Micro Monday: "Orringer & Klein"
Orringer & Klein
The door quickly swung open, banging against the wall behind. I could see, in reverse, the lettering on the frosted glass which read Abraham Klein, Senior Producer, a title which he had claimed in a typically ostentatious show of status. Abe himself stepped out of his office, emerging just steps behind one of the young chorus girls, an aspiring starlet who seemed flustered, her hair awry and makeup smudged, as she urgently hurried away down the corridor.
Abe leered after her, buttoning up his suspenders.
“We have ourselves,” he grinned, “a new understudy for the female lead of Miss Marvel.”
Northwestern Summer Writers' Conference
Thursday was a good day all around at the Northwestern Summer Writers' Conference. Even having to schlep all the way up to Evanston (last year's sessions were at the Chicago campus) wasn't so bad--in fact, it's the first time I've been on the NU campus for anything other than an athletic event.
Alex Kotlowitz gave a great talk on the writer's life--the good and the bad, though he admits there isn't much bad for him, since he truly loves what he does and considers himself incredibly fortunate to being able to write for a living. (I thoroughly envy him, especially as I'm writing this from my corporate cubicle.) It's interesting to note that he never had any sort of great plan to become a writer, saying that a writing career is "a series of stumbles and wrong turns." Afterward he was kind enough to sign my copy of his landmark There Are No Children Here (shown above; I believe it reads "And to writing.").
Next up was a workshop called "Image as Story", led by Peggy Shinner. The focus was on incorporating image into a narrative to drive the story forward, and we worked through several writing exercises on our own as well as discussing several image-rich stories, including George Saunders' wonderful "Sticks".
Then after lunch, it was Deb Olin Unferth's workshop "The Short-Short Story." Deb is a wonderfully enthusiastic instructor (not to mention tolerant, as she smilingly excused our ignorance of Diane Williams, Lydia Davis, and other short-short masters) who has undeniable passion for the short-short form. Again, we wrote several short-short pieces and discussed several published works which, I admit, weren't entirely my cup of tea but none the less made for instructive discussions. And then, on my walk back to my train I stopped to browse at Comix Revolution, where my eye was drawn to the debut issue of Unruly, which included a nice short-short by (you guessed it) Deb Olin Unferth. Her story even illustrated several of the unique characteristics of short-shorts which she had just finished explaining in our class. Nice coincidence.
As was the case last year, the conference was a thoroughly rewarding experience, one which I recommend to any aspiring writer in the Chicago area.
Ivan R. Dee, Fall 2006
Another quarter, another enticing batch of new non-fiction titles from Ivan R. Dee. Hitting my radar this time around:
Robert Shogan, Backlash: The Killing of the New Deal
Budd Schulberg, Ringside: A Treasury of Boxing Reportage
Brooke Allen, Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers
Paul Strathern, Poe in 90 Minutes
You know, maybe I should just go work for Dee and negotiate a generous employee discount.
Tournament of Tunes...
...resumes on Monday, with the long-awaited results of Joel R.L. Phelps versus The Pixies. (Or I hope they're long-awaited; I have no idea if anyone other than me really cares anymore. And I'm not entirely sure about me, either.)
I'm off on a four-day weekend, commencing with the Northwestern Summer Writers' Conference tomorrow. Good workshops and Alex Kotlowitz--I don't know what could be better, other than maybe Studs Terkel plus reincarnations of Nelson Algren and Mike Royko.
Pavich on Nuclear Plant Security
John Pavich is running for U.S. Representative in my home district, challenging our incumbent Bush/Hastert toady, Jerry Weller. Echoing Senator Barack Obama, who has similar concerns about chemical plants nationwide, Pavich has spoken out about the insufficient security of nuclear plants in the district.
"As a counter-terrorism officer with the Central Intelligence Agency, one of my responsibilities was to anticipate acts of terrorism and to act preemptively against them," Pavich said at a press conference Monday at Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area in Morris overlooking Dresden Nuclear Power Plant.
"In the course of this campaign and in my travels through the district, it has become clear to me that our nuclear plants and reactors are unnecessarily vulnerable to a terrorist attack."
Pavich is running against incumbent U.S. Rep. Jerry Weller, R-Morris. He noted that the 11th District has the largest concentration of nuclear power in the country, with three plants and six reactors.
"The people in nearby communities have a right to know about the nature of these risks and whether everything possible is being done to protect them from harm," he said, explaining that more can be done.
I certainly share his concern--I cringe at the thought of our area nuclear plants being underprotected just for the sake of a few dollars on the power company's bottom line. Pavich is saying all the right things, and I definitely like what I've seen of him so far. I like his chances in November.
As a pleasant diversion, I'll be reading one Hemingway story a day from The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories and posting some thoughts here.
