St. Baldrick's Update!
As you may recall, I'm once again having my head shaved in the fight against childhood cancer, benefitting CureSearch via St. Baldrick's Foundation. So far I've raised $627 from many generous donors--if you've already donated, you have my humble gratitude. But I'm still well short of my $1,000 fundraising goal. With a bit more of a push, though, I'm confident I can easily exceed that goal.
If you would still like to donate, there's still plenty of time! You can donate online with a credit card at my St. Baldrick's page; otherwise if you'd like to donate via personal check or cash, just email me and we'll make the necessary arrangements.
My shearing is scheduled for 12:45 PM on Friday, March 10th at Fado Irish Pub (100 W. Grand Ave. in Chicago). If you're going to be downtown that day, I'd love to have you stop by to share a pint of stout and a good laugh at my shiny-domed head. The event has always been quite enjoyable, and they have numerous excellent raffle and silent auction prizes (partial list here) throughout the day. Hope to see you there!
Farewell, Deputy Fife
Yet another staple of my childhood has passed. I must be getting to that age.
I'll give the good deputy the final word: "Nip it!"
Still More Brian Costello
Having just finished Brian Costello's novel, I was pleasantly surprised to stumble across his short story, "The Night I Told My Parents The Truth", at THE2NDHAND. A son comes out of the closet not to reveal that he's gay, but that he's...
"My son. An Annoying Asshole. And now I suppose you're gonna move to an Annoying Asshole neighborhood like River North when you're old enough, and you'll hang out in Annoying Asshole bars like the House of Blues, and you'll attend Dave Matthews Band concerts..."
Brian Costello, The Enchanters Vs. Sprawlburg Springs
Brian Costello's debut novel The Enchanters Vs. Sprawlburg Springs is a fun romp through suburban hell (a thinly-veiled Orlando, Florida) as seen through the eyes of Shaquille Callahan, drummer for the "Protomersh" (the band's term--wheatever you do, don't call them punk) band The Enchanters.
Of course Shaq's in love with the leader singer Renee, and he's too blind to realize it will never last. Of course he thinks the band's music is revolutionary, but he's too blind to see that the band will soon collapse. Of course the band thinks they'll make it big in the promised land of...wait for it...Brooklyn, but they're all too euphoric to realize they'll never escape Sprawlburg Springs and its mind-numbing day jobs and cultural vacuity.
The band's playing is never objectively described, but it's safe to assume that it's sloppy and sophomoric, with messy drumming, rudimentary guitar and bad-poetry lyrics. But its energy and complete abandon completely wins over the disaffected and alienated teenagers of Sprawlburg Springs, who soon form something of a cult around the band, the two sides endlessly feeding off of each other and giving the band an inflated sense of its intrinsic worth.
Costello writes with great skill and humor, drawing upon his obvious knowledge of suburban monotony and local music scenes, and his great love of rock and roll. Somehow, you can't help cheering for the Enchanters, and for Shaq and Renee, even though you can sense a less-than-uplifting finish to their stories from a long way off. Yet Costello leaves the novel on a sufficiently ambiguous note to make you think that maybe, just maybe, Shaq might ultimately come out of this mess wiser and moderately unscathed, and end up with a decent life for himself.
Fun With Anagrams...
...at Metra's expense. Inspired by the various transit-maps-in-anagrams at BoingBoing, I've created my own Metra anagram map, focused on the two train lines which originate in Joliet, the Heritage Corridor Line and the Rock Island District Line.
(Anagram generator courtesy of Brendan.)
(And thanks, Cory!)
David Schwartz, "Screen"
Chicago writer David Schwartz has an excellent new story, "Screen", at Pindeldyboz. As I commented on Dave's blog, I like the conflict inherent in the woman having "brazenly seductive unmentionables" which she never lets the narrator see her wearing--the hint of a secret inner being that will never be shared, not even with a lover. Well done, indeed.
Defending Our Ports
Wow...Bush is threatening to veto legislation that has the strong support of both Frist and Hastert. Strange days indeed.
For me, the point isn't so much that our ports would be operated by a corporation controlled by an Arab government, but that they'd be operated by a corporation, PERIOD. The Nation's John Nichols explained the idea pretty effectively yesterday, and today the NYT ran a sharp op-ed piece that points out Bush's continued dangerous deference to all things corporate.
The Bush administration has followed a disturbing pattern in its approach to the war on terror. It has been perpetually willing to sacrifice individual rights in favor of security. But it has been loath to do the same thing when it comes to business interests. It has not imposed reasonable safety requirements on chemical plants, one of the nation's greatest points of vulnerability, or on the transport of toxic materials. The ports deal is another decision that has made the corporations involved happy, and has made ordinary Americans worry about whether they are being adequately protected.
If Bush is truly serious about protecting our ports, both their oversight and daily operations would be put completely under the control of U.S. government agencies.
