psychological profiles but what they needed was forensic academicians.



RB: You suggest that Kaczynski’s thinking—which you characterize as mediocre—is not particularly original.

AC: The Manifesto is a kind of compendium of cliches.

RB: It does espouse values and does suggest concepts and sentiments that are rife in this country. Why aren’t there more Kaczynski’s. Or there will be more?

alston chase by birnbaum

Alston Chase (photo: Robert Birnbaum0

AC: There will be. We come back to the fact that this intellectual crisis that I mention is still with us. And one way it’s manifested itself is in a global culture of despair and anti-modernism. A profound reaction against everything modern, not simply by the Kaczynskis of the world but the bin Ladens, who would like to return the Middle East to some theocratic state at the time of Saladin, but in addition in Europe as in its ban on genetically engineered crops. That’s anti-modernism. Now it’s true that the European Union may be doing this because it’s a convenient way to impose tariffs and be protectionist with out appearing to be protectionist. On the other had the EU couldn’t get away with it if there weren’t just widespread popular support among the people in Europe. The anti-globalization movement and environmentalism in some of its stripes are all examples of this anti-modernism and there are a certain percentage of these people that are willing to commit violent acts in the name of rolling the technology back. As I looked at Kaczynski and his thinking, what I saw was this pattern that seemed strikingly similar of that of terrorists—virtually every form from the KKK to bin Laden. And one has this very historical sense, the sense that they see themselves as players in history. The sense that they are attempting to right wrongs they believed were committed long ago. Bin Laden wants to roll back the Crusades. The KKK would like to fight the Civil War again. So you have these elephantine memories of these imagined injustices. And then anti-modernism and that goes for the right-wing survivalist militia men, the Earth First environmentalists, the anti-globalization people are in to that as are the Islamic fundamentalists. So it’s a really a worldwide movement. And with the increase in communication the divisions that existed in the past between domestic and international terrorism are going to disappear.



The portrayal of the FBI investigation in Manhunt reveals, not surprisingly, intense careerism, hierarchical arrogance and what is surprising, great sympathy for Kaczynski and the neophyte profiler who in way of may good police gives up everything to solve this case. And is given no credit for his work…


*wars in Central America, the former Yugoslavia, AIDS epidemic, genocides in Africa,..

**The Unibomber Manifesto

*** Identity theory Interview with Alston Chase





More Than Words

9 Oct


We should able to set aside issues of civilizational decline and stipulate that the art of oratory is not experiencing a golden era. Of course, one of the attractive attributes of the previous president is his ease in speaking in public (not necessarily a plus when dealing with the Congress he was burdened with).

My first experience with the allure of declamation might have spoiled me. I was young and therefore impressionable so in 1960, Senator Eugene McCarthy  (of whom we hear much more from eight years later) at the Democratic National Presidential Convention in Los Angeles, placed into nomination as a candidate, Adlai Stevenson (a former Governor of Illinois) and twice a loser to Dwight Eisenhower i(1952 and 1956). An eloquent speech and a noble gesture, worthy of being in a included of a well-curated anthology and perhaps the last time one could find politicians worthy of articulate praise.

Senator Eugene McCarthy (Democrat, Minnesota)

Other than some excellent commencement speeches  by some of our great literary figures and a few standouts by Obama —2004 Dem Convention  and his victory speech in Chicago on victory night 2008, the only oratory that broke away from the hackney-boilerplate speechifying was Susan Sontag’s speech accepting Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 2003**


Susan Sontag (photo William Coupon)


To speak in the Paulskirche, before this audience, to receive the prize awarded in the last fifty-three years by the German Book Trade to so many writers, thinkers, and exemplary public figures whom I admire – to speak in this history-charged place and on this occasion, is a humbling and inspiring experience. I can only the more regret the deliberate absence of the American ambassador, Mr. Daniel Coats, whose immediate refusal, in June, of the invitation from the Booksellers Association, when this year’s Friedenspreis was announced, to attend our gathering here today, shows he is more interested in affirming the ideological stance and the rancorous reactiveness of the Bush administration than he is, by fulfilling a normal diplomatic duty, in representing the interests and reputation of his – and my – country.


