Behold the Chocolate Pundit
Julie Anderson, 37, of Joliet, Illinois, eats chocolate at least once a day and occasionally writes up her thoughts on a blog (www.boogaj.com/chocolate_blog). She says there is distinct taste difference when other fats are used for cocoa butter.
"Any product that doesn't have the cocoa butter doesn't taste as good and doesn't feel the same on your tongue,'' said Anderson, who wrote to the FDA opposing the change. "A high-quality chocolate, when you put it in your mouth, it melts and becomes very silky. With hydrogenated oils, it feels kind of waxy or greasy.''
Lest that first sentence cast any aspersions, I must point out that she works out intensely five days a week and keeps a very modest diet, thus retaining her girlish figure while still occasionally sating her sweet tooth.
Chimney-Sweepers and Dandelions
I haven't read Shakespeare -- in any way, shape, or form -- since my freshman English Lit class at the University of Illinois. (Don't bother taking me to task. I've still managed to live a very full and happy life, even without the Bard.) But I'm rather struck by this verse, as passed along and elaborated upon by the estimable Patrick Kurp:
Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun.
Nor the furious winter’s rages,
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages.
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
I was fully prepared to take "chimney-sweepers" literally (chimney-sweeping is, after all, quite dusty and dirty work) but the dandelion explanation makes the term into a really nice metaphor.
Enshrouding the Bug
Farewell, dear Plug Bug. Yes, you grinned in mockery on the city's folly for eighteen years, but if there's one force of nature which is all but unstoppable, it's commercial real estate development in Chicago. Might take nearly two decades, but eventually it will get built. And yet, I can't help but admire this sentiment:
Thousands of years from now, when future archeologists pull down the last steel beams of the buildings currently rising, the Plug Bug will again be revealed, and future peoples will be amazed and perplexed as they create their own stories of what it must have meant to we lost-in-time primitives of today.
"Thoughtful Alphabet 2"
Thoughtful Alphabet 2
(For Edward Gorey)
Afternoon bacchanal. Champagne dissipates. Eleanor faints. Guests hover. Inquisitive jostling. Knavish leering. Matronly notions outwardly present. Quickly recovers. Stands tenuously. Undergarments vanish. Wednesday's excitement. Yesteryear's zenith.
Ask Not For Whom the Bell Tolls...
...it tolls for thee, Sunday literary supplement.
On May 19, the Books section will move to the Saturday edition of the Tribune.
Faithful readers will recognize freshened features of the section. With the switch to Saturday, we will also usher in a new era of the Tribune's coverage of books, expanding our coverage of books, ideas and the written word throughout the newspaper and across the week.
A highlight of the Tribune's new coverage will be "Lit Life," a column by Tribune Pulitzer Prize winner Julia Keller, which will appear in the Sunday Arts & Entertainment section. The popular "Literary events" calendar will be found on Saturday in Books and Sunday in Arts & Entertainment. A redesigned Books presence at chicagotribune.com is in the works. In May we will initiate our blog, "TribBooks," and with it an improved Web site to bring together book coverage throughout the newspaper.
The Chicago Tribune's Books section is a place in which readers and writers exchange ideas. Moving the section to Saturday will separate it from the Sunday newspaper, which already is bursting at the seams with essential reading, and make a prominent place for it on a new day of the week. So, on May 19, Books will welcome readers into its new homes on Saturday and on the Web.
As always, we look forward to hearing from you about books and the Books section and seeing you on June 9 and 10 at the 23rd annual Chicago Tribune Printers Row Book Fair.
Like the similar move by the Trib's sister paper, the L.A. Times, I consider this to be a bad decision. Moving the books section from Sunday (presumably the day of the paper's highest readership) to Saturday (presumably the lowest) will only lessen the exposure that the paper's literary coverage receives. (And I won't even dignify the statement that the Sunday Trib "already is bursting at the seams with essential reading" with a comment of my own.)
I certainly won't be buying the Saturday Trib (which is typically skimpy in content) just for the books section alone. Whatever attention I'll be paying to its books coverage will be online, so I hope the paper is truly serious about beefing up its Web content. Hiring a broader range of reviewers and essayists would be a great start, as would dropping the "registration required" annoyance. Assuming the Trib is committed to the Saturday thing, they would be wise to make the literary content better, and with free and unfettered access, or risk marginalizing it even further than it already is.
