Just Do It, Ian!
Corporate behemoth Nike has crassly stolen the cover art of Minor Threat's seminal debut album to promote its upcoming skateboarding demo tour. Minor Threat frontman and Dischord Records founder Ian MacKaye was understandably pissed, and Nike hurriedly launched into its sandbagging/tapdancing routine.
Because of the album's strong imagery and because our East Coast tour ends in Washington DC, we felt that it was a perfect fit. This was a poor judgement call and should not have been executed without consulting Minor Threat and Dischord Records.
A lame apology isn't enough. This is roughly comparable to a trial lawyer making an outrageous statement in court, knowing it will be objected to by opposing counsel, with the judge upholding the objection, having the statement purged from the record and instructing the jury to disregard the statement. But the jury still heard the statement, which will inevitably influence their verdict.
Nike put this cover art out there, knowing full well they had no right to use it, and then apologized when the copyright holder objected. But not until the ad was exposed to Nike's skateboard customers, who will now, consciously or subconsciously, associate Nike with Minor Threat, an association which MacKaye clearly and understandably objects to vehemently.
Dischord Records spokesperson Alec Bourgeois told MTV.com that MacKaye and the other members of Minor Threat are still planning to meet to consider their legal options.
So sic 'em, Ian. Sue them until they bleed millions of dollars in damages and beg for mercy.
(Via Boing Boing.)
At Gapers Block, Alice Maggio offers up some vintage Chicago humor. Believe it or not, there are a few of these I hadn't heard before.
The Pope, Richard Nixon and Mayor Daley in are in a lifeboat, lost at sea. Unfortunately, they only have enough drinking water for one person. The three of them decide to vote to determine who should get the water. They vote, and Daley wins 6 to 2.
Q: What's orange and sleeps six?
A: A streets and sanitation truck.
Q: How do you keep a bear out of your back yard?
A: Put up a goal post.
Q: What three streets in Chicago rhyme with vagina?
A: Paulina, Melvina and Lunt.
My brother-in-law's sister told me that last one when I was in junior high. I was quite impressed.
Chicago's Lit 50 2005
I've been remiss in mentioning this, but Newcity Chicago recently published its annual "Lit 50" list, their compendium of "the movers and shakers in Chicago's book world." Many familiar and worthy names here, of course, and I particularly applaud the inclusion of venerable publisher Ivan R. Dee and Eric Kirsammer, owner of Quimby's and Chicago Comics. Below is the condensed list; follow the link to read Newcity's bios for each honoree.
1. John Barr - President, The Poetry Foundation
2. Oprah Winfrey - Billionaire Tastemaker
3. Studs Terkel - Author and Civic Treasure
4. Mary Dempsey - Commissioner, Chicago Public Library
5. Scott Turow - Author
6. Jeffrey Eugenides - Author
7. J.M. Coetzee - Author
8. Chris Ware - Graphic Artist/Novelist
9. Mark Strand - Poet
10. Elizabeth Taylor - Literary Editor, Chicago Tribune
11. Steven Levitt - Author and Rogue Economist
12. Roger Ebert - Film Critic
13. Ira Glass - Radio Host, This American Life
14. Audrey Niffenegger - Author
15. Christian Wiman - Editor, Poetry magazine
16. Bill Zehme - Biographer
17. Peter Kuntz - Acting President, Chicago Humanities Festival
18. Linda Dimaggio - District Manager, Borders
19. Donna Shear - Director, Northwestern University Press
20. Aleksandar Hemon - Author
21. Garry Wills - Author and Historian
22. Debi Morris - Barbara's Bookstore
23. Kenneth Clarke - Executive Director, The Poetry Center
24. Brad Jonas - Co-Owner, Powell's Books
25. Stuart Dybek - Author
26. Alex Kotlowitz - Author
27. Milt Rosenberg - Radio Host, Extension 720
28. Haki Madhubuti - Poet and Publisher
29. Joe Meno - Author
30. Elizabeth Crane - Author
31. Elizabeth Berg - Author
32. Alex Ross - Graphic Artist
33. Andrew Greeley - Author
34. Mark Suchomel - President, Independent Publishers Group
35. Ivan R. Dee - Publisher
36. Joseph Epstein - Author
37. Jim DeRogatis - Author and Music Critic
38. Sara Paretsky - Author
39. Curt and Linda Matthews - Publishers, Chicago Review Press
40. Randy Albers - Chair, Columbia College Fiction Writing Department
41. Victoria Lautman - Interviewer and Radio Host
42. Eric Kirsammer - Owner, Quimby's and Chicago Comics
43. Ted C. Fishman - Author
44. Dan Sinker - Founder and Editor-in-Chief, Punk Planet
45. Jessa Crispin - Founder, Bookslut.com
46. Jack Cella - General Manager, Seminary Co-op Bookstore
47. Ann Christopherson and Linda Bubon - Owners, Women and Children First Bookstore
48. Sam Weller - Author
49. Keith Michael Fiels - Executive Director, American Library Association
50. Barb Slotten - Director, Printers Row Book Fair
Strike the Bell and Bide the Danger
Two particularly meaningful quotations from Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times:
“Maybe you can’t control when inspiration will strike, but there is something to be said for the discipline of showing up so that when it comes around you’ll be there waiting.”
--Dan Kennedy (from "Welcome. Grab A Broom.")