The following story is the final one in the collection. I'll be posting my general thoughts about the book as a whole within the next few days.
Date: Wednesday, July 25
Story: "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber"
Impression: A remarkable story which is both a big-game hunting adventure and an interior portrait of a bitterly unhappy marriage. Macomber makes an embarrassing display of cowardice after wounding a lion, which his wife is more than happy to exploit to strengthen her already-upper hand in their relationship. But a later hunt for water buffalo emboldens him, making him "come of age" at the not-so-tender age of 35, culminating in a tragic incident which may or may not have been an accident.
Qualm: None whatsoever. Even the blatant misogyny of Wilson, while appalling to this reader, fits perfectly within the context of the narrative. A simply terrific story.
Francis Macomber was very tall, very well built if you did not mind that length of bone, dark, his hair cropped short like an oarsman, rather thin-lipped, and was considered handsome. He was dressed in that same sort of safari clothes that Wilson wore except that his were new, he was thirty-five years old, kept himself very fit, was very good at court games, had a number of big-game fishing records, and had just shown himself, very publicly, to be a coward.
"Here's to the lion," he said. "I can't ever thank you for what you did."
Margaret, his wife, looked away from him and back to Wilson.
"Let's not talk about the lion," she said.
Date: Tuesday, July 25
Story: "Fifty Grand"
Impression: Very straightforward story about an aging boxer, at the end of his career and running on fumes, preparing for his final fight. He sees no chance to win, and instead bets what is presumably his life savings--the fifty grand of the title--on his opponent. He's abetted by two gamblers (associates of his clearly unscrupulous manager) who, as it turns out, try to double-cross him by getting his opponent to hit him below the belt, which would win him the fight but lose him all of his money, along with the comfortable post-boxing life he plans for himself. But the boxer is shrewd and quick thinking ("It's funny how fast you can think when it means that much money") and refuses to go down to the mat. The fight sequence is quite riveting.
Qualm: None in particular, though perhaps I'd like to see at least one of the characters--the boxer, the trainer, the manager--question, at least slightly, the morality of the situation. Unless, of course, Hemingway is implying that everyone in the fight game is so unscrupulously immoral that no would even think to question it.
"Listen, Jerry," Jack put down the glass. "I'm not drunk now, see? You know what I'm betting on him? Fifty grand."
"That's a lot of dough."
"Fifty grand," Jack says, "at two to one. I'll get twenty-five thousand bucks. Get some money on him, Jerry."
"It sounds good," I said.
"How can I beat him?" Jack says. "It ain't crooked. How can I beat him? Why not make money on it?"
"Put some water in that," I said.
"I'm through after this fight," Jack says. "I'm through with it. I got to take a beating. Why shouldn't I make money on it?"
Date: Monday, July 24
Story: "A Way You'll Never Be"
Impression: A shellshocked American GI--the ubiquitous Nick Adams, now making his third appearance in the collection--wanders through Italy during WWI, either having been relieved of combat duty or simply AWOL. Near the front he finds a battalion under the command of an old cohort of his, and claims to have been sent by the American consul as a morale boost to the Italian troops, who supposedly would take his appearance to mean that American intervention is forthcoming. His old friend the commander is understandably concerned for Adams' well-being, but appears even more concerned for the morale of his troops--if the infantry sees the woeful Adams as an example of American aid, they're likely to become even more disillusioned than they already are--and subtly sends Adams on his way.
Qualm: There is a thoroughly bewildering passage--a rambling, two-page-long paragraph--which shows the chaotic thoughts going through Adams' damaged mind as he tries to sleep. While I know this passage is intended to show how mentally imbalanced he is, it's also a very difficult read. His later rant, in which he instructs a baffled group of the commander's assistants on the importance of using grasshoppers for fly-fishing bait, is rather comic in tone and brings across his derangement much more easily.
"Don't worry," Nick said. "I'll go in a little while."
"Lie down a little while, Nicolo."
He shut his eyes, and in place of the man with the beard who looked at him over the sights of a rifle, quite calmly before squeezing off, the white flash and clublike impact, on his knees, hot-sweet choking, coughing it onto the rock while they went past him, he saw a long yellow house with a low stable and the river much wider than it was and stiller. "Christ," he said. "I might as well go."
He stood up.
Date: Friday, July 21
Story: "The Killers"
Impression: Two mob hitmen take over a small-town lunchroom, lying in wait for their target, an ex-heavyweight boxer who apparently doublecrossed their bosses. The boxer never arrives, and the hitmen depart, with puzzling nonchalance. The scene in which the lunchroom patron tracks down the boxer, who is holed up in his boardinghouse room stoically awaiting his fate, is quite touching in its quiet hopelessness.