Algren and Shay
I quite like this summation by Michael Weinstein of the ongoing Art Shay photographic exhibition at Stephen Daiter Gallery:
A man of his time, Art Shay was the visual counterpart of Nelson Algren, both of whom tried to capture the life of Chicago's gritty streets, presenting a picture of a not-so-sweet, yet tough and ultimately self-affirming home. A heavy, plodding energy pervades Shay's black-and-white images from the 1940s and 1950s. Neither inert nor vibrant, Shay's subjects seem to move through their lives with dull determination that borders on stoicism, as when we see men wearing baggy overcoats standing in a police line-up under unforgiving lights, caught in suspense between submission and assertion. In Shay's blue-collar Chicago of yesteryear, there is not a fashion statement to be made and not a trace of posing; life in the raw is what Shay was after and this generous slice of his work shows that he succeeded better than he could have hoped; his images are cold blasts from a past that prolongs itself into the present beneath our glitzy veneer.
Though it makes perfect sense to me now, it hadn't occurred to me that Algren and Shay were fraternal twins of sorts, each having identical artistic sensibilities but choosing to express themselves in different mediums -- prose and photography, respectively. Lately I've been browsing Shay's collection, Nelson Algren's Chicago, from their old days of knocking around Chicago's mean streets, which includes a long essay by Shay of Algren remembrances. It's a fascinating book which is now (tragically, senselessly) out of print. I check it out from my local library every now and then for a quick fix.
Three Lasts of Chicago
Last week's Newcity Chicago featured a charming trio of articles by Maude Standish, each highlighting a "last in Chicago": the last hand-set bowling alley (Southport Lanes, one of my favorite places in the entire city), the last silent movie theater, and the last typewriter repairman, Steve Kazmierski:
"Computers I hate. Oh yeah, `cause you get in trouble with the computers. That's why everyone has much problems. The computers. Don't you know the problems we are having? With the teenagers. They get in and they deal with narcotics and they buy narcotics. They steal the banks from the people. They cheat people. On computers!"
My late father, an unrepentant technophobe (I had to reprogram the speed-dial on my parents' phone every time I visited their house; they never learned to program the VCR; their six-month-long fling with a PC and the Internet earned them little more than a single, borderline-bogus purchase on eBay) would have gotten along great with Mr. Kazmierski. I really like the fact that the latter gives priority to fixing machines that will actually be used for typing, relegating the antiques destined to be mere display items to the back of the line. Fixing the antiques probably pays better, since that clientele is likely wealthier, but he still favors the writers and other old-school typists who keep typewriters' spirit alive in this digital age.
Timely, I'm Assuredly Not
After twenty-three years of ignorance, followed by ignorant procrastination, I've decided to finally buy Double Nickels on the Dime -- the classic Minutemen album, of course, to which I will likely add the new 33 1/3 book by Michael T. Fournier.
...Sammy Hagar had scored a big pop hit with "I Can't Drive 55." The Minutemen thought it would be funny to comment on the nature of Hagar's little ditty by letting listeners know that driving fast wasn't terribly defiant. "So to wear red leather and say that you can't drive 55 like that's the big rebellion thing...to us, the big rebellion thing was writing your own fuckin' songs and trying to come up with your own story, your own picture, your own book, whatever. So he can't drive 55, because that was the national speed limit? Okay, we'll drive 55, but we'll make crazy music," says Watt.
If that's not the epitome of punk, I don't know what is.
When the album was first released, back in April 1984, I was a freshman at the University of Illinois who was excessively enamored with George Thorogood, the Who and Dire Straits. (I still appreciate each, to a dramatically lesser degree, but my ardor back then is inexplicable now.) I'll even sheepishly admit to having Billy Joel and Chuck Mangione LPs hidden in my dorm room closet. I knew about the Clash and the Jam from MTV, but my punk indoctrination came so late that I didn't even really discover the Sex Pistols until about 1990. I didn't get into Hüsker Dü until after they'd broken up, and only caught the Replacements on their final tour. And now I'm finally coming around to the Minutemen, twenty-two years after D. Boon's death.
