Archive for July, 2021

What do you do when a hitman comes to your home? Ask Luke Burgis. It happened.

Thursday, July 22nd, 2021

One of the more astonishing stories in entrepreneur Luke Burgis‘s new book, Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life – and there are many – is his unexpectedly moving tale about his interlude with a hitman. “My e-commerce company was flailing after a buyout deal fell through thanks to the Great Recession. I’d already maxed out my credit to keep the company afloat while I figured out next steps.” He concocted a “debt triage” plan. Fyre pharmaceutical wasn’t on it the shortlist.

An excerpt about what followed:

Even his dog was scared.

My decision to exclude Fyre Pharmaceutical from my list of priority payments would have been different had I known that the company’s founders were rumored to have connections with organized crime, that they were said to be involved in gun trafficking, and that one of my competitors mysteriously vanished after crossing them. 

I had interacted with Dave three times before. The first was an unpleasant phone call during which he informed me that my payment was late; offended, I snapped back with a full-throated defense of my excellent payment history. The second was an unannounced visit to my office, where he confronted me and told me that he wasn’t a patient man; he threw a pair of dice on my desk and left. The third was when he showed up at a local bar during Sunday football—no idea how he’d known I was there—and told me that he “means what he says” while beating one of his fists against his palm like he was tenderizing meat; the bouncers escorted Dave out. As he left, he made the figure of a pistol with his thumb and forefinger, and pointed it at me. 

This was now the fourth visit from Dave, and I didn’t know what it meant. 

He seemed different this time. He began with small talk. He asked me how I was doing. He commented on the weather. Is this how it goes? I wondered. Was it the happy-go-lucky backslapping before a guy gets whacked on The Sopranos?

I bumbled nervous replies. I stood taking up as much space in the front door as I could to prevent my dog Axel, who was standing behind me, hair on end, from slipping out. Dave was standing too close, seeming like he wanted to slip in. 

He drew even closer and lowered his voice. “Can you please, um, quick handle this bill by Monday morning so I don’t have to … come back?” He spoke quietly, calmly, and courteously while he twisted one of the gaudy rings on his left hand. 

There was no way that I could pay him that soon. 

Before I had a chance to respond, he continued: “I hear you’re having a big company barbecue here tomorrow night.” 

It was true. I hosted a monthly party at my house with rolling invitations to people at my company. This time, though, I had invited everyone. I worried that it might be our last rendezvous if things didn’t turn around. 

But how did Dave Romero know about it? 

“Mind if I come?” he asked. 

It didn’t seem like a question. I was growing increasingly confused and nervous. I just wanted Dave off my porch. “No, I mean yeah, sure, people start showing up at seven, you can stop by.” The words came out of my mouth. I’d never refused a request to come to one of my parties—certainly not to anyone’s face. I didn’t know how. 

And now I had invited a hitman into my home.

Read the rest of the story over at Arc Digital here.

William Kennedy’s long-ago Smith Corona. Postscript from the author: “I loved all those machines, but I now view them as marvelous sculptures.”

Tuesday, July 20th, 2021
William Kennedy’s ancient manual typewriter – on loan. (Photo: Roger Winkelman)

William Kennedy has been called the “Bard of Albany” – and the city returns his love. Most recently, it did so via a display at the Albany airport terminal, part of the Albany Book Festival. The Irish-American author kindly loaned his vintage 1930 L.C. Smith and Corona typewriter for the occasion. (If you’re a Boomer who doesn’t think that’s a big deal, a manual typewriter is one of the star exhibits for today’s students visiting Stanford’s Green Library. They keep looking for the “on” switch.) We’ve written about vintage typewriters and the authors who owned them before, here.

This particular typewriter came from his mother, and Kennedy wrote the first five novels of his renowned Albany cycle on it. In particular, he wrote Ironweed on it, and that’s the book that brought him a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. The photo with the typewriter was taken in 1950, when he would have been 22 – only two years older than the typewriter – and a budding reporter at the Albany Times Union.

Some of you will remember I interviewed Bill for the Los Angeles Review of Books “‘At the Mercy of My Passions and Opinions’: A Conversation with William Kennedy” – and some of you attended Another Look’s recent event for his book, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game.

Our roving ambassador in Albany last week was Roger Winkelman, the technical wizard and reliable deity who produces videos and podcasts for Another Look’s literary offerings. He managed to take a few quick photos for the Book Haven. He also took a quick partial shot (below)of a poster from the 2019 onstage discussion with Director Francis Ford Coppola, as the two discussed their work together on the 1984 film The Cotton Club, which the pair co-wrote. (Read more about it here.)

That was all Roger had time for. Then our man in Albany hopped on a plane and headed back home for Stanford.

Update: A quick correction from Richard Polt of The Classic Typewriter Page (more on that later) about the make of William Kennedy’s typewriter – maybe it’s not an 1930 L.C. Smith after all: “The typewriter Kennedy is using in the photo is not this one; it has a rounded top, whereas the L. C. Smith’s top is flat. It looks like a Royal KMM.”

