The Sands...and no, not the Vegas one
Love this image from The Sands Motel in Chicago, from 1964. Uniformed waiters serving drinks, poolside. Now that's one classy motel.
"I am writing this letter to let you know how real I am."
In 1973, Kurt Vonnegut penned this brilliant letter to the head of the school board in Drake, North Dakota, who had 32 copies of Slaughterhouse-Five burned due to the book's "obscene language."
Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought against nations which hate books and burn them. If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.
Croweth the Rooster
The final tally at The Tournament of Books is in, and the Rooster goes to [SPOILER ALERT] Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers, by a comfortable margin of 10-6. It seems that the judges were taken by what was regularly described as a "rollicking good read", somewhat more than the introspective meandering of its opponent. I was one of only ten people who called the winner and tally correctly but, alas, I failed to win the goodie bag. Now I definitely want to read The Sisters Brothers, but definitely don't want to read Open City.
"...the anxious midnight eyes of strangers..."Nelson Algren's birthday was yesterday, so I really should have posted this then, but here is one of my very favorite passages of his, from Chicago: City on the Make:
"It isn’t hard to love a town for its greater and its lesser towers, its pleasant parks or its flashing ballet. Or for its broad and bending boulevards, where the continuous headlights follow, one dark driver after the next, one swift car after another, all night, all night and all night. But you never truly love it till you can love its alleys too. Where the bright and morning faces of old familiar friends now wear the anxious midnight eyes of strangers a long way from home."
Wheatyard just got its eighth official rejection, from a small but growing Midwest publisher whose editor I met at AWP. The editor was very gracious, even agreeing to read it outside of the official review period, but admitted a personal aversion to stories about writers. Interestingly enough, I generally don't prefer reading those stories either. The book is now in submission with four publishers; however, two of those publishers have had it for quite some time now, and once I finally follow up with them I suspect I'll have more official rejections to report. Onward.
At Beatrice, Peter Orner reflects on his brother, the comix artist Eric Orner.
"My whole life I’ve pretty much been in awe of what [Eric] is able to do with his pen," Orner emailed me. "In some ways maybe my writing stories is a response what he does and I can’t do, which is make human beings and situations so alive on the page."
That image above is Eric Orner's lovely depiction of a Chicago water intake crib which, based on Peter's comment, was drawn entirely from memory. Impressive. I'm envious of visual artists too - I can't draw at all, but I can picture my stories very vividly in my mind. And it's very frustrating not being able to fully translate those images into words.
(Photograph by Art Shay)
"However do senators get so close to God? How is it that front-office men never conspire? That matinee idols feel such guilt? Or that winners never pitch in a bill toward the price of their victory?" - Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the Make
The great Algren was born on this date in 1909. My own writing is an endlessly fruitless quest to pay him honor.
Longtime Chicago journalist Norman Mark has passed away, at 72.
"What I remember best about him through the years was his eclectic interest and knowledge. You could talk to the guy about politics, you could talk to him about pop music, you could talk to him about journalism," said Don Rose, a longtime Chicago political campaign consultant and former public-affairs talk show host. "He was extremely well-read and well-versed in cultural affairs."
I see that he was yet another alumnus of the City News Bureau, which I hadn't been aware of. I've had a copy of Mark's book Mayors, Madams and Madmen on my shelf for years, having found it at a garage sale . I may have to move that closer to the top of the pile. Sometimes I need an event like this to prompt me to dive into long-unread books. Earlier this year, the closing of the Jane Addams Hull House social service agency finally compelled me to read Addams' memoir Twenty Years at Hull-House, and I'm glad I did.
 Upon further recollection, the book actually formerly belonged to my brother-in-law Al's parents, Helen and Joe Janicek. When the family house was cleaned out after Joe's death, Al let me have the book (and one by Studs Terkel) as keepsakes. Joe and Helen's basement was legendary for its wonderous clutter - a sort of suburban Smithsonian Institution.
Yes, we really needed more books.
