What I'm writing
Or not. A few days ago I saw this notice for a crime story contest sponsored by TimeOut Chicago, Vintage/Black Lizard and Intelligentsia Coffee. Great, I thought. As it happens, earlier this year I wrote a satirical noir, "Conned and Bruised", which got great feedback from my only crime writer friend but has already been turned down by five journals. Perfect - I'd just send the story off to this contest and see what happens.
But then I read the contest guidelines more closely, and saw that the story has to be set in Chicago. My story is set in the fictional city of Quincy. Okay, I thought at first, maybe I can just tweak the story to have the setting be Chicago instead. But I realized that wouldn't work - my protagonist has a fairly low opinion of Quincy, comparing it very unfavorably to Manhattan, and my love for Chicago would make it quite painful for the negative connotations of the original story to be redirected at Chicago. So "Conned and Bruised" looks like a no-go for the contest.
Maybe I can put something brand new together in the next month (the contest deadline is September 2nd) but nothing promising has come to mind yet, so I wouldn't count on it. I've got another dozen unfinished stories kicking around - I recently printed them out and put them in my snazzy new springback binder, hoping to facilitate their completion - that I should be working on instead. Onward.
The Summer of Classics continues, as I move beyond the narrative morass of Lord Jim, which I finally finished yesterday to my inestimable relief. I've decided to make occasional commentary here on the books I'm reading, and will conclude the series in October with a single post of capsule reviews. Everything I'm reading has already been comprehensively and exhaustively reviewed, examined and autopsied, so posting my own full length reviews seems somewhat pointless. So capsule reviews will suffice, once I've finished.
I've now put Conrad behind me (after Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, I doubt if I'll ever read anything else of his for the rest of my life) and have moved on to Nikolai Gogol's 1842 novella The Overcoat, which I have in an old paperback collection called Six Great Modern Short Novels which I picked up in a library sale several years ago. (The collection includes Gogol, Joyce, Faulkner, Melville, Katherine Ann Porter - all greats indeed - but also somebody named Glenway Wescott, whose name nor any of his books I don't even vaguely recognize.) I've read very little Russian literature, and Gogol might have completely evaded my attention in this book had Isaac Bashevis Singer not invoked Gogol and The Overcoat in his introduction to Knut Hamsun's Hunger, saying that just as all Russian literature was said (by Dostoevsky) to have emerged from "Gogol's greatcoat", all modern literature could be said to have come from Hamsun. (Which seems reasonable, though I'll leave that argument to the scholars.)
Thus ever since I first read Singer's comment, I've made a connection between Gogol and Hamsun, though I still never got around to reading any of the Russian's work. But when I finally opened up Six Great Modern Short Novels, it was inevitable that I'd start with Gogol. I just started The Overcoat this morning, and am thoroughly enjoying it so far. The writing is clean, rich without being overbearing, and with a touch of humor I really hadn't anticipated. I also see echoes of Akaky Akakyevitch in both Melville's Bartleby and Hamsun's unnamed protagonist of Hunger, two of my favorite literary characters.
Oh, and here's the direct quote of Dostoevsky: "We (Russian writers) all come out from Gogol's 'Overcoat'." Any work of literature that influential should crossed my radar and been read twenty years ago, and I can offer no apology or explanation for my oversight. But I'm very much enjoying my making up for lost time.
Big Steel, Beautiful Filth
Stunning image of a steel plant in Etna, Pennsylvania in 1941, by Alfred Palmer. (Nothing quite like Kodachrome, is there?) Quite beautiful, as long as you can conveniently ignore the fact that the site was probably one of the filthiest on the planet. This reminds me of driving past Gary, Indiana on I-90 many years ago, as the setting sun vividly lit up the plumes streaming out of the smokestacks of the U.S. Steel plant. I remember thinking how beautiful it was, even if what was making it beautiful was throat-clogging pollution.
