I just finished…

…”Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932″ by Francine Prose. Prose has written more than 20 books, of which I had never read one word, but I picked this one, a cast-off not-for-resale, review copy, off the Free Shelf at Café Bongo. It was pretty good.

The story behind the novel is even better. Prose had seen a copy of the photograph of two women, one in a tuxedo, taken by the Hungarian photographer Brassai. It was called “Lesbian Couple at Le Monicle, 1932,” The photo fascinated Prose. So did what she learned about the woman in the tuxedo, Violet Morris, an Olympic-caliber athlete and champion French auto racer, who spied for Germany, providing the information enabling its troops to breach the Maginot Line, and later worked for the Gestapo. The Resistance killed her in 1944.

Prose decided to tell Morris’s story, filling in the blanks, which appear to have been considerable, in an imaginative multi-narrative way. Gabor Tsenyi, a Hungarian photographer, writes letters to his parents. His lover, Suzanne Dunois, an artists’ model, writes a manuscript to be destroyed upon her death. Lily de Rossignol, an aristocratic former film star and Gabor’s patron, writes a best-selling memoir. Lionel Maine, Gabor’s friend and Suzanne’s ex-lover, an American (very) loosely resembling Henry Miller, writes a novel/memoir. And Nathalie Dunois, a high school teacher, writes a biography of Lou Villars, a cross-dressing lesbian, a former athlete, who works for the Nazis.

It makes for an engaging reading experience. A romp, one might say — except for the Nazis. The only bumpy portion of the ride — and an unfortunate one — was the Dunois contribution. Villars is the central figure in the novel, yet for reasons I could not identify, Prose left here as the only character not to speak for herself. Moreover, her “biographer” is not a particularly effective one. She sets forth scenes and relates conversations that she can only be making up, since she would not have been present and that there is no suggestion that the participants left any records she could base her reconstructions on. That aside, Prose does not provide Dunois with the imagination or intellect to penetrate Villars’ soul or heart in any satisfying way. (Prose even undercuts what she has Dunois present by having another character challenge the veracity of what Dunois has set down about her. It is like Prose is more interested in using Dunois to score points with post-modern critics than taking a direct shot at addressing “the mystery of evil,” which is what Dunois purported to be doing.)

There was one exception. When Dunois writes about the round up and expulsion of Paris’s Jews, it lands like the lighter flame Villars reportedly stuck into the eye of victims she tortured in her final role.

Adventures in Media Baronhood

It occurred to Robin Levy that if he wanted to see his name on another book, he was going to have to publish it. Levy had resisted self-publishing for years. He had come up when “vanity press” meant sneers from the literati. When, if you identified yourself as a writer, the first question to follow “Are you published?” was “By whom?” But now more and more writers were going the route of the looked-down-the-nose-upon. Writers he knew personally were crazy about it. The most enthusiastic embraced the DIY-aspect, the lay-out, the formatting, the etc. But in anything from wood shop, to home repair, to under-the-car’s-hood, to the mind-bogging mysteries of his home computer, Levy felt behind — if not buried beneath — the curve.

Two people offered to lend a hand. Michael, a friend for over 40 years, had published a dozen books via his local photocopy shop and advocated for the joy and pride of the accomplishment. Milo, who had edited many of Levy’s prior works and had set up Levy’s web site when he’d elected to accept that part of the 21st century, pumped for having a commercial printer do the book but leaving everything else for the two of them jointly.

Levy considered alternatives. A traditional vanity press in Berkeley wanted $3500 for everything, from design through marketing. It did nice books; he recognized some of its authors’ names; but the only one he knew personally swore the receivers of any marketing efforts she received must have shit-canned them. Lulu wanted $1000 (and 20% of sales) for its least expensive package. (That was attractive.) A retired professor at Café Bongo had a guy who charged $500 to get his book print-ready and then turned it over to Amazon, which did everything else. (That sounded good — even $500 better — but Levy had a resistance to all things Amazon.)

He decided to do one book with Michael’s help and one with Milo’s. (Levy knew he might not be making the best choice but he also knew he would feel the same about any choice.) He rented a PO Box, so disgruntled or fanatic readers would not pound his front door. He filed for a fictitious business name. He registered with the state, so it would know to tax him. He registered with the city, so it would. He opened a business checking account, so he could cash the checks which came to his fictitious name it its PO Box in order to pay his taxes.

He prepared, because of the taxes and governmental regulations to awaken one morning, surprised as Gregor Samsa, to find himself a Republican.

