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Does “30 Rock” Jack Speak for All of Us?

In W.P. Norton on July 3, 2017 at 1:39 pm



Alec Baldwin photo by Gage Skidmore

A manic Tracy Jordan’s holding a loaded gun on the roof of NBC headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Jack Donaghe is trying to talk him down. But Or is he really talking about the might-have-beens and missed chances that nearly destroyed the film career of the great Alec Baldwin?

“Tracy, you wanna destroy the goodwill you have, so you can go back to your easy TV job? Do TV. No one will ever take you seriously again. It doesn’t matter how big a movie star you are. Even if you had the kind of career where you walked away from a blockbuster franchise or, worked with Meryl Streep or Anthony Hopkins, made important movies about things like civil rights or Pearl Harbor. Stole films with supporting roles and then turned around and blew them away on Broadway. None of that will matter once you do television. You could win every award in sight. But be the biggest thing on the small screen, and you’ll still get laughed out of the Vanity Fair Oscar party by Greg Kinnear.”

The franchise is Tom Clancy’s “Jack Ryan” series, of course — the role hijacked by Harrison Ford, who aged out only to be replaced by — God forgive him — Ben Affleck. The Streep vehicle is the rib-tickling throwaway romcom “It’s Complicated.” Civil rights? “Mississippi Burning.” Who is Baldwin in “Pearl Harbor?” Who remembers anything Anthony Hopkins said or in “The Edge?” And a gold star to anybody who can figure out the Kinnear/Vanity Fair/Oscar Party reference.

Back up on the roof, Baldwin is a modern-day Antonio Salieri — a stand-in and symbol for the mediocrity many of us fear we’ve become. Does that mean “30 Rock” Jack speaks for all of us? If so, the bright side is this: Whatever Baldwin’s Oscar hopes, there’s nobody in comedy funnier at what he does today. For proof, see the two Emmys, two Golden Globes, and seven Screen Actors Guild Awards he’s earned.

Conclusion: There are always second acts in American life. Now put the gun down, Tracy. We’re all going to have to come down off this roof someday.


AWP17 puts literature on the map in D.C.

In Association of Writers & Writing Programs, Literature, W.P. Norton on February 16, 2017 at 6:54 pm

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Still sifting through the trove of literary treasures and takeaways from the nation’s largest annual gathering of the literati, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, hashtag #AWP17.

Herewith a few visual highlights:


Meeting Viet Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sympathizer.


Only 10 percent of optioned books get made into movies. That’s the consensus of these panelists who number in that exclusive club. From left: Fobbit author David Abrams; Claire Bidwell Smith, one of whose books is being made into a film starring Jennifer Lawrence; and Andre Dubus III, who penned House of Sand and Fog and Dirty Love, among others.



Members of The Anthropoid Literary Collective, a humanesque journal, make me feel welcome on conference Day 1.

Royko vs. Robinson’s Ribs

In African America, Barbecue, Black America, Black-owned businesses, Charlie Robinson, Chicago history, Mike Royko, Mississippi Delta, Racism, Royko RibFest, The Charlie Robinson Story, W.P. Norton on February 16, 2017 at 2:49 pm

A reflection of an editor in Robinson’s Oak Park storefront.

The excitement of this year’s annual gathering of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (#AWP17) in Washington, DC, took me back to the first book I edited — The Charlie Robinson Story: From the Son of a Mississippi Delta Sharecropper to the Top of the Chicago Barbecue Charts.

Charlie Robinson

OAK PARK, ILLINOIS — Chicago’s Mississippi-born baron of barbecue is sharing his story with the world.

Robinson seared his name into the Chicago annals of African-American history at RibFest 1982, where a centuries-old family barbecue recipe took him to first place over legendary Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko.

In 2012 I finalized the editing of Robinson’s manuscript, The Charlie Robinson Story: From the Son of a Mississippi Delta Sharecropper to the Top of the Chicago Barbecue Charts. The book is now available in limited edition.

The first book written by the Mississippi-born, Oak Park-based restaurateur looks back with surprisingly little anger on life begun in a Mississippi Delta cotton economy that seems little changed since the days of slavery.

