Chicago Fiction 2005
Following up her fine recap of 2005 Chicago nonfiction (that which so threatens to elevate my to-read pile), Gapers Block's Alice Maggio weighs in with her fiction list. Here are the ones which most pique my interest:
Kevin Guilfoile, Cast of Shadows
C.J. Hribal, The Company Car
Billy Lombardo, The Logic of a Rose: Chicago Stories
Joe Meno, Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir
Audrey Niffenegger, The Three Incestuous Sisters
Luis Alberto Urrea, The Hummingbird's Daughter
Andrew Winston, Looped
I saw Meno's book at the bookstore recently. The book is quite lovely, and square in shape--an homage to 45 RPM record sleeves. Meno, a music fanatic, really wanted it to be 7x7 inches, which apparently wasn't feasible from a binder's standpoint, so they had to go with a slightly smaller size. Still, it's a very unique package, not to mention the cool throwback cover design.
A War of Words
You know, if the Defense Department devoted enough attention to the Iraq war effort as they do to semantics, we might not be in such a mess over there.
Don't call it an 'insurgency': Rumsfeld
Tue Nov 29, 2005 04:29 PM ET
By Will Dunham
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld argued on Tuesday that the guerrillas fighting U.S.-led foreign forces and the American-backed government in Iraq do not deserve to be called an "insurgency."
Asked at a Pentagon news conference why he did not think the word insurgency applied to enemy forces in Iraq, Rumsfeld said he had "an epiphany."
"I've thought about it. And, over the weekend, I thought to myself, you know, that gives them a greater legitimacy than they seem to merit," Rumsfeld said.
Rumsfeld instead referred to the guerrillas in Iraq as "the terrorists" and "the enemies of the government." U.S. military statements also have referred to insurgents as "anti-Iraqi forces."
Come to think of it, let's start calling all those casualties "soldiers in transition" instead.
Notable Books, Mostly Unnoted
Like Jessa, perusing the NYT's 100 notable books of 2005 makes me realize that I too might have to give up my "lit blogging credentials." I might also have to give up any and all pretensions of being "well-read." I've only read one of the books on the list, Ian McEwan's Saturday. And, as if that isn't pathetic enough, there's only eleven others that I have a strong interest in reading:
Thomas Kelly, Empire Rising
E.L. Doctorow, The March
Gabriel García Márquez, Memories of my Melancholy Whores
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum
John Banville, The Sea
Kenneth Ackerman, Boss Tweed
Jared Diamond, Collapse
Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, Freakonomics
Ron Powers, Mark Twain
Tom Reiss, The Orientalist
I guess this means I wouldn't move particularly easily through Manhattan's literary circles. I'd be the awkward guy at cocktail parties, wearing a plaid shirt and ten-year-old brown shoes, standing there dumbfounded amidst weighty discussions of Banville versus Ishiguro and abruptly saying "Hey, did anybody see 'Prison Break' this week?," followed by embarrassed dead silence, followed by me stammering "Excuse me, I think I'll go get another drink" and bolting out of the building without bothering to retrieve my overcoat.
Why Does Lit Got To Be So Sad?
Over at The Bright One, Marianne Goss (a Joliet native!) writes of her struggles to find literary fiction that isn't all gloom and doom.
Why is it that someone who presumably loves to read fiction has been having trouble finding novels she wants to read?
Could it be because literary fiction--the term used to distinguish serious fiction from the commercial variety--is often grim? Consider, for instance, the overriding element in some selections of my book group: Suicide in Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar and Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road. A lonely death in Balzac's Pere Goriot. Cynicism in Voltaire's Candide and Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts. Brutality in Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. Perversion in Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. Bleak satire in Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust. Alienation in Albert Camus' The Stranger. Even a novel by Barbara Pym--an author who was my suggestion and whose novels are considered high comedies--left me feeling sad about the underlying loneliness of her characters.
"Literary fiction," says a Web site I came across as I was searching for some possibly upbeat titles, "rarely has a happy ending." When did this become literary dogma?
So, how about it, gentle readers? Any suggestions of uplifting literary fiction? If I get enough good suggestions, perhaps I'll gather them up and forward them to Ms. Goss.
Herbert Asbury, The Gangs of Chicago
Herbert Asbury's The Gangs of Chicago: An Informal History of Chicago's Underworld is a fascinating account of Chicago's most notable criminal elements, from the city's 1830s inception as a desolate prairie outpost through 1931, when Al Capone was convicted of tax evasion, thus effectively bringing the Chicago mob's Roaring Twenties heyday to a close. (Ending the heyday, but not eliminating the mob entirely, of course.) The book was originally published in 1940, with the rather ironic title Gem of the Prairie. The renaming of the Thunder's Mouth Press reissue was clearly meant as a tie-in to The Gangs of New York, the Scorcese film which was based on Asbury's similar NYC crime survey; however, it's unclear why the reissues of Asbury's San Francisco and New Orleans surveys, The Barbary Coast and The French Quarter, weren't similarly renamed.
