"Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock."
- Ben Hecht, who was born on this day in 1893
Bear in mind that Hecht must have said this during the heyday of newspapers. I'd love to hear what he'd have to say about newspapers now.
What I'm Writing
Nothing new in the works, but...
I'm revising "The Last Final Copy", a story I wrote almost two years ago about the last few hours of Chicago's legendary City News Bureau. It's been with a small anthology publisher all this time, for possible publication in a workplace-themed collection which has been pushed back several times. Not wanting to wait any longer, I submitted it to a prominent but for-now-unnamed journal which really liked the story but had a few suggestions for tightening up the narrative. The editor was exactly right - it did need some streamlining. One of the really interesting things about writing is how you can create a story that you really love (as I do this one), so much so that you're convinced it's already in its final, can't-be-improved form. But once someone else reads it and makes a few suggestions, you're suddenly aware that, indeed, there is considerable room for improvement. There's a strong possibility that this story will be published soon, depending on what the editor thinks of my revisions.
I'm delving back into This Land Was Made For You and Me, the story collection based on Farm Security Administration photographs from the Depression era. I just saw a notice in Poets & Writers about a fiction chapbook contest co-sponsored by DIAGRAM and New Michigan Press, both of which are curated by the esteemed Ander Monson. My collection had stalled out at around six stories, and I've been hemming and hawing about whether or not to resume writing new pieces for it. Now I'm thinking I might not have to - with this contest seeking chapbook-length collections (18-44 pages), the stories I've already written might already be just the right length. So now it would simply be a case of polishing up what I've already written (one of which is "Deep in the Northwoods", recently published in Wheelhouse) and shipping it off. Of course, given the entry fee involved, I'd have to be sure the collection is good enough to be contest-worthy before going through with it. I probably will, though, just for the hell of it.
Song of the Week: The Long Ryders
The Long Ryders: "Looking for Lewis and Clark"
As I've mentioned before, the Long Ryders were a critical link between the pioneering country rock of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers and the early alternative country bands like Uncle Tupelo and the Jayhawks. The Long Ryders effectively melded traditional country with garage rock, creating an invigorating hybrid that I never tire of. "Looking for Lewis and Clark" is from the one Long Ryders album I don't own, State of Our Union, and I was quite pleased to find the tune on Songza.
Color Me Podcasted
My friend, fellow writer and kindred spirit Ben Tanzer interviewed me this week over lunch, and the result is podcasted here. (Note to self: next time, speak slower, enunciate and never say "you know.") Topics include the challenge of writing historical fiction, Nelson Algren, Knut Hamsun's Hunger in ten words or less (okay, twelve, including the obligatory "efficacious") and whether or not I'm an outlaw. Contrary to Ben's regular tagline, listening to this interview will not change your life, but hopefully it will distract and maybe even entertain you for a few minutes. My sincerest thanks to Ben for the shameless shilling.
Reading in Public: Sarasota, 1941
Installment three in this periodic series. I'm having a bit of trouble lately finding archival photographs of people reading books, so I'm taking a slight detour into people reading newspapers. This one was taken by Marion Post Wolcott in Sarasota, Florida in 1941, for the Farm Security Administration. (Full photographic record here.)
(Reading in Public series is indexed here.)
Songza is the key to life. (Sorry.)
My online friend Shaz has pointed me to the wondrous Songza, thereby promising countless hours of musical immersion and a stunning dropoff in the productivity of my already- unproductive weekends. To whit:
"I just flipped off President George...I'm going to Disneyland!" Where, oh where, has this song been during the last seven, seemingly interminable years?
