Over at This is Grand...
Dana Kaye relates a nice anecdote, "Red Line Reeducation." Kids are smarter, and more adult, than we often give them credit for.
"Desecrating the Koran"
Ibrahim Abusharif, a regular reader of this space, has written a very thoughtful article on the Koran desecration scandal--the acts themselves, not the Newsweek red herring--at the Christian Science Monitor, entitled "Desecrating the Koran."
I think it's safe to say that very few Americans condone such appalling acts of desecration and more severe prisoner torture which are committed under the euphemism of "interrogation," just as very few Muslims condone terrorist murder committed in the name of Allah. It's our extremists that we need to fear the most, in any and all societies.
Noteworthy from the Trib
Several interesting items from the Tribune books section this week.
No Place for Children: Voices From Juvenile Detention, by photojournalist Steve Liss, looks like an absolutely essential piece of journalism. Stellar photographs of the inmates of the Wade County juvenile detention system in Laredo, Texas (there's that state again) are supplemented by transcipts of inmate interviews. (Though the Trib printed several of Liss' photos, none appear on its website.) As reviewer Beth Kephart puts it: "Liss does not once cross the line and exploit his subjects. He does not seek to shock us; he seeks to help us understand: That these children should not be behind bars. That they are suffering from poverty and fractured homes, from mental illness or addiction. That their crimes, 75 percent of the time, are nonviolent. That what they need is help: love, education, diagnoses, medical attention, a firm guiding hand." It's probably wishful thinking that our neanderthal political leaders would take notice of this message, but that's what I'm hoping for anyway.
Luis J. Rodriguez's Music of the Mill gets the front page treatment and a glowing review from Patricia Henley: "Rodriguez's life is a triumph of art over circumstance, and Music of the Mill is that triumph's soundtrack."
And the Trib's baffling review timeliness continues, as they finally get around to covering Andrew Winston's Looped, which was released back in February. As I've noted on several occasions, if the Trib truly cared about the local arts community, they'd be a lot more prompt about reviewing reviews from area novelists. Reviewer Bill Savage finds some fault with the range of Winston's storylines ("And while the plots have their share of intrigue and interest, the storylines aren't sharp enough to provide plot-oriented, pop-culture guilty pleasures.") which really doesn't surprise me. Though I haven't yet read the novel, I would have been very surprised if the writer could have possibly given ample depth to the 20+ characters portrayed in the novel. Even John Dos Passos, to whose Manhattan Transfer Winston's novel has been compared by Savage and at least one other reviewer I've read, didn't try to tackle that many central characters in his landmark novel. Overall, Savage gives a very guarded recommendation: "Readers of Looped might want either more-ambitious art or more down-and-dirty drama, but perhaps the middle ground between Manhattan Transfer and Tales of the City is someplace worth occupying." Regardless, Looped is still high up on my to-read list.
Lastly, the "From the Precincts" section ("Local booksellers tell us what Chicago is buying") welcomingly strays from its usual dispatch from the Deerfield Borders and the Schaumburg Barnes & Noble--where James Patterson and Mitch Albom are undoubtedly still selling briskly--to report from the incorrigable Quimby's Bookstore in Wicker Park:
1. Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture, edited by Thurston Moore (Universe, $22.50)
Essays about creating mixed audiotapes, edited by a member of the band Sonic Youth.
2. H.P. Lovecraft: Against the Word, Against Life by Michael Houellebecq (Believer, $18)
A European writer's appraisal of author H.P. Lovecraft's life and work.
3. Blecky Yuckerella, by Johnny Ryan (Fantagraphics, $11.95 paper)
A collection of the weekly comic strip, which appears in Vice Magazine and in the Portland Mercury.
4. Disposable, by Sean Cilver (Concrete Wave, $24.95)
The history of skateboard art.
5. I Am Alive and You Are Dead, by Emmanuel Carrere (Picador, $15 paper)
A biography of science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick.
Neither a Tuesday nor a Morrie in sight.
The Tribune has a nice article on photographer Terry Evans and her new exhibit "Revealing Chicago: An Aerial Portrait" which is being presented outdoors at Millennium Park from June 10 through October 10.
