"Are infants to be nut-crackered into their tombs...?"
In Great Expectations, Dickens ratchets up the comic satire with the introduction of the ludicrous Pockets - the exasperated tutor Matthew Pocket and his faux-aristocratic wife Belinda.
"Belinda," remonstrated Mr. Pocket, from the other end of the table, "how can you be so unreasonable? Jane only interfered for the protection of baby."
"I will not allow anybody to interfere," said Mrs. Pocket. "I am surprised, Matthew, that you should expose me to the affront of interference."
"Good God!" cried Mr. Pocket, in an outbreak of desolate desperation. "Are infants to be nut-crackered into their tombs, and is nobody to save them?"
"I will not be interfered with by Jane," said Mrs. Pocket, with a majestic glance at that innocent little offender. "I hope I know my poor grandpapa's position. Jane, indeed!"
Mr. Pocket got his hands in his hair again, and this time really did lift himself some inches out of his chair. "Hear this!" he helplessly exclaimed to the elements. "Babies are to be nut-crackered dead, for people's poor grandpapa's positions!" Then he let himself down again, and became silent.
It's great passages like this that make Dickens' often overly verbose and digressive narrative remain worthwhile reading. But I still think the book would be even better with 50% less characters and subplots.
Champaign on my mind
For some reason I seem to be strangely preoccupied with Champaign (and Urbana) this year. First, a few months ago I finally finished my first novella, Wheatyard, which is primarily set in C-U. Second, last week I belatedly discovered the Vertebrats, a much-loved band that thrived in the twin cities before breaking up in 1982; I had only been familiar with a few of their songs, an inexcusable omission now rectified after finding a copy of their wonderful anthology A Thousand Day Dream at a used record store. Then last night I was saddened to learn that my favorite campus restaurant, Zorba's, was burned out of its building by a fire in March and now faces an uncertain future...sigh.
If I close my eyes and really concentrate, I can almost smell the soybean-processing stench wafting over from the Kraft plant on the other side of town.
"Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts."
- Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
"The details."I love this anecdote about Barry Hannah by Jefferson Baker, from a recent collection of tributes in Oxford American.
Professor Hannah was late to class. "So sorry," he said, when he finally arrived. "My Aunt Juanita - my mother's sister - is here visiting from Columbus, Ohio. She makes these oak display cabinets that house mounted-butterfly specimens and I had to take her over to the biology department to let her see some rare specimens they've got over there. Anyway, turn to the Trevor story..."Now, that's a storyteller.
At the end of class, he grinned and said, "By the way, did all of you believe what I said about why I was late?" We all nodded. "Do you know why you believed it?" he asked. "The details." He strolled out, patting his pockets for a cigarette. An odd feeling, that: being duped and educated at the same time.
Best of Chicago
I greatly enjoyed the Chicago Reader's 2011 Best of Chicago list, and particularly the idiosyncratic categories on the critics' list. Here are my favorites that I've personally experienced:
Best Fulminator on Facebook: Tony Fitzpatrick
Best Elevators: Fine Arts Building
Best Bookstore With a Cat: Selected Works Used Books & Sheet Music
Best Book About Chicago Baseball Losers: Eliot Asinof's Eight Men Out
Best Place for Ambience and Egg Sandwiches: Billy Goat Tavern
I couldn't agree more highly about Selected Works and its cat, Hodge (pictured above), which is probably the friendliest store cat I've ever had the pleasure to meet. My only regret is that Selected Works and Hodge have so little competition - every bookstore should have a cat.
The Mountain Goats
As much as I love that Elliott Smith cover of George Harrison's "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)" that was over in the sidebar, it was there for over a year and needed to be replaced. So now it's the mysterious, haunting "Your Belgian Things" by the Mountain Goats, from a 2004 radio session on KEXP.
I just read a pretty wonderful piece at The Atlantic by tMG's John Darnielle about the genesis of the song "Dance Music" that I highly recommend. "So this is what the volume knob's for" - wow.