Robinson recalls in stark detail the daily indignities of the race-based world that forced him at the age of 12 to address white children no older than him with the words “yes, sir” and “no, sir.”

You can almost feel the hundred-degree heat of Mississippi burning your skin as he describes his first job picking cotton 10 hours a day for thirty cents an hour.

But you can also share the joy of a young man whose skill on the basketball court earns him a scholarship to a Great Plains college where he learns about the world beyond the Mississippi Delta.

No less striking is the pride that shines through Robinson’s retelling of how the black-owned Chicago Defender newspaper urged the descendants of the enslaved to come to Chicago on trains staffed by black porters.

Or the sense of wonder that pours off the page when he tells how his life changed that late September day in 1982 — a moment captured by a Chicago-Sun Times photo showing Royko raise Robinson’s arm in victory as RibFest judge Don Rose and WLS-TV anchorman Tim Weigel look on.

The unforeseeable outcome of the 1982 contest I call “Royko vs. Robinson’s Ribs” is a quintessential Chicago story about a newcomer who rises from obscurity to a seat at the table with room to spare for any flavor strong enough to reach toward the skyline of a city defined by its power to redefine itself.

AFTERMATH: To stand with Comet against fake news, trolls and pizzagate

In pizzagate, standwithcomet, W.P. Norton, Washington D.C. on December 7, 2016 at 11:47 am

The trolls of #pizzagate failed to get anyone killed this time, but they’d sure love it if they could, and the bastards need to know they’re being watched.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Dear owners, staff and patrons of Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor: Being new in town, I had no idea you existed until the fake-news-inspired gun attack at your premises on the afternoon of Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016.

But I live pretty close by, and since that day have taken many walks over to your northwest D.C. block, and talked to folks outside, and discovered the brilliant Politics & Prose Bookstore a couple of doors down from you. And all this has changed my life.

Now, here’s where I ask those with no connection to Comet Ping Pong to give me your eyes, because I’m trying something new and hard for me—which is, to take a stand. When I was a young news reporter, an old-school veteran of The New York Times drilled it into me never to share my politics or positions on issues. Everybody has their opinions, he said, but we in the news business had to strike a public stance of careful objectivity.

It was a sacrament with which I did my best to keep the faith in jobs I worked at papers like The Capital Times in Madison, Wisc., The Moscow Tribune in Russia and the Miami Herald International Edition. And it’s hard for me to break that rule here, even though I swore off newspapering after the February 2016 passing of my gorgeously gifted bride Sarah Kershaw, who for 11 years gave all she could to The New York Times—a job she loved, even if, like most jobs, it never really loved her back.

With the the dogged dedication of my early mentor—who was Sarah’s hands-down favorite professor when we were both at University of Wisconsin-Madison—my wife spent thousands of working days and nights hunting down the details, facts and first-hand voices you need to report news that people can trust. This is called #realnews. It’s a thing we used to think preserved the people’s trust in the stories we reported.

Fabricating stories—that is, writing #fakenews—was the gravest sin to Sarah, our mutual teacher and all the scribblers of that fading breed who saw the work as not merely a job, but a vital public service.

So it’s come to this: the fake news #pizzagate allegations came perilously close to causing bloodshed in a family restaurant 1.6 miles from my residence on Dec. 4. Knowing the intensity of Sarah’s passionate commitment to public-service journalism, I’m certain those brazen falsehoods and that godforsakenly overused suffix (pizzagate? really?) would’ve pushed her past the peak of outrage. Within days of the attack, Sarah would have dug up a mountain of reporting, scored get-worthy interviews from every side, and helped the nation ratchet down this madness.

In consideration of all this and what I owe to Sarah’s legacy I say, if ever in my life there was a time to take a stand, this is it. So here goes: Comet Ping Pong, you and your whimsical name and your friendly staff are awesome. Your street has a supportive and neighborly vibe that makes me feel welcome and at home in a city I’ve never lived before. The trolls of #pizzagate failed to get anyone killed this time, but they’d sure love it if they could, and the bastards need to know they’re being watched.

