Just made my third stab at the Nelson Algren Short Story Award, submitting my recent story "Echoes Down the Line." Previous attempts were made with "Mahalia" (later published in Midwestern Gothic) and "The Way Business Is Done" (still unpublished). I have pretty much zero chance of winning, but there's no entry fee and they accept online submissions, so I went right ahead anyway. Today is the last day for entries.
"Some bad bourbons are more memorable than good ones."
Walker Percy on the aesthetics, though not the connoisseurship, of bourbon.
But what to say? Take a drink, by now from a proper concave hip flask (a long way from the Delta Coke bottle) with a hinged top. Will she have a drink? No, but that's all right. The taste of bourbon (Cream of Kentucky) and the smell of her fuse with the brilliant Carolina fall and the sounds of the crowd and the hit of the linemen in the single synthesis.
My dad was a bourbon drinker, but I still haven't fully developed a taste for it. I'll still keep trying, partly for the connection to him, and also intend to read Percy's acclaimed The Moviegoer.
Boy's gotta have it.
Sweet book, sweet history, sweet design.
"If you want the basket, put the kittens in the brass thing."
Love this: Mark Twain's notice to "the next burglar."
"...the fiery Spirits blaze..."
I quite enjoy this passage from Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock", on coffee:
For lo! the Board with Cups and Spoons is crown’d,
The Berries crackle, and the Mill turns round.
On shining Altars of Japan they raise
The silver Lamp; the fiery Spirits blaze.
From silver Spouts the grateful Liquors glide,
And China’s Earth receives the smoaking Tyde.
If I ever own a coffeehouse, there will definitely be a "Smoaking Tyde" on the menu.
What I'm writing
I don't want to make too much of this, given my chronic inability to transform fiction concepts into finished manuscripts, but I just wanted to mark this event in case my latest idea ever comes to fruition. Last night I started writing a novel, with the working title "Express." I've been kicking the story around in my head since the late nineties, but only lately has it finally begun to coalesce. It involves three main characters who live very different and separate lives, and though I have a pretty good idea of each character's story, the biggest challenge will be drawing the three of them together. I'm not interested in writing three discrete novellas, but instead one cohesive novel. I will be focusing on this one for the next few months, then set it aside to simmer while I resume the next round of edits for Marshland.
It's too early to tell if anything will ever come of this, but at least I'll have something creative to occupy my mind for a while.
Jane Addams, American Opium-Eater
Surprising anecdote here from Jane Addams from her time at Rockford College during the 1870s:
At one time five of us tried to understand De Quincey's marvelous "Dreams" more sympathetically, by drugging ourselves with opium. We solemnly consumed small white powders at intervals during an entire long holiday, but no mental reorientation took place, and the suspense and excitement did not even permit us to grow sleepy. About four o'clock on the weird afternoon, the young teacher whom we had been obliged to take into our confidence, grew alarmed over the whole performance, took away our De Quincey and all the remaining powders, administrated an emetic to each of the five aspirants for sympathetic understanding of all human experience, and sent us to our separate rooms with a stern command to appear at family worship after supper "whether we were able to or not."
"Weird afternoon", indeed. Hard to believe that the aspiring missionary women at Rockford would have easy access to such a libertine work of literature. Addams is coming across as being much less stodgy than I had expected.
Maddie, 11-year-old blogger.
Month of Letters
I think I'll give this a try: The Month of Letters Challenge.
I have a simple challenge for you.1. In the month of February, mail at least one item through the post every day it runs. Write a postcard, a letter, send a picture, or a cutting from a newspaper, or a fabric swatch.All you are committing to is to mail 24 items.
2. Write back to everyone who writes to you. This can count as one of your mailed items.
Care to hear from me via good old-fashioned snail mail? Drop me your address at pete_anderson [AT] comcast [DOT] net. I can't guarantee that whatever I send will be earth-shattering or even enlightening, but I'll do my best. (And now, thanks to this project, Aztec Camera's "We Could Send Letters" will be stuck in my head for the rest of the day.)
