Tag Archives: Tim Gautreaux

The Last and Best List of “Best” Books for 2017

15 Jan


In 2009 ,when Umberto Eco was in residence at the French Louvre he chose to study the  theme  of “the vertigo of lists.” His reflections  on an enormous trove of human achievements and his investigation of the phenomenon of cataloging and collecting resulted in The Infinity of Lists: An  Illustrated History.* Paul Zimmer says his  poem  Zimmer Goes To Heaven is a list So  far those are the only examples of  lists that are useful in the cultural world


 Attaching superlatives to  creative endeavors has been a pet peeve of mine ever since so called  best lists came to  cultural preeminence. Finally, someone (Thomas Morris ) has articulated better than (and more kindly), I ever have the issues I have with these  Books of the Year.


…that these lists would benefit from getting rid of the ‘best’ tag. It’s not that I don’t believe some books are better than others; it’s just that I don’t believe we adequately express our love when we invoke criterions of betterness; and that such claims are frankly absurd when each individual is drawing from such a small, subjective pool.

**Books of the Year lists are a key factor in the spread of blurbese: a language written in a register completely separate from actual spoken word-of-mouth recommendations. In 2015, when I was first asked to write a few lines about my Books of the Year, I found myself typing words like “haunting”, “lyrical”, “exquisite”, “innovative”, “poignant” “handsome” and the kind of phrases that I would usually strike out of a work of fiction: “bowled over”; “blown away”; “left dazzled by”. I heard the Song of Praise, and I duly danced the steps. 

I am not naive enough to think that the writing industry can exist outside of the machinations of capitalism, but I do think these kind of lists are in a ragged service to a skewed, misguided market-logic whereby literary “product” values are something measurable and commensurable—and inherently related to newness. And it is disappointing to me that we all—in trying to recommend good books that we genuinely like—do so by participating in a narrative that most of us surely don’t really go along with. …

However, since my railing against these and other aesthetic misdemeanors has gone unheeded let me offer my own selections for your perusal and consideration** :



News of the World by Paulette Jiles


It is 1870 and Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd travels through northern Texas, giving live readings to paying audiences hungry for news of the world. An elderly widower who has lived through three wars and fought in two of them, the captain enjoys his rootless, solitary existence.

In Wichita Falls, he is offered a $50 gold piece to deliver a young orphan to her relatives in San Antonio. Four years earlier, a band of Kiowa raiders killed Johanna’s parents and sister; sparing the little girl, they raised her as one of their own. Recently rescued by the U.S. army, the ten-year-old has once again been torn away from the only home she knows.

Their 400-mile journey south through unsettled territory and unforgiving terrain proves difficult and at times dangerous. Johanna has forgotten the English language, tries to escape at every opportunity, throws away her shoes, and refuses to act “civilized.” Yet as the miles pass, the two lonely survivors tentatively begin to trust each other, forging a bond that marks the difference between life and death in this treacherous land.

Arriving in San Antonio, the reunion is neither happy nor welcome. The captain must hand Johanna over to an aunt and uncle she does not remember—strangers who regard her as an unwanted burden. A respectable man, Captain Kidd is faced with a terrible choice: abandon the girl to her fate or become—in the eyes of the law—a kidnapper himself. Exquisitely rendered and morally complex, News of the World is a brilliant work of historical fiction that explores the boundaries of family, responsibility, honor, and trust.


Heretics: A Novel by Leonardo Padura,‎ Anna Kushner  Translator

Padura follows his magnificent The Man Who Loved Dogs a sweeping novel of art theft, anti-Semitism, contemporary Cuba, and crime ping ponging from the 17th century to 1939 to the present. You can watch his Havana  Noir Quartet on Netflix, Four Seasons In Havana

In 1939, the Saint Louis sails from Hamburg into Havana’s port with hundreds of Jewish refugees seeking asylum from the Nazi regime. From the docks, nine-year-old Daniel Kaminsky watches as the passengers, including his mother, father, and sister, become embroiled in a fiasco of Cuban corruption. But the Kaminskys have a treasure that they hope will save them: a small Rembrandt portrait of Christ. Yet six days later the vessel is forced to leave the harbor with the family, bound for the horrors of Europe. The Kaminskys, along with their priceless heirloom, disappear.