Asbury provides exhuastive detail on the colorful personalities from the first 100+ years of Chicago's underworld, as well as the districts where vice was allowed--either officially or unofficially--to flourish, as well as the quixotic moral crusades which endlessly fought to shut them down. Interestingly, to Asbury's credit, he devotes no more than 40 of the books's 374 pages to Capone, who was by far the best-known Chicago hoodlum. In fact, Asbury doesn't even glorify Capone, as he does numerous other mobsters; in fact, as Perry Duis points out in his introduction, "Asbury credits Johnny Torrio (Capone's predecessor) with being the organizational genius who turned bootlegging into a massively profitable business, while dismissing Al Capone as a ruffian who substituted brutal force for intelligence." And yet, Capone somehow comes across as a mildly sympathetic character, one who became a prisoner to the very empire he helped create:
On the night of his arrest (in 1929) Capone told Major Lemuel B. Schofield, Philadelphia's Director of Public Safety, that he had been trying to retire for two years. "But once in the racket," he said, "you're always in. I haven't had peace of mind for years. I never know when I'm going to get it. Even when I'm on a peace errand I must take a chance on the light going out. I have a wife and an eleven-year-old boy I idolize, at Palm Island, Florida. If I could go there and forget it all, I would be the happiest man in the world. I want peace, and I'm willing to live and let live. I'm tired of gang murders and gang shootings."
Of course, it was the lack of peace, all of those gang murders and gang shootings that he ordered, that brought him the immense wealth and power that he enjoyed for many years. Though it's obviously very self-serving for him to say, after gaining all that wealth and power, that he suddenly wanted out of the whole dirty business, it's still somewhat poignant to see that he knew he'd never escape. The book's only drawback is that, in adopting a biographical, personality-based focus, Asbury the journalist fails to present his otherwise fascinating information into a larger sociological context. As a result, the book comes across as largely anecdotal, without an overriding sense how Chicago vice and society as a whole impacted each other. This is a weakness that Duis notes as well:
History built on the deeds of a series of individuals tends to be episodic and to ignore long-term trends and similarities in different time periods; Asbury's (vice) innovators, then, generated change--not industrialization, immigration, communication, or a host of other social forces. Thus, while the book remains an excellent account for the popular reader, it is for the historan a detailed compilation of information on which to base interpretive ideas.
Overall, however, the lack of sociological context detracts little from the sheer enjoyability of Asbury's accounts of Chicago's most incorrigable characters, including wry gems like this one:
The name of Chicago's pioneer thief is now unknown, but a record of his wickedness remains--he stole thirty-four dollars from a fellow-boarder, one Hatch, at the Wolf Tavern, and was arrested by Constable Reed on a warrant issued by Justice Russell E. Heacock. He was taken at once to Reed's carpenter shop for examination, and the Justice held court sitting on the workbench. Since there was no state's Attorney to handle the prosecution, Hatch engaged John Dean Caton, afterward a noted judge, and the defendant employed Caton's partner, Giles Spring, who likewise became a well-known jurist and City Attorney as well. Despite Spring's objections, Caton compelled his partner's client to strip, and at length the stolen money was found wadded in the toe of the accused man's sock. The defendant was held for trial, which got under way next morning in the Wolf Tavern, "where the public could hear the young lawyers to the best advantage." After much argument and speech-making by counsel, the prisoner was found guilty, but was released on nominal bail pending action on a motion for a new trial. He promptly disappeared, thus establishing a precedent which has been followed more or less regularly in Chicago ever since.
The Gangs of Chicago is a must-read for students of Chicago history and anyone who, like myself, enjoys the guilty pleasure of witnessing the machinations of the criminal underworld.
20 Things to be Thankful For
Or for political progressives to be thankful for, anyway. From the Center for American Progress:
We're thankful for our country's troops.
We're thankful for Rep. Jack Murtha for showing us it's patriotic to speak your mind.
We're thankful for 90 Senators who stood up to Vice President Cheney to say that torture is not an American value.
We're thankful for 79 Senators who demanded the Bush administration detail a plan for Iraq.
We're thankful that Sen. Bill Frist is not our physician.
We're thankful for the generosity of Americans, who raised some $2.3 billion to help victims on the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina.
We're thankful all Americans can still rely on Social Security.
We're thankful for American Airlines, Verizon, and Nissan, who all agreed to Drop the Hammer.
We're thankful for Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald for conducting a "very serious" and "very dignified" investigation.
We're thankful for good friends.
We're thankful for the success of progressive talk radio.
We're thankful to the voters of Colorado for putting priorities like education, health care, and fiscal sanity over right-wing ideology.
We're thankful for autumn. Out West, where some PR readers vacation, the aspens will already be turning. They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them.
We're thankful Judy Miller won't be reporting on Iran's WMD program for the New York Times.