Ken Lay, Meet Sam Insull
Last night's broadcast of Marketplace had an intriguing piece on Chicago tycoon Samuel Insull, whom biographer Jon Wasik (The Merchant of Power: Sam Insull, Thomas Edison, and the Creation of the Modern Metropolis) calls "probably the most influential businessman of the 20th Century that you've never heard of." Wasik draws some surprisingly sharp parallels between Insull (founder of Commonwealth Edison) and Enron's Kenneth Lay.
"...a better self-portrait..."
My online friend and sort-of neighbor Ibrahim Abusharif has a thoughtful article in the Christian Science Monitor on American Muslim artistic endeavors and their hoped-for improvement of Muslims' public image.
A vigorous cultural presence, one hopes, can help a people reclaim their right to show who they really are while protecting the interior narrative of their faith from being co-opted by fringe extremists, whose deeds, then, are trumped up by media "experts" who often peddle medieval fears about Islam with impunity. When people are known at a visceral level - something pushed along by the puissance of art - their place in society becomes layered and authentic. Their sense of belonging strengthens, as does their voice in public debate.
My heartfelt wish is that non-Muslim America turns away from American Idol and their own inherent predjudices long enough to take notice.
New Lit Journal: Bound Off
This morning I'm shamelessly and unrepentantly plugging Bound Off, a new audio literary journal co-founded by Ann Rushton, a fellow fledgling writer and loyal reader of this here blog. Issue 1 (20MB MP3, 28:32) is already up, with stories by Dianne Cormier, Tim O'Brien and Dave Robinson.
Bound Off is a monthly literary audio magazine, broadcasting literary short fiction with the new podcasting technology.
We aspire to showcase work that is compelling and driven by narrative, with a force that keeps the listener listening. We are dedicated to publishing stories by both the established and emerging writer.
And best of all, they're actively seeking story submissions, a phrase which always warms the cockles of my underpublished heart. Once I find a story in the warehouse that might sound particularly good read aloud, I'll definitely be submitting.
Criminal Justice, Literary
In the Tribune today, Julia Keller has a fine essay on literary treatments of justice and the wrongly accused, focusing primarily on Julian Barnes' recent Arthur & George but also deftly integrating such diverse authors as Harper Lee, Tolstoy, and Scott Turow.
Are we infuriated by the specter of wrongful conviction because we fear it could happen to us? Are we secretly apprehensive that, like the innocent man championed by Jimmy Stewart's character in "Call Northside 777," we might be railroaded someday? I don't think so.
I think, rather, that it's part of an innate desire for justice virtually encoded in human DNA.
As I delved into the article, I dreaded what I assumed would be an inevitable citation of the Eggers-edited and -blessed Surviving Justice: America's Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated. I was pleasantly surprised to see my fears prove to be unfounded.
(Trib site requires registration...if not already registered, use "email@example.com" to log on, with "noblurb" as the password. Thanks to bugmenot.com, as always.)
Giveaway #2 - Commodify Your Dissent
Well, there have been no takers so far on my offer of a free copy of Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos from The Baffler, the 1997 compilation of articles from the great Chicago independent journal The Baffler. So I'll make it even easier for you, and won't even require you to send an email. The first person to leave a comment below--no pithy comments required--gets the book. I'll be in touch with the winner later for mailing info.
Come on, folks, it's a great book and it's free! Whaddya waitin' fer?
The new issue of Poets & Writers has introduced me to Hourglass Books, an Illinois-based small press devoted entirely to publishing short story anthologies. The lineup for their first book, Falling Backwards: Stories of Fathers and Daughters (edited by Gina Frangello of Other Voices) is pretty impressive, as it includes Aimee Bender, Steve Almond, Dan Chaon, Sandra Cisneros and others. From the Hourglass mission statement:
Today's busy readers need an alternative, quality short stories that can be read in one sitting, to avoid slipping into the trap of easy entertainment.
Such short stories are still being written by all kinds of authors, both established novelists and new writers who are honing their literary art. They appear regularly in hundreds of literary magazines.
Our mission is to pluck these stories from the specialized world of literary journals and bring them to a wider audience of everyday readers. We do this by focusing on the anthology -- short stories from different authors, with each book assembled around a common theme.
Two more anthologies--The Long Meanwhile: Stories of Coming and Going and Peculiar Pilgrims: Stories From the Left Hand of God, are forthcoming in the next few months. And they're currently accepting submissions for the upcoming Occupational Hazards: Stories From the World of Work, for which they will definitely be hearing from me shortly.
Photo Caption Fun
"See? If you look at it from just the right angle, it looks a lot like a 78-year-old attorney."
Yes, I know, I know. I'm keeping the day job.
Shalom Auslander, "Jonesin' for a Booker"
It's official. Shalom Auslander has supplanted Jon Stewart as the funniest man in the world.
Oh well—all I can do now is hope. Hope for a tragic disease, a crippling disfigurement, a stroke I can work through, an aneurysm I can overcome. Hope, and leave this godforsaken bookstore. It's like synagogue in here—I come in looking for answers, and leave feeling like crap.