Nearly seven decades later, the Rembrandt reappears in an auction house in London, prompting Daniel’s son to travel to Cuba to track down the story of his family’s lost masterpiece. He hires the down-on-his-luck private detective Mario Conde, and together they navigate a web of deception and violence in the morally complex city of Havana.

In Heretics, Leonardo Padura takes us from the tenements and beaches of Cuba to Rembrandt’s gloomy studio in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, telling the story of people forced to choose between the tenets of their faith and the realities of the world, between their personal desires and the demands of their times. A grand detective story and a moving historical drama, Padura’s novel is as compelling, mysterious, and enduring as the painting at its center



Augustown: A Novel by Kei Miller 


I found this more acessible than the highly celebrated Marlan James story. Miller’s poetic language packs a big story in this slender tome

11 April 1982: a smell is coming down John Golding Road right alongside the boy-child, something attached to him, like a spirit but not quite. Ma Taffy is growing worried. She knows that something is going to happen. Something terrible is going to pour out into the world. But if she can hold it off for just a little bit longer, she will. So she asks a question that surprises herself even as she asks it, “Kaia, I ever tell you bout the flying preacherman?”

Set in the backlands of Jamaica, Augustown is a magical and haunting novel of one woman’s struggle to rise above the brutal vicissitudes of history, race, class, collective memory, violence, and myth. Containing twelve new stories and nine classics from previous collections, Signals is Tim Gautreaux at his best. Effortlessly conjuring the heat and humidity of the author’s beloved South, these stories of men and women grappling with faith, small town life, and blue-collar work are alternately ridiculous and sublime. For both longtime fans and readers lucky enough to encounter him for the very first time, Signals cements Gautreaux’s place as an American master.



Signals: New and Selected Stories   by Tim Gautreaux

Signals is Tim Gautreaux at his best. Effortlessly conjuring the heat and humidity of the author’s beloved South, these stories of men and women grappling with faith, small town life, and blue-collar work are alternately ridiculous and sublime. For both longtime fans and readers lucky enough to encounter him for the very first time, Signals cements Gautreaux’s place as an American master.

I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Gautreaux (to be found in Conversations with Tim Gautreaux). Here’s sample


RB: Let’s talk about the subject at hand, The Clearing. Is it a Southern novel or a Louisiana novel or a bayou novel? Or none of the above.

TG: I hope none of the above. Because of I am very wary of the label “Southern writer.” Of course, I live in Louisiana and I was raised in south central Louisiana, born and raised there. I was raised in every cliché known to man about the Deep South. Once you allow yourself to be labeled, you begin to believe the label and then when you compose you feel duty bound to include as many of the usual cliches as you possibly can about your region. That’s a terrible thing to happen to a writer, and I hope that it doesn’t happen to me too much. When people interview me they ask if I consider myself a Southern writer. This seems like an honest question. Well, it is an honest question. But it’s a hard one to answer. I prefer to put a little different spin on it— I consider myself a writer first who happens to live in the South. If I had been born in North Dakota I would still be a writer. I would probably have had a similar life. But my people and my settings, my moods, my skies, my waterways would be from North Dakota or South Canada. I would still be writing something.





The Feud is the ironic (and sad) tale of how two literary giants destroyed their friendship in a fit of mutual pique and egomania. Having conversated with Alex Beam a number of times , he impresses with his acute sense of a good story (Gracefully Insane: Life and Death Inside America’s Premier Mental Hospital, American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church, and A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books) frequently told with Beam’s sly sense of humor.

In 1940, Edmund Wilson was the undisputed big dog of American letters. Vladimir Nabokov was a near-penniless Russian exile seeking asylum in the States. Wilson became a mentor to Nabokov, introducing him to every editor of note, assigning him book reviews for The New Republic, engineering a Guggenheim Fellowship. Their intimate friendship blossomed over a shared interest in all things Russian, ruffled a bit by political disagreements. But then came the worldwide best-selling novel Lolita,and the tables were turned. Suddenly Nabokov was the big (and very rich) dog. The feud finally erupted in full when Nabokov published his hugely footnoted and virtually unreadable literal translation of Pushkin’s famously untranslatable verse novel, Eugene Onegin. Wilson attacked his friend’s translation with hammer and tongs in The New York Review of Books. Nabokov counterattacked. Back and forth the increasingly aggressive letters flew, until the narcissism of small differences reduced their friendship to ashes.