We're thankful we don't live in Samuel Alito's America...yet.
We're thankful for HorsesAss.org, for exposing (in such ironic fashion) ex-FEMA chief Michael Brown's checkered past at the International Arabian Horse Association.
We're thankful for Tai Shan, the National Zoo's newest celebrity.
We're thankful we're not Scott McClellan.
We're thankful for the residents of Dover, Pennsylvania for doing the right thing for their kids' education. (Don't listen to Pat, we've got your back.)
And last but not least: We're thankful to the Progress Report readers for their tips, energy and support.
Do yourself a favor for 2006 and beyond and subscribe to the Progress Report. Highly informative, and free.
NaNoWriMo: Day 20
Derailment struck last week on my NaNoWriMo mission. Though I doubled my word count during this second 10-day block, I was less than pleased with the results. It seemed like I had decent characters and somewhat of a vague theme, but virtually no plot. Plenty of long-winded conversations, often veering dangerously close to monologue. In short, I was in a rut and couldn't write my way out of it. So I imposed a four-day NaNoWriMo vacation (Thursday through Sunday) to hopefully recharge my creative batteries.
I resumed writing The Wheatyard Chronicles today on my morning train, trying to focus more on developing a plot. The results so far are modestly encouraging. I've lowered my goal to 30,000 words which, if attained, I'll be more than happy with. I'd rather finish November with the basic makings of a decent novel, rather than reaching some arbitrary word count. (If I really wanted the latter, I could easily monologue my way to 50,000 words.) It's not as if I'd get any pleasure from strutting around telling people I wrote a 50,000-word novel in one month. I'd much rather be able to tell them I've written something they might actually enjoy reading.
Fun at the Funhouse
"Yeah, Bob, I'm sure I saw a twenty dollar bill, way down in the bottom of this six-foot deep hole. You can see it if you lean way over...a little more...a little more...you DID name me beneficiary on that life insurance policy of yours, right? Good...a little more..."
In The Nation, David Cole has an excellent article ("Intolerable Cruelty") about the Bush Adminstration's opposition to the McCain Amendment which would comprehensively ban "cruel, inhuman or degrading" interrogation methods (in other words, torture). Recognizing the horrible perception that opposing the Amendment outright would generate, the Administration instead is seeking exclusions for both the CIA and "foreign nationals being held and interrogated abroad" when, of course, it's precisely the CIA's interrogations abroad that the McCain Amendment wants to bring under control.
These tactics ultimately undermine our security, as they impair our legitimacy and create ideal recruiting tools for the enemy. It is simply immoral to claim that we can inflict on other countries' nationals cruel and inhuman treatment that would not be tolerated if it were imposed on our own citizens.
If we are to prevail in the war on terror, we must do so by distinguishing ourselves from our enemy. Terrorism is a moral evil because to achieve its ends it brutally disregards the value of human life. Torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment are evil for the same reason.
Anyone who commits torture in the name of fighting terrorism is no better than the terrorists themselves. Bush clearly disagrees with that notion, pointing once again to the moral corruption of his ideology.
Chicago Nonfiction 2005
Over at Gapers Block, the ever-resourceful Alice Maggio recaps the best Chicago-related nonfiction titles of 2005. Below are the ones I'm quite interested in.
Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse, by Steve Bogira
Revealing Chicago: An Aerial Portrait, by Terry Evans
Another Way Home: The Tangled Roots of Race in One Chicago Family, by Ronne Hartfield
Chicagoland: City and Suburbs in the Railroad Age, by Ann Durkin Keating
Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy, by Louise Knight
Writers on the Air: Conversations about Books, by Donna Seaman
Big Bill of Chicago, by Lloyd Wendt and Herman Kogan
Fantastic...the pile just jumped another two feet in height. 2006 is already shaping up as a year of unprecedented hermitic unproductivity for me.
Do As We (Hypocritically) Say...
Remember: when Saddam used chemical weapons, it was a horrible, barbaric, unconscionable act which justified his ultimately being forcibly removed from power. Don't make us use force, Mr. Rumsfeld. Please depart quietly.
From the Center for American Progress:
IRAQ -- U.S. ADMITS TO USING CHEMICAL WEAPONS:
Reversing numerous prior denials, Pentagon officials said yesterday that white phosphorous was in fact "used as a weapon against insurgent strongholds during the battle of Fallujah last November." After first categorically denying any use of phosphorous, the Pentagon said months ago that the chemical was "fired into the air to illuminate enemy positions at night," but "not at enemy fighters."
But in the March 2005 edition of the Army's official Field Artillery Magazine, three Army artillerymen describe using phosphorous in Fallujah "for screening missions at two breeches and, later in the fight, as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spider holes when we could not get effects on them with HE [high explosives]. We fired 'shake and bake' missions at the insurgents, using WP [white phosphorous] to flush them out and HE to take them out."