"The Tranquil Peace of the Alley Smoker"
The way was only lightly traveled. The building had no loading dock and no delivery trucks coming and going, with the traffic limited to the occasional taxicab shortcutting through, from one one-way street to the next. From where she sat, on a narrow concrete ledge behind the building, curled over a paperback with a cigarette clenched in her fingers, she was only vaguely aware of the cars that flashed past at the far end of the alley. Their colors flicked by, barely seen at the furthest edge of her vision, their engines growling suddenly before silencing again. For her the street and the rest of the world were far away.
The smoke wisped upward from the dimming ember of ash, the cigarette close enough for the next quick puff while keeping the smoke from her eyes. She pored intently over the words, devouring them, flipping page after page with the thumb of her left hand, unconsciously waving the cigarette in midair like a baton. Soon she would return to the office and work, but for a few moments more she would linger, deep within the mystery, inhabiting it, living alongside the other characters, transported back decades into the past.
Headline of the Day
Mocking the steadily declining Joliet Herald-News is akin to shooting fish in a barrel. But I still can't let this headline pass by unnoticed:
I wonder how long it will take them to correct this. If ever.
"...that he might be worthier of my society..."
A fascinating transformation just occurred with Pip in my reading of Great Expectations. Up until Chapter 14 he was a completely sympathetic character - orphaned, being raised by his tyrant sister, seemingly having nothing (other than the sainted Joe) but oppressively dull adults as companions. But all of that changes in Chapter 14, as his odd experiences with Miss Havisham and Estella (and particularly their considerable if moldering wealth) suddenly make him ashamed of his humble circumstances and dread his future as an apprentice blacksmith. He somehow, seemingly from nothing more than being one of many hangers-on in Miss Havisham's orbit, feels he is above the Gargerys, who took him in when he had nowhere else (other than the unappealing prospect of a Victorian-era English orphanage) to turn. This chapter shows him wavering, still showing great respect for Joe, but then a single devastating line in the following chapter, when he explains his desire to give Joe some formal schooling, makes the break complete:
I wanted to make Joe less ignorant and common, that he might be worthier of my society and less open to Estella's reproach.
So he's educating Joe not to make the latter more learned, but to make him fit to be in Pip's suddenly inflated presence. And to lessen Estella's ability to criticize Pip for associating with him. With that, for me at least, Pip becomes an unsympathetic character - and probably a much more interesting one.
Faded ads in Seattle
Our recent trip to Seattle revealed quite a few faded ads, particularly from our window on the 14th floor of the Marriott Courtyard hotel, Pioneer Square:
Can't quite read the full name from this view, but from this post it apparently is "Lovera Cigar." The sign is not visible from below, on First Street, so this is the only vantage point I could get.
This one, on the other hand, couldn't be clearer: "Optimus Soda Fountains and Store Fixtures/Crushed Fruits and Fountain Syrups." Also "Wholesale Drugs/Importers & Manufacturers." Nice!
Also on First Street: Black Bear Manufacturing Company. More info, and a street-view photo here. Check out the logo with the outline of a black bear. Double nice!
My quotable dadMy dad, John Anderson, was not an eloquent man. But he still had some memorable favorite phrases, including:
Famous last words.
Pull the pin.
Never stir a sleeping snake.
Keep the peace.
Keep your options open.
Don't sign anything.
Get out and pound the pavement.
Oh, you handsome devil, you!
Clean living always pays off.
Close only counts in horseshoes.
Don't marry for money. But remember, you can love a rich girl just as easily as a poor girl.
Ben Tanzer, You Can Make Him Like You
It's impossible for me to write objectively about Ben Tanzer's latest novel, You Can Make Him Like You, for many reasons: Ben's a great friend and confidante of mine; I read an early draft of the novel and had constructive feedback that shaped the final version; and the narrative personally hits so close to home with its am-I-ready-for-fatherhood question that every husband faces. So I won't even try to be objective, but will simply mention that it's another funny, thoughtful, pop culture-saturated winner from Ben's restless imagination, as a newishily-married guy (somewhere between coming-of-age and midlife-crisis) faces the prospect of becoming a father and all the awesome responsibility, sacrifice and commitment that entails. And if all of that wasn't enough, it's the first novel that Ben has set in Chicago, so the neighborhoods and places were all comfortably familiar to me. It's his best fiction yet, and proof of how much he's growing as a writer. Very well done.