Whew. Now I'm feeling better. We now resume our regularly scheduled irreverence.
I trust you have seen the latest series of photographs (Warning: Graphic images) of prisoner abuse--and yes, torture--at Abu Ghraib.
America and the entire world deserve to hear honest answers from the Bush Administration as to how and why this happened, and not just the well-worn excuse of it being entirely the fault of a few low-level rogue soldiers. From the Administration fighting against the anti-torture McCain Amendment, to Alberto Gonzales drafting legal briefs justifying torturous interrogation methods, to indefinite detainment and interrogation of prisoners at Guantanamo (which has prompted torture allegations and calls for the camp's shutdown by the United Nations), to foreign rendition of prisoners, to alleged secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe, it is obvious that the Abu Ghraib scandal isn't simply a case of battle-weary soldiers blowing off steam. Instead, it is a horrific illustration of the Bush Administration's blatant disregard for human rights. This Adminstration must be held accountable, right up to its highest ranks.
Salon.com's Walter Shapiro has a thoughtful essay justifying the website's decision to publish the latest Abu Ghraib photos, and why seeing them is important for all of us.
Abu Ghraib is not an issue of partisan sound bites or refighting the decision to invade Iraq. Grotesque violations of every value that America proclaims occurred within the walls of that prison. These abuses were carried out by soldiers who wore our flag on their uniforms and apparently believed that Americans here at home would approve of their conduct. Rather than hiding what they did out of shame, they commemorated their sadism with a visual record.
The Administration set the tone. Whether or not these soldiers were acting on direct orders or with the implied permission of their superiors is beside the point. They had every reason to believe they were acting within their authority, with the blessing of the Commander in Chief. For that, Bush and his cadre must be held responsible.
Human life, dignity and freedom aren't luxuries that can simply be negated in the name of the war on terrorism; without them, the war itself isn't worth fighting. If we want to hold the rest of the world to higher standards of human behavior, we must observe those standards ourselves.
Literary Journal Roundup
At MoorishGirl, Katrina Denza has her latest edition of literary journal reviews. This time she looks at The Paris Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review. Fine publications all, but I can't help wishing she'd take a look at some of the lesser-knowns. While these three journals already have national distribution into the big chain bookstores and healthy endowments/university funding, there's scores of quality small journals out there operating on shoestrings that are forever in need of a boost.
Mary McCarthy Prize
I just entered my short story collection, Rising Above: Stories and Sketches, in the contest for the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, sponsored by the excellent independent press Sarabande Books. First prize is a $2,000 cash award and publication of the book by Sarabande, with all finalists also being considered for publication. (Previous winners are listed here.) My collection is pretty much the same one I submitted last fall for the Iowa Short Fiction Award, with several of the stories spruced up and "Mighty Casey" being added. I also added "and Sketches" to the title because, quite frankly, many of these pieces are short sketches rather than full-fledged stories. But I think the sketches fit well alongside the stories, so I decided to include them.
I'm a bit intimidated by the McCarthy Prize after reading that Ander Monson entered the manuscript for his wonderful Other Electricities in the contest in 2003, and it didn't even win. (It finished as a runner-up to Edith Pearlman's How To Fall.) If a book as great as Monson's didn't win, the quality of books being entered must be tremendous, and I'm up against some very strong competition. I'm not particularly optimistic about my chances, but I decided to give it a shot anyway. If nothing else, I'll consider it a donation to a very worthy publisher.
Brother, Can You Spare a Billion?
Believe it or not, I'm starting to lose my capacity for being surprised and/or appalled at the government's actions. But here's one more piece of outrage, for old time's sake.
U.S. Royalty Plan to Give Windfall to Oil Companies
by Edmund L. Andrews
New York Times
WASHINGTON, Feb. 13 - The federal government is on the verge of one of the biggest giveaways of oil and gas in American history, worth an estimated $7 billion over five years.
New projections, buried in the Interior Department's just-published budget plan, anticipate that the government will let companies pump about $65 billion worth of oil and natural gas from federal territory over the next five years without paying any royalties to the government.
Based on the administration figures, the government will give up more than $7 billion in payments between now and 2011. The companies are expected to get the largess, known as royalty relief, even though the administration assumes that oil prices will remain above $50 a barrel throughout that period.
Ah, good for them. Exxon and their fellow oligopolists sure are hurting these days. Let's all do whatever we can for them. The "First-Born Child Donation" line forms to the right.
Finger Puppets for Grownups
How cool is this? Finger puppets of historical figures, authors and the like. Stage your own psychotherapy session, with Freud probing into the mind of Kafka, with possibly terrifying results. Have Plato and Joyce argue the relative medicinal merits of ambrosia and Guinness Stout. Promote a bare-knuckle prize fight between Mozart and Beethoven. The possibilities are endless. (And not to quibble, but is that really Eleanor Roosevelt? Or Jon Cryer in a Viking helmet?)