First off, my heartfelt condolences to the Virginia Tech shooting victims and their families. None of you deserved such a fate -- in fact, no one does.
The coming days will undoubtedly include a renewed call for tighter gun controls -- if not an outright ban, then much greater restrictions on gun acquisition and use. This call happens every time a mass shooting like Virginia Tech or Columbine occurs. People get outraged for a while, and then the furor fades away again, as we move on to more immediate concerns and tell ourselves that such a thing can't happen to us. But it can happen to anybody, especially as long as we have such lax controls on firearms. The general indifference of our population, as well as exceedingly weak-willed politicians who are unwilling to stand up to the mighty gun lobby, essentially ensures that chronic gun violence will continue to plague our country for the indefinite future.
The coming days will undoubtedly also include the gun lobby defending its Consitutional right to bear arms, as spelled out in the 2nd Amendment:
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, and the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
Gun owners insist they have the right to own and use a gun to defend themselves, and any gun control legislation restricts their freedom. I don't know how many gun owners there are in America, but I'd guess it's far less than a majority of the population. So a minority of the population thinks gun control restricts their freedom. Legally, that minority has an arguable point.
But what about the freedom of every single person in America? What about the freedom from danger, the freedom from fear? Don't we all have the right to safely and quietly go about our daily lives without the fear of being gunned down in a random act of gun violence? Unfortunately, unlike the 2nd Amendment's more explicit grant, such a right to safety was not specifically granted in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.
Or wasn't it? Check out the less-noticed but no less legally valid 9th Amendment:
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
Gun owners have the legal right to keep and bear arms. But the 9th Amendment checks this, as its wording can be reasonably interpreted to prevent those taking advantage of gun rights to "deny or disparage" the rights "retained by the people." And surely one right retained by the people is the inherent right to safety -- a right which is routinely denied and disparaged by the millions of guns floating around which are readily available to opportunisitic criminals, or to anyone just looking to settle an argument or correct a grievance.
An individual's rights are all well and good, just as long as they don't infringe the rights of others. And private gun ownership infringes the rights of all us.
"...all mankind is us, whether we like it or not."
One of my favorite passages from Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot, in which a lengthy period of indecision, dawdling and stasis is suddenly interrupted by a stirring call to arms -- and immediately followed by a wonderfully silent rebuttal:
Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! (Pause. Vehemently.) Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late! Let us represent worthily for once the foul brood to which a cruel fate consigned us! What do you say? (Estragon says nothing.)
Tony Fitzpatrick Graces the Tribune
Chicago artist and writer Tony Fitzpatrick has a wonderful piece in today's Chicago Tribune in which he explains the creation of his stunning collages, which draw heavily on the city's history.
People walk in and out of my shop all day -- delivery guys, salespeople, kids selling those ratty Snickers bars "for after school programs," and art collectors. They always wonder how I can get any work done with all of the noise and traffic. I tell them that the noise and traffic is part of the music, and the music is part of the stories, and the stories are why I am here.
The print version of the piece also includes gorgeous, full-color reproductions of two of his collages: "Hannibal of Chicago" and "Night Train". Do yourself a favor and browse Fitzpatrick's entire website -- I guarantee you won't regret it.
(Tribune site requires registration. Use "email@example.com" for the user name, "tribune" for the password. Thanks, as always, to bugmenot.com.)
Two interesting takes on waterways, and the large and small ways they impact humankind, have come to my attention recently. In an interview at The Elegant Variation, Chris Abani considers the big picture:
...every great city in the world has usually been situated on the banks of a river. I mean it is the water that draws people to settle there in the first place for obvious reasons – drinking, crop irrigation, transport, etc. Usually the river builds a symbiotic relationship with the city and its inhabitants that is beyond merely the practical, it becomes mythological. We can’t think of Paris without the Seine for instance. There is something about water that does this, its flow, its ability to absorb history, the dead, and the desire of a people. Water is also closely associated with birth and femininity and most rivers and other large bodies of water are linked to goddesses – Yemenya, Oshun, Mami-Wata and so forth. In many ways, you can almost think of the river and stories around it as vital to the city – there is really no London (Londonus) without the Thames, no Shakespeare even. This is the case with LA.