Andrew Zimmern in Finland
Loved loved LOVED this episode of Bizarre Foods, as Andrew Zimmern visited Finland. Fortunately he minimized the time spent at frou-frou Helsinki restaurants in favor of traditional Finnish cuisine, including a wonderfully memorable visit to a remote island and its throwback denizens. Though I'm of Swedish descent, many of the traditional Finnish foods looked quite familiar to me. And plenty of it was fascinatingly unfamiliar, too, like seal meat. (Seals have apparently been off-limits to hunters there for decades, but occasionally are accidentally caught in fishermen's nets and have to be destroyed, thus providing a rare treat to the locals.) If you can find this episode online or on on-demand cable TV, I highly recommend it.
I picked up the summer fiction issue of The New Yorker, specifically for Aleksandar Hemon's nonfiction about his young daughter and her brain tumor. Trouble is, while skimming the article I glanced way too far ahead. Jesus. Now I'm somewhat reluctant to read the entire piece.
We managed to restrain ourselves, somewhat, at this year's Will County Book Recycling Event. We dropped off 20 books, and came back with "only" 16, making the slightest dent in our chronically unwieldy library. That photo above shows my personal haul:
Bel Kaufman, Up the Down Staircase: Huge bestseller from the 1960s, a comic piece about a high school teacher. Kaufman recently passed away, and from her obituary I first learned of this book. I might read this in tandem with Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim.
Great Tales of City Dwellers: Intriguing 1955 collection of city stories by an array of great writers. The inclusion of Nelson Algren (his great story "How the Devil Came Down Division Street", from The Neon Wilderness) is what grabbed me, of course, but I'm looking forward to almost everything else here, including Budd Schulberg and Joseph Heller.
J.F. Powers, Morte d'Urban: National Book Award winner about a Midwestern priest. I've heard a lot about Powers over the past year, and have been avidly looking for this book. It was actually on my Powell's wish list, so I have no guilt at all about bringing this home for the pile.
Nick Hornby, The Polysyllabic Spree: Hornby's wonderful first collection of "Stuff I've Been Reading" columns from The Believer. I already own this, and regretted that I couldn't find either of his other two collections. But I picked this up specifically to give to someone else.
Donald L. Miller, City of the Century: I gave this book to my mom as a gift, about ten years ago. When my dad passed away and she began to break up her household in preparation for moving to a retirement village, she donated most of her excess books to the local library before I had a chance to pick through them. She had a nice shelf of Chicago books, including Miller's well-regarded historical study. I'm sorry I let those books get away, and am glad to recover this one.
Here's a shot of the City Dwellers cover, which I absolutely love. The painting is by Bob Maguire.
"Algren was Robert Mitchum cool, and he was Harpo Marx funny."Filmmaker Michael Caplan is creating a documentary titled Algren, about Chicago legend (and my favorite writer) Nelson Algren. Target release date is spring of 2012.
Algren’s life and work will be explored in thirteen chapters, moving from autobiographical elements through his literary works. The backdrop for this film will be the hundreds of photographs of Algren, provided to us by Chicago photographers, Art Shay and Stephen Deutch, both of whom were personal friends of Algren. Newly uncovered audio recordings of Algren will be brought to light. Lastly, rarely viewed private collages created by Algren, which reflect his life, loves and interests, are part of this film. Many of his admirers, including William Friedkin, Philip Kaufman, Barry Gifford, Wayne Kramer, John Sayles and others, will be heard discussing the movies, music and art they have created through the spark ignited by their love and understanding of Algren’s work.
There's currently a Kickstarter campaign going that seeks to raise $25,000 to complete the film. (Follow the link to view the excellent trailer of the film.) There are premiums for various levels of giving, ranging from a simple thank-you to copies of the finished film and limited edition t-shirts, all the way up to an Associate Producer credit. There's only 30 days left in the campaign. I will certainly be pledging generously, and encourage you to do so as well.
This obituary makes me very _____ (adjective)
Leonard Stern, co-creator of Mad Libs and source of many hours of amusing diversion during my childhood, has passed away, at age 88. As if being a writer for Get Smart and The Honeymooners wasn't already great enough. Farewell, good sir.
