For Chicago Junkies Only
Here's an interesting project: "Chicago Community Areas, to scale and decontextualized, arranged sequentially", by Christian Mark Schmidt. Without the usual geographic bearings, I'll be damned if I can identify a single one of these community areas, and I consider myself a quasi-native of the city.
Message from Obama
Today, we sadly find ourselves at the very point in Iraq I feared most when I opposed giving the President the open-ended authority to wage this war in 2002 – an occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences in the midst of a country torn by civil war.
We have waited and we have been patient. We have given chance after chance for a resolution that has not come, and, more importantly, watched with horror and grief the tragic loss of thousands of brave young Americans.
The time for waiting in Iraq is over. The days of our open-ended commitment must come to a close. And the need to bring this war to an end is here.
That is why today, I’m introducing the Iraq War De-escalation Act of 2007. This plan would not only place a cap on the number of troops in Iraq and stop the escalation, it would begin a phased redeployment of U.S. forces with the goal of removing of all U.S. combat forces from Iraq by March 31st, 2008 – consistent with the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group that the President ignored.
The redeployment of troops to the United States, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the region would begin no later than May 1st of this year, toward the end of the timeframe I first proposed in a speech more than two months ago. In a civil war where no military solution exists, this redeployment remains our best leverage to pressure the Iraqi government to achieve the political settlement between its warring factions that can slow the bloodshed and promote stability.
The U.S. military has performed valiantly and brilliantly in Iraq. Our troops have done all we have asked them to do and more. But no amount of American soldiers can solve the political differences at the heart of somebody else’s civil war, nor settle the grievances in the hearts of the combatants.
When it comes to the war in Iraq, the time for promises and assurances, for waiting and patience, is over. Too many lives have been lost and too many billions have been spent for us to trust the President on another tried and failed policy opposed by generals and experts, Democrats and Republicans, Americans and even the Iraqis themselves.
It is time to change our policy.
It is time to give Iraqis their country back.
And it is time to refocus America ’s efforts on the challenges we face at home and the wider struggle against terror yet to be won.
U.S. Senator Barack Obama
Kevin Coval, "Nelson Algren"
Goodness me, I just realized it's been over two months (11/16/06, to be exact) since I last mentioned Nelson Algren here. To rectify this egregious error of omission, I offer up Kevin Coval's poetic ode to Chicago, entitled -- you guessed it -- "Nelson Algren". The recording is from yesterday's "Eight Forty-Eight" show on WBEZ, which was broadcast live from the National Museum of Mexican Art.
Coval has a local tie-in for me, as his poetry collection Slingshots (A Hip Hop Poetica) was published by the Joliet-based indie EM Press.
Song of the Week: East River Pipe
Though I don't listen to music as obsessively as I used to, I'm still a big fan, and it occurred to me that I need to do a much better job of updating my "Listening" link in the right-hand sidebar. That said, I'm instituting a "Song of the Week" which will hopefully prove faithful to its title and, indeed, be updated once a week.
The first offering is "King of Nothing Never" by East River Pipe, from the ever-wonderful Merge Records. Merge, by the way, has a ton of streaming audio from their impressive roster of artists, which I encourage you to check out.
Coming to Chicago: Open Books
What a tremendous concept: used bookstore on the ground floor, literacy center upstairs. And all of it not for profit.
Open Books is Chicago's first nonprofit literacy bookstore. Founded in September 2006 and scheduled to open in spring 2008 at 1449 S. Michigan Ave., it will be a funky, fun, colorful, and eccentric used treasure trove of 50,000+ used books on the first floor, with all proceeds funding unique adult and family literacy programs upstairs.
The idea for Open Books came from its team's lifelong passion for books and reading. After years of separate experience in PR, marketing, creative direction, and startup companies, friends Stacy Ratner and Becca Keaty decided to devote their entrepreneurial energies to the cause closest to their hearts.
Anybody Recognize This Scumbag?
He's a white male, 35-40 years old, and probably has an apartment full of stolen goods, but doesn't necessarily have a good eye for genuine antiquities.
On January 12, this wretch ripped off a staircase ornament from Chicago's venerable Monadnock Building. Somehow he managed to steal the only one out of 200 in the building that wasn't original, but a replica. And he was captured repeatedly on security cameras. Apparently graverobbing and stealing candy from babies just lost their thrill for him.
No arrests have been made, which is where you come in. Anybody who recognizes this schlub is encouraged to contact the Chicago Police Department. Let's give him the chance to ogle the considerably less aesthetic toilet fixtures of a jail cell for a few years.
(Tribune site requires its typically insidious registration. Use "email@example.com" for the user name, "bugmenot" for the password. Thanks, as always, to bugmenot.com.)
