"...the yellow fingers from the coffin nails they smoked..."
It is always worth itemising happiness, there is so much of the other thing in a life, you had better put down the markers for happiness while you can. When I was in that state, everything looked beautiful to me, the rain slicing down looked silver to me, everything was of interest to me, everyone seemed at ease with me, even those slit-eyed cornerboys of Sligo, with the yellow fingers from the coffin nails they smoked, the yellow stain above their lips where the fag was stuck in permanent. Accents like bottles being smashed in a back lane.
- Sebastian Barry, The Secret Scripture
I like the repetition here - those three phrases that end in "to me", with the next phrase ending in "with me", which subtly transitions from the interiority of the three phrases to an observation of the broader world outside. And I love the "cornerboys" description. I've been kicking around a Joliet story in my head for the past several years (surprisingly, I've never written a story set in Joliet, despite living there for eleven years now) that involves young bums just like that, and Barry's imagery is something I will certainly be borrowing from.
Happy birthday, Nelson
Nelson Algren was born on this date in 1909. A timeless quote from A Walk On The Wild Side:
"When we get more houses than we can live in, more cars than we can ride in, more food than we can eat ourselves, the only way of getting richer is by cutting off those who don't have enough."
If Algren was alive today, I'm sure he wouldn't be at all surprised to find that little has changed in that respect.
Yesterday we were running errands up in Naperville, and decided to stop along the way at the Borders in Bolingbrook, which is closing and currently has everything 50-70% off. But just before turning in to Borders, we decided to first stop at Goodwill, where we hadn't been for a while. Julie and Maddie were underwhelmed the first time they visited, but we went anyway, and...
The book selection was just great, and that photo above is our haul - James Joyce's The Dead (never EVER expected to find a Melville House book at Goodwill!), Sinclair Lewis' Go East, Young Man (a short story collection of his I had never even heard of), Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun, Willa Cather's My Antonia, E.L. Doctorow's The March, Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist, and Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind. (The one of the bottom is a collection of Charles Dickens' Christmas stories that we later bought at Borders.) Plus Maddie got a Mario Brothers story book and a YA novel based on the old Benji movie. We could have easily bought even more, but had our other errands to get to.
The entire bill came to less than eight bucks, which was such a great deal that it left us totally unenthused for the markdowns at Borders. Even the rock-bottom prices there were higher than Goodwill - I even saw the Trumbo book at Borders, where it would have been about three bucks versus eighty-nine cents at Goodwill. And the books at Borders were pretty picked over - the Dickens was the only one we bought there. I could have bought others, but decided to be disciplined enough to only buy books there that I had already wanted, for which only the Dickens qualified.
As we left Goodwill, it occurred to me that used bookstores are now mostly city luxuries, and for the most part suburban bookhunters have to settle for thrift stores. Which would be fine with me, as long as the selection is always as good as it was at Goodwill yesterday. And the money goes to charitable causes too. Can't beat that.
Having a last name that starts with "A" has often had its disadvantages (one being that, with assigned seating, I usually had to sit in the front row in school) but in this case it has really paid off.
Books and booze...oh, and bombs
Lawrence Ferlinghetti is a vigorous 92 years old today. Love this quote from The Writer's Almanac about his Navy stint as a ship commander during WWII:
"Any smaller than us you weren't a ship, you were a boat. But we could order anything a battleship could order so we got an entire set of the Modern Library. We had all the classics stacked everywhere all over the ship, including the john. We also got a lot of medicinal brandy the same way."
Sounds like a great pleasure cruise, were it not for the war and everything.
Two lost classics, rolled into one
A few months back, Lynn Becker's ArchitectureChicago presented Andy Pierce's photographs from his final roll of Kodachrome film. That would be momentous in itself, but doubly momentous in that the photos are of the now-demolished Hotel LaSalle Garage. The garage stood right next to my office building, and even in its final, worn and forlorn condition I found it more visually appealing and even physically imposing than the sterile glass condo tower that replaced it. That's progress, I guess.
Leaves of (Outfield) Grass
I didn't think this was possible, but in Cubs outfield hopeful Fernando Perez, I've found a baseball player I might actually care about.