Evans admits to being inspired by Yann Arthus-Bertrand's 2002 Millennium Park exhibit, "Earth from Above." Checking out the Tribune's selected gallery of Evans' images (particularly the lovely Oak Street Beach image), the inspiration is rather obvious. I first discovered Evans via her excellent Disarming the Prairie, a photographic essay of the former Joliet Army Arsenal (now redeveloped into the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetary and the Centerpoint Industrial Center). Great stuff.
The prospect of seeing Evans' great works blown up to 4'x4' dimensions will finally get me to haul my sorry carcass over to Millennium Park for the first time.
Meeting John McNally
Today I had the pleasure of meeting John McNally, author of The Book of Ralph, a novel-in-stories that I just finished and enjoyed quite a bit. John did a talk and book signing at Columbia College Chicago. As I mentioned previously, he's doing several appearances in the area this weekend (full list here) and I would strongly encourage everyone to attend. John exudes an easygoing charm and wry sense of humor not unlike those of the book itself.
Ralph is the story of a relatively ordinary fourteen year old, Hank Boyd, who finds himself illogically drawn to his classmate Ralph (two years older but held back twice in school), an unpredictable and often baffling delinquent-in-training. Ralph is the classic outsider, and represents the sort of free spirit that a relatively normal kid like Hank dreams of being. (As the book jacket notes, "All of us need a Ralph in our lives.") The book is set in a southwest collar suburb of Chicago in the late 1970s, and is replete with thoughtful period touches--Star Wars trading cards, CB radios, the über-pervasive Styx--that repeatedly brought a knowing smile to my face. (John and I are the same age, as it turns out.) The final section, in which Hank and Ralph are improbably reunited in 2001--Hank is a failed accountant while Ralph is profitably engaged in two darkly hilarious ventures which I won't reveal here and encourage you to read for yourself--is a comic tour-de-force.
The Book of Ralph is highly recommended--and even if you weren't a Chicago-area boy in the late 1970s.
Ramsin Gone Wild
Ramsin Canon has a bone to pick. With a few of you. Actually, with a lot of you.
In his 1955 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Laxness paid loving tribute to those who made him who he was as a writer and human being: his family, the faithful inhabitants of the "book-loving nation" of Iceland and, most importantly, the ancient Icelandic scribes:
My thoughts fly to the old Icelandic storytellers who created our classics, whose personalities were so bound up with the masses that their names, unlike their lives' work, have not been preserved for posterity. They live in their immortal creations and are as much a part of Iceland as her landscape. For century upon dark century those nameless men and women sat in their mud huts writing books without so much as asking themselves what their wages would be, what prize or recognition would be theirs. There was no fire in their miserable dwellings at which to warm their stiff fingers as they sat up late at night over their stories. Yet they succeeded in creating not only a literary language which is among the most beautiful and subtlest there is, but a separate literary genre. While their hearts remained warm, they held on to their pens.
Certainly puts my efforts at getting my first short story published into proper perspective.
(Note: I'm trying something new--a short story, "Arrival," written in installments and published online. I can't promise that I'll sustain the early momentum and keep it going, nor that the end product will even remotely resemble a self-contained and coherent narrative. But we'll give it a try.)
He felt the great locomotive throbbing below him, reverberating through the sidewalk, through the thinning soles of his brogans and into his body where it coursed about him, as real as the blood in his veins or the nerve impulses firing across countless synapses. He could still feel the train rocking back and forth on unstable tracks as it slowed in its approach to the station, shrieking shrilly as it blindly negotiated the gentle bend into the platforms and finally came to a stop and the conductor announced over the loudspeaker that all passengers were to disembark at once. The end of the line had been reached.
The train’s end of the line. His beginning.
He now missed the train’s lulling rythym, its comforting embrace, even as he walked briskly at street level in moderately eager anticipation of his destination. The train got him most of the way and tapped most of his money, leaving him a ways still to go and without the fare for a cab or even the streetcar. But he was young, fit, and eager, and a three mile walk after riding all this way meant nothing to him.
His morning’s breakfast and his mother’s anxious farewell were already fading in his memory. He was unsure when he would be seeing either again.