The Bright One has a piece on Rick Kogan, Tribune columnist and author. It's ostensibly a review of his two new books, Sidewalks: Portraits of Chicago and A Chicago Tavern: A Goat, A Curse, and the American Dream -- both of which I was thrilled to get autographed copies of for Christmas -- but in reality it's a very nice profile of Kogan.
This passage -- when he talks about his dad, longtime Chicago newspaperman Herman Kogan -- is particularly pleasing:
"I think maybe the seminal moment of my life was sitting on the back porch of our house in Old Town when I told Herman I wasn't attending classes," he recalls. "He listened and said, 'Well, what do you want to do?'"
"Given this little opening, I told him 'I really want to drive a cab so I can meet people and hear stories.' And he said OK. If he hadn't, there's no telling where I would have wound up.
"So I drove a cab for a while and wrote lousy short stories. I worked as a lifeguard. Then I saved up enough money to go to Europe for about a year. I lived in a little town called Estepona in Spain. I got a place for $40 a month -- and wrote lousy, lousy short stories."
A dad who willingly lets his son drop out of college in order to drive a cab? Now that's some courageous and open-minded parenting. I can't speak for the quality of Kogan's fiction -- and based on his assessment, I doubt if any of it will ever see the light of day -- I've enjoyed his journalism for many years. Good guy.
Don Marquis, "Forgets His Littleness"
Minnesota Public Radio's "The Writer's Almanac" passes along this remarkable poem by Don Marquis, "Forgets His Littleness", from The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel. It's much too long (in terms of lines) to reprint here in its entirety, but it reads very quickly. And powerfully.
the planets are
what atoms are
and neither more nor less
man s feet have grown
so big that he
forgets his littleness
Terrific stuff. Read it.
Mister Ron Sells Out...
...but in a good way. Ron Evry, a/k/a Mister Ron, is selling a three-CD set, "The Best of Mister Ron's Basement", a specially-edited collection of his podcast readings of 19 classic (that is, pre-copyright era) short stories from the likes of George Ade, C.B. Lewis, Bill Nye and others. I was quite pleased to see that the collection includes Ade's "The Fable of the Author Who Was Sorry for What He Did to Willie", which is quite possibly the most laugh-out-loud-funny story I've ever heard, in terms of both Ade's brilliant writing and Evry's impeccable delivery.
Chicago's Indie Bookstores
Newcity Chicago posts their independent bookstore guide. Plenty of my favorites -- both old friends and new acquaintances -- are listed, including Quimby's, Bookman's Alley, 57th Street Books, Powell's Books and The Book Cellar. With the suffocating market dominance of the big chain stores during the past decade or so, it's easy to forget what a vibrant indie bookstore community still exists in the city. This list was quite a pleasant reminder.
(Just one nitpick: Brent Books is no longer in business, having been replaced months ago by a generic discount bookstore.)
Update: Prompted by Colin, who left the comment below, I checked into this further. Brent Books is still in business, as I explain here. Thanks, Colin!
"...the gods had conspired against her..."
Typically lovely passage from Ward Just's latest novel, Forgetfulness:
It would help if she had a Gitane, such a commonplace amenity given her distress, the unlucky consequences of her present situation. The aroma of tobacco was delicious and she decided then that the gods had conspired against her. The gods of the Pyrenees were good at conspiracy. They were cruel. They rode the mountain winds and went where they pleased, very old gods grown spiteful with age. Nothing was forgiven, not the slightest misstep. They were omniscient and they were deaf to explanation. Mountain gods were especially vengeful toward women who invaded their domain, careless uninvited intruders who did not know their rightful place in the world. Such women were an affront and would be punished.
Just's effortless transitions -- from Florette's mundane desire for a cigarette, to a mythical assessment of the cruelties of nature, and back to a slightly veiled allusion to her very precarious plight, all in the span of less than one paragraph -- make for a particularly impressive piece of writing. Forgetfulness promises to be every bit as good as An Unfinished Season, Just's previous novel which I enjoyed immensely.
Joliet Police Blotter
Now, there's a smart burglar. Ransack a bunch of cars, and then leave clear footprints in the snow for the cops to track you down. Though the degree of evidence incrimination here isn't too strong, unless that "loose change" was a bunch of rare Indian-head pennies and Buffalo nickels that the owners had extensively documented. I'm guessing the perp will walk on this one.
It wasn't hot, but cops were on the trail
JOLIET -- Catching an alleged burglar would have been a lot more difficult any other time of year.
Police were called Monday afternoon to the 1000 block of West Marion Street after residents reportedly observed a man opening car doors and taking items from vehicles parked along the street.