Perez studied creative writing at Columbia University and works on his craft in his spare time. Naturally, he doesn't have a whole lot of time in spring training, arriving at the ballpark around 7 a.m. and often staying after games for extra batting practice.
"I work on these things very, very slowly," he said. "I've got a job. Some days I am particularly motivated, where I get home and it's the first thing I work on. I'm going to put in a full few hours of work, fall asleep, wake up and it's baseball again."
But..."whole lot of time"? Nice grammar, Tribune reporter. Perez should give you some pointers.
The only thing I want that shines
Is to be king, there in your eyes
To be your only shiny thing
- Tom Waits, "Shiny Things"
John Darnielle, the once and future author
John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats (one of my favorite songwriters, and whose best songs are perfect little fictions in themselves) talks about his not-so-forthcoming debut novel.
The other main difference between making Mountain Goats albums and writing a book for Darnielle seems to be the pace. An astoundingly sharp and prolific songwriter, Darnielle is finding it far more difficult to wrap up his second literary production.
"I'm working on it really slowly, and at this point, I expect to finish it when I'm 80 or something because I'm being really meticulous about revising it and am really ambitious about it," he explains.
I've already marked this down on my to-read list...for 2147. I'll be 82 then, and hope I'll still be coherent enough to read it. His 33 1/3 book Master Of Reality remains on my wishlist, despite my ignorance of almost all things Sabbath.
(Via Largehearted Boy.)
Mom and Dad, please transcend money
Today I was amused to read this funny quote from John Updike:
"We do not need men like Proust and Joyce; men like this are a luxury, an added fillip that an abundant culture can produce only after the more basic literary need has been filled. This age needs rather men like Shakespeare, or Milton, or Pope; men who are filled with the strength of their cultures and do not transcend the limits of their age, but, working within the times, bring what is peculiar to the moment to glory. We need great artists who are willing to accept restrictions, and who love their environments with such vitality that they can produce an epic out of the Protestant ethic. Whatever the many failings of my work, let it stand as a manifesto of my love for the time in which I was born."
Not funny in itself, obviously, but in context: he wrote it at age 19, IN A LETTER TO HIS PARENTS. There was no indication whether or not he also hit them up for beer money in that letter, but I assume he would have done so in a similarly pompous ("fillip"? "manifesto"?) and name-dropping manner.
One writer who's getting a lot of buzz these days is Alan Heathcock, whose debut story collection Volt is coming out soon from Graywolf Press. Tyler McMahon at Fiction Writers Review and Michael Schaub at NPR are just two of the many singing Heathcock's praises (the NPR review includes a story excerpt). From the reviews I've read, the collection is really unified by its small-town setting (as McMahon writes, "This fictional town is only a setting in so much as a church is a building — it’s better described as a group of people, a community."), an aspect that really appeals to me. One problem I have with story collections is when they're a disjointed assemblage of odds and ends that have nothing in common other than being by the same writer. In contrast, collections that are better unified, whether by theme or setting (for example, Stuart Dybek's I Sailed With Magellan, Ander Monson's Other Electricities or Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio), have much more meaning for me since they feel like a cohesive book instead of just odds and ends.
Despite Volt's rural setting, Heathcock is actually a Chicago native. It would be interesting to learn how he picked up the decidedly non-urban narrative voice displayed in that story excerpt. I don't read many author debuts, and buy even fewer, but I definitely plan to do both with this one.
Irish March is finally underway
My annual Irish March (when I devote the entire month to Irish fiction) started late this year as I finished up two other books which, in retrospect, were less than essential and probably could have been deferred. I didn't finally start reading Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture until the middle of last week, and even at that I haven't been devoting my full attention to it. Not that I don't like the book - it's very good, thematically similar to William Trevor but with denser and richer prose - but lately I've gotten in the habit of first reading the New York Times and checking email on my phone during my morning train ride. I typically haven't been cracking open the book until my commute was more than two-thirds over, which has prevented me from getting fully immersed in the story before my train arrived downtown. So this morning, I left the phone in my pocket and read for the entire commute, knocking down a very rewarding twenty-five pages.