Ambassador Coats has chosen not to be here, I assume, because of criticisms I have voiced, in newspaper and television interviews and in brief magazine articles, of the new radical bent of American foreign policy, as exemplified by the invasion and occupation of Iraq. He should be here, I think, because a citizen of the country he represents in Germany has been honored with an important German prize.

An American ambassador has the duty to represent his country, all of it. I, of course, do not represent America, not even that substantial minority that does not support the imperial program of Mr. Bush and his advisors. I like to think I do not represent anything but literature, a certain idea of literature, and conscience, a certain idea of conscience or duty. But, mindful of the citation for this prize from a major European country, which mentions my role as an “intellectual ambassador” between the two continents (ambassador, needless to say, in the weakest, merely metaphorical sense), I cannot resist offering a few thoughts about the renowned gap between Europe and the United States, which my interests and enthusiasms purportedly bridge.

First, is it a gap – which continues to be bridged? Or is it not also a conflict? Irate, dismissive statements about Europe, certain European countries, are now the common coin of American political rhetoric; and here, at least in the rich countries on the western side of the continent, anti-American sentiments are more common, more audible, more intemperate than ever. What is this conflict? Does it have deep roots? I think it does.

There has always been a latent antagonism between Europe and America, one at least as complex and ambivalent as that between parent and child. America is a neo-European country and until the last few decades was largely populated by European peoples. And yet it is always the differences between Europe and America that have struck the most perceptive foreign observers: Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited the young nation in 1831 and returned to France to write »Democracy in America«, still, some hundred and seventy years later, the best book about my country, and D.H. Lawrence, who, eighty years ago, published the most interesting book ever written about American culture, his influential, exasperating »Studies in Classic American Literature«, both understood that America, the child of Europe, was becoming, or had become, the antithesis of Eu-rope.

Rome and Athens. Mars and Venus. The authors of recent popular tracts promoting the idea of an inevitable clash of interests and values between Europe and America did not invent these antithe- ses. Foreigners brooded over them – and they provide the palette, the recurrent melody, in much of American literature throughout the 19th century, from James Fenimore Cooper and Ralph Waldo Emerson to Walt Whitman, Henry James, William Dean Howells, and Mark Twain. American innocence and European sophistication; American pragmatism and European intellectualizing; American energy and European world-weariness; American naïveté and European cynicism; American goodheartedness and European malice; American moralism and the European arts of compromise – you know the tunes.

You can choreograph them differently; indeed, they have been danced with every kind of evaluation or tilt for two tumultuous centuries. Europhiles can use the venerable antitheses to identify America with commerce-driven barbarism and Europe with high culture, while the Europhobes draw on a ready-made view in which America stands for idealism and openness and democracy and Europe a debilitating, snobbish refinement. Tocqueville and Lawrence observed something fiercer: not just a declaration of independence from Europe, and European values, but a steady undermining, an assassination of European values and European power. »You can never have a new thing without breaking an old,« Lawrence wrote.Europe happened to be the old thing. America should be the new thing. The new thing is the death of the old.« America, Lawrence divined, was on a Europe-destroying mission, using democracy – particularly cultural democracy, democracy of manners – as an instrument. And when that task is accomplished, he wrote, America might well turn from democracy to something else. (What that might be is, perhaps, emerging now.)

Bear with me if my references have been exclusively literary. After all, one function of literature – of important literature, of necessary literature – is to be prophetic. What we have here, writ large, is the perennial literary – or cultural – quarrel: between the ancients and the moderns.