Qualm: Despite its hardboiled premise--the looming execution of the boxer, the uncertain fates of the three innocent bystanders--the narrative is rather flat and mostly free of tension. The hitmen are casual rather than threatening, which points less to "banality of evil" than it does to their professional indifference. This is the least compelling story in the collection so far.
Ole Andreson rolled over toward the wall.
"The only thing is," he said, talking toward the wall, "I just can't make up my mind to go out. I been in here all day."
"Couldn't you get out of town?"
"No," Ole Andresen said. "I'm through with all that running around."
He looked at the wall.
"There ain't anything to do now."
Date: Thursday, July 20
Story: "In Another Country"
Impression: The American narrator and an Italian major recuperate from their battle wounds in a Milan hospital during WWI. Besides coping with their physical wounds, each struggles to cope in other ways--the narrator for being an outsider who feels unworthy of his medal of valor, and the major in premature grief for his dying wife. The major's character is particularly well-developed, in just a few pages.
Qualm: The three decorated Italian soldiers are thinly drawn, which makes sense in that the narrator feels little kinship with them, and thus they are indeed ciphers to him. But although the narrator feels a connection with the other soldier ("the boy who had been wounded his first day at the front"), that character is barely there either, and could have been fleshed out considerably, to the story's benefit.
I was never ashamed of the ribbons, though, and sometimes, after the cocktail hour, I would imagine myself having done all the things they had done to get their medals; but walking home at night through the empty streets with the cold wind and all the shops closed, trying to keep near the street lights, I knew that I would never have done such things, and I was very much afraid to die, and often lay in bed at night by myself, afraid to die and wondering how I would be when I went back to the front again.
The three with the medals were like hunting-hawks; and I was not a hawk, although I might seem a hawk to those who had never hunted; they, the three, knew better and so we drifted apart. But I stayed good friends with the boy who had been wounded his first day at the front, because he would never know now how he would have turned out; so he could never be accepted either, and I liked him because I thought perhaps he would not have turned out to be a hawk either.
Date: Wednesday, July 19
Story: "Fathers and Sons"
Impression: A man, Nick Adams, reflects on his deceased father and what the father taught him (hunting and fishing) and didn't teach him (sex), with the latter knowledge having been gained from an enthusiastic Indian girl, Trudy, whom Nick befriended in his youth. Recollecting his relationship with Trudy and her brother Billy, Nick muses on a vanished way of life while also interacting with his own young son. A vivid, elegaic tale.
Qualm: Nothing in particular, other than the observation that this is the third story out of five thus far in which the protagonist is a writer. Not that Hemingway is necessarily intruding into his own stories, but I'm starting to wish for a bit more authorial distance.
"They were Ojibways," Nick said. "And they were very nice."
"But what were they like to be with?"
"It's hard to say," Nick Adams said. Could you say she did first what no one has ever done better and mention plump brown legs, flat belly, hard little breasts, well holding arms, quick searching tongue, the flat eyes, the good taste of mouth, then uncomfortably, tightly, sweetly, moistly, lovely, tightly, achingly, fully, finally, unendingly, never-endingly, never-to-endingly, suddenly ended, the great bird flown like an owl in the twilight, only in daylight in the woods and hemlock needles stuck against your belly. So that when you go in a place where Indians have lived you smell them gone and all the empty pain killer bottles and the flies that buzz do not kill the sweetgrass smell, the smoke smell and that other like a fresh cased marten skin. Nor any jokes about them nor old squaws take that away. Nor the sick sweet smell they get to have. Nor what they did finally. It wasn't how they ended. They all ended the same. Long time ago good. Now no good.
Date: Tuesday, July 18
Story: "The Gambler, the Nun and the Radio"
Impression: In a small-town Montana hospital, thinking man Frazer is laid up with a badly broken leg, pondering all of the various "opiates of the masses" which people use to cope with everyday life, or in Frazer's case to avoid life entirely and dull his senses ("He was thinking well, a little too well."). Meanwhile, a comically naïve nun, Sister Cecilia, flits about, worrying about the Notre Dame football team and whether she'll fulfill her childhood ambition of becoming a saint--clearly, religion is her opiate-- while the two-bit gambler Cayetano recovers from taking two bullets in the stomach from a losing cardplayer. All in all, a well-set, thoughtful and effectively dialogued piece.
Qualm: Seems a bit heavy on dialogue until you consider that lengthy hospital stays in the days before television meant there was little to do but talk, in which case all of the conversation here makes perfect sense.
"Do you have bad luck with all games?
"With everything and with women." He smiled again, showing his bad teeth.
"And what is there to do?"
"Continue, slowly, and wait for luck to change."
"But with women?"
"No gambler has luck with women. He is too concentrated. He works nights. When he should be with the woman. No man who works nights can hold a woman if the woman is worth anything."
"You are a philosopher."