(Via Boing Boing.)
Boy's gotta have it.
Demolition of an old building in Highland Park, Michigan, has revealed two beautiful faded ads. How poignant to realize that the ads first appeared during a time of great prosperity, then were covered up and only revealed again after decades of decline.
When the ads for Honor Bright and Black Beauty first appeared, between 1915 and 1925, Highland Park was in glorious ascent. The Ford assembly lines were humming, and the city had become a desirable community whose population had grown tenfold, to 45,000, in a decade...When the ads reappeared, it was to an entirely different city, one of abandonment, decline and the hope for a return to days when children carried schoolbooks and rode bicycles, carefree and smiling.
And it's always nice to see a quote from my friend Frank Jump, who has really become the go-to guy on faded ads.
"It’s a reminder of our own timeline and how quickly things become obsolete," said Frank Jump, a photographer and the author of Fading Ads of New York City, (The History Press, 2011). "One minute people had thriving businesses building buggies, and the next minute Henry Ford is pushing out automobiles on an assembly line and nobody wants horse and buggies anymore."
Frank's book is next on my buy list.
(Photo credit: Nicole Bengiveno, The New York Times)
"...bearing my responsibility as best I could..."
Curious anecdote of Jane Addams from her early childhood, as recounted in her memoir Twenty Years at Hull-House:
That curious sense of responsibility for carrying on the world's affairs which little children often exhibit because "the old man clogs our earliest years," I remember in myself in a very absurd manifestation. I dreamed night after night that every one in the world was dead excepting myself, and that upon me rested the responsibility of making a wagon wheel. The village street remained as usual, the village blacksmith shop was "all there," even a glowing fire upon the forge and the anvil in its customary place near the door, but no human being was within sight. They had all gone around the edge of the hill to the village cemetery, and I alone remained alive in the deserted world. I always stood in the same spot in the blacksmith shop, darkly pondering as to how to begin, and never once did I know how, although I fully realized that the affairs of the world could not be resumed until at least one wheel should be made and something started. Every victim of nightmare is, I imagine, overwhelmed by an excessive sense of responsibility and the consciousness of a fearful handicap in the effort to perform what is required; but perhaps never were the odds more heavily against "a warder of the world" than in these reiterated dreams of mine, doubtless compounded in equal parts of a childish version of Robinson Crusoe and of the end-of-the-world predictions of the Second Adventists, a few of whom were found in the village. The next morning would often find me, a delicate little girl of six, with the further disability of a curved spine, standing in the doorway of the village blacksmith shop, anxiously watching the burly, red-shirted figure at work. I would store my mind with such details of the process of making wheels as I could observe, and sometimes I plucked up courage to ask for more. "Do you always have to sizzle the iron in water?" I would ask, thinking how horrid it would be to do. "Sure!" the good-natured blacksmith would reply, "that makes the iron hard." I would sigh heavily and walk away, bearing my responsibility as best I could, and this of course I confided to no one, for there is something too mysterious in the burden of "the winds that come from the fields of sleep" to be communicated, although it is at the same time too heavy a burden to be borne alone.
It's interesting that she saw nightmares as involving recognition of one's duty and a crippling inability to perform that duty. It's also fascinating that a mere six-year-old could have been so troubled by her presumed duty that she would try to learn how to make wagon wheels herself, in order to meet the responsibility she envisioned in her dreams. This innate sense of responsibility must surely have compelled her toward the great work she achieved as an adult.
A brewery reborn
This is fantastic: Baltimore's American Brewery, which has been vacant since 1973 and decrepit as recently as 2005, has now been totally restored and renovated into the home of Humanim, a non-profit social service agency. The architect even went to great lengths to repurpose the existing brewery infrastructure into new uses - that second photo above is an old wort tank, now a unique workspace. This is exactly the sort of bold, forward thinking needed for Chicago's Michael Brand Brewery, which now faces demolition. I do realize, however, that any renovation of the Brand complex would inevitably be much less spectacular than American Brewery, as the Brand structure is much more utilitarian in design. Still, saving Brand is something that needs to be done, and I hope someone at least takes the Baltimore example as inspiration in what Brand could become.
