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Politicizing Disaster Relief

I hope I'm just being paranoid, but this announcement has me rather unsettled.

The United States announced it will dispatch Secretary of State Colin Powell and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother, next week to oversee U.S. aid efforts in South Asia.

In naming Jeb Bush to accompany Powell on a trip to the area, the White House cited the Florida governor's experience with hurricanes that battered his state this year.

"It's also the president's brother," said White House spokesman Trent Duffy. "I think it signifies the high level of importance the president places on this delegation."

Yes, it's also the president's brother. And it's also an excellent opportunity for Jeb to get some international exposure for a political campaign in, say, 2008. Leave it to George Bush to once again politicize human tragedy.

If you want to donate to relief efforts, do the survivors a favor and don't channel funds through Washington. Instead, consider going straight to the source. I recommend Oxfam, which has shown itself to be remarkably independent of government influence.

December 31, 2004 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (2)

Jerry Orbach

Jerry Orbach, former star of NBC's Law & Order as well as a noted Broadway performer, has passed away at age 69, of prostate cancer. I don't do many entertainment postings, but Orbach was one of my favorites. I've loved the show ever since day one, and Orbach played his 12-year role beautifully--gruff but compassionate, with a wry wit. I haven't seen very many episodes this season, when Dennis Franz replaced Orbach, but even as much as I like Franz I doubt if the show will ever really be the same.

December 29, 2004 in Television | Permalink | Comments (0)

Photo of the Week

By Chris Trott at Chicago Snapshot. I've been enjoying Chris' photos of offbeat and out-of-the-way Chicago places for a while now, and have been sorely remiss in not mentioning him sooner.

December 29, 2004 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (1)

Top Ten Books Read in 2004, and Then Some

My utter lack of timeliness means I rarely read a book in the same year it's published, so I can't really do the usual "Best of 2004" list. So here are the ten best books I read this year, regardless of publication date. (For the record, the only new books on the list were those of Irene Zabytko and Alex Kotlowitz.) For brief commentary on each, scroll down the right-hand sidebar.

1. Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States
2. Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America
3. Kurt Vonnegut, Galapagos
4. H.L. Mencken, The Vintage Mencken
5. Richard Wright, 12 Million Black Voices
6. Ben Katchor, The Jew of New York
7. Irene Zabytko, When Luba Leaves Home
8. William Golding, Lord of the Flies
9. Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis and Other Stories
10. Stuart Dybek, Childhood and Other Neighborhoods

Honorable Mention: Paul Krugman, The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century; Alex Kotlowitz, Never a City So Real: A Walk in Chicago; Barbara Freese, Coal: A Human History; Roy Emerson Stryker, In This Proud Land: America, 1935-1943, As Seen in the FSA Photographs (out of print); Halldor Laxness, Iceland's Bell.

Re-Readings: Nick Hornby, High Fidelity; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich; Knut Hamsun, Hunger, Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the Make.

(2003 List)
(2002 List)

December 28, 2004 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

A Shout-Out from Beatrice.com

The lit-blogger heavyweights are starting to recognize this homely little site of mine. Thanks, Ron. I hope that your promising thoughts for my future writerly prospects prove to be prophetic.

December 28, 2004 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


Barrelhouse is a new literary journal which will soon be launching its debut issue. I came across it via an interview at Bookslut with the founders, and found myself intrigued by their easygoing natures and very refreshing lack of pretension.

DAVE: As a married guy, I’d like to add that “starting a journal” is a fantastic and, apparently, perfectly acceptable reason to go to bars on Wednesday nights and stay out way too late talking about AC/DC and George Saunders and 90210 and Aimee Bender and, uh, the journal. Yeah, the journal. Sometimes until last call, with all the drinking and the talking … about the journal. (Honey, if you’re reading this, I’m totally kidding!)

They've already been online for a few months, so you can get a hint of what the writing is like here. And if you want to be cutting edge, a trendsetter--like me, for example--you can preorder the debut print issue right now. Who knows--it might turn out to be the next Paris Review or Granta, and you'll have a collector's item on your hands. Regardless, you'll have some good reading.

December 23, 2004 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

(Holiday) Photo of the Day

If you're into photoblogs, No Commercial Potential is one of the best I've come across. Phineas X. Jones (a frequent Gapers Block contributor) has real talent. Check his stuff out.

December 22, 2004 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Novels as Street Toughs

Hey, I happen to like novellas. Succinct, understated, to the point. Windbag creators of literary doorstops should try writing a novella or two.

