Lady Day, Everything Happens For A Reason,Not

3 May
Billie Holiday (photo: Not credited)

Billie Holiday (photo: Not credited)

Like many young middle-class Jewish boys I was enchanted by jazz singer Billie Holiday and appropriately disillusioned by her indelible anthem of distress and despair,Strange Fruit, at an early age. Though admittedly, my sequestration in the Chicago’s 50th Ward (appropriately known a the Golden Ghetto) would gainsay any contact with ‘race’ music .Or at least make it unlikely. On the other hand, I began reading downbeat, the authoritative jazz magazine, as an adolescent. Ms. Holiday was more to my taste than the obvious blandness of Perry Como , Pat Boone ,Doris Day and Julie Andrews.

Also at an early age, I  found  the seemingly profound observation (or at least considered profound by those who utter it ) “Everything happens for a reason”, how shall I put it, poppycock. Now, all this personal history not with standing, I am moved to contemplate Billy Holiday in the wake of , in the context of the rash of police violence bestowed upon black American men and boys.

John Szwed  weighs in with*Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth *. the first new biography of the legendary  and famously troubled singer since  Stuart Nicholson’s 1997   Billie Holiday**

Billie Holiday by Stuart Nicholson

Billie Holiday by Stuart Nicholson

Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth:   by John Szwed

Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth:
by John Szwed

In addition to the new biography two very talented singers, Cassandra Wilson and Jose James have released all Holiday recordings

Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music Of Billie Holiday by José James

Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music Of Billie Holiday by
José James

Nostalgia by Annie Lennox

Nostalgia by Annie Lennox

Irrepressible chanteuse Annie Lennox who can sing with the best of them, has a version of Strange Fruit on Nostalgia, her latest recording and here she opines on the song’s significance.

Years after I had discovered Ms.Holiday, I came across a poem by Frank O’Hara

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p style=”text-align:center;”>The Day Lady Died BY FRANK O’HARA

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

*

When Billie Holiday stepped into Columbia’s studios in November 1933, it marked the beginning of what is arguably the most remarkable and influential career in ?twentieth-century popular music. Her voice weathered countless shifts in public taste, and new reincarnations of her continue to arrive, most recently in the form of singers like Amy Winehouse and Adele.

Most of the writing on Holiday has focused on the tragic details of her life—her prostitution at the age of fourteen, her heroin addiction and alcoholism, her series of abusive relationships—or tried to correct the many fabrications of her autobiography.  But now, Billie Holiday stays close to the music, to her performance style, and to the self she created and put into print, on record and on stage.

Drawing on a vast amount of new material that has surfaced in the last decade, critically acclaimed jazz writer John Szwed considers how her life inflected her art, her influences, her uncanny voice and rhythmic genius, a number of her signature songs, and her legacy.

* *Basing his sensitive, perceptive biography on interviews with those who knew the great jazz singer (1915-1959) and on extensive research in court records, police files and newspaper accounts, Nicholson (Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz) chronicles Holiday’s tragic life. Raised in speakeasies and brothels, she saw singing as a way out of a tawdry world, but her promising beginning was soon sidetracked by addiction to alcohol, drugs and abusive men. By the time she was 23, her brilliant career began to go downhill, and it would later be seriously marred by arrests and jail terms for narcotics possession. Insecure and abnormally dependent on others, Holiday always put herself at the mercy of self-serving people, and she died lonely, depressed and virtually penniless, a victim of her own self-destructiveness and the many people who had exploited her. Stressing throughout his book the interaction between Holiday’s life and her art, Nicholson laments that her image eventually overshadowed her music. He successfully portrays both the genius and the tragedy of the legendary Lady Day.(From Publisher’s Weekly)

NEXT (New and Improved)

29 Apr

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As an occasionally diligent literary journalist, I find myself seasonally besieged by lists of books purporting any numbers of qualities to those titles so listed (‘”long awaited”, “hot new”, “best”) ad nauseum. As a younger man this happenstance would be my excuse to rail against the myopia of my fellow ‘ink drenched” (for lack of a digital counterpart)scribes. Apparently I have calmed down as I rarely feel the urge to fulminate on such matters. Although I am still vexed that with some many current titles worthy of attention, many so called journalists feel an urgency to launch off willy nilly into the future

Nonetheless I feel compelled to promulgate my own list of books for which attention should be paid

A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me:

A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me:

A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me: Stories and a novella by David Gates

These eleven stories, along with a masterful novella, mark the triumphant return of David Gates, whom New York magazine anointed “a true heir to both Raymond Carver and John Cheever.”

A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me is populated by characters, young or old or neither, who are well educated, broadly knowledgeable, often creative and variously accomplished, whether as a doctor or a composer, an academic or a journalist. And every one of them carries a full supply of the human condition: parents in assisted-living—or assisted-dying—facilities, too many or too few people in their families and marriages, the ties that bind a sometimes messy knot, age an implacable foe, impulses pulling them away from comfort into distraction or catastrophe. Terrifyingly self-aware, they refuse to go gently—even when they’re going nowhere fast, in settings that range across the metropolitan and suburban Northeast to the countryside of upstate New York and New England.

Relentlessly inventive, alternately hilarious and tragic, always moving, this book proves yet again that Gates is one of our most talented, witty and emotionally intelligent writers.