Ander MonsonInteresting interview with Ander Monson at The Lit Pub.
I think that every artist feels isolated. There’s a reason why most of us who are drawn to making art are outsiders in one way or another. I suspect you have to engage in that kind of retreat from the world in order to see the thing from enough distance to want to talk about or iterate or engage with it in language or image. I find that even the sort of self-imposed isolation of several hours of silence, that is, me not talking, often starts to build up a tension in me that often leads to a burst of writing.I would love to read more fiction from Monson one of these years. Other Electricities was great, and even nearly compelled me to vacation in Iron Country.
English noblemen, American heiresses
Fascinating: the literary and historical roots of Downton Abbey.
In To Marry an English Lord Ms. Wallace and Ms. MacColl (who married an Englishman, though not a lord) write that in the 1860s "a whole new group of people began making money in industry — in armaments, in railroads, in preserved meats to feed the soldiers, in harvesters that freed workers from the fields. These enterprises made a lot of men very rich, very fast. And when they got rich, they came to New York."
But when they arrived, the aspiring nouveau-riche folks were not accepted socially by the vieux-riche clans, so they looked eastward across the Atlantic to England, France and Italy, acquiring titles and lineages they felt would give them prestige, at least for the next generations.
Julie is already hooked on the show, and I suspect that I will too, once I start watching. And I've never read Wharton (who is referenced heavily in that article) but probably should soon.
Hull House to close
I had been wondering what book I should read next, and now I know: Jane Addams' Twenty Years at Hull-House.
Hull House to close
By Kate Thayer, Chicago Tribune, January 21, 2012
The need for its services is as strong as ever, but after years of rising costs and dwindling income from fundraising the Jane Addams Hull House Association will close and file for bankruptcy, the agency said Thursday.
"For the last several years the agency has had trouble in the fundraising side of things," said Stephen Saunders, chair of the association's board of trustees. "After many years of struggling, we have to close our doors. It was a very difficult decision."
The 123-year-old agency, headquartered at 1030 W. Van Buren St., provides foster care, domestic violence counseling and prevention services, child development programs, and job training to about 60,000 children, families and community groups each year.
Sad, but times change, and we have to change with them.
New Orleans coffee, 1935
I love the riot of signage in this Walker Evans photograph, taken in New Orleans in 1935. And though at that exact moment it was 11:45, or past primo coffee-drinking time, I still would still have stopped in at that restaurant for a cup of Luzianne coffee. This photo was reproduced in Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America, and when I searched for it online, the first result that came up was at Shorpy, my favorite photoblog. Serendipitous.
Behold Harry Clarke's 1919-23 illustrations for Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination, at The Public Domain Review. The above image is for "Descent Into the Maelstrom" and, indeed, makes me feel like I'm descending. Plummeting, even.
Those eagerly waiting (like me) for Cormac McCarthy's next novel, after his unforgettable The Road...will have to wait a little longer.
Agents for the 78-year-old Pulitzer prize-winner had been expecting the first draft of a new book, but received instead what is believed to be McCarthy's first "spec" script for a new movie.
Can't blame a guy for trying something new, especially at 78. I hope I'm as bold 30-plus years from now.
Help out a used bookseller!
This is awful: this week, Popek's Used and Rare Books (Otego, NY) had a water pipe freeze and burst, flooding the store. (The owner, Michael Popek, runs the blog Forgotten Bookmarks which I've linked to before.) Michael estimates that they lost about $10,000 worth of books, which is bad news for any bookseller but especially for a small operator. (He also has a newborn baby at home, and all the expense that involves.) If you're on the lookout for used or rare books, I suggest you browse their online store and strongly consider buying there, just to help out a little.
And he also lost most of his forgotten bookmarks. Doubly sad.