From Today in Literature:
Pär Lagerkvist, born on this day in 1891, won the 1951 Nobel. His most well-known novel may be Barabbas, published the previous year and hailed as a modern parable, but in presenting its award the Academy offered an autobiographical event from an earlier short story "as a symbol of the theme that dominates Pär Lagerkvist's work." In "My Father and I" a young boy and his father are walking in the Swedish countryside when it suddenly becomes very dark. To find their way home, they travel the railway tracks until a train surprises them, forcing them down the embankment:
All the lights in the carriages were out, and it was going at frantic speed. What sort of train was it? There wasn't one due now! We gazed at it in terror. The fire blazed in the huge engine....sparks whirled out into the night. It was terrible. The driver stood there in the light of the fire, pale, motionless, his features as though turned to stone....I stood there panting, gazing after the furious vision. It was swallowed up by the night....
My whole body was shaking. It was for me, for my sake. I sensed what it meant: it was the anguish that was to come, the unknown, all that father knew nothing about, that he wouldn't be able to protect me against. That was how this world, this life, would be for me; not like father's where everything was secure and certain. It wasn't a real world, a real life. It just hurdled, blazing, into the darkness ahead....
Lagerkvist is one of my favorite novelists, for Barabbas in particular though I've pretty much loved everything of his I've read. He had a wonderfully lean, spare prose style which leaves plenty unsaid, requiring the reader to formulate one's own interpretations.
Tribune Comes Through
The Tribune books section was remarkably strong in terms of fiction titles yesterday: Acts of Faith by Philip Caputo, The Lake, the River & the Other Lake by Steve Amick, The Company Car by C.J. Hribal, and The Bitch Posse by Martha O'Connor. (I'm particularly intrigued by Hribal's comic family novel, which Porter Shreve called "funny, sad, exuberant and quintessentially American.")
But the most surprising, and welcomed, was a review of Halldor Laxness' Under the Glacier, written in 1968 in Icelandic and only just now being translated into English for the first time, by the revered scholar Magnus Magnusson. Despite winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955, Laxness was until just recently virtually ignored in translation, with only his 1946 novel Independent People being published in English. Vintage International is rapidly correcting this gross injustice, publishing five of his novels in English during the past several years.
Last year I read one of those new translations, Iceland's Bell, and had mixed feelings about it. While the setting (medieval Iceland) and characters were rather fascinating, the storylines meandered quite a bit, taking their own sweet time in coalescing into a coherent plot. Perhaps the novel's narrative density and length (448 pages) were Laxness' tribute to the sagas which clearly inspired it.
Reviewer Alan Peter Ryan calls Under the Glacier "very bewildering (but) also compelling and endlessly intriguing." Sounds favorable--and at a relatively brief 240 pages, it might have the conciseness that Iceland's Bell lacked.
Another one for my reading list. Augie March, you may have just been pushed back to 2006.
Two noteworthy items about Chicago novelists:
At M.J. Rose's site, Andrew Winston provides the backstory on the writing of his debut novel, Looped, including the amusing tidbit about being sold on his first apartment rental in the city upon hearing a realtor claim that Saul Bellow wrote Humboldt's Gift while living there. (Link via Bookslut.)
And at The Book Standard, Adam Langer relates the whirlwind finale of his book tour for the acclaimed Crossing California, in which he claims to have hit 21 Chicago-area bookstores in a single day. Personally, my guess is that just finding 21 parking spaces would exhaust an entire day all by itself, without even factoring in the driving time and bookstore visit time. But his account is entertaining enough for me to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Looking back on my reading list, 2005 is shaping up to be my Year of Chicago: I've already read the novels The Man With the Golden Arm, An Unfinished Season, Young Lonigan, and I Sailed With Magellan, the non-fiction There Are No Children Here and Near West Side Stories, and Royko's Slats Grobnik and Some Other Friends, and I'm currently reading The Book of Ralph.
If all of that wasn't already enough to fill up a whole year, my to-read list includes the last two books of the Studs Lonigan trilogy, Looped, maybe Crossing California, Joe Meno's Hairstyles of the Damned, Don DeGrazia's American Skin and possibly The Adventures of Augie March. And of course I have to work some Studs Terkel and a re-reading of Aleksandar Hemon's Nowhere Man in there somewhere.