Here's our haul from yesterday's Joliet Public Library book sale. The only one that's technically mine is Laila Lalami's Secret Son; I loved her first book, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, but for some reason never got around to reading this one. Julie's books are Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace (she's a big Atwood fan), Jonathan Franzen's Freedom (she didn't even like The Corrections, but figured his latest was worth a buck - and we can always donate it back to the next sale) and Kevin Baker's Paradise Alley. The pile on the right is Maddie's - a lot of books on animals, one on HTML and a Roald Dahl two-fer that I found for her.
Total tab: $5.50. As far as addictions go, we could do a lot worse.
My friend Kirby Gann is interviewed at HTMLGIANT.
One striking difference is that I’m way more encouraging and optimistic with the work of others than I am with my own. It seems like I can always spot a way out of a problem or weakness in my students’ work; with my own there’s just the conviction of utter humiliating failure.
That kind of humility is something I really admire about Kirby, both as a writer and a person. His new book, Ghosting, sounds quite Southern Gothic, a style that doesn't generally appeal to me. (After reading the relentlessly grim A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories, I have no interest in reading Flannery O'Connor ever again.) I hope that amongst all the drugs and mayhem, there is also plenty of the humanity and hope that made me so love Kirby's first novel, Our Napoleon in Rags.
Echoes of Terkel
The London Docks were closed by shipowners who wanted to move to new container ports as a means to break the unions and introduce casual labour, and make short-term profits by selling off their warehouse spaces. Yet the final irony lies with Colin, because anyone who has travelled upon the Thames – the silent highway, as they once called it – recognises the absurdity of the empty river when it is the obvious conduit for transport of goods as the roads grow ever more overcrowded.
The oral narration aspect can't help but remind me of Studs Terkel, the great man I never met yet find myself missing all the time.
"A lifetime of happiness! No man alive could bear it: it would be hell on earth." - George Bernard Shaw
(Via About Last Night.)
"...driven by curiosity about the unfamiliar..."
Timely: in The Guardian, Chris Power writes a thoughtful essay on the short stories of William Trevor.
Like Joyce (and to a lesser extent, Chekhov), Trevor contrives to bury his own voice within that of his characters, so that comments which first appear to be authorial are shown to emanate from them...Read "The Ballroom of Romance" for the first time and you might think the final lines belong to an omniscient narrator. Read it again, and you realise the inflection is Bridie's: the words not a judgment passed down, but a realisation arrived at; an epiphany.
I happen to be reading his novel Felicia's Journey at the moment, but greatly enjoyed his story collection A Bit On the Side and, from another collection, the achingly beautiful "Three People." I'm not sure whether I most prefer his novels or his stories; both are consistently wonderful, and heartily recommended.
1943 Jack Delano photograph, Union Station, Chicago. I sure hope this doesn't mean the restaurant didn't serve cocktails - in that case I would have been sorely torn as to which direction to go. There's still a bar in Union Station which might have been the old "Cocktail Room", but no sit-down restaurant. I wonder where that might have been.
Irish March revisited
This month I'm once again reading nothing but Irish fiction, starting with William Trevor's Felicia's Journey. (I got a late start, not diving in until I finished my previous book. I might extend Irish March a week into April.) Though I love Trevor's prose, at forty pages into the book there's still mostly been backstory - I'm really ready for the narrative to finally move forward. After Trevor, I'll read either Anne Enright's The Gathering or Kevin Barry's City of Bohane.
And of course I've been listening heavily to my Pogues albums this week. Though I own their first four albums, only If I Should Fall From Grace With God has earned full-album-download status on my iPod, with just selected tracks from Peace and Love, Rum, Sodomy and the Lash and Red Roses for Me. Corned beef and cabbage is also on the menu at home tomorrow night, though I might skip the Guinness for some Two Brothers or Bell's that I already have in the fridge.
Too weird: Former Hüsker Dü bassist Greg Norton celebrated his 53rd birthday last weekend in Chicago, at a show by local Hüsker Dü tribute band Hüsker Düdes. He's still rocking the curlicue moustache, isn't fond of Bob Mould's memoir ("Bob's book is a work of historical fiction.") and, to my surprise, is back in music - though hopefully with more congenial bandmates. Rock on, Greg.