Peter Orner, Esther Stories
Depending on your perspective, Peter Orner's debut, Esther Stories, is either a story collection, or one-half story collection and two novellas-in-stories. The "novellas" - Fall River Marriage and The Waters - are the strongest part of the book, and especially the former. Fall River Marriage tells, in fifty brisk pages, the story of Walt and Sarah Kaplan and their forty years together, from their quickie out-of-state marriage (with Sarah three months pregnant at the time) to Walt's early death, at 59, from a heart attack. The brief but vivid stories are almost like photographs of their marriage - funny, touching and sometimes sad. A wonderful piece.
The Waters tries the same approach but is less successful, primarily because the focus is much broader, spanning multiple generations instead of a single married couple. The story is also told by several narrators, making it sometimes difficult to follow who exactly is speaking. I don't think the multi-generation, multi-narrator structure quite works with the minimalist, fragmentary narrative that Orner seems to prefer. And interestingly enough, the story's Chicago setting didn't grab me nearly as much as that of the first piece (Fall River, Massachusetts). I would have thought a Chicago story would have really hit home.
As for the individual stories in the first half of the book, only two really stuck with me - the sad "Cousin Tuck's" (about the doomed relationship of a one-eyed pool shark and a community activist) and the darkly funny "Two Poes" (about a town plagued with two Edgar Allan Poe impersonators, who were hired for tourism promotion and never bothered to leave) - while the others soon faded from memory.
In all, Esther Stories was a worthwhile read, though mostly for Fall River Marriage. Orner has recently published his first novel, Love and Shame and Love, which I now definitely have my eye on.
"Everything 'anti' was Communist."
"If you were against starving, you were a Communist. If you were against unemployment, you were a Communist. If you were against what the government was doing in terms of making the rich richer, you were a Communist...Everything 'anti' was Communist. So you end up being against the government, because the government is against you."
- Leo Seltzer, on the Hoover Administration's repressive response to dissent during the early 1930s (quoted in Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America, by David A. Taylor)
Someone to pull the trigger
In 1936, a young William Saroyan wanted to be a magazine editor, and wrote to H.L. Mencken for advice. Here is Mencken's response, in its entirety:
I note what you say about your aspiration to edit a magazine. I am sending you by this mail a six-chambered revolver. Load it and fire every one into your head. You will thank me after you get to hell and learn from other editors there how dreadful their job was on earth.
Like me, Mencken was literary, curmudgeonly and born on September 12. No wonder I'm a fan.
"...the little invisible novels that get written between two people every day..."
It looks like this David Mitchell quote has already made the rounds of teh internets, but I like it so much that I'll still reprise it here.
Midlife crisis. Age. The heart gets more interesting than structure. I’ve got kids, I’ve got a wife, we’re stuck with each other for a while. And suddenly there’s an understanding that this is what life is — it’s actually the mess, it’s the mud, it’s the tangle. It’s not the clean, hygienic...fireworks. It’s the little invisible novels that get written between two people every day of their lives. It’s the subtle power shifts. It’s the love, it’s the less-noble sentiments that make every single day either good or bad or not so good or wonderful or moving through all these things at the speed of West Cork weather. This is interesting stuff. Why go out there in search of extraterrestrial life when it’s already here?
Cloud Atlas is finally on my reading list for this year, and based on the obvious sensibility expressed in this quote, I'm sure I'lll enjoy it quite a bit.
