I love this photo, circa 1990-91: the Griffeys, Ken Jr. and Ken Sr., during their brief period as teammates for the Seattle Mariners. Though fathers bring their sons into the family business all the time, for a professional athlete father this had to be ultimate thrill: playing in the same major-league outfield as your son. The smile on Senior's face says it all. So cool.
On Friday night, I had a very ominous dream. (Might have become a nightmare, had I slept longer.) We were sitting in our car, just outside of a military base. We were trying to drive inside, but the base seemed to be on some sort of high-alert lockdown. Then I was in a corporate conference room with several apparent work colleagues, and we were being addressed by some executive. He prefaced his remarks by pointing out how each one us, while from different backgrounds, had come together and done so much for each other. The message seemed unsettlingly like those post-9/11 appeals for unity and strength, and my impression is that the executive was about to deliver some devastating news, on the order of a nuclear or terrorist attack. Then I woke up, bringing the dream to an inconclusive end.
Downstairs in the kitchen, as I began to feed our cats, I remembered my dream. Though it didn't greatly concern me, it still stuck in my mind. It occurred to me to check my phone, just to make sure a global catastrophe hadn't occurred overnight that my dream was a premonition of. The first news site I have bookmarked is the Chicago Tribune, and when I pulled that up the first two headlines were "Jeffery a controversial pick for Bears" and "Bulls can alleviate anxiety only with championship."
I breathed a mild sigh of relief, knowing that even the Tribune wouldn't run two sports stories ahead of a catastrophe. Trifling mundanity was safe for another day.
Boy's gotta have it.
Ikea's KNÄPPA digital camera - made of cardboard. True, the cardboard is probably not impervious to rain, but I'm not sure my iPhone is either. And at Ikea's prices, a waterlogged one of these would be much easier to replace.
Mi compadre Ben Tanzer scores another Book Notes piece* at Largehearted Boy, this time for the anniversary reissue of his debut novel, Lucky Man.
I am looking back, but I am also looking at now, and I am trying to make sense of something, nostalgia, emotions, decisions made and not made, and what the music means to me, the characters I write about and the stories we tell.
Lucky Man, incidentally, was what basically launched our friendship. We first met at a RAGAD reading we both did at MoJoe's in Chicago in 2007, and afterward I bought a copy of the book from him. With both of us working in the Loop, lunch soon ensued, which has now become a regular gig, along with our collaboration on This Zine Will Change Your Life and the occasional flurry of witty emails. Though I'm partial to the original cover design, I also admire the reissue's vivid cover (by Ryan Bradley) for its allusion to the four main characters.
(*If I could score even one of these, I might just immediately retire from writing.)
On the fume-clogged platform the women come and go...
Dmitry Kiper reads poetry on the subway. Nice.
Williams and Warner
Great conversation here at Hobart between two novelists with new books that have comedians as subjects: Tom Williams (whose The Mimic's Own Voice I just read, and loved) and John Warner (whose The Funny Man sounds great too). Williams has this great insight on the contrast between professionals and geniuses:
...in most arenas, the pros are around a lot longer than the geniuses, because the pros figure out what works, hone that until it can’t get any better, and don’t go around worrying about the nature of inspiration or the anxiety of influence. Geniuses often get lost because they don’t have to work as hard, I think.
In artist terms, I think I'd rather be a pro than a genius - I'll gladly take competent longevity over fleeting brilliance. Though of course I'm neither, but more like a journeyman.
Author Photographs: Gwendolyn Brooks, 1960
The esteemed Ms. Brooks at her South Side Chicago home, in 1960, in a photograph by Slim Aarons. It looks like she might have been interrupted in the middle of writing a new poem, and though posing politely for a moment, she really wants to get back to work.
(Via Calumet 412.)
Kirby Gann at Largehearted Boy
My friend Kirby Gann, whose new novel Ghosting is one I'm eagerly anticipating, gets the hallowed Book Notes treatment at Largehearted Boy. I already knew our musical tastes were similar, but with his nods to the likes of Charlie Patton, Elliott Smith, Paul Westerberg, Bill Callahan and James McMurtry, I now see those tastes are even more similar than I thought.
Love this old editorial cartoon that comments, not too subtly, on the pernicious threat of Chicago's old Levee vice district. But come now, just look at the lovely Everleigh sisters, proprietors of the legendary Everleigh Club, the best-known Levee establishment. I know appearances can be deceiving, but still, they don't really look that vile and corrupting, do they?
I used to drink at a north side bar that was called The Everleigh Club, in homage to the brothel. However, of all the activities the latter was famous for, the only one practiced at the bar was drinking. Darned uptight Eighties.