Police arrived to find Joliet resident Joshua D. Prater. They followed the footprints he'd left in the snow to a nearby alley where they allegedly found an ashtray from one of the burglarized vehicles.
Police say loose change found in Prater's pockets was identified as that which had been kept in the ashtray.
Prater, 22, of 261 S. Center St. was arrested and booked into the county jail on charges of burglary.
The Angler, In Print
At The Angler, where I toil ceaselessly for little recognition and zero pay as Associate Editor, Donavan Hall has unveiled his latest project: a print version of the journal. First up is a pair of flash fiction pieces, "Science Fiction" by A.D. Jameson and "Real Science Fiction" by Trent Walters. Donavan encourages everyone to print out a copy or three, read them, pass them along to friends or strangers, or leave them at libraries and bookstores. Support indie publishing!
Grayson and Monson...
...isn't a law firm, but instead two very fine writers. Matt Bell reviews their recent non-fiction works, Richard Grayson's Diary of a Congressional Candidate in Florida's Fourth Congressional District and Ander Monson's Neck Deep and Other Predicaments. Grayson and Monson are my two favorite literary discoveries of 2006, and both books sound fascinating.
New from Dalkey Archive
AS YOU WERE SAYING, a collaborative anthology of short fiction by French and American writers, including work by Rick Moody, Aleksandar Hemon, Rikki Ducornet, Lydie Salvayre, Camille Laurens, John Edgar Wideman, Robert Olen Butler, and many others.
There doesn't seem to be any additional info on Dalkey's site, so I'll just have to keep an eye out for this one.
Trinie Dalton @ Quimby's
Andrew Ervin, Pete Lit's unofficial and unpaid Champaign-Urbana correspondent, passes along this announcement. Trinie Dalton is the author of Wide Eyed, which Andrew raves is "just incredible." (Book excerpt here.) I'm not familiar with either the author or the book, but given that Andrew has very good literary tastes, and the publisher is the ever-wonderful Akashic, that's good enough for me. Consider it added to The List.
Here's the message from Trinie:
Hello Friends !
I will be reading at Quimby's in Chicago in a couple of weeks, alongside the talented Plastic Crimewave, creator of the mindblowing psych-rock magazine, Galactic Zoo Dossier. Scroll down into Drag City's BOOK NOOK to check it out: http://www.dragcity.com/catalog/catbook.html
Can you forward this to anyone who may be interested, and in the right location? It would be so greatly appreciated!
THANKS and HAPPY NEW YEAR and SKNAHT (thanks backwards)
Trinie Dalton & Plastic Crimewave Steve Krakow
Saturday, January 27th, 8pm, FREE
1854 West North Ave.
Chicago, IL 60622
"The used car lot of the book world."
Over at The Bright One, books editor Cheryl Reed reports from the Chicago International Remainder & Overstock Book Exposition.
Welcome to the used car lot of the book world or -- as I see it -- the publishing world's version of limbo, the waiting ground for books in between bookstore and pulp fire pit.
Personally, I would be absolutely thrilled to be remaindered, because it would not only mean that some publisher believed in my writing so much that they not only published my book, but that they produced far more copies than the market could bear. Provided, of course, that I'd be able to convince another publisher to ignore that sales disaster ("They marketed it all wrong, I'm telling you!") and take a chance on my followup effort.
Edgar Allan Poe, In Song
On what would have been Edgar Allan Poe's 198th birthday, I can't think of a better and more bizarre way to celebrate than listening to this 1969 musical rendition of "The Raven", by some long-forgotten band called Glass Prism. According to the guy who put this gem online, the song actually made it onto the charts in 1974. Remarkable. I get the feeling Poe would have approved.
(Via Boing Boing.)
Another Day, Another Podcast
Writer and editor Steve McDermott joins the audible fray. First up: "Tough Act", his brutal story which was first published in SmokeLong Quarterly. Steve also provides a nice backstory on the piece, which he'll be doing with all of his podcasted stories. His long history of getting "Tough Act" revised and finally published is a very impressive example of writerly diligence.
Mouse in da House
Quite a stir around la casa last night, as we trapped/killed a mouse in our kitchen. Julie discovered the mouse a few days ago (yes, she shrieked, but didn't dance on a chair in high heels like in the old cartoons) when it popped out from behind the microwave, ran along the counter and disappeared into a heating vent that's built into the countertop just above the old radiator. Julie bought some traps, and I put one of them down behind the counter, on the floor next to the radiator. One night later, our quarry was snared. (We're hoping he was a bachelor with no progeny.)
