Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Emptiness Lot

We all remember the Grove Street fire. It was only a month ago.

How long will that memory last and what will that memory eventually become?

The fire was under investigation said the newspapers then, but still no answers yet or even informed speculation as to the fire’s cause. No lives were lost, the causalities were minor.  Tomorrow came then came again.

The buildings were  wood framed structures, more than a hundred years old. Papers did say the low hanging electric wires might have caused some delay in fire fighters battling the flames, but were unlikely a factor in terms of outcome.

What was here now gone. That’s the fact and the truth.

Now we have emptiness, but for a while, we had rubble.

The fire happened the day before Thanksgiving. The fire took out two buildings.
Rubble remained for weeks. Yuletide decorations went up, Advent came, we ran our holiday errands as we went about our lives, and the shards and remnants became the background to which we grew accustomed. Rubble reminding us but what did it remind us of – the buildings, the homes, the pizza parlor, the nail salon or the fire that turned places into debris?


The city is the background to our lives. The scenery bringing comfort, symbolizing stability, showing us place. The city is the setting that verifies our individual existence.

There will be a new building here, how can there not be? Jersey City is the in-demand town, a development hot bed. A new background. (probably condos) will eventually rise to fill our eye sight and our subconscious.

But now our background is emptiness... just a lot of … dirt waiting construction like prehistoric protoplasm waiting evolution so it can crawl from  the sea.

 I wonder how long it’s been since emptiness last defined this lot.
If the buildings that burned were a hundred years old, they probably replaced other structures, Grove being a major thoroughfare since the founding of Jersey City.

How old is the dirt? Was it trucked in to make this foundation or is it Jersey City soil that has been here since the ice age melted away?
Will we remember the dirt or the rubble when new buildings are constructed here? Will we then or do we even now remember  the buildings that were here before, for so long, that we took them for granted as our everlasting background.  But even ever will not last for ever. I can’t remember what the businesses were that were here before the nail salon and pizza parlor, even though those now gone occupants were barely a decade old.  

Maybe it’s not what was destroyed nor the aftermath of that destruction that we will remember. Maybe we remember only the fire.

All fires are not inevitable, but once started the next moment can not be prevented. The next moment begins a new inevitability where the final result, empty lot, waiting dirt, cannot be escaped or denied.
Now, seeing this empty lot makes one feel like an amnesia victim struggling to make sense of incomplete memories.

 Past images vague … is that where I had that great calzone or the friendly mani-pedi? Before they were gone, you were certain but now there’s a new doubt. That place you are thinking of may have been on another block. What was here and what you used to do that you only could do here is suddenly fuzzy because the identifiable landmarks have been transformed into emptiness and your memory is confused between the before and the fire and the present emptiness that the fire created out of that now distant before.

Change is the constant in all our lives. City dwellers daily play a mental  game of what used to be here. Store fronts stay but the businesses they host often switch every few  years and everyone lives here long enough to eventually and constantly wonder what used to be here.

Some memories are blurry, others stay vivid and form anecdotes you tell all the time and if you have considerate friends they won’t say they’ve heard that one before.

Black ash forms a shadow on the bricks of an adjacent building.  A film of soot that looks like a crescent and cloud, a tattoo left by what was here that was turned into smoke to rise and disappear. The stain is black as ink. If you did not know what was here, this remnant of ash tells you nothing. It only implies the tragic cause of the emptiness.



The emptiness of the lot is a cavity gaping in our minds, unconnected  to the past or the future, an interruption of our reverie as we pass the once recognizable background of our day-to-day.

The emptiness is the inescapable void of the present. Something that should be here is no longer because of tragedy and like the present we move on to the next moment, we move faster than our memories. We confront the void but keep it brief. We avoid not fear but if we tarry in the emptiness we might see how much of our self it resembles. When we walk this stretch of Grove Street, our pace unconsciously quickens.

The past is not fully remembered, the future not yet envisioned. The emptiness is new, but it is all we have now and feels strangely familiar,a flash of déjà vu, a fate we are compelled to postpone.




Monday, December 30, 2013

2013: My Favorite Reads

This year, I realized the main reason I continue to read books.


Why does one read.

Well, why does one read anything that is not work related.


Reading is a compulsion and a habit. It refills the well, inspires new phrases and ideas, hopefully better sentences and if not better, at least new. You need to keep fresh. Gaining knowledge is a plus, and I much prefer knowledge to information. Information is a necessity, and nothing delivers information of both the useless and useful variety, better than the internet. Most effective invention since the Swiss army knife. Knowledge is not the same as information. Knowledge is more lasting, a step closer to wisdom, and who doesn’t want that?

 Intellectual means one who loves ideas. You can’t sustain love for ideas without expanding your capacity for knowledge. Reading seems essential to this expansion. Don’t we all live the life of the mind? The answer is yes, except fewer and fewer know they do.

 I’ve been studying literature, philosophy and history all my life, and each year, you read books and your mind is renewed. The reality is every book you read means you re-read every book you’ve ever read. It’s another way of better understanding your self, and the world – where they mesh and where they part.

But really, all that’s lip-service. The best reason to read?


I enjoy reading. There’s a few activities I may enjoy more than reading, but I can’t think of any I enjoy as much.

That’s why I read books. That’s why I continue to seek out new books to read.


Now, why more and more people seem not to share this pleasure, I never understood. None of the implications of this trend for society are positive. The idea that people are no longer comfortable with solitude should be alarming communities large and small, but it is not. Who needs to understand the self, when through excessive media, that self can be nullified, thus no longer a concern.

I digress.

This year I took a lot of books out of the Jersey City Library. I’m short on funds, so book purchases is a victim of my personal budgetary shortfalls. Jersey City has a great library, and the inter-library loan system is free. But even better than frugality is that you take out library books you get to bring them back. They don’t loiter on shelves begging to be dusted. Unlike my ever-expanding internal universe, my apartment space is limited. I cannot fit another book case in my present home.

I love libraries. I like looking through the shelves, the rows of titles, the linear logic of the dewy decimal system. I love the vast knowledge stored there, the friendly, mildly bored librarians who briefly share your enthusiasm as they aid in its pursuit, temporary sherpers to whom all mountains are surmountable.

I wandered. I was curious . I was bored with the books I wanted to read, I had tapped out most of the strains. I opened myself up, finishing oeuvres or getting close to completion of several writers. I’ve always tried to follow a dictum by Harold Bloom, to read only to justify an ideology is not to truly read at all (that’s a paraphrase).

The library is also good for reading new books, books you read reviews of and/or are mentioned in articles in the New York Review of Books or New York Times. You get to keep up with the decay of the corpse of American Literature, an activity that is fun, enriching yet often sad and disappointing. Generation X writers’ lack of gravitas gets acutely annoying.

This list is about 20-25 percent, less than a third of all the books I read in 2013. Many that I finished and didn’t hate are not on the list. I     generally tend to finish books, I don’t have the 50 page rule some friends have. If they don’t like it by then they drop it and pick up something else. I’m compulsive, I tend to complete (Finnegan’s Wake being a rare exception, still haven’t gone beyond page two of that sucker).

Mark it, Dude, on to the next one.

Maybe it was worth reading but not worth recommendation.

 These are only books I can make a case for recommendation.

My most important re-read was a committed wading through Raymond Carver short stories. Carver has been a constant for 30 years. I keep Whitman and the King James on the night stand, and Carver more often than not makes that stack a trio and I often find myself gleaning paragraphs and sentences, not the complete tale. But I went through the Library of America edition, to do as honest as possible comparison between the early stories, which were edited by Gordon Lish, and un-edited versions that are included in this edition for the first time. Tess Gallagher, Carver’s widow, and some reviewers, most notably Steven King, praise the un-edited versions. I don’t like them. I’ve been a Carver devotee since the 80s, so maybe the original versions are so deeply entrenched that I am unable to abide challenging these monuments in prose. Lish and Carver had was seems to be an intense relationship, and a falling out. The early stories do have that minimalist edge and that edge is soften in the latter works. He transcended that inaccurate term. But those unedited version also lack the Carver voice, they are closer to the Cathedral stories. I think Lish helped Carver find that voice. I am not opposed to the unedited versions, but I am unable to make a case for re-reading them again.

But Carver is Carver. Carver is necessary.

But he understood it was over, and he felt able to let her go. He was sure their life together had happened in the way he said it had. But it was something that had passed. And that passing – though it has seemed impossible and he’d fought against it – would become part of him now too, as surely as anything he’d left behind. (FEVER)


That’s why we re-read Carver. Reading Carver sharpens your skills, but re-reading him, solace can be achieved, as well as insight into the hiding in plain sight corners of the humain. If I was going for a PHD, perhaps my thesis would be, Carver: The Hidden Philosopher.


Chicago Poems


Carl Sandburg

I usually re-read more than I did this year. Carver was the only fiction I returned to. Poetry was another… uhhh… story.

I started writing poems again. They just started coming to me, one of which was published here. I went on a poetry reading binge. Whitman, but also William Carlos Williams, Anne Sexton, Sharon Olds, Allen Ginsberg, T.S. Elliot, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, dusted off a lot of books. Went to the library, reading poetry, for inspiration and encouragement, seeking out new work. Quite frankly, the last good new poet I read was Lisa Emerson and her book Late Wife, which I also sped through this year. Poems were coming to me. For a short while, reading poetry intensively and almost exclusively, fueled the fire.

I discovered a poet whose name I knew but I can honesty say I never read, not in school or on my own. He somehow has been dropped out of the discussion. Carl Sandburg. I read the selected poems, then went back to this slim 1916 volume, Chicago Poems.

I know he wrote a multi-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln and that Bob Dylan on a road trip in 1963 or so stopped at his house and gave him a copy of Times They Are A Changin, but that’s about it.