Make your choice, Adventurous Stranger
Strike the bell and bide the danger
Or wonder, till it drives you mad
What would have followed if you had.
--C.S. Lewis (from "As We Mean to Go On," by Kelley Eskridge and Nicola Griffith)
I'm very much taking these passages to heart, and am putting all short story writing on hold for the next few months. I've been neglecting my novel, Eden, for far too long, and need to focus my energies on developing it further. I just know there's a good story in there, but it needs a lot more work.
So I'm striking the bell and biding the danger. No, Julie, I'm not quitting my job to work on the novel full-time. (You may exhale now.) Instead, I'm pledging to work on the novel every single day. I'd hate to look back in twenty years and regret having never seen the story through to fruition.
"We don't want to take responsibility."
Jonathan Schell has a very thought-provoking article ("The Exception Is the Rule") in the 7/4/05 edition of The Nation. (The article is published online in its entirety at TomDispatch.com [scroll down], with further commentary from Tom Engelhardt.)
The American press often discusses the political makeup of the insurgency, but no one until now has suggested that some of the very forces being trained by the United States might be longing for the return of Saddam. To the extent that this is the case -- or that these forces are otherwise opposed to the occupation -- the United States, far from improving "security," is now training the future resistance to itself. Indeed, the soldiers of Charlie Company (U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces) told Shadid and Fainaru that seventeen of them had quit in recent days. They added that every one of them planned to do the same as soon as possible. Their reasons were simple. They were bitter at the United States. "Look at the homes of the Iraqis," one soldier remarked. "The people have been destroyed." When asked by whom, he answered, "Them" -- and pointed to the Americans leading the patrol.
As Schell points out, this wasn't a case of the Washington Post journalists cherry-picking interviewees with an axe to grind: "Charlie Company was selected by the U.S. Army itself, presumably eager to put its best foot forward." This is apparently the best unit the Army could offer, and even they're not working with us to bring stability to Iraq.
So much for Bush's argument that we'll soon get Iraqi security forces adequately trained, with democracy replacing anarchy in Iraq and peace flourishing, and U.S. troops can safely be withdrawn. That argument can be shelved alongside visions of ecstatically grateful, flower-strewing Iraqis and public parks in Baghdad being renamed in honor of George Bush, Glorious Liberator.
Evil minds that plot destruction...sorcerers of death's construction...
Journalist Russ Baker offers the rationale for Bush being so hellbent for invading Iraq.
"(Bush) was thinking about invading Iraq in 1999," said author and Houston Chronicle journalist Mickey Herskowitz. "It was on his mind. He said, 'One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander-in-chief.' And he said, 'My father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait and he wasted it.' He went on, 'If I have a chance to invade…, if I had that much capital, I'm not going to waste it. I'm going to get everything passed that I want to get passed and I'm going to have a successful presidency.'"
Bush apparently accepted a view that Herskowitz, with his long experience of writing books with top Republicans, says was a common sentiment: that no president could be considered truly successful without one military "win" under his belt.
Okay, George, fine--we'll call it a win. You're a great President and commander-in-chief. You will have eternal fame and glory for your strong and decisive leadership. Is that enough ego-stoking for you? Can we end the war now?
Upton Sinclair Honored
Chicago's Union Stockyards Gate has been honored as a literary landmark by Friends of Libraries U.S.A. The gate is the last vestige of the city's former stockyards which served as the unforgettable setting of Upton Sinclair's landmark novel The Jungle.
"The monument that we honor today, in the broad sense, is the spirit of the people and particularly the literary monument that Upton Sinclair has left us, which will withstand the winds of time even when the physical monuments have turned to sand," said Saulius Kuprys, president of the Lithuanian American Council.
What's this, then? Honoring a rabid socialist who excoriated the monied elite and their supposedly inhuman and heartless pursuit of their birthright profits? Were the authorities notified? The appropriate arrests have already been made, I presume?
Ian McEwan, Saturday
I just finished reading Saturday, and thoroughly, completely enjoyed it. I doubt if I can add any insightful commentary to the volumes that have been written about this great novel, but let me just say this. I was four pages from the end when my train pulled into the station yesterday morning, and I hurried upstairs and found a seat in the adjacent office plaza where I promptly devoured the last four pages. There was no way I was going to wait for my evening ride home to finish the book. That's how much I enjoyed it.
"Couldn't put it down!" is usually just a hoary old critic's cliché, but in this case it's entirely appropriate.
Old story, new story. Last year I wrote a brief 660-word piece called "Freewheeling" that consisted primarily of a conversation between a rabid music fan narrator and the frontman of his favorite band. It was promptly declined by both Drexel Online Journal and 3 A.M., for which I should have hardly been surprised. It was dialogue and not much else. I simply let the story languish and moved on to numerous other projects, almost completely putting it out of my mind.
Then on Saturday, I was at the Joliet Public Library leafing through back issues of Punk Planet when I discovered that the esteemed magazine publishes a short (less than 1,500 words) fiction piece in each issue. (I should have thought of this much sooner, especially since they're now an imprint of Akashic Books with four titles in print, most notably Joe Meno's Hairstyles of the Damned.) And it clicked--here was a punk/indie bible looking for short fiction, and here was me with this half-baked short piece about punk rock fandom. So the other day I fleshed out the story, nearly doubling its length and adding backstory on the narrator which explains much of his mindset from the original version. I just mailed it off to Punk Planet. The story is nothing earth-shattering, but it has its moments--and if anybody is going to publish it, it's them.
