Tag Archives: Percival Everett

Just Talking: My “Conversations with …”

30 Dec


 Looking back to the mid-Eighties when I stumbled unto the opportunity to publish a hip downtown magazine  I am not clear on how I fell into the habit/practice of arranging conversations/interviews with contemporary writers, photographers, film directors, cartoonists, poets, painters and all manner of creative individuals. Though it is not exactly an explanation for ‘why’, I have come to look upon this habit, which has persisted these twenty odd years, as a grand post-graduate education.

Many of these confabulations were first published in Stuff magazine before 1998. In 2000, I found a regular niche at the nascent literary magazine (of sorts) Identitytheory. And, over the fullness of time, I  found myself contributing to cultural news venues such as The Morning News, The Millions, The Virginia Quarterly Review on -line, The Daily Beast, and the LA Review of Books among others.

Along the way, some of these countless ( have lost count on how many I have participated in) dialogues have been anthologized (mostly regularly )in the University Press of Mississippi’s “Conversations with…’ series.  These I am proud to list below (click on the name to go to Publisher’s page for each book):

I expect to continue with these gabfests though I  am ruminating on ways to refresh my methodology. So, let’s see what happens…thanks for reading all the way to the bottom

Michael Lewis No. 5…Better than Chanel

4 Jun
Michael Lewis [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Michael Lewis [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

In the course of my prolonged post graduate education (and adolescence) I have been privileged to discourse with countless accomplished, talented, creative and socially conscious people—some a number of times. I may have lost count, but the conversation (my fourth or fifth)that follows with Michael Lewis, author of Flash Boys, Money Ball,The Blind Side, Coach and more, fills in the gaps between Lewis’s published endeavors. At this writing he is awaiting the green light on a series for Showtime (which we discuss) and just started the reporting on what may not be his next book. Not to mention his dedication to the upbringing of his children…

My teenaged jock son (baseball, football), Cuba, joined our table at Boston’s Four Seasons and so in addition to an update on the frequency trading issues (Flash Boys), the talk turns to the awful NCAA, the commodification and monetization of kid sports and our kids performance arts, The Peaky Blinders, the golden age of TV, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and whither goeth the NFL and the sport of football.

After spending four or five hours with Michael Lewis, I continue to be impressed by his reportorial skills and narrative talents and abiding decency, which is good reason to make this chat part of an ongoing, unfinished skein that may yet continue…

Robert Birnbaum: Okay, we’re rolling. This is the 26th of March. My son Cuba is in attendance. He will inherit the business (laughs).

MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s all yours.


MICHAEL LEWIS: [to Cuba]Everything before you, the signed books and the microphone.[to RB] I’m sure you have a library.

Robert Birnbaum: I have a 100 cubic feet storage space —most of which is filled with signed 1st editions,art work and my photo archive.

MICHAEL LEWIS: They will have some value someday.

Robert Birnbaum: Maybe.


Robert Birnbaum: I remember when the man who was the director of the Toronto the International Festival of Authors was canned, after years of his service. And the organization tried to reclaim his[signed] book collection.

Flash Boys by Micheal Lewis

Flash Boys by Micheal Lewis

Robert Birnbaum: Okay, so is this a victory lap for Flash Boys?

MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s the paperback tour. I think the war is still being fought. That’s the problem, and you can see that this war is for trying to establish fairness in the market … these guys [I write about ]in the book, it’s going to take years for them to get big enough.

Robert Birnbaum: Really?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I think so. They’ll become a public exchange in the fall. I just made a bet with someone, and I took the over.

Robert Birnbaum: You’re talking about Brad—

MICHAEL LEWIS: —Katsuyama. There’s such inertia in the financial markets, and the regulators seem inclined to help them a bit but not that much.

Robert Birnbaum: I thought a big problem was that it’s hard to regulate technology.

MICHAEL LEWIS: That’s right. That would be the real risk — that the regulators try to regulate the technology and it ends up screwing up the system in some new, other way. What could be done is the current economic model of the exchanges and the dark pools could totally be challenged. They could ban a payment for order flow. They could ban the maker/ taker model on the exchanges, the bribes and the kickbacks.

Robert Birnbaum: So simply stated, the litigation would be a mistake, right?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I think that’s right, but the market itself, it’s just got lots of inertia. People who work at giant, mutual funds don’t want to tick off their banker by saying, “We’re not going to send you stock market orders anymore because that dark pool is fleecing us’. You would think it’d be easy.

Robert Birnbaum: So they’ll accept that?

MICHAEL LEWIS: They accept it as part of the packages of services. If you are a big bank with Morgan Stanley and they’re covering your firm in various ways, the equity business you give them is a way of paying them for a whole bunch of other services that they’re charging you for.

Robert Birnbaum: You’re saying it’s sort of a ‘tribute’, a hidden cost?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Commissions are already a tribute, but no one wants to get into it with a Wall Street firm because if you’re the person…

Robert Birnbaum: …They’re too big to fail and what else?

MICHAEL LEWIS:They’re too big to fail, and you’re one person, even if you’re a big person inside the giant mutual fund. You don’t want to be identified as the troublemaker in the market.

Robert Birnbaum: Like Brad Katsuyama.

MICHAEL LEWIS: You don’t want to be that because your career is unlikely to be at one firm. You’re going to be out in the job market again. You’re going to be one of those rabble-rousers. It’s just that people are very reluctant on Wall Street to pick fights, and when it happens, it’s so extraordinary. This is why BILL Ackman gets into it with Carl Icahn. It’s very strange.

Robert Birnbaum: How would you rank the litigation, the findings and such that’ve happened since the book came out?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I’ve never had anything like this happen before.

Robert Birnbaum: In terms of effectiveness…

MICHAEL LEWIS: Maybe do it this way—what do I think the most important regulation, legal action that’s happened and what’s the least? I think the most important are the lawsuits brought by the New York Attorney General against the Barclay’s dark pool and probably will be followed up against other bank dark pools. Second, and this sounds, maybe a little loopy, but this class action suit that Michael Lewis, the big tobacco guy, is bringing against the exchanges, I think could be very interesting.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s still in process. How long does it take to litigate cases like this?

MICHAEL LEWIS: A long time. How long did the tobacco lawsuit take. So it’s slow moving, but I think that could be a big deal. The fines that the SEC have lobbied against various high-frequency traders for market manipulation are also really useful because you start to be able to see what’s going on so there’s transparency now.

Robert Birnbaum: Where does that money go, the fines that the SEC collects?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I asked this question yesterday, and I couldn’t get a straight answer. I asked the question of someone… people at MSNBC had calculated all the fines paid by banks as a result of the financial crisis to the Justice Department, and it comes to 82 billion dollars. That’s a piece of change, right?

Robert Birnbaum:Wow. You could buy a fighter plane with that, right? You can burn …

MICHAEL LEWIS: Someone had something for that. Sometimes the money is restored to victims, but most of the time it goes into the general treasury.

Robert Birnbaum: It wouldn’t go to the regulatory agency, like the SEC?

MICHAEL LEWIS: You would think it would be … I don’t think the SEC gets to keep it, and if they did, they’d be self-funded. They wouldn’t need Congress, so I doubt Congress would let them do it. It would actually be an interesting innovation, a way to free the SEC to do its job if it was allowed to keep the ..
Robert Birnbaum: It might incentivize them. Do you feel like you’ve become more of a crusader since you started writing?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I don’t mean to be, but I really do inevitably. I think it’s more that I stumble upon things that obviously need to be crusaded against, but the motive hasn’t changed.

Robert Birnbaum: Its because they end up being interesting stories, right?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yeah. The motive hasn’t changed. I think what has happened is I look for stories that I think are worthy, really long form and it just so happened the financial crisis has yielded a couple of stories.