The past is (or was) Europe, and America was founded on the idea of breaking with the past, which is viewed as encumbering, stultifying, and – in its forms of deference and precedence, its standards of what is superior and what is best – fundamentally undemocratic; or »elitist,« the reigning current synonym. Those who speak for a triumphal America continue to intimate that American democracy implies repudiating Europe, and, yes, embracing a certain liberating, salutary barbarism. If, today, Europe is regarded by most Americans as more socialist than elitist, that still makes Europe, by American standards, a retrograde continent, obstinately attached to old standards: the welfare state. »Make it new« is not only a slogan for culture; it describes an ever-advancing, world-encompassing economic machine.

However, if necessary, even the »old« can be rebaptized as the »new.«

It is not a coincidence that the strong-minded American Secretary of Defense tried to drive a wedge within Europe – distinguishing unforgettably between an »old« Europe (bad) and a »new« Europe (good). How did Germany, France, and Belgium come to be consigned to »old« Europe, while Spain, Italy, Poland, Ukraine, The Netherlands, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Bulgaria find themselves part of »new« Europe? Answer: to support the United States in its present extensions of political and military power is to pass, by definition, into the more desirable category of the »new.« Whoever is with us is »new.«

All modern wars, even when their motives are the traditional ones, such as territorial aggrandizement or the acquisition of scarce resources, are cast as clashes of civilizations – culture wars – with each side claiming the high ground, and characterizing the other as barbaric. The enemy is invariably a threat to »our way of life,« an infidel, a
desecrator, a polluter, a defiler of higher or better values. The current war against the very real threat posed by militant Islamic fundamentalism is a particularly clear example. What is worth remarking is that a milder version of the same terms of disparagement underlies the antagonism between Europe and America. It should also be remembered that, historically, the most virulent anti-American rhetoric ever heard in Europe – consisting essentially in the charge that Ameri- cans are barbarians – came not from the so-called left but from the extreme right. Both Hitler and Franco repeatedly inveighed against an America (and a world Jewry) engaged in polluting European civilization with its base, business values.

Of course, much of European public opinion continues to admire American energy, the American version of »the modern.« And, to be sure, there have always been American fellow-travelers of the European cultural ideals (one stands here before you), who find in the old arts of Europe a liberation and correction to the strenuous mercantilist biases of American culture. And there have always been the counterparts of such Americans on the European side: Europeans who are fascinated, enthralled, profoundly attracted to the United States, precisely because of its difference from Europe.

What the Americans see is almost the reverse of the Europhile cliché: they see themselves defend- ing civilization. The barbarian hordes are no long- er outside the gates. They are within, in every prosperous city, plotting havoc. The »chocolate- producing« countries (France, Germany, Belgium) will have to stand aside, while a country with »will« – and God on its side – pursues the battle against terrorism (now conflated with barbarism). According to Secretary of State Powell, it is ridiculou for old Europe (sometimes it seems only France is meant) to aspire to play a role in govern- ing or administering the territories won by the coalition of the conqueror. It has neither the mili- tary resources nor the taste for violence nor the support of its cosseted, all-too-pacific populations. And the Americans have it right. Europeans are not in an evangelical – or a bellicose – mood.

Indeed, sometimes I have to pinch myself to be sure I am not dreaming: that what many people in my own country now hold against Germany, which wreaked such horrors on the world for nearly a century – the new »German problem,« as it were – is that Germans are repelled by war; that much of German public opinion is now virtually … pacifist!

Were America and Europe never partners, never friends? Of course. But perhaps it is true that the periods of unity – of common feeling – have been exceptions, rather than the rule. One such time was from the Second World War through the early Cold War, when Europeans were profoundly grateful for America’s intervention, succor, and support. Americans are comfortable seeing themselves in the role of Europe’s savior. But then, America will expect the Europeans to be forever grateful, which is not what Europeans are feeling right now.

From »old« Europe’s point of view, America seems bent on squandering the admiration – and gratitude – felt by most Europeans. The immense sympathy for the United States in the aftermath of the attack on September 11, 2001 was genuine. (I can testify to its particular ardor and sincerity in Ger- many; I was in Berlin at the time.) But what has followed is an increasing estrangement on both sides.