I loved his wry phrasing, his focus on working people, his obsessive search for the poetic in ordinary lives. He acutely observes this Midwest metropolis as it bustles in the early 20th century, the industrial revolution raging, capitalism becoming the system we would live with. The collection is not as dated as one might anticipate. He reminds me of a cross between Williams and Whitman, although he was obviously a contemporary of the Paterson poet. His exuberance is not as unbounded as ole Walt, and we get the urban cynicism that would soon mark American culture, it’s nice to see in this embryonic stage. His optimism never overcomes his realism, yet it’s present. It’s purely American, wonderfully so.

This poem, the poet implores cartoonist to hang a strap with him on a 7:00 am train, noticing the vast expanse between newspaper art and the reality of their lives.


From Halsted Street Car

Find for your pencils

A way to mark your memory

Of tired empty faces.


After their nights sleep,

In the most dawn

And cool daybreak


Tired of wishes

Empty of dreams.


I love of the use of tired and empty, how he explains the image.

Maybe all literature does this, but poetry does it best and that being reminding us humanity is a constant, that people in a city a century ago are experiencing the same things you experience. Chicago Poems transcend not just Chicago, but the city experience too.

For those paying attention, this is a better book than its most direct protégée, several decades later, Chicago City on the Make by Nelson Algren, and I love Algren.
Of a Fire on the Moon


Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer needs a better literary executor. His work was issued by several publishers and as a result, some of it has gone out of print, like this riveting non-fiction book about the Apollo mission to the moon. The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, who is a hack ( I tried one of his recent novels, the one about college kids, an insult to intelligence) is a lame book and the movie is not much better. Mailer’s covering of similar material is so superior, he interweaves the history of rocketry in the U.S., which includes ex-Nazis, with the actual science and how it evolved into the Apollo missions, to the men in the mission, from the Apollo one accident to the moon landing to the subsequent missions. He actually explains how the lunar module worked and how it came to the be the means by which the lunar surface could be reached.

 I am not that interested the space program. Most of it happened during my childhood, and back then I was fascinated, but what else did I need to know? This book taught me otherwise, there are loads of stuff to know and for the first time ever I felt sad our manned space program is over. Mailer’s profiles of the Neil Armstrong and crew are knowing and rich in empathy. They were of the same generation as Mailer, the same men who he fought alongside with in the Pacific Theater of WWII. Mailer always had a foot firmly in the excesses of the mid-20th century counter culture, but as Abbie Hoffman pointed out, he was an establishment writer. Mailer’s esteem for these American White Angle Saxon Protestants is genuine. I cannot think of any other portrayal of Apollo astronauts that even comes close.

Aside from the historical documentation, Of a Fire on The Moon is really about man’s relationship to technology. Why do we need to create and improve technology and how this achievement affects our soul. It occurs to me that film probably has done a better job with this theme, but that’s a visual medium and with that are inherent limitations. Only writing can really dissect all the nuances between man and our machines, especially when wielded through the gnarly intellectualism and fearless outlandishness that is ole Norman. He could be his own worst enemy during his hey day, when this forgotten book was written, but here he is at his best behavior, honest, sincere, smart. Apparently the book started as a Life Magazine assignment, and he sticks to the honest work, his novelist’s perspective only enhancing his journalist professionalism. Thankfully, he ignores his sexual and sexist philosophies and that impulse to antagonize feminists of the era. He simply gets the job done. The book is uncanny because Mailer is so reigned in, resulting in superb writing. This is the rare treat, Norman capturing a moment of his era without his or that era’s baggage.

 It occurs to me that we could use a book like this now to examine our relationship to our new technologies, but that prism lacks the clarity of astronauts. The space program may have affected us all, but the first hand experiences of the astronauts and engineers crystalize that impact, or at least Mailer was able to use them to universalize the experience and make that experience relatable. Computer and mobile technologies, they may be too massively produced, but also too individualistic l to find a handful of people to exemplify how our technology is both changing and fulfilling the human beast.

 But maybe the type of technology is superfluous. Of A Fire on the Moon tends to convince me of that it’s technology itself not the specific type or era that is changing the human condition.

ore importantly, Norman Mailer needs to be better published and discussed. He is a major American Writer of any century, but the availability of the work is inconsistent and what seems to be remembered are his outrageous celebrity and not his actual writing. Like Armies of the Night, Fire on the Moon poses an argument that his best work may have been the non-fiction. We may not need to decide this, but we owe it to World Literature to ponder the proposition. Mailer was a writer for the ages. No Mailer should be out of print.


Richard Ford

My opinion of Richard Ford is contrary. I think Sportswriter and Independence Day are not very good, yet his early, noir-ish novel, The Ultimate Good Luck and A Piece of My Heart: Rock Springs, a short story collection, and the long stories in Men With Women, I also admire. I might even consider them masterpieces, if I’m in a good mood and had a beer or two.

I haven’t followed his work of late, but a friend kept recommending his new novel, Canada.

An incredibly written book. What happens when your parents, to escape impending destitution, decide to rob a bank. Dell and his sister Berne, young teens escape to Canada, and try to make sense of their lives. Canada has a memoir-structure, and you read it find out why Dell sounds so sane and why his sister does not. You read it not to find out what happens – hint, do not rob banks if you are not already criminals – but why what happens happened. Ford is at the top his game here, it’s his best work, his first undeniable masterpiece. The story has a noir feel, but its flashback structure has this extraordinary looping back to a moment where life change. The twins break up, Dell stays in the North Country, while Berne returns to America where she experiences the 1960s and Dell relays her experiences by the letters she sends him. The book is written in first person, and Ford achieves a misty distance between the story and the context in which the story is taking place, as if his own life is as far away from the facts of history, society and his parent’s tragic-inducing transgressions.

The novel starts in the 1950s, but the truth is we still live in times where the rich are getting richer and the rest of us are living lives teetering on the brink of desperation. The narrator is all to aware that while in retrospect it might seem things could have been different, the fact was at the moment there was no other course of action. There is no waiting for another choice to reveal itself. The narrator’s deep empathy for his parents is moving, even when his equally deep resentment is apparent. No one chooses their circumstances, yet we do the best we can.

Really haunting tour-de-force by one of the best prose stylists of his generation.


Jesus of Nazareth: From The Baptism to the Transfiguration

Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week

Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives


Pope Benedict XVI

A priest I know who also happens to be a professor of theology alluded to one of the volumes of the Jesus of Nazareth Trilogy by Pope Benedict XVI. They also got very respectable reviews.

I happen to love his DEUS CARITAS EST, his first encyclical released in 2005, aka “God Is Love.”

I keep telling people that this encyclical s is as heavy a statement about love as a Bob Dylan record. Oh, it has that archaic language of official Church documents, an acquired taste that I’ve acquired but does not make for smooth sailing. But if you can get over that, as well as any preconceptions you have about the source, it is a compelling, provocative read. It seriously engages ideas about love, exploring where romantic love, erotic love, spiritual love and compassion meet. It’s the only encyclical I whole heartedly recommend and it’s because of what it says about Love, or more astutely, the ideas about love that you ponder after reading.

Benedict always fascinated me as a pope. I always felt he got a bad rap. Such a striking contrast with the warm and paternal John Paul II. Benedict was always called conservative, even before he was pope, yet all the homophobic statements and other conservative (for lack of a better term) sentiments attribute to him, where Vatican observers saying it about him. They were saying what he was thinking. There’s a dearth of direct quotes from Pope Benedict supporting the short-hand criticism of conservative. Actual statements by him reflecting these thoughts – or the assertion he wanted a smaller, more orthodox pure church, for example – were made on his behalf by “Vatican observers.” It was second hand, a quote by somebody supposedly paraphrasing the pope. It didn’t help that Benedict lacked charisma, was uncomfortable in front the camera. The fact though is that he is one of the leading Catholic theologians of our time, perhaps of the last half-millennia. He’s a Christian intellectual, essentially an academic, unsuitable for the sound bite, and his real interest was theology, studying and explaining scripture, not in terms of reaching a specific policy, but explicating the world.

These are works of exegeses, that is, commentary on scripture and he engages not just scripture but other works of exegeses. For academic writing, which is usually written for an inner cabal of academics who basically write only for each other, it is immensely readable. It is the rare work that sustains academic muster yet is obviously for general readers as well. Both exegeses nerds and neophytes (I am somewhere in-between) will find these books engaging. He focuses on the gospels, the ministry, death and birth of Jesus. Aside from his references to other books of scriptural commentary, the core of this book examines the gospel’s relationship with the Torah, the law of the Moses, as well as other Old Testament books.

The main thesis is that Jesus fulfilled the law of Moses by being the human face of God. The human face reminds us that we are all made in the image and likeness of God. Believers and non-believers know all this, and what I liked about this book most was not the recitation of what we already know. To make his case as he unpacks the life of Jesus documented in the Synoptic Gospels and John, Benedict keeps going back to the Old Testament, daring you to keep up with this rapid referencing. It’s intellectual Ping-Pong, from old to new testament and back again, to a selection of other works of exegeses, then to his own interpretation of all these sources. The fun is not so much about your faith, but keeping up with this original, highly intelligent and well-read mind. He keeps you at the edge of your intellectual seat.

In the Infancy narratives, the shortest of the three, he also engages an issue that has been bandied about in academic and atheistic circles for years, the Virgin birth. Turns out virgin births were common in myths of the time, in Egypt, Persia and elsewhere. Benedict points a clear difference between these myths and the gospels. The myths always have an impregnation of a god-figure with a mortal woman, the Christ story features an omnipresent power over matter itself, a miracle only possible if you happen to be the creator of matter. What impressed me about the argument was how Benedict seriously engaged these ancient myths. He did not dismiss them as tale of ignorant and backward cultures. He gives them the respect of a devoted scholar, then expounds on where the differences are, and those differences are significant.

Christianity: The First 3000 Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch, whose scholarship on the ancient world from which Christianity emerged is unsurpassed, as well have other books on the era I am familiar with, discuss the other virgin birth narratives in the vicinity of Bethlehem in detail. But I have yet to see anyone examine the actual mythology with the depth of the German Pontiff. Yes, of course, he’s going to be pro-Nativity Story, but I have yet to see this level of analysis by anyone who dismisses the Jesus Nativity story because of virgin births stories existed elsewhere in in the ancient world. If you know of one, email me, I’d love to read it. Give Benedict credit for his intellectual honesty, he is both knowledgeable and fair towards these ancient myths and the cultures that believed them.