Lest any members of PETA or some other animal-rights group decry my inhumane treatment of said rodent, let me point out the following:
1) He enjoyed a savory taste of peanut butter immediately before his demise.
2) His death appears to have been instantaneous (broken neck), since the trap was barely moved and there was no blood. Hence, no suffering.
3) Had I live-trapped him, what exactly would I have done with him? If I released him outside he would undoubtedly have found his way right back inside again.
4) During the winter, I'm more than happy to let mice have the run of our detached garage (we park our cars outside anyway), but once they've come inside my house, they've crossed the line.
(Incidentally, if I really wanted to stretch the truth and justify my actions, I could further claim that using a trap gave the mouse a much better fate than succumbing to the teeth of our two ferocious predator cats. But that would be a lie, since neither cat is particularly cat-like with respect to mouse-hunting. Our older cat Mud (who bagged two mice in her youth, to Julie's undying appreciation) showed no interest in this mouse whatsoever, while our younger cat Spike, who was very interested in the mouse (he spent hours in the kitchen, staring at the cabinets, undoubtedly intrigued by the scratching sounds emanating from underneath) is quite the pacifist. He doesn't even eat bugs, but just stares at them and occassionally pats them playfully with his paw.)
Anybody who has any qualms with our decision is welcome, should another mouse invade our house, to come to Joliet, live-trap the mouse and take it home with them as a cherished family pet. But if you're not willing to do so, then keep your objections to yourself.
Goodbye Mr. Buchwald
The great American humorist Art Buchwald has passed away, at age 81.
"The last year he had the opportunity for a victory lap and I think he was really grateful for it," Joel Buchwald said. "He had an opportunity to write his book about his experience and he went out the way he wanted to go, on his own terms."
We should all be so blessed. I haven't had much interest in his later writings, but I highly recommend his Son of the Great Society, a hilarious sendup of the Kennedy-Johnson era.
Review of "Guaranteed"
"Writers should live and know the world — a job, heartbreak, divorce, poverty, jail — and the lack of experience in very literate young writers...is the most serious flaw in their work. That and secondhand imaginations. "
--Barry Hannah, in Oxford American
Booga J Reads (and reads, and reads...)
The wife checks in with thoughts on her recent reading. Murakami, Marilynne Robinson, Mark Haddon...
A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon was up next. Now this is what I wanted Franzen's The Corrections to be -- but it wasn't.
I envy the pace of her reading, which considerably outstrips my tortoise-like plodding -- especially when I sadly gaze at my TBR pile, which now fills three shelves, not even counting the untold hundreds of books at the library that I'd like to read as well. Sigh.
Jeff McMahon of Contrary
Our notion at Contrary is not to abandon traditional forms, since readers and writers depend on them in much the same way that we all depend on the grammar of our language. Our notion is to push against the walls of traditional forms and maybe poke a hole here or there. We try to push against two walls in particular: the one that confines literature to traditional notions of story, poem and essay, and the one that confines publication to a relatively intimate salon of writers.
Wise words indeed...I first came across Contrary over a year ago, with Wade Rubenstein's very funny and reality-twisting story "The Annoying Radio", and have been reading it reguarly ever since. And, of course, also submitting stories to it, with no luck so far.
Best and Worst Book Covers
At Bookslut, Heather Smith weighs in with her best and worst book covers of 2006. Sorry, Heather, but I can't disagree more. I'll ignore the clever categorizing and cut right to the chase, with the very best and very worst of 2006.
This gorgeous cover (by Brunetti himself, I'm assuming; I'll have to check my copy at home) is just so striking -- clean and simple lines, vividly colored in black and blue (to me, a highly underrated color combination) and accented in light gray and pristine white, and with compelling illustrations. The main picture oddly invokes one of those old audience-facing movie theater photos, with the twist that none of these people are blankly staring at a movie screen, but instead are raptly reading comic books. And they're all adults, when comics have long been dismissed as mere childrens' fare. The suggestion is that not every member of society is distracted by the flash-and-crash of Hollywood (publishers' woeful lamenting of their sales figures notwithstanding) and that today's comics are highly worthy of even adults' attention.
When Doctorow's otherwise laudworthy novel came out in 2005, it included this hideously garish cover, which invoked not a thoughtful and penetrating Civil War narrative, but instead a trashy romance novel (something like The Battlefield of Passion) or, most charitably, one of John Jakes' dubious Revolutionary War epics (The Bastard, et al). But I held out hope for the paperback edition, to be released in 2006. With the paperback, the publisher had the chance to rectify its error, and come up with a cover that's artful and subtly evocative, something more fitting to the quality of Doctorow's prose. No dice. They used the same damned cover again.