I recently burned a CD from the second disc of the anniversary reissue of Pavement's Slanted and Enchanted. (Don't sic the lawyers on me, Matador. I already own the original and there's no way I would have bought the reissue anyway.) I'm staggered at the depth of quality music Pavement was putting out during the early 1990s. As if the monumental albums Slanted and Enchanted and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain weren't enough, even the B-material represented here was extremely strong.
This disc has the entire Watery, Domestic EP, the "Sue Me Jack"/"So Stark (You're a Skyscraper)" seven-inch, the brilliant "Greenlander" from the Born to Choose benefit compilation (also quite worthy, if you can find it), two tunes from a 1992 John Peel session, "All My Friends" (actually from the Crooked Rain reissue, copped from an authorized online MP3), and six live tracks from a great 1992 London show that really makes me regret I never saw the band play live.
"Frontwards" (from Watery) already happens to contain one of my favorite Pavement lines:
I've got style
Miles and miles
So much style
That it's wasting
Wow, wow, wow.
My Own "French" Bookstore Jaunts
Inspired by Golden Rule Jones' recent "English Bookstores in Paris" post, I herewith present my own bookstore tour of some other great French cities--Detroit, Champaign and (of course) Joliet.
The Used Book Store (Champaign, IL)
In the basement of the University YMCA, at 1001 S. Wright Street. I can't even guess how many hours I spent haunting this wonderfully crypt-like store. No windows, dimly lit and with just the right amount of mustiness that a used bookstore needs. The owner/sole employee sat at a table by the door, nearly hidden behind stacks of books either coming or going. I never learned his name, but will always admire his perserverance. There was never more than one other customer there at the same time I was. How he made a living at this will forever remain a mystery.
Acres of Books (Champaign, IL)
At 614 E. Green St. in Campustown. More commercial and higher-profile than The Used Book Store (windows! greeting cards! adequate lighting! old wood paneling in the front room on the second floor!) and thus enjoying less of a subversive and hidden-treasure feel, Acres none the less had a marvelously broad selection of titles. It was the only bookstore I've ever seen with a section specifically devoted to Scandinavian literature. Having taken several Scandinavian lit classes at U of I, I giddily backfilled most of my Hamsun and Lagerkvist collections here--unlike my classmates and their predecessors, apparently, who must have eagerly unloaded their required-reading titles on their way home from the final exam.
John K. King Used and Rare Books (Detroit, MI)
This is the most physically overwhelming bookstore I've ever come across. A four story warehouse. Whoa was my first impression. At the time I visited, in 1989, I had been searching for months, in vain, for a used copy of Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry. Not only did King have the book, they had an entire shelf of Sinclair Lewis. I picked up both Elmer Gantry and a hardcover copy of Tarjei Vesaas' hard-to-find Palace of Ice. I can honestly say that King Books is the only reason to visit the City of Detroit.
Book Market (Joliet, IL)
Unlike the other stores whose current status I'm unaware of (I'm almost positive both Champaign stores are defunct), Book Market continues to survive in its quiet, unassuming way. They have clearly been able to do so by catering to mainstream tastes, with shelf after shelf of romance and science fiction novels. But as I mentioned previously, there's good literary fiction mixed in with the rabble, along with some rarities. (I practically drooled after a vintage copy of Jim Thompson's Pop. 1280 before finally reading the jaw-dropping price.) And most tantalizing of all are the boxes of books stacked behind the counter, almost all the way to the ceiling, all of them in limbo. They may or may not ever find their way to the shelves. Who knows what treasures may lurk within?
A Comics Milestone
From Today in Literature:
George Herriman's "Krazy Kat" comic strip debuted on this day in 1910. Gertrude Stein and Picasso got together every week to chuckle, and many other ex-pats (Joyce, Hemingway, Fitzgerald) are on the record for being fans. Kerouac saw the comic strip as "an immediate progenitor of the Beat Generation" and Umberto Eco thought it reached the level of "a genuine state of poetry, an uninterrupted elegy based on sorrowing innocence." And E. E. Cummings saw the agon between the brick-throwing mouse and the dutiful dog as a coin-toss for the times:
"Ignatz Mouse and Offissa Pupp are opposite sides of the same coin. Is Offissa Pupp kind? Only in so far as Ignatz Mouse is cruel. If you're a twofisted, spineless progressive (a mighty fashionable stance nowadays) Offissa Pupp, who forcefully asserts the will of socalled society, becomes a cosmic angel; while Ignatz Mouse, who forcefully defies society's socalled will by asserting his authentic own, becomes a demon of anarchy and a fiend of chaos. But if — whisper it — you're a 100% hidebound reactionary, the foot's in the other shoe. Ignatz Mouse then stands forth as a hero, pluckily struggling to keep the flag of free will flying; while Offissa Pupp assumes the monstrous mien of a Goliath, satanically bullying a tiny but indomitable David."
I've long admired Herriman and "Krazy Kat," which has the most tenuous of relationships to my writing--my most recent story, "The Fixer", is told from the perspective of a cartoonist whose work is heavily influence of Herriman. (Actually, a more accurate assessment would include the words "borrows liberally" or even "larceny.")