In contrast, Beth Bosworth's nice short story, "Buick" (from the journal Guernica), zeroes in with a much tighter focus, revolving around Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal:
We'd reached Second Avenue and gone beyond, toward the bank of the canal. A garden, renowned for its red roses, had once prospered there in the days when they called it Gowanus Creek Canal, and fish swam into it from the sea. Unlike my father's Buick, we knew, a subterranean propeller, like some mythical underwater beast, had recently come back to life. The canal water now flowed constantly, but its sediment still contained poisonous waste. It still shone a strange shade of pink.
I myself think about rivers and canals quite a bit. I look at the nearly-empty Chicago River, which flows sluggishly past my office building, and strain to imagine how it was once lined with wharves, schooners and steamers scuttling to and fro, the docks swarming with commerce and sweat and human toil. The river is all but ignored now, garnering attention just once a year on St. Patrick's Day, when the city famously dyes it a shocking shade of green.
Joliet, where I now live, has considerably more traffic along its Des Plaines River, mostly barges with pilot houses sufficiently high that the city's five drawbridges have to be raised to let them pass. But the barges never stop here, plodding their way somewhere upriver or downriver: there are no more wharves here either; and the adjacent Illinois & Michigan Canal, once so critical to the 19th Century development of the region, is now little more than a drainage ditch. And Cary, where I grew up, required a quick drive over the Fox River (narrow, shallow and navigable only by speedboats) to get anywhere to the east, which included Chicago and anything else resembling urban civilization.
The Fox has always been sleepy, the I&M has long been irrelevant and invisible, and the Des Plaines still retains a bit of its old bustle, and all of that makes sense to me. But, in a way, the quieting of the Chicago River saddens me. Though I know that the railroads and highways that eclipsed river transport are much more efficient, and the river is considerably cleaner than during its commercial heyday, it still feels like something vital has been lost. It seems like downtown, despite its never-ending flow of pedestrians and cars, is missing something. Maybe, in growing ever more clean and polite and white-collar, it's lost touch with the natural world, from the river around whose marshy mouth the city first arose.
Or maybe I'm just indulging in false nostalgia for better times that really weren't better.
(For Edward Gorey)
Algebra brought consternation, drubbing every freshman's grades. "However," Irene jibed, "knowing little math never obstructed progress. Quest! Read science texts, undertake violin, with exuberant youthful zeal."
Chicagoist is on a roll. Just a few weeks after reviewing my favorite German restaurant, they visit another of my old faves, Tre Kronor, a wonderful Swedish place on Foster Avenue right across from North Park University. I've been to Tre Kronor ("three crowns") several times, including way back when it was still the second location of Andersonville's Svea. That photo above is quite possibly my favorite meal in the world -- Swedish pancakes sweetened with lingonberries. (No syrup necessary.) Add a side order of limpa (sweet rye) toast and a cup of jet-black coffee, and I'm in heaven.
Tre Kronor also has a traditional Swedish smörgåsbord during the holiday season that I have not yet experienced but would really like to, one of these years.
EWN Short Fiction Contest
The winner of the inaugural Emerging Writers Network Short Fiction Contest has been announced: "The Regular", by Dave Reidy. The comments of the final judge, Charles D'Ambrosio, can be read here. The story will be published in the next issue of The Frostproof Review.
Though I've been keeping it under wraps for the past several months, since the final judging was a blind evaluation process, I can now safely disclose that my story "Mahalia" was short-listed for the EWN award. Nice to get a little recognition for this story, which is still my best (I think) and has now garnered 28 rejections.
One thing my wife Julie takes very seriously is chocolate. She's become quite the connoisseur over the past few years, regularly reviewing high-end goods on The Chocolate Blog, and scouring the Web for new product discoveries. (She even browses the chocolate selections at Hannah's via cellphone every time I stop in there for lunch.)