Check out the photo that the Tribune chose to lead a story on some layoffs in its own newsroom. Based on the Jane Fonda-esque woman at the center in the short-shorts and white go-go boots, the photo appears to have been taken around 1967. Way to stay timely, Trib. They probably also tried contacting Irv Kupcinet at the rival Sun-Times for a quote, only to discover he's been dead since 2003.
Grammar Police descend on the NYT
Or at least this lone Grammar Policeman. I'm busting Jeff Zeleny for this sentence:
An aggressive push by Mr. Romney to try and capitalize on the divided conservative electorate failed to take hold, and he finished third in both states.
"Try and capitalize" is wrong. Instead, it should be "try to capitalize" or just "capitalize." The "and" implies that Romney is doing two things: trying and capitalizing. But "try" doesn't stand on its own; if you eliminate "and capitalize" the sentence makes absolutely no sense. Busted.
Love these industrial illustrations by the artist Carl Kock. The immense, almost inhuman scale of the machinery in the above image reminds me of Bohumil Hrabal's Too Loud a Solitude, and the protagonist Hanta's tour of the modern paper compacting plant.
"...blank early-morning faces at railway stations..."
If I didn't know better, I'd think William Trevor was a train-suffering working stiff just like me. Here is an early passage from his Felicia's Journey:
The train judders on, rattling on the rails, slowing almost to a halt, gathering speed again. Felicia opens her eyes. A hazy dawn is distributing farmhouses and silos and humped barns in shadowy fields. Later, there are long lines of motor cars creeping slowly on nearby roads, and blank early-morning faces at railway stations. Pylons and aerials clutter a skyline, birds scavenge at a rubbish tip. There's never a stretch of empty countryside.I simply love Trevor's prose, and read him about every two years, and fortunately he's so prolific that his back catalog will probably hold me for the rest of my life. After this one I'll own four books of his that are still unread - the recent story collection Cheating at Canasta and the early novels The Old Boys, The Boarding House and The Love Department. And I'm sure I'll keep steadily acquiring more of his books in the coming years and decades.
The train fills up. Newspapers are read in silence, eyes that meet by accident at once averted. Everything - people and houses and motorcars, pylons and aerials - are packed together as if there isn't quite enough room to accommodate them. Faces acquire an edginess when the train threatens to stop even though it isn't at a station.
Great Tales of City Dwellers
I just read and enjoyed the 1955 anthology Great Tales of City Dwellers. Plenty of big names from that era (Algren, McCullers, Fitzgerald, Heller) along with several others I wasn't familiar with, including the intriguing Alice Denham. Below are one-word reviews of each story - but of course I can't stop there, and add a sentence or two of elaboration.
On a fireworks scale, I give "Explosions" to Algren, McCullers, Schwartz, Malahan, Denham and Wolfe; "Glimmers" to Aiken, Heller, Parker, di Donato and Farrell; and "Duds" to Fitzgerald, Saroyan, Schulberg and Williams.
Nelson Algren, "How the Devil Came Down Division Street": Classic. The only time I can recall Algren dabbling in the supernatural (though the ghost was likely a figment of the characters' imaginations).
Conrad Aiken, "The Night Before Prohibition": Slow-starting. Too much exposition early on, but a strong finish set against the backdrop of the chaos of the last night of legal drinking, which is also the last night for the two erstwhile lovers.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, "A Millionaire's Girl": Overstuffed. Too much narrative in too few pages - this seems more like the framework for a novel than a short story.
Budd Schulberg, "A Foxhole in Washington": Limbo. Two military officers meet meet in a D.C. hotel bar again and again, pretending they're about to be shipped overseas and are on the cusp of greatness.
Carson McCullers, "A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud": Vivid. The setting of the cafe, and the tension between the characters, is impeccably described.
William Saroyan, "Ever Fall In Love With a Midget?": Meandering. Two guys talking in a bar, or more accurately one guy blathering on and on while the other inexplicably fails to slap the other into coherence.
Joseph Heller, "World Full of Great Cities": Pulp. A rich but unhappy married couple tries to hire a teenaged boy for nefarious purposes.
Delmore Schwartz, "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities": Surreal. The narrator dreams of watching his parents' courtship unfold on a movie screen in a crowded theater, finds himself powerless to stop the trainwreck he knows will ensue between them, but can't look away.