Anyways. People of Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor, Politics & Prose, please count me among your regular customers and vocal supporters. I stand with you, and urge everyone reading this to do the same.

The coming world war

In W.P. Norton on June 24, 2016 at 10:32 pm
Fortune-telling is a mostly pointless exercise, but I think the epidemic of gun violence that is unfolding in our cities, as well as on film, television, Netflix and other video platforms is predictive of a global paroxysm of violence in the very near future.
A Third World War, if you like. Almost no show or film worth watching lacks gun violence, mass casualties, or both. And I think I know why. Something in the Zeitgeist is preparing us, desensitizing us, for mass violence on a scale never suffered since the dawn of man.
More than a century ago, Tolstoy wrote an essay on the tobacco epidemic in Europe. Why, he asked, were millions of people embracing the addiction to this substance whose chief effect is to numb the emotions? His conclusion: to become ready, or to be made ready, for the mechanized slaughter of war that he was certain would come.
Tolstoy died in 1910. Seventeen million died and 11 million were wounded in the global war of 1914-1918. I am watching the film “Mad Max: Fury Road” right now, and the horror it depicts is beyond my ability to describe. I fear we are careening toward another world war. Belgium, Paris, Berlin, Orlando, San Bernardino, and the other explosions of violence that have erupted in the last string of months may be the first flashpoints of this war.
I give it five to ten years.

Ghosts of 1986

In W.P. Norton on February 13, 2016 at 8:02 pm

From US sales of arms to Iran to fund a secret Latin American war and the bombing of Libya to the Challenger and Chernobyl disasters, the ghosts of 1986 haunt us still.



News broke in November that a Reagan White House aide named Oliver North had cooked up the idea to sell arms to Iran and use the proceeds to fund a CIA-directed secret war against the revolutionary Sandinista government of Nicaragua.

“I thought it was a neat idea,” North said.



Then-Sandinista president Daniel Ortega again rules Nicaragua.











Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch launched Fox Broadcasting Co. on Oct. 8.

Fox now dominates the public conversation and leads ratings markets across the country.







Postal employee Patrick Henry Sherrill in effect invented the phrase “going postal.” Although he didn’t coin the phrase while he was alive.

He did it by shooting to death 14 co-workers and wounding six before committing suicide in Edmond, Okla., on Aug. 20.

Mass shootings are now a matter of near-daily occurrence in the US.







The Vladimir Ilyich Lenin nuclear plant in the former Soviet Republic of Ukraine killed at least 4,056 people in the Chernobyl disaster of April 26.

The near-meltdown may  ultimately kill 100,000 lives or more, according to estimates.





That same month, US planes bombed the Libyan capital and Benghazi region on April 15, killing 15.

Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi has been dead for almost five years.

But the chaos in Libya and the rest of the Arab world is seen today as the cause of Europe’s worst migrant crisis since WWII.



Speaking of evil dictators … Baby Doc Duvalier fled Haiti on Feb. 7, 1986, ending 28 years of family rule, leaving behind an essentially failed state.

Today Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere—an ignominious fate for a former slave nation that was the first in world history to rise up and achieve liberation from its French colonial overlords.



The Challenger space shuttle exploded 73 seconds after launch, killing seven astronauts on January 28.

Since 2011, no US space shuttle has left the ground.

Indeed, the US has largely outsourced a space program that put the first man on the Moon. To whom? Our former Space Race adversaries the Russians, and to Silicon Valley billionaires.


GABRIEL GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ on journalism, the best job in the world

In Literature, W.P. Norton on February 13, 2016 at 12:19 am



The Nobel Laureate in a whimsical moment.

“Journalism is an unappeasable passion that can be assimilated and humanized only through stark confrontation with reality. No one who does not have this in his blood can comprehend its magnetic hold, which is fueled by the unpredictability of life. No one who has not had this experience can begin to grasp the extraordinary excitement stirred by the news, the sheer elation created by the first fruits of an endeavor, and the moral devastation wreaked by failure. No one who was not born for this and is not prepared to live for this and this only can cling to a profession that is so incomprehensible and consuming, where work ends after each news run, with seeming finality, only to start afresh with even greater intensity the very next moment, not granting a moment of peace.”