"No, hombre. A gambler of the small towns. One small town, then another, another, then a big town, then start all over again."
"Then shot in the belly."
"The first time," he said. "That has only happened once."
Date: Monday, July 17
Story: "A Day's Wait"
Impression: Very slight story about a young boy with influenza and his father's efforts to comfort the boy. Hemingway being Hemingway, the writer can't resist having the father, while the boy is resting, occupy himself by going outside with his rifle and shooting some quail. The poignancy of the scared boy's condition contrasts rather uneasily with the father's hunting exploits.
Qualm: The story is so brief (3 pages) and the prose so sparse that it really failed to engage me, either emotionally or intellectually.
Coming out while you were poised unsteadily on the icy, springy brush they made difficult shooting and I killed two, missed five, and started back pleased to have found a covey close to the house and happy there were so many left to find on another day.
At the house they said the boy had refused to let anyone come into the room.
"You can't come in," he said. "You mustn't get what I have."
Date: Friday, July 14
Story: "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"
Impression: A brief but quietly moving piece, in which two waiters commiserate in their café near closing time, waiting for the last straggling customer to go home. The younger waiter is tired and impatient, eagerly longing to return home to his wife. The older waiter, quite alone, is in no hurry to go home, and ponders how important this "clean, well-lighted place" is to the local citizenry. Hemingway sets the story effectively and economically, imparting the physical setting--the late night café, probably in Spain, presumably during war or military occupation--in just a few spare paragraphs.
Qualm: None in particular, unless one prefers tidy endings. The story does finish inconclusively, leaving much unsaid about the older waiter's life.
"We are of two different kinds," the older waiter said. He was now dressed to go home. "It is not only a question of youth and confidence although those things are very beautiful. Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be some one who needs the café."
"Hombre, there are bodegas open all night long."
"You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant café. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves."
"Good night," said the younger waiter.
"Good night," the other said. Turning off the electric light he continued the conversation with himself.
Date: Thursday, July 13
Story: "The Snows of Kilimanjaro"
Impression: Marvelous story of an aging writer who is stranded on an African savannah and slowly dying of gangrene. With too much time on his hands and death steadily approaching, he regrets all of the stories he never got around to writing, "the things he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well," while also quietly resenting the security and comfort he settled for in marrying his rich wife, which led him to abandon the writing he saw as his true calling.
Qualm: There's a bit of a perspective problem in that while most of the story is written from the writer/protagonist's point of view, in the final passage he dies, with the point of view inevitably shifting to that of the wife. It's a problem that every fiction writer with a dying protagonist faces, but Hemingway handles it well, keeping the final passage brief and understated.
"If you have to go away," she said, "is it absolutely necessary to kill off everything you leave behind? I mean do you have to take away everything? Do you have to kill your horse, and your wife and burn your saddle and your armour?"
"Yes," he said. "Your damned money was my armour. My Swift and my Armour."
"All right. I'll stop that. I don't want to hurt you."
"It's a little bit late now."
"All right then. I'll go on hurting you. It's more amusing. The only thing I ever really liked to do with you I can't do now."
Take That, Hemingway!
I thought this story nicely complements my ongoing Hemingway series. In the ageless battle of (old) men against the sea, sometimes the sea takes its revenge.
Fisherman speared by blue marlin off Bermuda
HAMILTON, Bermuda (AP) -- A fisherman was recovering from surgery after he was speared in the chest and knocked into the Atlantic Ocean by a blue marlin during a fishing competition off Bermuda's coast.
Ian Card, 32, was in stable condition at King Edward VII Hospital in the British Island territory from a wound that his doctor said could have been fatal.
"He was very lucky," said Dr. Christian Wilmsmeier. "It was a very serious injury."
Card and his father, Alan, both operators of a charter fishing boat and experienced marlin fishermen, had just hooked the fish Saturday when it suddenly leapt out of the water, impaled Ian Card just below his collar bone and knocked him into the ocean.
(Via Boing Boing.)
Jack London Departs for the Klondike
A momentous day in literary history, courtesy of Minnesota Public Radio:
It was on this day in 1897 that the novelist Jack London left for the Klondike to join the gold rush. He was only twenty-one and had to borrow money from his stepsister for the voyage. Winter came before London could look for gold. He spent the winter in an abandoned fur trader's cabin the size of a tool shed, living on beans and bread. He wrote of that winter, "[It was] a world of silence and immobility. Nothing stirred. The Yukon slept under a coat of ice three feet thick." He read the books he'd brought with him, including Dante's Inferno and Milton's Paradise Lost.
In the spring, London realized that all the good claims had already been made. Instead of looking for gold, he talked to everyone he could and soaked up all their stories. On the way home, he almost died of scurvy, and he barely survived a huge swarm of Alaskan mosquitoes, but he knew he had great material for fiction.