The citizens of the richest and most powerful nation in history have to know that America is loved, and envied – and resented. More than a few who travel abroad know that Americans are regarded as crude, boorish, uncultivated by many Europeans, and don’t hesitate to match these expectations with behavior that suggests the ressentiment of the ex-colonial. And some of the cultivated Europeans who seem most to enjoy visiting or living in the United States attribute to it, condescendingly, the liberating virtues of a colony where one throws off the restrictions and high-culture burdens of »back home.« I recall being told by a German film-maker, living at the time in San Francis- co, that he loved being in the States »because you don’t have any culture here.« For more than a few Europeans, including, it should be mentioned, D. H. Lawrence (»there the life comes up from the roots, crude but vital,« he wrote to a friend in 1915, when he was making plans to live in America), America was the great escape. And vice versa: Europe was the great escape for generations of Americans seeking »culture.« Of course, I am speaking only of minorities here, minorities of the privileged.

So America now sees itself as the defender of civilization and Europe’s savior, and wonders why Europeans don’t get the point; and Europeans see Americans as a reckless warrior state – a description that the Americans return by seeing Europe as the enemy of America: only pretending, so runs rhetoric heard increasingly in the United States, to be pacifist, in order to contribute to the weakening of American power. France, in particular, is thought to be scheming to become America’s equal, even its superior, in shaping world affairs – »Operation America Must Fail« is the name invented by a columnist in the »New York Times« to describe the French drive toward dominance – instead of realizing that an American defeat in Iraq will encourage „radical Muslim groups – from Baghdad to the Muslim slums of Paris« to pursue their jihad against tolerance and democracy.

It is hard for people not to see the world in polarizing terms (»them« and »us«) and these terms have in the past strengthened the isolationist theme in American foreign policy as much as they now strengthen the imperialist theme. Americans have got used to thinking of the world in terms of enemies. Enemies are somewhere else, as the fighting is almost always »over there,« Islamic fundamentalism having replaced Russian and Chinese communism as the threat to »our way of life.« And terrorist is a more flexible word than communist. It can unify a larger number of quite different struggles and interests. What this may mean is that the war will be endless – since there will always be some terrorism (as there will always be poverty and cancer); that is, there will always be asymmetrical conflicts in which the weaker side uses that form of violence, which usually targets civilians. American rhetoric, if not the popular mood, would support this unhappy prospect, for the struggle for righteousness never ends.

It is the genius of the United States, a profoundly conservative country in ways that Europeans find difficult to fathom, to have devised a form of conservative thinking that celebrates the new rather than the old. But this is also to say, that in the very ways in which the United States seems extremely conservative, for example, in the extraordinary power of the consensus and the passivity and conformism of public opinion (as Tocqueville remarked in 1831) and the media, it is also radical, even revolutionary, in ways that Europeans find equally difficult to fathom.

Part of the puzzle, surely, lies in the disconnect between official rhetoric and lived realities. Americans are constantly extolling »traditions«; litanies to family values are at the center of every politician’s discourse. And yet the culture of America is extremely corrosive of family life, indeed of all traditions except those redefined to promote »identities« that fit into the larger patterns of distinctiveness, cooperation, and openness to innovation.

Perhaps the most important source of the new (and not so new) American radicalism is what used to be viewed as a source of conservative values: namely, religion. Many commentators have noted that perhaps the biggest difference between the United States and most European countries (old as well as new in the current American distinction) is that in the United States religion still plays a central role in society and public language. But this is religion American style: namely, more the idea of religion than religion itself.

True, when, during George Bush’s run for president in 2000, a journalist was inspired to ask the candidate to name his »favorite philosopher,« the well-received answer – one that would make a candidate for high office from any centrist party here in any European country a laughing stock – was »Jesus Christ.« But, of course, Bush didn’t mean and was not understood to mean, that, if elected, his administration would feel bound to any of the precepts or social programs actually expounded by Jesus.