Mighty Casey Has Struck Out
My story "Mighty Casey" (based on Ernest Lawrence Thayer's poem "Casey at the Bat") has been declined by Elysian Fields Quarterly, which said although it was a "clever idea", "the execution didn't quite work for us."
Now I'm kind of stuck. This is highly specialized genre fiction, and I don't know of any other literary-type periodicals that publish baseball-related fiction. If anybody has any suggestions, please let me know.
Here's Maddie, wearing Julie's latest knitting creation. Oh my, she's growing up so fast. I'm one proud papa.
I just finished a new story, "The Fixer." This story will always have special meaning for me, but not (as I explained previously) because it has any basis whatsoever in my personal life.
I started writing the story back in January specifically for The First Line (required opening line: "Life would be so much easier if I were a cartoon character."). I was facing a January 31 submission deadline, and was scrambling to get it finished when, on the 24th, I got the sudden phone call that told me my dad was slipping away fast. I caught the next train home and was able to be with him when he passed away, for which I will always be grateful. But everything in my personal life, writing and otherwise, immediately went on hold and I inevitably missed the TFL deadline. I didn't revive the story until April, and finished my final revisions this morning and submitted it to three literary journals. The story I ultimately ended up with is far better that what I would have had back in January, when I was writing in such a rush.
So even though the narrative doesn't at all pertain to him (or me), whenever I think about "The Fixer" I'll remember my dad. This one's for you, buddy. Happy Father's Day.
Story a Day, Or Every Two Days, Or...
Well, my Story a Day project, though formulated with sincerity and the best of intentions, has already gone awry. I'm already two days behind, and next up is a 20+ page Saul Bellow story that I probably won't finish before tomorrow at the earliest. (I've been trying to accomplish this mission without interrupting my usual reading regimen or sacrificing precious sleep.) After Bellow, I'll be at least four days behind, with 99 stories remaining to be read. Something has to give.
So, a new vow: I'll finish the entire Norton Anthology of Short Fiction by the end of 2005. Which should be attainable, or much more so than reading a story a day.
Story a Day
No, it's not another one of my ridiculously harebrained writing projects, like trying to write 20 2,500-word short stories in one month during last year's NaNoWriMo. (For the record, all I got out that effort was two finished stories and two partial stories, plus plenty of relaxation.)
Instead, for some reason I've decided it would be a great idea to read the entire Norton Anthology of Short Fiction (2nd Edition, 1981). I've been lugging the book around to various abodes since taking an undergrad lit course in the mid 80s, but hadn't cracked it open again until last night (June 8, 2005). My quixotic goal is to read one story a day until I've finished the whole anthology. I haven't counted how many stories are in there, but I'd guess it will take me the better part of the rest of 2005. (Update: There are 106 stories, which means I should finish on Sept. 21.) I'll update this post regularly with my progress.
(Note: Personal favorites are marked with an asterisk.)
6/8/05: Woody Allen, "A Giant Step for Mankind"
6/9/05: Sherwood Anderson, "The Egg" *
6/10/05: Sherwood Anderson, "I Want to Know Why"
6/11/05: James Baldwin, "Sonny's Blues" *
6/12/05: Honoré de Balzac, "A Passion in the Desert"
6/13/05: Donald Barthelme, "The Indian Uprising"
"...a Denmark kind of place..."
Recent transplant Jeffrey Eugenides (The Virgin Suicides, Middlesex) clearly loves the Cape Cod Room at the Drake Hotel. Leave it to the Tribune to profile a major author in the paper's dining section.
"I view [Chicago] as a Denmark kind of place. Cold, well-run--a clean, beautiful, pristine city where you can have a nice life and bring up kids and not have a lot of stress. After living in Europe, Chicago reminds me of some of those cities...I came here in a lot of ways, probably, because of Saul Bellow's books and the Chicago that he conjured."
More accurately, Denmark without the pornography.
A Victory for Democracy!
If you fought against this egregious assault on our civil liberties in any way, whether through Reader Privacy or some other means, give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back.
House Votes To Curb Patriot Act
FBI's Power to Seize Library Records Would Be Halted
by Mike Allen, Washington Post
The House handed President Bush the first defeat in his effort to preserve the broad powers of the USA Patriot Act, voting yesterday to curtail the FBI's ability to seize library and bookstore records for terrorism investigations.
Bush has threatened to veto any measure that weakens those powers. The surprise 238 to 187 rebuke to the White House was produced when a handful of conservative Republicans, worried about government intrusion, joined with Democrats who are concerned about personal privacy.
One provision of the Patriot Act makes it possible for the FBI to obtain a wide variety of personal records about a suspected terrorist -- including library transactions -- with an order from a secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, where the government must meet a lower threshold of proof than in criminal courts.
Under the House change, officials would have to get search warrants from a judge or subpoenas from a grand jury to seize records about a suspect's reading habits.
Worst Escape Attempt, Ever
Priceless local story. The image of these three hapless fugitives scuttling two powerboats, and then trying to escape by rowboat and then by wading from island to island, just gives me the giggles.
I'm a huge fan of the writer, Joe Hosey, who does the police blotter column for the Herald-News. He writes in this great tongue-in-cheek, noir-ish style that never fails to bring me a grin. And he's surely the one who insisted on the descriptive word that appears at the end of the URL:
Escape Attempt Founders
By Joe Hosey, Joliet Herald-News
WILMINGTON TOWNSHIP — Three Farmington fugitives led police on a desperate, island-hopping chase along the Kankakee River Monday morning before the armed and dangerous dodgers were tracked down on a swampy spit of land.