Update on July 29: Not so fast! I contacted Bill Kennedy himself for a definitive reply. Here’s what he said today:

“Richard Polt is correct that the typewriter I’m using in the 1949 photo is not an L.C. Smith, and he’s probably also correct that it’s a Royal, though I don’t really remember. I never had any particular admiration for that machine the way I did for my LCS,  Our city editor (the photo is from my first job, assistant sports editor of the Glens Falls NY Post Star, number two man in a two-man department) had an Underwood of similar vintage and that was vastly superior to Royals and LCSs alike. The Underwood was built for speed, and I recall being clocked typing 125 words a minute on one when I was in the army.  I loved all those machines, but I now view them as marvelous sculptures

Director Coppola, author and screenwriter Kennedy (Photo: Roger Winkelman)

“At home that was sacred – I had to speak Spanish.” Dominican/American poet Rhina Espaillat remembers a bilingual childhood

Wednesday, July 14th, 2021

Bilingual spirit

Rhina P. Espaillat was born in the Dominican Republic. Her family left the troubled Caribbean island state during the period when dictator Rafael Trujillo slaughtered thousands. Her father and uncle were already in Washington as diplomats, and could not return to the Dominican Republic. It would be years before the family was reunited in the U.S. Her first poems were published in Ladies Home Journal when she was in high school.

In this interview for Plough, she recounts her bilingual upbringing and how she taught poetry in New York City schools, She has translated Robert Frost and Richard Wilbur into Spanish – but I appreciated her discussion of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, whom she calls the first great poet of the continent.

The occasion for the interview: Plough is launching a new poetry competition, the Rhina Espaillat Poetry Award. Plough’s poetry editor, A. M. Juster, a poet who knows a thing or two about translation himself, conducted the interview with the poet, who turned 89 this year. An excerpt:

One of your most popular poems is called “Bilingual/Bilingüe.” Could you tell about its inspiration and evolution?

Poet Juster conducts the interview

That poem came out of reality in the apartment of my parents, where I was permitted to speak English outside the door, but not inside; my father wanted me to be bilingual. He said, “She’s got to be part of the world, so Spanish in here, English out there.” I used to come home from school and say, “Let me tell you what the teacher said today,” and he would say, “No, no, mi hija, dímelo en español, en castellano.” I would say, “I want to tell you exactly the way she said it,” but he was very firm. At home that was sacred – I had to speak Spanish.

So “Bilingual/Bilingüe” sort of fell together – it had to have a little Spanish in each of the couplets, but by the end the Spanish no longer has parentheses around it: by that time we’re joined in it.

Tell people about Sor Juana.

Sor Juana is one of my saints. I adore her because she was so daring, so smart. In seventeenth-century Mexico, it was not a good idea for a woman to be that smart because she was surrounded by guys who thought that women should have a place in the kitchen. She didn’t want the kitchen. She became a nun not because she had a tremendously powerful calling, but because she wanted her privacy. She wrote a great many religious pieces that are outstanding, and she did her duties as a nun, of course. But she also wrote the most passionate love poetry.

Vain? Not likely.

She wrote Latin poetry too, which is much harder to compose because the prosody is so different.

But she did it. What’s more, she even wrote poems in Nahuatl. She studied philosophy and music and science; she was far ahead of her time.

The Inquisition got so annoyed with her that it sent word through one of the archbishops that she had better be very careful because she was becoming vain – by that they meant she published her poetry. They frightened her and said, “The only way you are going to get through this safely is to get rid of your scientific instruments and all your books.”

So she got rid of everything. She got into her old clothes, took care of sick nuns, then promptly got sick herself and died in her forties.

The other Cruz is Saint John of the Cross, Juan de la Cruz, and I adore him. What he did was to write, quite literally, love letters to God because in his poems he becomes the soul, which of course has to be female. The soul in his poems is always a woman very much in love with her husband who misses him all of a sudden. It’s absolutely enchanting.

Read the whole thing here.

“I want what she’s having.” London lauds a new book on the nature of our wanting.

Monday, July 5th, 2021
The movie that inspired the meme: “When Harry Met Sally”

We want what others want. It’s a law as old as mankind, going all the way back to Eden. It was the subject of René Girard‘s corpus, and the French theorist’s work inspired Luke Burgis’s new book Wanting. “Movements of desire are what define our world. Economists measure them, politicians poll them, businesses feed them,” he writes.

René Girard began with literature, and moved to anthropology, religions, history, and more. Burgis brings his lens to a new domain: the world of entrepreneurship, of business, of technology, of international finance. Christina Patterson writes about it her review, “I Want What She’s Having” in the Times of London review yesterday.

From The Times review:

The key issue, he says, is “What do you want?” and “What have you helped others want?” The answer shapes our lives and our life satisfaction, but we are, he argues, fighting some strong tides. Powerful figures have always changed our desires. Now we don’t just have PR Svengalis and the influence of peers and celebrities such as, say, the Kardashians. We have the tech giants stoking our desires every time we glance at our phone. And the cycles of “thin desires” they are generating are creating division and stress.