A Free State: A Novel  by Tom Piazza

A Free State: A Novel
by Tom Piazza

A Free State: A Novel by Tom Piazza

The author of City of Refuge returns with a startling and powerful novel of race, violence, and identity set on the eve of the Civil War.
The year is 1855. Blackface minstrelsy is the most popular form of entertainment in a nation about to be torn apart by the battle over slavery. Henry Sims, a fugitive slave and a brilliant musician, has escaped to Philadelphia, where he earns money living by his wits and performing on the street. He is befriended by James Douglass, leader of a popular minstrel troupe struggling to compete with dozens of similar ensembles, who imagines that Henry’s skill and magnetism might restore his troupe’s sagging fortunes.

The problem is that black and white performers are not allowed to appear together onstage. Together, the two concoct a masquerade to protect Henry’s identity, and Henry creates a sensation in his first appearances with the troupe. Yet even as their plan begins to reverse the troupe’s decline, a brutal slave hunter named Tull Burton has been employed by Henry’s former master to track down the runaway and retrieve him, by any means necessary.
Bursting with narrative tension and unforgettable characters, shot through with unexpected turns and insight, A Free State is a thrilling reimagining of the American story by a novelist at the height of his powers.

 The Green Road  by Anne Enright

The Green Road by Anne Enright

The Green Road by Anne Enright

A major new novel from the winner of the Man Booker Prize.

From internationally acclaimed author Anne Enright comes a shattering novel set in a small town on Ireland’s Atlantic coast. The Green Road is a tale of family and fracture, compassion and selfishness—a book about the gaps in the human heart and how we strive to fill them.

Spanning thirty years, The Green Road tells the story of Rosaleen, matriarch of the Madigans, a family on the cusp of either coming together or falling irreparably apart. As they grow up, Rosaleen’s four children leave the west of Ireland for lives they could have never imagined in Dublin, New York, and Mali, West Africa. In her early old age their difficult, wonderful mother announces that she’s decided to sell the house and divide the proceeds. Her adult children come back for a last Christmas, with the feeling that their childhoods are being erased, their personal history bought and sold.

A profoundly moving work about a family’s desperate attempt to recover the relationships they’ve lost and forge the ones they never had, The Green Road is Enright’s most mature, accomplished, and unforgettable novel to date.

The Book of Aron: A novel by Jim Shepard

The Book of Aron: A novel by Jim Shepard

The Book of Aron: A novel by Jim Shepard

Aron, the narrator, is an engaging if peculiar and unhappy young boy whose family is driven by the German onslaught from the Polish countryside into Warsaw and slowly battered by deprivation, disease, and persecution. He and a handful of boys and girls risk their lives by scuttling around the ghetto to smuggle and trade contraband through the quarantine walls in hopes of keeping their fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters alive, hunted all the while by blackmailers and by Jewish, Polish, and German police, not to mention the Gestapo.

When his family is finally stripped away from him, Aron is rescued by Janusz Korczak, a doctor renowned throughout prewar Europe as an advocate of children’s rights who, once the Nazis swept in, was put in charge of the Warsaw orphanage. Treblinka awaits them all, but does Aron manage to escape—as his mentor suspected he could—to spread word about the atrocities?
Jim Shepard has masterfully made this child’s-eye view of the darkest history mesmerizing, sometimes comic despite all odds, truly heartbreaking, and even inspiring. Anyone who hears Aron’s voice will remember it forever.

A Night at the Fiestas: Stories   by Kirstin Valdez Quade

A Night at the Fiestas: Stories by Kirstin Valdez Quade

A Night at the Fiestas: Stories by Kirstin Valdez Quade

With intensity and emotional precision, Kirstin Valdez Quade’s unforgettable stories plunge us into the fierce, troubled hearts of characters defined by the desire to escape the past or else to plumb its depths. The deadbeat father of a pregnant teenager tries to transform his life by playing the role of Jesus in a bloody penitential Passion. A young man discovers that his estranged father and a boa constrictor have been squatting in his grandmother’s empty house. A lonely retiree new to Santa Fe becomes obsessed with her housekeeper. One girl attempts to uncover the mystery of her cousin’s violent past, while another young woman finds herself at an impasse when she is asked to hear her priest’s confession.
Always hopeful, these stories chart the passions and obligations of family life, exploring themes of race, class, and coming-of-age, as Quade’s characters protect, betray, wound, undermine, bolster, define, and, ultimately, save each other.

A Little Life: A Novel by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life: A Novel by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life: A Novel by Hanya Yanagihara

Brace yourself for the most astonishing, challenging, upsetting, and profoundly moving book in many a season. An epic about love and friendship in the twenty-first century that goes into some of the darkest places fiction has ever traveled and yet somehow improbably breaks through into the light. Truly an amazement—and a great gift for its publisher.

When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.

In rich and resplendent prose, Yanagihara has fashioned a tragic and transcendent hymn to brotherly love, a masterful depiction of heartbreak, and a dark examination of the tyranny of memory and the limits of human endurance.

  The Small Backs of Children: A Novel by Lidia Yuknavitch


The Small Backs of Children: A Novel by Lidia Yuknavitch

The Small Backs of Children: A Novel by Lidia Yuknavitch

A masterful literary talent explores the treacherous, often violent borders between war and sex, love and art.
With the flash of a camera, one girl’s life is shattered, and a host of others altered forever. . .

In a war-torn village in Eastern Europe, an American photographer captures a heart-stopping image: a young girl flying toward the lens, fleeing a fiery explosion that has engulfed her home and family. The image wins acclaim and prizes, becoming an icon for millions—and a subject of obsession for one writer, the photographer’s best friend, who has suffered a devastating tragedy of her own.