At the moment she's a bit steamed about the chocolate industry's efforts to relax the definition of chocolate to such a degree that products with zero cocoa butter will still qualify for the designation. (Read her entire post here.) It's a ludicrous premise, one which is becoming all too common in American industry's relentless rush to the bottom in its never-ending quest to cut costs.
If you agree that this is an outrage, you can voice your complaint to the FDA. In the meantime, you might also limit your chocolate purchases to the high-end producers of the product who want no part in such shenanigans.
So it goes.
"Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt."
Happy Birthday, WPA!
Yesterday marked a very noteworthy birthday, of sorts. From Minnesota Public Radio:
It was on this day in 1935, that Congress approved the Works Progress Administration, a program designed to relieve the economic hardship of the Great Depression by funding the employment of more than 8.5 million people to work on numerous public projects around the country. Most of these projects involved planting trees and building dams and other manual labor. But among those put out of work by the Great Depression were writers, and so the Roosevelt Administration came up with the idea of employing writers to travel around the country and produce the first really comprehensive self-portrait of America. This effort was called the Federal Writers' Project, and it was one of the most ambitious government-funded arts programs in American history.
Many writers got their start working on the Federal Writers' Project, including John Cheever, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Kenneth Rexroth, Studs Terkel, Margaret Walker, Richard Wright, and Eudora Welty. The project also helped support established writers, like Conrad Aiken and Nelson Algren, who had fallen on hard times. Algren said, "Had it not been for [the Writers' Project], the suicide rate would have been much higher. It gave new life to people who had thought their lives were over."
The administrators of the project decided that one of the best ways to employ writers would be to have them write guidebooks, describing every state in the nation, as well as all the major cities. And so offices were opened in each state, and writers who met the poverty requirement were paid about $25 a week to explore the surrounding areas and uncover whatever interesting facts they could find about the people, the history, and the traditions of even the tiniest towns and villages, down to the color of the courthouses.
The novelist John Steinbeck was such a big fan of the W.P.A. guidebooks that he bought a complete set. He once described the guidebooks as, "The most comprehensive account of the United States ever got together ... compiled during the Depression by the best writers in America, who were, if that is possible, more depressed than any other group while maintaining their inalienable instinct for eating."
To my mind, one of the smartest of FDR's many smart initiatives.
The image above is the partial contents of an eagerly awaited envelope I just received. They're from Poems-For-All, an intriguing project of Richard Hansen and his "24th street irregular press." These are individual poems from a broad range of poets, and published inside a tiny (the size of a business card folded in half) and beautifully designed cover. Hansen distributes these lovely objects essentially for free, asking the recipient to provide only return postage. His idea is to get poetry into the hands of the general public, or as he puts it, "to see poetry grow in a barren cultural landscape."
True to Hansen's vision, I'm keeping about half of the poem booklets I received, and will creatively distribute the rest to complete strangers. I encourage you to mail away for your own batch, and do likewise.
Nick Ostdick, "The Sleeping Shags"
My newest writer friend Nick Ostdick has a touching new story, "The Sleeping Shags", up at identity theory. Nick also happens to be the founder and editor of RAGAD, which will be publishing my story "Mercy Day" this fall.
(In an interesting coincidence, identity theory turned down "Mercy Day" last year. What a truly small world this writing business is.)
In Their Easter Sunday Best
Easter morning outside church, Southside Chicago. April 1941. Photograph by Russell Lee.
These youngsters are dressed up much nicer than I'll be tomorrow morning, I can assure you that. Incidentally, this also happens to be the cover photo of a book I've been ogling for years: Chicago and Downstate: Illinois as Seen by the Farm Security Administration Photographers, 1936-1943.
At the Guardian blog, Jonathan Morrison pens a nice ode to writers with full-time jobs. I particularly like this quote from Sol Stein:
"(A) writer is someone who looks forward to the day's work, even if it lasts only an hour or two before the writer has to dash to a job."
I fight the same battle as almost every other writer, balancing family, (bill-paying) career and (non-paying) writing, but rather than a hindrance I like to think that staying close to my family and the working world is actually good for my writing, keeping the prose grounded and real.
Surely the subject of writers-with-jobs is deserving of book-length treatment. Does anybody know of any such books? I'm forever in need of inspiration and reassurance.