Dorothy Parker, "From the Diary of a New York Lady": Caustic. Parker relentlessly lampoons the monotonously pointless life of a big-city socialite.
Vincent Patrick Malahan, "The Duchess": Sly. Delightful and subtly funny domestic piece. Familiar but ultimately surprising.
William Carlos Williams, "The Girl With a Pimply Face": Flat. Terse, almost hardboiled prose. Not at all what I expected from a poet like Williams. And not a pleasant story either.
Alice Denham, "The Deal": Conflicted. A Vegas casino caricaturist weighs selling her body for the good of her artistic soul. The story grabbed me from the first paragraph and didn't let go.
Thomas Wolfe, "The Hollow Men": Sprawling. Wolfe uses all of America as the backdrop to examine the life of one man - a suicide victim in Brooklyn - who defies the faceless anonymity of bustling American life with his desperate final act.
Pietro di Donato, "Christ in Concrete": Graphic. On Good Friday, the storied day of self-sacrifice, a team of immigrant cement masons make their own unwitting sacrifice.
James T. Farrell, "Meet the Girls": Bleak. Harrowing, hopeless portrait of alcoholism and delusion. Not artfully written, though maybe lyricism would have softened the narrative too much.
Counting sheep, the writer's version
Lately I've rarely been able to sleep straight through the night. Inevitably I wake up at about 2 or 3 a.m., much too alert, and struggle to get back to sleep. (I wonder if there's something this myth of the eight-hour sleep business after all.) Though tempting, I try not think through whatever fiction project I'm working on at the time - conjuring settings and plot situations are much too mentally engaging for me to get sufficiently drowsy. And counting sheep has never really worked for me.
I've recently hit on a trick that seems to work, which I'll call first name-last name. One challenge faced by fiction writers is inventing characters' names, which fit both their personalities and backgrounds while also being poetic or at least memorable. So my trick is to randomly think of a first name, and then a last name that goes with it. Frequently the initial last name chosen creates the name of a celebrity (which would be cheating and not at all creative), so if I have "Robert" and first think of "DeNiro", I abandon that last name and think of another, such as "Woodside." And after Robert Woodside, I think of a new first name that begins with W, and continue on from there. I know this might also sound too mentally engaging for drowsiness, but the names come and go quickly, in a free-association sort of way, and their steady progression usually lulls me back to sleep.
Try it sometime. The only thing I warn is to not choose too many last names that begin in L or M - I often find myself gravitating toward the center of the alphabet, and before long I've run out of the standard L or M first names and have to settle for Langley and Mervin. Try for the ends of the alphabet instead.
Don't judge a book by its cover.
Nor a writer by her centerfold.
Working through the 1955 anthology Great Tales of City Dwellers, earlier this week I read the terrific story "The Deal", by an author I had never heard of, Alice Denham. Wanting to learn more about her, I googled "wiki alice denham", and the second result that came up was from some website called "Boobpedia - Encyclopedia of big boobs", while the first result was the Wikipedia entry "List of Playboy Playmates of 1956." At first I figured it was simply a case of a writer and pinup girl having the same name. But after clicking around - carefully, mind you - I discovered that those two personas belonged to one individual.
Denham seems to have had a remarkable career. She graduated from the University of North Carolina at age 16 and earned her M.A. from Rochester just one year later. That issue of Playboy (July 1956) not only included her centerfold spread, but also republished "The Deal." During the fifties she was quite the wild child, sleeping with many of the leading literary figures of the day, including James Jones, Joseph Heller, Nelson Algren and William Gaddis, as well as James Dean and (not surprisingly) Hugh Hefner. She went on to write four novels, Amo, Adios Sabata, My Darling From the Lions and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (the latter being made into a 1970s TV show) as well as a 2006 memoir, and taught at CUNY as an adjunct professor of English. Her papers are archived at UNC, with such an archive generally representing the offical imprimatur of a serious writer.
I couldn't find an obituary for her so I assume she's still alive, at age 79. If that's the case, then heaven help the old guys at her nursing home.