I was so taken with these books, which I read in succession and was enraptured by, that I read through two collections of his other writings, mainly homilies as well as some biographies. For more than a week, I couldn’t get enough Benedict. His other writings are pretty dry, but not the conservative demagogue the media might have us believe. One of his most conservative positions is about how only traditional music be played, and it turns out his brother, also a priest, is a major choral master in Germany. Anyway, his other writing may not have justified allegations against him, but they simply were not as inspired or as strongly written. The Jesus of Nazareth Trilogy reads like sharp literary criticism as much as it does compelling theology. The prose bristles with energy.

Reporters are lazy, audiences have short attention spans and basically everybody has made up their mind about the Catholic Church already. Benedict being a real ivory tower theologian was an impediment to coverage. He unknowingly invited caricature. To be fair, the scandals and controversies surrounding the church were better and more important stories than theological treatises that enhanced current doctrine and charted a new understanding of scripture.

My Benedict immersion was confusing too. There wasn’t just distance between his public person and the writer of the God is Love encyclical and the trilogy, these two men seemed like polar opposites. I wanted to find out why, which I didn’t really find out, but it was worth pondering even inconclusively,.

The Jesus of Nazareth Trilogy was such a rewarding read that reading the other writings and biographies, enhanced the reading experience. My last Benedict book was a collection of homilies one night, then woke up the news that he was going to be the first pope in 800 years or so to retire. More than a month of Pope news followed, and then we got Pope Francis, who is camera-friendly, ultra-liberal and unlike Benedict, charming. Now the pope news is a constant stream. Pope Francis’s statements on the economy and the poor are so right on. But all his statements echo the compassion Benedict reveals in his exegesis. God is love. Jesus is the human face of God. The extroverted Francis owes much to the introverted Benedict, which he has stated many times and if you read B-XVI’s trilogy, you see why. Benedict provides a scriptural and supernatural justification for Francis’s liberalism.
The Trinity


Saint Augustine

So, you would think I would have gotten enough religious writing with the Benedict immersion, and I eventually did. I read several books by Elaine Pagel and Garry Wills, which are quick reading but I don’t feel like recommending them. I remain fascinated by religion, especially Christianity, and my reading constantly dips into this river. Wills has some new book out and in an interview said it was favorite book was The Trinity by Saint Augustine. I’ve read lots of Augustine in my time, both in under-grad philosophy classes and on my own post-college. He was influenced by Plato, who he calls a “noble pagan,” and Aristotle, and his writing is reminiscent of that ancient Greek style. I get cravings for that intellectual absorption in reading that only ancient philosophy delivers. I know Augustine isn’t technically antiquity, but it’s the least modern thing I read this year.

So, the Wills mention piqued my curiosity and I read selection of The Trinity in an Augustine volume of selected writing sand decided I really ought to commit sufficient time and effort. You want to focus your mind, you want to argue against the attention deficit disordered world we find ourselves in, check into some Augustine. He’s a tough read to start but once you are in the groove, the going is steady and the benefits multiply.

When I was in grammar school, the nuns said the trinity was a mystery and left it at that. With insight and clever argument, he unpacks that mystery. The initial conundrum is how can something be at the same time three essences and one essences. He compares God to love, and how love is a prime example of the three in one and one three concept. With love, there is the lover, the one loved, and love. This premise was so simple it astounded me.

Having shown that three essences can be separate yet the same, he then applies the concept to understanding God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. “The Trinity that God is, The Father is, as it were, the memory of all three, and the Son is the understanding of all three, and the Holy Spirit is the love of all three, just as though the Father does not understand nor love For Himself, but that the Son understands for Him, and the Holy Spirit loves for Him, but that He Himself only remembers for Himself and for Them.”

Well, like I said you have to get into the grove first. The idea that The Trinity means that God is the memory of God, Jesus is the Understanding of God and The Holy Spirit is the love of God both validated and nullified the mere mystery the nuns were contending. I’m simplifying a book that was anything but. The archaic, circular writing and the density of his concepts make this a challenging but also rewarding read. The ideas of a man who died in the 5th century may have influenced the Christian theology and western philosophy for the last millennium and a half, but the actual writing to still be so compelling and provocative, that is a marvel.

The Trinity satiated my theological – or religious nonfiction – cravings for the rest of the year. Something can be readable yet not easy to read – the argument, while well-constructed, is so intricate that you have to devour this book in long stretches to sustain comprehension of each thread. There’s more theology and more Saint Augustine (I much prefer his writing to Saint Thomas Aquinas) in my future, but that future can also be postponed for now.
 Empire of the Summer Moon

Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanche, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History

S.C. Gwynne

Empire of the Summer Moon is a brilliant history of the Comanche and one of the best history books I’ve read in years. Native American history, especially of the pre-manifest destiny eras, can be tricky. The lack of a written history can make it hard to distinguish between fact and here-say, but The Comanche history actually begins with in the late 1600s, with the proliferation of the horse by the Spanish, and the tribe seems to have coalesced around the animal, made up of remnants of Shoshone and Pueblo tribes. Gwynne draws on Spanish and Mexican sources, giving us a truly unique view of Native American life prior to American expansionism. Gwynne paints a portrait of the Comanche as a rag tag group that rose to become the most powerful plains Indian tribe, mainly through their unparalleled command of the horse and their commitment to vicious battle, with a key tactic being stampeding enemy horses and raping their women. They also had a circular form of attack – you see this in many westerns – these circles could be as wide as 50 miles and they could mount an attack with little notice form as far as 500 miles away. There was also no central form of government. The Comanche were made up of different bands, making peace was difficult because you could make peace with one band, but still have to fight the other bands. The descriptions of Comanche culture was fascinating, often lurid and sensational, always welcome treats in history books.

The Spanish and Mexican fought the Comanche to appeasement; they did not have a manifest destiny policy and unlike the United States, tended to honor treaties with Indians. Northern Mexico, Texas and much of the South West were the territory of the Comanche, and they became the dominate tribe. White, Mexican, Indian – when fighting the Comanche, women and children were enslaved, after being brutalized and sexually abused and sometimes tortured for sport and to inspire fear. Men who weren’t killed were tortured before being killed. The brutality is mind-blowing yet effective.

But then came the Americans, who of course after the Mexican American War annexed Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and other areas that the Comanche lived in and hunted on. War was a constant on this new frontier, but mainly skirmishes until after the American Civil war when all out war between a primitive stone-age culture and the early industrial era Americans. Gwynne is excellent in point out the differences between the Spanish and Mexican attitudes toward the Comanche and the Americans, the latter were white supremacists and after the Civil War, the U.S. military was a well-organized, world-class war machine, intent on improving their tactics against the native American enemy.

The core of the Comanche history is the story of Cynthia Parker, taken by a Comanche raid in 1836 at age nine, but recaptured in 1860 by Texas Rangers. She became a cause celbre, but never fully adapted to White culture again. The rest of her and the Comanche story is of her son, Quanah who remained with the Comanche, becoming a great chief, bringing them through both war and peace with the United States. The author argues the Comanche fared better than other tribes, mainly due to the actions of Quanah parker, a marvelous 19th century figure, dressing like a white man, yet keeping Comanche customs alive. What is heart breaking was the death of the buffalo, and the almost complete annihilation of the herds, the basis of both the culture and sustenance for The Comanche. I got teary-eyed when Quanah goes hunting just before the 20th century and cannot find a single buffalo alive.


Here’s a memorable paragraph I copied about Cynthia Anne.

“The event that destroyed her life was not the raid at Parkers Fort in 1836, but her miraculous and much-celebrated rescue at Mule Creek in 1860. The latter killed her husband, separated her forever from her beloved sons, and deposited her in a culture where she was more a true captive than she had ever been with the Comanche. In the moments before Ross’s Raid, she had been quite as primitive as any other plains Indian; packing thousands of pounds of buffalo meat onto mules, covered from head to toe in blood and grease, literally immersed in this elemental world that never quite left the Stone Age – a world of ceaseless toil, hunger, constant war, and early death. But also of pure magic, of beaver ceremonies and eagle dances, of spirits that inhabited springs, trees, rocks, turtles and crows; a place where people danced all night and sang bear medicine songs, where wolf medicine made a person invulnerable to bullets, dream visions dictated tribal policy and ghosts were alive in the wind.”

The Petting Zoo


 Jim Carroll

In her forward to her good friend and former lover’s first and only novel, The Petting Zoo, she mentions his mysticism. Smith has called Jim Carroll the best poet of his generation. I mainly know his records, especially Catholic Boy, unquestionably the last great NY Punk album and probably my favorite record of my favorite year in college – one my buddies we called Dean-o Drain-o, his name was Dean and became tagged by the moniker from the guy sniffing who died sniffing Drano in People Who Died – and Basketball Diaries, his memoir, which everybody read back in the day when Catholic Boy topped the college record charts; about 20 years later it was turned into a not half-bad film, an early Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle.

I had put off reading this novel. It had gotten terrible reviews and it wasn’t like I was still playing Catholic Boy much anymore.

Petting Zoo is a weird, barely structured novel that I never expected to like as much as I did; in fact, I didn’t think I would like it as much as I did as I was actually reading the book, there is little structure and while much of it is brilliant as is the novel, overall, there are weak paragraphs throughout, sometimes causing the eyes to roll.