(Via Boing Boing.)
According to sources close to the ski team, Mr. Klujian had concealed the fact that he comes from an intact middle-class family who never lost their home to a flood, tornado, or typhoon.
But what may have sealed Mr. Klujian’s doom, sources said, was his utter lack of a gravely ill family member to win a medal for.
Like all good satire, this is funny because it's so true, so pathetically, poignantly true.
Lake Claremont Press
"Sharon's one to gamble on first-time authors where other [publishing] houses aren't," Lindberg said, adding that she knows how to make the books successful. "[Lake Claremont has] one of the most aggressive marketing campaigns I have ever seen from a local publisher. They put their books everywhere."
I've read a couple of Lake Claremont titles, Libby Hill's The Chicago River: A Natural and Unnatural History and Carolyn Eastwood's Near West Side Stories: Struggles for Community in Chicago's Maxwell Street Neighborhood, both of which I found fascinating.
Book Giveaway: Commodify Your Dissent
Thanks to the Bargain Basement Blowout, I now have an extra copy of Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos from The Baffler, a terrific 1997 compilation of articles from The Baffler, the great Chicago-based journal. Quoting the publisher,
From the pages of The Baffler, the most vital and perceptive new magazine of the nineties, sharp, satirical broadsides against the Culture Trust.
In the "old" Gilded Age, the barons of business accumulated vast wealth and influence from their railroads, steel mills, and banks. But today it is culture that stands at the heart of the American enterprise, mass entertainment the economic dynamo that brings the public into the consuming fold and consolidates the power of business over the American mind.
For a decade The Baffler has been the invigorating voice of dissent against these developments, in the grand tradition of the muckrakers and The American Mercury. This collection gathers the best of its writing to explore such peculiar developments as the birth of the rebel hero as consumer in the pages of Wired and Details; the ever-accelerating race to market youth culture; the rise of new business gurus like Tom Peters and the fad for Hobbesian corporate "reengineering"; and the encroachment of advertising and commercial enterprise into every last nook and cranny of American life.
With its liberating attitude and cant-free intelligence, this book is a powerful polemic against the designs of the culture business on us all.
-- "You'd have to look back at the fights between New York intellectuals in the fifties to find the sort of verbal firepower unleashed here".
— The Nation
The first person to email me (pete_anderson [at] comcast [dot] net) with the subject line "Please don't shoot, Mr. Cheney!" wins the book. I'll follow up with the winner for the mailing address.
Sailors on Shore Leave
Well, try as we might to resist, our family succumbed to the Bargain Basement Blowout at the Joliet Public Library. That photo above is our take--37 books for 10 bucks--with Maddie shying away from it in fear of it collapsing on her. We filled up two paper shopping bags and stowed them in the trunk of our car before heading out on several more errands around town. By the time we got home, I couldn't remember more than about three books out of the fourteen I had bought for myself. The closest thing I can compare the experience to is a drinking binge ("What the hell were you drinking last night? And where were you?" "I don't really know. It's all kind of a blur.") that you wake up from the next morning, trying to identify the stench on your shirt and who those people are in the Polaroids you found in your coat pocket. Yet an experience that leaves you with a bewildered smile.
Here's my personal takeaway: Charles D'Ambrosio, The Point; Studs Terkel, The Great Divide and American Dreams: Lost and Found; Erskine Caldwell, Tobacco Road; James Joyce, Dubliners; Ward Just, The Weather in Berlin; Eric Bogosian, Mall; Morgan Llewellyn, 1916, Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener/Benito Cereno; Calvin Trillin, Travels With Alice, Paul Hoover, Saigon, Illinois; Commodify Your Dissent; John Brown: Great Lives Observed; and a book of novellas by Joyce, Melville, Faulkner, Gogol, etc. Plus Julie picked up a few (including Philip Roth's I Married a Communist and E.M. Forster's Howards End) that I'll probably read eventually.
About the only bit of rationality I displayed was re-shelving several books that I impulsively picked out--most notably Saul Bellow's More Die of Heartbreak. Considering that this probably isn't even one of Bellow's five best novels, and I've never gotten around to reading classics of his Augie March, Herzog, Seize the Day, etc., I probably wouldn't have ever read Heartbreak. So I decided not to buy it, even if it was essentially free.
Another notable birthday. From Minnesota Public Radio:
It's the birthday of writer George Ade, born near Kentland, Indiana (1866). He went to Purdue University and then became a newspaperman in Chicago. Then, in 1897, Ade got the idea to write a series of fables about modern characters using modern American vernacular. The first of these fables was "The Fable of Sister Mae Who Did As Well As Could Be Expected" and it was so popular that he wrote many more collected in his books Fables in Slang (1899) and More Fables (1900). Ade later said, "It was a great lark to write in slang—just like gorging on forbidden fruit."
George Ade also wrote, "A friend who is near and dear may in time become as useless as a relative."