As the writer plunges into a suicidal depression, her filmmaker husband enlists several friends, including a fearless bisexual poet and an ingenuous performance artist, to save her by rescuing the unknown girl and bringing her to the United States. And yet, as their plot unfolds, everything we know about the story comes into question: What does the writer really want? Who is controlling the action? And what will happen when these two worlds—east and west, real and virtual—collide?
A fierce, provocative, and deeply affecting novel of both ideas and action that blends the tight construction of Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending with the emotional power of Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children is a major step forward from one of our most avidly watched writers.

Charles Baxter

Jim Shepard

Anne Enright

The Bad Days

22 Apr
Bad Days in History by Micheal Farquahr

Bad Days in History by Micheal Farquahr

Back in my school boy days I encountered an author, Richard Armour who produced books evidencing a jocular attitude toward American History. He penned sixty-five books including the classic It All Started with Columbus

It All Started with Columbus by Richard Armour

It All Started with Columbus by Richard Armour

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Washington Post Michael Farquhar ( A Treasury of Royal Scandals, A Treasury of Great American Scandals, A Treasury of Deception and A Treasury of Foolishly Forgotten Americans) seems to be mining the same rich vein in his Bad Days in History: A Gleefully Grim Chronicle of Misfortune, Mayhem, and Misery for Every Day of the Year as collects a calendar full of “instances of bad luck, epic misfortune, and unadulterated mayhem.” One would be myopic to lump this tome with the kinds of novelty items found near book store checkouts as the “A Gleefully Grim Chronicle” might suggest. This is a legitimate work of historiography that enlivens the badly taught history I was presented with in mid century Chicago Public Schools and I suspect is still in fashion in many public schools.

Here are some good dates

Jan. 3, 1977

Aug. 13, 363,

Oct. 16, 1998

On Nov. 2, 1932

July 7, 1456

Dec29, 1977

Aug 28  2013

And one of my favorites,  January 15, 1919.

Clear As Mud

20 Apr

Illustration featuring L Ron Hubbard [borrowed from the NYT]

Illustration featuring L Ron Hubbard [borrowed from the NYT]

Scientology has been in recent times, a maelstrom of controversy. Ace reporter Lawrence Wright fuels the fire with his expose GOING CLEAR Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. Here’s the NY Times:

That crunching sound you hear is Lawrence Wright bending over backward to be fair to Scientology. Every deceptive comparison with Mormonism and other religions is given a respectful hearing. Every ludicrous bit of church dogma is served up deadpan. This makes the book’s indictment that much more powerful. Open almost any page at random. That tape of L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology’s founder, that Wright quotes from? “It was a part of a lecture Hubbard gave in 1963, in which he talked about the between-lives period, when thetans are transported to Venus to have their memories erased.”

The ever clear-eyed David Thomson offers this

…In the popular estimate today, I think that Scientology is considered less as a way to better mental health than as a means of thought control, punishment and vindictive pursuit, founded and managed in fear, not hope. Wright points out that there are countries (Germany for one) where Scientology has come close to being outlawed.

So it’s a very American dream, and there is a natural affinity with Hollywood in that it preys on an idea of fantastic escape. But if you look again, it’s alarming to realise how thoroughly the legend of escape becomes a new kind of prison. Being Clear is an inducement to darkness and disarray. You may laugh at it at first, but get ready to weep.

Now comes Alex Gibney’s HBO documentary, Going Clear, based in part on Wright’s research. If you thought you knew about Scientology, I would venture you were not prepared for such a frightening depiction of intimidation, mind control, and arcane theories, propagated first by an apparently loopy figure,L Ron Hubbard and continued by current Scientology leader David Miscavige (who is alleged to beat and demoralize his staff and additionally that physical violence by superiors towards staff is a commonplace occurrence).

I found the telling piece of evidence on Scientology in its skirmish with the all powerful Internal Revenue Service. While Scientology was raking in millions in book sales (Dianetics)and membership contributions, Hubbard apparently paid no taxes, claiming a religious exemption. When Hubbard died the IRS presented Scientology with a billion dollar plus tax bill. Now clearly the criteria for being a religion are not clear-cut but the IRS’s rule of thumb was to assess how a group used its monies to help its members. Scientology’s response was to file nearly 2000 law suits naming the IRS as defendant. And not surprisingly the IRS yielded, forgiving the tax bill and recognizing Scientology as a religion.

If you need further evidence of,uh,Scientology’s peculiarities have a look its most famous practitioner’s response

DOWN Under

20 Apr

Its easy to ignore Australia, that Commonwealth Nation being so far away and barely thought of as more than an outpost of the (sort of)English speaking world. My recent video viewing experience (thanks to Netflix) has caused me to take note of the skein of masterfully produced “films”— The Slap, Secrets and Lies and The Code from those parts. Interestingly, US networks have seen fit to rejigger the first two series for prime time American consumption and present the third as is to little or no reception (see if you can find a review).

Now I possess a fair amount of certainty that if you managed to find this small Internet way station, you can search-engine the details of the above mentioned series but suffice it for me to remark that I find the Australian productions preferable (though the US iterations are competent)

There are a couple of things that I thought were worth noting. Pointing to Cate Blanchett as an example, the women actresses who are cast in important roles in these dramatic series are very attractive but not by Hollywood standards (name some Australian women besides Blanchett and Kidman appearing in US produced films) except for Melissa George who appears in both versions of the The Slap(and seems lacking in any dramatic prowess). Nor are the ladies made up to look glamorous or alluring.

Australian diction is also remarkable for its variation from American English.For instance instead of saying “We’ll fix it ” or “We’ll work it out “, Aussies say “We’ll sort it out” or “We’ll get that sorted out”. “Foreign students” are referred to as “overseas students”. And their exclamations,”Oi” seem derived from Yiddish.