December 22, 2004 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Reader Feedback

Sometimes I think all of these blog postings of mine are just lonely cries in the wilderness, that nobody really cares about what I have to say, that it's having no impact on anyone.

And then along comes this email, slicing through my despair like the proverbial hot knife through butter:

Dear Pete,
I do not know you, nor have I seen photos, but I am willing to wax eloquent on your intellectual superiority and your physical beauty to all comers. Why? Because in a fit of pre-holiday boredom I just googled my own name, and found your June 04 comment on my one and only story in The First Line. You dubbed it "hilarious." Wow. Congratulations -- you are the first person to review my published work. And you were very kind. Thank you, sir.

Merry Christmas and a happy New Year!

--Chris Akeley

My pleasure, Chris, and best holiday wishes to you as well. Your story "Victory" (which I glowingly mentioned here; sorry I was so brief) is the most memorable one I've come across in The First Line so far.

December 21, 2004 in Zines | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Streets of Berwyn

Though I'll never be able to think of the name of the place without hearing the old Son of Svengoolie bit ("BERRRRR-wyn?"), the economic development board of Berwyn has posted two very interesting sets of street panoramas: Roosevelt Road and Cermak Road. Makes me nostalgic for the old days when I drove Roosevelt as an expressway alternative for commuting between Chicago and Oak Brook. It's interesting to note how well-preserved the old storefront blocks are in Berwyn--it's one place that has been mercifully spared from urban renewal and big-box commercial development.

(Link via Gapers Block.)

December 21, 2004 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Alan Shapiro

The poet Alan Shapiro is interviewed in the January/February 2005 issue of Poets & Writers (interview not online). Shapiro wonderfully recounts the dizzyingly escalating curse of artistic accomplishment:

When I was starting out, when I hadn't published anything, I thought, "If only I could get a poem in a magazine, I'd feel validated and happy." And so then I got a poem in a magazine, and I thought, "Now if I could only get a poem in a magazine that paid." [Laughs.] Then, "I got to have a book," and then, "I got to have a book reviewed." Then, "Well, I have to win an award." At every step there's always something more. I didn't realize how out of hand that desire was until one day I heard my son and daughter having a fight over the remote control. My daughter had it and my son wanted it, and he said, "If you give me the controller, I'll give you a Pulitzer Prize. [Laughs.] Where do you think he got that from?

The Shapiro interview is the last installment in a very enjoyable series called "Poets on Place", conducted by W.T. Pfefferle, who traveled the U.S. for a year in a motorhome, interviewing and photographing American poets. Pfefferle's interviews will be collected in a book entitled Poets on Place: Tales and Adventures from the Road, to be published this spring by Utah State University Press.

December 20, 2004 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Richard Wright, 12 Million Black Voices

Richard Wright's 12 Million Black Voices, first published in 1941, is an impassioned essay on the African-American experience: the highs and lows, the triumph and the tragedy, from slavery to Emancipation and sharecropping, to the great Northern migration and life in the urban ghetto. One wouldn't think it possible to distill over two hundred years of African-American life into roughly seventy pages of text, and in such a beautifully poetic manner, but Wright succeeds brilliantly.

Wright's prose is accompanied by classic Depression-era photos from the Farm Security Administration, flawlessly selected by Edwin Rosskam and including the works of the usual FSA heavyweights--Jack Delano, Arthur Rothstein, Walker Evans, et al. The photos are seamlessly integrated into the text, echoing and amplifying Wright's various phrases.

For me, the book bogged down momentarily while Wright discussed the plight of the sharecroppers, but perked up considerably when he described the Great Migration to the cities of the north.

Night and day, in rain and in sun, in winter and in summer, we leave the land. Already, as we sit and look broodingly out over the turning fields, we notice with attention and hope that the dense southern swamps give way to broad, cultivated wheat farms. The spick-and-span farmhouses done in red and green and white crowd out the casual, unpainted gingerbread shacks. Silos take the place of straggling piles of hay. Macadam highways now wind over the horizon instead of dirt roads. The cheeks of farm people are full and ruddy, not sunken and withered like soda crackers. The slow southern drawl, which in legend is so sweet and hospitable but which in fact has brought down our black bodies suffering untold, is superseded by clipped Yankee phrases spoken with such rapidity and neutrality that we, with our slow ears, have difficulty in understanding. And the foreigners--Poles, Germans, Swedes and Italians--we never dreamed that there were so many in the world! Yes, coming north for a Negro sharecropper involves more strangeness than going to another country. It is the beginning of living on a new and terrifying plane of consciousness.

Despite the optimism, note the ominous tone of that last phrase. Wright is startled by the casual and non-venomous behavior of northern whites that he encounters on the northbound train.