The United States is a generically religious society. That is, in the United States it’s not important which religion you adhere to, as long as you have one. To have a ruling religion, even a theocracy, that would be just Christian (or a particular Chris- tian denomination) would be impossible. Religion in America must be a matter of choice. This modern, relatively contentless idea of religion, constructed along the lines of consumerist choice, is the basis of American conformism, self- righteousness, and moralism (which Europeans often mistake, condescendingly, for Puritanism). Whatever historic faiths the different American religious entities purport to represent, they all preach something similar: reform of personal behavior, the value of success, community cooperativeness, tolerance of other’s choices. (All virtues that further and smooth functioning of consumer capitalism.) The very fact of being religious ensures respectability, promotes order, and gives the guarantee of virtuous intentions to the mission of the United States to lead the world.

What is being spread – whether it is called democracy, or freedom, or civilization – is part of a work in progress, as well as the essence of progress itself. Nowhere in the world does the Enlightenment dream of progress have such a fertile setting as it does in America.

Are we then really so separate? How odd that, at a moment when Europe and America have never been so similar culturally, there has never been such a great divide.

Still, for all the similarities in the daily lives of citizens in rich European countries and the daily lives of Americans, the gap between the European and the American experience is a genuine one, founded on important differences of history, of notions of the role of culture, of real and imagined memories. The antagonism – for there is antagonism – is not to be resolved in the immediate future, for all the good will of many people on both sides of the Atlantic. And yet one can only deplore those who want to maximize those differences when we do have so much in common.

The dominance of America is a fact. But America, as the present administration is starting to see, cannot do everything alone. The future of our world – the world we share – is syncretistic, impure. We are not shut off from each other. More and more, we leak into each other.

In the end, the model for whatever understanding – conciliation – we might reach lies in thinking more about that venerable opposition, »old« and »new.« The opposition between »civilization« and »barbarism« is essentially stipulatory; it is corrupting to think about and pontificate about – however much it may reflect certain realities. But the opposition of »old« and »new« is genuine, ineradicable, at the center of what we understand to be experience itself.

»Old« and »new« are the perennial poles of all feeling and sense of orientation in the world. We cannot do without the old, because in what is old is invested all our past, our wisdom, our memories, our sadness, our sense of realism. We cannot do without faith in the new, because in what is new is invested all our energy, our capacity for optimism, our blind biological yearning, our ability to forget – the healing ability without which all reconciliation is not possible.

The inner life tends to mistrust the new. A strongly developed inner life will be particularly resistant to the new. We are told we must choose – the old or the new. In fact, we must choose both. What is a life if not a series of negotiations between the old and the new? It seems to me that one should always be seeking to talk oneself out of these stark oppositions.
Old versus new, nature versus culture – perhaps it is inevitable that the great myths of our cultural life be played out as geography, not only as history. Still, they are myths, clichés, stereotypes, no more; the realities are much more complex.

A good deal of my life has been spent trying to demystify ways of thinking that polarize and oppose. Translated into politics, this means supporting whatever is pluralistic and secular. Like some Americans and many Europeans, I would far prefer to live in a multilateral world – a world not dominated by any one country (including my own). I could express my support, in a century that already promises to be another century of extremes, of horrors, for a whole panoply of meliorist attitudes – in particular, for what Virginia Woolf calls »the melancholy virtue of tolerance.«

Let me rather speak first of all as a writer, as a champion of the enterprise of literature, for therein lies the only authority I have.

The writer in me distrusts the good citizen, the »intellectual ambassador,« the human rights activist – those roles which are mentioned in the citation for the prize, much as I am committed to them. The writer is more skeptical, more self- doubting, than the person who tries to do (and to support) the right thing.

One task of literature is to formulate questions and construct counter-statements to the reigning pieties. And even when art is not oppositional, the arts gravitate toward contrariness. Literature is dialogue; responsiveness. Literature might be described as the history of human responsiveness to what is alive and what is moribund as cultures evolve and interact with one another.