Yikes. I think I need to apply for a sabbatical from work.
Local Cinderella story Gary Stochl gets a nice profile in today's New York Times.
Unlike many street photographers, Mr. Stochl is not drawn to the odd or shocking, or to the poor or homeless. Rather, he often photographs ordinary commuters and workers, capturing the daily grind of urban living. His subjects typically appear lonely or sad, tending to provoke feelings of gloom and alienation.
"It's not that I dislike happiness," he said, "but I suppose it's not my attitude."
I saw his show at the Cultural Center last month and was quite impressed. Some of Stochl's photos are on display here.
(Via Gapers Block.)
Encyclopedia of Chicago, Online
Well, so much for my productivity at work. The full text of The Encyclopedia of Chicago is now available online, courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society, the Newberry Library and Northwestern University. As if having all the narrative with hyperlinks and search capability wasn't wonderful enough, the image database is nothing short of astounding, in terms of both quantity and resolution.
For example, check out this 1898 bird's eye view of downtown, and click on the magnifying glass icon to zoom in. You can actually count the number of building windows and railroad cars.
And if you zoom in on City Hall (the block bounded by Washington, Randolph, Clark and LaSalle) you can almost see the graft changing hands.
Those Who Live in (White) Glass Houses...
Rather galling display of grandstanding coming from the White House...
Newsweek Urged to Do More to Repair Damage
By Terence Hunt
AP White House Correspondent
WASHINGTON - The White House says Newsweek took a "good first step" by retracting its story that U.S. investigators found evidence interrogators at Guantanamo Bay desecrated the Quran, but it wants the magazine to do more to repair damage caused by the article.
Newsweek on Monday retracted the report in its May 9 issue after officials in the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department criticized its publication and its use of an anonymous source. Protests in Afghanistan, where more than a dozen people died and scores were injured in rioting, and demonstrations elsewhere in the Muslim world were blamed on the article.
"The report had real consequences," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Monday. "People have lost their lives. Our image abroad has been damaged. There are some who are opposed to the United States and what we stand for who have sought to exploit this allegation. It will take work to undo what can be undone."
McClellan said a retraction was only "a good first step" and said Newsweek should try to set the record straight by "clearly explaining what happened and how they got it wrong, particularly to the Muslim world, and pointing out the policies and practices of our military."
Yes, Newsweek screwed up, and they did the right thing by retracting the story. But before the Bush Administration starts pointing fingers at the media, they should take a long hard look at themselves.
"Real consequences." "People have lost their lives." "Our image abroad has been damaged." "It will take work to undo what can be undone." All these comments are true, but all of them apply equally to the fradulent justifications that the Bush Administration presented for invading Iraq, an immoral act which caused infinitely more harm to world peace than this comparatively minor magazine article. All of these assertions have repeatedly been made by liberal and progressive journalists against the Bush Administration, to be met only by the latter's continued silence. And yet the Administration demands the very same accountability from Newsweek which it is unwilling to practice itself.
Okay, Mr. McClellan, Newsweek will "clearly (explain) what happened and how they got it wrong." Right after you do likewise.
Happy Birthday, Studs!
I would be gravely remiss if I failed to pass along greetings to Studs Terkel, who turns 93 today. From Minnesota Public Radio:
It's the birthday of broadcaster and writer Louis Studs Terkel, born in the Bronx, New York (1912). He moved with his family to Chicago when he was twelve, and throughout his career he was associated with that city as a broadcaster on radio station WFMT. His first program on the station aired in 1945, and in 1958 he launched the "Studs Terkel Almanac." The flair for interviewing that he demonstrated on the air translated into a series of successful books of oral history. They include Division Street: America (1967), Hard Times (1970), Working (1974), and Coming of Age: The Story of Our Century by Those Who've Lived It (1995). He became celebrated for his ability to record the words and thoughts of ordinary people. He said: "A tape recorder, with microphone in hand, or on the table, or the arm of a chair, or in the grass, can transform both the visitor and the host. It can be used to capture the thoughts of the non-celebrated-on the steps of a public housing project, in a frame bungalow, in a furnished apartment, in a parked car-and these 'statistics' become persons, each one unique. I am constantly astonished."
