All of the ballyhoo about Arlen Specter switching parties and the likelihood (assuming Al Franken is finally allowed to assume the Senate seat which is rightly his) that the Democrats will gain a filibuster-proof 60-member Senate majority obscures one critical fact: the Dems rarely vote as a unified bloc anyway, thanks to moderates and pseudo-Republicans
like Joe Lieberman who lurk within the ranks. The latest example? Today, Twelve Democrats broke ranks and voted against an amendment (introduced by Illinois' Dick Durbin) which would have allowed bankruptcy judges to modify terms of homeowners' mortgages to avoid foreclosure and allow them to stay in their homes. The moderates, or Democrats In Name Only, once again caved in to the banking industry (which you might think is so disgraced these days that it wields no influence whatsoever) and gave Wall Street exactly what it wanted.
I'm not surprised that the Republicans (a/k/a the Commerce Party) voted unanimously against the amendment, but if your Senator happens to be named Baucus, Bennet, Byrd, Carper, Dorgan, Johnson, Landrieu, Lincoln, Nelson, Pryor, Specter or Tester, please feel free to send them a nastygram, thanking them for once again kowtowing to powerful business interests at the expense of the everyday people who put them in office.
“What we’re talking about here are people who don’t have any paid lobbyists,” Mr. Durbin said, speaking of homeowners in financial trouble. “What they’re counting on are people, senators in this chamber who will stand up for them. The bankers don’t want this. They hate the Durbin amendment like the devil hates holy water.”
Senators standing up to Wall Street? Thanks for tilting at windmills, Senator.
Update: Another sharp comment from Durbin, via Think Progress:
At some point the senators in this chamber will decide the bankers shouldn't write the agenda for the United States Senate. At some point the people in this chamber will decide the people we represent are not the folks working in the big banks, but the folks struggling to make a living and struggling to keep a decent home.
Again, thank you, Senator.
My flash fiction "Button" has been published in the April 2009 edition of Shoots and Vines. (Online here, or soon in print at select locations in southern Indiana and northern Kentucky.) My thanks to editor Crystal Folz for taking this one.
The story is pretty straightforward, so little explanation is needed other than to mention that it was inspired by archival photographs of the old LaSalle Street Station here in Chicago. I occasionally take Metra's Rock Island Line train to work, which disembarks at the new "LaSalle Street Station", which regrettably (to a throwback like me) is barely a train station at all - just outdoor platforms with a small adjacent waiting room, with none of the awe-inspiring glories of the stations of yore. Still, the new station provided just enough inspiration for me to create this little story.
"Already the writers are complaining there is too much freedom. They need some pressure. The worse your daily life, the better your art. If you have to be careful because of oppression and censorship, this pressure produces diamonds."
-Tatyana Tolstaya, Russian writer
(Via Daily Literary Quote.)
Ron Evry needs your help!
Literary podcaster Ron Evry (Mister Ron's Basement) maintains a huge archive of his wonderful readings of old public domain short works, most of them in a humorous vein from the likes of Mark Twain, George Ade, Bill Nye, Stanley Huntley and others. The downside of that huge archive is, not surprisingly, bandwidth, and Ron is unfortunately losing his current and very generous host, Slapcast. While he apparently has found a new host, the cost of the new service is considerably higher than the old. To keep Mister Ron's Basement afloat, Ron is currently soliciting any and all contributions. Anything you can donate would be a huge help.
Ron does yeoman work on his site, and his love for the impeccable writings of George Ade is directly responsible for my own love for that writer. When I got my first iPod several years ago, Ron's site was the first literary podcasting site I discovered, and I was particularly thrilled to discover Ade's short "fable" works; I had previously known Ade only through his novel Artie, which I liked but was only moderately impressed with. But the fables really grabbed me - all of them with a wicked point to make, and all extremely funny, especially with Ron's spirited vocal delivery. (I was even inspired to start writing an Ade-ish piece, "The Fable of the Small 'Suburb' Which Aspired to Be More Than It Was", which sadly remains unfinished.) Though I don't listen nearly as much as I used to - at my previous job I could download media files to my heart's content, but network security at my current job prohibits any downloading - I'll always appreciate Ron's tireless work at Mister Ron's Basement. I encourage you to check out his site, and to toss a few bucks his way if you can.