Ade and Deutch, Noted Chicagoans
Last Saturday's mail brought my latest book acquisitions, two rare and quite lovely titles from Powell's. The first:
This is a first edition of In Babel, a 1903 collection of pieces by George Ade, the renowned Chicago journalist. This volume is quite nice, with an imprinted cover so typical of the era, and other than a slight split in the front endpaper is in mint condition. I'm a huge fan of Ade (largely due to the tireless efforts of Ron Evry, who has been podcasting readings of Ade's works for quite some time) and I'm really looking forward to diving into this one. Here's Ade's wry preface to the book:
These little stories and sketches have been rewritten from certain daily contributions to the Chicago Record, now the Chicago Record-Herald. They have been assembled into this volume in the faint hope that they may serve as an antidote for the slang which has been administered to the public in such frequent doses of late. They are supposed to deal, more or less truthfully, with every-day life in Chicago.
The second is a first edition of Stephen Deutch, Photographer: From Paris to Chicago, 1932-1989, a 1989 monograph of the unappreciated photographer.
Viewing this rather hideous cover, you might take issue with my calling this a "lovely title" above. True, that cover does look like a cheap elementary school workbook from 1973, but the photographs collected inside convincingly negate the editors' dubious design preferences. Deutch was fairly unique in that he was simultaneously renowned for his commercial work, such as this 1950 image commissioned by Evans Furs...
...as well as for his documentary and street photography work, including this image taken on Clybourn Avenue near Division Street, also from 1950:
The book also includes numerous wonderful portraits of celebrities, including Nelson Algren (who was best of friends with Deutch), Joe Louis, Mahalia Jackson and Dave Garroway. Deutch got his start in photography in Paris in the 1930s, after marrying his wife Helene who was already running a studio at the time and subsequently taught him the art. Although the Deutches found themselves in one of the world's great artistic cities during its creative heyday, they didn't at all run with the in crowd. Deutch is quite tellingly quoted in the introduction:
"We didn't get invited to Gertrude Stein's salons. Jean-Paul Sartre didn't ask us to have coffee with him. We were just proletarians of the business. We had name recognition in a certain circle but certainly not in the literary or artistic ones. Life was the same way as it is for any working person. We had to be very diligent, put in lots of hours, and we enjoyed being successful. Bohemians we were not."
And though the Powell's listing didn't indicate as such when I made my purchase, the title page bears what very much appears to be Deutch's handwritten signature. Deutch was still alive at the time of the book's release, so it seems very plausible that this is indeed his signature. If so, it's a pleasant surprise which makes me treasure this find even more.
R.E.M., "Supernatural Superserious"
My passion for R.E.M. has waxed and waned over the years, and while I regularly revisit their older material (I listened to Document several times this week) I admittedly haven't listened to much of the material they've created over the past decade or so. But they've got a new album coming out, Accelerate, which reportedly ups the energy level quite a bit from their last few releases. The video for the first single, "Supernatural Superserious", is now out, and it sounds great. The aching vocals, the chiming guitars, the arty lyrics - it's all there. And it rocks - not the over-the-top extreme of Monster, but just enough. If this song is any indication, the album promises to be a strong return to form.
Nick Lowe is as cool as ever.
Nick Lowe's timeless power pop masterpiece Jesus of Cool has been deluxe-reissued by Yep Roc. (American listeners of a certain age and impeccable taste may remember it as Pure Pop For Now People, as his cowardly American label re-titled it.) It's the original album plus seven bonus tracks, including the original version of "Cruel To Be Kind" (which I own on 45, having found a used copy of it at the long-gone Aurora Vintage Records sometime around 1988.) The full album stream is here, and a strong review at Popmatters here.
Indeed, that poor Marie Provost did not look her best the day the cops busted into her lonely nest...
Well, it's happened again. A gunman opens fire on an unsuspecting and innocent group of people, killing or wounding dozens, and traumatizing hundreds more. This time, it's in DeKalb, Illinois, at Northern Illinois University, but just last week it was a Lane Bryant store in Tinley Park and a city council meeting in suburban St. Louis. Before that it was a Von Maur department store in Omaha, and of course the earlier Virginia Tech and Columbine shootings, along with so many others. The pattern is familiar: shock over the initial news, somber grieving as the victims are laid to rest and, for the millions not directly impacted by the tragedy a gradual forgetting and return to normalcy. That is, until it happens again.