The use of phosphorous was uncovered in part by a new Italian documentary which depicts "a series of photographs from Fallujah of corpses with the flesh burnt off but clothes still intact," which is reportedly "consistent with the effects of white phosphorus on humans." Washington Post defense analyst William Arkin said yesterday, "What I'm sure of is that the use of white phosphorous is not just some insensitive act. It is not just bad P.R. It is the ill thought out and panicked use of a weapon in an illegitimate way. It is a representation of a losing strategy."
5 Minute Writing: Gorgeous Orchid
Another "5 minute writing exercise" from C.M. Mayo, with my results further down:
Some websites offer free "clip art." Well, here's a free "clip line." It's a line of dialogue that I thought up. You can have it. Start writing.
"Oh," she said, touching his arm, "is that not the most gorgeous orchid?"
"Oh," she said, touching his arm, "is that not the most gorgeous orchid?"
He was hardly the type to appreciate orchids, or even roses for that matter. What he did appreciate, however, was knockouts like this one, especially ones that gently touched his arm. Her willingness to touch the arm of a complete stranger instilled in him the hope that she might be persuaded to touch more, shall we say, sensitive areas.
He didn't come to the botanic gardens every Sunday afternoon for the education, or to be around flowers. Instead he came to be around good-looking women who swooned over flowers, who thought orchids to be gorgeous. These types usually proved to be the most gullible.
"Why, yes, quite gorgeous indeed," he replied, in a voice whose diction and gentle tone were not at all his. "It reminds me somewhat of the heirloom variety I'm growing in my garden at home. Perhaps you'd like to see it sometime."
Exemplary Customer Service from Powell's
Today, I was quite pleased to receive this totally unexpected email from Powells.com:
i am really sorry to have to let you know that, as you semi-predicted in your blog posting of nov 7-
our wishlist did have a glitch, and in fact no one has purchased the Saul Bellow Library of America collection for you. i am so sorry!!! if you revisit your wishlist, you'll see we've reset it:
anyway, i wanted you to hear it from the embarrassed horse's mouth rather than just see it mysteriously revert (and assume some admirer had suddenly changed their minds or something!).
our apologies. please feel free to get in touch with me if you have any other questions or concerns.
thanks for your understanding!
director of web stuff
I thanked Darin for the initiative he took in identifying and fixing this problem. This excellent customer service is exactly the reason I prefer independent retailers like Powell's. I encourage everyone to patronize their site to, say, buy me that Bellow volume that I guess now I'm not getting.
Latest Publishing Attempt
Since I'm apparently not content to be just an unrecognized writer, I'm now trying to become an unrecognized photographer as well. South Loop Review is a creative nonfiction journal published by Columbia College Chicago which has solicited photo submissions for its upcoming issue, with a theme of "Journeys." Since I've never met a rejection slip I didn't like--in fact, I'm assembling quite a lovely collection atop my writing desk at home--I submitted this, this and this, all of which have travel connotations.
As always, I'm not holding my breath.
Big Jim O'Leary, Sporting Gent
One of Chicago's leading gambling house proprietors around the turn of the 20th Century was Big Jim O'Leary (who, incidentally, was also the son of "Mrs. O'Leary," she of Chicago Fire infamy). His resort was renowned for its lavish and sumptuous furnishings, first-rate accomodations and, apparently, for its fortress-like construction. From Herbert Asbury's The Gangs of Chicago: An Informal History of Chicago's Underworld:
In 1911, when he (O'Leary) talked of retiring and tried to sell his Halsted Street (gambling) house to Cook County for an emergency hospital, O'Leary told a newspaper reporter that he had never paid a dollar for protection. "I could have had all kinds of it," he said, "but let me tell you something. Protection that you purchase ain't worth nothing to you. A man who will sell himself ain't worth an honest man's dime. The police is for sale, but I don't want none of them."
Big Jim always boasted that his resort, with its massive iron-bound oaken door, steel plates in the outer walls, and inner walls of heavy oak covered with zinc, was "fire-proof, bomb-proof and police-proof." It did resist several attempts to burn it, and bombs planted near it during the gamblers' war of 1907 caused no damage, but the police frequently managed to gain an entrance by battering down the outer doors with axes and sledgehammers. Occasionally they arrested some of O'Leary's customers and bookmakers, but usually Big Jim was ready for them. Once when a detachment of policemen swarmed into the house they found the poolroom bare of all furniture except a plain kitchen table, at which sat an old man devoutly reading a prayer-book.
On another occasion O'Leary loaded his inner walls with red pepper, and when the police struck their axes into the zinc they were so blinded that for most of them hospital treatment was necessary. The eyes of three were so inflamed that they were off duty for a week.
Though he was a generally deplorable character, you still have to admire his brazenness and his ingenuity.