The pictures we see are not much different than the settings in the US except you rarely see any shade , overwhelmingly presenting the impression that Australia is a land of eternal sunshine.

Peter Carey [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Peter Carey [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

By the way, there is no shortage of great Aussie writers starting with Nobel laureate Patrick White and in recent years Peter Carey who I have spoken with twice; Here Carey and I chat about a passage from Philip Roth’s American Pastorale:

PC: That’s terrific! Who wrote that?

RB: Philip Roth. [American Pastoral]*

PC: That’s very, very, very good.

RB: Yes. I read that and thought, that’s what writers do, don’t they? You try to get people right?

PC: I wasn’t thinking about writing. I was listening to that thinking about life. It’s the business of life and how right and wise that is. The moments for writers when we experience it is when you go into an interview and writers come away, they say, ‘I didn’t say that! They totally misunderstood me!’ What it always makes me think of is the nature of existence. Most people don’t write things down but we are forever misunderstanding each other and what we think is happening is not what’s happening and so on.

RB: There’s more to my question. Yes, it is about life, but then we didn’t come here to shoot the shit about generalities about life.

PC: That’s true.

RB: So I thought, what’s the application of Roth’s remarks to someone who spends their time trying to create the ‘word people’ that Roth refers to here and the aspiration for them to be right, occasionally, within some framework?

PC: Right, yes, but there is some sort of bullshit inherent in the whole thing—

RB: [laughs]

PC:—of being the writer, because in the situation of being the writer you are not in the situation, you are in the situation presumably, occasionally of being all-knowing and so you can have that.

RB: Think about that.

PC: Well, you can. You can construct a world in which people do understand each other. My characters tend not to understand each other, as a matter of fact.

RB: Why is that? Who gets it right? That [Roth’s passage] reproduces, reflects the way people view each other. If your characters aren’t understanding each other, that seems the truer—

PC: I guess so. And they don’t even get themselves right, which is also true. We tend not to know each other. The difficulty with My Life as a Fake is that having this title which I really love—I loved it as a title—I never really thought of what powerful shit I am playing with when you have a title like that. What a vector of force it is and how it creates all sorts of understanding about the book that I didn’t intend. And coming back to this question of knowledge and self-knowledge. People will frequently say all of the characters are fakes and it’s hard to know who is the most fake. I don’t think any of them are really fake at all, least of all McCorkle, the poet who comes to life. And then they cite Sarah as someone who is fake. Well, I don’t think she is fake in the tiniest bit. She is somebody who certainly doesn’t understand her life. She doesn’t know who she is. She misunderstands people around her. None of these things suggest a lack of authenticity. She is intensely private about her sexual life. And you could say then that she has a fake persona. I wouldn’t say she was fake at all. I would say she was guarded, an armored vehicle in the world.

* You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day?

AUTOBIOGRAPHY/MEMOIR IN 365 PARTS (13.00)

11 Apr
Mementos of an Active Life [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Mementos of an Active Life
[photo: Robert Birnbaum]

12 April 2015

The modern penchant for so-called full disclosure warrants that Robert Birnbaum admit to his long criminal record. As an adolescent in Chicago, he was picked up a number of times by the police, though never charged, for various acts of teenage hooliganism. In 1967,he was arrested by Federal agents and charged with the sale and possession of 2 kilos of Indiana “Gold”, charges that were later dismissed due to a successful entrapment defense. In 1968, Birnbaum was arrested for criminal trespass for sitting-in, in Roosevelt University’s President Rolf Weil’s office, in protest of the school’s refusal to grant historian Staughton Lynd tenure. During the Chicago Democratic Convention in August of 1968, Birnbaum was picked up by police, but oddly enough, not arrested, for picking up a rock at the Grant Park Band Shell riot. In 1970, he spent a night in jail for a broken right tail light on his beat up 1964 VW bus. Birnbaum believes that there are still warrants out for him in Indiana (from 1971)for failure to pay a turnpike toll. Apparently, he has been rehabilitated and mended his criminal ways and has gone arrest-free since the early 70’s.

Boston Strong

8 Apr
Boston Marathon bombing 2013

Boston Marathon bombing 2013


The tragic events at the 2013 Boston Marathon— the injury, loss of life and the injection of anxiety and fear into civic life (this was Boston’s 9/11) has been a preoccupation of the public conversation ever since. Especially as the US Justice (a possible misnomer)Department fought the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s defense’s move for a change of venue. Even with my limited and disinterested contact with Boston media, I have noted the trial of the so-called Boston Bomber has occupied headlines and was regularly the lead story on local news programs.

While the event and what followed was certainly harrowing and unsettling, to my sensibility so was some of the public response. The proliferation of bumper sticker slogans and t-shirts somehow trivialized this day of infamy. Now this may be an oblique connection but I somehow found something wrong with the ‘Boston Strong’ incantation and an abysmally small turn out for the Boston mayoral election.

Boston’s Mr Fussy Alex Beam took umbrage with the legal proceedings drawing up memories of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s 1930’s show trials. He asks the key question:

I ask: In what sense is the ongoing prosecution of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev not a show trial? What is our government trying to show, and to whom?

Of course no one has been tortured, but the outcome has long been foreordained. Eric Holder’s Department of Justice could have spared us this costly theater piece by offering an agreement to have Tsarnaev plead guilty for the Boston Marathon terror bombing. Instead, Justice insisted on the death penalty, precipitating this seemingly endless, two-stage trial.