It has happened too many times, and it has to stop. Handguns are simply too plentiful and readily available in this country for any disaffected loner or hardened criminal who wishes, whether for personal enrichment or to pay back society for perceived injustices, to use them to wreak havoc. It's time to greatly curtail the manufacture and sale of guns, and even perhaps to ban them completely.
Again and again we hear the argument from gun advocates that the Second Amendment guarantees our citizens the Constitutional right to bear arms. Keeping their guns, they say, represents a critical freedom. But what about the freedom from fear? There is no freedom of any kind, no liberty, when one lives in fear of being a victim of random violence. Freedom to bear arms benefits several million gun owners, while freedom from fear is the right of every single American - all 300-plus million of us. All human beings do have rights, but the latitude of personal rights ends at the moment at which others' rights are infringed. True, the vast majority of gun owners are law-abiding, upstanding citizens who handle their weapons responsibily. But the responsible behavior of that vast majority is fully and decisively negated by those who use guns to commit violent acts on innocent people. An appropriate analogy is nuclear weapons - countries like the United States argue in favor of their defensive capabilities, but certainly no one is arguing that every country in the world should have them. There's simply too much inherent danger involved in nuclear weapons too allow their widespread deployment - and while guns have a much more limited scope in terms of the number of people they can potentially harm, their impact on the people they do harm is every bit as horrible. Okay, one might argue, the fact that a handful of nations have nuclear weapons and have largely been able to keep them away from rogue nations suggests that the same can be done with guns - keep them with the peacekeepers and away from the baddies. But the advanced technology to develop nuclear weapons ensures that their deployment can be controlled, while guns are so rudimentary and cheaply mass-produced that they easily fall into the hands of those wishing to do harm. So because we can't really control who can buy guns, and thus can't ensure that all gun owners are responsible and law-abiding, we simply have to stop allowing their availability to anyone other than law enforcement authorities.
When citing the Constitution, advocates usually point to the framers' intent in granting specific rights. I find it very hard to imagine the framers ever could have envisioned, let alone condoned, anyone having the right to shoot up a lecture hall full of students or executing female shoppers with bullets to the head. When the framers drafted the Second Amendment, it was during a time of precarious defense of the homeland - we had only just repelled the British, who weren't terribly pleased at losing their prized colony, as the War of 1812 would soon attest to - and the fledgling country had to rely heavily on local militias in the absence of a strong federal military. The country wanted to be sure it could defend itself, which required the arming of everyday citizens. When the Bill of Rights was drafted, our greatest threat was external. But times have changed - today, with a strong federal military and state National Guard, the likelihood of foreign invasion is minimal. And now, thanks to the pervasiveness of guns, our greatest threat is internal.
We have seen the enemy, and they is us. But it doesn't have to be this way, and it shouldn't be.
Jim Thompson, The Kill-Off
By sheer coincidence, today's Merriam-Webster "Word of the Day" is whodunit ("a detective story or mystery story"). Coincidence, because just yesterday I finished reading Jim Thompson's The Kill-Off, from 1957. Thompson's novels rarely, if ever, traffic in "who done it" - instead, many of his protagonists are psychopathic killers who leave behind multiple victims in their remorseless wakes. There is little doubt over who the murderer is. And when the protagonist isn't a cold-blooded murderer, it's a con man or some other two-bit hood perpetrating petty crimes. What little mystery there is to Thompson's stories is limited to the sane and socially well-adjusted reader's wonderment over how people like those protagonists could behave so unspeakably.