Crime and Punishment: Chicago
I came across this wonderful passage in Herbert Asbury's The Gangs of Chicago: An Informal History of Chicago's Underworld, regarding some, ahem, flexible punishment meted out to noted bootleggers Terry Druggan and Frankie Lake.
In 1924, for refusing to answer questions put to them by Judge James Wilkerson of the United States District Court, Druggan and Lake were sentenced to a year's imprisonment for contempt of court. Several months later a newspaper reporter called at the county jail to see Druggan, but when he asked for the gangster he was told:Presumably, Druggan and Lake were each sentenced to serve out the remainder of their terms, only this time as actual prisoners.
"Mr. Druggan is not in today."
"Then I'll talk to Frankie Lake," said the reporter.
"Mr. Lake also had an appointment downtown," the jailer said. "They will be back after dinner."
The dazed newspaper man returned to his office, and an investigation disclosed that both Druggan and Lake, in return for twenty thousand dollars in bribes, as they testified later, had been given extraordinary privileges. Supposedly incarcerated and treated the same as other prisoners, they had actually spent much more time in Loop restaurants and in their own luxurious apartments than in jail; they had been permitted to come and go as they pleased, and the death cell of the jail had been turned into a private office where they received their gangsters and issued their orders.
As a result of the exposures, Sheriff Peter Hoffmann and Jailer Wesley Westbrook were each sentenced to three months in jail for contempt of court.
Readers! Show Yourselves!
I'm always a bit perplexed when somebody leaves a comment on my blog or emails me for the first time, and says they've been reading my blog for a while. Makes me wonder how many people are reading my blog that I know nothing about. Lo and behold...riding to my rescue is:
Frappr is an interesting Google Maps application which shows who your readers are and where they're from. If you read my blog regularly and have a minute or two to spare, please click through the above link and leave your information. Thanks in advance!
Five-Minute Writing Exercise
Or ten-minute, in this instance. The writer C.M. Mayo publishes a daily writing exercise, which I recently discovered. I attempted my first exercise today, from this assignment:
Random 2 + 10
From any book or magazine, take 2 lines and 10 other words, all randomly chosen. Using this as your raw material, rearranging in any way, what can you write in 5 minutes?
From Joe Meno's short story "Happiness Will Be Yours", I randomly selected the following:
There are powdered sugar footprints everywhere in their place and always a few dozen miniature glazed donuts sitting in a bowl on the fridge.
Our dream is the thing that haunts me.
And here's what I came up with:
There are powdered sugar footprints everywhere in their place and always a few dozen miniature glazed donuts sitting in a bowl on the fridge. Ray and Marilyn are always making donuts at home, furiously baking and frying all night long and rarely pausing to take a breath, during those rare moments when they weren't at the bakery. For they spend most of their hours at the bakery, fighting for its survival in what had become an increasingly dire situation.
They are always struggling to find unique new recipes, anything that might help them compete with the ruthless assembly-line efficiency of the Dubious Donuts franchise just down the block. Deep down, they both believe they can succeed, despite all evidence to the contrary, that evidence illustrated most blatantly by the scrawny balance in their bank account, along with Ray's broken glasses--crudely duct-taped back into place--which they couldn't afford to replace. They had sacrificed good-paying jobs to pursue their dream, and now all they had to show for it were trays of sumptuous but unsold pastries underneath the counter, and photos on the back wall of all the well-wishers from the grand opening, three long years ago.
"Our dream is the thing that haunts me," Marilyn always says, and Ray always laughs with her.
I Dedicate This Next Song to Myself
Not sure what the above title  means other than a vague reference to narcissism, but the winter 2004/2005 issue of political/philosophical zine "The Die" published a letter (.pdf file, jump to page 3) I wrote regarding a Texas Republican student group's "watch list" of liberal professors. The list implicitly criticized professors who (in my own words) "use their classrooms to 'promote liberal agendas,' indoctrinate students, and fail to present 'opposing viewpoints' in their classes."
"The Die" is always a very interesting read. Editor Joe Smith now appears to be publishing the zine exclusively online due to budgetary considerations. The latest issue (#9) is now available online here, along with several previous issues.
 The line is a snippet of dialogue spoken by Michael Stipe during an R.E.M. live show, which Camper Van Beethoven spliced into the middle of "She Divines Water", on Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart.
Everyone's Favorite No-Bid Contractor
I guess screwing our soldiers in Iraq wasn't enough for Halliburton. Screwing U.S. taxpayers wasn't enough, either. No, Halliburton buggered its rank and file employees, as well.
An investigation of Halliburton Co.'s pension plan has found the company violated federal pension law, including charging some costs of Halliburton's executive pension and bonus plan to the workers' pension fund, according to a report published Friday.
A story in the online edition of the New York Times, citing correspondence from the Labor Department, reported Halliburton was required to pay more than $8.6 million to correct the violations. According to the Times story, the Labor Department concluded that Halliburton's actions violated federal pension law prohibitions against self-dealing and using pension money for the benefit of the company, as well as the requirement to handle pension money with "care, skill, prudence and diligence."