I read Artie, Ade's novel-in-vernacular, a few years ago, and while I found it enjoyable, I've come to the realization that Ade is best in smaller doses--particularly his "fables." For a sampling of Ade's fables, check out Mister Ron's Basement, where Ron Evry podcasts two Ade pieces every weekend. Two of my favorites are "The Fable of the Author Who Was Sorry of What He Did to Willie" and "The Fearsome Feud Between the First Families". Wonderful stuff.
Excerpt from Call It Sleep
Wonderful bit of dialogue from Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep. Bertha is the brassy aunt of the book’s protagonist, young David Schearl, and is newly-arrived in America from the old country and living with David and his parents.
“Tell me, would you go back to Austria if you had the money?”
“Money I’d send them,” Aunt Bertha asserted flatly. “But go home—never! I’m too glad I escaped. And why should I go home? To quarrel?”
“Not even to see mother?”
“God pity her more than any. But what good what my seeing her do her? Or me? It would only give me grief. No! Neither her, nor father, nor Yetta, nor Adolf, nor Herman, nor even Saul, the baby, though God knows I was fond of him. You see I’m one who doesn’t yearn for the home land.”
“You haven’t been here long enough,” said his mother. “One grapples this land at first closer to one’s self than it’s worth.”
“Closer than it’s worth? Why? True I work like a horse and I stink like one with my own sweat. But there’s life here, isn’t there? There’s a stir here always. Listen! The street! The cars! High laughter! Ha, good! Veljish was still as a fart in company. Who could endure it? Trees! Fields! Again trees! Who can talk to trees? Here at least I can find other pastimes than sliding down the gable on a roof!”
“I suppose you’re right,” his mother laughed at her vehemence. “It appears to me that you’ll grow from green to yellow in this land years before I do. Yes, there are other pastimes here than—” She broke off, flinched even though she laughed. “That sliver of wood in your flesh! Dear God you were rash!”
“It was nothing! Nothing!” Aunt Bertha chuckled lightly. “My rump has forgotten it long ago! But should prove to you that I’m better off here than I was there. That quiet was enough to spring the brain!”
His mother shook her head non-committally.
“Still as a fart in company”—priceless! The first section of the book was a bit of a trudge, but now that Bertha has arrived in the second section, things have livened up considerably.
Message from THE2NDHAND
This note hit my inbox recently. I'm a big fan of Al Burian from his writings in his famed Burn Collector and his lesser-known Natural Disasters zines. (The latter zine can be seen here, being avidly "read" by Maddie at age 3; Al told me that he'd consider using this photo as the cover for the next issue of ND. Unfortunately, it has yet to appear.)
THE2NDHAND Releases Installment #19
Feb. 26 at Skylark, 2149 S. Halsted
THE2NDHAND Installment #19 is “Zangara,” by Al Burian, a reimagining of Chicago mayor Anton Cermak’s 1933 assassination by height-challenged bricklayer Guiseppe Zangara at an FDR campaign event in Miami. Told from the point of view of Cermak himself, the piece addresses Zangara’s profound lack of height and Cermak’s infrastructural legacy, legendary last words, rumored mob ties, and more, all in the trademark style Burian’s developed over almost a decade writing and producing the Burn Collector zine. We convene at Skylark, at the corner of Halsted and the great road that bears Cermak’s name, to celebrate. For this event, we’ll focus on fiction imbued with just the twinge (or more) of authenticity by settings around historical events. This event was made possible in part by Poets & Writers magazine through a grant from an anonymous donor.
With readings by:
and Susannah Felts, C.T. Ballentine, and Todd Dills as Pitchfork Battalion
To be followed by a DJ set or two by the great Joe Meno, author of Hairstyles of the Damned, a novel, and most recently a collection of shorts called Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir.
FREE, Sunday, Feb 26, 8 PM
Skylark, 2149 S. Halsted, Chicago
312.948.5275 or 773.278.7034
Al Burian is the writer behind the long-running Burn Collector zine. He occasionally writes for Punk Planet and other print organs.
Brian Costello is the author of The Enchanters vs. Sprawlburg Springs, a novel, and teaches writing in the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago.
Jeb Gleason-Allured is a contributing editor of THE2NDHAND’s online magazine. His stories have been published in a variety of magazines.
Susannah Felts is a regular contributor to the Chicago Reader and a professor of writing at SAIC.
C.T. Ballentine curates the Aftercrossword Special zine; his story “Never Die During Winter” was featured in THE2NDHAND Installment #17 and his work has otherwise appeared with regularity in THE2NDHAND’s online magazine
Todd Dills is the founder and editor of THE2NDHAND. His first novel, Sons of the Rapture, will be published later this year by Featherproof.