Which made The Kill-Off a very unexpected and pleasant surprise. Set in an unnamed, dying resort town on the Jersey shore, the story centers on Luane Devore, a middle-aged woman of the fading gentry who spends her days as a self-imposed invalid in her big house on the edge of town, endlessly gossiping on the phone and spreading vicious rumors about pretty much everyone in town. And, in doing so, giving all of them a compelling motive to murder her. Thompson makes it clear, from the very first chapter, that Luane will ultimately be murdered, but he takes his own sweet time getting around to killing her off. Instead, he slowly builds to that climax by presenting each chapter in a different character's voice, establishing each person's place in the town's rather deplorable social milieu. It's very quickly made clear that most of these people had reasons, many of them seemingly justifiable, for doing Luane in. So in introducing each of the characters in such a detailed manner, and clearly signaling Luane's impending demise, the book isn't a "whodunit" so much as a "whowilldoit." The narrative is a very interesting twist on the conventions of crime fiction, one which shows why Thompson was one of the true giants of the art.
Reading in Public
Another image in this sporadic series. This one is by an anonymous photographer from the Chicago Daily News, of "Miss Genevieve Gilbert" in Chicago, 1908. (Full photographic record here.) From the ever-fascinating Chicago Daily News archive at the Library of Congress.
(Reading in Public series is indexed here.)
New novel from James Meek
British author James Meek has a new novel, We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, out in the UK. The Guardian thinks highly enough of the book to review it twice, here and here. (The Independent also ran a great profile of Meek this week.) Having thoroughly enjoyed his last book, The People's Act of Love (one of the very best books I've read this century), I can't wait for the new one to come out in the U.S.
(Independent link via Bookslut.)
What I'm Writing
I'm finishing up a new story, a noir named "Conned and Bruised in Alphabetsville." My old friend Fred recently pointed me to this wonderful resource: Twists, Slugs and Roscoes: A Glossary of Hardboiled Slang. Just like the title states, it's a long list of slang and jargon compiled from noir and hardboiled crime fiction. I'm a longtime casual fan of noir (casual enough that most of the slang was new to me) but had never attempted a story in the genre. So, duly inspired by that profusion of new words, I wrote a story about a hapless, two-bit criminal which incorporated as many of the glossary's terms without (I hope) overdoing it.
Storyglossia (which, incidentally, published my first short story two years ago) is running an all-crime fiction issue for its next edition, and I'll be submitting my story for consideration there soon. Cain or Chandler it ain't, but I think it's at least halfway decent.
Chris Abani, Song For Night
I was very impressed and quite moved by Chris Abani's Song For Night, a powerful and often harrowing novella of war and remembrance. The story is told through the inner voice of My Luck, a 15-year-old boy soldier in an ethnic civil war in Nigeria, Abani's native country. My Luck has the unenviable role of leader of a platoon of landmine diffusers - small, nimble youths who incapacitate mines ahead of the advancing infantry. Separated from his unit after being rendered unconscious by a mine blast, My Luck wanders the ravaged countryside. While his expressed intent is to find his way back to the platoon, he is strangely reticent, seeming to hold back and not push forward as aggressively as he should. His meandering journey provides him plenty of time to reflect on his past: his family life before the conflict, his basic training and his comrades, but, most graphically, the horrific scenes of battle, pillaging and deprivation which torment his dreams by night and conjure disturbing visions by day. Abani, who is also a poet with several published collections to his name, writes in brisk, vivid and lyrical prose which somehow lends beauty to an otherwise grim narrative. Abani provides yet another portrait of the horror and senselessness of war, but instead of a simple polemic delivers a compelling story and a protagonist whom, as he searches for inner peace, that the reader can't help feel compassion for.
Song For Night is a rather remarkable book, one which will stay with me for quite some time.
Special thanks to Akashic Books for providing me with a review copy.
Make Tuesday particularly Super...
...and cast your Democratic primary ballot for Barack Obama. True, he and Hillary Clinton vary only insignificantly on their policy proposals. But there is a stark difference between the two in the ability to inspire and lead our country forward, and reverse the damage wreaked on our democracy during the past seven years. Clinton is all about partisanship, backbiting and settling old scores, and the anti-Clinton rancor which still festers on the conservative side of Congress casts substantial doubt on her ability to enact any of her policy initiatives.