One of my biggest dreams in life is to be interviewed by Studs.
Addendum: On the subject of Terkel (and with Algren still vivid in my mind), I just stumbled across this priceless recording of Studs reading my favorite Algren short piece, "The Silver-Colored Yesterday" from Chicago: City on the Make.
I just started reading John McNally's The Book of Ralph and am thoroughly enjoying it so far. He's doing several book signings in the Chicago area this month. I was particularly intrigued by this offbeat venue:
Saturday, May 28, 2005
DUKE'S ITALIAN BEEF DRIVE-IN
8115 S. Harlem Ave.
Duke's is celebrating their 30th Anniversary on this day! There will be FREE HOT DOGS, DRINKS, and BALLOONS! Yes, this is THE Duke's featured in THE BOOK OF RALPH!!! And this may be the first book-signing ever at a beef sandwich joint.
John and I have been corresponding for the past several weeks, ever since he left a comment on my blog regarding my post about the Sun-Times' recent Chicago fiction article. He had very encouraging words about "Captions Without Photos" which, coming from a well-regarded fiction writer and English professor, gave me quite a emotional lift.
John also says, "There's absolutely no obligation to buy anything at any of the signings." So if you've bought The Book of Ralph elsewhere and want him to sign it, I'm sure he'd be glad to oblige. I'm planning to attend his Columbia College appearance on the 25th and maybe even the Duke's event if I can talk my Italian beef connoisseur wife into coming along. Sounds like fun.
Another Reading of The Man With the Golden Arm
I just finished re-reading The Man With the Golden Arm, and it's as marvelous as ever. (This makes the fifth or sixth time I've read it, a figure surpassed in my reading history by only his Chicago: City on the Make and Knut Hamsun's Hunger.) Though I know Frankie is doomed, I still found myself hoping against hope that he and Molly would survive and make new lives for themselves.
That sort of sunny conclusion being far out of Algren's realm, I recently wrote the first few pages of a short story which imagines Frankie eluding the Chicago police and escaping with Molly to Milwaukee where he tries to piece together a new life. Which, of course, is not terribly different from the grim life he left behind in Chicago; that aspect, I hope, is one which Algren might have appreciated. I don't know whether or not I'll ever finish writing the story--there's a good chance that now that I'm longer reading the novel, its inspiration will begin to fade and I'll focus on any one of a dozen other half-finished writing projects I have sitting around gathering dust.
The edition of Golden Arm which I read is the "50th Anniversary Critical Edition" which was published by Seven Stories Press in 1999. It's a particularly fine volume, which includes contemporary reviews of the novel as well as modern-day interpretive essays and remembrances of Algren from the likes of Studs Terkel, Kurt Vonnegut (who knew him from the Iowa Writers Workshop), John Clellon Holmes and others. There are also several wonderful black and white photos of Algren in his Northwest Side milieu by his longtime friend Art Shay.
But the curious thing about this edition is the cover art. It's a design created by Saul Bass which was used as the main title sequence for the film adaption of the novel, directed by Otto Preminger. Algren was originally hired by Preminger to work on the screenplay, but the two quickly had a falling-out once Algren realized that Preminger had little interest in the novel's artistic or social vision. Algren made no attempt to hide his revulsion for Preminger or the film, which Algren dismissed as being "confused..., in the public mind, with a cheap biography of Frank Sinatra." (The Frankie Machine role was played by Sinatra, and rather poorly, even for him.)
I wonder what Algren would think to see his greatest novel get the grand anniversary edition treatment, only to see the cover invoke Preminger and his mediocre film adaptation.
"Just a Two-Bit Shamus in a Seedy Office"
Over at the marvelous This Modern World, Sam Spade, er, Sparky T. Penguin works a case for this mixed-up Liberty dame.
I don't know why I suddenly thought of this, but the following is one of my favorite pieces of dialogue from one of our greatest cultural institutions.
Corgan: Billy Corgan, Smashing Pumpkins.
Homer: Homer Simpson, smiling politely. You know, my kids think you're the greatest. And thanks to your gloomy music, they've finally stopped dreaming of a future I can't possibly provide.