The documents show Halliburton replenished funds that were improperly withdrawn from the pension fund, made the affected individuals whole and paid an undisclosed tax penalty, the Times reported.
Two of the violations began while Vice President Dick Cheney was the company's chief executive. The third, which the Times reported involved the largest amount of money, took place after Cheney resigned in 2000.
But the question which is undoubtedly on all of our minds is this: Are Dick's stock options okay? Are they? Please tell us they're okay!
God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut
It's the birthday of Kurt Vonnegut Jr., born in Indianapolis, Indiana (1922). He's the author of many novels, including Cat's Cradle (1963), Hocus Pocus (1990) and, most recently, Timequake (1997).
His father forced him to go to college to study biochemistry, though he wanted to be a journalist. Vonnegut said, "[College] was a boozy dream, partly because of booze itself, and partly because I was enrolled exclusively in courses I had no talent for." He was failing almost all of his classes when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and he jumped at the chance to join the army and get out of school.
In December of 1944, Vonnegut was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. He was imprisoned in a slaughterhouse in Dresden, and forced to work in a factory producing vitamin-enriched malt syrup for pregnant women. On the night of February 13, 1945, British and American bombers attacked Dresden, igniting a firestorm that burned up the oxygen in the city and killed almost all the city's inhabitants in two hours.
It was more than twenty years later when he published Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), about a man named Billy Pilgrim who experiences the bombing of Dresden and loses his mind, believing he has traveled to an alien planet where time does not exist. Vonnegut said it was an anti-war book. But he also said, "Anti-war books are as likely to stop war as anti-glacier books are to stop glaciers." He has since become one of the most popular guest lecturers at universities across the country.
I just happened to be reading Slaughterhouse-Five right now. It's a good'un. One of my literary dreams is to have a long dinner with Vonnegut, Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn. Not that I'd have anything to contribute to the conversation, of course, other than enthusiastic nodding and long moments of gaping awe.
The Merchant Graveyard
At Gapers Block, Alice Maggio relates the sad fates of the legendary retailers whose founders are immortalized in sculpture at Chicago's Merchandise Mart. I encourge you to read the entire article, of course, but if you're pressed for time, here's a crib sheet:
Frank Winfield Woolworth, Woolworth's - Dissolved, 1997
Aaron Montgomery Ward, Montgomery Ward - Dissolved, 2000
Julius Rosenwald, Sears, Roebuck - Bought by Kmart, 2005
Robert Elkington Wood, Sears, Roebuck - Bought by Kmart, 2005
John Wanamaker, Wanamaker's - Bought by May, 1995, name abandoned, now owned by Federated
Edward Albert Filene, Filene's - Bought by Federated, name to be abandoned in favor of Macy's
Marshall Field, Marshall Field's - Bought by Federated, name to be abadoned in favor of Macy's
George Huntington Hartford, A&P - Still in business on the East Coast
1] A&P fans had better pray that Federated doesn't venture into the grocery business.
2] Can we get Sam Walton added to the pantheon?
NaNoWriMo: Day 10
I didn't have particularly high hopes for NaNoWriMo this year. I knew I'd never get to the 50,000-word goal, since I'm only writing on the train to and from work, and would be losing two workdays due to family medical needs, giving me only eighteen writing days for the month. More importantly, I had only a vague idea where the hell my story would lead. Beyond the protagonist's name (Elmer Glaciers Wheatyard) and general situation (eccentric, unpublished and possibly brilliant writer living in a farm town in Central Illinois), I didn't have much of anything. No major plot ideas, no overriding theme, no other characters, nothing.
So I just started writing, and voila: as of this morning I'm already up to 10,434 words, with hundreds surging out of me every day. Right now it's all very episodic (or, to use my favorite newly discovered word, picaresque), which I suppose is inevitable if you're writing on the fly, with no clear plot direction in mind. I'm just kind of writing scenes as they occur to me; I guess I'll get them all written down first, and then edit them into a more coherent form later. But so far I'm pretty pleased with my progress. Hopefully I can sustain the early momentum.
You can read excerpts from The Wheatyard Chronicles here (click on "See NaNo Stats & Read Excerpt"). I rather like the nifty Flash-based profile viewer they've added this year. It's cool to see the story excerpt in pseudo-book form.
Letter to the Editor (or Editor's Circular File)
I wrote a letter to the editor of the Joliet Herald-News a few weeks ago, protesting Congress' draconian budget cut proposal. Never heard back from them, but then they published this letter today which covers many of the same points, so I'm assuming they won't be publishing mine. Here's what I wrote:
October 21, 2005
I am strongly opposed to Congressional Republicans' plans to cut $50 billion from the federal budget under the guise of "offsetting" the cost of Hurricane Katrina reconstruction. Their plan to heavily cut funds for Medicaid, student loans, food stamps, pension guarantees and unemployment insurance will severely harm the very same everyday Americans that the Republicans are purporting to help, while--surprise!--again pushing through tax cuts which will primarily benefit the affluent.
