Mark Kurlansky is a Renaissance man, whose skill for penning books on cultural history (but one arrow in his quiver of talents) should be read, learned from and admired.

His latest, “The Eastern Stars,” which focuses on an impoverished area in the Dominican Republic from which the United States has drawn both raw sugar and highly refined baseball talent for decades, was released Thursday. Kurlansky took time out recently to tell the magazine PopMatters why, among other things, he’ll take political activists (aka “rebels”) over saints any day.


Q: The latest book or movie that made you cry?

A: Hard to choose because very few movies of late have moved me. (Shouldn’t “Avatar” be on the 10 most stupid movies list?)

I have been reading a lot of good books. Most recently, Sebastian Barry’s “The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty” about a simple man from Sligo whose life is sent in wild directions by events beyond his control. McNulty is the ultimate anti-hero. He writes, “Any person putting a shoulder against a life, no matter how completely failing to do the smallest good thing, is a class of hero.”

I think we are drawn to anti-heroes because that is what most of us are most of the time and it is good to see that we are heroic. Barry also writes in a lyrical Irish, with completely original phrases in the rhythms of Yeats. It’s a beautiful book.

I happened to get into an argument with Barry in a pub. I was supporting a group of Irish who succeeded in forcing Shannon Airport to stop allowing troop transports to Iraq to stop there, and he argued that it was creating a hardship for the poor soldiers. I didn’t buy his argument in the least, but was impressed with his humanity. His love for people shines through in his writing.


Q: The fictional character most like you?

A: I think I’m a bit like Ishmael in “Moby Dick”; a storyteller and an observer in his own crisis. … Like Ishmael I seek adventure, the role of the observer, the storyteller who is always found at the edge of the room looking in — it’s something I have noticed about myself. The truth is I often wish I was more of a Moby Dick, but that white whale thing really isn’t me.


Q: The greatest album, ever?

A: Easy. Jimi Hendrix, “Rainbow Bridge.” Best cut? “Star Spangled Banner.” Because he died of an overdose there is a tendency to dismiss his accomplishments as a drug-crazed riff, but he was musically very sophisticated and there is a direct relationship between his work and Bach.

He was doing something very like “Toccata and Fugue”: stating a theme and turning it on its head and inside out and really splaying it. Like Bach, what could have been an interesting academic exercise, a clever display of virtuosity, is done with gut-wrenching passion.


Q: “Star Trek” or “Star Wars”?

A: Now, this is a tough choice because I could be very happy with neither and my knowledge is largely based on having seen a few of the original television series and, I think, the first two “Star Wars” movies. Why would anyone come back for more?

The popularity of both indicates a lack of mental agility in the general population, but if I had to choose between them, I would pick “Star Trek” — at least in the originals. There was a genuine creative sense of humor to them, whereas “Star Wars” always relied on technical tricks.

In this genre, everyone needs to go back to the original “Twilight Zone” — black-and-white, simple single sets, no tricks, small cast, great actors, good script. That’s all you need.


Q: You want to be remembered for …?

A: Trying to stop war. I have lost count of how many wars I have actively and largely ineffectively tried to stop. I am currently working on Afghanistan. Killing the people of Afghanistan will rescue neither us, nor them.


Q: Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?

A: Gandhi, of course. He was very misinterpreted. He was an extremely pragmatic man. He embraced nonviolence because it is the most effective — albeit the most difficult — tactic of political opposition. He said that he was not concerned with those who said it won’t work because it is like gravity. “It works whether you believe in it or not.”

Also Martin Luther King, another pragmatic man. It disturbs me the way children today are taught that he was a saint instead of what he was: a great political activist and a true rebel. I’d take that over a saint any day.

Also, the rank and file of the Civil Rights movement. The most courageous people I have ever seen.


Q: The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

A: I just signed it. For years I thought Emile Zola’s “The Belly of Paris” was the book I should have written. It’s set in the Les Halles market when it and Paris were first rebuilt in the 1870s — it’s the human comedy at the intersection of food and politics. I also felt the existing translations missed it, so I translated it myself for Modern Library.

That may be my best book. Too bad I didn’t write it.


Q: Your hidden talents …?

A: My hidden talent is my cello playing. It is hidden because it is not very good and I don’t want to inflict it on others, but I derive tremendous pleasure from it. It’s like why people sing to themselves.


Q: The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

A: The best thing I ever bought must have been my surf casting rod, which was not particularly expensive and has now served faithfully for more than 40 years.

The best thing I ever borrowed was a handmade cello built by a German named Roth in 1876. That baby was nice to hug and purred deep chocolate tones.

The best thing I ever stole were ideas about writing from Emile Zola, Jack London, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Anton Chekhov, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, and even Waverley Root. Half of it comes from within you, but the other part was not distilled out of thin air.


Q: Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

A: I would love to have met Gandhi, but he probably would not have been a great dinner companion at the Ritz.

Hillel, the first century rabbi who revitalized Judaism with clear moral thinking, would probably be fascinating, but he would refuse to eat the food because it is traif.

Hemingway of course was a great lunch: full of ideas on writing, politics, art and fishing, which are all passions of mine.

Zola might be even better. He loved to talk politics while eating copiously.


Q: Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

A: None of the above. Walking along the rocky coast of New England, fishing for striper and blues, fly-fishing rainbow trout in a beautiful river like the Big Wood or the Irati, or just going most anywhere with my wife and daughter and on no particular schedule.


Q: Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

A: “The Eastern Stars” is out (now) from Riverhead. It’s the story of the Dominican town of San Pedro de Macoris, which has produced 79 major league baseball players. How has this one town produced so much baseball talent and what does it tell us about both baseball and Dominican life?

“Edible Stories” is coming out in November from Riverhead. It’s a collection of interconnected short stories. Each story is about a fixation on food. Stories include hot dogs, muffins, caviar, bean curd, menudo and espresso. They take place in Europe and America and all come together in Seattle.

A biography of baseball great Hank Greenberg, a very Jewish book about a man who was made a Jewish icon against his will, this book is part of a series by Jewish writers on Jewish figures, publishing in April 2011 by Yale University Press.

A biography of Clarence Birdseye, the father of frozen food, is being published by Doubleday in their great inventors series.


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