Live and In Person: Jim Shepard

19 May
Jim Shepard [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Jim Shepard [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

In the misbegotten argot of our times I am a Jim Shepard early adopter. I first came across the Williams College mentor where he is J. Leland Miller Professor of American History, Literature, and Eloquence) for his novel Nosferatu circa 1998.

Nosferatu by Jim Shepard

Nosferatu by Jim Shepard



Needless to say, I have been something of a devoted reader ever since—avidly consuming his story collections You Think That’s Bad, Like You’d Understand, Anyway and Love and Hydrogen his fourth novel Project X and his latest opus, The Book of Aron (read Ron Charles extolling the Book Of Aron here).

The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard

The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard

Now the point of this brief is not necessarily to encourage you to read Shepard (a mission I will undertake when I publish my recent(the 4th or 5th) chat with Jim). No, I am much more interested in enthusing about Jim Shepard’s live readings. Over these many years I have sat through many author events that include an obligatory reading from the currently peddled text. No surprise —these performances are frequently less than riveting. There have been a handful of authors who are manage to infuse their live appearance with something both entertaining and informative. This may be an extreme point but ket me say that if were caught up in some kind of debacle (a stalled elevator, a plane delayed for hours on a runway, an interminable traffic jam and such) I would love to be in Shepard’s company. A self-confessed calamity aficionado, of whom it has been said, “Shepard is something of a patron saint of the maladapted”, and “[A] pointillist master of middle-American disaffection, second-shoe-dropping comic rhythm, pop-cult radiation, and the deceivingly unsimple art of in articulation”,Jim manages with brio and alacrity to leach out the humor in even the most dire of dramas (as in his latest story, of which it would be difficult to imagine something worse)

Zoom Q2 HD Video Recorder

Zoom Q2 HD Video Recorder

Now recently venturing forth from my zip code to catch Jim in conversation with Amy Hempel, I fully intended to record this worthy event with my small but mighty and unobtrusive video device. I must report I was restrained from accomplishing my goal by the officious and small-mindedness (I am tempted to say dishonest, but who knows what evil lurks in the minds of men) of the book store owner. Thus, I can only report that it was time well spent and encourage you to attend one of Jim’s numerous public events which are listed here

Happily, there are a number of recordings of Jim Shepard reading, joking, explicating, declaiming
and other things./ Here’s good one:

Find my 2007 conversation with Jim Shepard aT IDENTITYTHEORY.COM here.

Magical Musical Moments

12 May

Fame Recording studio, Muscle Shoals, Alabama

Fame Recording studio, Muscle Shoals, Alabama

My first record purchase was a 45 rpm single by young hot singing sensation known as Elvis Presley, circa 1956. I didn’t buy another record until 1960 — The Cannonball Adderly Quintet, Live in San Francisco. And I now believe that moment marks the beginning of my intense attachment, the almost seamless integration of music and sound into my perception of the world. Such was my commitment to listening to music that I did not for a long time interest myself (much) in the back stories and inside baseball stuff of the music culture and business. In fact, despite being both an omnivorous reader and having an appreciation of a wide swath go musical genres and also having spent a years of living a dimly mean spirited year as a local record promotion guy in Chicago, up until recently the only books I have read about music are David Hadju’s brilliant bio of Billy Strayhorn ,his book about early Bob Dylan and friends, Dylan’s loopy but compelling Chronicles,Crystal Zevon’s well executed oral biography of Warren and Peter Guralnick’s excellent profile of Sam Cooke, and a sadly under appreciated survey of soul music Boogaloo: The Quintessence of American Popular Music
by Arthur Kempton, and A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen by Liel Leibovitz.

These days I have developed a taste for music history, especially American Regional music. Coincidentally in the last few years the quality of such narratives seems to have upgraded from the hagiographic and fan’s notes to deeper and more telling stories. A few years ago the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown gleaned one of the better stories to come out of the Motown music machine. In addition to give much deserved attention to the previously unheralded studio cats, Motown founder Berry Gordy’s commercial genius was credibly exhibited.

A couple of years back the Oscar winning documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom chronicled the lives of a few of great voices Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Táta Vega, Jo Lawry and a few more, who sang back up both for super star bands and a large cache of hit records.

