An interview with George Saunders

Image from The New Yorker.

As a writer, George Saunders is known for taking readers to unusual places: collapsing amusement parks, very small countries, the intersection of emotions, chemicals and ethics.

In conversation, he does the same thing. At least he did with me.

I had the opportunity to interview Saunders for Goodreads about his new book, “Lincoln in the Bardo.” It’s his first full-length novel and, on the surface, it’s about a night Abraham Lincoln went to the cemetery to mourn for his recently deceased son, Willie. But, naturally, it’s about so much more: remorse, forgiveness, the weight of history.

And our conversation was also about so much more. He talked about the role of Buddhism in his life, how he likes to play with history, and the purpose of compassion — even for people he doesn’t agree with.

I’m just trying to be really watchful in my own heart for any kind of gratuitous negative emotion. I’m [thinking] Jesus was here, Buddha was here, Gandhi was here, Tolstoy was here, Mother Teresa was here, and they all said basically the same thing: Our capacity for understanding the other is greater than we think. It’s not easy and we’re not very good at it habitually, but we can get better at it and it’s always beneficial. It’s beneficial to you, and it’s beneficial to the other. That’s what I say—in real life I’m swearing under my breath on the internet.

Read the whole thing.


Sunday read: The rise and fall of Mitch Ryder


I really enjoy the articles on Music Aficionado, which features a lot of material on classic acts and occasional obscurities, sometimes from unusual angles.

And also about subjects I hadn’t given much thought about. Like Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels.

For a couple years in the mid-’60s, Ryder was huge, known for manic, headlong versions of pop music chestnuts. (“Devil with the Blue Dress On” is the best example.) Suddenly the hits ended as suddenly as they began. I’d simply assumed that Ryder, like a lot of blazing singles acts, burned out when the trends turned to album-length releases and the move to psychedelia in 1967-68.

The truth is more complicated than that. It involves Bob Crewe — yes, of Four Seasons fame — a concert featuring Cream and the Who, and an LP that’s apparently truly awful.

It’s my Sunday read. You can enjoy it while listening to this:

That will wake you up.

You can find “What Happened to Mitch Ryder?” here.

That’s SIR Raymond Douglas Davies

Image from Mojo.

Somehow, I missed this:

The KinksRay Davies received a knighthood Saturday for his service to the arts as part of Queen Elizabeth’s annual New Year Honours list.

Yes, Ray Davies — Kinks frontman, beer pedestal, tradition-keeper of little shops, china cups and virginity — is now Sir Ray Davies, knight of the realm.

This probably makes me happier than it does Davies, an occasionally curmudgeonly sort who was nevertheless gracious about the honor. “Initially I felt a mixture of surprise, humility, joy and a bit embarrassed but after thinking about it, I accept this for my family and fans as well as everyone who has inspired me to write,” he told the BBC.

But for me, well … Ray Davies may be my favorite songwriter. I love the Beatles, but there’s something about the Kinks that speaks to my innermost heart.

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#SuperBowl: Too many runs

Image from

My wife has a saying: “Too many runs.” Those are the games in which your team jumps out to a big early lead. As a fan, you get cocky. This is easy. We’re crushing them.

Faltering at that point doesn’t happen often, but still, “too many runs” should be a warning. (My wife knows — she’s from Cleveland.) For whatever reason, your team can’t hold the big lead. As Hemingway once described going bankrupt, it happens gradually, then suddenly.

The next thing you know, your team has endured a terrible loss.

The Falcons had too many runs.

They were up 21-3 at halftime, then 28-3 midway through the third quarter. Arthur Blank was dancing in the owner’s box. Local sportswriters were burnishing their prose. Then a fumble, poor play-calling (why not three running plays when you’re in field goal range with a chance to put the game away?), a sack, a holding call, an amazing catch … and the lead had slipped away. The Patriots won in overtime.

The sting from this one will last a long time. My social media feed was full of comparisons: the Bills-Oilers playoff game. The 2016 election.

I thought of Jim Leyritz.

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Sunday read: Ne’er the twain shall meet?

Image from Mapio.
I’m a city boy: Born in New York, raised in New Orleans, a resident of Atlanta for the last half of my life. The smallest place I ever lived for longer than a summer was Ann Arbor, Michigan, a sizable college town. I love cities: I love their vitality, their diversity, their amazing infrastructure. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever lived in a municipality smaller than 100,000 people. (I’m not counting suburbs; living in Mamaroneck, N.Y., is still very much living in New York City’s orbit.)

So I have almost no common ground with the residents of Connersville, Indiana.

Connersville is a town of about 13,500 in east-central Indiana. It’s perhaps 70 miles but a world away from Indianapolis, the state capital and center of a metro area of more than 1.7 million. Eight hundred fifty thousand live in the city itself. If I were living in Indiana, I’d definitely live in Indianapolis. (And I’d probably drive to Chicago regularly.)

I’m not alone. The United States has become very much an urban-rural country, with a chasm of an urban-rural divide. As noted in a recent Atlantic article, “America’s Great Divergence,” Hillary Clinton won 88 of the 100 most populous counties in the U.S.

That, of course, was not enough to win the presidency. Donald Trump overwhelmingly won rural America; 72 percent of Fayette County, where Connersville is the county seat, voted for him.

“America’s Great Divergence” is my Sunday read.

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In memory of Bharati Mukherjee

Bharati Mukherjee and Clark Blaise. Image from Getty via the San Francisco Chronicle.

My memories of Bharati Mukherjee are misty and faint, mixed with the everyday trappings of a creative writing class. A classroom at Emory, perhaps in the Humanities Building, the fall of 1983. The ditto paper on which we typed our short stories and the smell of ink from the mimeograph machine on which we copied them for the rest of the class. A semicircle of students offering criticisms. Sunlight through the windows. Private jokes.

And this beautiful, sometimes imperious, woman who spoke in elegant, sonorous sentences, making suggestions, soliciting critiques, and always reminding us to make sure we made copies of our stories for everybody. There was a box on the floor outside her office where we’d leave them.

Professor Mukherjee — Bharati — died Saturday. The news started making the rounds yesterday, and I saw some of the obituaries today.

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A tip of the turban to an old master

Image from Wikipedia.

Jon Stewart returned to old friend Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show” Tuesday night wearing an extra-long red tie and a small animal on his head — a nod, he said, to the fashion sense of our 45th president.

But there was another nod I detected, one that likely went over the heads of most of Colbert’s audience.

You’ll notice that, at about the 6:10 mark, Stewart and Colbert crack jokes about the folder Colbert holds being “the last executive order.” The way he says it is a reference to the great Carnac the Magnificent, one of Johnny Carson’s characters from his 30-year run as “Tonight Show” host.

Which got me thinking: Does anybody under 40 even remember Johnny Carson?

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