Lost tooth: $3.01. Fatherly pride: Priceless.
Even though I already read this note last night, reading it again today online had me laughing to tears, right in the middle of the Loop, on a Madison St. sidewalk. This will give you just a hint of why I love my little girl so much.
Internet Archive just got even cooler.
Internet Archive is building a physical archive for the long term preservation of one copy of every book, record, and movie we are able to attract or acquire. Because we expect day-to-day access to these materials to occur through digital means, the our physical archive is designed for long-term preservation of materials with only occasional, collection-scale retrieval. Because of this, we can create optimized environments for physical preservation and organizational structures that facilitate appropriate access. A seed bank might be conceptually closest to what we have in mind: storing important objects in safe ways to be used for redundancy, authority, and in case of catastrophe.
True, given the hundreds of thousands of new books published each year, the collection's digs might eventually approximate the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark in terms of physical accessibility and convenience. But at least the books will be carefully preserved, which is an incredibly wonderful thing.
Great opening to Great Expectations
My annual Summer of Classics has begun, with Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. (Remarkably, for someone who considers himself fairly well-read, this is only the second Dickens book I've taken on, years after tackling A Tale of Two Cities shortly after college.) What a remarkable opening chapter. You might think that, with a 500-page novel, Dickens would take his time and ease into the narrative, but no. Instead the opening is wonderfully immediate and urgent, ominous and threatening, as we meet the orphan Pip in a graveyard (trying, poignantly, to imagine what his parents and brothers looked like, merely from their gravestones) where he is confronted by what is clearly an escaped convict. And as if that convict wasn't dangerous enough, he warns Pip of his nearby companion, a younger man even more bloodthirsty than himself. So we already have youthful innocence and worldly menace as an enticing setup for the rest of the novel.
My only qualm is with the first paragraph. In my reading I pay particular attention to first paragraphs and how well they grab the reader and set the stage. Great Expectations starts out in a very traditional, typically 19th Century way:
My father's family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.
But for me a much better opener would be the third paragraph, which provides both broad geographic sweep and the narrower focus of Pip's deceased family:
Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.
Really looking forward to where all of this goes.
That subject line is in honor of Chuck Barris, and marks the first time that my recently completed novella Wheatyard was booted off the stage; that is, declined by a publisher. My plan is to post an update here whenever I get an official "no" from a publisher, while keeping all names anonymous. In this instance, the editor was extremely kind, reading the entire manuscript and giving me his decision and constructive criticism in only about nine hours. He also said it was the first time he had received an over-the-transom (that is, unsolicited) manuscript, which is certainly some sort of distinction. Onward.
Chicago: City On the Make turns 60
Nelson Algren's passionate, poetic, book-length ode to his native city, Chicago: City On the Make celebrates its sixtieth anniversary this year, and University of Chicago is putting out a new edition which includes historic photos and annotations. Admittedly, I'm not sure what to make of the latter. I own an unannotated edition from the late 1980s which I've read more times than I can remember, and for me one of the book's delights is coming across a piece of information elsewhere that explains one of Algren's now-obscure references (Carl Wanderer et al). Having those references annotated and explained right there in the same volume would take much of the mystery and fun out of it.
Several years ago, I read Herbert Asbury's The Gangs of Chicago, his exhaustive (and often exhausting) account of the city's underworld. I was surprised to discover how much Algren borrowed from Asbury, specifically the latter's descriptions of 19th Century hoodlums and other ne'er-do-wells, for Chicago: City On the Make. Some of Asbury's phrases were used verbatim and (as I recall) without attribution. Merely a minor irritation, however, one which barely detracts from the greatness of Algren's work, which to me is the finest book ever written about Chicago.
"The business of the poet and the novelist is to show the sorriness underlying the grandest things and the grandeur underlying the sorriest things."
My Summer of Classics starts up again soon, and I've already decided to read Dickens' Great Expectations first. I might just make Hardy's Jude the Obscure my second. Given the length of both novels and my slowish reading speed, those two might take up the entire summer.