It’s impossible to read this work of fiction without thinking of Carroll’s own life, a NY Irish Catholic kid, declared to be a poet prodigy by Jack Kerouac while he was still a teenager, he was an underground poet who had a bit of fame with an excellent punk record – fellow poet and sometime lover Smith convinced him to make music – and by the end of the 80s became a comparative recluse, although he often showed up t N.Y. literary events, both a hermit but also gadfly keeping alive a rapidly receding bohemian history… Jim Carroll, former punk poet and rocker, junkie and street hustler – Basketball Diaries was a landmark book, without witch we wouldn’t have had the memoir movement that started in 90s, of Prozac Nation, Liar’s Club or Running With Scissors – deeply personal and dysfunctional episodic sagas where bold and honest transgressions are revealed. I am often unsure of the value of this genre, and often the honesty is augmented – why let the truth get in the way of a good story or bigger truth – but when the writing is working, you can’t put the damn thing down. Rites of passage – the need to confess them and the need to hear that confession – may indeed be universal.

But maybe memoir proved to have limits as a format for Carroll to adequately express his feelings about his life – his fame and loss of that fame, his confused sexuality, his complex, west meets east spirituality. The story here is pretty slim, much of the Petting Zoo, particularly the last third, consists of mainly monologues or extended dialogs – which are more like monologues because one character does most of the talking. Crucial moments occur, all competently occur and I was compelled to keep reading, but I never expected anything to happen really, and I got my wish. The setting is the 80s – there is nothing to indicate that, no references to Reagan or New Wave, but there are no cell phones or mentions of the Internet, so we assume the 80s mainly because the main character grew up in the 50s and 60s and is vaguely in his late 30s or early 40s when the main action of the novel takes place. While there is an art scene of sorts – the main character, Billy Wolfram, is a rising young artist – the 80s art scene as depicted seems no different than any other art scenes – art dealers, parties – at any other time in history. This lack of specify just enhances the weirdness – the reason I loved this novel and kept reading its weirdness, whether intended or not – the novel seems to take place during the Mondale administration.

Billy Wolfram was a troubled street kid; he lived with his divorced Irish Catholic mother in the Inwood section of Manhattan, had a gift for painting, was discovered by a kindly father figure wealthy art patron, sky rocketed to fame, but remain committed to his art even through the death of his mother and later the art patron. His best friend, Denny, is a rock star – although best friend seems just a contrivance – Denny is the alter ego of Billy, a Narcissus and Goldman relationship of the earthy and the intellect, with Billy being the virgin living a solitary existence in his studio until an instigating incident persuades him to go into a period of deeper reclusion, followed by a personal crisis, leading to what seems to be an extended vision quest that ends with a the ultimate revelation, death.

Leaving an art opening while obsessing on a rival, a painter by the name of Velasquez, Billy has a break down in Central Park, near The Petting Zoo, where he first encounters his spirit-guide, a raven, which like in Poe is also a harbinger of ill intent. Through miscommunication, and the eccentricity of the protagonist for never carrying identification, Billy is taken into custody by the police spends three days in a psychiatric hospital.

Unlike many NY writers, poets and punk rockers, Jim Carroll didn’t grow up in the suburbs or some outer borough. He was a working class Manhattan brat, although by the time Carroll was an adult that NYC working Irish Catholic middle class population had all but disappeared. Billy has some adventures, such as finding milky quarts in upper Manhattan rock formations, learning how to paint at the Cloisters, and going on hilarious, ill-fated sex for hire scam with a hustler friend, the Cable (named for the length of his male member) where the gay trick has the two teens dress like German boy scouts. The most devastating flashback, critical for determining Billy’s asexuality, occurs when his sainted, long suffering mother, discovers Billy masturbating the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. She opens the bathroom door to tell her son news on this where you when you heard moment. I guess you either dig the weirdness or you do not.

Apparently, Billy stays a virgin through the 60s and 70s, although Denny regales him with his sexual exploits. We don’t hear these tales, we just hear that Billy has heard them. Billy has a loyal assistant, Marta (who is from Ecuador), we find out is in love with him and when they finally make love, in a very moving scene, he accuses her, implausibly and without provocation, of sleeping with Denny, which destroys any possibility of love twixt the two.

Oh yeah, the Raven. There’s a raven that acts as a spirit guide through this Manhattan vision quest.

After Billy is released from the hospital, he has vivid dream encounter with the Raven, who tells him of the Raven through history – Noah first released a Raven, not a dove, when the 40 days of rain ceased. The Raven seems to embody the eastern argument against duality – good and evil – the black bird is not the evil rival of the good white dove, but a beyond good and evil vision of the poet. Carroll is die-hard if not practicing Catholic, but has always been blending Eastern with the Western – and here he adds a heaping portion of Native American mysticism. This eclectic theology was a predilection of the Beats, who discovered Carroll, who remained their chosen stepson. The Petting Zoo also shows some serious study of Gnosticism. The raven becomes the excuse for Carroll to poetically rattle on about his complex, multi-cultural and learned view of spirituality. He is a well-read guy. It is informed, splendid hokum.

Billy expounds on the nature of art and reality throughout this novel, at times it seems like Socrates is having a bro-mance with Rimbaud. But he doesn’t just explain, he delves deep. Like the earnest philosophy major doing bongs in the dorm, his intellectual pursuit has a refreshing relentlessness. As Billy dissects the question, does art haves a purpose for the public good, he progresses to ponder the idea of a public good in and of itself, ultimately wondering about the nature of goodness, if it can exist, etc.  At times The Petting Zoo story seems besides the point, or just a framework for philosophical debates, allegory and symbolism. Discovering the nature of reality and the essence of the human condition are the real intents here. The current state of American literary criticism eschews these sort of explorations as overly intellectual or too apolitical and perhaps why this crazy novel was so under-appreciated when it was published. The Petting Zoo is too deep for our times, and like true Punk Rock ethos, destroys the division between the objective and the subjective.

 There is also a love story. Marta, Billy’s assistant, love each other and she comes to Billy, saving from him another mental break down, which transpires at a his final big art opening and is a result of his internal dialog with the Raven that concludes with trying to understand goodness. Billy is a superstar artist, but also a 40 year-old-virgin. He reminded me of Ignatius O’Reilly. The love between these two ends tragically, but also intertwines romantic love as a philosophical query with the rest of the what is the nature of reality internal journey Billy explores on his dark nights of the soul. There’s elements of Borges in this novel, which the critics missed thus were too willing to dismiss it as structureless.

Marta: “That’s what love is about, sharing in each other’s triumphs and comforting each other in misery… with absolute trust and confidence. There is always the prospect of sadness and risk, but that’s the price of love’s splendors. I always imagined that you of all people, with your work so reliant on instinct, would agree with me.”

 Spoiler Alert! (Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s Father)

The novel ends with Billy, alone with the Rave, dying the nightmare death of only a real New Yorker. In the winter, you either freeze or fry in NY. Those steam heat, noisy radiators, can crank it up to Death Valley temperatures and there’s many apartments, especially in those pre-war and immediate post-war buildings, the only way to regulate the temperature is by opening and closing the window. The boiler in the building where he lives boiler overheats during a snow storm and everyone but Billy evacuates

“The old blackbird paused a moment, then raised its voice. “Billy, listen to me! Do you know the only virtue that each of these diverse and gifted individuals had in common? They all possessed the courage to meet this life of adversity without ever giving in to despair. They would reach the very edge of that abyss, but never succumb to it.””

“It’s time your eyes remain shut, Billy Wolfram. Now is the time, so get on with it. Take that Single Step and fly.”

“Now that his vigil was over, the raven rose from the floor and through the window, disappearing north into the whiteout night of the great blizzard. Soon another bird soared down from the huge port authority building. It was a dove, gliding directly beside the long black wings, barely visible in the pale, frigid air.”

A strange novel, but poetic and profound with elegiac passages that achieve a rare elegance. Billy is searching for that ineffable truth, a purity that cannot be The Petting Zoo doesn’t work like a regular novel, a work of fiction where the story and characters take you some place else; there’s not much of a story, some characters seem undeveloped. The Petting Zoo is a philosophical polemic, similar to Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy, but see, Carroll is a poet and the purpose of his allegory is not political, or even to teach us a lesson about life. He wants to use words to express emotions and insights that resist verbal expression. It’s not that he achieves this objective, but that he has the ambition to attempt it and how close he gets.

 An imperfect novel that I couldn’t stop reading, that stuck in my head for days. It made me think about Jim Carroll, which I haven’t done in years, and made me want to read his other work, especially his poetry. I loved his records – I actually bought all three of them – but I never read him in depth. Now I feel like I should. The Petting Zoo seems as much a personnel commentary on his own work and life as a way to use that life as a prism for understanding life itself. His fictional account of an artist’s rise and fall is an unforgettable meditation on not just an artist, but why art is needed. This book is kind of Season in Hell by Arthur Rimbaud meets the Masterpiece by Emile Zola, but a decade might have to pass before it is recognized for the masterpiece it is. Remember, you read that in Dislocations first.


Quo Vidas


 Henryk Sienkiewicz

So, I wrote this blog post about the four heads on the façade of White Eagle Hall, one of whom was the Nobel prize winner, Henryk Sienkiewicz. I had never heard of him before, so I read With Fire and Sword, the first of a trilogy based on Polish history. It was an enjoyable war story, reminded me of Russian literature – Tolstoy is the obvious influence – but I was under-whelmed. Magda, who was born and raised in Poland and a Sienkiewicz aficionado, recommend Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero, so I decided to give it a shot.

I’m more inclined towards Ancient Roman history than the battles in the Eastern Europe of the Middle Ages. What a rollicking fun read. The story takes place during the age of Nero, the beginning of the persecution of Christians.

This was as good an historical fiction based in antiquity as Julian by Gore Vidal, I Claudius by Robert Graves or Salammbo by Gustave Flaubert, which I know was ancient Greece, but who cares. Olden times. Besides Nero, two other famous celebrities of the era show up – Saint Peter and Saint Paul, the former’s upside down crucifixion concludes the novel.

While ole Henryk takes the side of the Christian, he has a deep and lingering appreciation of the ancient pagans, as well as the philosophical belief system of honor and morality Rome stole from Hellenic culture. At center is a love story between Vinicius and Lygia, the latter a Christian, the former a young Roman general. Lygia is the ancient name for Poland, and it is apparent Henryk is intent on making a point that this most Catholic of all nations has a direct link to the founding of Christianity.