Robert Birnbaum:You’ve said, I think, that Wall Street is the gift that keeps on giving, so are you done there?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Very cynically— the financial crisis has been very good to me, right? The last thing I want is for them to resolve all this. I don’t have any interest in writing another financial book right now. I’ve got a few other projects that I really want to do, and none of them are …

Robert Birnbaum: You haven’t started the next book?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I’ve been writing a TV show. I started the next thing in the sense that I’ve started reporting. I haven’t started writing it.

Robert Birnbaum: Are you still doing long articles as the first step to writing a book?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Sometimes I do do that, but in this case, I’m not doing that but I haven’t started writing another book. Again,[my] children [see Lewis’s Home Game] slow me down a bit.

The Blind Side by Michael Lewis

The Blind Side by Michael Lewis

Robert Birnbaum: I was hoping that somehow after you wrote The Blind Side that you would take on the NCAA.

MICHAEL LEWIS:I did write a little op-ed for the Times arguing they should pay players.

Robert Birnbaum: Where do you see all that going? Is somebody going to take on NCAA?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Here’s the problem with that. I never take on anybody really, right? If there was a Brad Katsuyama inside college football and he was a really interesting character, it’s conceivable there would be a narrative that would undermine the NCAA.
Robert Birnbaum: What about the Northwestern quarterback who started, I think he started union or was a ..
MICHAEL LEWIS: And there’s Ed O’Bannon, the the former UCLA basketball player. I’m totally on the side of the agitators here. I mean, the NCAA is a grotesque institution right now. If you think about it, actually back away from it, it’s even worse than just pure economic exploitation because in the case of football, it’s exploitation while these kids play a sport that’s probably going to damage them in the long term. And there’s this wall that is put up between poor black kids and the rich white boosters. If you took it down, at the very least there would be some social relationships developed that the kids, after their football careers were over, could go to and lean on, and they’d start to develop … they’d have jobs in the summer and all the rest and would develop careers. I was thinking about what the solution here. In a perfect world, I’d actually say open up pay for players. Let them capture their market value, but something so crude as that is not going to happen. What I could imagine happening is a movement to create trust funds or that they could be tapped when they were 40. Big, fat very fat, pensions so that if you were going to essentially tax the future of these kids by one, not allowing them an education because they just play football all the time and, two, damaging their brains while they play, set aside the money down the road so they’re taken care of. You don’t have to pay them right away, but have a fancy pension plan.

Robert Birnbaum: For all the talk of the student athlete, the NCAA doesn’t seem to really care about the players.

MICHAEL LEWIS: No. On an individual level, I’m sure there’s plenty [who do]. I’m sure coaches care about the ..
Robert Birnbaum: Mark Emmert. The head of the NCAA. He doesn’t strike me as being concerned about the athletes… it’s so hypocritical. It’s so duplicitous.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yes, it is. I would love to know if you just open it up and let the kids get paid what would happen to coaches’ pay. I’m sure it would decline, right? I’m sure it would decline, but by how much, I don’t know. Imagine a world where you say there are none of these rules anymore. If Alabama wants to be number one in the nation, you’ve got to buy the team. How much money would come into it? It would obviously cost the NCAA a lot of money and would probably cost the coaches who are being paid some money.

Robert Birnbaum: You’re assuming there’s a finite amount of money that they can take in, that any particular school could take it.

MICHAEL LEWIS: It would be interesting to price the athletes. I mean, this is an exercise, right, because it’s hard pricing an 18 year old. I guess the football players are more predictable than, say, baseball players are at that age, but even then, there’s lots of uncertainty. It would be an interesting intellectual exercise to decide what the star high school quarterback is worth in college football.

Robert Birnbaum: You might have to step back and figure out what is the whole university system worth today?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Well, our university system is much more complicated than the European, right? It exists for all sorts of reasons other than to educate people.

Robert Birnbaum: I just read that Tennessee is making its schools tuition-free — free college educations. The state of Tennessee …and Germany and Chile are also making college free.

MICHAEL LEWIS: I didn’t see that.

Robert Birnbaum: It seems to me that kids’ sports – I’ve become more aware because of my son – kids’ sports are big business, big money, and a lot of that money is made distinctly against the interests of the kids.


Micheal Lewis with Cuba Birnbaum [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Michael Lewis with Cuba Birnbaum [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Robert Birnbaum [to Cuba]: How much was your baseball program, the fee for one year? $4,000? [this does not include equipment, travel and other incidentals][

Cuba Birnbaum: They raised it to $5,000.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Where is this?

Robert Birnbaum: Near us.

MICHAEL LEWIS: [to Cuba] So which sports do you play?

CUBA BIRNBAUM: I play baseball and football.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Okay. Which is your better sport?

CUBA BIRNBAUM: I’d say now football is.

MICHAEL LEWIS: What position?

CUBA BIRNBAUM: I play offensive tackle and defensive tackle.


CUBA BIRNBAUM: I just got voted a captain so …I’m excited.


CUBA BIRNBAUM: Last year, 9 and 2.

Robert Birnbaum: They were beaten by the Catholic school teams.

CUBA BIRNBAUM: Yeah. Catholic conference team.

Robert Birnbaum: Those guys are always like Alabama, the Catholic schools[they can recruit].

CUBA BIRNBAUM: It’s crazy.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Do you have ambition to play in college?

CUBA BIRNBAUM: I do, yes. I have a big ambition. I’m definitely looking out there.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Is there a chance you’ll be recruited to play in college?

CUBA BIRNBAUM: I believe so, yeah. With my size projectability, I think I definitely have a shot. I need to start reaching out to schools, though. I’m doing a lot of camps in the summer, so I’m excited for that.

MICHAEL LEWIS: How big are you? What do you list at?

CUBA BIRNBAUM: Right now 6’2″, 265.

Robert Birnbaum: I try to put my arms around him, and I can’t … he’s pretty big. The reason I mentioned that baseball program is because now somebody is paying $5,000 a year. What’s the parent’s expectations? What do the people who have that program tell the parents? Of course, they tell the parents the kid’s got a lot of talent. He’s really good and he’s got a shot at Division 1 or something like that.

MICHAEL LEWIS: I’ve seen a slightly scaled down version of that in my girls’ softball a lot, and some sad things happen. Well, parents get too involved. It’s supposed to be fun. That’s the obvious problem, but beyond that, the kids start to get professional at a very young age and so when they’re on a team, they’re not actually teammates. They’re not rooting for each other. They’re rooting against each other because they want the playing time. They want to be the star, and there’s too much at stake.

Robert Birnbaum: The fun is being drained out of it. Now young kids are having pro sports aspirations.
Down in the Caribbean, a lot of these kids start playing seriously at8 or 9, 10,are funneled into academies. And they’re already in debt before they hit the age of 16 when they are eligible to be drafted by MLB.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Well, its also like now math, where you peak very young in life, and so it is a naturally tendency for the market to creep down to the children and professionalize it. Probably music is like this, too, right? Really gifted …

Robert Birnbaum: And tennis.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yeah, but I was thinking about things other than sports. It isn’t just sports where kids’ lives get disrupted by professionalism.

Robert Birnbaum: Chess.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Chess, yeah.

Robert Birnbaum: Dancing, ballet, gymnastics.


Robert Birnbaum: Yeah.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Have you seen Whiplash?

Robert Birnbaum: No.

MICHAEL LEWIS: So Whiplash is the musical equivalent of what we’re discussing. It’s like Juilliard. It’s kids playing until their hands bleed, and the joy is being drained. Sometimes when you hear kids talk about, who are really gifted, say, pianists when they’re really young, they sound a bit like really gifted football players or softball players. The joy gets beaten out of it. It’s something that’s started as that joy and, through the professionalization of it, it becomes something else.

Robert Birnbaum: Well, all this stuff has become commodified.

MICHAEL LEWIS: True. It’s been made to pay in extraordinary ways, right? And the winners do so well, it encourages lots of people to try for it.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, and of course, lots of disappointment. Your writing career started because of your ignorance of the financial world, right?