Duotrope's Digest - A Great Tool for Writers
I've recently discovered Duotrope's Digest, a really great tool for writers. It's not only a searchable database of 550+ markets for fiction and poetry, but you can also set up a free account which allows you to log in all of your journal submissions (journal, title, submission date, response date, response) and track their status. One neat feature shows what the average reported response time is for each journal, so if you have a submission that's been hanging out there for too long, you'll be reminded to follow up with the editor. The Digest's managers are also very accomodating in adding new journals to the database--they added about fifteen journals yesterday at my request, no questions asked.
I've got a real hodgepodge of submission logs for tracking the status of my stories--looseleaf notebook, web calendar, spreadsheet, web page--and Duotrope's Digest is by far the best solution I've found so far. If you're a writer, I heartily recommend it.
Tall Skim Dung Beetle, To Go, Please
Here's a wonderful homage to Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" at Prufrock's Page, prompted by a Times of India report that "Crossword bookstore will soon be opening a coffee shop to be called 'the Kafka Cafe'."
I'm a writer, not a cafe in a bookshop. And besides, even if I was to be a cafe, it would be one with labyrinthine corridors where what you ordered isn't always what you received and the waiters sneered at you behind your back causing you to wonder if you were dressed the wrong way, or if you had committed some crime such as adding too much milk to your espresso. Not this open, sunny place next to a bookshop that calls itself a ‘lifestyle bookstore’."
It's really quite simple...
This ad says it all. The parallels are quite clear, as are the appropriate consequences.
A happy birthday to one of America's unjustly forgotten greats. From Minnesota Public Radio:
It's the birthday of novelist (Harry) Sinclair Lewis, born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota (1885). He's best known for his novel Main Street, which was a literary sensation when it came out in 1920. No one had ever written such a fierce attack on small-town American life. The town of Sauk Centre, which Lewis had satirized in Main Street, now holds a festival every summer called Sinclair Lewis Days. The town also has a museum called the Sinclair Lewis Interpretive Center and a street called Sinclair Lewis Avenue.
Lewis' powerful combination of satirical humor and pointed social commentary should never have gone out of style, but it doesn't seem like anyone talks about him much any more. Main Street and Babbitt are two of my all-time favorite novels, and both are long overdue for re-readings.
I have nothing meaningful to add to the national eulogy, other than to say farewell to a great trailblazer. But John Darnielle has penned a rather lovely tribute to her, which I strongly encourage you to read.
Suffrage gave woman the vote; Betty Friedan gave them hope, and the power to dream, and in so doing she brought us all a step closer to liberation.
Rest well, indeed.
Getting Bald(er) to Fight Childhood Cancer!
It’s that time of year again! Once again I will have my head shaved to benefit St. Baldrick’s Foundation, a very worthy organization which raises critical funds for CureSearch (the National Childhood Cancer Foundation and Children’s Oncology Group, or COG). This will be the third year I’ve participated in this great cause, and thanks to many generous donors I have raised nearly $2,400 so far. St. Baldrick’s has raised $12 million since its inception in 2000, with $5.3MM of that total raised in 2005 alone.
The COG is made up of more than 4,000 childhood cancer experts, working at 230 leading childhood cancer institutions in the U.S. and worldwide. This cooperative research group leads the world in finding new cancer treatments, with its members treating over 90% of all children with cancer in North America. Sadly, despite the great strides made of late in research and treatment, cancer remains the leading disease killer of children. 46 children are diagnosed with cancer every day. 40 years ago, childhood cancer was almost fatal—but today, 77% of child cancer patients can now be cured. St. Baldrick’s helps COG institutions continue their work at a time when other funding is hard to come by—grants from the National Cancer Institute are received as reimbursements only after the work is done, and cover only 35-40% of the actual costs involved in research.
The COG needs much more help than traditional funding sources can provide, in order to continue its valuable work. Which is why I’m dedicated to helping this fine organization through St. Baldrick’s. On Friday March 10th, I will have my head shaved as part of an all-day event at Fado Irish Pub in Chicago (100 W. Grand Ave. in Chicago). Shaving my head is both my way of making a small sacrifice to the cause, as well as a sign of solidarity with child cancer patients, many of whom lose their hair during chemotherapy.
I would be very pleased if you would be willing to donate to St. Baldrick’s on my behalf. If you would like to donate online via a credit card, you may do so through my page at the St. Baldrick’s website. Or, if you would like to donate with a check or cash, just let me know and we’ll make the necessary arrangements.
As always, if you’d like to attend the event at Fado, I’d love to have you join me for a beer and a good laugh at my expense. Though I don’t know the exact time of my shearing, it will probably be sometime in the early afternoon. The event is always a lot of fun—there’s plenty of ongoing raffles, silent auctions with great prizes, etc.
If you have any questions, just let me know. Thanks in advance!
Leah Guenther of 826CHI
The current issue of Chicago has a profile of Leah Guenther, executive director of 826CHI. The organization's mission is very laudable, and I wish them great success. I'd love to volunteer there if I didn't live so damned far away from the city. Guess I'll have to wait for 826JOL. (I jest.)