Cory Doctorow, "After the Siege"
Cory Doctorow, fiction writer and Boing Boing honcho, has had his excellent story "After the Siege" published at The Infinite Matrix. I really enjoyed listening to the story in late 2005, when he serialized it as a podcast. The story's rather long, at almost 22,000 words, so you'll probably want to print it out and avoid the computer-monitor eyestrain.
"(A) scoop isn't a matter of luck, you work, you dig, you make calls, you grab the discrepancy, the loose thread, and you pull. And you have to have been paying attention in the first place. That's not luck...The truth slips out from time to time, and enough of it slips out that there's a piece there for any reporter who takes the time..."
--I.F. Stone, quoted in I.F. Stone: A Portrait: Conversations With a Nonconformist, by Andrew Patner
I've written a new flash fiction story, "Power", for the latest fiction contest at The Clarity of Night. All of the submitted entries are listed here; submission guidelines are here if you're so inclined. The contest is open until 11 P.M. EST on Wednesday, so sharpen up those pixels!
Famous Last Words
Great contest over at The Outfit:
Everybody knows how important the first line of a novel is. But nobody talks about the importance of the last line.
We want to see your best hypothetical ending. Can you come up with a line so compelling, funny, or intense that it leaves people desperate to read everything that came before? Prove it, and you'll take home not only signed hardcovers of both my book and Sean's, but also signed novels from every member of the Outfit -- seven signed books in all.
I've already got a signed copy of Guilfoile's book, but it would be great to have the others. I'll probably take the plunge.
Another Zealot for Bush
Chicago novelist Sara Paretsky has a passionate and thoughtful op-ed piece in today's Tribune about Eric Keroack, Bush's latest morality-zealot nominee for an important public health post, heading the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Population Affairs. Among Keroack's steadfast beliefs are that abstinence is the only appropriate topic for sex education, that women who have sex outside of marriage (those trollops!) "use up their 'bonding' hormone, oxytocin, and are unable to form lasting relationships", that premarital sex is a form of "germ warfare," and that contraception "demeans women...degrades human sexuality and is adverse to human health."
Little girls, Bush and Keroack are telling us, you must have our permission for anything you do in the privacy of your beds and doctors' offices. And if you do what you want without our permission, we will see that you are punished: We will force you to become pregnant -- because we will deny you access to contraception -- or we will tell you to risk death if you want to end a pregnancy.
Normally I don't speculate about the sexual and contraceptive choices of any woman, whether she's the first lady or the lady next door. But when the lady's husband is prying into those choices for the rest of the world -- deciding whether my goddaughters can have abortions, whether my nieces can have access to contraception and whether my granddaughter can learn that her boyfriend's condom can protect her from STDs -- I am understandably curious about the First Marriage.
Laura Bush has carried only one pregnancy to term in her 29 years of marriage. Has she "demeaned" her body by using contraception? Has she terminated a pregnancy? Has she chosen "the only moral course" and been abstinent?
Once again, middle-aged white men well past their child-spawning years dictating how women should conduct their personal lives. Once again, Bush picking an advisor whose views conform almost perfectly to his hypocritical own. Once again, the Republican Party, which otherwise insists that government shouldn't meddle in peoples' lives, arguing in favor of controlling uteruses across America and the world.
(Tribune site requires its typically insidious registration. Use "firstname.lastname@example.org" for the user name, "bugmenot" for the password. Thanks, as always, to bugmenot.com.)
Thrift Store Booking
Joliet may not have many book store options (just a B&N and a small used book store) but one thing it does have is a plethora of thrift stores -- all of which, I'm pleased to report, have piles and piles of cheap used books. There's a Goodwill, of course, but also some very good local charity shops (MorningStar Treasure Chest and St. Vincent DePaul). Surprisingly, there's no Salvation Army.
Anyway, my chronic book-buying compulsion means I can never resist the book section of the thrift stores for more than, oh, about two minutes after walking in. Today at Treasure Chest (our favorite on all fronts -- merchandise, prices, friendly staff) I picked up Andrew Patner's I.F. Stone: A Portrait: Conversations with a Noncomformist, which looks fascinating. (And only set me back fifty cents.) I discovered Stone only recently, after reading an article ("Celebrating a Media Maverick") in Utne, which now has me intrigued about the man's life and writings.
During our thrifting jaunt today I also saw, but passed on, W.G. Sebald's Rings of Saturn, Irene Zabytko's The Sky Unwashed, and Andre Dubus III's House of Sand and Fog, to name just three. I like the idea of buying books from thrift stores, since the books are cheap and buying there supports a good social cause. I encourage you to check out your own local thrift store soon. You may be surprised what great reading you'll find.