Another day, another Calumet 412 stunner. This 1932 photograph, by Gordon Coster, will surely make my heights-phobic wife woozy.
"...And sailed to the Land of the Dead/
Otherwise known as the Tri-County Office Park..."
Beware the sirens of Starbucks! Barristas
Of such beauty that no man can resist
Overpriced frappucinos! Bid brave Bob Faliveno
To bind you to the wheel should you,
Enraptur’d, beg to go through the drive-up window—
Then have him lash the bonds still tighter!
Reminds me of a "Prince Valiant of Credit Underwriting" bit I wrote a while ago, published daily as Facebook statuses. If I can track that down from FB's murky archives, I'll republish it here.
Here comes the Rooster
The Rooster kicks off tomorrow with the wonderful Emma Straub choosing between the sedately British Booker Prize winner, Julian Barnes’s Sense of an Ending, and the hyper-violent American debut, Donald Ray Pollock’s The Devil All the Time. Will Barnes show up in a red coat, marching all in a line, ready to be picked off by the upstart rebel? Or will Pollock be undone by Barnes’s Bond-like cool as he monologues his way through his deadly, criminal master plan?
Barnes vs. Pollock, in terms of contrasts, might be the most interesting matchup in the tournament. Though I haven't read any of the contestants, just from second-hand knowledge my pick for champion is The Art of Fielding.
Chicago lakefront, 1932
Lovely aerial photograph of Chicago's lakefront, circa 1932. (Apparently hand-tinted, since Kodachrome wasn't commercially available for still photography until 1936.) I love how the cloud shadows create an imaginary, seahorse-shaped peninsula off of North Avenue Beach. The southern end of Lake Michigan is strangely devoid of peninsulas and islands, two geographic features which always stoke my imagination.
(Via Calumet 412.)
Huxley to Orwell: Interesting, but I'm still right.
Fascinating: Aldous Huxley, after reading 1984, writes to George Orwell.
Within the next generation I believe that the world's rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.
Though I don't know whose vision of society will ultimately prove prophetic, I enjoyed 1984 much more than Brave New World, as I found the former to be more viscerally terrifying, while the latter dystopia - with all of the sex and drugs - didn't seem completely unappealing. Though maybe a government exerting power by distracting citizens with base pleasures is just as terrifying, though in a more subtle way.
What I'm writing...
...nothing for now, but with a little initiative that will soon change. In late January, I mentioned that I had begun conceptualizing my latest fiction concept, Express. But I haven't touched it since then - in February, the Month of Letters project used up all of my prime evening-train writing time, and thus far in March I've been unexpectedly preoccupied with the story story anthology Great Tales of City Dwellers. But that book will be done soon, and then I'll able to return to my usual regimen of morning-train reading (William Trevor's Felicia's Journey, as part of my annual Irish March) and evening-train writing.
But though I haven't written any of Express since January, I've still been working on it mentally, entirely in my mind. And I've already reversed my earlier reversal, in which I had considered moving Leon's setting to Chicago's South Side. But that's an area I really don't know well, and I just can't shake that Elston Avenue image out of my head. So now I'm thinking that while Leon first strives to make a splash in Bronzeville's jazz clubs on the South Side, it's Elston where he finally winds up, as the book opens. I probably should just start writing before I have a chance to change my mind again.
Fever Pitch at 20
Nick Hornby laments the gentrification of the English Premier League.
"My impression is that most kids go now [to football matches] as they would go to the theatre, a treat, something they would see three or four times a year...Because of the way the Premiership is, you can sell out football grounds like that. Whether in 20 years' time these kids will still be keen to go, or whether they will want to go two or three times a year, or whether the habit will have gone, it feels as if it's going to be different."
Pretty much the same thing has happened with baseball here in the states. Gone are the days when the Cubs would draw only 10,000 fans on a Wednesday afternoon, half of whom were juvenile delinquents and truants, and even on weekends you could buy tickets at the booth fifteen minutes before the game, for less than ten bucks. Though I'm a big fan of Hornby, I still haven't read Fever Pitch, nor his most recent novel Juliet, Naked. Really need to get caught up.
Why I attended AWP
And no, that photo isn't the reason. At least not entirely.