Barack Obama, on the other hand, represents a fresh start - a candidate who seeks fairness and opportunity for all Americans, not just those blessed with wealth or inside connections; who is willing to cooperate, negotiate and compromise with his political opponents to bring out mutually agreeable solutions; and who is devoted to restoring America's badly tarnished reputation in world affairs. Barack Obama is far and away the best person to lead our country forward, and I hope you'll join me in voting for him on Tuesday or in other upcoming state primaries.
These Hills Get Pulped
I recently learned that my short story "Quit These Hills" will be published in early May at the new pulp fiction journal Big Pulp. The journal's publication schedule can be viewed here - their first story will be published during the first week in March. The only name I recognize there is Corey Mesler, but I'm sure there will be plenty of worthy stories published therein.
I originally wrote this story as two separate pieces which I entered in contests at the litblog The Clarity of Night, and after neither one finished as a finalist, I stitched the two stories together with an interconnecting passage, and after several rewrites the resulting story emerged as a considerably better and much more complete narrative than either of the original pieces. I didn't think this story was particularly pulpish, but I liked the concept of Big Pulp so much that I submitted on a whim. Bill Olver, Big Pulp's editor/publisher, really liked the story and apparently thought it was close enough to horror - the protagonist's actions are, indeed, rather aberrant if not outright horrific - to be a good fit with the journal. I'll post an announcement here when the story goes online.
Mountain Goats, "Sax Rohmer #1"
Behold the latest video from the Mountain Goats, of "Sax Rohmer #1", from the forthcoming album Heretic Pride. What fascinating images those are, even though all those scrolling lyrics did have me a bit woozy. If there's a smarter artist working in popular music today than John Darnielle, it would be news to me.
Darnielle, by the way, has penned a book for the great 33 1/3 series, on Black Sabbath's Master of Reality, which is coming out in April. Reading Darnielle's blog over the years, I've always been fascinated that a folkie like him could be so deeply into heavy metal, so I'm not at all surprised to see him writing about Sabbath. If you're as intrigued about this as I am, follow this link for directions on obtaining a free .pdf sampler of the book.
Puppy Bowl IV
My favorite part of Super Bowl Sunday isn't the game, the commercials or the halftime show, and certainly not the 14 hours of pregame coverage with its endless prognostications and dubious insights of self-proclaimed experts. Instead it's watching, with endless fascination, Puppy Bowl on Animal Planet. (We have two cats - I like dogs, but only other peoples' dogs.) This recent phenomenon has grown to the point that even the dowdy New York Times has taken notice. Reading that piece, I'm pleased to see that they've added a halftime show to the broadcast - with kittens. Perfect, utterly perfect.
Reading in Public
I'm a huge fan of both literature and documentary photography. While riding my commuter train or walking around the city, I'm often struck by the sight of people indulging in the very private act of reading right in the midst of prying-eye hordes. So absorbed are they that the outside world is completely blocked off as they let the magical words take them away. Holing up with a book in some private corner somewhere is one thing, but for me the joy of reading is best illustrated by people willing to do so in public.
That said, I'm going to run a periodic series of photographs here depicting people reading in public. (I'm leaving that as "periodic" - weekly or even monthly series that I've run here haven't fared very well, especially lately. So I'll post new photos as I come across them, but not on a fixed schedule.) The photo above is by John Vachon, taken for the Farm Security Administration in Chicago, in July 1940.
In launching this series, I have to give credit to Julie Wilson, whose Toronto-based blog Seen Reading does much the same thing, only with real people she observes in that city. She notes the book her subject is reading, then posts an excerpt from the approximate point in the text where the reader was at that moment, then writes an imaginative piece of related fiction after that. It's a fascinating creative concept she's come up with, one which I've been enjoying for the past several years.