"The Ghoul's Evening Visit"
Note: During 2007, I'm resolving to do a much better job of publishing more of my original ficition here. Since the story I'm offering below (now nearly two years old) is pretty much inseparable from the photo, and few literary journals publish story-and-photo tandems, I thought I might as well just publish it here. Thanks to Ron at BigHappyFunHouse for the photo.
The Ghoul’s Evening Visit
Vera and her mother Agnes were surely the most easygoing, nonchalant pair of women in all of Monroe County. Nothing ever fazed them; shocking incidents that would horrify others—grisly car crashes, frighteningly gory industrial accidents and the like—were encountered with little more than a shrug as the women simply moved on in their everyday lives.
“Sad, but it didn’t happen to me,” Agnes would usually say as she turned back to her clothes-washing or bill-paying.
But even when such a thing did happen to Vera and Agnes, they thought little of it. Last night’s events, or non-events if Vera and Agnes were asked, were merely more of the same.
The women were home once again, as usual, as neither of them were particularly social or active in outside activities. Agnes kept house during the day while Vera worked her receptionist job at the insurance agency in town, returning home dutifully at 5:15 PM without a thought of doing anything else. Evenings were spent in front of the television and Saturdays at various domestic hobbies, with only Sunday mornings standing out, ever so modestly, with perfunctory attendance at St. Thomas Methodist. Even the kindly beckoning congregants were unable to entice them out of their domestic routine, and they would promptly return home and resume their quiet lives.
Last night it was The Ed Sullivan Show; on other nights it would be Gunsmoke or I Love Lucy or any number of other programs. Only the programs themselves changed; regardless of which one was on, Vera and Agnes would sit at opposite ends of the narrow-striped couch, room lights dimmed, the only illumination coming from the pale blue flickering of the boxy Philco. The two would sit entranced, captivated by the comings and goings on the screen, bemused by the banter and interplay of the actors, and enticed by the various products offered on the frequent messages from the sponsors.
While Ed Sullivan was on, right after a juggler had magically kept twenty plates spinning simultaneously atop pencil-thin shafts, and just as Sullivan was beginning to announce Chippers the Acrobat Chimp, their home’s front door swung open. The two women barely noticed, with Vera only acknowledging the new arrival’s existence as it lumbered to a halt by the end of the couch, giving Vera the vague impression that it wanted to sit down.
Vera, ever compliant, slid over to the center of the couch right next to Agnes, taking her eyes off of the screen for only a moment, with only a brief uncurious glance upward at the new arrival. The latter sat down laboriously and listlessly, emitting an inhuman groan from deep within.
Vera and Agnes were mesmerized by the rascally Chippers as he swung back and forth between two trapezes, comically ignoring all of his handler’s commands. Sullivan clumsily tried to help corral the chimp, to the endless delight of both the studio audience and the mother and daughter who sat in the darkened room, on the narrow-striped couch. They giggled quietly under their breath, not noticing the deathbed pallor of their guest’s face, the funereal black of the wardrobe, or the all-white, pupil- and iris-less vacancy of the eyes.
Nor did Vera much notice their guest’s intense interest in the odor of her skin. The guest, presumably being blind, paid no attention to the deepening chaos playing out on the television, but instead turned its head toward Vera and conspicuously sniffed the air, at which point, apparently liking what it smelled, it began to salivate as if from extreme hunger. Guttural slurping sounds emitted from the guest’s withered mouth.
On the television, Chippers was finally grabbed by its handler and escorted offstage, and as the giggles of Vera and Agnes gradually subsided and the two dabbed at their eyes, Sullivan made a hasty farewell, thanking the audience for tuning in and reminding everyone of America’s biggest new singing sensation, who would be appearing on the next show. Vera and Agnes sighed in disappointment that the evening’s hilarity had come to an end, even as they looked forward to the next episode.
“Well, I’d best be getting to bed,” Vera announced formally. “Another day of work tomorrow.”
She stood up, as did her mother, who acknowledged the need to go to bed with a silent nod. Only now, for the first time, did Vera address their guest.
“Thank you so much for coming,” she said warmly, turning towards it and extending her hand.
The guest, surprised, ceased its slurping with a start and rose from the couch. Saying nothing, it nodded to Vera, and then to Agnes, as it wiped saliva from its lips with the back of an emaciated hand. The guest turned and walked through the still-open front door, not bothering to close the door as it departed.
Stories: McGahern, Monson, McCann
Two stories and one sort-of-story, all of them excellent, have crossed my radar recently.