Song of the Week: Jeff Buckley
Jeff Buckley: Lover, You Should've Come Over
I've obsessed over quite a few Jeff Buckley songs from Grace - "Last Goodbye" (which miraculously had a lot of radio airplay in the mid 1990s), his jaw-dropping cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah", even his subdued take on "Lilac Wine." And now, suddenly, this stunner which shows the phenomenal range of Buckley's voice without going to the Robert Plant-ish histrionic extremes that marred several songs on this otherwise fascinating album. I also admire the gospel touches on what is a very sensual song. Check it out for yourself, and ponder, along with me, the great promise we all lost in that swift Mississippi current in 1997. Sad indeed.
Well, since everybody else is doing it...
Though I rarely yield to peer pressure, I'll do just this once. Based on the flurry of blog posts I've seen during the past few days, it seems I'm the last straggler to hype the upcoming release of Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine, the new novel from my good friend and literary co-conspirator Ben Tanzer. So hype I will. The book is now available for pre-order from Orange Alert Press, and will ship the first week in August, with the official release party at DvA Gallery in Chicago on September 6. Ben's debut novel Lucky Man was one of my favorite reads of 2007, and based on excerpts I've read the new one looks just as good. As Ben is so fond of saying, it very well might change your life.
Saw this photo on Flickr, and at first didn't even notice the iconic Lennon image, the books or the Viewmasters - but was drooling all the same.
Joliet Police Blotter
Although this news item is unattributed, it's clearly the work of Joe Hosey, the longtime Herald-News police beat reporter whose work I've admiringly noted here in the past. This story simply oozes with fictional potential.
A watermelon becomes a weapon
JOLIET -- A watermelon was fatally injured after attacking a door frame.
At 12:45 a.m. July 14, a resident of the 300 block of Westridge Road heard a loud bang before the alarm system went off.
According to reports, a watermelon had been thrown at the door of the residence, damaging the frame.
The resident told police he believes the vandalism may be related to an incident last month involving eggs.
Conrad on the life of a sailor
From Lord Jim:
Surely in no other craft as in that of the sea do the hearts of those already launched to sink or swim go out so much to the youth on the brink, looking with shining eyes upon that glitter of the vast surface which is only a reflection of his own glances full of fire. There is such magnificent vagueness in the expectations that had driven each of us to sea, such a glorious indefiniteness, such a beautiful greed of adventures that are their own and only reward. What we get - well, we won't talk of that; but can one of us restrain a smile? In no other kind of life is the illusion more wide of reality - in no other is the beginning all illusion - the disenchantment more swift - the subjugation more complete. Hadn't we all commenced with the same desire, ended with the same knowledge, carried the memory of the same cherished glamour through the sordid days of imprecation?
I'm in commercial banking, Joe. I feel your pain.
Reading (or not) in public
(Image: David Sillitoe, The Guardian)
Love this photo of a book group meeting, presumably from the United Kingdom: five ladies, four wine glasses, only two books.
Despite my love of Nelson Algren, my reading of his work is by no means comprehensive. I still haven't read most of his later work (everything after A Walk on the Wild Side), other than browsing a bit through The Last Carousel and The Devil's Stocking a few times without ever completely taking the plunge. I feel like I should rectify this omission, even though his later work is generally considered to be far inferior to his early books, if for no other reason than to get a broader picture of the man.
And now I'm reminded of one of Algren's early works (written during the Depression but not published until years after his death), the all-but-invisible America Eats, a nonfiction study of Midwestern cuisine which was written while Algren was part of the Federal Writers Project. Newcity Chicago has a nice piece on the book by Michael Nagrant in its latest issue.
Though Algren’s normally gritty prose is replaced by a reverent and observant tone, “America Eats” is a fabulously readable story of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century culinary byways of the immigrant Midwest. Algren weaves verse and poetry into a narrative that whisks you joyfully through what could easily crumble into dry schoolbook style history.