Copyright: Gabriel Garcia Marquez; courtesy: Inter-American Press Association
–excerpted from The Reading Room blog

A reckoning: Nixon, Kissinger, Chile and Nicaragua

In W.P. Norton on February 12, 2016 at 5:13 pm

Copied from Rachel Nolan’s Facebook page

In the tradition of distinguished author Salman Rushdie, who perfectly captured the mid-80s gestalt of the tragedy and comedy of a CIA-run amok in The Jaguar SmileRobert Ritzenthaler brings to vivid life the people and the times of a post-Vietnam tragedy  that reminds us all how terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the wise.

Think about it: Korea. Vietnam. Chile. Argentina. El Salvador. Guatemala. Death squads … trading weapons with Iran for hostages … all these things make you want to dump it in the memory hole and forget the horror.

But some 50,000 Nicaraguan men, women and children were estimated killed by counter-revolutionary fighters during the US-backed Contra war against the Sandinista government. And no-one with a pulse, let alone a heart, can disagree: it’s time for a reckoning.

Ritzenthaler gives us that and more in “The Jungles of Tiritipa,” a re-imagined journey of two young men looking for truth in a Latin America country torn by conflict during the death-spasms of the Cold War.

If only we could print the conversations Reagan had with his minions about the brutal and lawless US intervention in Nicaragua that was Reagan’s own backyard Vietnam.

Saving Islam’s wisdom of peace

In W.P. Norton on January 21, 2016 at 11:00 am

mali msAmbassadors of Peace in a Circle of Knowledge sitting around a Palaver Tree will not leave until they have resolved their differences.
(c) The Malian Manuscript Foundation

Who knew that Islamic thought includes hundreds of thousands of tracts covering such subjects as astronomy, animal rights, Islamic law and practice, philosophy and women’s rights.

According to Sarah Kershaw’s Washington Post report, the works cover such subjects as “astronomy, animal rights, Islamic law and practice, philosophy and women’s rights.”

I say again: Who knew?

Hardline Islamist fighters have already burned more than 4,000 of the nearly 1 million manuscripts written over the centuries and preserved in Timbuktu, Mali.

Filmmaker and entrepreneur Michael Covett is working hard to get out the message that these manuscripts must be saved.

An effort is underway to digitize the Mali manuscripts. Covett’s  Malian Manuscript Foundation is spearheading the cause.

What fascinates me is the parallel: during the so-called Dark Ages of Europe, literacy virtually disappeared and the classics of Hellenic philosophy and drama were ignored for centuries. But Islamic civilization preserved it all. It is my understanding that there would have been no Renaissance, no Age of Enlightenment, without the rediscovery of the preserved wisdom of the classics–works that had been carefully preserved by scholars during the high water-mark of Islamic civilization.

The Mali manuscripts may not turn the tide against the militant movement to turn the world into a caliphate. But their preservation is a critical imperative to save for history’s sake the pacifist, humanist wisdom of a civilization at its peak.

Anne Garrels, Interrupted

In W.P. Norton on January 8, 2016 at 12:59 pm

Anne Garrels

Moscow, maybe 1994: Drinking coffee with Anne Garrels. Now, she was real down-to-earth, intense, curiosity-driven. We were talking about the first Chechnya war (she, I and this very young married couple who worked for AFP down there).

I never went to Chechnya and the only combat action I had seen as a reporter was in downtown Moscow in October of 1993, when Yeltsin sent tanks and troops to crush the parliamentary uprising.

Anyway, Anne was in the middle of this deeply involved anecdote about how the Russians were “shelling the shit out of this village, when –” and my friend Peter kept interrupting her with something off-topic.n

She kept trying to bring it back to her point. At least three more times, she got out the words “shelling the shit out of … “ but Peter wouldn’t let her finish. She never acted the least bit phased, though.

Peter later showed me mugshots of the faces of dozens of slain Chechen men, given to him in the field by people who hoped that the photos would be seen by family members for purposes of identification. That night, lying down to sleep, the faces of the dead appeared to me. Their eyes were nearly half open.

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