Once again, the Bush Adminstration and Congressional Republicans are exploiting tragedy to promote their extreme ideological views. Once again, they are clearly demonstrating that they're only interested in serving the interests of a tiny fraction of the U.S. population.
Ms. Neff took the "local flavor" approach--imploring our local neanderthal Congressman to vote against the budget cuts which he's undoubtedly strongly in favor of--which apparently appealed to the paper more than my latest diatribe against Republican callousness.
Congrats to a Native Son
Senator Jon Corzine (D-NJ), a native of Willey's Station, Illinois and graduate of the University of Illinois, was easily elected Governor of New Jersey yesterday. (I'll forgive the "dirty" campaign, as that's unfortunately become standard electoral procedure.) He's one of our top liberal lights, and I couldn't be happier for him.
"We'll end insider deals and no-bid contracts and together we will restore the simple truth that public service is about serving the public," he vowed.
Fortunately, he's been in industry and in Washington long enough for this vow to not be just the naïve words of a hopeful idealist. A Democrat also won the governor's race in conservative Virginia, and voters in California soundly defeated four of Gov. Terminator's ballot initiatives.
Please, please tell me the tide is finally turning.
Literature, According to Forbes
Well, this certainly could have been a lot worse. When I saw that Forbes had published an article on "the ten literary writers whose work is having the greatest impact on our culture" I was expecting a capitalist puff piece which showered hosannas on Dan (The Human Bankroll) Brown and Warren Buffett's official biographer. But their choices pretty much hit the mark. In no particular order:
Jonathan Safran Foer
Not our ten greatest writers, obviously, nor the ten best-selling. But it's definitely reasonable to suggest that these ten are making the biggest impact on our culture right now.
There are, of course, also a number of authors with high earnings but lower literary esteem--so while Dan Brown, James Patterson and Anne Rice have kept us turning pages over the years, they didn't make the list.
Bravo to that! (Other than the rude insinuation that these three tycoons "have kept us turning pages", of course.)
New Boss, Same as the Old Boss
The newest name in lit podcasting just happens to be one of the oldest names in the lit blogging, Dennis Loy Johnson of MobyLives.com and Melville House Books. Today marks the first daily installment of MobyLives Radio (25MB MP3, 27:04), with Dennis' usual impeccable reportage of publishing industry news, plus "This Day in Literary History" (birthdate of Albert Camus) and an entertaining interview with columnist and critic David Kipen, who recently became the literature head at the National Endowment for the Arts.
Only 48 Shopping Days Left...
...for you to add to my precariously teetering to-read pile. I've already documented my considerable backlog of unread books, and am vowing not to buy more any time soon. (Or at least through December, anyway.) But that shouldn't stop you from feeding my addiction, if you're so inclined. Here's my wish list at Powell's. Unfortunately, Powell's doesn't allow you to rank your selections in order of preference like that monolithic virtual shopping mall (hint: starts with "A") does, so here are my top choices:
Laila Lalami, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits
Shalom Auslander, Beware of God: Stories
Benjamin Nugent, Elliot Smith and the Big Nothing
Joe Meno, Hairstyles of the Damned
Colin Meloy, The Replacements' Let It Be
Antonino D'ambrosio, Let Fury Have the Hour: The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer
By the way, unless there's a glitch in Powell's website, it looks like somebody already bought me the Saul Bellow Library of America collection. If you're that someone, thanks in advance!
"The Question of Kurdistan"
Yesterday's Sunday Tribune never arrived, which pissed me off at the time but turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Rather than read about the latest Illini football debacle or a mediocre book review section, I had the opportunity to read the latest issue of The Nation, cover to cover.
Christian Parenti wrote an excellent article, "The Question of Kurdistan", which indirectly calls into question whether there will ever truly be democracy in Iraq. Parenti's article describes a region which is rife with official corruption which is still largely ruled by feudal authorities. Clearly, Turkmen, Arabs and other minority groups who remain in Kurdistan (as either a semi-autonomous state or independent nation) will have little or no human rights under a Kurd-controlled government. And even individual Kurds themselves may find themselves powerless, particularly if they're on the wrong side of the KDP/PUK Kurdish political divide.
Presumably, the Bush junta already knew about this democracy-resistant sociopolitical climate when the decision was made to invade Iraq under the banner of spreading democracy. Presumably, they chose to ignore hard reality. Definitely and not just presumably, they erred.
Chicago Noir is a highly readable story collection which offers numerous fresh, inventive takes on the well-worn noir genre. While there's still plenty of moral ambiguities, cliffhanger plot twists and sudden acts of senseless violence for devoted noir fans, the writers here come up with some interesting new angles. The authors represented here are generally younger, with only a few (editor and contributor Neal Pollack, Adam Langer, Joe Meno and Kevin Guilfoile, in particular) being familiar names on a national level. But even the lesser-known writers come up with some strong contributions, making this a very enjoyable effort overall.