"Robbery at Rich & Creamy"
Another poetic offering from Fyodor Dishboy, in response to this Joliet Herald-News police blotter item:
JOLIET -- The Rich & Creamy ice cream stand at 928 N. Broadway was robbed shortly after 7 p.m. Wednesday. The robber implied he had a gun and demanded money from employees before fleeing the scene, possibly on a bike, said Lt. Tab Jensen. The suspect was described as a black male in his teens or early 20s. He was wearing a black winter coat and a black hooded sweat shirt, according to witnesses.
Mr. Dishboy lyricizes...
Robbery at Rich & Creamy
"Rich & Creamy" the appellation
Seemed like quite an invitation!
What a letdown - lots of cream
But nothing like a burglar's dream.
Read Between the Lynes
One indie bookstore succumbs, while another prospers. Read Between the Lynes, of Woodstock, Illinois, gets a nice mention from the ABA's "Bookselling This Week" for contributing to that village's considerable 19th Century charm.
I can't vouch for the store, since I have not yet had the pleasure of visiting, but I grew up not too far from Woodstock and can attest to the town's lovely throwback nature, particularly its village square which is replete with a bandstand, court house, opera house and continuous line of brick storefronts which, as of my last visit, had yet to be marred by any of the usual national-chain suspects. (Incidentally, the movie Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray, was filmed in Woodstock, so you might have already experienced the town without realizing it.)
Introducing Fyodor Dishboy
My writing is in a bit of a lull right now, so I'm turning my attention to talent scouting. That said, I would like to introduce the world to the next great poetic sensation, Fyodor Dishboy, a Russian emigre who now lives in the wilds of western Massachusetts. Inspired by nothing more than the following police blotter item in the Joliet Herald-News...
Shakita L. Pillow , 19, of 2221 Ashby Lane in Plainfield was arrested by Joliet police and booked into the county jail Thursday on charges of forgery, deceptive practices and theft.
...Mr. Dishboy promptly penned the following verse:
What happened to Shakita L. Pillow?
The charges against her did billow.
Arrested for theft,
Her parents bereft
It could be that 3-5 she'll owe.
I'm sure you'll agree we have a major talent in our midst. I have been retained as Mr. Dishboy's exclusive literary representative for negotiation of book contracts, international tours, Oprah's Book Club selections, etc. However, those seeking personal appearances or interviews should be advised that Mr. Dishboy is so reclusive that he makes Pynchon look like a media whore; as such, he will require substantial financial incentives -- well into six figures -- to emerge, blinking, from the shadows. But I can assure you that he is a charming and compelling conversationalist, one who will be well worth your honorarium.
Another Indie Bookstore Closes
The other day I was saddened to discover that Naperville's charming Bookzeller (which I've lauded here previously) has closed. My wife, daughter and I were strolling down that block in Naperville on our way to lunch, and spied the bleak, empty storefront at the bottom of the stairs. As it turns out, it's been closed since October:
BookZeller, Naperville, Ill., which stocks some 40,000 "gently loved, discounted books . . . neatly crammed into every nook and cranny," will close its storefront around November 1 and sell solely on the Internet, according to the Chicago Daily Herald.
Manager Ellen Bales said rising rents were a key reason for shutting down the 12-year-old store, commenting, "When overhead and profits are too close together, it becomes a business decision." The online operation, called BookZone, is located in an industrial park in Naperville. Local customers may pick up purchases there rather than having them shipped.
It seems very short-sighted for a landlord to raise the rent on a basement tenant like Bookzeller. I'd guess there aren't many retailers, other than bookstores, that would be willing to lease basement space, even in tony downtown Naperville. The fact that the store space remains empty, more than five months after Bookzeller's closing, would seem to confirm this point. If there's one thing that I've learned during my (soon-ending) five-year stint in commercial real estate, is that it's better to lease out space at less-than-optimal rates than for it to remain vacant -- and particularly with hard-to-rent space like basements. Good luck to that landlord.
I wish all the best to Bookzeller during its attempted transition to an online-only operation. Obviously, it will never be the same as descending that narrow little staircase, past the two outdoor shelves (!) and through the door into that bright, cozy, book-jammed cellar.