The late John McGahern's "Creatures of the Earth" has an elegaic mood which, combined with its themes of fading gentry, loss and grief, reminds me a lot of William Trevor, one of my favorite recent discoveries. The quiet strength of this lovely story tells me I should explore McGahern's writing in much more depth.
Ander Monson's "Everyone Looks Better When They're Under Arrest" is a touching metaphor for something critically missing from a couple's relationship (as represented by the absence of a stove in their home) as well as a subtle indictment of the vacuous fakery of reality television. Incidentally, this entire issue of Ploughshares (Spring 2006) has probably the finest collection of fiction that I've ever seen in a single issue of a literary journal, with equally strong contributions by Mary Gordon ("Eleanor's Music"), Cristina Henriquez ("Chasing Birds"), Valerie Laken ("Spectators") and Ghita Schwarz ("Oral Histories"). This issue is definitely worth checking out.
And while this excerpt from Zoli, the new novel from Colum McCann (whom I mentioned here recently) isn't a short story per se, it does stand pretty well on its own. In this passage, a city journalist has just entered a Gypsy village, looking for information on an exiled poet.
Doorframes used as tables. Sackcloth for curtains. Empty čuču bottles strung up as wind chimes. At his feet, bits of wood and porridge containers, lollipop sticks and shattered glass, the ground-down bones of some dead animal. He catches glimpses of babies hammocked from ceilings, flies buzzing around them as they sleep. He reaches for his instamatic but is pushed on in the swell of children. Open doorways are quickly closed. Bare bulbs switched off. He notices carpets on the walls, and pictures of Christ, and pictures of Lenin, and pictures of Mary Magdalene, and pictures of Saint Jude lit by small red candles high above empty shelves. From everywhere comes the swell of music, no accordions, no harps, no violins, but every shack with a TV or a radio on full volume, an endless thump.McCann's eye for detail is marvelous, as is the depiction of the naïveté of the protagonist, who expected the Gypsy village to be filled with indigenous music, accordians and fiddles played by natives, when in fact the only music comes from TV's and radios fed by satellite dishes. A nice touch, indeed.
(McCann link via Max at The Millions.)
The Slow Death of Chicago Factories
Another very notable Chicago industrial relic, Gutmann Leather Co., is shutting its doors. North Siders might recognize the tannery (shown above in a photograph I took in 1998) as the oddly vertical building which sits just west of the Webster Place Theater, right on the Chicago River. The North Branch of the river was once lined with tanneries which were supplied with animal hides from the great slaughterhouses of the South Side, but Gutmann's demise now leaves just one, the much less imposing Norween Leather Co. on Elston Avenue.
Crain's Chicago Business, which first reported the news two weeks ago, is now reacting to the closing of Gutmann and the pending relocation of the nearby Finkl steel plant with barely concealed glee, calling for the industrial sites to be redeveloped into -- you guessed it -- more retail stores and condominiums. To make this possible, Crain's is calling for the end of the Clybourn Corridor planned manufacturing district (or "PMD") in which properties are restricted to industrial uses, in the city's very admirable goal of keeping good-paying blue-collar manufacturing jobs in the area. In making their argument, the magazine cites the declining number of factory jobs in the PMD (from 1,146 in 1998 to 336 in 2004) as evidence of the district's supposed irrelevance, though I'd argue that an entire block of retail establishments along that stretch of Clybourn probably don't employ any more than 336 people in total -- and I guarantee those aren't good-paying union jobs, either.
The last thing the Near North Side, and the Clybourn and Elston corridors in particular, needs is more retail and condo development. The corridor areas were already ridiculously congested six years ago, when my wife and I left the city for the suburbs, and it's undoubtedly grown much worse since then. A touch of sanity needs to be maintained on the subject of Chicago's economic development, to maintain both the quality of life of area residents and good opportunities for blue-collar workers. It's not only possible to have both, but also good for everyone involved.
Giveaway: Lately by Sara Pritchard
Once again, Houghton Mifflin has sent me both an advance reading copy and final published copy of one of their books; this time it's the short story collection Lately by Sara Pritchard. (Excerpt here.) I'm giving away the advance reading copy to a very lucky reader. Here's the publisher's promo for the book:
In this deliciously heart-rending collection, eleven interconnected stories present women and men whose lives have been influenced by Bob Dylan and Vietnam, childhood accidents and family mysteries. When two sisters throw a divorce party, it's a Martha Stewart vision gone haywire. A coed in the late 1960s muddles through an unplanned pregnancy while the father is missing in action. A vacationer thinks she sees her late father on a transatlantic flight. With charming prose, offbeat characters, and emotional depth, Sara Pritchard illuminates our defining moments.