Reading Barry, the thought occurred to me: are Irish writers genetically incapable of not writing about the Easter Uprising and/or the Civil War? Or is that just the case for writers I'm drawn to? Not that I'm complaining - it's a fascinating period in history, and it's been interesting to see how various writers (also including Trevor, John McGahern and Roddy Doyle) variously approach the subject.
Besides devoting my full attention to Barry's fine novel, I'm also honoring the Irish today by listening to the Pogues and the Drovers and my walk between the office and the train station, and tonight I'll be feasting on homemade corned beef and cabbage (prepared in our new kitchen!) and a pint of Guinness. Julie was kind enough to let me bring the Guinness home from the store last night - she loves the stuff, but can't drink it any longer since recently being diagnosed with Celiac disease, which requires her to avoid any wheat- or barley-based food or drink. I was willing to forego the Guinness in consideration of her, but she said it was okay for me to get it. I hope she can enjoy it vicariously.
What I'm writing
I'm finishing up the fourth draft of my novel-in-progress, Wheatyard. For almost three years now I've been carrying a hard copy of the manuscript (bound in a navy blue Mead binder) to and from work in my messenger bag, for it to be handy should the editing whim strike me while I'm riding the train. That copy is now heavily marked up, and also supplemented by a newer notebook where I've been jotting ideas and longer revisions as they've come to me. During the past few months I've been transcribing all of those edits into a new Word file on my laptop, but even seeing all those words on a screen hasn't prevented me from feeling (undoubtedly aided by the constant presence of that messy hard copy and notebook) that the book is still an unruly mess that's far from completion.
That is, until this morning. I'm still working on one critical section (in the second-to-last chapter, and what I think of as "the revelation scene"), which I wanted to print out in order to do further revisions. However, our home printer recently ran out of ink, so I emailed the document to myself so I could print it out at the office. (Relax, Employer, it's only ten pages and not the entire manuscript.) On the train this morning, while checking email on my iPhone I came upon that self-sent message, and opened up the Word file. And up it popped, looking neat and tidy and not unlike several published ebooks that I've been perusing on my phone.
Immediately it occurred to me that, indeed, this does look like a book. And reading through it, the writing is good. GOOD. Not perfect yet, but good. I now realize that I'm a lot closer to finishing this book than I had assumed. In another month it should be ready to send to publishers. Hurray!
"They have no vitality, but they cling to us all the same...""I almost think we're all of us Ghosts. ... It's not only what we have invited from our father and mother that walks in us. It's all sorts of dead ideas, and lifeless old beliefs, and so forth. They have no vitality, but they cling to us all the same, and we can't get rid of them. Whenever I take up a newspaper, I seem to see Ghosts gliding between the lines. There must be Ghosts all the country over, as thick as the sand of the sea. And then we are, one and all, so pitifully afraid of the light."
- Henrik Ibsen, Ghosts
I think I'll re-read some Ibsen this year during my Summer of Classics. Haven't read any since college.
"...like a lost shilling..."
"And he married her and brought her back to Sligo and there she lived her life henceforth, not bred in that darkness, but like a lost shilling on a floor of mud, glistening in some despair."
- Sebastian Barry, The Secret Scripture
"In 30 minutes, 18 state senators undid 50 years of civil rights in Wisconsin. Their disrespect for the people of Wisconsin and their rights is an outrage that will never be forgotten."
- Wisconsin State Senator Mark Miller
Let this be a wakeup call to Wisconsin and the rest of the country: despite its claims, the Republican Party is not populist and cares little about the needs of everyday people. Instead they serve very narrow interests, primarily corporations and the very wealthy. Whether you're union or not, if the actions of Republicans in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the Midwest infuriate you, then don't let that anger go to waste. Channel that emotion into pushing for recall elections wherever possible, or else mobilizing people into voting the GOP out of office during the next elections. Make it happen.
"The world needs bench warmers."