Although Algren is forever associated with Chicago, he was actually born in Detroit. Nice to see the article's writer give a nod to Algren as one of the Motor City's finest exports, alongside Vernor's Ginger Ale, Joe Louis, the MC5 and the automobile - and blessedly without any pandering mention of the White Stripes. And yes, I can also definitely see Algren as the Anthony Bourdain of his era.
Oh, and I also second Nagrant's assessment of John King Books. A truly amazing store.
"...surveying the silent company of the dead..."
Now I remember why I abandoned Lord Jim so many times - all of Conrad's digressions, asides and tangents really bog down the narrative flow, making for very slow reading. Just one such example involves Jones, the first mate to Captain Brierly, one of the prosecutors in the criminal case against Jim and the absent crew of the doomed steamer. Discussing Brierly makes sense, especially given the rash act to which the trial drives the Captain, but Conrad goes on to tell Jones' woeful tale of getting passed over for promotion to captain for the umpteenth time in his sailing career. Jones' laments are touching, but really have nothing to do with the main narrative. It makes me wonder whether Conrad wrote this passage to honor, through the proxy of Jones, some unfortunate sailor that the author knew during his own sailing career.
But I'm still fighting my way through all the digressions - now when I see one approaching, I go into skim mode until I see the point where the main narrative resumes, and then go back to close reading again. This has helped me pick up the pace considerably - in fact, I'm proud to say that I polished off 25 pages on the train this morning. And those are 25 narrow-margined, very fine print pages which might be more like 40 under normal typesetting. Using this process already has its own rewards - not only has my reading pace picked up, but it also prevented me from abandoning the book once again, which would have caused me to miss yet another magnificent passage like the one below.
To preface, Jim is telling Marlow the story of his discovery of the breach to the steamer's hull, and his dreadful conviction that the bulkhead was about to collapse and sink the ship, and even more horribly that the ship had lifeboats to save no more than one-third of its 800 passengers. Marlow speaks, imagining young Jim and his terror aboard the doomed ship.
"I can easily picture him to myself in the peopled gloom of the cavernous place, with the light of the globe-lamp falling on a small portion of the bulkhead that had the weight of the ocean on the other side, and the breathing of unconscious sleepers in his ears. I can see him glaring at the iron, startled by the falling rust, overburdened by the knowledge of an imminent death. This, I gathered, was the second time he had been sent forward by that skipper of his, who, I rather think, wanted to keep him away from the bridge. He told me that his first impulse was to shout and straightway make all those people leap out of sleep into terror; but such an overwhelming sense of his helplessness came over him that he was not able to produce a sound. This is, I suppose, what people mean by the tongue cleaving to the roof of the mouth. "Too dry," was the concise expression he used in reference to this state. Without a sound, then, he scrambled out on deck through the number one hatch. A windsail rigged down there swung against him accidentally, and he remembered that the light touch of the canvas on his face nearly knocked him off the hatchway ladder.
"He confessed that his knees wobbled a good deal as he stood on the foredeck looking at another sleeping crowd. The engines having been stopped by that time, the steam was blowing off. Its deep rumble made the whole night vibrate like a bass string. The ship trembled to it.
"He saw here and there a head lifted off a mat, a vague form uprise in sitting posture, listen sleepily for a moment, sink down again into the billowy confusion of boxes, steam-winches, ventilators. He was aware all these people did not know enough to take intelligent notice of that strange noise. The ship of iron, the men with white faces, all the sights, all the sounds, everything on board to that ignorant and pious multitude was strange alike, and as trustworthy as it would for ever remain incomprehensible. It occurred to him that the fact was fortunate. The idea of it was simply terrible.
"You must remember he believed, as any other man would have done in his place, that the ship would go down at any moment; the bulging, rust-eaten plates that kept back the ocean, fatally must give way, all at once like an undermined dam, and let in a sudden and overwhelming flood. He stood still looking at these recumbent bodies, a doomed man aware of his fate, surveying the silent company of the dead..."
At this point the passengers are still alive, though Jim soberly recognizes their fate. Reading Conrad isn't easy work, but it definitely has its rewards, and a great passage like that is one of them.