Burgis is open about his key ideas coming from Girard, but he fleshes them out witty stories, personal anecdotes and research that bring them alive. His prose is punchy. His anecdotes are entertaining. There are even witty cartoons.

Writing from an entrepreneur’s perspective

It concludes:

It isn’t “Celebristan”, the world of celebrities and influencers, we have to worry about, he says. It’s “Freshmanistan”, the world of models from inside our lives who can drive us to destructive cycles of envy, exhaustion and distress. We should learn, he says, to pursue our “thick desires”, like Sébastien Bras, the chef who asked to be removed from the Michelin guide because he wanted to see more of his family and do things his way.

“Part philosophical tract, part self-help guide, Wanting is a thought-provoking book. It’s also a deeply moral one. Like many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Burgis wants to create a better world. The ideas he presents, and his suggestions for action, seem to offer a more realistic hope than most.

Read the whole thing (warning: paywall) here. And you can read an excerpt from the book, “The Joy of Hate Watching” here.

Janet Lewis: “Whenever I’m writing, I’m interested in everything, because I’m still waiting for the next page.”

Thursday, July 1st, 2021
A pensive Janet Lewis (1899-1998) at her Los Altos home. (Photograph: Margo Davis)

I wrote about Women Writers of the West: Speaking of Their Lives and Careers shortly after I arrived in Palo Alto in the early 1980s. I would later get to know the editor of that slim volume, Marilyn Yalom, one of the founders of women’s studies at Stanford – she’s featured on the cover of the book, looking out from the picture window in her beautiful home office, as she writes. Decades later, after I learned she was René Girard‘s first graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, I would include her in my own book, the first-ever biography of the French theorist, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard.

I also interviewed one of the writers featured in that volume: the poet and novelist Janet Lewis, about the same time this book was published – by then her husband, the eminent Stanford poet-critic Yvor Winters, was dead. I visited her Los Altos home with the legendary loquat tree. “Being a writer has meant nearly everything to me beyond my marriage and children,” said the author who is best known for here book The Wife of Martin Guerre, which was featured at a 2013 Stanford Another Look book event. “It has concerned the way I have thought and the friends that I have made. I’ve noticed that whenever I’m writing, I’m interested in everything, because I’m still waiting for the next page. I don’t pay as much attention, when I’m not writing, to living in general.”

Through Marilyn and her legendary women writer’s salon, co-founded with the late Diane Middlebrook, I got to know the photographer Margo Davis, who took the portraits in the volume, and her portrait above is the reason for this post: the poet, the photographer, the editor, and the magnificent photograph above that brought them all together. “It is no longer clear to me that the degree of familiarity with the subjects determines the strength of the portrait,” Margo wrote in a photographer’s note. “I used to believe, like the French photographer, Nadar, that the person I know best is the one I photograph best.” She already knew three of the women authors in the book – Kay Boyle, Joyce Carol Thomas and Janet Lewis. She had a few hours to photograph the others. She wrote: “However, in those brief meetings, I felt a common understanding that even though we knew very little about each other as individuals, we knew about each other as artists. And that even though we come from different disciplines, whether it be words or photographs, we are involved in a similar process of expression and interpretation.”

Margo Davis at home.

The photograph with persimmons is my favorite of the older Janet Lewis – hands down. Here are a few more excerpts from the chapter, which was taken from a Stanford public dialogue between the author and Brigitte Carnochan in 1980:

For Lewis, writing is “putting things in order in my head” so as to be able to perceive a situation as completely as possible. This was one of the motivating forces of her novel, Against a Darkening Sky, which describes the effect of the encroaching terror of World War II on an ordinary Northern California family.


“I began as a poet. Very small-sized, too. My first published poems, or practically the first, were about Indians, about Manibozho and the legendary Indians of the Ojibways.” More than half a century later, in 1979, with the publication of The Ancient Ones, Lewis returned to the Indian themes of her first poems. In “Awatobi,” for example, she brings together sites as distant from one another as the French court of Louis XIV and the battle at Awatobi, united only in the commonality of bloody violence.


When asked how she had found the time to write, while raising two children and caring for a husband and a household of airedales, Lewis’s reply was typically straightforward, without a trace of having suffered unduly in her responsibilities. “I put aside a few hours a day. Probably the` best hours. My working time has always been when everyone went to school.” In one instance she typed the manuscript for a novel with her small daughter sitting on her lap. “She was very small, so I could reach around to the typewriter. I was working on The Invasion then, and I was under contract to finish it at a certain time. I worked very regularly, getting up very early in the morning before anybody else, except the baby, who had to be taken care of. She was quiet for awhile, she had her naps, and I knew what I was doing because I had been working on the book for a long time. I knew where I was going and didn’t have to pace up and down the floor and say, ‘what do I do next?'”

Marilyn’s salon, shortly before her death in 2019 (Photo: Reid Yalom)