The Wrecking Crew by Kent Hartman

The Wrecking Crew by Kent Hartman

As a kind of bookend to the above mentioned Motown story, Kent Hartman’s The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Best-Kept Secret,filled in a vital piece of music history, putting the spotlight on a small cadre of West Coast studio musicians aka The Wrecking Crew reputedly known in the record business as “the secret weapons behind the top recording stars— included Glen Campbell, Leon Russell, guitarist Tommy Tedesco,drummer Hal Blaine,keyboardist Larry Knechtel as well and non-pareil bassist, Carol Kaye.

Legendary session bassist Carol Kaye

Legendary session bassist Carol Kaye

The hit records to which these players contributed, not to mention in some cause created — from Derek & the Dominoes Layla, Simon and Garfunkle’s Bridge Over Troubled Water virtually all the Beach Boys Records to Frank Sinatra’s Strangers in the Night are a greatest hits discography of the 60’s and 70’s. Hartman’s diligence is evident from the wealth of first person citations and collection of engaging anecdotes. M<y favorite is the story of how Ray Charles appearing in segregated Birmingham Alabama managed to pass off his Jewish guitar player.

Currently there is a serviceable documentary, The Wrecking Crew in the theaters produced and directed by Denny Tedesco, son of Tommy Tedesco. A bit to hagiographic for my tastes, it does give you some visuals for Hartman’s narrative.

A most transcendental music story is gracefully told in a lovely film ,Muscle Shoals, about that legendary, magical recording venue deep in backwater Muscle Shoals, Alabama and the extraordinary assemblage of solid gold musicians (Barry Beckett on keyboards, Roger Hawkins on drums, Jimmy Johnson on guitar, and David Hood) that Fame Studios founder Rick Hall attracted, nurtured, shepherded and goaded. Its equal parts biography, travelogue, anthropological study, business gossip and visual feast.

The short interviews and commentary by Etta James,Bono, Keith Richards, Stevie Winwood, Aretha, Wilson Pickett, Rich Hall, Jerry Wexler, Greg Allman and more are illuminating —almost all sharing a mystical view of what made Muscle Shoals a very special place. Alicia Keyes ends the film with a competent performance/ contemporary recording of Bob Dylan’s beautiful gospel song “Pressing On,” backed by the Swampers, Fame’s original session band— an understandable if miscast attempt to bridge the history to the present.

Post Script

Poster for the film “Get on Up”

I first saw James Brown live at the Regal Theater in Chicago in 1966 and continued listening to him through subsequent decades — by my tastes he never lost his infections groove. Brown put the soul into soul music and the biopic Get on Up with a jumping performance by veteran actor Chadwick Boseman (who gave a fine performance as Jackie Robinson in 42) makes a plausible and riveting
narrative whether you are or not inclined to give credence to the facts of Brown’s complicated life

AutoBiography/Memoir in 365 Parts (#14)

10 May
Red  Birnbaum[photo, Cheryl Clegg ]

Red Birnbaum[photo, Cheryl Clegg ]

Literary journalist Robert Birnbaum, who grew up on the mean streets of Chicago’s Golden Ghetto,West Rogers Park, is also a veteran member of the Newton (MA) Little League umpiring corps (where he is known as Red) and a (bumbling, but) active father of a teen-age athlete. He contributes to a number of smart journals and maintains a relentless web presence at Our Man In Boston.He counts among his influences Nelson Algren, Ernie Banks, Golda Meir, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mike Royko, Leon Dupres, Hannah Arendt, Howard Zinn, Eduardo Galeanos and Barbara Ehrenreich. He lives in the working class section of West Newton with his pooch Beny.

Beny [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Beny [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

He claims to be working on his long awaited memoir Just Talking: Doing Things With Words.

His Poisoned Legacy*: The Complete Patrick Melrose Novels:

5 May
The Complete Patrick Melrose Novels: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother's Milk, and At Last  by Edward St. Aubyn

The Complete Patrick Melrose Novels: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk, and At Last by Edward St. Aubyn

I credit Thomas Beller and Johanna Yas’s Open City Books with introducing me to the literary marvel known as Edward St. Aubyn.Since then it is apparent his successive Patrick Melrose novels have gained him enthusiastic admirers.