Rainy day in Pittsburgh
Lovely photograph by John Vachon from 1941, for the Farm Security Administration. I can almost feel the raindrops splattering past my flimsy umbrella as I scurry for cover. Seeing this image reminds me to revisit John Vachon's America, a beautiful volume which I've owned for several years but haven't explored nearly enough.
His father, like Smitty much later, was forced to find new work. Smitty, Henry hoped, got more help from his employer than his father had. Smitty's employer might have moved him to another surface lot to watch over, unlike his father who received only two weeks advance pay and a hearty handshake and wave goodbye from the Driscoll Building manager, before moving on to a series of odd jobs and a steadily rising taste for liquor. A taste which was somehow passed along to young Henry, the older version of whom crossed LaSalle Street with thoughts of the Landmark Lounge once again in his mind.
Another side of Doctor Glas
I re-read Hjalmar Söderberg's novel Doctor Glas earlier this year and enjoyed it immensely - even more so than the first time I read it, way back in my college days. Which makes me quite pleased and intrigued to read this brief but positive mention of Gregorious by Bengt Ohlsson, which is told from the perspective of Doctor Glas' antagonist. Another one for the ever-burgeoning List. Sigh.
Song of the Week: Silkworm
Silkworm: Couldn't You Wait?
Yes, I know I've waxed nostalgic about Silkworm many times here, many more than might be expected from someone who only owns one of the band's albums. But that one album is the mighty Libertine, long out of print but now back via the uncommonly good graces of Comedy Minus One, a fledgling label in Princeton, NJ that's putting out a lot of Silkworm-related material, including Bottomless Pit, the new project of Andy Cohen and Tim Midgett. And "Couldn't You Wait" is the first Silkworm song I ever heard, fifteen years ago on a CMJ Music Monthly disc, and it's been my absolute favorite ever since. So it's an absolute no-brainer linking to it here.
Do you still think you're a god?
Is your first day on the job even over yet?
Is the summertime in heaven grand?
Is it fifty-nine past the eleven hand?
No, I have little or no idea what any of it means, but I love it all the same. Hope you will too.
I'm a whiner, and proud of it.
So Phil Gramm, one of John McCain's top economic advisors, thinks the economy isn't in bad shape at all, and that the biggest problem is too many "whiners". In response, Think Progress points out a few things that are being whined about:
+ Housing Foreclosures Increasing
+ Homelessness Increasing
+ Healthcare Costs Rising
+ Gas Prices Rising
+ Job Losses Increasing
+ Food Costs Rising
+ Heating and Electricity Costs Rising
+ Real Wages Declining
+ Leisure Spending Declining
+ Value of Dollar Declining
Click the second link above to see further explanations of each. All of these are very real and very serious issues which are hurting everyday Americans, and aren't just the plaintive imaginings of a bunch of negativists. For Gramm to think the latter shows how out of touch he (and by extension John McCain and the entire Republican Party) is with the lives of ordinary citizens like you and me. And yet supposedly it's the Democrats who are the elitists.
Summer of Classics finally begins!
Procrastinator that I am, "better late than never" is one of the credos of my life. That said, I'm finally, at the very late date of July 11, launching into my Summer of Classics. Between finishing up the latest draft of Wheatyard and reading a contemporary novel written by a litblogger friend, I didn't start in on the classics as early as I had hoped. So I'll take substantial liberties with the calendar, and think of the period from today through October 11 as "summer.”
The first classic up is Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. I read Heart of Darkness last summer, online via DailyLit.org, liked it somewhat but am now thinking I need to give it another read, in print, to really do it justice. As for Lord Jim, I’ve started it maybe half a dozen times but for whatever reason never got past the first few chapters. But I’m giving it another try, and after reading those first few chapters again this morning, I’m wondering why I wasn’t able to continue previously - especially when I come across a passage as remarkable as the following.