Two of the three runners sustained injuries during their flight from the law and were treated at Silver Cross Hospital. One of these two also came out on the worse end of a tangle with a police dog.
All three — Daniel Nelson and Jeremy Ingram, both 22, and 19-year-old Jessica Mattson — were arrested and charged with possession of a stolen motor vehicle and three counts of theft. Nelson, the one who tried taking on the police dog, and Ingram, both received medical attention at Silver Cross, police said.
The Farmington felons also face burglary charges in Sangamon County, said Pat Barry, spokesman for the Will County Sheriff's Department.
The three drove north in a Chevy pickup truck stolen out of Sangamon County and have been staying in Motel 55 on Lorenzo Road for the past several days, Barry said.
They decided to head back south by water, Barry said, and drove the pickup to a riverfront residence on Cottage Road about 8 a.m.
The three grabbed a five-gallon can of gasoline from the garage of the residence and doused the interior of the truck. They did this not to torch the truck, a police source said, but to eradicate their fingerprints from its cab.
They then stole a Rinker motorboat from the house in a bid to shoot down to Peoria on the Illinois River, Barry said.
Unfortunately for the Farmington Three, they set out in the wrong direction and racked up the propeller on riverbed rocks. They then limped over to another Cottage Road residence where they started up a $500,000, 38-foot Baja cigarette boat and left the Rinker to drift in the river, police said.
The owner of the Baja, Stephanie Chrismanik, watched as the three loaded their bags from the Rinker to her boat and shouted at them before they roared away.
The Baja headed west toward the river bridge, then turned around and started back east, Chrismanik said. Police said they ruined the propeller of this boat on the rocky riverbed as well.
By now proving themselves less than masterful mariners, the Farmington crew beached the Baja and boarded a rowboat docked behind the Cottage Road home of Sam Cindrich.
Cindrich said he was reading the morning paper when he noticed two men and a woman getting in the rowboat, which belongs to a friend. He believed the friend was loaning the boat out but learned differently when he called to check. The friend then telephoned police.
The three headed across the river in the rowboat to Bardwell Island, an inhospitable piece of land about a mile and a half away.
Will County Sheriff's deputies, Illinois Conservation Police — who put a plane in the air — state troopers and Grundy County deputies set up an ever-tightening dragnet on the fugitives. A citizen reported sighting one of the three attempting to swim from Bardwell Island north to Grape Island and police, including a Will County tracking dog, continued the hunt.
The law, traveling in an airboat, pushed its prey eastward and the three swam and waded to smaller, satellite islands to evade capture. But this did not last long.
"They ran out of real estate," said conservation police Capt. Mark Simon.
Nelson resisted during capture and was bitten by the tracking dog, police said.
Police returned the three to the mainland where they were loaded into ambulances and the two men were taken to the hospital.
Police said the three were carrying a stolen rifle that they tossed in the water before they were caught. Divers were to hit the water today in an effort to recover the weapon, Barry said.
All three of the fugitives have checkered criminal pasts, a police source said. Nelson is on parole after serving a two-year prison bit on eight burglary convictions, along with charges of arson and possession of a stolen motor vehicle. Nelson did his crimes in McDonough, Peoria, Henderson and Fulton counties, according to Department of Corrections records.
Sangamon county police failed to respond to questions about the car theft rap on the three from Farmington.
Ed Rittof and his nephew Steve Rittof, who had gone to Wilmington to change the oil in their boat witnessed the aftermath of the capture and provided police with ice water.
"That's a scary feeling," Ed Rittof said of arriving to find his place crawling with cops. "You pull up and there's guys with guns."
Oprah and the Middlebrow
Julia Keller--who is probably the most insightful literary writer the Tribune has, although her essays inexplicably never appear in the Books section--incisively takes Oprah to task for abandoning the enjoyable "middlebrow" fiction of living, breathing authors in favor of the "classics" by the deceased greats.
The great unsung glory of Winfrey's original book club was its celebration of middlebrow literature, of authors such as Sue Miller, Wally Lamb and Maeve Binchy. "Middlebrow" is a vague term, an imprecise one, but most people have an instinctive understanding of its meaning: Books that are written to be read, books for which you grieve if you inadvertently leave them behind on your way out the door.
No one in the history of the world, I'll wager, ever said, "Darn it! I left `The Brothers Karamazov' on the hall table."
Who exactly are you trying to support, Oprah? Midlist authors struggling to make a living at a literary career? Or the estate heirs of Faulkner and others in the pantheon, along with the publishers of Cliffs Notes? My guess is that the latest book club selection--a three volume Faulkner set--will be, as Johnny Carson used to say, "Bomb-oooo!"
(The Trib requires site registration. If not already registered, use "firstname.lastname@example.org" to log on, with "noblurb" as the password. Thanks to bugmenot.com.)
Right Back At Ya, Sweetheart!
Published! (Er, Sort Of.)
I was just named a runner-up in the most recent Word Fugitive contest at The Atlantic. It's a regular feature at the magazine which invites readers to submit suggestions for a new word which describes an offbeat situation. I responded to their query for a word to describe "that dicey moment when you should introduce two people but can't remember one of their names."