Michael Czyzniejewski, Chicago Stories: 40 Dramatic Fictions
Michael Czyzniejewski's Chicago Stories: 40 Dramatic Fictions is an imaginative, funny and thoroughly entertaining read. However, these pieces are not really "stories", as there is little here in terms of narrative; instead, they are better described as fictional monologues, with each presented in the first-person voice of a broad range of Chicago's famous and infamous citizens from throughout the city's history. ("Dramatic fictions" was included in the title, quite wisely, for legal reasons. None of these should be mistaken for real-life accounts.)
Czyzniejewski puts an interesting twist on many familiar characters, reimagining them in pronounced departures from their public images: the second Mayor Daley delivers a verbal smackdown to Frank Gehry (in the men's room of the Michigan Avenue Bennigan's, no less) for the architect's excessively fanciful design for the Millennium Park bandshell; Jane Addams offers an apologia for abandoning Hull-House and her social justice crusade for the comforts of a five-bedroom McMansion in suburban New Lenox; Dennis Rodman takes full credit for instigating tattoo mania amongst the middle class; Skip Dillard (onetime DePaul basketball star, and later gas station holdup man and prison inmate) embraces Buddhism and its promise of reincarnation, which would offer him a second chance at life; Mayor Jane Byrne reminisces (quite touchingly) about her father and his onetime claim to be one of the subjects depicted in Edward Hopper's famed painting Nighthawks; early settler Jean Baptiste Point du Sable encamps at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland and tells that city, in painful detail, all of the ways it will never be Chicago.
These are just a few examples; I could easily go on and on, describing each of the forty delightfully witty monologues. Instead I recommend buying the book, or at least reading selected pieces at Curbside Splendor (the book's publisher) or Knee-Jerk Magazine. One need not be a Chicagoan to enjoy this book, although its pleasures will indeed be even greater amongst the locals.
As an avid student of Chicago history, I'm ashamed to admit I had never heard of the Wingfoot Air Express crash. Flaming blimp crashes onto a LaSalle Street bank, breaking through the skylight and raining burning debris onto the banking floor, and killing thirteen people? Nope, no idea. The tragedy is the jumping-off point for a new book, Gary Krist's City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago, which sounds a hell of a lot more interesting than The Devil in the White City, which I still haven't read, being seemingly the last Chicagoan to do so.
Tom Williams, The Mimic's Own Voice
Tom Williams' engrossing debut novel, The Mimic's Own Voice, relates the rise and fall of Douglas Myles, the world-famous professional mimic. If "world-famous" and "mimic" sound strange in the same sentence - most people, myself included, could name only Rich Little among mimics - it's not so strange given Williams' great skill at creating an alternate yet convincing culture in which stage comedians (not just Letterman/Leno/Conan TV-interviewer types) enjoy elite status in the entertainment industry and the United States is blanketed with sold-out comedy clubs and universities are filled with Comedic Studies academics.
Myles is a brilliant, unique talent who reaches the peak of the comedy profession decades after the mimics' heyday, and in fact as the only mimic of his day. And he does so without actually having an act or, more accurately, without writing any of his own material. Instead he vocally duplicates, to utter perfection, the comic routines of other comedians, from the one-liner (vaudeville) comics through the mimics, social critics and observational comics which developed over the decades. Then, after he has nothing left to accomplish in replicating other comics, he switches to a participatory show in which he mimics the voices of audience members, first after hearing them recite details of their lives and then, almost impossibly, before ever hearing them speak. Later, after a long seclusion leaves the public starving for his next act, he unveils a quite poignant but short-lived presentation which totally bewilders audiences and critics alike, and effectively ends his career.
All of the above might sound audacious and unbelievable, yet Williams deftly pulls it off. The book is written as a fictional biography of Myles, with the tone being learned but not academic (no jargon), with the narrator's distance from the subject allowing Myles' incredible talent to be described without having to explain just how the prodigy came to be. (The narrator never met the reclusive Myles, who left behind only a brief manuscript memoir as insight to his private life.) There is little dialogue involving Myles, with most of the narrative being the narrator's presentation of the known facts of Myles' life as well as the commentary of various critics. The narrator even establishes a chronology of various comic genres (one-liners, mimics, social critics, observational comics), which indeed roughly follows comedy's timeline over the past century. Further, although Williams completely manufactures the top performers, each genre is described in a familiar enough manner that the reader can easily recognize each genre and its real-life stars (Henny Youngman, Lenny Bruce, Jerry Seinfeld, etc.). This familiar parallel goes a long way toward selling the plausibility of Douglas Myles, or at least making it much easier for the reader to suspend disbelief.
Williams immerses the reader in a culture which is completely fictional, yet familiar enough to be believed. And somehow he makes the reader care about the aloof and retiring Douglas Myles, despite how little is truly known about the mimic's inner life. The Mimic's Own Voice is a quietly stunning debut from a writer of great promise, a truly unique book which gets my highest recommendation.