Robert Birnbaum: The basic core of your writing has always been about interesting people and them solving problems. I can’t [at the moment remember why you wrote Moneyball *. What was the spur for that?
MICHAEL LEWIS:The original spur had nothing to do with the book. It was when free agency came to baseball in a big way.

Moneyball by Michael Lewis

Moneyball by Michael Lewis

Robert Birnbaum: Curt Flood or Andy Messersmith…

MICHAEL LEWIS: I always think of Andy Messersmith, right, but actually it was in the mid-90s, we moved to California. I started to watch the Oakland A’s and noticed at one point that the left fielder was being paid 6 million bucks and the right fielder was being paid 200 million, and my first thought was, “I want to write a piece about whether the right fielder’s pissed off when the left fielder drops the ball.”
But it’s a piece of a class warfare about baseball and I started watching the money, on the field. That led naturally to seeing the discrepancies between the payrolls. Which then led to just idling. I thought it was going to be a magazine piece, and I would call Billy Beane, “Can you explain to me how you compete against 6 times the money?” His answer was so interesting, I started to hang around. Books all go that way. It starts with something … it doesn’t ever start as a book. It starts as a question, and then the question, the answer to the question is so interesting that I want to come back and ask more questions. At some point, I’ve got so many questions, I see this is going to take some time to unravel.

Robert Birnbaum: So you’re normally not inclined to write a book, right?

MICHAEL LEWIS: The things that started … the things that were conceived as books, “Liar’s Poker”, “The New New Thing”, “Moneyball”, “The Blind Side”, “Big Short”, “Flash Boys” and that’s it. The rest could be the collections of magazine pieces or little magazine pieces that were tossed between hard covers, and even those that were conceived as books, I think it’s fair to say that all of them with the exception of “Flash Boys” and maybe “The Big Short” – because I could afford to do it now – were started as little magazine pieces. They just got out of control.

Robert Birnbaum: You couldn’t stop?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Couldn’t stop. I have to spend so much time investing in the subject before I’m comfortable saying I want to write a book about it. It wouldn’t make any sense to go in thinking it’s a book. It’s always you’ve got to go in with small ambitions.

Robert Birnbaum: The Heisenberg Principle says something about the observer changing what is observed by observing. Years ago, people didn’t know who you were. I suppose exponentially “Moneyball” put you …

MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s changed. It’d definitely changed.

Robert Birnbaum: Right. When you talk to people now, do you feel like …

MICHAEL LEWIS: I’m changing what I’m watching?

Robert Birnbaum: Well, they’re changing themselves because of you.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Ah. Yes. The answer is yes, and the way to get around the problem is to spend so much time with them that your presence becomes normal. The first 10 hours of interviews are not all that useful in getting the character. Sometimes you get a lot of information, but if you move into their lives, eventually they surrender.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s like the photographer shooting blanks the first few minutes

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yeah. That’s exactly right. It’s just like that. I try to make my presence so normal that they just forget what it’s all about, and it takes long enough that there’s no way … it’s really hard if I’m with them for a year for them to … things happen. The kind of person who I’ve tended to write about is intelligent enough to realize that’s going to happen, so they just give up and they give up very quickly.

Robert Birnbaum: Most of the time when I talk to people, it’s an hour, hour and a half, and maybe the first half hour is just back and forth. It’s like a cop interrogating someone. At the 5th hour, the guy is not going to give up anything, but by the 20th hour, he’s going give up whatever you want…
MICHAEL LEWIS: You know, it’s funny you say that because I was just thinking about this because I’ve done several episodes of Charlie Rose in the last year, — the 25th anniversary of “Liar’s Poker” came out, the hardback, “Flash Boys”, paperback. I realized when I was sitting there talking to him two days ago that I had actually just completely forgotten I was on television. I was talking to him as I would talk to you in a private situation. Afterwards, I thought, “What the hell did I just say?” How is that going to play? It was very odd.

Robert Birnbaum: Thomas Jefferson, I think he said, “If you never tell a lie, you don’t need a memory.”

MICHAEL LEWIS: This is true. It’s true.

Robert Birnbaum: But we all need to shade some things and maybe not reveal other things.

MICHAEL LEWIS: No. It was more … I was talking about friends. I was talking about other people, and I just didn’t … without a filter.

Robert Birnbaum: He [Charlie Rose] did an interview* with Henri Cartier Bresson. He went to France for it, and Bresson is an incredibly charming old man — it was a great interview. Rose was never more attentive and sensitive to his subject than I saw him then.

MICHAEL LEWIS: He’s got a gift for making people comfortable, and it brings out … you know what it reminds me of? There are interviewers who think that the way you get things out of people is to needle them and the interviewers who realize it’s the opposite. I’m more like Charlie Rose when I talk to people. Do you know the Traveler’s Tale? It was a kid’s story, I think, but the story was about a man who was walking through the landscape with a cloak and the sun and the north wind challenge each other to see who can get him to remove the cloak. The north wind blows and blows, and he just holds the cloak more tightly around him. The sun comes along and makes it nice and gentle, and he removes it voluntarily. This is my approach. I’d rather be the sun.

Robert Birnbaum: The sun?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Right. I’d rather get people to remove their cloaks voluntarily.

Robert Birnbaum: Who actually does decent interviews these days in the mainstream media?


Robert Birnbaum: You’d expect, given some of his guests, you expect a little more persistence [he did hold reporter Judith Miller’s feet to the fire]… His great moment, I thought, was when he was on Crossfire and he just let those guys have it. Colbert is the same thing. I don’t know if John Oliver actually interviews people, …
MICHAEL LEWIS: Did you see his show on NCAA sports?

Robert Birnbaum: Yes. That was great. That was really great.


Robert Birnbaum: He did a show on the US drone program that was also really convincing. Chilling and funny at the same time—the effect is to see the absurdity .
MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s important journalism. It’s actually important journalism.

Robert Birnbaum: Which I think is an evolutionary step from the Colbert/Stewart thing which are still comedic.

MICHAEL LEWIS: It is still funny, though.

Robert Birnbaum: Absolutely.

MICHAEL LEWIS: My 8 year old doesn’t have any idea what the NCAA is or what is going on. He’s rolling with laughter as he’s watching the thing.

Robert Birnbaum: I wonder if there’s a critical mass of media that will affect them, affect the NCAA?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yes. Oh, I think so.

Robert Birnbaum: I know that Joe Nocera at the Times is hammering them. Shelby … it wouldn’t be Shelby Foot, somebody in the Atlantic a couple of years ago wrote a scathing take down on the NCAA, and now some of the more articular players – Richard Sherman. Do you remember the guy at Houston, the runningback, Avery something talked about how they didn’t have enough food? He’s going, “My coach is driving an expensive car, an Infinity or something like that, and I’m here …” So we told the coach, we said, “Coach, we don’t have any food.” He went out and got us 50 McDonald’s burgers… Anyway … What would the critical mass be? The government’s not going to take them on

MICHAEL LEWIS: Well, except the culture’s shifting on the subject. You can feel it just like you can feel the culture shifting on football. Generally, its to your detriment if you want to play, I think it’s this … we move slowly. You might have said exactly the same thing about smoking in the 1950s. You know this because you’re intelligent and on the edge. You know the studies that show there was a link between smoking and cancer. You’d be outraged that the big tobacco companies were able to rig the system and prevent change, then one day it all come collapsing down. I feel like that’s where the NCAA is headed. I feel that’s where football is headed, with concussions. Its not just concussions either. The thing about that sport is if you go and see a former professional football player at the age of 50, it is depressing. It’s not just their brains. It’s their knees. It’s their shoulders. You take such a beating. [to Cuba] With any luck, you won’t be good enough so you can only get so far.

Robert Birnbaum: I’m not a great fan. Cuba gets a lot out of it, and he’s good at it —so what are you going to do? And these kids, you tell them not to lead with their head, they lead with their head.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Right. They’re immortal. That’s the problem.