Vonnegut Does Macomb
Here's Kurt Vonnegut's hilarious but sad take on writers' conferences, from 1967, focusing on a conference right here in Illinois, at WIU in downstate Macomb:
Johnson was sad at the party because he had sent out thousands of brochures and had advertised lavishly in Writer's Digest and Saturday Review and so on, and yet only 19 students had come. They were sitting around the room, rolling their eyes moonily, waiting for new friendships to begin.
"I can't understand it," he said above the Muzak and the sounds of drag races out on Route 136. "We have as good a staff as any conference in the country."
And the staff really was at least fair to middling.
Short Story Democracy
I currently have at least a dozen story fragments sitting around, ideas I've started on but abandoned, stories which are all but forlornly crying out for revival and completion. So I'd appreciate your feedback. Of the excerpts below, please tell me which one intrigues you the most and why. (Feel free to reply via email if you don't want to leave a comment.) If any one of these gets particularly encouraging responses, that will probably become the next story I'll work on completing. Thanks in advance!
She emerged from the narrow doorway, the door swinging open just enough for her to pass through before it swung closed again, revealing the sign which announced “Associates Only” to one and all. It wasn’t a particularly inviting doorway to begin with, and few customers ever mistook it for a place of interest. Had they opened the door, which few ever did, they would have seen only a tight, dirty staircase which turned abruptly to the right just five steps up, hiding what was beyond from further view. Had they ascended the stairs, which none ever did, they would have been underwhelmed at the sight of what passed for the management offices—three drab metal desks crammed into enough space for only one, a single computer with an ancient monochrome green monitor, stacks of computer printouts on greenbar paper in aqua and pale brown binders which no one had apparently reviewed for months or perhaps years and, above all, permeating all, the stale stench of cigarette smoke.
Cigarettes which had surreptitiously been smoked in clear violation of corporate policy, by managers who saw no upside to their careers and valued nicotine infinitely more that what some regional director might have to say about it.
Muriel Holliday was one of those managers, or to be completely accurate within the corporation’s hierarchy, Assistant Manager.
The first notes, and that voice, came in low through the air, much too low, muffled by the empty chattering and sporadic laughter of the cocktail lounge crowd. Through the distracting din, the strings shimmered, the reeds warbled, and then that voice began, slowly, calmly, full of confidence and tenderness.
Jerry stood in the middle of the milling throng, detached from it completely, transfixed by the song and the memories it brought back. He hadn't heard it in years, but all of his hopes and aspirations and sorrows of those bygone days flooded back into his consciousness. He didn't really need to hear the song clearly; instead he felt it within himself.
The premise itself was ludicrous. Sinatra courting, politely and respectfully in the old-fashioned way, waiting patiently by his love's front gate. Nonsense. Sinatra never had to wait for anyone, especially not by gates in the moonlight, not even in his younger days in Hoboken. Women came to him, not the other way around, and it was all so easy for him.
But it had never been easy for Jerry. Which was why he now ignored that dubious premise as he stood mesmerized, absorbing the music into the depths of his being. For he had once, in a more innocent time, been that lonely dreamer who stood, lovelorn but hopeful, at the front gate, hoping for the briefest glimpse of his beloved. Beloved to him only, however, for she was fully unaware of his feelings and certainly did not feel the same about him. Not yet, he insisted back then, more than a bit desperately.
He sat with his back against the stairwell door, near the roof’s edge, close enough to see most of the darkened intersection below. The stoplights flickered, green to yellow to red to green in endless succession, with only the occasional car passing through, its headlights momentarily piercing the gloom before fading away and becoming nothing more than a pair of taillights which slowly dissolved into the distance.
He peered over the edge at the cars appearing and disappearing again, feeling a quiet longing and mild unrest. Where were they all going, he thought. They had been somewhere, and had somewhere else to go, and were going there smoothly and freely, unfettered by any rules other than the required stop at red. Even yellow meant they could glide through, not even observing caution. Those unknown drivers moved easily, with little effort or thought, and it occurred to him that they didn’t know how lucky they were.
He could have told them, had he been asked, for he knew the other side all too well. Here, he knew nothing but rules--how to think, how to behave, how to expect the rest of his life would be. Though they did their best to instruct him on that future, all he knew about the coming years is that the next three would be spent right here, at Guardian, rising early and turning in early, the hours between spent at Mass, at prayer, at books he had little interest in.
All he was interested in was the day he would turn eighteen and his stretch, as he liked to call it, would be over. He called it a stretch, but he was here with his parents’ blessing, a mere minor at the whim and mercy of the juvenile detention system.
The wind blew gently around him, vaguely hinting at the coming of spring. But only a hint; a distinct chill remained in the early March air. It was still far too cold for him to be sitting up here without a coat, and he shivered within his thin T-shirt every time he exhaled the warm cigarette smoke from his lungs.