"...the dream of every rejected author come true..."
This is a bit of writer-geekery, but still irresistible: Norman Maclean's renowned A River Runs Through It was first accepted, then rejected, by Alfred A. Knopf. Then, after the book was published by University of Chicago Press (hooray for the home team!) and was very well-received, a Knopf editor wrote to Maclean, expressing interest in his next book. And here's Maclean's smart reply.
You must have known that Alfred A. Knopf turned down my first collection of stories after playing games with it, or at least the game of cat's-paw, now rolling it over and saying they were going to publish it and then rolling it on its back when the president of the company announced it wouldn't sell.
"The dream of every rejected author", indeed. His response is elegant and eloquent, which is testament to both his writing skill and obvious gentlemanly nature. I suspect that my own response would have been considerably more blunt, consisting of just two words of one syllable each.
Delightful collection of artwork at BibliOdyssey by Charles H. Bennett, which slyly reveal what peoples' shadows may say about them. The image above is titled, not surprisingly, "Bantam." Bennett's book is digitized in full by the Widener Library at Harvard University.
Ralph EllisonYesterday marked the 60th anniversary of the publication of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, one of the greatest American novels. At The New Yorker, David Denby writes a thoughtful assessment of Ellison and the novel.
“Invisible Man” is a tumultuous book, an enormous book, liberated and responsible at the same time, a novel that, even now, turns readers upside down...Ellison presents American experience with a luscious eloquence and an abandon corralled by a stern sense of form...I first read Invisible Man twenty-five years ago, shortly after graduating college. I loved it, even though not all of it made sense to me. After reading Denby's piece, I re-read the first chapter of the novel, and it's as marvelous as ever. I'm toying with the idea of interrupting my reading schedule to re-read the whole thing.
I've long often puzzled over Ellison's inability to publish a second novel, which he worked on relentlessly for decades, right up to his death. Which makes Denby's conjecture - that Ellison never finished his second novel because he already said everything he needed to say in Invisible Man - quite intriguing. That could very well be the case - it's certainly a huge book with a lot going on in it.
Ben Tanzer, My Father's House
As I've mentioned many times here, Ben Tanzer is a great friend of mine, and I make no claim to objectivity when passing along my thoughts on his books. Besides, I am in no way a critic, and my thoughts on books - not just Ben's - are instead those of a fan of literature. Although all of Ben's fiction draws significantly from his own life experiences, his latest effort My Father's House is probably his most personal work yet. In fact, by his own admission, the book began as a memoir which he couldn't quite make work, but which finally came alive after he fictionalized the narrative.
My Father's House tells the story of an unnamed narrator, a social worker in Chicago, and his conflicted response to the recently diagnosed, advanced-stage cancer of his father, who lives on the East Coast. The narrator precariously balances his life in Chicago - marriage, friendships, career - while regularly flying east to either be with his parents at home or accompany his father for his treatments at various hospitals. When home, he is invariably drawn back into things from his younger life - the local dive bar, old female acquaintances - which would be better left alone but yet he can't resist; he is already so lost in the face of his father's illness and looming death, that getting lost even further doesn't concern him. But even though he is regularly with his father during this difficult time, he is still unable to fully connect with him, and get answers to questions he has always had about his father's life. Meanwhile, when back in Chicago, he struggles with the fact that he can continue to lead his ordinary, everyday life while his father is dying a thousand miles away, and even feeling guilt over it - while never quite realizing that leading that ordinary, everyday life is probably exactly what his father would want for him.
In short, punchy chapters Tanzer movingly explores the bewildered, anxious and impulsive thoughts and actions of a young man still trying to figure out his place in the world while also facing the grim prospect that his father will soon no longer be part of that world. The father's fate is a foregone conclusion, but even amidst that great loss the narrator finally begins to make sense of it all, and finds a way to move forward. Which is something that any of us in that situation would wish for ourselves.
Another rejection, plus a sort-of-rejection, for Wheatyard this week. (Counting both, the total is now ten.) The first was from a brand-new small press in the Midwest that just started soliciting its first submissions during the past month. Though I was already acquainted with the editors and they really liked the writing, they said it wasn't quite what they were looking for, and so took a pass. The second was from another small press that I queried last summer but never heard back from. I followed up today and they promptly replied, saying that with a recent surge in queries and their print publication schedule already being full for the next few years, they are only taking submissions for potential ebook publication. Though I know ebooks are where the industry is heading, I really want to see Wheatyard in print, so by mutual agreement with the press I formally withdrew my submission. I still have a few more irons in the fire, so I'm brushing off both of these setbacks. Onward.
"...finishing his coffee and reading the late edition, waiting to make his move..."