He went on to write about his experiences in books like The Son of the Wolf (1900) and Call of the Wild (1903), and he became one of the most popular writers of his time.
I'm a Jack London fan from way back, though I admittedly haven't read anything of his in years. But I'm planning to podcast a reading of his classic story "To Build a Fire" during the next week or two. Stay tuned.
One of the low-key joys of visiting my local library is picking up a free copy of BookPage. Sure, most of the books and authors in there are hopelessly mainstream and not of even the slightest interest to my literary-fiction-snob self, but I still always manage to find a few things there that I'm interested in pursuing further. This month's highlights included:
+ An interview with Monica Ali, focusing on her latest, Alentejo Blue.
+ Debut novelist reviews of Pauls Toutonghi's Red Weather (which is also intriguingly excerpted at KGBBarLit; any book which begins "My dad, drunk again and singing." is alright with me) and Shari Goldhagen's Family and Other Accidents (already on my To Read Pile, courtesy of Felicia Sullivan at Small Spiral Notebook who was kind enough to send me a copy).
+ Katherine Weber's backstory on her latest novel, Triangle, based on the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire in NYC in 1911.
+ And in nonfiction, a sobering review of Jeff Goodell's Big Coal, which I'm guessing would make a nice companion piece to Barbara Freese's Coal: A Human History, which I read a few years ago and enjoyed quite a bit.
Micro Monday: "Peace to All"
Peace to All
He looked up at me, his eyes sleepy and teeth bared in a gapped grin, uttering, “Soon-gol-yan.”
Peace to all, in the local patois. A blessing or, given the current circumstances, a plea.
“You must do what you can,” he insisted, in English this time, his eyes suddenly opening wide. “I beg you.”
“I’ll do what I can, Neya,” I assured him, or hoped I was assuring. He had every reason to suspect indifference, as I would soon be going back to the mainland, like the others--to my civilized life, with all thoughts of Martinia far from my mind.
Tolkien, In Lovingly Used Condition
The wife reveals her most battered book, and a nice memory from her childhood.
LitPAC Progessive Reading Series
This here suburban family man rarely, if ever, ventures out to literary events in the wicked city. Fortunately, younger and braver souls are around to pick up my considerable slack. Stephen Elliott's very worthy LitPAC held another edition of their Progressive Reading Series this week at No Exit Cafe (with readings by Elliott, Dan Beachy-Quick, Simone Muench, Peter Orner, Audrey Niffenegger and one of my very favorites, Aleksandar Hemon), and Michael from papermustache was there to report on it. Sounds like it was an entertaining evening.
Fine New Crop of Literary Journals.
The Stilt publishes all forms, styles, and genres from the immediate offspring of Wilt Chamberlain. First cousins are OK, but please, no spouses or cousins-once-removed. DNA sample required with cover letter.
Though I must admit that the editorial preferences of Adam Pollet Review: A Journal of Adam Pollet certainly give me the urge to fire off a 20,000-word novella. ("Adam Pollet glanced up from the latest Sudoku he was about to solve, his eyes scanning the cozy environs of Cameron Indoor Arena. He couldn't get that dream of the night before--the one with him and Coach K and a horde of Brazilian chicks in a jacuzzi full of premium-grade cupcakes--off of his mind...")
Tinker to Evers to Chance
Over at Mr. Ron's Basement, Ron Evry reads Franklin P. Adams' "Baseball's Sad Lexicon" (4MB mp3, 3:25), better known as "Tinker to Evers to Chance." Follow this link to see lovely digital reproductions of the trading cards of the Cubs' legendary infielders.
Tournament of Tunes:
Morphine vs. Scruffy the Cat
The Elite Eight of the Tournament of Tunes continues, with the final match of the Jerry Lee Regional:
Morphine – Whisper [RealAudio]
Scruffy the Cat - You Dirty Rat
Each of these wonderful bands passed from existence in its own sad way—Morphine dissolving after its mastermind Mark Sandman died of a heart attack onstage in Rome in 1999, Scruffy the Cat breaking up less suddenly but no less poignantly after years of indifference from their record label. As I’ve mentioned earlier, Sandman’s death and Morphine’s demise were all the more tragic for the intriguing possibilities suggested by The Night, the band’s brilliant final album which they were working on at the time of Sandman’s death. The new directions that Sandman and Morphine might have pursued, as hinted at by that album, are ultimately heartbreaking with the recongition that they will never be realized.