Probably my favorite TV soliloquy of all time, from the immortal Mr. Norm Peterson:
Diane: [After Thompkins steals Norm's proposal to the Board of Directors] Now now, Norman, you can't let this faze you, all right? You have to keep pushing. I know that this idea didn't succeed, but others will.
Norm: No no, Diane. Look, a few minutes ago, I almost made the biggest mistake of my professional life and it was because I was doing something that just wasn't me. I am not a go-getter, I've never been a go-getter, what's more, I don't even want to be a go-getter. I'm very happy right where I am. I'm so sick of all these people saying "Peterson, you gotta push", "You gotta get ahead", "You gotta make that goal". I don't even want to make the goal, Diane. I want to be a bench warmer. The world needs bench warmers. If there were no bench warmers, what would we have? Cold benches. A lot of cold benches and the world does not need that. You know something, I'm very happy with being an anonymous cog in this field of work.
Diane: Norman, I've never seen you so impassioned like this before.
Norm: That's because I believe in this, Diane. I'll tell you something else, Norm Peterson may be a motionless lump, but he's a damn good one.
Crispin on Hamsun
At The Smart Set, Jessa Crispin reviews my favorite novel ever, Knut Hamsun's Hunger, and also inevitably discusses Hamsun's Nazi sympathies which have so unjustly overshadowed the greatness of his work. (Hey, dude was no angel, but not many great writers were. You could easily argue that he embraced Hitler not out of admiration for Nazism, but because he saw Hitler as a protector of Norway.)
With its psychological depth, its taut and lean structure, it’s almost impossible to believe the book is a 19th-century work. Hamsun manages to portray a man on the brink of starvation without a shred of pity. Above all, the narrator wishes to maintain a sense of dignity — and he sacrifices opportunities for food and housing with his stubborn pride.
And she ably introduces the review at her regular gig, Bookslut:
The depictions of starvation, however, meant that I had to keep taking breaks to walk up to the bakery on Schönhauser Allee and buy Bavarian pretzels injected with salty butter. I should turn in my receipts to the Smart Set for those, see if I can get reimbursed. That shit adds up.
I had the same reaction to the book the first time I read it, during college in Champaign. I made the mistake of reading it on an empty stomach, which resulted in hunger pangs that soon had me rushing to Zorba's Gyros on Green Street, where I desperately ordered a large with fries.
Today is the birthday of author T.S. Stribling. According to The Writers Almanac, he was the best-selling author in America between World War I and World War II. Which quite astounds me - though I consider myself moderately well-read (and at least aware of scores of other authors I've never read), I've never even heard of him. Then again, I doubt that my great-grandchildren will have any idea who James Patterson was, either.
Kids are alright
A series of kids, aged 9 through 16, ask Philip Pullman a whole bunch of great questions.
Why do you think it's so important that young people read?
For the same reason that I think it's important that they breathe, eat, drink, sleep, run about, fool around, and have people who love and look after them. It's part of what makes us fully human. Some people manage to get through life without reading; but I know that if I'd had to do that, an enormous part of my mind, or my soul if you like, would be missing. No one should be without the chance to let their soul grow.
These kids ask smarter questions than I would have as a teenager. Hell, some are smarter than I'd ask now.
Tanzer does it again...
What I listened to on my way to work today
The iPod shuffle-played the following for my walk from train to office...
Giant Sand, "Fields of Green"
Terrific song (admired recently here) that has me seriously considering getting reacquainted with Howe Gelb's eccentric genius. In other words, I'm thinking of buying my first Giant Sand album since 1994.
Yo La Tengo, "(Straight Down To) The Bitter End"
Second-best song on Electr-O-Pura, after the gorgeous "Pablo and Andrea."
Scruffy the Cat, "Bus Named Desire"
From the band's final album, Moons of Jupiter, which in retrospect seems like a stab at commercial success for the band (produced by Jim Dickinson, it's significantly smoother than Tiny Days, my favorite of theirs). Sadly, that success eluded them, and they broke up shortly afterward.
Tom Waits, "2:19"
Waits gutbucket blues at its finest, from Orphans. Fortunately the title refers only to a train, and not to the song's running time - two minutes and nineteen seconds would be cruelly brief for a song this rich.