I just started reading Michael Cyzyniejewski's Chicago Stories: 40 Dramatic Fictions, and really like it so far. Check out the wonderful "Jane Byrne Discusses Edward Hopper's Nighthawks With Her New Neighbors, Cabrini-Green, 1981", in this special sampler put out by the publisher, Curbside Splendor. The first page's incongruous Phillies reference had me shaking my head in disbelief (as well as the knowledge that Hopper probably based the painting on a New York street scene and not Chicago) but the final page resolved all of that very nicely, while also conveying something very true about fathers. Very well done.
"Medium and form you have utterly neglected."
Jack London, in 1914, replies to a letter and manuscript from an aspiring young writer.
Honestly and frankly, I did not enjoy it for its literary charm or value. In the first place, it has little literary value and practically no literary charm. Merely because you have got something to say that may be of interest to others does not free you from making all due effort to express that something in the best possible medium and form. Medium and form you have utterly neglected.
London wasn't being harsh just for the hell of it, but instead to drive home the point that the writer was young, inexperienced and due for several more years of "apprenticeship" before even thinking about getting his work published. That last line ("I can meet you to the last limit of brass tacks, and hammer some facts of life into you that possibly so far have escaped your own experience.") is particularly appropriate. I didn't start writing until my late thirties, but don't really regret the time lost from not writing earlier - at twenty-five I had neither the life experience or maturity to write anything worthwhile.
Maddie and I are currently reading White Fang at bedtime. I hadn't read the book since I was roughly her age, but it's just as great as I remembered it.
"...making this overabundance a bit more intelligible..."
In Context, Todd Hasak-Lowy gives a great explanation for why novels exist:
Readers from Korea to Brazil are searching for someone capable of positioning a few well-drawn individuals against that wide canvas of historical, political, social, and religious overabundance (also known as "the Conflict"), thereby making this overabundance a bit more intelligible. This is how the novel, as a genre, compensates for its fictional status, how it manages to constitute a form of knowledge despite never having happened: it takes the political and the historical and translates them into the personal and the biographical so that the individual reader can finally understand.
Illustrating a broad, otherwise overwhelming environment by focusing on a few small but clear-cut characters. I like that.
What an arresting photograph - a homeless squatter on Chicago's Northerly Island, in 1930. While the site (later to become the Meigs Field lakefront airport) would have given squatters plenty of isolation, it also must have been extremely windy, and forbiddingly cold during winter. Yet this gentleman still saw it as home, going so far as to blithely dub it "Sleepy Hollow."
"My dear Noel..."
Beatrix Potter's timeless 1902 classic The Tale of Peter Rabbit had its origins in an illustrated letter she wrote nine years earlier to the five-year-old son of a friend of hers. What a lucky little boy. Though I'd like to dream that one of my Month of Letters missives would achieve similar literary immortality, I realize that's highly unlikely.
My latest essay, "Changing neighborhoods", is now up at Contrary.
"...the beauty of ugliness got hold of me again and again..."
Interesting interview here in the latest Context with Gerhard Meier from 1993, talking about his novel Isle of the Dead:
For a time it was pretty much my invariable route in Olten, and out of love for the things I came across, the banalities, I gladly laid out this route precisely in the novel...I especially emphasized the industrial quarter. I was drawn over and over to these out of the way places — or to put it differently, the beauty of ugliness got hold of me again and again in life...
I noticed in William Carlos Williams how gloriously the unbeautiful, the unaesthetic, the ordinary, the small, can shine forth when it is placed against the right background. I’m a little in love with these discordant phenomena. I have never been interested in aestheticism understood as the merely beautiful, the select, the dressed up. For me the aesthetic is anchored much more deeply, connected with the completely immaterial and with the movingly small, the eccentric, the vulnerable, the susceptible, the inconspicuous...
I never render such banalities cynically or arrogantly, they simply form the line of melody in a great piece of music, in the score of this character. I am — that’s why I recited Williams’s poem "Pastoral" — a lover of the banal, the small. It is so moving when it’s done right, when it is really banal, but it needs a background in front of which it can shine.
Meier talks a bit too much in aphorism for my taste, with plenty of "Art is..." pronouncements, but I admire his appreciation for the ugly, inconspicuous and banal. I feel much the same way - while like most people I'm awed by soaring mountains and classic architecture, I also see the beauty in ordinary marshes and abandoned steel mills. The everyday interests me just as much as the extraordinary.
"I do not admire well-rounded people nor their work. So far as I can see, nothing good in the world has ever been done by well-rounded people. The good work is done by people with jagged, broken edges, because those edges cut things and leave an imprint, a design."
- Harry Crews
Six Word Stories, revived
She merely smiled. His world stopped.
If they're working through their backlog of submissions, I might have another one up there soon. I'm sure they have one or two of mine that I sent in before the site went on hiatus.
Julie's Supper Club
Oh wow, oh wow. Would I love to own this sign.