While never earning the critical accolades of Morphine, their Boston brethren, Scruffy the Cat plugged along in amiable and earnest near-obscurity, releasing two LPs and two EPs between 1986 and 1988 before finally calling it quits during the early 1990s. I met the band’s frontman Charlie Chesterman after a Chicago club show in 1989, when he hinted to me that things were not at all well with their record label, Relativity. Though he didn’t get into details, the impression I got was that the band received little support or recognition from the label. I didn’t hear much more about them until several years later, when I heard they had officially broken up. A sad passing of a truly wonderful band—Tiny Days, their first LP, will forever be one of my favorites. But their second LP was clearly the lesser of the two, suggesting that the band wasn’t on a creative upsurge at the time of their demise, and Chesterman’s 1994 solo debut, while enjoyable, didn’t offer anything particularly innovative either.
All of which tells me that maybe Scruffy the Cat just had a few good years, and it was simply their time to go, an impression which I definitely don’t hold for Morphine. Morphine had their best years still ahead of them when Mark Sandman died. This puts Morphine ahead of Scruffy the Cat in my musical pantheon. And while “Whisper” is one of the very best songs Morphine ever created, one which could readily serve as Exhibit A for their sound, “You Dirty Rat” is just a notch or two below the best that Scruffy the Cat was capable of. Morphine, better band, “Whisper”, better song. Scruffy had a nice run, but must now depart.
Winner: Morphine – Whisper
Guardian Summer Fiction
The Guardian has, hands down, the best literary coverage in the world. They've just uncorked their Summer Fiction Special, with new fiction from the esteemed likes of Colm Tóibín, William Trevor, Haruki Murakami, James Meek (whose The People's Act of Love is near the top of my pile), Annie Proulx, Richard Ford, Yann Martel, Julian Barnes, Carol Shields, Ali Smith and many others.
All of which makes me wistfully dream that maybe, someday, what is widely considered America's bastion of literary journalism will once again believe that fiction does indeed matter.
Micro Monday: "A Small Greatness"
A Small Greatness
Everything about him suggested wealth and power. Huge mahogany desk, sumptuous leather chair, flurrying assistants, impeccable Italian suit for at least a grand, framed oil portraits of his ancestors and his vintage Rolls, Harvard and Oxford diplomas, his secretary’s voice buzzing in (Sir, the Mayor is still on hold), Civic Club cufflinks, a deep tan from countless rounds at Medinah. And, at home in Lake Forest, undoubtedly, many wooded acres, ten bedrooms and equally flurrying servants.
Yet, behind that desk and sunk into that rare leather, he suddenly seemed so small.
“I have nothing,” he all but whimpered.
This Just In...
V I Warshawski will soon start drinking more heavily. But responsibly, of course. Besides this revelation, Sara Paretsky also passes along interesting dirt on the drinking habits of some of the greatest noir writers.
Eleanor Callahan on WBEZ
On WBEZ's "848" program, Edward Lifson talks with the charming Eleanor Callahan (pictured above, from detail of Eleanor, Chicago from 1949), the widow and frequent subject of the great photographer Harry Callahan. The Art Institute of Chicago is currently presenting a major exhibition of Harry Callahan's work, Harry Callahan: The Photographer at Work. The exhibition runs through September 24th. I'll definitely be trekking over there one of these days--this one is definitely not to be missed. (The George Eastman House has a nice gallery of Callahan's works here.)
Tournament of Tunes:
Built to Spill vs. Ted Leo
The Elite Eight of the Tournament of Tunes has commenced. From here on out, I'll reproduce the results here on the blog to highlight and better expose the proceedings.
Here we have a real battle of extremes: density versus simplicity, epic versus folk song, personal versus political, long versus short, meticulous studio production versus one-off recording. Whichever song prevails will depend on wherever my tastes happen to be tending at the moment.
On the one hand, I love the simplicity of Ted Leo—just him in a studio, banging away at his electric guitar, howling against what our country has become during the past six long years, doing his own small part to fix what’s gone so wrong. There’s little doubt of what he’s singing about, or where his sympathies lie.
But on the other hand, I also love the epic ambition of Doug Martsch and Built to Spill—the nearly nine minutes of running time, the unhurried pace, the lush and meticulous production, the tempo shifts, and the ambiguity of the lyrics, which seem to be about questioning one’s religious faith. However, despite having plenty of time to clearly deliver his narrative point, it’s unclear whether Martsch is telling the person he’s addressing that he or she needs faith, or whether it’s perfectly alright to do without—whether he’s evangelizing or saying live and let live.
Both songs have their strong and distinctive merits. But at this precise moment in time, I find myself more engaged by the mental image of a lone Ted Leo in a shadowy studio, quixotically but clearly railing against the powers that be, than by Doug Martsch leaving things opaque and fussing over details during post-production. Leo’s immediacy wins out, and “Loyal to My Sorrowful Country” continues its idealistic quest.
Winner: Ted Leo - Loyal to My Sorrowful Country
Clearer Heads Prevail in Louisiana
On behalf of literary people everywhere, Governor Blanco, you have my sincerest thanks.