Alex Beam has fashioned this clash of literary titans into a delightful and irresistible book—a comic contretemps of a very high order and a poignant demonstration of the fragility of even the deepest of friendships.





A Boy in Winter: A Novel by Rachel Seiffert  


Having some personal experience with the stories of Holocaust, I occasionally  consider whether the  stories and history’s that rise from that horror are an  exhaustible and can continue to bring new light to bear. This harrowing novel by Seiffert expands the sense of  barbarity of a well troden subject.

Early on a grey November morning in 1941, only weeks after the German invasion, a small Ukrainian town is overrun by the SS. This new novel from the award-winning author of the Booker Prize short-listed The Dark Room tells of the three days that follow and the lives that are overturned in the processPenned in with his fellow Jews, under threat of deportation, Ephraim anxiously awaits word of his two sons, missing since daybreak.Come in search of her lover, to fetch him home again, away from the invaders, Yasia must confront new and harsh truths about those closest to her.Here to avoid a war he considers criminal, German engineer Otto Pohl is faced with an even greater crime unfolding behind the lines, and no one but himself to turn to.And in the midst of it all is Yankel, a boy determined to survive this. But to do so, he must throw in his lot with strangers.As their stories mesh, each of Rachel Seiffert’s characters comes to know the compromises demanded by survival, the oppressive power of fear, and the possibility of courage in the face of terror.

A Boy in Winter is a story of hope when all is lost and of mercy when the times have none.









The Savage: A Novel by Frank Bill

I came to Frank Bill through his literary debut, The Crimes of Southern Indiana a bracing story collection tracking the mayhem and appalling lives of life in the so called flyover zone. The Savage is his second novel.

The dollar has failed; the grid is wiped out. Walmarts are looted and homes are abandoned as common folk flee and bloodthirsty militias fight for power. In a twenty-first century America gone haywire, Darwinian struggle for survival is the law of the land.

Van Dorn, eighteen and running solo, was raised by his father in the old ways: to value survival, self-reliance, and righteousness. Determined to seek justice, he fights through a litany of horrors to save those captured by Cotto, a savage, drug-crazed warlord who has risen among the roving gangs, gaining territory while enslaving women and children. As destinies collide and survival becomes an increasingly distant fantasy, battling ideals of right and wrong come to an explosive head.

Chock-full of the razor-sharp prose and bloodlust that made Donnybrook[his first novel] impossible to put down, The Savage nonetheless finds Frank Bill raising the stakes. Here, one of America’s most iconoclastic young storytellers presents an unnerving vision of a fractured America gone terribly wrong, and a study of what happens when the last systems of morality and society collapse.




Who Killed Piet Barol? by Richard Mason

Set in early twentieth-century colonial South Africa, and a forest full of witch doctors, stingless bees, and hungry leopards., this novel continues the story of Piet Barol begun in History of a Pleasure Seeker and despite the title a story Mason intends to continue in a third novel.

It is 1914. Germany has just declared war on France. Piet Barol was a tutor before he came to South Africa, his wife, Stacey, an opera singer. In Cape Town they are living the high life, impersonating French aristocrats—but their lies are catching up with them.The Barols’ furniture business is on the verge of collapse. They need top-quality wood, and they need it cheap. Piet enlists two Xhosa [pron. KO-sa] men to lead him into a vast forest, in search of a fabled tree.The Natives Land Act has just abolished property rights for the majority of black South Africans, and whole families have been ripped apart. Piet’s guides have their own reasons to lead him through the trees, and to keep him alive while he’s useful to them.Far from the comforting certainties of his privileged existence, Piet finds the prospect of riches beyond measure—and the chance to make great art. He is sure he’ll be able to buy what he needs for a few glass trinkets. But he’s underestimating the Xhosa, who believe the spirits of their ancestors live in this sacred forest. Battle lines are drawn. When Piet’s powers of persuasion fail him, he resorts to darker, more dangerous talents to get what he is determined to have. As the story moves to its devastating conclusion, every character becomes a suspect, and Piet’s arrogance and guile put him on a collision course with forces he cannot understand and that threaten his seemingly enchanted existence.