My suggestion was nomstruck, which I thought invoked both the French word for "name" and the stricken feeling I get every time I encounter this situation, which is often. Other finalists were whomnesia, persona non data, nomenclutchure, notworking, mumbleduction, introdeduction, introdiction and ain'troduction, with the winner being Peter Gaffney of Los Angeles, who offered both introducking and introduping:
"If you weasel out of the situation by contriving to get someone else to provide the names, it's introducking. Introduping is giving the appearance of making an introduction without actually so doing."
Although I think my entry is as good as the winner's, I have to admit that I like whomnesia best of all.
Stephen Elliott, Happy Baby
That's what I said last evening upon finishing Stephen Elliott's impressive Happy Baby. Though the subject matter, particularly the scenes of S&M and drug use, is often quite disturbing, this book has an oddly uplifting quality to it. Elliott based the novel generously on his own childhood as a ward of the State of Illinois, and it's a tightly written adventure through group homes, juvenile detention facilities and ultimately the outside world, from the sex trade of Amsterdam to file-clerk hell in Chicago and on to a San Francisco bagel shop, before inconclusively ending in Chicago.
The book is expertly written in present tense, with the chapters presented in reverse chronological order, with both methods effectively presenting the story. The present tense makes the clear distinction between the not-so-bad now and the protagonist Theo's darker past. More importantly, the reverse chronological order lets the reader know upfront that Theo somehow managed to survive his various ordeals. Had the book been written in standard chronological order, midway through the book the reader could easily have abandoned it, not wanting to see things get any worse for Theo. But in reverse order, I saw that he survived, and continued reading, wanting to know how he became the way he turned out.
As I mentioned, the ending is inconclusive. Theo will again be running away ("...one more time. I've got one left in me.") towards an uncertain but not necessarily grim future. He's survived up to that point, over and over again, and he'll undoubtedly survive one more time. And he insists it will be the last time he runs away, and I couldn't help hoping he finally finds a place to settle down and find the love and inner peace that has always eluded him.
All in all it's just...
...another (rejection) slip on the wall.
River Styx politely declined my short story "Hope Café." No feedback from them, though it's one of the prettier rejection slips I've gotten thus far. Actually, the slips aren't on my wall, but in a neat pile on my dresser. Maybe someday, once I finally get published, I'll frame them and then hang it next to my "454" sign which lists all of employers that I contacted but who had no use for me during the two year chasm I endured between finishing grad school and finally hooking up with IBM back in 1995.
Almost all photoblogs have a contemporary feel - a product of the instant digital photography age. By contrast, bighappyfunhouse.com has the feel of a group photoblog that pulls the past into the present, with a jarring voyeuristic effect.
For years, Ron Slattery, a 40-year-old entrepreneur from Chicago, has scoured flea markets, garage sales and trash bins for old photos. Last year, he started putting them onto the Internet: vacation photos from the beach, snapshots of pets, family portraits at birthday parties.
The photos are anonymous, both the subjects and the photographers. At a time when we routinely browse photo albums on Snapfish and Kodak's gallery, there is something disquieting to see photos that were never meant to be public. His photos span from the late 1800's to almost the present - a mishmash of hairdos, fashions and photo quality throughout the decades. So far, he has put up more than 900 photos. He often wonders about the people shown, smiling and not, and where their lives took them after that instantaneous meeting with a lens.
In May, he received an e-mail message from a man who had found a picture of himself and a friend, who was wearing a Hello Kitty costume, on his site. The picture was taken in 1982 in Houston when the two men, then teenagers, were hired by someone to pass out balloons at the grand opening of an office supply store. "What is driving me CRAZY is this...How did you come across that photo?" the man wrote.
Kudos, Ron. Your site gives me my daily dosage of smiles.
(Link via Gapers Block.)
Stanley Kubrick, Photographer
The Tribune has a fine article on the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick (Dr. Strangelove et al). Mary Panzer relates the story of his early career as a photojournalist for Look magazine, in particular his 1949 collaboration with Irv Kupcinet, "Chicago City of Contrasts."
Like any good photographer, Kubrick had great reflexes. He knew just when to hit the shutter. Kubrick also had an uncanny ability to connect with his subjects, regardless of race, age or occupation. Through his photographs, we eavesdrop on the college kids flirting in the jazz club shadows, we share the suspense on the trading floor with a young trader, we watch the South Side kids watching out for each other.
There's a nice gallery of eight images, as well.
(The Tribune requires site registration. If not already registered, use "email@example.com" to log on, with "noblurb" as the password. Thanks to bugmenot.com.)
A while ago, I mentioned how many short story ideas had been generated from books I had read. Well, add another one to the list. Last October, I read Tinder Box: The Iroquois Theatre Disaster 1903, Anthony Hatch's gripping account of the Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago, in which over 600 people tragically and senselessly lost their lives. (My thoughts on the book are here, if you're interested.)
Reading Hatch's book last year immediately inspired me to write a few introductory paragraphs to a story, tentatively called "Mercy Day", which I promptly let languish as I focused on other writing projects. Recently I was thinking of posting the fragment online and just leaving it at that, but when I opened up the file today I realized it had more potential than I previously thought.
And almost before I knew it, I had another nine hundred words written, from the perspectives of two different characters. I might be onto something here. We'll see.