The novel was published in 1898, and when Poland wasn’t being occupied by Germany, a Lutheran nation, it was being conquered by Russian, a Russian Orthodox nation, and Sienkiewicz seems to have a political agenda in underscoring this allegiance to Rome. The novel has an allegorical air about it, and it seems that the Polish readership receives an additional layer of meaning addressing political themes of the time.

There’s a terrific 1951 Film that I was able to see (both novel, in an edition from the 1950s, and film, are available through the Jersey City library system). The novel is better. Vinicius returns from battle, and Lygia, a ward of a retired general, captures his eyes, but turns out she is Christian. She loves him, but will not give up her faith and cannot reconcile her faith with his military brutality. Nero sets fire to Rome, from a mere desire to see the glorious destruction of a city on fire.

 Roman Jews convince Nero to blame the Christians – in the film, there are no Jews – for the fire. Now, this plot point did have a sour hint of anti-Semitism, and I have no idea of the historical accuracy. Although it seems rather dubious – Nero didn’t need any help from Jews for his reign of terror –the growing conflicts between Jews and Jewish Christians, also the tensions between both groups and the new group of gentile Christians, who by being Christians were also adopting the old testament, not only have a historical basis but have been a new area of interest for many contemporary scholars of the era. The novel presents a full mosaic of ancient life, and it would be unfair to criticize solely on this plot point.

 All these groups were under the dictatorship of the emperor, and the rigid Roman class system, and were competing to attain lesser levels of persecution. Vincius’s sense of Roman honor leads him to rescue some Christians, face then escape death with Lygia in the Arena, and eventually leads to the downfall of Nero, and along the way, along with his love, he converts to Christianity

Petronius, the author of Satyricon, on which the Fellini film is based, and the 12 Casers, a book I loved in College, has a cameo role as the uncle and mentor of Vinicius, and part of Nero’s inner circle. While not a Christian, he does not see them as an enemy of Rome, and out of his adherence to Hellenic ideas of justice, cannot abide them being falsely accused. One of the most memorable scenes is when he and his adoring slave, Eunice, commit suicide instead of becoming victims of Nero’s reign of terror, a goodbye to the “old Rome.”

A credible depiction of antiquity as it may have been experienced, wrapped up in a thrilling story of love and adventure . Sienkiewicz’s sympathies are unabashedly Christian, and his portrayals of the clandestine nature of the early church contain a genuinely captivating momentum – Quo Vidas is real page turner – yet the mystery and magic of the ancient world obviously enthrall this writer. His Catholicism is only slightly more powerful than his envy of paganism. It is that tension – that is both in the writing and in the writer – that makes this novel a masterpiece of the ancient history fiction genre.



The Searchers: The Making of American Legend


 Glenn Frankel

If anyone was prime for this book it is me, I love the Searchers, read the novel by Alan Lemay, have read John Ford studies and biographies – the major one is Searching for John Ford by James McBride – and also read the Empire of the Summer Moon only a few months before this book. I’m the target audience for this book and it did not disappoint.

The Searchers: The Making of American Legend is a bifurcated, a hat wearing hat. Actually, make that trifurcated, hat on a hat on a hat. Frankel studies the historical incident, the writing of the novel by Lemay, and then the glorious film by The Searchers (I watched that film at least three times last year, I love it), He does well on all counts.

The first half is about Texas, the Comanche and the 1836 kidnapping by the Comanche of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was raised as a Comanche but then rescued twenty four years later – her son, Quanah Parker was the Comanche chief who transitioned the tribe from war to peace at the end of the 19th century. He covers similar ground as Empire of the Summer Moon, but he has a different agenda and seems to have utilized some different source material, according to the extensive foot notes.

The Parker abduction and rescue were the basis of the Alan Lemay novel the Searchers, and the film by John Ford. The second half of the book details the novel, novel-to-film, and the masterpiece movie. The two parts don’t quite fit together, the three incarnations make an imperfect triptych. Yet I couldn’t put this book down. The writer seems to have an “agon” with the other Comanche book, which was published two years prior. He often remarks in the prose and footnotes that this and that detail is the first time in point.

One can’t help but wonder if he knew about the scholar – who like him also was a journalist – nosing around the same territory? A minor distraction to a great read, but that distraction just fed into my mania for The Searchers. A major theme of this book’s was how sex between races enraged 19th century American whites and that rage lingered well into the 20th century. Ethan Edwards in the film finally overcomes his anger about miscegenation between Native Americans and Caucasians – “let’s go home Debbie” – in the novel he never overcomes that hatred and dies tragically. More attention should have been paid to Lemay, and this key difference in how the story was told in the two mediums. But that’s more quibble than complaint. The chapter on John Wayne was real fun, opening up the film from the point of view of a celebrity and movie star desperate to prove himself a real actor – he named his youngest son, Ethan, after this role.

 The Searchers is a great movie and even if the first half of this book reads like an excessive footnote to that film, this is a must read if you want to fully contemplate why one of the greatest films ever made is so great.
Burn This


Lanford Wilson

Years and years ago, a friend of mine told me, after he saw a production of Burn This with John Malkovich, that I reminded him this character, who is from New Jersey and comes to New York after his brother dies, and bristles against his circle of friends, artist types, gays and dancers. I used to rail to no avail against plenteousness, which in New York was rampant, I forget why. Anyway, this comment was always in the back of my mind and I remembered the title of this play, but whenever I felt like I have nothing I want to read and/or have an urge to read plays, this title would come to mind, but I was never able to find it in a book store and the notion soon passed from my head.

The notion inexplicably returned when I was on a Jersey City Library Main Branch wander. There was Burn This, among the rather abundant selection of drama.

I had no real knowledge of Lanford Wilson, other then having heard the name (I also read the Hot L Baltimore, which I didn’t like as much).

Burn This is immensely readably – I did not identify with the character Pale, who made my friend think of me, or maybe I did. There’s some conflict between New Jersey attitude and New York attitude and being fiction, New Jersey wins. Regardless, what I like the most was the convincing scenario -- but I was reminded of Raymond Carver – they are essentially contemporaries.

What was carver-esque – a distinct idiom whose distinction, unlike say Mamet – was not at all obvious, the plot turned on minor incidents of ordinary life – here a roommate dies, his working class brother grieves with his artsy, intellectual, bohemian friends and has an affair with the female room mate – and the class divisions are subtle – a post-60s, post-class war world where politics have little use but economics rule. Ana has two boyfriends, Burton a rich kid writer and Pale, the brother and Larry the other room mate actually brings Pale and Ana together and resents Burton. Burn this refers to the note he gives Pale, imploring him to reunite – see, the play begins with Robert’s death by accident, the dance partner of Ana – serious, hard working artists – and Ana goes to the funeral – out in Jersey, they had no idea the deceased was gay and had never seen any of his dances – this disturbs Ana the most, because she knew how talented he was and how hard he worked – Robert gives Pale a ticket to the dance she has been working on, originally for Robert, but now inspired by him – and by Pale going to the dance, order is restored, the two accept they love each other. Gritty, really snappy writing and suddenly when you think it is all edge and modern and now, Wilson makes us realize what we always knew, love is all there is.

Larry: You know, it’s unlikely anyone did your family the favor of arranging Robbie’s accident.

Pale: I don’t wanta talk about it, okay?

Larry: This would be the situation where the little boy says, “I hate Daddy and I want him to die,” and two days later Daddy goes off to the hospital and doesn’t come home again. And the little boy thinks it’s his fault.

Pale: Yeah? That mighta been the night the angels decided to listen to the little boy.

Larry: I don’t think so.

Pale: That’s the way Catholics think; we’re fucked.

Larry : It sounds very unlikely.

Pale: Yeah, one side of my brain knows that – the other side drinks.

 – Lanford Wilson

Days, maybe even weeks after reading Burn This, it occurred me to that this whole scenario was probably an allegory about the AIDS crisis. The play is really about dealing with survivors guilt, and that acceptance is linked with the need to abandoned homophobia because the of the sexual orientation whose death sets in motion the confrontation with the complexity of grief.



Lynn Nottage

Ruined by Lynn Nottage was as riveting a read as I ever had. The surprise is that this not something I am inclined towards. While, yes I will read just about anything, especially plays, giving the first few pages a chance to grab me, but this play was about the Congo, contemporary Africa, not exactly a niche I’ve felt like pursuing.

Sort of just picked this up at the library, a new play, only a few years old, won a bunch of 2010 awards. The setting is a bar and brothel, run by mother, where is a kind of no man’s land where rebel fighters and government soldiers come to drink and get laid. Christian deals in the black-market, and while both he and Mama have a gruff external persona as a survival mechanism in this bleak world where morality and compassion can seem like luxuries one cannot afford, in the end they both cling to these values because to surrender your humanity is the same as suicide.

The Title: Ruined – refers to a woman’s private parts after she has been gang raped – all the violence and degradation against woman happens off stage, but the implications horrify – and these are the girls who can only work as waitress. Maudlin? Sensationalistic? Not in the least – we confront true horrors, we can a complete and I can only assume accurate and honest portrayal of this ugly piece of post-colonial Africa – and yet we wind up feeling hope in the power of our own humanity.

Mama: Do I look like I need protection?

Christian: No, but you look like you need someone to make love to you.

Mama Do I now?

Christian: Yes. How long has it been, Mama, since you allowed a man to touch you? A man like me, who isn’t looking through you for a way home.

(Mama laughs at him.)

Mama: Enough. God. You’re getting pathetic.

Christian: Maybe. But damn it against my better judgment… I love you.

Mama: (With contempt): Love. What is the point in all this shit? Love is too fragile sentiment for out here. Think about what happens to the things we “love.” It isn’t worth it. “Love.” It is a poisonous word. It will change us. It will cost us more than it returns. Don’t you think? It’ll be an unnecessary burden for people like us. And it’ll eventually strangle us!

Christian: Do you hear what you are saying?

Mama: It’s the Truth. Deal with it!


