Stalin’s Barber

Stalin’s Barber is the sometimes humorous and sometimes poignant tale of a down-and-out Albanian who, searching for a better life for himself and his family, ends up in Moscow as Stalin’s personal barber. Artfully written like all of Paul Levitt’s novels, Stalin’s Barber is a deeply human story that amplifies both the absurdity and the cruel psychological costs of the Stalinist regime, richly layered with circumstantial and historical detail.  Not to mention a captivating title which I wish I had thought of myself.

In the beginning

I haven’t seen you in 20 years
except in my mind’s eye
the hurricane center of the hot black night
when I slip to our trip to

Galveston.  We drove all night,
knowing already it was the end,
and rode the ferry at daybreak,
the sound of the sea and the sad
cry of the gulls
scored upon us.

Then earlier, the southward journeys
past rice farms and shrimping towns
the thick humid patio nights
catching lizards
and laughing.

And earlier still, in the beginning
when we took LSD and lay
all night in a field of sugar cane
tasting the forbidden fruit


.                              but liking it

For Whom the Bell Tolls (no spoilers)

I’ve always respected Hemingway’s writing but never really enjoyed it (in my limited reading). For Whom the Bell Tolls, though, I enjoyed thoroughly and found much more engaging than, say, The Sun Also Rises or short stories like the heavily anthologized “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”  For a Lost Generation tale of gentry drinking binges, give me Fitzgerald’s poetic Gatsby over Hemingway’s Sun Also Rises. But For Whom the Bell Tolls is a different matter. The prose has the simple directness of Sun Also Rises, but the subject matter turns on the life-and-death situations of guerilla warfare during the Spanish Civil War, giving a dramatic intensity to those clean, simple sentences. And to a large extent, Hemingway seems, like his contemporary William Carlos Williams, to want to keep the language transparent and give us the thing in itself. Indeed, he sounds as though he quotes Williams when he has his main character ponder “the confidence that” comes “from thinking back to concrete things.” This allows him to build a very powerful sense of place, both with the direct, no-nonsense descriptive sentences and with the bastardized (but accessible) English-Spanish dialogue.

But the prose is more subtle in For Whom the Bell Tolls, as Hemingway seems more sure of his voice here than he was in The Sun Also Rises. The occasional flashbacks and stream-of-consciousness shoots of prose mark this or that character with a special immediacy, with a reflective inner life. And the reflections may be terse and unadorned, but they are not simplistic philosophically. They seem fully commensurate with the life-and-death context, and indeed, from the vantage of this novel, it is the overwrought philosophies of the ivory tower that seem frivolous and simplistic.

So if it happens that you’ve read a few stories or The Sun Also Rises and found yourself less than fully engaged, you should still give For Whom the Bell Tolls a try. To each his own, but for me, the latter is more the Nobel Prize-worthy Hemingway.

Sarah Dunn’s Fantastical Style

Here’s an example of Sarah Dunn’s art from a couple of years ago.

Dunn early

And here’s one from 2015 (forgive my amateur photography).

dunn middle5

Note the move from large, bold botanical features that fill the space to something a little starker, where vertical cascades of space itself set the mood and the bits of organic beauty sparkle in brush strokes more delicate than bold.

And here’s one that seems to capture the moment of stylistic evolution.


This third painting trains the eye vertically from the elephantine blotches at the root-and-soil bottom to the sparkling bits in the more spacious upper region, the upward movement exhibiting a tonal change in artistic sensibility. To be sure, the hand of the artist is constant, and runs through all three of my sample paintings, but there is a variable in the style as well, as the artist develops across time.

Both the earlier and newer visions are fantastical, but the former is earthbound, close-up, brings us into a tactile wonderland, while the latter puts us at an objective distance, as a visual observer, introducing a cosmic sublime element, an almost existential sense of space, stark white and bleak, impersonal and indifferent, but with fantastic bits of light and beauty thwarting the existentialist’s dream of desolation. Knowing that Sarah moved at this time to Alaska to film Bering Sea Gold, I like to think of the Alaskan vistas conditioning Sarah’s new sense of space, while the brightness of her own spirit pushes back, in specks, giving the new paintings their signature dramatic tension.


For my friends who speak no German, this sign captures my bewilderment as I tried to navigate the book release (per previous post) last week.


Und für meine Deutsche Freunde, wem dieses Schild normal aussieht, ich habe das Sonnenobservatorium noch nicht gefindet!

Some Skeletons Don’t Stay in the Closet

                         A New Novel by Gary Gautier

Drenched in the sights and sounds of mysterious New Orleans, this story is heartwarming, funny, and serious all the same. Three kids searching an abandoned house for hidden silver find themselves confronting long-forgotten ghosts and the house’s dark memories of racism, loss, and betrayal.  The quest for the silver is especially nerve-racking for Annie, the kid who actually sees the ghosts, both of her deceased mother and of the bygone denizens of the house. Her friends want to believe her but can’t, and she herself is torn between running away from it all and following the ghosts into the house’s dark history. With the help of assorted old characters on the block, the kids restore order to the community and lay bare the bones of what makes a neighborhood: the ability to work together while accepting some differences as absolute, maintaining an organic connection to the communal past, and having some kind of unity of purpose for the kids and the old people of the neighborhood.

Sample page (midpoint):

The kids moved slowly into Mr. Jimmy’s dimly lit house. The two steel-hooped barrels sat fat, glum, solid as ever, like surly guardians in the dismal light, but with the incongruous festivity of tiny gadgets and figurines on their heads.  The dark painting hung in its place, but the broad strokes of purplish-blue waves seemed oddly different, as if they had moved a few paces toward edge of the canvas. The bedroom, dining room, kitchen along the shotgun path of the house were otherwise just as they had seen last time, as if no one had lived there in the interim. Instead of conducting them to the back porch, Mr. Jimmy sat them in the kitchen this time, at one of the interchangeable thrift store tables that seemed to sprout up in various rooms and porches of this fantastic setting.  Mr. Jimmy had apparently been engaged at the table a short time ago. A photo album, some loose photos, and reading glasses lay on the scored and pock-marked wooden surface. Mr. Jimmy put the reading glasses on and eyed a photo for the album, like Melissa and Annie weren’t there. But then he spoke.

“Well what?”

“You know the silver in Mr. Robert’s house?” faltered Melissa.

“I told you about it, didn’t I?”

“Well, we kinda been looking around for it.”

“I know you been looking. Well quit looking.”

Mr. Jimmy took a photo into his gnarly black fist, installed it into the album, and eyed another. Even Melissa remained daunted at his demeanor.

“Some people,” continued Mr. Jimmy, “knows more than you kids about that house. Some people knows more than he’s saying right now. That silver is tainted. Cursed. Blood money. Touched by the devil’s own hand. You understand what I’m saying?”

The speaker paused and let the question float. Then a heaviness descended on his countenance. With a delicate movement he took off his glasses and stared at, or through, the kids with a fixed intensity that pushed a chill up their spines.

“’Cause this is the last time I’m saying it.”

The kids hesitated, immobilized by dread but eager to forge on. Mr. Jimmy put his glasses back on and installed another photo.

“There’s more, Mr. Jimmy,” Melissa said.

Mr. Jimmy continued to fiddle with the album.

“Well, what more?”


Hope you enjoyed the sample! Feel free to share, to order, to write amazon reviews…