Writers can do something to combat these clichés of our separateness, our difference – for writers are makers, not just transmitters, of myths. Literature offers not only myths but counter-myths, just as life offers counter-experiences – experiences that confound what you thought you thought, or felt, or believed.

A writer, I think, is someone who pays attention to the world. That means trying to understand, take in, connect with, what wickedness human beings are capable of; and not being corrupted – made cynical, superficial – by this understanding.

Literature can tell us what the world is like.

Literature can give standards and pass on deep knowledge, incarnated in language, in narrative.

Literature can train, and exercise, our ability to weep for those who are not us or ours.

Who would we be if we could not sympathize with those who are not us or ours? Who would we be if we could not forget ourselves, at least some of the time? Who would we be if we could not learn? Forgive? Become something other than we are?

On the occasion of receiving this glorious prize, this glorious German prize, let me tell you something of my own trajectory.

I was born, a third-generation American of Polish and Lithuanian Jewish descent, two weeks before Hitler came to power. I grew up in the American provinces (Arizona and California), far from Germany, and yet my entire childhood was haunted by Germany, by the monstrousness of Germany, and by the German books and the German music I loved, which set my standard for what is exalted and intense.

Even before Bach and Beethoven and Schubert and Brahms, there were a few German books. I am thinking of a teacher in an elementary school in a small town in southern Arizona, Mr. Starkie, who had awed his pupils by telling us that he had fought with Pershing’s army in Mexico against Pancho Villa: this grizzled veteran of an earlier American imperialist venture had, it seems, been touched – in translation – by the idealism of German literature, and, having taken in my particular hunger for books, loaned me his own copies of »Werther« and »Immensee.

Soon after, in my childhood orgy of reading, chance led me to other German books, including Kafka’s »In the Penal Colony,« where I discovered dread and injustice. And a few years later, when I was a high school student in Los Angeles, I found all of Europe in a German novel. No book has been more important in my life than »The Magic Moun- tain« – whose subject is, precisely, the clash of ideals at the heart of European civilization. And so on, through a long life that has been steeped in German high culture. Indeed, after the books and the music, which were, given the cultural desert in which I lived, virtually clandestine experiences, came a real experience. For I am also a late beneficiary of the German cultural diaspora, having had the great good fortune of knowing well some of the incomparably brilliant Hitler refugees, those writers and artists and musicians and scholars that America received, starting in the 1930s, and who so enriched the country, particularly its universities. Let me name two I was privileged to count as friends when I was in my late teens and early twenties, Hans Gerth and Herbert Marcuse; those with whom I studied at the University of Chicago and at Harvard, Christian Mackauer and Paul Tillich and Peter Heinrich von Blanckenha- gen, and in private seminars, Aron Gurwitsch and Nahum Glatzer; and Hannah Arendt, whom I knew after I moved to New York in my mid-twenties – so many models of the serious, whose memory I would like to evoke here.

But I shall never forget that my engagement with German culture, with German seriousness, all started with obscure, eccentric Mr. Starkie (I don’t think I ever knew his first name), who was my teacher when I was ten, and whom I never saw afterward.

And that brings me to a story, with which I will conclude – as seems fitting, since I am neither primarily a cultural ambassador nor a fervent critic of my own government (a task I perform as a good American citizen). I am a story-teller.

So, back to ten-year-old me, who found some relief from the tiresome duties of being a child by poring over Mr. Starkie’s tattered volumes of Goethe and Storm. At the time I am speaking of, 1943, I was aware that there was a prison camp with thousands of German soldiers, Nazi soldiers as of course I thought of them, in the northern part of the state, and, knowing I was Jewish (only nominally, my family having been completely secular and assimilated for two generations, but nominally, as I knew, was enough for Nazis), I was beset by a recurrent nightmare in which Nazi soldiers had escaped from the prison and had made their way downstate to the bungalow on the outskirts of the town where I lived with my mother and sister, and were about to kill me.