I just finished…

…”Los Tejanos,” a graphic — in the pictorial sense — history of mid-19th century Texas, by the first-gen UG cartoonist Jack Jackson (“Jaxon”). It’s focus is the unconscionable — and unsurprising — treatment of native Hispanics by newer-to-the-territory Anglos, at the time of secession from Mexico. I didn’t know jack-shit about any of this, and Jaxon knew more than practically anybody. (His bibliography lists and critiques a couple dozen books, and his work’s been praised from academically credentialed historians to Larry McMurtry.) If you don’t want to burden yourself reading any of these volumes “LT” is a good way to familiarize with the subject. I am sure you can learn more about events and individuals from conventional narrative histories, but Jaxon’s text is informative and his visuals convey knowledge in a powerful and effective manner.

Jaxon seems to have made great effort to get details right: dress; buildings; furnishing; terrain; even physiognomy as an expression of character. I felt myself absorbing a greater sense of place and time by letting my eyes linger on his panels then if they were skimming down paragraphs of verbal description. It was like watching a Western with the ability to control the pace of the flickers on the screen. It gave the mind more space to roam. And when I thought of what Texans had put this country through over the last half-century and who it still had loose on the national stage, it left me shivering.

This writing life (con.)

The publisher e-mailed me that an anthology of critical works targeted for high school students wished to reprint a piece of mine. If I would agree, the publisher and I would divide the licensing fee between us.

I was thrilled. It had been a long time since anyone had wished to reprint one of my critical pieces. In fact, as Joe Garagiola said about the Phillies in 1980, “It’s been a long time since the Phillies won a World Series. They’ve never won one.”

But I had one question. My understanding, I told the publisher, was that his journal had the exclusive rights to pieces it published for six months; then all rights reverted to the author. I was happy to pay the journal, but why should I?

You’re right, Bob, the publisher said, if you want to negotiate yourself, but if…

Maybe the publisher, who had first hand evidence that I was a pussy cat when it came to negotiating rights to my literary efforts, wanted to save myself. On the other hand, 50% seemed a lot to pay someone to essentially be my agent.

I said I thought I could handle it myself. Then I accepted the anthology’s first offer.

This Writing Life

My enjoyment of the biography/art book of the cartoonist was flustered by my recognition of the cartoonist being quoted by the author as saying things which I had reported the cartoonist saying to me either in a profile I had written of or an interview I had conducted with him several years later. I did not ignore the possibility that the cartoonist said the same things to anyone who profiled or interviewed him, but by the time I was three-quarters of the way through the book and had bumped into the fourth quote I recognized, this had been a matter of some concern.

The narrative portion of the book was constructed largely from direct quotations from the cartoonist or his friends. These were largely colorful and intelligent and humorous, but the text rarely identified to whom these remarks had been made and none were foot- or end- noted, so it was impossible to tell when or to whom they had been made. I assumed most had been said to the author, but still… So I e-mailed the author, whom I knew, and the publisher, whom I knew even better. The author did not reply. The publisher said I must have missed the attributions which appeared on p. 223.

Indeed, I had. For this I apologized. But these attributions (There were seven, of which three were mine, basically said that in Chapter Such-and-such “some quotations” came from my interview of the cartoonist. This was not as specific as I would have liked, but maybe I was coming out ahead since readers were free to believe more of the quotations were mine than were actually the case.

But no acknowledgment had been made of my profile from which at least one quotation also seemed to have been taken. So I pointed this out. This time neither the author nor the publisher responded.

Maybe I being too sensitive.

I just finished…

…volume 3 of Knausgaard’s “My Struggle.” This was the most accessible and delightful so far. It is almost entirely his observations of himself as child and early adolescent, written only with the knowledge and understanding of this child/adolescent. Only occasionally does his adult consciousness break through. You gain crucial insights into relationships discussed in his earlier books. You often smile — and wince — if, like me, you had similar experiences.

And the final page is a whopper!

Art, No Art, Art

My latest is now up at http://www.tcj.com/art-no-art-art/

It begins

“Having no talent is not enough,” said Gore Vidal about the underground theatrical troupe The Cockettes, following its New York City debut. Neither, it seemed, were bestiality, cannibalism, child abuse, necrophilia, perverted nuns, and several gross of severed penises. Or so Robin Levy concluded after finishing “Pop Wasteland” (Jon F. Allen and Tim S. Allen, eds. 2015), an anthology of cartoons and poetry, which encompassed all of the above, while leaving him unshaken and unstirred.

Looking for a tax-deductible, arts-supporting charitable donation?