You might have noticed that the "Recent Reads" section of my sidebar went on and on and on, far past the end of my last blog post. This unwieldly setup was due to the list including every book I've read since the beginning of 2004. I've rectified this mess by abbreviating the list to show just books read in 2005, with a new link ("READINGS 2001-05") at the bottom which takes you to a new list of everything I've read since the beginning of 2001, along with occasional commentary and Powell's links.
Or you might not have noticed at all, or did but didn't particularly care. If so, sorry to bother you. Dismissed.
I (Heart) Meetings
Recently, while flipping through one the numerous legal pads that litter my cubicle, I came across this pencil-written passage. Presumably I wrote it while the meeting was still in progress.
To them it was a meeting, just part of corporate protocol and a means of convincing themselves that open lines of communication existed in the organization. But for me it was nothing more than an hour of my life wasted, burned away, that I would never get back.
Corporate life can be such a carnival sometimes.
Real Life as Fiction
Susan Cheever, daughter of the late John Cheever and a well-respected memoirist, is interviewed in the new issue of The Writer's Chronicle. For a non-fiction writer, she has some very interesting thoughts on the merits of fiction writers drawing upon real life for their subject matter, most notably the effect on the writer's family.
My father and his generation of writers absolutely stonewalled that question. They said, "This is fiction. Anytime you connect with so-called real life, you're diminishing it. This is my transcendent vision. This is my dream which I created." If you say, "Yes, but my mother has that shirt," you shatter the dream. You're doing a terrible thing.
When I was writing fiction, I was pretty careful of the people who might have thought that I was writing about them. Much more careful than my father was. But again, he came from a generation where you were allowed to say, "Hey! It's art!" In my generation you're not allowed to say, "Hey, It's art." They say, "Yes, but that is my shirt." I don't want to take credit for the moral high ground here, but I wouldn't have done what he did; but then, I couldn't have--so it's easy for me to say, right?
When writing about my children...I prefer to write nonfiction. My father wrote the story called "The Hartleys" in which a little girl--who's obviously me--goes on a family ski trip--which is in every detail the ski trip we took. The little girl gets killed in a ski tow. That, for me, was far more traumatic than if he'd written a nonfiction piece about that ski trip in which he talked about his fears for the little girl. To me, the fiction is much more dangerous, much more painful for the people who it may be based on, than nonfiction. In nonfiction, at least the writer has the obligation to tell what really happened. If my father had written nonfiction about my mother joining the League of Women Voters, well, couldn't have let that little boy die. He would have had to say, "I was afraid." So, in my family, being fictionalized has been ten million times more powerful. That's why, when a student says to me, "If I did this as fiction it wouldn't hurt the people so much," I say to them, "You are wrong. It will hurt them more. Because you as a fiction writer have more power."
It was a rather interesting coincidence to read Cheever's thoughts when I did, because just a few days before I let Julie read my latest story, "The Fixer." It involves a struggling cartoonist and his live-in girlfriend, and his being tempted to stray from her and be unfaithful. I asked Julie what she thought of the story, and her response was, "Yeah, about that. Do you have something to tell me?" I assured her, absolutely, unequivocally, that this was not the case. Pure, complete fiction. I also vowed to never work our relationship into my fiction. Our relationship is ours and ours alone, and I would never exploit it for the sake of my writing. As much as I love writing, I love her infinitely more.
Cheever has taken the approach of getting her family's prior permission before publishing nonfiction accounts of their lives. Which, as a memoirist, she has no choice but doing, if she wants to keep her family intact. It's not as if she's intimately involved with a vast array of people that she can write memoirs about.
Fortunately, as a fiction writer I have the advantage of being able to write about any one of the hundreds of characters who are rattling about in my imagination, without resorting to writing about my family life under the thin guise of fiction, as John Cheever apparently did on a regular basis, to Susan's chagrin. I can write about the imaginary Mahalia Hopkins or Barton Falkner, without permanently damaging my relationship to them.
Susan Cheever doesn't have that luxury. Her family is her stock in trade. They are her characters.
The First Hoops Superstar
Basketball legend George Mikan, the dominant basketball player of the NBA's early years, has passed away at age 80. He was literally a local hero, growing up in Crest Hill and starring at Joliet Township High before moving on to DePaul where he lead the Blue Demons to the 1945 NIT championship. He went on to a stellar pro career with the Minneapolis Lakers, with the Associated Press naming him the best basketball player of the first half of the 20th century. He dominated the game to such an extent that he directly caused three innovations: the widening of the three-second lane (which didn't stop him; he had a 61 point game under the first season of the wider lane); the 24-second shot clock and the goaltending rule.
That marquee at the Madison Square Garden in the photo above says it all: "Geo Mikan Vs. Knicks."
But by all accounts he was a humble, gracious man. This item, related today by the Joliet Herald-News, is particularly telling:
But despite the many accolades, Mikan in his later years considered his 2003 induction into the Joliet Area Sports Hall of Fame to be his greatest honor.
"He told me, 'It's really nice to be remembered by your friends, even though I don't live in the area any longer,'" said Joe Mikan, his nephew and the former Will County executive.
His son Terry summed him up quite fondly.
"I've got one word that describes my dad, and that's kindness," Terry Mikan said. "Whenever he would make a toast at a family function, dad would ask us to raise our glass to kindness, and that's the type of man he was."
The house in which he had grown up, living his entire life with his father and mother and four younger siblings, no longer felt quite as much like home as before. It had become home to strangers; rougher, harder men than the family would have liked to associate with. Men who drank, swore, fought, casually uttered the Lord’s name in vain, these latter blasphemies being the closest they ever came to Church.