Robert Birnbaum: Right.

MICHAEL LEWIS: They think it.

Robert Birnbaum:He’s been lucky. You’ve had no serious injuries, right?

CUBA BIRNBAUM: Not a thing.

Robert Birnbaum: But also I have to say, to his credit, he’s not suicidal. He’s not one of these guys who gives up his body in every play. He’s the polite kid who pulls people up from the ground at he end of the play.

CUBA BIRNBAUM: Sometimes. Sometimes.

Robert Birnbaum: If he likes them. I noticed the NFL now has a neutral trainer at games.

MICHAEL LEWIS: To evaluate the players.

Robert Birnbaum: Evaluate the players and make a decision.

MICHAEL LEWIS: They’ll do whatever they can do to …

Robert Birnbaum: To masquerade.

MICHAEL LEWIS: … to put lipstick on the pig.

Robert Birnbaum: Why do Americans like football so much? What happened? Is this just brainwashing over year to year after year after year, spectacle upon spectacle?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I mean, I plead guilty. I think it really works on TV.

Deep Crossers by Nick Dawidoff

Deep Crossers by Nick Dawidoff

Robert Birnbaum: Right. I like the game, too, and I liked it a lot more after I read Nick Dawidoff’s book on the Jets* — the year he spent with the Jets. Did you read that? It’s a terrific book.

MICHAEL LEWIS: I bet it is a terrific book. He’s a great writer.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, and he seemed to do it with the right group, too. Ryan is actually a lively and likable subject, I think, from what I could tell in this book.

MICHAEL LEWIS: I think there are a handful of football subjects I would love to go after… that aren’t polemical… Why do people like it so much? It’s simulated warfare with enough violence to make it plausible. You’re watching generals command armies. You’re watching armies fight.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s interesting. For fans, I think that’s the case. One of Cuba’s coaches stated that he didn’t buy that comparison, and I think maybe that’s okay to tell the players.

CUBA BIRNBAUM: It’s giving respect to those who actually fight in actual war — not calling it warfare in that sense. We’re …

MICHAEL LEWIS: Well, in the olden times, you did give respect to your opponent in warfare.

Robert Birnbaum: Right. That’s right. They were more formality. There were more rules.

MICHAEL LEWIS: You’re obeying a chivalric code.

Robert Birnbaum: Now they have people that bite each other’s ears, break fingers.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Biting seems to be one thing that an athlete does, and his reputation never recovers. You don’t want to bite your opponent. There’s something about a guy biting that just disturbs people.

Robert Birnbaum: Do you think Mike Tyson’s suffered?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robert Birnbaum: Really? Well, look at him now. Interesting character, huh?


Robert Birnbaum: Yeah.

MICHAEL LEWIS: I haven’t looked that closely.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah. He’s … a Broadway show. I’ve seen him speak.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Is he on Broadway now?

Robert Birnbaum: He had a Broadway show, I think.

MICHAEL LEWIS: He was good in The Hangover.

CUBA BIRNBAUM: Yeah. The tiger. The tiger is my .
Robert Birnbaum: Did you see Boyhood?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yes, I did see it, and I thought it was extremely good. I still want so badly to know how Richard Linklater did that because how he plotted it, scripted it, whether he let the characters decide … there’s no way he could know where they were going to be or even if they were alive.

Robert Birnbaum: It was a total flier, right?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yeah. It was a total flier. Shocked that it didn’t get the Oscar.

Robert Birnbaum: I’m shocked that Citizenfour won an Oscar.

MICHAEL LEWIS: That it did? That’s interesting. Why?

Robert Birnbaum: First of all, it’s controversial. Second of all, because as a film, it’s pretty flat.

MICHAEL LEWIS: True, except the period when he’s actually in that hotel room.

Robert Birnbaum: Yes, there’s that tension.

MICHAEL LEWIS: There’s a real tension there when it’s actually happening. After that it goes flat.

Robert Birnbaum: I come away certainly from that thinking the guy’s a hero, and I think he should get the Nobel Peace Prize for what he did because he’s just blown open something that people were taking for granted. Maybe they’re still taking it for granted just like high-frequency trading still seems to be acceptable but people are looking at it. I think this NSA invasion of everything is starting to sink in.

MICHAEL LEWIS: One of the great things about that film is it totally undermined the public perception of Edward Snowden which was that he was a sneak.

Robert Birnbaum: And a traitor.

MICHAEL LEWIS: That he was a ne’er-do-well. That he wasn’t thinking when he did it.

Robert Birnbaum: And he had a character flaw, which is why he whistle blew. How did that happen? This big reversal about whistle blowers that are now treated like pariahs.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Well, it depends on the whistle blower, right? Whistle blowers have never, ever been extremely popular. My daughter right now who’s writing a paper for her 10th grade history project is writing about The Pentagon Papers, and Daniel Ellsberg happens to live blocks away.

Robert Birnbaum: Did she get to talk to him?

MICHAEL LEWIS: She more than talked to him. She’s turned her project into a piece about Daniel Ellsberg.

Robert Birnbaum: Wow. Like you. She found a character.

MICHAEL LEWIS: She found a character. That’s right. Her history teacher said, “Actually, forget about the Pentagon Papers. If he’ll talk to you, go do it about him.” There’s even ambivalence about him now. He’s a hero in Berkeley. There are places where they’ll lynch him in America. We have an uncomfortable relationship with people who turn on institutions.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah. That film Michael Mann did on tobacco… The Insider, he lost almost everything, right?

MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s not a good … usually being a whistle blower is not a good career move. It’s brave.

Robert Birnbaum: They are mostly viewed as turncoats.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yes. Some subset of our population views blind loyalty as an admirable character trait, the capacity for it. Disloyalty, no matter what you’re being disloyal to, is a sin, but it’s funny. Even those people if you give them extreme cases – von Stauffenberg’s attempt to assassinate Hitler – they’ll say, “Oh, that was great,” but when there’s more ambiguity to it, people fall back on their emotional, core response.

Robert Birnbaum: There’s a great novel by Justin Cartwright about the most famous plot to kill Hitler, and it involves Isaiah Berlin and some fictitious German. He really gets inside that story. I think it’s called
The Song Before it is Sung (2007)

MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s an incredible story.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah. Didn’t they put Tom Cruise in the movie called Valkyrie ?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I don’t know.

Robert Birnbaum: He plays a Wehrmacht Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. (laughs) What’s the television production writing part of your life now?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I’m a failed screenwriter. That’s the sad truth.

Robert Birnbaum: Most screenwriters are failed screenwriters.

MICHAEL LEWIS: I haven’t given up. I’m on my 4th or 5th pilot, Commissioned. Two for CBS. One for TNT. One for HBO, so this is the 5th, for Showtime. I’m getting better. I’m starting to figure out how to rig the system in my favor, and I’m handing in the pilot next month. It’s done. It just needs some touching up, and I haven’t had time because I’ve been on tour. I think there’s a real shot this time.

Robert Birnbaum: You’re just the writer. You’re not producing, you’re not casting?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Produce and writing.

Robert Birnbaum: So if you’re producing ..
MICHAEL LEWIS: I’ll help run the show if anything. That’s what I will do as a job, and I won’t write a book for a while. I’m that interested in it. I tell you, these are my ambitions. I would love to have a really great drama on the air and then use it as an excuse to write a play. I’ve always been interested in the theater, and I would love to do that. On the other hand, it’s nice to have things you still want to do, so maybe I should wait so I still have things I want to do. If I got to write a play right now, I wouldn’t have anything left.

Robert Birnbaum: (laughs) Well, something might come up. What are the great dramas that you think are on television now? Are there any for you?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Oh, my God. The ones that are … some have come and gone. Breaking Bad.

Robert Birnbaum: I never got that one, but I’m the only one.


Robert Birnbaum: Yeah. The Wire?