I’ve known Walter Robinson since high school, when he was an aspiring jazz bassist. Life, as we know, takes surprising turns, and he’s now seeking funding for one of his. His pitch is below:

I wrote the music, script, and lyrics to a gospel musical based on the slave revolutionary, Denmark Vesey. Freedom Theater in Philly has committed to launch a fully staged production late spring 2016 to run thru the 2016 summer. Freedom is one of the few and best black theaters in the US. My show will serve as a centerpiece production for Freedom Theater’s 50th anniversary. The show run will also coincide with the DNC convention next summer. The African American Museum in Philadelphia (am working direct with CEO, Patricia Aden) is a partner with Freedom Theater on the launch, as well as Mother Bethel, a Black Historic AME church.

I needed help in one area that involves a very special opportunity, but which leverages all of the above and reaching a wider audience with this work.

Remember the massacre June 17th in the Charleston black AME historic church where a lone white youth gunned down the black pastor and eight others during a bible study? The church was co founded by Denmark Vesey. In fact the theme of my musical is “religious freedom through the eyes of the 19th century slave and Free Negroe.”.

So you understand the high quality of the work, my work also enjoyed a World Off Broadway Premiere in the prestigious NYC music theatre festival where it was chosen out of 400 international submissions. So you can read all the great NYC reviews and get all the information on the actual music here at: lookwhatawonder.com.

With that background here is my current opportunity and concomitant funding need:

We will present an empowering narrated concert performance version of my Denmark Vesey work in Charleston, SC this November 21 and 22 .

It will bring together Vesey’s historic AME church( the new pastor will narrate), with all the black churches in the city, plus the oldest white church, and the oldest reform synagogue in US –all as audience, with discussion following.


The product will then be edited and disseminated to black churches, schools, and community centers across the country via our education collaborative networks with a study guide created by Facing History and Ourselves, an exemplary Boston curriculum non profit.

I need to raise five thousand dollars and am asking for help. Our non profit host is Called To Rescue, an anti-modern day slavery/ Human trafficking organization, so donations will tax deductible.

Even 50 or 100 will help. Let me know.


To donate:

Here is the donation information. They are now set up to receive, process, and distribute
for our Nov 21 and 22 performance needs.

Please kindly mail your check to:

Called To Rescue

Atten: Charleston Slavery Performance Manager

9709 NE 83rd Court
Vancouver, WA 98662

They will provide you with a receipt and 501c3 notice after they receive.

Make the check out to :


And write at bottom of check our specific reference notation:

“Charleston Slavery Performance”

I just finished…

,,,”Friday Night Lights” (25th Anniversary Edition), by H.G. Bissinger. I had not cared to read it before, or watch the movie or TV series, but it was in the health club “Free Box,” so… As you probably know, it’s an account of a single season of a high school football team in Odessa, Texas. It was pretty good, if you overlook its failure to truly grapple with the insanity of the situation. Bissinger took swipes at the racism, the cost to education, the obsession of the citizenry, but he never grabbed hold, like a Kafka or Mailer or Hunter Thompson would have. Kid gloves, I thought.

I was interested in whether the team would win the championship, but I wanted to know more how the kids turned out. Bissinger gave the facts, but not in a way that I felt any fates resonate. Maybe he failed to portray the young men in a compelling manner; maybe they just weren’t compelling people. And the larger, unexplored mystery to my thinking was what accounted for the deep emotional attachment Bissinger professed to have with these fellows. Time-spent-in-proximity doesn’t seem enough to account for it. Bissinger didn’t examine the “Why” of this in any depth. Maybe that wasn’t this book, but that would have set things on a higher level for me.

I just finished…

…Jonathan Franzen’s “Purity,” which I’d picked off the “free” shelf at Café Bongo. (Somebody must not’ve like it, since the usual up-for-grabs is more like “The World of Musical Comedy,” (3d ed., 1966), a new quality hardcover being about as rare as a Shakespeare First folio.) Anyway, after two volumes of Knausgaard, it was a treat to be engaged with a central character like Pip, who kept me smiling throughout entire 20-page sittings.

The company of other characters, whom Franzen centered other sections on, I didn’t enjoy as much. There are involvements with the evil of Wiki-source-types and the totalitarianism of the Internet I didn’t spend the time on I assume the author would have preferred. (When I want to be informed about public issues, I prefer mounting a stationary bike beside my pal Budd to listening to novelists with whom I am barely acquainted.) But the heaven-forbid plot hooked me. I was steadily drawn along, pins-and-needled over how Franzen’d work things out.

Now all open the NYRB and see what Diane Johnson wants me to think about the book. And I’m ready for “My Struggle” 3.