 — Lynn Nottage


August Wilson

So, I realized I didn’t really know the difference between Lanford and August Wilson, although I knew August as being the leading African-American playwright or our time. I hadn’t read any of his plays. Thus I embarked on a binge.

Drama reading binges are not new to me, even contemporary ones – I love Neil LaBute, read nearly everything by Sam Shepard, etc. Heretofore August escaped me.

Fences is his best, in my humble opinion. Wilson has a unique way of universalizing the African American experience. Here, the main character Troy, is a middle aged man who had a hard scrabble life and a successful stint in the negro baseball leagues, but is now a garbage man with the municipality and building a fence that is continually interrupted by his drinking, cheating on his wife and rants about self reliance and overcoming the odds. One son is a musician, another a teenager with a potential football career which he thwarts out sheer pride. In the final scene, the son is not going to go his father’s funeral. His mother replies


“Whatever was between you and your daddy… the time has come to put it aside. Just take it and set it over there on the shelf and forget about it. Disrespecting your daddy ain’t gonna make you a man, Cory. You got to find a way to make to come to that on your own. Not going to your daddy’s funeral ain’t gonna make you man.”

Or as she later says,

Your daddy wanted you to be everything he wasn’t…. and at the same time he tried to make you into everything he was. I don’t know if he was right or wrong… but I do know he meant to do more good than he meant to do harm. – August Wilson.

Aside for the socio-political issues of Black America Wilson is concerned with, at the core is the challenge of forgiveness. At some point in our live we have to reconcile with our parents and forgiving them means accepting their flaws. I had an over-bearing father and we were at odds through most of my teen years and yet I think we reconciled by the time he passed. It wasn’t easy, just necessary and this play made me reflect on that and damn if I didn’t have real tears in my eyes as I read through the last act. Notice the clever subtle twist in the above quote “ he meant to do more good than harm” – the key word is meant – he meant to do harm as well. Accepting that complex truth about this man – who is building a fence yet as a home run hitter, is always swinging for the fence – is also part of the reconciliation that is the human condition.

Oh, and a running theme is the song Old Blue, a moldy old folk song about a dog, Cisco Houston has a great version. I love the song.

Radio Golf


August Wilson

One of the better of the August Wilson cycle that I read this year, almost as good as fences.

A man is running for a local office, but will he will be coopted. At the same time, his real estate company will take Old Joe, a character right out of a Robert Johnson song, is painting a house the real estate company plans to tear down. A soulful play about the challenge of not selling your soul in this cruel world. Simple story, streamlined, no flamboyance, motivating and uplifting. Within this fable doing the right thing when faced with Capitalism’s irrevocable force to steal from the poor and give to the rich, are some real choice glimpses of how we all face mortality.  


That was yesterday. Today’s Today. Tomorrow’s been following me for a long time. Everywhere I go it follows me. It ain’t caught me yet. Today’s faster than tomorrow. – August Wilson


That was like a perfect day. A perfect day is the saddest day. You know why? Cause it has to come to end. I’ve had many perfect days. I thought they were going to last forever. But they come to an end. The only problem is you never know if you’re going to have another one. – August Wilson.

Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of My Life


Clive Davis

What a dreadful slog. Blandly written and prone to stating the obvious – from his work in Rolling Stone I always suspected Anthony De Curtis – the Ghost Writer here – was dull-witted, but man oh man, nothing prepared me for this steaming dunghill of tedium.

Why include it here? I’m not recommending it, really, but even boring writing can entertain. I don’t know whether to hate Davis for records by Barry Manilow and The Outlaws that still make me cringe with nausea or to love Davis for records by Patti Smith and Lou Reed that still fill me with awe. He gave the Grateful Dead a second life, even though their Arista releases while having their moments, are less then awe inspiring. So, here’s a guy who has been involved music from the age of John Hammond to the age of American Idol, and like Zelig he seems like a shallow cypher.

Why not? He’s an entertainment lawyer and there are no juicy bits – few moments that are even very interesting – and nothing will offend anyone. This has to be the most vetted book I’ve ever read.

Yet, a guy who knew both Janis Joplin and Whitney Houston is fascinating just for that fact even if nothing about him is personally interesting.

The Academy Award gives me pause when considering what film to watch , or as a measure to an actor’s talent – the Pulitzer and Nobel and American Book Award can be a factor in evaluating a book selection. They are minor points but nonetheless notable.

I spend more time listening to music than movie watching or reading – to be fair, I often have music on very low when I read – I never have ever given a Grammy award a second thought, even when Dylan wins one. This book is all about the Grammy. The Grammy is the ultimate validation – aside from going platinum – and Clive Davis’s Grammy party the event of the year. What alternative universe of music does he live in – this is the soundtrack of his wealth, which I guess is his life – he comes as a nice, shallow guy and probably the nice part is probably self serving.

Parts that were interesting: as in-house counsel for Columbia Records, he took John Birch Society Blues off of Freewheelin (forgivable, since I love Corrina Corrina) but then says he made up for it by releasing George Jackson as single – although he neglects to mention that Columbia did no marketing or promotion for Dylan’s ode to a slain Black Panther and his near-forgotten Dylan classic slipped through the tracks.

He is quite proud that he convinced Simon & Garfunkel to release the soundtrack to The Graduate – which featured songs on previous S&G records – it sold zillions, the film was a huge hit – Simon’s argument was that it would dilute sales for a new album they were working on, Davis said they could piggy back on the film’s success and what do you know, Davis was right. Of course, I wonder if Simon might have worried they were raping the group’s fans by selling them the same song twice. Milking fans for every penny was an aspiration, not a worry, for Davis and his blindness to this part of greed provides unintended humor.

Davis doesn’t care about the fans, or why music might actually matter, but he has an ear and is responsible for much of my record collection. While always pushing for a hit – and hey I like pop hits too – he always gets out of the way of the artist. His interaction with Patti Smith is quite touching and he apologizes to Lou Reed for the Arista records not selling more (I am sure he knew Lou was extremely ill, so there is some genuine poignancy to the Lou chapter). The Arista Lou Reed never produced a Walk on The Wild Side hit, but I loved those records. Street Hassle, The Bells and Blue Mask (which Davis never mentions) are really under-appreciated.

I have a feeling that any insiders look will be this tedious to anyone outside an industry. When it comes to lawyers and contracts and sales, is the music industry any different than piping or casual wear or widgets? He doesn’t get to know anybody all that close because, well, he’s a lawyer. Why would you want to get that close to your lawyer, they charge by the hour.

The big reveal in the book is Davis’s bisexuality, which is as tedious as his spat with Kelly Clarkson. I mean, who cares and there’s no salacious details. He gets to this reveal – the only really personal information aside from his insistence that he was fired from Columbia for being wrongly accused of having the company fund his son’s Bah Mitzvah then writing it off as a business expense (I found the denial unconvincing) at the end, but by this time he is talking about American Idol. My eyes were bleeding. But I had the made the commitment and had to finish. Imagining Clive having sex with anyone of any gender is as distasteful as it gets, but I could not turn away.

I’m not recommending this book, but it was so bad, so bloody insipid about something I care about deeply – music – I had to include it my annual list. His life is dull, the soundtrack never is and we share much of that soundtrack. How does someone so bland be instrumental in something so culturally significant? Maybe he didn’t reveal the whole truth, or maybe, no matter how significant and important to our lives, Clive handled the paperwork and that is not interesting. I am guessing the memoir by the lawyer of Shakespeare’s publisher would be just as dull.

I think one incident indicates why this book repels even as its subject entices. Davis and a bunch of music industry lawyers spend the day before Woodstock at the Catskills – this borscht belt Shangri-La was still around in 1969, but on its last legs. The resorts were decaying and would be closed up within five years. Davis is Jewish and so were his companions and there was nostalgia for them, eating the corn beef sandwiches and remembering their summer vacations here as kids. Davis is a good decade older than the Woodstock generation. But the traffic, the crowds, the near-disaster keep these men away from the biggest music event of the year, where stars like Joplin and Santana would make history. Woodstock was for the fans. It was about how music was about more than making fortunes. Why experience it that when you can stay in the Catskills and talk business.

There was something appalling and yet appealing about that scene. I’m not recommending this read as a read, but only as a dull-witted footnote to music history. It’s not equal parts hate and like  – it’s more hate than like – but the fact that it is both is rare enough to mention.

Fear Itself

The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time


Ira Katznelson

Fear Itself is a history of The New Deal, with an innovative underlying thesis that the New Deal ran from the FDR to Eisenhower. The historian has little interest in economics, my favorite aspect of the Roosevelt administration. His focus is on politics, mainly on the passage of legislation and his conclusion is that the polarized and paranoid nation we have today is due to The New Deal. I did not love this book, and at times it was a near unbearable slog( the writing is uneven) , but the core of book is compelling.

Katznelson gives much attention to the unholy alliance within the Democratic party of the 1930s, where liberal democrats aligned with Jim Crow southern democrats to pass the major parts of New Legislation, such as the National Recovery Act. The Southern Dems priority was keeping the white supremacy power structure intact, so any legislation that had even a whiff of giving African Americans more democratic participation, was squelched or modified. For instance, domestic workers were exempt from the new social security system because in the south most of those workers were black and it would have meant their white employers would have to pay them more, same was true with farm workers. When World War II started, and we had more soldiers, who should determine the absentee ballot eligibility. If it was some national entity, then black soldiers from the south could bypass the pole tax and actually vote. The union movement wanted to enfranchise blacks, which was one reason unionism, rampant in this era and loyal New Deal supporters, made few inroads below the Mason & Dixon line. In the 40s, to further circumvent union-driven segregation, Southern Democrats started to align themselves with the pro-business republicans, the birth of a nexus point that would evolve into the Republican Southern Strategy and the current Tea Party. These sections of the book were utterly compelling; a handful of chapters that are some of the best writings about Jim Crow in the early 20th century that I’ve ever read.