Now comes a nicely packaged tome which will have to stand (for this moment in his young life) as his magnum opus, including all the novels— The Complete Patrick Melrose Novels: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk, and At Last (Picador) The book’s publisher observes

For more than twenty years, acclaimed author Edward St. Aubyn has chronicled the life of Patrick Melrose, painting an extraordinary portrait of the beleaguered and self-loathing world of privilege. This single volume collects the first four novels—Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk, a Man Booker finalist—to coincide with the publication of At Last, the final installment of this unique novel cycle.By turns harrowing and hilarious, these beautifully written novels dissect the English upper class as we follow Patrick Melrose’s story from child abuse to heroin addiction and recovery. Never Mind, the first novel, unfolds over a day and an evening at the family’s chateaux in the south of France, where the sadistic and terrifying figure of David Melrose dominates the lives of his five-year-old son, Patrick, and his rich and unhappy American mother, Eleanor. From abuse to addiction, the second novel, Bad News opens as the twenty-two-year-old Patrick sets off to collect his father’s ashes from New York, where he will spend a drug-crazed twenty-four hours. And back in England, the third novel, Some Hope, offers a sober and clean Patrick the possibility of recovery. The fourth novel, the Booker-shortlisted Mother’s Milk, returns to the family chateau, where Patrick, now married and a father himself, struggles with child rearing, adultery, his mother’s desire for assisted suicide, and the loss of the family home to a New Age foundation.Edward St. Aubyn offers a window into a world of utter decadence, amorality, greed, snobbery, and cruelty—welcome to the declining British aristocracy

What the above cited description leaves out and what has immense resonance is that this rapier sharp dissection of the English upper is as Ian Parker’s profile of St.Aubyn relates,”highly autobiographical novels”:

IN 1991, as Edward St. Aubyn was about to publish “Never Mind”… in which extremes of familial cruelty and social snobbery are described with a tart precision that is not quite free of cruelty and snobbery—he went for a walk with his mother in the English countryside and told her that his father had repeatedly raped him as a young boy. Her response “wasn’t totally satisfactory,” St. Aubyn said, several weeks ago. “She said, ‘Me, too’ ”—meaning that his father had raped her as well. “She was very, very keen to jump the queue and say how awful it was for her.

Here’s an St.Aubyn excerpt

AT HALF-PAST SEVEN IN the morning, carrying the laundry she had ironed the night before, Yvette came down the drive on her way to the house. Her sandal made a faint slapping sound as she clenched her toes to prevent it from falling off, and its broken strap made her walk unsteadily over the stony, rutted ground. Over the wall, below the line of cypresses that ran along the edge of the drive, she saw the doctor standing in the garden. In his blue dressing gown, and already wearing dark glasses although it was still too early for the September sun to have risen above the limestone mountain, he directed a heavy stream of water from the hose he held in his left hand onto the column of ants moving busily through the gravel at his feet. His technique was well established: he would let the survivors struggle over the wet stones, and regain their dignity for a while, before bringing the thundering water down on them again. With his free hand he removed a cigar from his mouth, its smoke drifting up through the brown and grey curls that covered the jutting bones of his forehead. He then narrowed the jet of water with his thumb to batter more effectively an ant on whose death he was wholly bent. Yvette had only to pass the fig tree and she could slip into the house without Dr Melrose knowing she had arrived. His habit, though, was to call her without looking up from the ground just when she thought she was screened by the tree. Yesterday he had talked to her for long enough to exhaust her arms, but not for so long that she might drop the linen. He gauged such things very precisely. He had started by asking her opinion of the mistral, with exaggerated respect for her native knowledge of Provence…. (excerpt continues)

And here James Wood effuses , which is( wonderful) a thing unto itself

“Implausibly brilliant speech . . . The striking gap between, on the one hand, the elegant polish of the narration, the silver rustle of these exquisite sentences, the poised narrowness of the social satire and, on the other hand, the screaming pain of the family violence inflicted on Patrick makes these books some of the strangest of contemporary novels . . . This prose, whose repressed English control is admired by everyone from Alan Hollinghurst to Will Self, is drawn inexorably back to a fearful instability, to the nakedness of infancy.”

*This title comes from Ian Parker’s New Yorker profile of Edward St Aubyn

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


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



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


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?


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.


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