There Your Heart Lies   by Mary Gordon


The Spanish Civil War, which you will recall preceded the the Second Great War, glorified by Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, continues to be a source of fascination by novelists,filmmakers and historians alike. Leonardo Padura’s The Man who Loved Dogs takes us from  Republican Spain to the assassination of Leon Trotsky,  Antonio Chavarrías’s 2016 film The Chosen, which focuses on the Stalinist takeover of the Republican resistance as a pathway to the Trotsky murder. And there is Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, (1936-1939) by Adam Hochshild telling the story of the   band of idealists known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

Now comes There Your Heart Lies  a  novel about an American woman’s experiences during the Spanish Civil War, the lessons she learned, and how her story will shape her granddaughter’s path Marian cut herself off from her wealthy, conservative Irish Catholic family when she volunteered during the Spanish Civil War—an experience she has always kept to herself. Now in her nineties, she shares her Rhode Island cottage with her granddaughter Amelia, a young woman of good heart but only a vague notion of life’s purpose. Their daily existence is intertwined with Marian’s secret past: the blow to her youthful idealism when she witnessed the brutalities on both sides of Franco’s war and the romance that left her trapped in Spain in perilous circumstances for nearly a decade. When Marian is diagnosed with cancer, she finally speaks about what happened to her during those years—personal and ethical challenges nearly unthinkable to Amelia’s millennial generation, as well as the unexpected gifts of true love and true friendship.Marian’s story compels Amelia to make her own journey to Spain, to reconcile her grandmother’s past with her own uncertain future. With their exquisite female bond at its core, this novel, which explores how character is forged in a particular moment in history and passed down through the generations, is especially relevant in our own time. It is a call to arms—a call to speak honestly about evil when it is



The Force by Don Winslow

Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog (the first of his projected trilogy and apparently slated to be come a film is a muscular, full-bodied masterpiece elucidating  the so-called war on drugs, convincingly includes all the institutions complicit in a nexus of criminality. Winslow rivals  John LeCarre in his expose of the corruption and hypocrisy in the established institutions of modern society. Now Winslow brings his skills and narrative talents to an uncompromising and vivid cop novel of the NYPD.  Before you even get into the text, there are two attention getting elements — an aphorism by Raymond Chandler, ” Cops are just people,  …they start out that way.”  And a  dedication to all the police personnel murdered while Winslow was writing this book which takes up two and a half page pages…


Our ends know our beginnings, but the reverse isn’t true . . .All Denny Malone wants is to be a good cop. He is “the King of Manhattan North,” a, highly decorated NYPD detective sergeant and the real leader of “Da Force.” Malone and his crew are the smartest, the toughest, the quickest, the bravest, and the baddest, an elite special unit given unrestricted authority to wage war on gangs, drugs and guns. Every day and every night for the eighteen years he’s spent on the Job, Malone has served on the front lines, witnessing the hurt, the dead, the victims, the perps. He’s done whatever it takes to serve and protect in a city built by ambition and corruption, where no one is clean—including Malone himself.What only a few know is that Denny Malone is dirty: he and his partners have stolen millions of dollars in drugs and cash in the wake of the biggest heroin bust in the city’s history. Now Malone is caught in a trap and being squeezed by the Feds, and he must walk the thin line between betraying his brothers and partners, the Job, his family, and the woman he loves, trying to survive, body and soul, while the city teeters on the brink of a racial conflagration that could destroy them all.



White Tears   by Hari Kunzru




British transplant Hari Kunzru caught my attention with his previous novel Gods Without Men, an ambitious narrative that ping pongs between high powered stock market speculators and native anthropology of  the first peoples of the American Southwest. I spoke with Kunzru about the book and about all manner of things. Here’s a morsel of that conversation


RB: I was interested in how you acquire information — how actively you  pursue  expanding your pool of general knowledge. The core of Gods Without Men is about a mixed marriage couple — a Punjabi Sikh and a Jewish American woman, and then a 17th century Spanish priest makes an appearance, and there is the Wall Street firm developing a program that searches for discontinuous connections that may be predictive. And then there are UFO/Alien visitation people. And hippy communes. And at the end you have a disclaimer that Fray Garcia’s report was never redacted, as it was in the novel — a fact whose reality I was never concerned about.