MICHAEL LEWIS: The Wire and The Sopranos were the originals. The Wire especially.
The Wire was just a breathtaking achievement.

Robert Birnbaum: Dostoevskian, I think.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Or Dickensian or … it was a novel on the screen, and it showed what you could do. In the moment, when they’re creating that thing, it didn’t attract, in the beginning, that much attention or that much of an audience.

Robert Birnbaum: They weren’t almost going to do a 4th or 5th season.

MICHAEL LEWIS: But they’ll sell DVDs of that thing forever, and it’s nice that model now exists because it means that you can do that kind of quality work and not go whoring after eyeballs right away and find a home for it. It’s the golden age of television… Well, Homeland, I think Homeland is fantastic.

Robert Birnbaum: Netflix stuff is getting interesting.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Mm-hmm (affirmative). House of Cards lost me the moment it became … it detached so far from whatever could happen.

Robert Birnbaum: I thought the 1st season was okay, but the 2nd season … it does have strong—it’s very strong casting.

MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s beautifully performed.

Robert Birnbaum: Everybody looks good on screen— there is a 3rd season coming.

MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s amazing what you can get away with if you have really talented actors. I was just watching … two nights ago, I went to a play in New York, The Audience, which is with Helen Mirren, a Queen Elizabeth thing.

Robert Birnbaum: She’s magnificent.

MICHAEL LEWIS: If you just read … I haven’t read the play. If you just read the play, you’d think, “This is going to be the most boring play ever produced. There could be nothing on paper that would be all that interesting,” and the performances are riveting. I mean, you’re totally captivated because of what the actor is doing.

Robert Birnbaum: I get that—I could never read Shakespeare, but I love watching the plays performed. I don’t get reading it. I guess I don’t have enough imagination to enliven the characters, but I love it. I love the drama. Netflix did that woman prison movie. Not bad.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Orange is the New Black? I have only seen a few of them, and it was really good.

Robert Birnbaum: Certainly an unexpected place to go. I don’t know if you’ve seen this one, Peaky Blinders?

MICHAEL LEWIS: What’s it called?

Robert Birnbaum: Peaky Blinders. This is about criminal gangs in Birmingham, England post World War I, and they’re all competing and one of them, the Peaky Blinders, is trying to get big enough to go to London.


Robert Birnbaum: They have Tom Hardy. Tom … is in this. Great actor. He just did this film called Locke where he does a movie entirely in a car. I don’t know if you’ve heard of that one. Anyway, he plays a Jewish mobster. He’s like Fagan. He’s funny, and he’s also an Elmore. Leonard character He’s funny, but he’s …

MICHAEL LEWIS: Where did it air?

Robert Birnbaum: Netflix. They’ve done two seasons, and I think they’re doing a 3rd. Yeah. You’re right. It is the golden age of television, and I think it’s finally because whoever’s doing it is letting writers write.

MICHAEL LEWIS:The shows no longer require big audiences. They require passionate audiences, and that is the key.

Robert Birnbaum: Right. That’s right.

MICHAEL LEWIS: The people who are producing or creating, producing these things are paid to understand that. All I need is a passionate following.
Robert Birnbaum: They’re enlarging the shelf life of these shows . I think ‘hit; used to mean we’re grabbing the money and six months from now, no one will remember, but now these things all have a longer life. Is your stuff fictional or …

MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s fictional.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s all fictional?

MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s fictional, but it’s drawn from …

Robert Birnbaum: Based on true stories? Or the ever popular “Inspired by a true story”?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Based on a true story. It’s actually not based on a true story. The characters are based on true characters. They’re characters pulled out of the 1920s on Wall Street. They’re some great characters. They’re characters who are worthy of being dramatized, and the situation rhymes with net (????). It’s a way of describing how the financial system first came to be, and there’s enough of an echo in that time with what’s happening now. You get at what’s happening now through that in a much more concrete, simpler way.

Robert Birnbaum: So you say you’re waiting for approval?

MICHAEL LEWIS: So Showtime hasn’t seen it. They’ve seen an outline with which they were very pleased, and the script will go in in the next couple of weeks and then we’ll wait and see.

Robert Birnbaum: You can do a lot more in a film version of something, of a story…

MICHAEL LEWIS: Each medium has its strengths, right? There are things that are hard to get across in film. There are things that are easier. I get a lot of pleasure out of figuring out how to do new things well, and it actually is informing the books and the magazine pieces because the storytelling that goes on in a script, it’s got to be so compressed. It’s so unforgiving, and everything has got to have a point and drive the story forward. That discipline is really useful to just have in the back of your mind when you’re writing something where you actually don’t have that constraint. I think I’m going to get better at keeping the reader because of it.

Robert Birnbaum: You just reminded me that now, these days, when I see the dog in the story in a film, I know something bad’s going to happen. I think these directors are including this as a cue … seriously. What’s the point of having a dog in the story unless something terrible could happen
MICHAEL LEWIS:Marley and Me.

Robert Birnbaum: Well, that was totally bad. Oh, yeah. Yeah.

MICHAEL LEWIS:Give me an example. I don’t even know what you’re talking about.

Robert Birnbaum: God, I just saw a movie [Mister Pip] and they shot the dog.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Where the dog got shot?

Robert Birnbaum: The dog got shot
MICHAEL LEWIS: Like Old Yeller. Actually, maybe you’re onto something here.

Robert Birnbaum Percival Everett* used a funny dog thing his Western send up In God’s Country the dog’s fate receives the most sympathy …

MICHAEL LEWIS: A sudden doom came over you.

Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, and I think I’ve been set up like that before. You’re still doing magazines? Are you exclusive to Vanity Fair?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yes. I will write columns for Bloomberg, and I can imagine there might be some piece that Vanity Fair wouldn’t want that I’d have to go somewhere else.

Robert Birnbaum: Do you have to give it to them first?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I don’t have to, but I like them.

Robert Birnbaum Your were friendly with Adam Moss at the New York Times. He is gone, right?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I did stuff with Adam and my editor there was Gerry Marzorati who then took over for Adam.
Robert Birnbaum: They redesigned it didn’t they?

MICHAEL LEWIS: It’s funny. There was a time pre-internet or even when the internet was in its early days when that magazine felt like the center of the universe. If you put something there, everybody you knew saw it, and now it feels like no matter where you put something, because it’s on the web everybody’s going to see it. Placement means much less than it used to. A lot of the value of that magazine has been undermined, I think, by the internet.

Robert Birnbaum: I do have a digital subscription to the Times and so when I look at the thing I just see so little to read that I want to read.
MICHAEL LEWIS: I think they’ve changed their minds about this – but they basically abandoned their commitment to long format. They shortened the articles. They shortened the magazine. They didn’t trust the attention span of the reader, and that was a huge error because that’s all they had. They can’t compete with the internet. If you want a distracted reader, you’re never going to beat the internet, but they could run a 10,000 word piece and make it big and say this is important and demand you turn off everything and read it. People did, and that was very, very valuable and they should never have walked away from it.

Robert Birnbaum: Well, I think the magazine is now designed for the net. It’s not designed for print.

MICHAEL LEWIS: That’s true.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s not designed to be held.

MICHAEL LEWIS: This is true.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s a sad thing. Have we missed any medium that you’re not in? Books, magazines, television.

MICHAEL LEWIS: I’m not really in television. I’m trying.

Robert Birnbaum: Well, I’d say you were in. You’re spending your time doing it. You’re in.

MICHAEL LEWIS: On Monday, the film for “The Big Short” starts shooting in New Orleans. I think it’s going to be really good, but I don’t have anything to do with it.

Robert Birnbaum: They just optioned it and that was it?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Paramount bought it with Brad Pitt. Brad Pitt’s in it, but the only reason it’s happening is this fellow, Adam McKay, who’s Will Ferrell’s writer and partner in crime on the Funny or Die website got obsessed with it. He wrote this spectacular script, and he’s attracted all this talent to it.