Flash forward to many years later, the 1970s, when my books started to be published by Hanser Verlag, and I came to know the distinguished Fritz Arnold (he had joined the firm in 1965), who was my editor at Hanser until his death in February 1999.

One of the first times we were together, Fritz said he wanted to tell me – presuming, I suppose, that this was a prerequisite to any friendship that might arise between us – what he had done during the war. I assured him that he did not owe me any such explanation; but, of course, I was touched by his bringing up the subject. I should add that Fritz Arnold was not the only German of his generation (he was born in 1916) who, soon after we met, insisted on telling me what he or she had done during the Nazi era. And not all of the stories were as innocent as what I was to hear from Fritz.


Anyway, what Fritz told me was that he had been a university student of literature and art history, first in Munich, then in Cologne, when, at the start of the war, he was drafted into the Wehrmacht with the rank of corporal. His family was, of course, anything but pro-Nazi – his father was Karl Arnold, the legendary political cartoonist of »Simplicissimus« – but emigration seemed out of the question, and he accepted, with dread, the call to military service, hoping neither to kill anyone nor to be killed.

Fritz was one of the lucky ones. Lucky, to have been stationed first in Rome (where he refused his superior officer’s invitation to be commissioned a lieutenant), then in Tunis; lucky enough to have remained behind the lines and never once to have fired a weapon; and finally, lucky, if that is the right word, to have been taken prisoner by the Americans in 1943, to have been transported by ship across the Atlantic with other captured German soldiers to Norfolk, Virginia, and then taken by train across the continent to spend the rest of the war in a prison camp in a small town … in northern Arizona.

Then I had the pleasure of telling him, sighing with wonder, for I had already started to be very fond of this man – this was the beginning of a great friendship as well as an intense professional relationship – that while he was a prisoner of war in northern Arizona, I was in the southern part of the state, terrified of the Nazi soldiers who were there, here, and from whom there would be no escape.
And then Fritz told me that what got him through his nearly three years in the prison camp in Ari- zona was that he was allowed access to books: he had spent those years reading and rereading the English and American classics. And I told him that what saved me as a schoolchild in Arizona, waiting to grow up, waiting to escape into a larger reality, was reading books, books in translation as well as those written in English.

Access to literature, world literature, was escaping the prison of national vanity, of philistinism, of compulsory provincialism, of inane schooling, of imperfect destinies and bad luck. Literature was the passport to enter a larger life; that is, the zone of freedom.

Literature was freedom. Especially in a time in which the values of reading and inwardness are so strenuously challenged,

literature is freedom.



+*Achebe 2002 Habermas 2001 Djebar 2000 Stern 1999 Walser 1998 Kemal 1997 Vargas Llosa 1996 Schimmel 1995 Semprún 1994 Schorlemmer 1993 Oz 1992 Konrád 1991 Dedecius 1990 Havel 1989 Lenz 1988 Jonas 1987 Bartoszewski 1986 Kollek 1985 Paz 1984 Sperber 1983 Kennan 1982 Kopelew 1981 Cardenal 1980 Menuhin 1979 Lindgren 1978 Kołakowski 1977 Frisch 1976 Grosser 1975 Frère Roger 1974 The Club of Rome 1973 Korczak 1972 Dönhoff 1971 Myrdal 1970 Mitscherlich 1969 Senghor 1968 Bloch 1967 Bea/Visser ‘t Hooft 1966 Sachs 1965 Marcel 1964 Weizsäcker 1963 Tillich 1962 Radhakrishnan 1961 Gollancz 1960 Heuss 1959 Jaspers 1958 Wilder 1957 Schneider 1956 Hesse 1955 Burckhardt 1954 Buber 1953 Guardini 1952 Schweitzer 1951 Tau 1950


** The last time I looked I could find no record of  McCarthy’s text and no recording of Sontag’s speech. There is a nicely designed  chapbook by Winterhouse Editions that contains the Peace Prize speech


German Peace Prize Acceptance Speech