Yesterday I attended the book fair at AWP, the annual writer/publisher conference. The books were a draw, of course - hundreds of exhibitors in four big rooms - but the real reason I went was to connect with many writers and publishers whom I've never met in person, and even discretely hand over a few manuscripts of Wheatyard. However, I skipped all of the various panel discussions, which interest me very little, and even the evening parties which were, quite frankly, intimidating, not the least of which was the prospect of a long late-night train ride home afterward.
I'm not a particularly social person, and enjoy the quiet comfort of home more than anything else in the world, but I know that preference holds me back from advancing as a writer. For me it's easy to write in isolation, and send out my stories here and there, enjoying the rare publication from a distance without ever really connecting with the writing community. So yesterday - with Julie's thoughtful encouragement - I forced myself out of my comfort zone and went to the book fair.
And I'm very glad I did. I finally met people I've only known online, including Matt Bell, Ryan Bradley, Barry Graham, B.L. Pawelek, Gabe Durham, Jeff Pfaller and Dan Cafaro, and felt a genuine bond with each. And I had a great lunch at Cafecito with Nick Ostdick, whom I hadn't seen for several years. And I gave out a few Wheatyard manuscripts, including one to a journal publisher who is looking to get into book publishing soon.
The day was exhausting - all of that walking up and down the aisles, again and again, trying to size up prospective publishers while also browsing the endless stacks of books - and by 3:30 I had enough. I made a second stop at Cafecito and chilled out with a Cuban coffee for a while before heading back to my train and home. I can't even imagine going straight from the book fair to another evening of parties, as many of the attendees did for four nights running. I was very relieved to get home, have pizza and beer, and watch The X-Files with Julie and Maddie. So yes, I retreated back home again, but I did get out there for a few hours, and I'm very glad I did.
(The photo shows my haul for the day. Going in, I decided I wouldn't buy any more books than I handed out manuscripts. I stuck to that, technically - I bought three books and gave out two manuscripts, but one publisher that I had a nice chat with would only take submissions online, so I'm counting that as the third. The three buys were Ben Tanzer's new chapbook, This American Life, Ryan Bradley' Prize Winners and Michael Czyzniejewski's Chicago Stories, plus free copies of Third Coast, Voices from the Attic, Bookforum and Context, an Artifice sampler, postcards from Midwestern Gothic, Third Coast, Joyland (a "Rejection Guidelines" - how perfect) and Engine Books, stickers from MG and Ryan Bradley, and a beer coaster from Indiana Review. I thought the latter was particularly appropriate, given all the heavy drinking that goes on during AWP - I'm surprised nobody else thought of that.)
"Give it five minutes."
Month of Letters draws to a satisfying close
Yesterday I wrote my twenty-fifth and final letter of the Month of Letters project. (Technically, it was only supposed to be 24 letters - one for each day the post office was open during February - but I hand-delivered my letter to Julie to be sure she'd have it on her birthday. She appreciated the letter but insisted on getting delivered through the mail, so I wrote her a second one yesterday.)
It was a great experience, and from the feedback I've gotten it seems like people really enjoyed getting a hand-written letter in the mail. Letter-writing is such an anachronism in this era of email and text messaging, and has obvious limitations in terms of timeliness. But it also requires the writer to really slow down and reflect more on what's being written, and I think the message is better for that extra thought even though it takes a few extra days to arrive. I've already gotten several letters in reply, including: one written on a deli bag; a dense thirteen-pager packed into a box whose wonderful contents I've promised not to divulge; and some sky charts from an astronomer in New Mexico which allowed us to watch the International Space Station pass overhead this week. And several more people have promised to write back, which I'm very much looking forward to.
My own letters were a varied bunch. Most dwelled on my own life - family, career, writing - while a few others were about the recipient and how much that person means to me. One letter was a rambling travelogue of my evening train ride (where I wrote most of the letters) and another was a short story written in one hour, between Chicago and Joliet. The importance of this project to me was two-fold: first, it instilled the habit of writing every day (a practice I don't observe with my fiction writing, though I really should); and second, it forced my out of my introverted shell in reaching out to others. I think the project was good for me, and hope my correspondents appreciated my effort.