Guilfoile's "Zero Zero Day" is probably the strongest effort, about a police scanner junkie who's content to just listen to the world go by, as dispatched over his scanner. But in the last minutes of a rare and potentially monumental "Zero Zero Day"--one with no murders or shootings--he faces a dilemma: whether to call 911 to help a man in need, or to preserve the Zero Zero Day for the posterity of him and his fellow scanner freaks. Peter Orner's "Dear Mr. Kleczka" involves the paroled and exiled murderer Nathan Leopold (of Leopold & Loeb infamy) writing a reply letter to an indignant citizen who is outraged over Leopold being granted his freedom, while C.J. Sullivan's "Alex Pinto Hears the Bell" sympathetically portrays a retired prizefighter struggling to regain his long-lost fame and then his human dignity. And Andrew Ervin's "All Happy Families" confounds expectations by not having a single character die; Ervin's narrative deftly interweaves three threads: a nearly-botched bank holdup and subsequent train ride back to Chicago (with a nifty shout-out to Joliet!); the robber's obsession with the Chicago Cubs, whose game he's hoping to attend that evening if the cops don't pick him up first; and some backstory as to how an intelligent literature major ever started robbing banks.
Oddly enough, one of my favorite stories here is told from the perspective of a Packers fan. (Boo! Hiss!) Jim Arndorfer's "The Oldest Rivalry" involves an involuntary manslaughter (probably justified) committed by a man protecting his young son, an act which will undoubtedly serve as an even greater lifelong father-son bond than their shared love for the Packers. Arndorfer's story has genuine warmth and tenderness, and in confounding expectations serves as a fitting conclusion to this fine collection.
A hearty happy birthday to one of my heroes. From Minnesota Public Radio:
It's the birthday of the photographer Walker Evans, born in St. Louis, Missouri (1903). His father was a wealthy advertising executive, and Evans spent most of his childhood in fancy boarding schools. He dropped out of college after one year and went off to Paris to become a writer. He spent a lot of his time at the Sylvia Beach's bookstore Shakespeare and Company, and one day he saw James Joyce there, but he was too shy to introduce himself. He didn't meet any other important writers, and his own writing didn't amount to much. He said, "I wanted so much to write that I couldn't write a word."
He went back to the United States, feeling like a failure. And then one day he picked up a camera and started taking pictures. One of the first pictures was of the parade honoring Lindbergh's flight in 1927. Instead of focusing on the parade itself, he focused on the street the parade had just passed through, littered with crumpled handbills and confetti.
He had felt so reverential toward literature that it blocked him up, but with a camera he could point and capture anything he wanted. The popular photography of the day was highly stylized, so Evans decided to go in the opposite direction, to take pictures of ordinary, unpretentious things. He said, "If the thing is there, why there it is."
I like the bit about photographing the litter and confetti, instead of the parade itself. Some of Evans' greatest photographs, many of them employing a similarly unconventional focus, can be viewed here and here.
And So, It Begins...
I'm trying NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) again this year. Basically, the goal is to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. Rough draft, of course; nobody (other than maybe Joyce Carol Oates) could write a finished novel in a month, or at least not one that anybody would ever want to read. The point of NaNoWriMo is to unlock the creative process, and get as much written down as possible without regard to any editorial concerns; it instills the routine of writing every day, workmanlike, rather than sitting around, procrastinating and waiting for inspiration to hit. My first two NaNoWriMo's were spent writing my novel-in-hiatus, Eden, and last year I attempted (and failed) to write 20 2,500-word short stories to get to my 50,000-word total; it did, however, produce two finished stores, "Ectoplasm" and "Immortality", which are currently out on submission to various literary journals.
This year I'm writing The Wheatyard Chronicles, about an eccentric writer named Elmer Glaciers Wheatyard (possibly his real name, more than likely not) who lives in a farm town in Central Illinois, not far from Champaign, where I went to college. Yes, I'm a character, too, narrating my interactions with Wheatyard and trying to figure who the hell he really is. Interestingly, the name "Elmer Glaciers Wheatyard" was coined by my five-year-old daughter, Maddie, during one of her imaginative flights of fancy. And I, pretentious artist wannabe that I am, have inflated that single name into what I hope turns out to be a compelling character. I'm attempting to write this on a laptop on my train to and from work, forsaking the longhand-in-notebook method of prior years which has obvious limitations. Unfortunately, the laptop has its own limitations as well, as it's an outdated Sony which doesn't hold its battery charge very well. But I'll try to make it work, somehow.
I wrote 1,130 words on the train this morning, on top of about 1,400 words that I had already written in October that don't count toward my total. You can monitor my progress, and read occasional excerpts, here.