The verse in question:
"I Love My Louisiana"
by James Ellis Richardson
I love my Louisiana
She's so colorful in her history
So majestic in her pride
With beauty unsurpassed
Like any other of its kind.
She seems to be like a soulful mate
That stands here by my side.
This brings me special confidence
To know that she is mine.
I love my Louisiana
With all her charms and queenly ways
Yet she blushes when in bloom.
God's sunshine surely kissed her
For He blessed her cup so full.
You can even feel her radiance
On her rainy gloomy days
For you know that on the morrow
The sun will clear the haze.
I love my Louisiana.
I propose this toast toward her
With my meager pen in hand.
I somehow feel so primitive
To her majesty so grand.
Joel R.L. Phelps, "Who Can I Burn?"
I just bought the album 3, by Joel R.L. Phelps and the Downer Trio, via iTunes and (apart from some annoying sonic infidelities which I'm convinced are Apple's doing), I'm thoroughly enjoying it. This live concert video for the album's "Who Can I Burn?" (recorded at the Borderline in London in 2001) tells me two things: 1) Phelps is every bit the riveting performer in person that he is on record; and 2) London clubgoers are just as inconsiderate with their in-performance gabbing as their American counterparts are.
(Video courtesy of Phelps' European record label, 12XU.)
Don't Mess With Da Outfit
FoPL Kevin Guilfoile is collaborating on a new group blog, The Outfit (A Collective of Chicago Crime Writers). Joining him are Sean Chercover, Barbara D'Amato, Michael Allen Dymmoch, Libby Hellmann, Sara Paretsky and Marcus Sakey.
What you’ll find here is a little different. We’re not here to share publishing tips or debate industry news. We’re not going to delve into marketing or the ins and outs of author appearances. Other people are doing those things, and doing them well. So instead, we’re going to focus on what we love most.
Stories about crime and justice and revenge. About the highs and lows of writing for a living. About Chicago, glorious and soiled city of bright marquees and dark divisions.
Though I don't read much modern crime fiction--my tastes in the genre lean toward Jim Thompson and the classic noir writers--this should still be an interesting diversion.
(Via Gapers Block.)
Micro Monday: "Harvest"
He looked across the fields, his for one more day. The papers were signed yesterday, the movers coming tomorrow, the grid of streets and sidewalks long since mapped out. The soybeans were already a foot out of the ground, their blossoms swaying in the gentle breeze. It was June, an odd time for a farmer to be moving away, but the developers had insisted on it, just as he had insisted on putting one last crop in the ground.
This land was meant to bear rows of crops, not neutral-colored houses; the soybeans would be harvested one last time.
A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte
Or more accurately, A Saturday Afternoon on the Rock River in Beloit. Lovely, indeed. Seurat would be proud.
Tournament of Tunes - Update #10
Apologies...I've finally gotten my shite together and finished off the third round of the Tournament of Tunes, with Mudhoney knocking off Bad Religion in what was undoubtedly a battle unsuitable for family viewing. Now at last we move on to the regional finals...
Built to Spill - Untrustable Part 2
Ted Leo - Loyal to My Sorrowful Country
Jerry Lee Regional
Morphine - Whisper
Scruffy the Cat - You Dirty Rat
Johnny Cash Regional
Joel R.L. Phelps - God Bless the Little Pigs
The Pixies - Debaser
Carl Perkins Regional
Camper Van Beethoven - Sweethearts
Mudhoney - No One Has
Interesting mix of players there; it's worth noting that only two of them are artists I've discovered during the past ten years. There's also an undeniable handful of personal favorites whom purists might scoff at still being in the running, while numerous huge names (Mission of Burma, Yo La Tengo. etc.) have long since gone home. To those people I simply say, get your own tourament.
I humbly apologize to anyone who dozed off or otherwise lost interest during my inexcusable hiatus. I promise I'll pick up the pace from now on. I hope you still enjoy my self-indulgence, or at least tolerate it.
From the Ball-Room to Hell
Here's a gem: From the Ball-Room to Hell, T.A. Faulkner's 1892 hysteria-fueled screed against dancing:
She is now in the vile embrace of the Apollo of the evening. Her head rests upon his shoulder, her face is upturned to his, her bare arm is almost around his neck, her partly nude swelling breast heaves tumultuously against his, face to face they whirl on, his limbs interwoven with hers, his strong right arm around her yielding form, he presses her to him until every curve in the contour of her body thrills with the amorous contact.
Hubba hubba. Sounds pretty good so far, but then the author jumps to a conclusion which is so breathtakingly far from the ground of evidence that he might as well have been pole-vaulting:
She has no longer any claim to purity; her self-respect is lost; she sinks lower and lower; society shuns her, and she is to-day a brothel inmate, the toy and plaything of the libertine and drunkard.