Robert Birnbaum: So they showed it to you? They showed you the script?

MICHAEL LEWIS: They did. It’s not a broad comedy like he’s done before. It’s different. It’s very powerful. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be fun.

Robert Birnbaum: Well, there are comedies that have punchlines and jokes and there are comedies that are comedic because the situations are comedic. As a New Orleansian, I meant to ask you, have you watched Treme?

MICHAEL LEWIS:Yes, the first couple of episodes.

Robert Birnbaum: What do you think?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Didn’t do it for me. My wife really likes it and swears that I would, if I sat down with the whole thing and tried to watch it in a gulp, I’d care about it and I may one day, but it felt … so often when people come from the outside in New Orleans, they notice the stuff that’s picturesque, picaresque and are drawn to it, and they direct it at the expense of getting at the actual soul of the place. They think that’s the soul of the place, and he isn’t that far off but it felt like very much an outsider’s take.

Robert Birnbaum: Did you watch Spike Lee’s movie on Katrina?

MICHAEL LEWIS: Yeah. It seemed crazy, I thought. I don’t think the government tried to blow up the levees.

Robert Birnbaum: He’s does leave you with that impression.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Anybody who I think is being honest about New Orleans now would say the city is in so much better shape now than it was before the storm, so much better shape. There’s still problems, but it’s a vibrant place with a future instead of a charming place with a past.

Robert Birnbaum: It’s sort of like knocking down all the old projects. In Chicago, they knocked down a bunch of old housing projects. That had to be done.

MICHAEL LEWIS: You couldn’t have done it. You couldn’t have replaced the school system with a charter school system. You couldn’t have upgraded the healthcare system.

Robert Birnbaum: The charter school initiatives are taking a beating, a lot of bad examples of corruption and …
MICHAEL LEWIS: There are a lot of bad examples. There’s no way it could be worse than what was there before in that case, and I know because my mother helped create one of them, two of them. I’ve spent some time in these places, and there was no public school – well, maybe there was one, but for very gifted kids – but they’re basically so much better than before …

Robert Birnbaum: When do you have to leave for the airport?

MICHAEL LEWIS: I have to go now.

Robert Birnbaum: Thank you.

MICHAEL LEWIS: All right, Robert.

Robert Birnbaum:I hope it isn’t 10 years until the next time.

MICHAEL LEWIS: No, no. It won’t be. It really won’t be. Good to see you.

Robert Birnbaum: Good to see you.

MICHAEL LEWIS: Thanks for making the time for me.

Robert Birnbaum: Oh, absolutely.

MICHAEL LEWIS: It was a pleasure as always.

Robert Birnbaum: I feel the same way.

MICHAEL LEWIS: [To Cuba] If you ever get your bell rung, get yourself out of the game.


* My [2nd]and most recent conversation with Nick Dawidoff here

* My conversation with Percival Everett here.

* One of my conversations with Michael Lewis here.

*Charlie Rose interview with Henri Cartier Bresson here


11 Dec


Adult onset solipsism can be distinguished from the youth version of self centeredness by the admission that,as Van Morrison croons in The Meaning of Loneliness, “it takes a lifetime just to know yourself.” Thus the one is beset with constant instances of self doubt and self interrogation. One coping mechanism or technique I have employed to gain a foothold on serenity and enlightenment is to regulate or gate-keep my intake of information, allowing my intuition to guide me. For example I am prepared to make decisions on what to investigate further past a snappy headline or synopsis. As in my immediate disinterest for going any further in the text when I encountered this fatuous mandate at Arts and Letters Daily—”Undergraduates should be kept away from theory at all costs,” says —— ———-. They should read Kael, not Derrida….” Immediately sensing its syllogistic unsoundness, I saw this bit of grandiloquence as the kind of Tourette’s outburst one might encounter at faculty meeting or party. Of course, one of the joys of engaging this form of short form journalism (web journalizing) is the opportunity to engage in such orotund pronouncements.

Some Ignored Titles (photo: Robert Birnbaum

Some Ignored Titles (photo: Robert Birnbaum

Ok, for the longest time I had an aversion to lists, viewing them as a lazy journalistic ploy to contribute to the ongoing dumbing down of everything (uh, I still think I am correct about that). On the other hand I can see some creative usefulness in lists— Umberto Eco creates some that interesting. And then there is Paul Zimmer’s poem Zimmer Imagines Heaven where in his recording of it introduces it as a “list” and encourages people to make their own lists:

I sit with Joseph Conrad in Monet’s garden,
We are listening to Yeats chant his poems,
A breeze stirs through Thomas Hardy’s moustache,
John Skelton has gone to the house for beer,
Wanda Landowska lightly fingers a clavichord,
Along the spruce tree walk Roberto Clemente and
Thurman Munson whistle a baseball back and forth.
Mozart chats with Ellington in the roses.
Monet smokes and dabs his canvas in the sun,
Brueghel and Turner set easels behind the wisteria.
the band is warming up in the Big Studio:
Bean, Brute, Bird and Serge on saxes,
Kai, Bill Harris, Lawrence Brown, trombones,
Klook plays drums, Mingus bass, Bud the piano.
Later Madam Schumann-Heink will sing Schubert,
The monks of bendictine Abbey will chant.
There will be more poems from Emily Dickinson,
James Wright, John Clare, Walt Whitman.
Shakespeare rehearses players for King Lear.
At dusk Alice Toklas brings out platters
Of Sweetbreads à la Napolitaine, Salad Livonière,
And a tureen of Gaspacho of Malaga.
After the meal Brahms passes fine cigars.
God comes then, radiant with a bottle of cognac,
She pours generously into the snifters,
I tell Her I have begun to learn what
Heaven is about. She wants to hear.
It is, I say, being thankful for eternity.
Her smile is the best part of the day.

So, here’s a list (of sorts) I created. I thought to offer reasons for my choices but I decidedto rely on your good opinion of me and your curiosity. Additionally, I asked some bookish acquaintances for their recommendations of overlooked books that come to mind( they are pretty much reprinted as I received them). Onward:

Dog Boy by Eva Hornung

Dog Boy by Eve Hornung

Dog Boy by Eve Hornung

Burning Marguerite by Elizabeth Inness-Brown

 Burning Marguerite by Elizabeth Inness-Brown

Burning Marguerite by Elizabeth Inness-Brown


Bullet Heart by Micheal Doane

Bullet Heart by Micheal Doane


Mrs Ives Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos

Mrs Ives Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos


Morning by Walt Wetherall

Morning by Walt Wetherall


Country of Bad Wolves by James Carlos Blake

Country of Bad Wolves by James Carlos Blake

Once Upon The River by Bonnie Campbell

Once  Upon A River by Bonnie Campbell

Once Upon A River by Bonnie Campbell

Redemption Falls by Joseph O Connor

Redemption Falls by Joseph O'Connor

Redemption Falls by Joseph O’Connor

The Dog of War by Don Winslow

The Power of the Dog by Don WInslow

The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow

Darkest Jungle by Tod Balf

Darkest Jungle by Tod Balf

Darkest Jungle by Tod Balf

Valley of Bones by Micheal Gruber

Valley of Bones by Micheal  Gruber

Valley of Bones by Micheal Gruber

Elizabeth Cox</strong> novelist, Night Talk (Random House)

 One overlooked novel I would like to add to the list is The Iguana Tree  by Michel Stone. My husband  (Mike Curtis) edited that novel and it is a good story…

The Iguana Tree  by Michel Stone

The Iguana Tree by Michel Stone

David Rieff, author, Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir (Simon & Schuster)

Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution

 Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell

Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell

Robert Stone, novelist, The Death of the Black Haired Girl(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):

     Off the top of my head, I recall only one, and I’ve forgotten the author’s name. There was a novel about a man in  Maine published some years ago, called HARBOR LIGHTS. It was reviewed in IN BRIEF in the NY Times Book Review. A short, excellent novel…

HARBOR LIGHTS  By Theodore Weesner.