Jim has just hired on as first mate aboard a tramp steamer which is ferrying a large group of Muslim pilgrims, presumably to Mecca. I was struck by the way the soaring, hopeful, lyrical prose of the first paragraph is cut short by the crude, abrupt rejoinder of the single line which follows. What a wonderful and powerful piece of writing.
They streamed aboard over three gangways, they streamed in urged by faith and the hope of paradise, they streamed in with a continuous tramp and shuffle of bare feet, without a word, a murmur, or a look back; and when clear of confining rails spread on all sides over the deck, flowed forward and aft, overflowed down the yawning hatchways, filled the inner recesses of the ship--like water filling a cistern, like water flowing into crevices and crannies, like water rising silently even with the rim. Eight hundred men and women with faith and hopes, with affections and memories, they had collected there, coming from north and south and from the outskirts of the East, after treading the jungle paths, descending the rivers, coasting in praus along the shallows, crossing in small canoes from island to island, passing through suffering, meeting strange sights, beset by strange fears, upheld by one desire. They came from solitary huts in the wilderness, from populous campongs, from villages by the sea. At the call of an idea they had left their forests, their clearings, the protection of their rulers, their prosperity, their poverty, the surroundings of their youth and the graves of their fathers. They came covered with dust, with sweat, with grime, with rags--the strong men at the head of family parties, the lean old men pressing forward without hope of return; young boys with fearless eyes glancing curiously, shy little girls with tumbled long hair; the timid women muffled up and clasping to their breasts, wrapped in loose ends of soiled head-cloths, their sleeping babies, the unconscious pilgrims of an exacting belief.
"Look at dese cattle," said the German skipper to his new chief mate.
Senate caves in. Again.
Maybe I'm just dim-witted, but I'm still having a lot of trouble figuring out why the Democrats gaining control of Congress was such a big deal. Seems to me that most of the Democrats are still the same snivelling, cowering little mice they were from 2000-06, back when they acquiesed to everything the Bush junta wanted, forever whimpering "What can we do? The Republicans control Congress." Yet now that they're ostensibly in charge, Bush still gets everything he wants. Sure, there's plenty of saber-rattling involved, but when it comes down to tallying a vote they always cave in. Shame on them, and shame specifically on the following:
Baucus (D-MT); Bayh (D-IN); Carper (D-DE); Casey (D-PA); Conrad (D-ND); Feinstein (D-CA); Inouye (D-HI); Johnson (D-SD); Kohl (D-WI); Landrieu (D-LA); Lincoln (D-AR); McCaskill (D-MO); Mikulski (D-MD); Nelson (D-FL); Nelson (D-NE); Obama (D-IL); Pryor (D-AR); Rockefeller (D-WV); Salazar (D-CO); Webb (D-VA); Whitehouse (D-RI)
And hats off to Russ Feingold, Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin and other Democrats (yes, even Hillary Clinton) who still put the interests of everyday citizens first.
Ira Glass wants to hit Ben Tanzer
My good friend Ben Tanzer has a terrific new essay, "Ira Glass Wants to Hit Me", up at decomP. And it's absolutely true. Ben regaled me with the story over lunch a few weeks ago, and it's every bit as funny in print as it was in person.
Ben, if it's any consolation, even though you've permanently pissed off Ira Glass and your future as a TAL contributor is completely shot to hell, you may still have a chance in public radio. I hear Garrison Keillor needs a new cabana boy.
Nick Hornby has finally arrived.
Sonic Death Monkey: the shower gel. Immortality is assured.
"I learned that, if you truly want to enjoy something, you have to share it with others."
- Ralph Freese, master canoe builder and waterway conservation activist
Latest obsession: Wordle
Pretty...oh, so pretty...
That's three copies of the latest (third) draft of Wheatyard, just back from the printer. Once I find some envelopes I'll be mailing them off to three trusted readers who I'm hoping will be as brutally honest as I need them to be.
"I think in a loose way the idea of keeping it minimal goes beyond just the music. It’s my whole approach to everything. Don’t say too much whenever possible. We’re just trying to get the most impact out of the least amount."