That's right--dancing leads to prostitution. Actually, this would be a lot funnier if a significant portion of our population didn't still believe this to be true.
(Via Boing Boing.)
James M. Cain
This past Saturday was the birthday of noir master James M. Cain, author of The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, et al. J. Kingston Pierce at The Rap Sheet has a nice recap of Cain's career. Though Cain had many admirers, Raymond Chandler was clearly not one of them:
Everything he touches smells like a billygoat. He is every kind of writer I detest, a faux naïf, a Proust in greasy overalls, a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk and a board fence and nobody looking. Such people are the offal of literature, not because they write about dirty things, but because they do it in a dirty way.
(Via The Publishing Spot.)
Chicago's Black Writers
North Central College professor Richard Guzman discusses the place of black writers in Chicago on WBEZ's "848" program, with particular focus on the recent anthology which he edited, Black Writing from Chicago: In the World, Not of It?. Guzman's chat with Vanessa Bush is quite an interesting listen.
Ryan Grondzik, "The Joy That Kills"
Matt and Josh at Dancing On Fly Ash are currently hosting flash fiction pieces from creative writing students at Delta College in Saginaw, Michigan. One story that really grabbed me was Ryan Grondzik's "The Joy That Kills", which I encourage you to check out. Sure, the protagonist dies--but what a pleasant demise it was for him!
"Archie Domino's Ex-Trainer"
Quirky Nomads has graciously podcasted my audio short story, "Archie Domino's Ex-Trainer", again read by yours truly. (The file is a 9MB mp3; my story is the second segment, starting around 4:25.) This was another "three-item story" which had to incorporate a stool, an ex- (ex-wife, etc.), and the closing line "And that’s why I had to pour the melted snow on my head." This was a fun one to both write and produce--though I abhor the violence of boxing, I still find myself strangely fascinated by the sport.
Happy Independence Day
The United States turns 230 years old today. And what a great, venerable country it is...but...
On a day like today, it's easy to get caught up in the festivities, the pageantry, and the flag-waving without thinking about the true history of this country. It's easy to be blinded by the great principles--freedom, liberty, equality, self-determination--which our revered Founding Fathers set forth, principles which they sadly never actually put into place when the country was established, as they reserved these inalienable rights strictly for men similar to themselves, leaving women as second-class citizens, blacks as slaves and Indians as "barbaric savages."
One of our greatest patriots, Frederick Douglass, denounced the Founding Fathers' unfulfilled promises in 1852, uttering the following:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy -- a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.
This is a great country, but one which could be so much greater. One of equality, of prosperity and opportunity for all, of the common good, of genuine morality, of peace. Not one of increasing divisiveness, selfishness, myopia, intolerance, greed, fear and combativeness. Enjoy your beer and barbecue today, but pause for a moment and think about how we can together make this a better country--better for every single one of us.
Coming Up Short
Well, my flash fiction piece "Quit These Hills" came up short in the Midnight Road Short Fiction Contest, but I'm taking solace in the fact that Steve McDermott had some nice things to say about my story. (Thanks, Steve--I liked your story quite a bit, too.) I encourage you to take a look at the finalists from the contest--plenty of good stuff there.
Two More Journals of Note
Two journals have recently crossed my radar screen for the first time...
Journal of Ordinary Thought (motto: "Every person is a philosopher.") is a periodical produced by the Neighborhood Writing Alliance, which runs writing workshops for adults in neighborhoods throughout Chicago. As I mentioned earlier, what first grabbed my attention was Tony Fitzpatrick's wonderful cover art, but I thoroughly enjoyed the entire issue. The writing is both accomplished and refreshingly informal; these writers aren't writing for ambition or agenda, but simply to express themselves. The focus of this issue (Fall 2004; excerpts here) is the media and its effect on everyday people; there's plenty of nostalgic reflections on TV and radio of the past, as well as pointed essays on how things aren't but should be. I was particularly struck by the following passage from Rosa Cardoso's "Gangs", particularly the final sentence:
I want to tell parents that they should have more communication with their children. They should be energetic but careful. They should help their kids now and not wait for the future. It's better to scold now than to cry later.
Overall, JOT is a very thought-provoking and worthy venture. I'm seriously considering donating to the organization.
Lunch Hour Stories publishes a single short story in each issue, in a very attractive booklet/chapbook format. The publisher was kind enough to send me two free copies: Audrey Glassman Vernick's "The Grass Next Door" is a funny story about a hapless word puzzle writer and goat herder at Sturbridge Village (a living history museum in Massachusetts), his city expatriate live-in girlfriend, and the too-perfect married couple next door; and Sudha Narasimhachar's "Ajji, The Valiant" reflects on an elderly woman in India. LHS is quite affordable (16 issues per year for just $22) and is definitely worth looking into.