HK: That I felt was necessary because he is a historical character. He did make that journey across the Mohave, and the diary of his journey exists. So I inserted two missing weeks. I am holding my hands up to say that’s a clear determinate case of fabrication there. Novels always have a kind of oblique relationship to research material and sources of all kinds. There many other echoes of stuff that I found and used.

RB: The native people’s mythology — did you make those myths up?

HK: Again, yes and no. There was an extraordinary woman named Carobeth Laird who was an anthropologist, and in the years before the first World War married a much older anthropologist. She was a young college girl in San Diego. He was a kind of mean character, very cold, who wanted a research assistant and taught her how to do field work. He would dump her in Indian communities in the desert while he went off and did other research. And then eventually she fell in love with her informants. Fell in love with a Chemehuevi Indian guide called George Laird. And told her husband, this guy Harrington, that she was leaving him. And then disappeared off the map for many, many years. And then in the late sixties, when people were going through Harrington’s papers, he had left this huge mass of unpublished research. People realized that there were two sets of handwriting and thought to ask who she was, and whether she was still alive. And someone went and found her. She was in her nineties, and she had been working that whole time. She had produced the most extraordinary — it seems to be regarded as the best — ethnography of any Southwestern native people in existence. In the first little section of the novel, I used the way a Chemehuevi storyteller would work. Not necessarily naming a character directly to the audience, but to speak in a certain way and with a certain vocal tone and everyone would know who was speaking.


In White Tears, two twenty-something New Yorkers. Seth is awkward and shy. Carter is the glamorous heir to one of America’s great fortunes. They have one thing in common: an obsession with music. Seth is desperate to reach for the future. Carter is slipping back into the past. When Seth accidentally records an unknown singer in a park, Carter sends it out over the Internet, claiming it’s a long lost 1920s blues recording by a musician called Charlie Shaw. When an old collector contacts them to say that their fake record and their fake bluesman are actually real, the two young white men, accompanied by Carter’s troubled sister Leonie, spiral down into the heart of the nation’s darkness, encountering a suppressed history of greed, envy, revenge, and exploitation.






The Bones of Paradise by Jonis Agee    

A multigenerational family saga set in the  Nebraska Sand Hills in the years following the infsmoud massacre at Wounded Knee—this is an ambitious tale of history that fills in the large spaces left by the histories of the latter  half of the 19th century American West

Ten years after the Seventh Cavalry massacred more than two hundred Lakota men, women, and children at Wounded Knee, J.B. Bennett, a white rancher, and Star, a young Native American woman, are murdered in a remote meadow on J.B.’s land. The deaths bring together the scattered members of the Bennett family: J.B.’s cunning and hard father, Drum; his estranged wife, Dulcinea; and his teenage sons, Cullen and Hayward. As the mystery of these twin deaths unfolds, the history of the dysfunctional Bennetts and their damning secrets is revealed, exposing the conflicted heart of a nation caught between past and future. At the center of The Bones of Paradise are two remarkable women. Dulcinea, returned after bitter years of self-exile, yearns for redemption and the courage to mend her broken family and reclaim the land that is rightfully hers. Rose, scarred by the terrible slaughters that have decimated and dislocated her people, struggles to accept the death of her sister, Star, and refuses to rest until she is avenged….Jonis Agee’s novel is a panorama of America at the dawn of a new century. A beautiful evocation of this magnificent, blood-soaked land—its sweeping prairies, seas of golden grass, and sandy hills, all at the mercy of two unpredictable and terrifying forces, weather and lawlessness—and the durable men and women who dared to tame it.



  The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit has written about 20  books on an impressively diverse  array of subjects ranging from  feminism, western and indigenous history, popular power, social change and insurrection, wandering and walking, hope and disaster, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. In A Paradise Built in Hell , Ms. Solnit unpacks five disasters in depth: the 1906 earthquake and fires in San Francisco, the Halifax munitions cargo ship explosion of 1917, the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, the events of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. She also writes about the London blitz, Chernobyl and many other upheavals and examines the growing field of disaster studies.