The Rooster Croweth
The Morning News has announced the sixteen entries in this year's Tournament of Books. I haven't read any of them, and have interest in only two - Salvage the Bones and The Devil All the Time. (And barely two - I just removed Pollock from my Goodreads list a few days ago. At first I got all caught up in the hype surrounding that book's publication, but the more I've thought about it, I've decided that the rural/working-class/violent-white-guy trope doesn't really do that much for me. Not that I'm against any of those qualities - just that, put together, they seem to have been overworked lately.) I'm not even interested in Ondaatje, although he and I share a birthday. It seems that I drift further from current literary relevance every year, or at least that relevance as represented by the ToB. Still, I know I'll enjoy every minute of the proceedings this year, even without a Franzen smackdown to look forward to. Here's the list:
Nathacha Appanah, The Last Brother; Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending; Teju Cole, Open City; Helen Dewitt, Lightning Rods; Patrick DeWitt, The Sisters Brothers; Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot; Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding; Alan Hollinghurst, Stranger’s Child; Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones; Haruki Murakami, 1Q84; Téa Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife; Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table; Ann Patchett, State of Wonder; Donald Ray Pollock, Devil All the Time; Karen Russell, Swamplandia; Kate Zambreno, Green Girl.
Last night I finished the second draft of my story collection Where the Marshland Came to Flower. After making steady progress with the edits, I had a mechanical setback in November when my older laptop suddenly died (broken hard drive, from the sound of it) and left me without a portable machine. I also lost the second draft of the book's first four stories, which were on the hard drive when it went down. At that point my pace slowed dramatically as I had to edit at home on another laptop (the battery on this one is dead, thus rendering it not-portable) whenever I could. Then in mid-December Julie bailed me out when she got a "new" (factory-refurbished) MacBook and gave me her old one. (Not that my MacBook is at all as inferior or a hand-me-down - it's a big upgrade over the Dell and HP laptops I had been using.) With the MacBook, I was able to write on the train again and whipped quickly through the edits, and I now have a decent manuscript.
I'm sending it to the printer today and soon will hand it off to a few trusted readers. I anticipate two more rounds of revisions before it's ready to send to publishers, which I'm targeting to happen by the end of 2012 at the latest. I'm pretty happy with what I have so far, and have found writing this book to be much easier than Wheatyard was.
Chicago billboards, 1901
Check out these billboards on South Michigan Avenue in Chicago from 1901, taken from this panoramic view at Shorpy. Cigars, champagne, oatmeal, kidney water and some sort of haircare product, along with the soon-to-be-missed Kodak cameras. The panoramic looks north from 12th Street (now Roosevelt Road), with Michigan Avenue on the left, Grant Park in the center and the Illinois Central railyard (plus a bit of the lake) on the right.
I finally updated my Listening section over in the sidebar, with "In the Dreamlife You Need a Rubber Soul" by New Zealand legends The Clean. Not sure whether or not the title is a Beatles reference, though probably not, since the song isn't particularly Beatlesque. Regardless, good stuff. Enjoy.
New at Contrary
My latest post, "Twain on the installment plan", is now up at the Contrary blog.
The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers
During 2011, I methodically made my way through The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, which Julie found for me at a garage sale during the summer. The book is a 2005 compilation of author interviews from the McSweeney's magazine The Believer. Though I had read very few of the authors beforehand, I enjoyed most of the interviews, particularly for the many insights into the art of writing. Some of those insights meshed with my own feelings while others clashed, but either way the interviews really got me thinking of my own perspectives on writing. That said, however, the book did finally wear me out and I quit reading several interviews short of the end. Below is an index of the various excerpts I've posted here, for your browsing enjoyment.
Tobias Wolff on the discipline of finishing
Ian McEwan on being influenced by great writers
Edward P. Jones on writing to an audience
Grace Paley on needing two stories to have one story
Chris Abani on writing programs
Joan Didion on writing about your childhood home
Marilynne Robinson on getting cozy with your protagonist
Jonathan Lethem on the future of books
Shirley Hazzard on coincidence in fiction
Haruki Murakami on the role of concentration in writing a novel
George Saunders on assembling story collections
Francisco Goldman on the tug of war between writing life and personal life
John Banville on the difference between writing fiction and criticism
James Salter on tiny details that somehow are remembered
Jamaica Kincaid on finding a story's ending
August Wilson on revising too much
What? You've never been to Booga Books? It's my wife's Amazon storefront, and right now she's got some knitting books, kid books, and fiction from Porter Shreve, Nami Mun, Joshua Furst and Morgan Llywelyn, plus the Dennis Cooper-edited Userlands anthology from Akashic. Shop today!