Corgan: Well, we try to make a difference.
Some day, decades from now, if I keep working at my literary craft, churning out volume after volume of indelible prose and earning the adoration of millions of readers across the world, I may finally earn the writer's ultimate honor: my likeness as a bobblehead doll.
Jack Kerouac, the late, Lowell-born literary icon, now has a place in Cooperstown, in the form of the bobblehead doll in his image.
The added honor of getting into Cooperstown is more than I dare to imagine. I'm trying to keep my aspirations humble.
Down on the Killing Floor
There's a great story at NewCity Chicago about Chiappetti Lamb and Veal, the last slaughterhouse in Chicago. The city is helping Chiappetti build a new plant on South Morgan, relocating from its gentrification-targeted home on Halsted.
"We've survived a lot of changes and we plan to stay one step ahead," Franco Chiappetti says. "We want to work with the city to not only keep a lot of good jobs in Chicago, but also preserve a part of its history."
Given the city's perpetual amnesia, particularly when said amnesia is particularly beneficial for influential real estate developers, I wish them luck. But they'll need a lot more than luck if and when the city decides that a slaughterhouse, even a new one on Morgan, isn't good for neighborhood property values and no longer fits into the grand scheme of things.
Home Pyrotechnics Advisory
Looks like we have an early entrant for the 2005 Darwin Awards. Let's see...seriously injured, house destroyed, likely criminal charges. I sure hope the girlfriend was impressed. Really impressed.
COPS: BLAST SET OFF BY LARGE MORTAR
Plainfield area: Man reportedly showing off for girlfriend
By Joe Hosey, Joliet Herald-News
PLAINFIELD TOWNSHIP — Tuesday night's house explosion was touched off by a man under the influence of cocaine and alcohol who was showing off for his girlfriend by lighting a massive pyrotechnic device in their East Main Street home, police said.
Stephen Glynn, 38, claims he did not intend to blow up his house when he lit the fuse of a 10-inch mortar, said Pat Barry, spokesman for the sheriff's department. He was only trying to show off for his girlfriend and planned to snuff the fuse before it sparked the explosive, police said.
Glynn admitted to downing 10 beers and ingesting cocaine before pulling his stunt with the professional fireworks DEVICE, a police source said.
The explosion gutted the house and severely injured both Glynn and the girlfriend, 33-year-old Shawn Adams, police said. Gas to the house had been shut off.
Glynn was transported to Provena Saint Joseph Medical Center in Joliet on Tuesday night and then on Wednesday was taken to Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood. Adams was taken to Rush-Copley Medical Center in Aurora and was later transferred to Loyola.
Loyola staff listed Glynn in serious condition and said Adams was in fair condition Wednesday.
The mortar Glynn lit — reportedly while resting it in his lap — was twice the diameter of those used in local professional fireworks shows, said Plainfield Fire Chief John Eichelberger.
A second 10-inch mortar that did not explode was found in the house in the aftermath of the fire, Eichelberger said. Agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and officers with the DuPage County Bomb Squad were called in and recovered the mortar, which was a room away from the explosion and stowed in a cabinet.
A mortar such as the one Glynn detonated in his home is illegal to possess without a pyrotechnics license, Eichelberger said.
Both the explosion and Glynn himself remain under police investigation, Barry said, and no criminal charges have been filed.
Munchkin Writes Memoir
Finally, a memoir I'd enjoy reading.
"Since the picture, we've all become munchkins," Raabe said Tuesday on his way to a book signing in Manhattan. "It's like knighthood."
Not to mention the immortality of having a diminutive doughnut derivative named after you.
"Captions Without Photos"
The good folks at Gapers Block have published my non-fiction piece, "Captions Without Photos." It's a series of vignettes drawn from observations made while riding the train from Joliet to Chicago every morning.
The piece was originally a hodgepodge of unrelated fragments which were merely arranged chronologically. A sincere thanks goes out to GB's Andrew Huff, both for his gentle encouragement to whip the rough piece into a more coherent finished product as well as the decision to publish it. Though I strongly prefer writing fiction, I'm quite pleased with how it turned out.