In “A Paradise Built in Hell” Ms. Solnit probes five disasters in depth: the 1906 earthquake and fires in San Francisco, the Halifax munitions cargo ship explosion of 1917, the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, the events of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. She also writes about the London blitz, Chernobyl and many other upheavals and examines the growing field of disaster studies. As different as these events  are there was a consistent altruism in evidence and Solnit observes the odd joy of living in their wake to existing in benign anarchies of the kind Thomas Paine described in “The Rights of Man.”

 In Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit offers indispensable commentary on women who refuse to be silenced, misogynistic violence, the fragile masculinity of the literary canon, the gender binary, the recent history of rape jokes, and much more.She has received a Guggenheim, the National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism, and the Lannan Literary Award). , she is also contributes the “Easy Chair “column at Harper’s and is a regular contributor to the Guardian.




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

When Milena’s lover and protector, the chief of Mexico’s most important newspaper, dies in her arms, she knows it’s only a matter of time before the ruthless thugs behind the human-trafficking ring that kidnapped her from her Croatian village catch her and force her back into sex slavery.Soon, three comrades bound together by childhood friendships, romantic entanglements, and a restless desire for justice are after her as well—but for different reasons. The new chief of the newspaper, columnist Tomás Arizmendi, must retrieve Milena’s mysterious black book before the media empire he has inherited is torn asunder, while dubious intelligence expert Jaime Lemus wants to use the sensitive information the book contains about the crimes of the world’s power elite to further his political puppeteering. Lastly, the noblest of the trio, rising politician Amelia Navarro has made it her mission to protect women and children from the abuses of men in power.Told at a heartracing pace and full of the journalistic detail and sly humor  Milena, or The Most Beautiful Femur in the World is a romp across Europe and the Americas that traces the vast networks of capital, data, crime, and coerced labor that bind together today’s globalized world. Yet, in the beautiful and tenacious Milena, we are reminded that the survivors of the darker facets of modernity are not mere statistics, but living, breathing, individuals. What Don Winslow  did for the nexus of complicity in the so called War on Drugs , Zepeda has done for the nightmare depravity of human sex trafficking in exposing its ultimate beneficiaries…





Sing, Unburied, Sing   by Jesmyn Ward


Ok I won’t hold it against this fine novel that  it gained Jesmyn Ward’s  second National Book Award. Its an intimate portrait of three generations of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle.

Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. He doesn’t lack in fathers to study, chief among them his Black grandfather, Pop. But there are other men who complicate his understanding: his absent White father, Michael, who is being released from prison; his absent White grandfather, Big Joseph, who won’t acknowledge his existence; and the memories of his dead uncle, Given, who died as a teenager.His mother, Leonie, is an inconsistent presence in his and his toddler sister’s lives. She is an imperfect mother in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is Black and her children’s father is White. She wants to be a better mother but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use. Simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high, Leonie is embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances.When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another thirteen-year-old boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.



Texas: The Great Theft  by Carmen Boullosa,‎ Samantha Schnee (Translator)


Carmen Boullosa  is one of Mexico’s leading novelists, poets, and playwrights (“Mexico’s greatest woman writer.”—Roberto Bolaño.) She has authored seventeen novels, a handful of which have made their way into English translations  Boullosa is currently Distinguished Lecturer at City College of New York. An imaginative writer in the tradition of Juan Rulfo, Jorge Luis Borges, and Cesar Aira, Carmen Boullosa shows herself to be at the height of her powers with her latest novel. Loosely based on the little-known 1859 Mexican invasion of the United States, Texas is a richly imagined evocation of the volatile Tex-Mex borderland. Boullosa views border history through distinctly Mexican eyes, and her sympathetic portrayal of each of her wildly diverse characters—Mexican ranchers and Texas Rangers, Comanches and cowboys, German socialists and runaway slaves, Southern belles and dancehall girls—makes her storytelling tremendously powerful and absorbing. Shedding important historical light on current battles over the Mexican–American frontier while telling a gripping story with Boullosa’s singular prose and formal innovation, Texas marks the welcome return of a major writer who has previously captivated American audiences and is poised to do so again.