Under ordinary circumstances the family would have had nothing to do with these sort of men. But these times were hardly ordinary circumstances, and the family really had no choice.
Mother cleared away the last of the breakfast dishes from the long dining table, all except those which sat before a stray boarder who appeared to be in no hurry to get to the mill on time, dirty plates and flatware hoisted in her wiry hands as she turned toward the kitchen doorway. The pivoting door was just swinging closed; before it stood Michael in his wool overcoat which was patched in several places and fraying at the cuffs.
“It’s time for me to go,” he said.
“Yes,” she replied as unemotionally as she could. But Michael could see hints of moisture in the corners of her eyes.
“Train’s leaving soon.”
“Yes…Michael, I’m sorry it has to be this way. We don’t want you to go, none of us. Your father did everything he could down at the mill. You do know that, don’t you?”
Yes, his father. He had inquired about openings, anything, at the mill where he worked. But Father had preserving his own job to worry about without cashing in any favors for his son. As if he had any favors left to drawn upon. He had said his goodbyes the night before, eager to get to bed early and snatch a few more minutes of weary sleep before rising before dawn to hurry off again to work.
There was nothing for Michael here in Rockdale, nor up the river in Joliet. He had inquired everywhere—foundries, wallpaper mills, printing plants, the breweries that struggled to adapt to the early years of Prohibition. He had even taken the interurban trains to both ends of the line, to Aurora and Chicago Heights, with no success there either. The collar cities, all of them once minor industrial strongholds, seemed to have no work for an unskilled laborer, with skilled craftsmen being barely better off.
This was his last best hope.
Oh My, I'm A Tastemaker
Or some people are beginning to think so, anyway.
First, I'm a panelist/interviewee at the most recent edition of the LitBlogger E-Panel at Emerging Writers Forum. (Previous editions are here, here and here.) Joining the ranks of such litblog luminaries as Maud Newton, Golden Rule Jones and George Murray et al is both a flattering and humbling experience.
Second, Basic Books has sent me review copies of three of their titles: Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times, Miriam Toews' A Complicated Kindness and Asne Seierstad's A Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal. And no strings attached, per Basic's David Shoemaker:
I feel like the neutrality of bloggers is becoming an increasingly contentious issue, and so I will say it, straight out: There's no obligation here. No pressure at all. We want good readers reading our books, and we feel like you're a reasonably good bet. So read these or don't, but don't feel bad about it either way.
I wouldn't have it any other way. Up until now, I haven't commented at length on a book unless I really liked it and had something insightful to say. And I don't intend to change that stance.
Next stop, literary gadfly? I shudder to the depths of my lonely introvert soul.
Steve Almond's Happiness
Powell's collared the ubiquitous Steve Almond for a brief sitdown at Ink Q&A.
What is your idea of absolute happiness?
Eating a well-engineered piece of chocolate, in bed, with my lady, naked, having written something of worth earlier in the day.
I get the feeling he experiences this absolute happiness on a regular basis. Sure, Steve, go right ahead and gloat.
Pär Lagerkvist, "Guest of Reality"
Pär Lagerkvist's lovely short story "Guest of Reality" (included in The Eternal Smile) is an extended meditation on faith and death, as the young boy Anders struggles with his family's timeworn faith and faces death for the first time, that of his aged grandmother. She lives on the family farm in her ancestral country parish, a modest train ride away from Anders' home in a small town.
In the winter, after she'd had to take to bed, the old woman slowly dwindled away. She left them gradually, no longer saw them so clearly and couldn't quite follow when they talked to her. She couldn't follow the work on the farm either; sometimes she asked, wanted to know about this or that, but when they told her it was if she hadn't heard. Once, one evening, she'd asked where she was. And when they told her she was in the little side room she was astonished; she'd thought the room was a lot bigger.
They wrote and told them things of this kind in the note that came with the milk. It came early every morning with a few lines from them. It was a cold winter and the note was always frozen; Mother had to breathe on it before she could unfold it without spoiling the writing. She went out more and more often, and towards the end she stayed there. She and the old man, her father, were the ones who always kept watch by the dying woman. He sat over by the window and read out of the Bible. She looked after her, crept quietly in and out of the door, bent down to hear when she whispered what she wanted. The old man could no longer hear her. But she whispered to Mother that she could hear what he read. So he sat there all the time and went on. The snow lay in drifts high up against the windows; in other places the earth was bar and several fruit trees were killed by the frost that winter.
All the children went out there one evening to say goodbye to her, but she couldn't really distinguish them. A few days later Mother wrote with the milk that it was over.
Anders felt it almost as a relief. His brothers and sisters talked about Grandmother the whole day, what she'd been like that time and the other--often from a long time back--what she'd said that time, how early she always had to get up in the morning, what bread twists she could bake, how she looked after her flower beds, her peonies, how as a girl she'd once got lost in the woods and had to turn her jacket inside out--about everything. Anders kept joining in eagerly. He could remember, too--yes, ever so much, ever so much! He talked, he remembered--and whenever the talk went on, in the kitchen, in the living room, there he would be. He was glowing with eagerness and his eyes shone...It was as if she were alive again.
It's said that someone who has died still continues to live as long as they are remembered by those who survive, as well as future generations who are told of that person's life. I firmly believe that.