The overall thesis is that the New Deal was flawed because of these allegiances I found unconvincing. The philosophy and ethics of the New Deal, with its commitment to economic justice, were the very things that would bring down Jim Crow and insufficient acknowledgement of that development was given. Other times, this well-research and well-footnoted (100+ pages of footnotes) tome has some inconsistent scholarship. One groaner was a throw-away explanation of Republican gains of a mid-term election in the 40s as being due to “voters growing tired of new deal policies” – within detailed accounts of the passage of those details, there was no justification why were they tired? Did they want the economic depression back? With such sparse explorations of the impact or success of the actual New Deal policies – and they were successful – the sudden laziness of scholarship annoyed.

Nonetheless, whether inadvertent or not, Roosevelt’s New Deal did strengthen at least in the 30s, Jim Crow. Was it only Roosevelt – from this book we would not know – the fact is that racism was accepted by many as status quo – black face was a popular form of entertainment. It would take another three decades for Jim Crow laws to be completely dismantled, and we are still feeling the repercussions of both Jim Crow and the sluggishness the United States dismantled our system of Apartheid.

This book explores an uncomfortable truth. In order to get the New Deal passed, Roosevelt needed the support of the former confederates and thus did little (he let Eleanor do her thing). Yet, Roosevelt was re-elected with the support of Northern blacks. It’s a complicated period with no reassuring answers. If racism wasn’t the status quo, and the separation of races both by law and custom, might be one reason that there was not a people’s revolt after the Great Depression.

The historian was also excellent on two other points. Republicans may not have been as overt racists as the Dixiecrats, but they never supported civil rights legislation, such as the anti-lynching laws that would come up and fail every few years (one finally passed in the early years of the 21st century). The other point has to do with the title, Fear and that fear after World War I was rampant and with good reason, the world was in collapse. In Europe, fascism was seen as the answer and liberal democracies were on the decline, and there were pro-fascists in the U.S. We easily could have slipped into The Plot Against America scenario, if it wasn’t for FDR and while the historian may is prone to constantly disparaging FDR, he does expertly depict the global milieu from which America’s New Deal emerged, while a swirl of uglier alternatives were adopted in Europe, making WWII seem ever more fated.

But then, he points out that the South was more anti-Nazi than the North in the late 30s, while at the same time the Nazi’s were studying Jim Crow laws and Hitler was making pro-southern statements and overtures to Southern Politicians. The historian reveals this irony, then just lets it drop.

Why did the America First movement occur in NYC and not in states were white supremacy was law? Either the historian or his editor lacked the imagination to explore the fullness of many of the ideas in the book, while other ideas lack sufficient intellectual inquiry, i.e., the disregard for economic fact and theory. Fear Itself is not an introduction to the New Deal, it’s an itinerant mediation on some of the less explored aspects of that era. This book was in the end a frustrating read, the parts are better than the whole and those parts that are better were some of the most thought-provoking chapters of the year.
The Betrothed


Alessandro Manzoni

Read any good 19th century Italian novels lately? I did, The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni, is a fun, love story of Renzo and Lucia in 17th Century Milan. A historical novel although there seems to be issues of class and the relationship between Catholic Church and State that of much concern in 19th century Italy that it has to be a topical commentary for that era. They fall in love, but a Don for mysterious reasons, wants Lucia and by the intercession of a good priest with a mysterious past, Father Cristofero, decides for their own safety they must flee, Lucia to a convent and Renzo to a monastery.

Renzo, who is well-meaning, clever but also somewhat hapless, gets lost, stumbles into an uprising by peasants demanding bread – there are several bread riots – until towards the middle to the end of the 718 page novel, battles with German and French soldiers, as well as with thugs from the Dons – basically warlords – who bicker and fight each other. By the end, bubonic plague has arrived. Lucia and Renzo and Fr. Cristerfero all unite at a Lazaretto, a kind of quarantine for suffers of the plague. A real page turner and wonderfully told, epic tale.

At times a bit of a slog, when the plague hits, the prose really grips. A scene where Renzo witnesses a woman dressing her dead baby then bribing one of he collectors of the dead to make sure the infant corpse is carefully placed in a mass grave is quite memorable. As is the common plea, “for the sake of your dead ones,” which people used when begging for help during the turmoil of the plague, very haunting stuff. It is also surprising how aware they are of public health and spreading germs, but I guess by the 1600s Europe was better able to address outbreaks of plague. Catholic theology as well as the role of cardinals and priest and their power plays with the aristocracy and the peasantry are important themes. The sake of your dead ones implies the effect we can have those loved ones living now in the invisible world. Lucia, when she is finally found by Renzo in the lazaretto , has made an oath to the Madonna and cannot be married, and Fr. Cristerfero has to analyze the theological arguments concerning oaths to see if these two lovers can be together.

This novel was mentioned in an interview with the new Pope Francis, it happens to be his favorite novel, a night table book for him. I had not heard of it, although I am pretty well-read in the 19th century novel, when it comes to America, England, France and Russia. The Betrothed deserves not just to be considered among the best of that lot – what a century of names said Henry Miller – but it had a lot of contemporary elements – it sees like a protean example of Magic Realism, the wandering through the Southern Italy country side was surreal, as comic as Cervantes, then some violent tragedy occurs with deep philosophical underpinnings, you realize you are reading something deeper than when what it seems. Also, there are plot twists that and subtle satire that seemed very modern to me. At times, like most 19th novel, it was a slog, but the investment paid off. Really enjoyable read, any other recommendations P.F.?
Light of the World


James Lee Burke

This Dave Robicheaux novel came out during the summer with barely a blip, a sole paragraph in the New York Times Book Review that I had missed and it was not until autumn when a friend said, did you read the new James Lee Burke.

He comes out with a novel every summer just about, but the Robicheaux every other year. A Robicheaux within one year of the last one, unheard of and almost as unheard of is the marketing moratorium. His books are often on the best sellers list, billboard ads on the subway, promos in book stores. Maybe that is all in the past now.

The rare Robicheaux excursion outside the confines of Louisiana, the story takes pace in Montana, the setting for one maybe two other Robicheaux, I forget. Burke is part of the line of hard boiled writing so good most critics consider it literature. The line starts with Dashiell Hammet and was followed by Raymond Chandler – who else is open for debate. I think Burke’s Robicheaux belongs there too. His characters are strong and believable, the dialog crackles and the descriptions are often sublime. In fact, the key ingredient bolstering the contention that the Robicheaux writing ascends into literature is the lyrical prose replicating the humid, dream -like bayou where our errant knights avenge acts of cruelty.

Here though, liberated from Louisiana, he eschews those extended passages and the result is a pulpier, quicker paced read. Burke has unleashed his inner Mickey Spillane. A neon energy pulsates in this writing. The grand old master seems to have gotten a shot of B-12 and Adrenaline.

The plot is utterly recycled – with some important differences – a psycho believed dead but with a past history with the series characters may or may not be responsible for a series of gruesome murder and a red herring of a character who may or may not be a bad guy. Okay, so the latter turns out to be a good guy and the former has a personal connections with a rich, debauched and corrupt family, this time connected to oil. The climactic scene is a hostage situation, a race against time to save the victim. Sound familiar? Like I said, the plot is recycled. Burke retells what is the basic scenario for most editions of the Robicheaux series. The formula works. Maybe why we read them. This one in particular though, the aforementioned climatic scene may be familiar, but it still boasts some of the best suspenseful and gripping writing of Burke’s career. It’s his most sustained sequence of nightmarish tension.

I might also argue that this is actually the second of a sub-series. It’s not really Robicheaux novel. He and his sidekick Clete Purcell are in their 60s – actually since they were in Vietnam pre-Tet, more like their 70s, but it seems an implied conceit that the haven’t aged as much as the calendar indicates. Now, Clete does his usual thing of having an affair with a fallen, troubled woman who will break his heart and is involved with the case. She’s the estranged wife of the oil baron’s son whose father is friends with the psycho, a plot point variation long term Robicheax will recognize. But, otherwise Clete and to a much greater extent, Dave are little more than bystanders. Dave is the narrator of course, but he has now become omnipresent, not only writing complete scenes with dialog that he is not present to witness, but now has apparently telepathic abilities, relaying character’s thoughts and stream of conscious in italics sentences. If I was a scold, I would criticize these confections but I find the Dave and the gang always entertaining that I ignore disbelief.

What did I mean by sub-series? Well, it’s the same thing that I meant by important differences.  Clete and Dave are not at the center of this story, their daughters are. Alafair Robicheaux, introduced in Heaven’s Prisoners, we’ve grow up to be a novelist and lawyer, just like the real Alafair Lee Burke (which is really annoying). Clete’s daughter, Gretchen Horowitz, introduced in the previous novel, was sexually abused as a child and worked as a hit-man for the mob, Gretchen and Alafair hit it off and are best friends and also able to solve crimes, carrying on a copacetic team similar to Rex Stout’s Nero Wolf, where Wolfe does the deducing and Archie the footwork, but here it is about who does most of the dirty work, which would be Gretchen. Burke recycles not just the plot, but dialog. The conversations the two hold echo previous exchanges twixt their two dads. But here the psycho is from Alafair’s past, not Dave’s and two girls do most, but not all, of the action. I anticipate that the girls will become more and more the main story and Dave a narrator and I also suspect that Clete will die soon, which would make a great novel.

Given that though, there’s James Lee Burke. The writer is moving into a deeply sub-textural, even meta-fiction mode. This novel references several previous Robicheaux’s, almost like Zola did with Doctor Pascal. Also, he seems very aware with the writing process, with asides about Alafair’s novel and her work habits and a very bit where uni-ball pens become a plot point worthy of comment by characters. On a layer beneath that, as the bi-stereotype of Gen Y/X women that all men hope are true, Gretchen and Alafair have the mutual hots, advancing towards second base. They will either consummate or make the moral decision not to risk their friendship by a consummation, but this will have to resolved next novel. Interesting twist in the ongoing saga, of course, but the real subtext point is that they can act on those feelings, something they’re dads cannot. There’s on the ongoing bromance between Clete and Dave. One of the evil characters make an insulting homosexual innuendo about the two to their face, and then a chapter later their two off spring start French kissing and expressing physical desire for each other. Burke is raising his own stakes, the writing is consistently strong and even more energetic than usual, but by creating characters who enact the subtext always apparent in this series, he is also revealing, intentionally or not, layers of his own subconscious.