"Lately has all the elements that enchanted readers of Crackpots: beautiful sentences, artful storytelling, a wickedly original voice, and, of course, unforgettable crackpots. Pritchard has perfect comic pitch, intelligence to burn, and writes the finest metaphors of any fiction writer I know." -- Sigrid Nunez, author of The Last of Her Kind
"Sara Pritchard's writing is so astonishing and delightful that these stories, if they fancied, could run away and join the circus. Lately is one of the most incandescent and tornadic collections I have ever read. Pure white magic. I bow at the clicking ruby slippers of Sara Pritchard." -- Will Clarke, author of Lord Vishnu's Love Handles
"A book of rare and fresh originality." -- Joan Silber, author of Ideas of Heaven
"Lately is such a moving and funny collection that reading it makes my heart ache. I would follow Pritchard and her characters anywhere just to hear what they had to say." -- Vendela Vida, author of Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name
"Lately is a page-turner, a collaged valentine of a book, and Sara Pritchard is a genius. She embraces her characters' eccentricities with wit, compassion, inventive surrealism, and a deeply realistic insight. Pritchard knows the secrets of both life and death and reveals them with a delightfully addictive insouciance. This is a book to fall in love with, and to read over and over." -- Sarah Stone, author of The True Sources of the Nile
Sara Pritchard is the author of the novel Crackpots, which was a New York Times Notable Book and was selected by Ursula Hegi to receive the Katharine Bakeless Nason Prize for fiction.
The first person to email me (pete_anderson [at] comcast [dot] net) with the subject line "Lately" wins the book. Please provide your snail mail address. I'll pay for the shipping, so there's absolutely no cost to the winner. Good luck to all!
UPDATE: The winner is Marie C. of Springfield, Illinois. Congrats!
Giveaway: Charity Girl by Michael Lowenthal
Note: I still haven't had any takers for this intriguing novel, so I'm running this post again.
I'm on Houghton Mifflin's review copy mailing list, with the publisher recently sending me both a softcover advance reading copy and hardcover final edition of Michael Lowenthal's intriguing new novel Charity Girl (excerpt here). I'm giving away the softcover ARC to one lucky recipient (and keeping the hardcover for my reading/reviewing pleasure). But first, a word from the publisher:
Charity Girl examines one of the darkest periods in our history, when patriotic fervor and fear led to devastating consequences. During World War I, the U.S. government went on a moral and medical campaign, quarantining and incarcerating young women who were thought to have venereal diseases. Most were called "charity girls," or working-class girls who happened to have had relationships with infected men. Through the eyes of one fictional charity girl, this novel explores an astonishing time.
Frieda Mintz, a Jewish seventeen-year-old bundle wrapper at Jordan Marsh in Boston, spends one impulsive night with an infected soldier. Soon after, she is tracked down and sent to a makeshift detention center, where she is subject to invasive physical exams, poor living conditions, and a creeping erosion of all she thought she knew about herself. Buoying her, though, is a cast of women as strong as they are diverse, and they soon teach one another about dependence, and eventually independence.
Charity Girl lays bare an ugly part of our past, when the government exercised a questionable level of authority at the expense of its citizens' rights. The book casts long shadows and explores the most important, urgent questions of desire, freedom, and identity.
The first person to email me (pete_anderson [at] comcast [dot] net) with the subject line "Charity Begins At Home" wins the book. Please provide your snail mail address. I'll pay for the shipping, so there's absolutely no cost to the winner. Good luck to all!
UPDATE: The winner is Naomi G. of Cambridge, Mass. Congrats!
Coolest. Thing. EVER.
Those of you who over-indulged on New Year's Eve and slept through the Tournament of Roses Parade missed out on seeing the culmination of the childhood dreams of myself and anyone else who grew up during the Apollo era of space exploration.
Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the jet pack.
Oh, sure, the fuel only allows for a 30-second flight, but how many of us would kill, kill for that 30 seconds?
The Bafflingly Enduring Appeal of "Ectoplasm"
In what is surely the result of some bizarrely devious link-clicking bot whose purpose I can't even begin to fathom, my story "Ectoplasm" was the most-downloaded story at Storyglossia during 2006. Sure, several dozen of these downloads were my own, as I clicked through repeatedly in January and February to quell my doubts during my "I can't believe I finally got published" phase, but since I haven't done so since at least March, the story's continued popularity has me completed baffled. I mean, it's a decent story, but let's face it -- it ain't exactly Chekhov or Carver.
My thanks go out to everyone who read the story, and another special thanks to Steve McDermott for accepting the story. Its publication finally got the ball rolling for me, and lead to a pretty successful year of placing my stories. Hopefully I can keep the momentum going this year.