The Crossing  by Andrew Miller 


The lack of acknowledgment  that accompanies Andrew’ Miller’s the publication of his novels in the USA is a source of wonder  . I count at least three that  books that exhibit masterful story telling including his latest, The Crossing. Of all his Robert Stone’s novels, Outerbridge Reach was the one i found least acessible. Its a story of  global race of solo sailing. The Crossing manages to make the travails a of solo Trans Atlantic riveting


The Crossing  is a modern tale of a brave and uncompromising woman’s attempt to seize control of her life and fate.Who else has entered Tim’s life the way Maud did? This girl who fell past him, lay seemingly dead on the ground, then stood and walked. That was where it all began. He wants her—wants to rescue her, to reach her. Yet there is nothing to suggest Maud has any need of him, that she is not already complete. A woman with a talent for survival, who works long hours and loves to sail—preferably on her own.When Maud finds her unfulfilling marriage tested to the breaking point by unspeakbale tragedy, she attempts an escape from her husband and the hypocrisies of society. In her quest she will encounter the impossible and push her mind and body to their limit.









Atlas of the World  (24th edition) Oxford University Press

Having discovered this geographic compendium a few years ago, I now look forward to the yearly updates and find great pleasure in browsing through the updates that include  non pareil NASA Earth Observation Satellite, Landsat 8 images.On a regular basis, studies and essays make reference to the #1 nation in history containing a citizenry woefully ignorant in some area or  other. World  (Earth, the planet we are told by  pesky scientists) geography is no  doubt close to the top of any of list of ignorance. New Yorker illustrator Saul Steinberg was not kidding with his New York City Centric map of the East Coast.

The only world atlas updated annually,   Oxford’s Atlas of the World is the most authoritative atlas on the market. Full of crisp, clear cartography of urban areas and virtually uninhabited landscapes around the globe, the Atlas is filled with maps of cities and regions at carefully selected scales that give a striking view of the Earth’s surface. It opens with a fascinating look at world statistics, a six-page special on “Land and Maritime Boudaries,” and satellite images of earth, including 8-10 stunning new images sourced from NASA’s latest Earth Observation Satellite, Landsat 8, launched in 2013. The extraordinarily extensive front matter continues with a “Gazetteer of Nations” that has been comprehensively checked and updated to include recent economic and political changes, and a 48-page “Introduction to World Geography,” beautifully illustrated with tables and graphs on numerous topics of geographic significance, such as climate change, world religions, employment, industry, tourism, and travel. The hundreds of city and world maps that form the body of the Atlas have been thoroughly updated for this 24th edition.


One more thing from TH White/’s  The Once and Future King:

“The best thing for being sad…is to learn something.

That is the only thing that never fails.

You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, You may lie awake listening to the disorder in your veins,

you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds.

There is only one thing for it then—-to learn.

Learn why the world wags and what wags it.

That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust,

and never dream of regretting.”


 *This book  is a philosophical and artistic sequel to Eco’s recent acclaimed books, History of Beauty and On Ugliness, books in which he delved into the psychology, philosophy, history, and art of human forms. Eco is a modern-day Diderot, and here he examines the Western mind’s predilection for list-making and the encyclopedic. His central thesis is that in Western culture a passion for accumulation is recurring: lists of saints, catalogues of plants, collections of art. This impulse has recurred through the ages from music to literature to art. Eco refers to this obsession itself as a “giddiness of lists” but shows how in the right hands it can be a “poetics of catalogues.” From medieval reliquaries to Andy Warhol’s compulsive collecting, Umberto Eco reflects in his inimitably inspiring way on how such catalogues mirror the spirit of their times.

** What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Books Of The Year

*** Book descriptions courtesy of publishers with some annotation…


Reading Tim Gautreaux…

3 Feb

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

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



Here’s a snippet from that chat:

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

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


Tim Gautreaux [PHOTO:Robert BIRNBAUM]

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



*  The New Yorker rounds up what their writers are reading

** Talking with Tim Gautreaux

*** Conversations with Tim Gautreaux 


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