The Brothers by Masha Gessen

The Brothers by Masha Gessen

Now comes Masha Gessen’s The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy (Riverhead) which is interesting because it is in equal parts a clear window into Chechnyan history (See Anthony Marra’s fine novel set in Chechnya A Constellation of Vital Phenomena)— a country that can barely be located by Americans. And a rumination on cultural dislocation and terrorism. Not to mention that Gessen traveled to Chechnya, Dagestan, and Kyrgyzstan, providing an ambitious and important context for what turns out to be a much larger story than that terrible day, April 15, 2013.

And for those interested in the operation and degree of efficiency and effectiveness of various police and security operations, there is the recently released “After Action Report for the Response to the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings . One news source revealed:

But the report also cited the potential for even more injuries during the chaos starting three days after the bombing, when Dzhokhar and his older brother, Tamerlan—who died during a firefight in Watertown, Mass.,—allegedly tried to flee the area after they were depicted in surveillance pictures near the marathon finish line.

Officers who arrived on scene while the Watertown shootout was already under way “fired weapons toward the vicinity of the suspects without necessarily having a target lined up and identified, or having appropriately aimed their weapons,” the report said.
…also highlighted the logistical challenges when police flooded into Watertown, some from nearby states and New York, and many who “self-deployed” to try to help. This caused safety concerns when they headed out into the field on their own, “at times placing themselves, and the officers with the authority to respond, at risk,” the report said.

Currently the jury for the Tsarnaev trial is deliberating…and found  him guilty on all 30 counts

And if you haven’t exhausted your interest in this woeful tale, reportedly Mark Wahlberg is making a  movie—shoot me if he calls it Boston Strong.

Update —Masha Gessen offers a post verdict take on the trial and the case:

Unlike some other people who have touched this case, the lawyers in federal court in Boston have done their jobs remarkably well. The prosecution laid out a meticulously timed and skillfully scripted case, leaving the jury with a clear picture of unspeakable carnage and cruelty. The defense wisely refrained from challenging the testimony of any victims or witnesses. It cross-examined only F.B.I. agents and experts — and, tellingly, some of them sounded unprepared and underinformed when questioned. The sole job of the defense now is to make sure Dzhokhar Tsarnaev lives. The prosecution’s task is to persuade the jury to sentence him to death. That means that, riveting as the next phase of the Boston bombing trial may be, these proceedings cannot and will not move us closer to the truth.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY/MEMOIR IN 365 PARTS (12.00)

7 Apr
Stupid 'award' from stupid Boston Magazine

Stupid ‘award’ from stupid Boston Magazine

7 April 2015

Spending various of his formative years in a number of the tribal territories of Chicago Robert Birnbaum’s initial journalistic models were the inestimable Mike Royko and celebrity gossip reporter Irv “Kup” Kupcinet. As Birnbaum encountered the complexities of the tainted Viet Nam era,Izzy IF Stone and Hunter Thompson assumed prominent roles as guide posts. After a number of career missteps,Robert began publishing downtown tabloid Stuff magazine. After 15 years in the enviable role as a publisher in a major metropolis, he encountered a few more career missteps and ultimately began squatting on his own 40 acres of the Internet,Our Man In Boston.Among other publications Robert Birnbaum has contributed to are Stuff Magazine, Boston Magazine,Boston Common, The Improper Bostonian, Bark magazine, The Daily Beast, LA Review of Books, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Morning News, The Millions, Identitytheory.

Our Man in Tasmania: Richard Flanagan

2 Apr

BOOKER_SPLASH_3075097c

In winning the Booker Prize novelist Richard Flanagan for The Narrow Road to the Deep North exponentially increased the reasons whereby other earthlings gained awareness of Tasmania,his home. The other claim to recognition being a small marsupial that was monetized into cartoon character by American film studios.

It happens that this is my second conversation* with Flanagan wherein he spends some time admiring my ragtop and mistaking it for a beat-up Mercedes Benz. This should have no bearing on your judgement of his literary talents.As is my wont what follows is a typically digressive conversation. Go ahead live a little.

Keltic Krust,site of many authorial conversations [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Keltic Krust,site of many authorial conversations [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Robert:Say something? I need it test the mic level.

Richard:I do like your car, by the way.

Robert: Hmm? Today is September 5th 2014. For the record, I’m speaking to Richard Flanagan, at the site of the now closed Keltic
Krust. Where do you live?

Richard Flanagan [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Richard Flanagan [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Richard: Where do I live?

Robert: Yes, where do you live?

Richard: Tasmania.

Robert: Am I wrong but I haven’t seen people referring to you as a Tasmanian. Don’t they refer to you as an Australian?

Richard:I don’t know.

Robert: What do you think of yourself as?

Richard:I just think of myself as a writer. Adjectives are judgments and judgments are normally unfounded. It doesn’t worry me really.

Robert: Your identity doesn’t attach to Tasmania?

Richard: I like the place I come from but no, I don’t think … I just think if you’re a writer you live in that universe of letters, don’t you? It makes as much sense as trying to define yourself as an Angolan chiropodist or something. It’s neither here or there, is it? Literature is not national. That’s my point.

Robert: Lots of people would argue with you about that but I’m not going to. Here’s the thing. It seems to me in some places that I read, including, I think, your lecture on love stories*, you would say things like, “Suffering can’t be contained in a book. All sorts of life experiences aren’t contained in a book, they are.”

Richard:They are but also- literature is. Ultimately, finally, novels are an addition to life. They’re not a complement to it, they’re not a reflection of life. Literature is life or it is nothing. Literature has to exist in this world as everything else does. If it’s seen to be ornamental, if it’s seen to be additional, it is only because it’s seen to have failed.