Farewell to a Chicago original, Elmer Polzin, newspaper horseracing columnist and handicapper.
"He loved the camaraderie in the press box," Surico said. "He was kind of the life of the party, and people loved him. Elmer could meet the queen, spend the night swearing a blue streak, and at the end of the night, he would be knighted."
Alas, truly one of a dying breed.
"The click of the balls as beautiful as your own heartbeat."
She had trouble getting dates, so some nights she'd march into Cousin Tuck's and wait for the one-eyed man to finish playing pool. His name was Tito, and he wore a black patch over his left eye. He was a small-time hustler who could clear tables at will, using a combination of ball-smacking power and quiet, surgical, intricacy. He was also a teacher. Really more of a teacher than a hustler, because those of us who were regulars didn't dare play him for more than a few quarters a game. But lots of us would play him to learn. He'd set up your angles, a little left, a little right, pick out spots on the ball, call pockets on shots you never would have dreamed of making had he not whispered that if you hit the 13 into the right edge of the 7 with just enough oomph to bank it off the left side - fuckdawango - you could make that shot. Tito made you feel that you could be consistently good at the game, that you really were capable of mastering the geometry. The click of the balls as beautiful as your own heartbeat. On those nights, after four, five beers, you'd be soaring and people in the booths would start to murmur about you, point the necks of their bottles your way. You standing against the wall, chalking your cue and kissing your knuckles as if all of a sudden Cousin Tuck's was Bally's in Atlantic City and you were the guy. Everybody's guy. But on those nights Tito wasn't around, you'd be back to hitting slop, back to whacking the ball all over the table, because it was Tito who made you.
I used to play quite a bit of pool, and was a pretty good player back in the day. Fiction that directly describes playing pool is fairly rare, and I think this passage captures it extremely well, especially the feeling when you're playing in a bar after a few drinks and all eyes are on you, like you're performing on stage.
At first I objected to the narrator's reverence for Tito's "ball-smacking power." Hitting the ball hard in pool is just showing off and is generally worthless - instead, good players use gentle finesse which gives greater margin for error and sinks more shots. But then I came to realize that the narrator is just the sort of slop player who admires the showing-off of power shots, so that reverence is indeed appropriate. And if Tito is really that good of a player, he probably doesn't shoot with power very much anyway, but those rare instances still get the narrator's attention.
A strong story overall, one I definitely recommend.
Wheatyard was just turned down for the fourth time, by one of the very best independent presses out there. They said that while they were "intrigued" by the story's premise, it just didn't fit their fiction needs. Which, for all I know, might just be their boilerplate language for rejections. As has been my habit, I immediately turned around and submitted a query to another great indie. One of these has to hit eventually. Onward.
Less ambitious book titles
Inspired by this post, here are "less ambitious book titles" based on some books I've read during the past three years.
Jude the Nonexistent
Out Looking at Horses
Fungi in the Earth
The Beige and the Gray
Partial Cloudiness at Noon
Chicago: City on the Up and Up
A Good Man Is Quite Common, Actually
The Adventures of Huckabee Finn
I Am Moderately Familiar in Certain Circles
Little Timeshare Three Miles from the Beach
"I miss you very much,are you happy? 2"
I've written poetry from email spam in the past, piecing together one line each from various random spams I've received. But until today I never got a spam that could pass, verbatim, for verse:
I miss you very much,are you happy? 2
this is a good news.
The website XXXXX is doing the marketing activities and offering a big discount.
also the quality are well .
Beacuse I have bought some .
They mainly sell all kinds of MP3,TV,Motorbike,Cellphone,Laptop etc.
with very fashionable styles.
you'd better spend one or two minutes have a look,
maybe you can find what you are interested in .
bless you and your family .
Genius. Almost makes me want to buy something. Almost.