By Theodore Weesner.

Katherine Powers, literary personage, author, Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life (FSG)

So, I don’t know about “tragically,” and by “overlooked” I would mean that most people haven’t heard of these–and they are all A+:
“20,000 Streets Under the Sun” – Patrick Hamilton
The Armstrong Trilogy – Roy Heath
“in Hazard” – Richard Hughes
“The Golovlyov Family” – Shchedrin

 20,000 Streets Under the Sun by Patrick Hamilton

20,000 Streets Under the Sun by Patrick Hamilton

Richard Russo,award winning novelist Elsewhere (Knopf), screenwriter (Ice Harvest)

But for my bookseller daughter Emily’s recommendation, I doubt I’d have come across A Marker to Measure Drift . You might want to check to see if it did better than I imagine, but sense is that it slipped into oblivion, and the last scene in the novel is as brutal and breathtaking as anything I’ve read in a long time.

A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik

A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik

Ron Rash , novelist, The Cove (ECCO)

With by Donald Harington –Harington is America’s Chaucer.

With by Donald Harington

With by Donald Harington

Edwidge Danticat novelist, Claire of the Sea Light (Knopf), humanitarian

I’d say many of Percival Everett‘s novels including Erasure. Everett is as a brilliant at creating narratives as he is at bending genres. He has one of the least classifiable careers, but one of the most brilliant, in American letters.Everett’s 2001 masterpiece, “Erasure”–a parody of the African-American urban novel, offers a lyrical critique of a publishing establishment which continues to pigeon hole writers, particular African-American writers. Everett is also a respected poet and painter. His previous honors include: ThemPEN Center USA Award for Fiction, The Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Fiction and the Dos Pasos Prize.

Erasure by Percival Everett

Erasure by Percival Everett

Joseph O’Connor ,overlooked Irish novelist, Where Have You Been? (Harvill Secker)

Tragically Overlooked Novels? Well, all of mine, for a start. But: do you mean Tragically Overlooked Novels from 2013 or in general? …In my view, DEATH AND NIGHTINGALES by Eugene McCabe is one of the great novels of the late 20th Century. It’s a story of thwarted love set in 1883 in rural County Fermanagh, on the border of Ulster and what is now as the Republic of Ireland. The events of a single day in the life of Elizabeth Winters provide the plot, which is so utterly gripping that you can’t stop reading. But McCabe smuggles in all sorts of darkness and depth. This is a truly brilliant book about racism, gender politics, and political rage, but the subtle (and supple) language weaves you into the story with such fierce and clever grace that you never feel you’re attending a lecture. It’s got touches of Coatzee and Faulkner but a mesmerizing smolder all its own. If you’ve ever doubted the novel’s power to express realities that politics can’t reach, you need to read this magnificent thing.



Stuart Dybek ,author, Northwestern University mentor,(forthcoming)Paper Lantern: Love Stories (FSG)

I don’t know how “overlooked” Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga is but i saw it on no lists whatsoever when the millennium nonsense was going on & i don’t think there’s been a change since.

 Far Tortuga  by Peter Matthiessen

Far Tortuga by Peter Matthiessen

David Thomson, cultural encyclopedia,author
Moments That Made the Movies (Thames & Hudson)

Troubles by J.G Farrell. If you don’t think it’s overlooked then The Purchase by Linda Spalding.

The Purchase by Linda Spalding.

The Purchase by Linda Spalding.

Darin Strauss ,author,Half a Life: A Memoir (McSweeney’s), NYU mentor

i don’t know what counts as forgotten anymore. THE FIXER, by–which is tough and beautiful and unsentimental in its treatment of something awful? MOMENTO MORI, which I just read, and which taught me about the consoling half-thoughts and cruelties, the passing cruelties of stupid people. (In other words, most dumbasses will act dumb and assy and never feel bad about it—will come up with reasons, in fact, to feel good about the immoral way they act.) Or maybe THE STATEMENT by Brian Moore, which is a perfect thriller, a smart philosophical treatment of evil and racism, a fun read, and about an afternoon’s read?

 THE FIXER  by Bernard Malamud

THE FIXER by Bernard Malamud

All of the above?

BRIAN DOYLE ,novelist, Mink River (University of Oregon Press) editor of Portland magazine

Hmmm. Maybe THE HORSE’S MOUTH by Joyce Cary. Best novel I ever read, period, but not one that many people have on their shelves. Also made into a terrific movie, which is a rare case of a glorious novel being made into a glorious movie. The few others I know: LITTLE BIG MAN, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT, LORD OF THE RINGS, THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY, maybe THE ENGLISH PATIENT, maybe MASTER AND COMMANDER.


Daniel OLIVAS, novelist The Book of Want (University of Arizona Press)

The Old Man’s Love Story by Rudolfo Anaya

I interviewed him for the first print. Enjoy the list-making edition of the Los Angeles Angeles Review of Books regarding this novel. It’s quite beautiful but did not receive the kind of coverage it should have.

The Old Man's Love Story by Rudolfo Anaya

The Old Man’s Love Story by Rudolfo Anaya

Micheal ORTHOFER ,editor, eminence gris The Complete Review

Way too much gets way too overlooked, but I guess I’d suggest: “Where Tigers are at Home” by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès (which seems to have gotten almost no review- and little reader-attention). Runner-up: “Tirza” by Arnon Grunberg, which got a bit more attention but nowhere what it deserves (it’s a best-of-year-contender) — perhaps overshadowed by Herman Koch’s somewhat similar (and considerably inferior) “The Dinner”.Still: that’s just the tip of the overlooked iceberg.

 Where Tigers are at Home by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès

Where Tigers are at Home by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès

BEN FOUNTAIN, award winning author, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ecco)

…Several come to mind:

Little Big Man by Thomas Berger. I don’t know if it could be called tragically overlooked, given that it was made into a blockbuster movie in the late 60s, but nobody talks about it much these days. I think it’s one of the great American novels. Top ten for sure, maybe top five.

We Agreed to Meet Just Here by Scott Blackwood. A lovely, short novel that came out about 7-8 years ago. It won the AWP award, and Scott subsequently got a Whiting Award on the strength of it. It’s just about perfect. His forthcoming novel from Knopf is even better.

The Gay Place by Billy Brammer. A novel of Texas politics, published 1961 or ’62….

"We Agreed to Meet Just Here" by Scott Blackwood

“We Agreed to Meet Just Here” by Scott Blackwood

Robert Mccrum , editor, The Observer, author, Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language (WW Norton)

Hadrian the seventh by Frederick Rolfe

Hadrian the Seventh by Frederick Rolfe

Hadrian the Seventh by Frederick Rolfe

ALLAN Gurganus ,novella-ist, Local Souls

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page By G.B. Edwards—this is the single novel by a bureaucrat who spent his life on the Isle of Guernsey. G.B. Edwards imagined a trilogy of such works but he died in a mainland boarding house with this manuscript under his bed. The landlady got it published in 1981. The work is erotic, tumultuous and heroic as a Beethoven symphony. We get the twisted history of incestuous island families. We get the German occupation of the island during World War II. Love stories are offset by men battling the ocean and its creatures. This novel, a rare instance of Folk Art in narrative, deserves a larger readership, a secure place in our literature.

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page   By G.B. Edwards

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page By G.B. Edwards

Gary Fisketjon ,veteran editor at Knopf

Indeed, I could fill a volume in that category with many new additions every fucking year. But given that we’re in 2013, I’d say that Steve Yarbrough’s THE REALM OF LAST CHANCES has been overlooked most tragically. That’s one reason my only lingering resolution – to quit smoking – always fails to get any real traction. …

The Realm of Last Chances by Steve Yarbrough

The Realm of Last Chances by Steve Yarbrough

Billy Giraldi ,novelist, Busy Monsters (WW Norton) critic , essayist, long form journalist editor, Agni

Indeed. Caleb Williams by William Godwin and The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Neglected masterworks of suspense both of them. Divinely written.