Bringing literature to the streetsTwo interesting related developments - Project Bookmark Canada, which places permanent markers containing fiction and poetry on the site where those works transpire, and the considerably more ephemeral Is Reads, Adam Robinson's public poetry project in which poems are temporarily affixed (often with just Scotch tape) to lampposts and walls in Baltimore and Nashville. Although the projects vary in terms of permanence and official imprimatur, each is a wonderfully innovative means of incorporating literature further into everyday life and exposing it to people who might rarely set foot inside a library or bookstore. If projects like these make just a few more such people realize what they're missing, then they are very much worthwhile.
Philip LevineContinuing the theme of my J.G. Ballard post, Philip Levine (my favorite poet) talks to NPR's Marketplace about how working on an assembly line prepared him for his long career in poetry.
At the time that I was doing it, I thought this will prevent me from becoming a poet. I will never have the time or the energy to write poetry because it was sapping to me to such a degree. And later on, when I was in my 40s, I realized, no Phil, that was the school you went to. And my whole attitude toward those years changed, so there was a way in which I realized that I had had an irreplaceable experience of brotherhood and sisterhood in those years that I was an industrial worker. And I wouldn't give them up for anything.Levine also reads his poem "What Work Is." Quite good.
If the narrative of this book is even half as good as the artwork, this one looks like a real keeper.
Write, but live a little first
In a tribute to the recently departed J.G. Ballard, who apparently saw quite a bit of the real world before settling down to the relative unreality of fiction writing, John Crace contrasts Ballard's life to that of the typical literary hotshot:
To generalise wildly, the career path of most young (successful) writers goes something like this. Go to university – preferably Oxford or Cambridge – and read English. While there, start writing novel and get a few pieces published in the university magazine. Move to London after graduation, start a creative writing postgraduate degree and pick up some work reviewing books for the literary supplements while tidying up the fourth draft of your novel. You then get your novel published, which gets a few kind reviews thanks to the contacts you've made and sells precisely 317 copies.
But someone, somewhere offers you a contract to write a second novel and your career is up and running. From then on you have a meta life. You write because you write, not because you necessarily have anything interesting to say. You probably actually write quite well, but you are trading on style, not substance, because you've never actually done anything much beyond writing.
Beautiful, especially the bit about "317 copies."
Coolest. Toy. EVER.
This beauty came out in 1964. I was born in 1965. I never had one of these. The only possible conclusion? Despite what I thought was a warm, loving, comfortable family life during my early years, I now realize that I was a victim of severe child neglect.
Two versions of the same song - Pylon's original and R.E.M.'s cover, both from way back in the early 1980s. I only know two Pylon songs (this one and "Look Alive", which I dubbed years ago off a college radio station broadcas) but on the strength of "Crazy" I think I'll dive into the band much further.
I probably wouldn't have ever heard Pylon at all were it not for the strong R.E.M. cover, which appeared on their early odds-and-ends LP Dead Letter Office. Both bands were from Athens, Georgia, and Michael Stipe's liner notes to Dead Letter Office relate how blown away he was by the first Pylon record, which made him relatively disappointed in his own band's first record (he didn't specify whether he meant R.E.M.'s first single, "Radio Free Europe", or their debut EP, Chronic Town). His disappointment in either of those great records is hard to comprehend, though it speaks very well for Pylon. Incidentally, please consider this a belated shout-out/buy-it recommendation for Dead Letter Office, the CD version of which also includes all of Chronic Town. Dead Letter Office is an oddball gem - besides "Crazy", there's three Velvet Underground covers, "Voice of Harold" (the instrumental backing of "Seven Chinese Brothers" recast with extemporaneous Stipe lyrics of him reading the liner notes to some gospel record), Aerosmith's "Toys in the Attic" (which the band liked well enough to play regularly in concert back in the early days), the band's drily funny "Bandwagon" (which surely deserved to be included on one of their regular album releases) and "Walter's Theme", a promo that they cut for a radio commercial for a BBQ joint, along with a bunch of other tunes that didn't make the regular-release cut but are still quite enjoyable. If you're a fan of early R.E.M., you really should have already heard and loved Dead Letter Office, but in case not, trust me when I say you will not be disappointed in this record.<br>
The old is new againAnother flashback from The Progressive, this one by Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior under FDR, from 1938:
About one-half of the wealth of this country is in corporate form, and over one-half of it is under the domination of 200 corporations, which in turn are controlled by what Ferdinand Lundberg in his recent book referred to as “America’s 60 Families.”Substitute "Wall Street" for "60 families", and it's obvious that things really haven't changed much during the last 71 years.