Robert: Speaking of love stories, you weren’t reticent about talking about them. I think the underlying theme of that particular talk was that you didn’t feel like you were an expert in love stories.

Richard: The talk makes the necessary distinction between love and love stories. Love stories seem to me they’re more- I’ve read them and thought about them- to obey certain rules and certain structures, certain rhythms. That is because when they succeed they speak to what we know to be the spiritual and psychological truths of love. We don’t experience love in the form of love stories, but when love stories are great, they speak to our experience of love precisely because they have different patterns and symmetries and-

Robert: Or they evoke in the reader that feeling that they had when they had a sort of similar experience.

Richard:They should. I think fundamental to a love story is that sense we have in love, of knowing we’ve discovered eternity in the moment that vanishes and dies immediately after. That’s why love stories always have to have death.

Robert: They have to have what?

Richard:They have to have death because that death in terms of story speaks to that idea of the eternal being ephemeral. Without that we’ve already got something that is slightly false to our knowledge of love. In our lives we may know love and may know it profoundly, but we don’t have death with it.

Robert: It reminds me of some glib saying about while it lasts, love is forever. Do you feel that the love story in your new novel is effective, is real? Does it work for you? … It obtains the characteristics that you’ve just described.

Richard: It’s not for the writer to judge what their work is. That’s for the reader. Some readers judge my books a success, some judge them a failure. It’s not for me to argue with them.

Robert:Let’s say one critic refers to your book as deeply flawed because they don’t think the love story works, whereas the other part of it, the retelling or the telling of the Japanese building of a railroad under horrendous circumstances that does work. How does that make you feel that someone thinks one half of the book is okay and one half isn’t?

Richard: It doesn’t make me feel any different to the critics who say the book is a triumph and both halves complement each other. In the end, if a novel has a life it’ll have many readings. Some of the readings will judge it to fail or partly succeed or to succeed completely. You cannot set your compass by those readings. The real judgment on the book isn’t made by the immediate critical response. It’s social and historical and it’s made by thousands upon thousands of readings by anonymous readers over many years. It’s that judgment that ultimately obtains and endures. What that will be on this book, it may be that I’m condemned to the trash bin-

Richard Flanagan circa 2007 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Richard Flanagan circa 2007 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Robert: Or you win a Booker prize. When is that announced? In October?

Richard: In October, yeah. What I can say about that question is that I think the critic was wrong in this regard. They said there was a war story. That’s what the book should have been. It was a very conscious decision on my part to have these 2 stories, both the love story and the war story. I set out to write a love story seeking to do what I spoke about. To do that I needed a story of death, and war is the ultimate expression of death. It is the great story of death. War illuminates love but love gives you something that you need in a story as dark as this one would otherwise be. Nietzsche said that hope is the most evil of human torments because it prolongs life. That’s true but equally whether it is our greatest folly or not, we all live in hope till we die. We understand the abandonment of hope as death. I think novels that don’t allow for hope in the end disappoint us because we understand in some fundamental way that they’re untrue to our experience of living. A novel has to find that sense of hope. It’s not the same thing as happiness or happy endings. No one’s accused me of lapsing into those sort of errors. Hope’s greatest expression is love. That’s why this story, for it to succeed, needed to love. A novelist does look at writing his book many different ways, or I certainly do. It was my opinion then writing it, and it is completely my opinion having finished writing it that it was a much lesser book without the love story. I think the way it’s being received suggests that as well.

Robert: You would have an incomplete character. Rodrigo, what would he be if he was just a insecure hero of his war experience?

Richard: That great American literati I feel close to sitting in your wonderful battered Mercedes [actually an 11 year old Sebring ragtop] looking out on a highway in America. Clint Eastwood said the interesting thing about violence is that it has consequences and the act of violence itself is uninteresting. Too much of our world has become a pornography of violence. It’s not interested in either the causes or the consequences, but ultimately both those things shape our humanity.

Robert: I don’t know if you’ve seen or heard of this. There’s a BBC series called Southcliffe* which is about a guy marauding a town, killing 16 people and other … What I thought was really great about this was you barely saw any of the violence. It was all about the consequences. It was all about what the survivors experienced and how they coped or didn’t cope.

Richard:I didn’t see Southcliffe but I’m aware of it. It seemed to me, from what I heard about it from those who saw it, that it is in this new genre that’s arisen that is born out of one TV series, which is the first series of the Danish thriller series, The Killing. The point of The Killing is that there’s an act of violence which is really peripheral, a murder. Unlike normal thrillers which are really about the solving of the crime, each episode focused on a different consequence of the crime. How it affected the mother, how it affected the father, how it affected each of the cops in turn. Southcliffe’s just picking up on all those same ideas. That’s why The Killing, I think, did something really new in that particular genre.
It’s not something new in literature. Work in a novel is always being accused that storytelling is elsewhere. When you look at storytelling elsewhere, you see it reflecting what the novel has been doing successfully for a very long time. Not to take anything away from The Killing, which I thought was a terrific series, the first series.

Robert: There has been a marked improvement in the storytelling on TV starting, I guess … A lot of people like The Sopranos, The Wire, True Detective, Justified. Series like that. They’re coming from better writers. That’s the thing. You’re getting novelists and story writers to do this.