This novel takes place a few months after the previous novel, and that one occurred immediately after the one before that. Prior, all the Robicheax may have been sequential, but they didn’t overlap as much as these last three, and now that overlap is occurring within the realities the novels depict but the psychological undercurrents of the story and the relationship between the writer, his persona and the story that he is writing. Both overtly and covertly, the Robicheaux books are becoming much more of a sequential series – are these models for a cable television show? The author has hinted from time to time in interviews he is working on adapting the characters to cable. The two films made from these series are overlooked high-quality neo noirs, but they honestly don’t do the books justice. Tread carefully Jim.

 How far away the ultimate-Robicheaux conclusion may be only Burke knows. This may have not been the best Robicheaux – he probably already wrote that one years ago – but I’ve never been more eager to read the next one.

Because I love Shane, I copied this when I was mid-book:


“Did you see Shane?”

“With Alan Ladd and Jean Arthur and Van Heflin.”

“Guthrie wrote the screenplay. It’s supposed to be the best western ever made. Except it’s not a western, it’s a Judeo-Greek tragedy. Shane doesn’t have a list or first name. He’s just Shane. He comes out of nowhere and never explains his origins. In the last scene, he disappears into a chain of mountains you can hardly see. Brandon de Wilde played the little boy who runs afar him and keeps shouting Shane’s name because he know the Messiah has gone away. Nobody ever forgets that scene. I wake up thinking about it in the middle of he night.”

“Where did you learn this?”

“At the movie theater. You know why the cattle barons in the film hate Shane? It’s because he doesn’t want or need what they have.” – James Lee Burke, Light of the World

The Leopard


Guseppe di Lampedusa

The Leopard by Guseppe di Lampedusa, one of the most poetic, sweetly melancholic novels I’ve ever read, This is novel I probably loved the most this year. It’s a real famous modern Italian novel, was made into a renowned film with Burt Lancaster and Alan Delion, that I have not seen and a few years ago, the lit-world was astir with a revival of the novel, initiated by a new translation and the discovery to lost chapters, so a more complete work, more true to the authors revision was restored. This is the version I read and loved and could not put down or dismiss from my thoughts.

The novel is about a way of life that was ending, the royalty of Italy, the coming of a representative form of government. The story follows the Don Fabrozzi, prince of Sicily, the head of the royal Salina family, who is a lusty adulterer, but also a good husband. He is an aristocrat, deep reader, loves libraries but is also as Sicilian as the peasants. The Redshirts have invaded, they’re Garibaldi’s army, and his nephew is fighting them. The world is changing, nothing can be done, the story follows this small royal family to their summer estate, and eventually a marriage between his nephew and the beautiful Angelica, who the prince secretly loves but who is the daughter of a Don Sedaris, who fought with Garibaldi and now has risen in station. Fabrozzi daughter loves her cousin, so there’s another unrequited love story interwoven, deepening the melancholy. The Prince likes the Don, that’s the funny thing, he loves being Sicilian and loves his fellow Sicilians, paternalistic to some extent but also genuine fellowship. He knows the way of life of the Leopard, his coat of arms, is ending and Italy is becoming one country, ruled mainly by Northern Italians who have formed allegiances with Austria. There is nothing he can do about the forces of history, and being an intellectual and a compassionate catholic, he doesn’t necessarily disagree with these changes. He’s stoic, and a interested in love, his family, and Sicily and Sicilians, who also love beauty. He also loves dogs, and on his death bed, before he has a vision of a beautiful woman, who is death but also heaven, he has visions of all his beloved pets. There’s a coda, set in 1910, when his heirs, who we knew from the earlier passages – the novel begins in 1860 – are now old, selling off belongings and moving out a villa – they have to dispose of all the stuffed pets, apparently royalty hired taxidermist to persevere their dead pets. Wild. In four years, the novel notes as it concludes, World War I would break out and cousins would again fight cousin, the final act of European Royalty and absolute Monarchy’s coming to an end.

This is the author’s only book – a useful appendix explains the history of the time, the political and military action all seem to happen off stage – he was the last in the royal lineage, and was writing about his great grand father and the villas and palaces and other landmarks of the book were destroyed by allied bombing World War II. But we have this pensive novel, amazingly funny in parts – like “marriage, one year of fire, 30 years of ashes” and the dusty land of Sicily, where the prince may live a life of privilege, but he is still as Sicilian as any of the peasant, now rising in station due to the unification of Italy under Garibaldi. He is also a melancholic dreamer prone to excessive contemplation. The Leopard makes being Sicilian universal.

“He look around for a place where he could sit down quietly, far from men, lovers and brothers, all right in their way, but always tiresome. He soon found it: the library, small, silent, lit and empty. He sat down, then got up to drink some water which he found on a side table. “Only water is really good,” he thought, like a true Sicilian, and did not dry the drops on his lips. -- The Leopard by Guseppe di Lampedusa

All That Is


James Salter

James Salter is old. Born in 1928, he’s the only American writer who was publishing in the 1950s still at it. I think that is true. Never a prolific writer, he’s also the penultimate writer’s writer. The only people I know who know his work are other writers, and none too many of them either. Deep reading is not encouraged by colleges and universities and as a result, writers born after 1970 tend to be a dreadfully ill-read lot. Salter has some war novels and memoirs about his service that I found forgettable, but I dearly love the novels A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years, and the two short story collections, Dusk & Other Stories and First Light, the latter, which was published in 2005, is close to being the equal of Jesus’s Son and is the best collection of short stories published so far this century, in my humble opinion.

All That Is is a follow-up of sorts of to First Light, covering much of the same romantic territory, basically the love-lives of the generation that preceded the baby boomer and counter culture. His paragraphs have an unmatched precision and poetry, the elegance of the writing is so purely subtle, you just glide along without realizing how much of the world of the human condition is being revealed until you reluctantly stop reading. Salter writers about romantic love, of what goes on between men and women, and of how Eros deepens love, makes us glad to be human but also reminds us of our own mortality and of how are failings fall short of the hope physical pleasure seems to promise.

“She lay beside him for a few minutes, the first minutes, as a swimmer lies in the sun. He could see her nakedness, almost all of it, in the near dark. They made love simply. Straightforwardly – she saw the ceiling, he the sheets. There was no sound but the float of traffic distant and below. There was not even that. The silence was everywhere and he came like a drinking horse. He lay for a long time on top of her, dreaming, exhausted. She had not made love for more than a year, and she lay dreaming too, and then asleep.

They woke to the fresh light of the world…”


The story is about Philip Bowman, who grew up in Summit New Jersey and escaped death in a fierce WWII navy battle, goes into pulsing, a small literary publishing house specializing in literary novels (the kind Salter writes). The novel ends in the 80s, but the history and headlines are kept at a distance, and the story is about his feelings, who he loves and who he makes love to and how that all pans out it. The story doesn’t end as much as fade away. Bowman is likeable, a good man who lacks greatness; and he has a moment of transgression when he gets back at an ex-lover whose moral justice is ambiguous at best. The novel is just a story, not plot-oriented at all. Moments unfold, yet are so deeply observed, one realize a story of a life is all the story one needs. It reminded me of a Laurie Cowlin novel.

‘He’d been married once, wholeheartedly, and had been mistaken. He had fallen wildly in love with a woman in London, and it had somehow faded away. As f by fate one night in the most romantic encounter of his life he met a woman and been betrayed. He believed in love – all this life he had – but now it was likely to be too late. Perhaps they could go on a they were forever, like the lives in art.”

Warm and melancholy, it’s an elegy for a world that seems passed – the esteem for romantic love and an erotic expressions of true intimacy, as well as for a book publishing, where people had literary passions and everyone read and cared about books and ideas. But it really it’s just about life – All That Is – and like life you are sorry when it ends yet feel celebratory about it when it does.


A Passion in the Desert
by Honre de Balzac
The last book I finished in 2013 turned out to be such a delight that I had to include it in the list. Hesperus Books is a British publishing house specializing in rare and over-looked work by major European writers. This thin volume by Balzac features two short stories about love that is unusual and unconventional, yet love nonetheless. The stories are translated for the first time into English, and even in French were only published as magazine pieces during the master’s lifetime.
Sarrasine explores territory similar to Mr. B’s (that’s what Bob Dylan calls him in Chronicles) Seraphtia. The titular character is a young and gifted Italian sculptor, who falls in love with, as least by appearances, is a young woman, and sculpts an acclaimed statute. The woman is beloved opera singer, and the artist gets sucked into her decadent environs of wealth and privilege. Turns out she is secretly a he, which turns the artist’s world upside down, especially since the transgendered individual – apparently a castrato – is some kind of slave to a corrupt cardinal. But everyone soon prefers the statue over the person. The castrato is a projection of the ideal woman, his statue is an ideal projection of that woman. As the artist proclaims, enraged when he finds out he has been tricked by the cross-dresser into making the sculpture. “To love and be loved are from now on words devoid of any meaning for me, as they are for you. I shall constantly think of that imaginary woman when I see a real woman.”
Inter-species love is the subject of the fable-like A Passion in the Desert. A man and a panther fall in love in the desert, or at least it appears so. The panther for inexplicable reason decides not to attack the man and for a few nights, she accepts the petting and fondling by a human being without eating him (she eats his horse instead). Balzac convinces you that man and cat can playfully frolic together. The descriptions are both sensual and amusing. Love ends tragically, Balzac is French after all, but eventually the man and the panther must remember their true selves. The important thing is not that love ended, but that love transcended species and while it lasted it was wonderful. If you know a cat lover, they will appreciate this allegory.
So, love between man and she-panther is subjective, what’s the objective love in this relationship?
“They finished as all great passions finish, with a misunderstanding. Each side believes the other one has committed some kind of betrayal One does not explain out of pride, and the other becomes confused out of stubbornness.”