Eight years ago America’s 60 families had held in their hands, since the close of the World War, complete dominion over the economic and political life of the country...Out of their divinely claimed genius as managers of private enterprise the 60 families promptly led the American people into the worst peacetime catastrophe ever known...The new government bailed the 60 families out of the consequences of their own mesmeric miscalculations and their unintelligent leadership of the system of private enterprise of which they had pretended to be master managers...
What's your NPR host name?
This is fun.
So finally, after years of Fresh Air sign-off ambitions, we came up with a system for creating our own NPR Names. Here’s how it works: You take your middle initial and insert it somewhere into your first name. Then you add on the smallest foreign town you’ve ever visited.
My name would be Pejter Kleineichen. The town (in Germany) is just a guess, as it's the smallest of two towns I stayed in during a month-long visit to extended family while I was in high school. There may have been other, smaller towns that I visited while sightseeing, but I've long since forgotten their names.
"I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization."
- Oliver Wendell Holmes
"They need an American Dickens..."Michael Harrington, from his introduction to The Other America: Poverty in the United States:
The poor can be described statistically; they can be analyzed as a group. But they need a novelist as well as a sociologist if we are to see them. They need an American Dickens to record the smell and texture and quality of their lives. The cycles and trends, the massive forces, must be seen as affecting persons who talk and think differently.It's been asked before, but it's worth asking again: who is our 21st Century Dickens?
I am not that novelist. Yet in this book I have attempted to describe the faces behind the statistics, to tell a little of the "thickness" of personal life in the other America.
Tonight we're gonna party like it's 1929The Progressive is celebrating its 100th anniversary, and given our current economic doldrums the magazine rightly thought it would be appropriate to re-run a series of articles which it originally published during the Great Depression. (This happens to be quite timely for me, as I just started reading Michael Harrington's 1962 study The Other America: Poverty in the United States, in which the author argues that the welfare state created in response to the Depression mostly benefitted the middle and upper classes, and not the poor.) Here are the articles that have run so far:
Wagner Urges Unemployment Relief Action, by Senator Robert Wagner (June 14, 1930)
“Individualism” Seen in Destructive Phase, by Theodore Dreiser (January 9, 1932)
Human Wreckage: A Plea for Federal Relief, by William Green (February 20, 1932)
The Long Plan for Recovery, by Senator Huey P. Long (April 1, 1933)
And even more AlgrenOn second thought, maybe Algren is getting recognition after all. Still not from the city, of course, but from the grassroots. A few recent welcomed developments:
An unpublished story, "Entrapment", is up at the Chicago Reader. The story is distilled from a 300-page novel manuscript that Algren never completed. (Reading the story and its backstory, it's hardly surprising that Algren never finished it. The subject matter was surely too painful for him to fully deal with.) My thoughts on the story are here.
Seven Stories Press, which championed Algren long before most of the world even cared, and was instrumental in bringing about whatever measure of revival he now enjoys, has released a new collection of unpublished Algren material, Entrapment and Other Writings.
That Chicago Reader posting of "Entrapment" also linked to a trailer for Algren, a full-length documentary which is coming out in 2010 from Montrose Pictures. Looks fascinating. Though the trailer focuses on Art Shay's photographs of Algren, I'm hoping the filmmakers have also been able to unearth contemporary film footage of Algren as well, which would bring the film more alive than just using still photos.
Morrison and Matheson, opposite sides of the same coinAt Harper's, Wyatt Mason points to an anachronism in Toni Morrison's A Mercy: the presence of starlings in America circa 1680, although the birds weren't introduced to America until the 1890s. One pitfall of writing historical fiction is not researching quite enough to get all the facts just right, which will undoubtedly be noticed by experts (such as the one Mason mentions) and will often ruin the reading experience for them.
On a related note, I recently came across the inverse of Morrison's error in Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. Matheson's book was published in 1954 but the narrative begins in 1976, and his protagonist not only drives a Willys wagon (presumably a Jeep) but also scavenges an extant Willys dealership for a new model after his first was destroyed. Trouble is, Willys no longer existed by then, the brand name having disappeared in 1963 when the company changed its name to Kaiser-Jeep, which in turn was acquired by American Motors in 1970, thus making it impossible for Matheson's protagonist to find a Willys dealership in 1976. Of course, in the 1950s Matheson had no way of knowing that Willys wouldn't be around when the future time frame of his book became the present day. But picking Willys as his protagonist's vehicle was a risk, one that backfired on him. Not that it ruined the reading experience for me - I had plenty of other, much bigger problems with the book - but it still is an interesting aspect of writing fiction which is set in the future.