Richard:I think 2 things happened as I understand it. One was creative power got concentrated in a single creator, the showrunner, rather than in a strange, cruel melange of studio executives and feuding producers and directors and so on. I just don’t think you really get great art arising from that deranged expression of terror and greed and aggrandizement and so on that is how most television and film gets made. The second thing was they were then, as I understand it- this is what my friends who work in film tell me- is that you tend to get given the money to do those series with not many strings attached. Which is actually unlike Hollywood where you’ve got so many people. I’ve written for Hollywood so I know you’ve got so many people crazily coming up with things being broken down and rewritten for no good reason. These people because they’ve got the money, they control the money.
What I hear about cable TV is that once they decide the project and the people and what they want and they greenlight it, they largely, as long as the money is accounted for responsibly, let them make what they set out to make. It’s really the moment maybe the visual arts were finally allowed to create in the way that painters or novelists or other people create. Which is that you tell the story the way you think it ought to be told.

Robert: With all the [value 00:15:16] of the casting, the … [inaudible 00:15:20] the way you want it. Are you interested in doing that? In writing for film, video. Creating a story they would tell via that.

Richard:No, not particularly.

Robert: Or adapting-

Richard:I’m a terribly inconstant man. Who knows what I’ll do tomorrow? I’ve worked in film. I’ve directed film. I’ve written film. In the end, I keep on falling back in love with the novel because-

Robert: You don’t enjoy that experience?

Richard:No, there’s fun to be had. It’s like you live in the scriptorium and you’re allowed to run across the highway and run away with the circus. After a while you weary of stepping in the elephant shit and you-

Robert: Too many people too?

Richard:No. What I think is that ultimately even with what I was talking about the TV series, film and television are a tyranny and the tyrant is money. Novels are a flawed, broken and difficult world but it is a republic. I would rather live in a corrupted republic of letters than in the tyranny of money, no matter how driven that tyranny sometimes sounds.

Robert: Speaking of the republic of literature, what is it like to be a writer in your part of the world? Or do you see yourself as a citizen of the world, you don’t particularly notice that you’re dealt with differently or that your world is different?

Richard:I think it has to be said that there would be … I don’t know of any other country where us writers hold as low a public position as they do in Australia. There’s strangely very little respect in the structures of society for a writer. A writer is someone with no standing. The paradox of that is that Australian writers are much loved by Australian readers. They’re popular. They have a very real place and affection in the minds of the people but they-

Robert: The people who know them.

Richard:Australian books sell really well in Australia. They’re read and they matter. That is a wonderful thing. The position of a writer in that society-

Robert: Yeah, you’re not considered a public intellectual.

Richard:You’re not considered anything. Perhaps that’s a good thing.

Robert: When a book is-

Richard:It’s good to understand writing is a journey into humility.

Robert: I would think. I did read somewhere that you said something to the effect that you knew you always had to write this book eventually, even when you were writing other books.

Richard:Yes.

Robert: Does that sound like a fair recapitulation of what you said?

Richard:Yeah, that’s true.

Robert: Was it sort of a burden or an interference as you were writing any number of other books that you wrote? Another way of asking it is when did you finally decide, “Okay, I’ve got to do it now”?

Richard:I started writing this in 2001. I wouldn’t just write a draft, I’d finish a novel and I’d know it had failed. Then I would delete it off the computer and I’d burn the manuscript and all the notes. I’d end up writing a different novel, another novel that’d be published. Then I’d go back to this and I’d write this as a new novel in a different form. One was a book of linked haiku, one was a sort of haibun, the Japanese form that combines travel journal and poetry, one was a sort of Odyssean.

Robert: A who?

Richard: An Odyssean. A sort of journey in which-

Robert: Homeric?

Richard:No. It’s narrated in the first person form. One was a family epic that spanned 100 years.

Robert: How many different forms of the novel did you write?

Richard: I wrote 5 novels to get to this one. What happened? I guess it was this … I’ll put it in a better way. Philippe Petit, the famous tightrope walker who walked between the Twin Towers. When police drag him in and kick him down the stairs and throw him in the police car at the bottom, a journalist shoves his microphone into the back window just as the police car is about to drive off. He says to Petit, “Why did you do it?” Petit says, “There is no why.” There is no why why I had to write it. I just knew I had to.” I think that there were 2 great facts in my life. I was a writer, that was one tale. The other tale was that I had grown up, along with my brothers and sisters, as this child of the Death Railway. More and more I realized how shaped everything in my life had been by my father’s experience as a slave laborer of the Japanese, and this horrific war crime where between 100 and 200 thousand people died for nothing. As some-

Robert: It’s funny how usually the statistic is 12 thousand Brits. The total number of Brits and natives isn’t put together as an aggregate.

Richard:What is shocking is that to the extent it’s remembered, it’s only remembered in terms of what happened to Allied soldiers whose part in it was only a fraction of and whose suffering bad as it was was less because they had their structures and they had their expertise. Admittedly all of those things in a living hell. The Asian slave laborers, the Tamils from the Malay states, the [the Muslims, the Thais and so on, the Burmese tribes locals, their situation was a hell beyond imagining, and is certainly a hell of which there is no knowing. I found that so sad. To return to what I was saying, there was this tower that was the fact of me being a writer and there was the other tower of this experience. At a certain point I didn’t know why, but I knew I had to walk the tightrope between the two if I was to keep on writing. I had to somehow communicate this incommunicable thing that concerned me or I couldn’t say anything else.

Robert: I guess the closest thing that we have to knowing about this was the David Lean movie. Do you foresee anybody modernizing this story given the fact that you have now brought this topic up again?

Richard: Do you mean in-

Robert: Making a newer version of Bridge on the River Kwai.

Richard:It’s not for me to answer, is it?

Robert: No, but you could speculate. You do that sometimes, don’t you?