He gratefully turned away from the smell as he headed toward the elevated station, self-consciously attempting a swagger, his fists jammed deep into his coat pockets. The peacoat wasn’t really his style, the sailor connotations not remotely ironic, but even here, two parishes and a lifetime away from his boyhood home, he still had to blend in as well as he could. He had nothing in common with the workingmen he passed every morning, him on his way home from work and them on their way to work. He would be bleary-eyed for want of sleep, cigarette smoke still lingering in his eyes and the stench of the so-called dressing room in his nose, while they were groggy, still emerging from sleep, their lunchpails banging arythmically against their thighs. He had nothing in common with them, apart from the peacoat which he picked up cheap at the surplus store, hoping for some sort of disguise that would convey him safely from the apartment to the station.
Several workingmen’s bars, already beginning to bustle in mid-afternoon, stood between him and the station. Men were quietly filing in, hoping to brace themselves for the second shift. As he passed the first bar he instinctively glanced sideways from the corner of his eye without turning his head, sensing the catcalls and worse that could rain down at any moment. At this time of year, though, he had little to worry about, as the bar’s street door was closed tight against the cold, opening only at the latest arrival of one of the faithful.
Later, after first shift, he would have had trouble, no matter the season. Once during the previous summer, when the club was closed for a few days and he was home during the day after having missed connections with his downtown friends the night before, he had been foolish enough to walk past this bar—Plansky’s—after first shift let out. And past the crowd which spilled onto the sidewalk, partly searching for cooler air but more importantly for amusement.
The View From Western Avenue
Cal heard the telephone ring in the front hallway below, followed by the unmistakable clatter of Veronica’s heels as she hurried to answer it. The phone always seemed to be ringing, and usually seemed to be for her. She was just that age, Cal reflected. She would greet the caller excitedly, with a warm tone of recognition, before lowering her voice to a near-whisper so that none of the family would be privy to her conservation. She would sit at the telephone seat for what seemed like hours, every hushed conversation seeming to be of the utmost fascination and importance to her. Cal knew that wasn’t really the case, that she dealt mostly in trivialities, but at her age everything seemed to much more than it really was.
She certainly didn’t face the serious situations he faced, now with rapidly increasing frequency, nor was she even aware of them. He kept his business matters separate from his family life; as soon as he stepped across the threshold all of the concerns of his workday became his alone, and he shared them with no one, not even Mildred.
The telephone only rang in the front hallway, as it was the only one he had allowed to be installed in the house. Even here in his study, where it might have been of occasional use to him, he staunchly resisted. The study was his refuge, the place where he went for quiet and solace, for bourbon and a thorough reading of the evening papers. It had been a bedroom at the time the house was bought, eighteen years before, but after they had the two children, Veronica and Calvin Jr., and realized they couldn’t have any more, the extra bedroom became unnecessary.
Down came the flowered wallpaper and the lace curtains, and up went walnut paneling and maroon curtains of rich, heavy velvet. Out went the fussy Victorian bedroom furnishings and in came a leather easy chair and matching sofa, something much more masculine and befitting a man of his stature. The door to the study always remained closed, with all of the other family members required to knock before being granted admission.
This is where he came to get away from everything else, everything that had come to complicate his life.
Dubya the Demonizer
The State of the Union address was its usual bit of promotional blather, containing Bush's typical menu of lies, overstatements, misrepresentations and naïvely wishful thinking, with a few dashes of intolerance and callousness thrown in. However, I couldn't help noticing two rather appalling messages which he snuck into his dialogue. First:
In recent years, America has become a more hopeful nation. Violent crime rates have fallen to their lowest levels since the 1970's. Welfare cases have dropped by more than half over the past decade. Drug use among youth is down 19 percent since 2001. There are fewer abortions in America than at any point in the last three decades, and the number of children born to teenage mothers has been falling for a dozen years in a row.
Because, in Bush's eyes, welfare and abortion--both of which are legal, by the way--are as morally reprehensible as violent crime and drug abuse. Lumping these four together implicitly condemns those who need social welfare to survive, or face unwanted pregnancy. Compassionate conservatism, indeed.
Tonight I ask you to pass legislation to prohibit the most egregious abuses of medical research, human cloning in all its forms, creating or implanting embryos for experiments, creating human-animal hybrids, and buying, selling or patenting human embryos. Human life is a gift from our creator, and that gift should never be discarded, devalued or put up for sale.
WTF??? When, exactly, did so-called "human-animal hybrids"--if such research even exists--become a threat to America, and to humanity in general? Bush invokes the bogeyman once again, equating any type of valuable embryo-related scientific research with some kind of mad scientist quackery. (He notably did not mention stem-cell research by name--research which involves "creating or implanting embryos" and enjoys the support of a major portion of the U.S. population--in his speech. This way, he can tell the religious right that he still condemns stem-cell research, while denying to the rest of the country that he specifically singled it out.) He may as well have shouted, "Embryo research! Mad scientists! Igor! Frankensteins! Mutants! Evil! Evil! Evil!"
2008 can't arrive soon enough.