Caleb Williams by William Godwin

Caleb Williams by William Godwin

Hari Kunzru ,novelist, Men Without Gods (Knopf)

I’ll nominate Walter Tevis’s The Man Who Fell To Earth. Bowie fans have seen the movie, but the book is beautiful, poised. As if Richard Yates wrote SF.

The Man Who Fell To Earth  by Walter Tevis

The Man Who Fell To Earth by Walter Tevis

Joseph Epstein ,short fiction writer,The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff: And Other Stories (HMH), essayist, former editor, American Scholar

1. Lampedusa’s The Leopard 2. Sandor Marai’s Embers. I’m not sure if these are tragically overlooked or merely insufficiently well known, but both are swell novels.

 Embers by Sandor Marai

Embers by Sandor Marai

Sven Birkerts, Literary Man for All Seasons, editor, Agni memoirist, writing program administrator (Bennington),

I’m Not Stiller by Max Frisch
The German Lesson by Siegfried Lenz
The Death of a Beekeeper Lars Gustafsson

I'm Not Stiller  by  Max Frisch

I’m Not Stiller by Max Frisch

Tom Piazza ,novelist, City of Refuge (Ecco) screenwriter (Treme), musical connosieur

I’d have to vote for Buddenbrooks, by Thomas Mann, in the H.T. Lowe-Porter translation. Mann is underread in general these days, but Buddenbrooks was a masterpiece. People tend to think it’s just a 19th-Century family saga, but it’s really a book that combines 19th-Century techniques and sonorities with startlingly modern technical strategies that get missed because they work wholly in the service of the narrative. It’s almost like a Mahler symphony — one foot in the 19th Century and one stepping off the cliff into the unspooling chaos of the 20th. Very important to get the old Lowe-Porter translation. Random House made the mistake of letting somebody “update” the translation and they ruined it, sort of the way Pevear and Volokhonsky ruin the Russians.

Among contemporary books, Lives of the Monster Dogs should have made Kirsten Bakis a big literary star.

Lives of the Monster Dogs by  Kirsten Bakis

Lives of the Monster Dogs by Kirsten Bakis

Susan Bergholz, non-pareil and sage literary agent (Eduardo Galeano et al)

Here you go; can’t do just one!LOG OF THE S.S. THE MRS. UNGUENTINE by Stanley Crawford, simply the best book about marriage ever written in the US by a living treasure POWER OF THE DOG by Thomas Savage/dead now, extraordinary workAN IMAGINARY LIFE by David Malouf–a pitch perfect novel, except for the Afterword.THE TIME OF OUR SINGING by Richard Powers, our most brilliant and amazing male novelist; makes Franzen and company sound as though they are writing soap operas. Prepare for his novel out in January, ORFEO/stunning!!!

I forgot one very impt novel: CARAMELO by Sandra Cisneros
And another one: IN THE PALM OF DARKNESS by Mayra Montero
And: AND THEIR DOGS CAME WITH THEM by Helena Maria Viramontes.
Ok–I’ll stop now!!!!!!!



href=”http://www.identitytheory.com/blake-bailey/”&gt;,literary biographer Farther & Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson (Knopf)

THE LOST WEEKEND, of course, and Anthony Powell’s first novel, AFTERNOON MEN<a.

THE LOST WEEKEND by Charles Jackson

Off the Beaten Track: Percival Everett

31 Oct

Having happily received Percival Everett’s newest opus, a novel entitled Assumption (Graywolf) I did a bit of search-engining to see if my enthusiasm was shared by the American reviewing industry. As far as I can tell there has been one review in Minneapolis’s daily (the proud home of Graywolf Press) by Steven Weintraub— who immediately distinguished himself (to me)by revealing that he had read 20 of Everett’s 22 published tomes.

Assumption is propelled by Odgen Walker who is biracial and after a stint in the Army he takes a job as a deputy Sheriff in a small New Mexico town. Perhaps an excerpt will offer a clue to why you ought to take notice of Percival Everett:

Chapter 2

Ogden Walker put his finger, a once-broken index that still held a curve, to the hole in the glass of the door through which two bullets had passed, a neat hole with spiderweb etching out and away. He felt the icy air, the rough exit hole, and he traced the netting of cracks to the wood. Neither the neighbors nor Mrs. Bickers knew who or what had been on the porch, but all were certain that he, she, or it would not be returning. Ogden marveled at the fact that Mrs. Bickers had been able to put two bullets through the same mark. He certainly could not have fired two shots like that, but still it was his job to relieve the old woman of her firearm and any others she might have. It wasn’t that he believed she should not have the gun, an old woman alone like that, but that she’d pulled the trigger without so much as a glimpse at the person on the porch. It could have been the meter reader, the postman, ringing only once this time, or Ogden himself.

“I need to talk to you, Mrs. Bickers,” Ogden said through the slim crack she offered at the door.

“Not now,” she said, her voice hoarse, perhaps thick with the morning. She pulled her terrycloth robe tight around her bony frame. “Can you come back?”

“No. I have to talk to you now. Okay? Open the door and let the not-yet-fully-awake deputy in.” Ogden looked her in the eye. “Please, ma’am.” He always sensed that the old woman didn’t like him because he was black, but that was probably true for half of the white residents of the county.

She opened the door and stood away. Ogden walked past her into the tight space of the foyer. He caught sight of his tired face in the mirror of the combination coat rack/bench. He watched as she closed the door, attended to the bullet hole from the other side.

“You got any coffee, Mrs. Bickers? I’m dying for a cup.” He knew that the old lady had never been comfortable with him, but he believed he could somewhat control the tension by having her feel he didn’t notice.

“Don’t have any coffee,” she said.

“What about tea? Listen, I need to sit down with you and have a little chat. Sheriff wants me to do it. So I have to do it.”

“Come on back.” She led the way to the rear of the long house and into the kitchen, across the buckled linoleum to the table.He held his holster away from his hip as he lowered himself into a chair. “A lot of excitement last night,” he said. “Are you all right?” He watched as the old woman filled a mug with the coffee she’d said she didn’t have and set it down in front of him. “Thank you, ma’am.”

She wiped both hands on her apron.

Ogden wrapped his hands around the mug. “Strong tea,” he said.

She sat. “Let’s get on with it.”

“Pretty fancy shooting last night, Mrs. Bickers. I’d never be able to hit a mark twice like that.”

“Well, I didn’t see much point in putting two holes in a perfectly good door,” she said without a hint of a smile.

“No, I guess not. Mind if I take a look at your gun?”

She frowned and twirled a lock of her loose gray hair between her fingers.

“I need to see it.”

Currently reading Uncanny Valley Adventures in the Narrative by Lawrence Weschler (Counterpoint)


10 Jun

Recently I found myself bemoaning the dearth of enticingly written novels set in the 19th century American West. So it is especially pleasing to come across Patrick Dewitt’s newly published novel The Sisters Brothers (Ecco)which fits that bill.

Here’s the book trailer which should receive credit for something if not for usefulness

Charlie and Eli Sisters are hired guns—well actually, killers. It is the mid 19th century Gold rush west coast and they work for the Commodore, out of Oregon City. In this narrative they are on the hunt for Hermann Kermit Warm by whom the Commodore claims to be aggrieved. On their picaresque journey to the gold fields, narrated by Eli, they come across crazies and eccentrics,losers, cheaters, and ne’er-do-wells who provide comic fodder for Eli’s compelling and complicated (and darkly funny point of view.

Young De Witt’s (The Ablutions) second novel will stir ready comparisons to Charles Portis’s True Grit. It also compares favorably to the less known (but not less accomplished) God’s Country by Percival Everett.

I am thinking that there’s a very big talent emerging but you judge for yourself here.