Richard:No. Here I get asked about Bridge on the River Kwai. That movie relates as much to what happened there as-

Robert: That’s what I mean. Now we know-

Richard Flanagan [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Richard Flanagan [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Richard:As My Fair Lady did. Or Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It was a Hollywood confection. On those terms, an admirable … it’s a David Lean movie. It’s an admirable movie but it bears no connection to anything. Will people think more, do more? I would have no idea. The world is so quick-sighted in what it chooses to care for and what it chooses not to. I tend to think it would but I really don’t know.

Robert: I would have never thought somebody would make another profound Holocaust movie but then Spielberg did his version with Schindler’s List and some still come out. Some little tidbits of movies about that era.

Richard:If you’re asking me should it happen then I don’t think you can really give an answer to that. All you can say is that whatever people do with their art … There is only 1 criteria, not whether it’s appropriate, not whether the times demand it, not whether something is being ignored. The only category that can apply to it is it good? That’s all that matters. If it’s good it speaks to something, some truth about ourselves. That chaos at the center of us and other things. If it’s done that and then something has changed a little, even if it’s only 1 reader or 1 viewer thinking, “I’m not alone in what I feel,” I feel that is something good that’s been achieved.

Robert: What’s the resonance of spending time on this book for a long period of time then completing it and going on with your life? Are you done with the book?

Richard:Do you mean emotionally done or …

Robert: Yeah.

Richard:Something like that. I feel 2 things. I’d rather not talk about it and I try not to do things unless I have to. On the other hand, it’s not the worst in life to be sitting in a battered Mercedes in the middle of America with Robert. It’s not-

Robert: I want to correct you. This is a [2004] Chrysler Sebring.

Richard:Of course. Oh, is it?

Robert: This is the most expensive version. Now your whole opinion I hope you’ve it changed about me.

Richard:A Chrysler what? A Chrysler Cedric [sic]. That’s even better. Look, the thing is a writer shouldn’t get too precious … Most people have such difficult, demeaning and often humiliating jobs. Of course there are things I’d rather not do but they’re not odious or terrible things. It is terribly wrong to pretend otherwise.

Robert: To act like a suffering writer?

Richard: Yeah. To paint that task as … For several reasons. One, all I ever wanted to do was be a writer. I’ve been lucky enough that no one’s blowing the whistle on me today and I’m still getting away with it. I’m sure someone’s going to tap me on the shoulder in the next few months. The other is yeah, exactly that. I was able to do what I wanted to do. It is a joyous thing for me to be allowed to get up in the morning and sit at a table and make it up. The other is most people aren’t allowed that sort of fortune. Many of those are gifted people. Even if they’re not gifted, they don’t deserve the difficulty or the struggle that is daily life for most people. I know there are some rotten jobs. Writing is not one of them.

Robert: No. I imagine, this is my imagination, that you’re onto something else already. That you’re writing something else or thinking about writing something else.

Richard:Yeah, I’ve got-

Robert: Are there gaps in your life when once you started writing you didn’t know what you were going to write?

Richard:I’ve always got too many ideas. I’ve got a novel nearly finished now and I’ve got another one half written. I always just want to get back to the table and write more.

Robert: Do you live in an urban area or a rural area or a combination?

Richard:I live in Hobart, which is the capital Tasmania. Tasmania is about the size of Ireland or Sri Lanka but it’s only half a million people.

Robert: How many people live in Hobart?

Richard:200 thousand. It’s a remote or by American sensibilities a very small place. Then I have a shack, as we call them there. A holiday cottage on an island off Tasmania where I also go and write when I just want to be by myself. I go there for … Like with this novel I spent the best part of 6 months by myself. My family would come and stay with me occasionally on weekends and so on. Occasionally friends came but mostly I just lived by myself in this remote place in the sea.

Wanting by Richard Flanagan

Wanting by Richard Flanagan


Robert: I should say, I also really, really like Wanting. That is a terrific, terrific book.

Richard:I’m really touched by that because I felt that was my first novel where I’d mastered writing a novel. I really felt for the first time that I had some difficult and large thing I was trying to communicate but I was in control of that. I’m glad you read it.

Robert: I think your escort is getting nervous. I hope we talk again and have more time.

Richard: You should get someone to take a photo of us sitting in here doing the interview. Why don’t we do that?

Flanagan & Birnbaum, sitting in car [photographer unknown]

Flanagan & Birnbaum, sitting in car [photographer unknown]

Conversation with Richard Flanagan

Lecture on Love Stories

Southcliff

Before You Die for Dummies

27 Mar
1001 WALKS YOU MUST TAKE BEFORE YOU DIE  by Barry Stone

1001 WALKS YOU MUST TAKE BEFORE YOU DIE by Barry Stone

While the underlying conceit of this book and the whole bucket list genre and current cultural preoccupation creeps me out(perhaps its the latest iteration of books with the subtext,”….for Dummies”)— 1001 WALKS YOU MUST TAKE BEFORE YOU DIE (Universe/Rizzoli may be special case. As I have recently discovered walking to be a multi faceted pleasure — fearing an adult onset condition known as sitting-around-all-day {SAAD).I discovered bipedal locomotion a reasonable way to get the heart pumping without having to resort to a membership in one of those ubiquitous temples of narcissism. And best of all, is the opportunity to rediscover the wonders of this world, the only world we have and will have.

1000 Walksis a substantial volume (as in thick) and as the publisher notes, a wide-ranging compendium including, “country hikes, heritage trails, coastal strolls, mountain paths, and city walks from around the globe.”

Did I mention the pretty pictures?

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