- Glenn Mercer of the Feelies
Words I live by.
I'm quite pleased to announce that I'm the very first weekly winner of the Couplet Contest at the Goodnight Bush website (click the "Join The Fun!" tab) for the following:
Goodnight Gitmo indefinite detention
Goodnight abuses too awful to mention
I've won a copy of the book and a Goodnight Bush merchandise item of my choice. I've seen a few pages of the book and it looks like a real hoot - for a small taste, just check out the cover and the items shown on the mantel: the U.S. Capitol and a church, with a scale in between. Look at which direction the scale is tipping. Perfect.
Memo to Senator Obama
Here's a message I just sent to Barack Obama. I encourage you to do likewise.
Dear Senator Obama:
I am writing to strongly object to your support of the new FISA legislation. I am a longtime loyal supporter of yours, and up until now I applauded your commitment to civil rights. But your support of this so-called "compromise" legislation is simply inexcusable. The legislation is anything but a compromise - instead it is a capitulation to the executive branch's police powers and an infringement on the Constitutional rights of everyday American citizens. Not only would the legislation grant immunity to telecom companies for their willfully illegal actions, but it would also reduce the FISA court's role from providing required approval of surveillance warrant requests to the toothless task of determining whether the warrant procedures were properly followed, regardless of the legitimacy of the request itself.
You did indicate your intention to strip telecom immunity from the bill, but even Senator Reid isn't sure if this is at all possible. If providing immunity is at all feasible, the entire FISA bill should be voted down. Let the House or Senate then come up with a new FISA bill which doesn't provide immunity and which also restores the FISA court to its pre-Bush Administration role.
Also, saying that you support the current FISA bill but would also exercise discretion in domestic eavesdropping should you be elected President simply isn't enough. Saying "trust me" isn't enough. For one, it's always possible that you won't win the election in November, and John McCain would undoubtedly embrace the expanded surveillance powers that the FISA bill would provide. For another, even if you do win the election, time and again we've seen candidates promise one thing during election season only to reverse themselves once they're in the White House. I truly want to believe that you're a different type of politician who wouldn't do such a thing, but the cynic in me can't help having doubts.
Please do everything in your power to strike down the FISA bill as it is currently consituted. It's simply the right thing to do.
Memo to Mayor Daley
Just a thought: before you blow a billion-plus bucks on a temporary Olympic Stadium in Washington Park, you might consider this marvelous idea from 1958: Mechanized Stadium of the Future. Assemble and use it for the Olympics, then sell it to the next Olympic host city. Saves money while also representing the largest single act of recycling in the history of the world, thus further burnishing your "green" credentials. At least think about it, okay?
James M. Cain
Happy birthday to one of the noir greats.
It's the birthday of crime writer James M. Cain, born in Annapolis, Maryland (1892). His father was the president of Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. Cain when to school there, and he disappointed his father by refusing to take part in any campus activities. He didn't play any sports, didn't belong to any organizations, didn't hold any jobs, and turned down an offer to edit the campus magazine. He taught journalism for a while and wrote editorials for various newspapers, tried to produce a play, and finally went to Hollywood, hoping to strike it rich writing for the movies. Paramount Studios fired him after six months. He was 40 years old, living in the middle of the Great Depression, and trying to support his wife and children.
One day, he read a newspaper article about a woman who had murdered her husband so she could take over his gas station. Cain realized that he knew the woman in the article. He had gone to her gas station lots of times and had talked to her as she filled up his car with gas. He was fascinated by the idea that someone so ordinary could be so ruthless, and it gave him the idea for his first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934). He got the title from an old Irish proverb. The book got great reviews and became a best seller. He went on to write other novels such as Mildred Pierce (1941) and Double Indemnity (1943).
He said, "I write of the wish that comes true — for some reason, a terrifying concept."
I had the great pleasure of reading The Postman Always Rings Twice last summer, and the next Cain on my list is Double Indemnity. Good stuff.