Even though we have been told that we need not be afraid, we have lived so long in fear of all white faces that we cannot help but sit and wait. We look around the train and we do not see the old familiar signs: FOR COLORED and FOR WHITE. The train speeds north and we cannot sleep. Our heads sink in a doze, and then we sit bolt-upright, prodded by the thought that we must watch these strange surroundings. But nothing happens; these white men seem impersonal and their very neutrality reassures us--for a while. Almost against our deeper judgment, we try to force ourselves to relax, for these brisk men give no sign of what they feel. They are indifferent. O sweet and welcome indifference!

However, the promise of the Promised Land proves to be short-lived, as the African-American pilgrims find a new kind of discrimination which, while not as blatant as that of the plantation, proves to be no less cruel in its quiet invisibility.

So, under the black mourning pall of smoke from the stacks of American industry, our observing Negro eyes watch a thousand rivulets of blood melt, fuse, blend and flow in a common stream of human unity as it merges with the great American tide. But we never mix with that stream; we are not allowed to. For years we watch the timid faces of poor white peasants--Turks, Czechs, Croats, Finns and Greeks--pass through this curtain of smoke and emerge with the sensitive features of modern men. But our faces do not change. Our cheek-bones remain as unaltered as the stony countenance of the Sphinx.

But despite the degradations of ghetto life--fifty people crammed into an apartment which was built for five, limited job opportunity and virtually no upward mobility, young people turning away from family life and the church--Wright concludes on a positive note, after noting several examples of tenuous progress.

We are with the new tide. We stand at the crossroads. We watch with each new procession. The hot wires carry urgent appeals. Print compels us. Voices are speaking. Men are moving! And we shall be with them...

This concluding passage is followed by a striking photograph by Carl Mydans in which a young African American man stands at the rear door of his tenement. The building is poor, worn, unpainted, and the man is somewhat shabbily dressed. He stands, with a mangy dog lying at his feet, squinting into the late-day sun, not exactly smiling but with a look of mild optimism on his face. Looking at his surroundings, one wouldn't think he has much to be optimistic about, but it is none the less an image of unquestionable hope and positivity. This memorable image of simultaneous deprivation and hope is perfectly emblematic of 12 Million Black Voices as a whole.

December 17, 2004 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the Make

I just finished reading Chicago: City on the Make for, oh, I don't know, maybe the eighteenth time. Marvelous as always. One of my favorite passages is Algren's tribute to legendary First Ward alderman Michael (Hinky Dink) Kenna, a master of illicit vote procurement and, to Algren, a fine humanitarian as well. No, he's not being sarcastic in his praise.

    By the time Hinky Dink Kenna came along you had to cut in closer to answer the reverend's question ["Are you a Christian?"]. For in The Hink the border apache became a working citizen, a property owner assuming civic responsibilities, commanding a ward-wide loyalty and professing some sort of faith or other come Sunday morning. A hustler's hustler, part philanthropist and part straight brigand, The Hink sought his personal salvation in the ballot box.
    Like the city that bred him, he had a heavenly harpist on his bedpost as well as a hustler's imp stoking the furnace: when hard times came he fed and sheltered more hungry and homeless men than all the Gold Coast archangels put together. And felt frankly outraged when the archangels accused him of trading free lunches for votes at his Workingman's Exchange.
    He'd paid fifty cents in cold cash for every vote he'd bought, he'd let the archangels know--but what about the missions that were buying blackened souls in exchange for blacker coffee and the easy promise of a heavenly throne? Why was it less noble to pay cash here and now? Let the Gold Coast archangels answer him that.
    Those same pious Gold Coasters who took the Righteous Horrors at the nightly carnival put on by the First Ward cribs--while secretly pocketing rents off those same terrible cribs.
    Yet in standardizing the price of the vote The Hink did more to keep the city running one bitter winter than did all the balmy summers of Moody's evangelism. Not even to mention Lucy Page Gaston's command that the Chicago Cubs stop smoking cigarettes immediately.
    Who came out the truer Christian in a hassle like that?
    For always our villians have hearts of gold and all our heroes are slightly tainted. It always takes someone like The Hink, in whom avarice and generosity mingled like the hot rum and the cold water in his own Tom-and-Jerries, to run a city wherein the warmth of heart and a freezing greed beat, like the blood and the breath, as one.

December 14, 2004 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (4)

Hardrock, Coco and Joe

If you grew up in the Chicago metropolitan area during the 1960s or early '70s, this priceless video needs absolutely no explanation whatsoever. The rest of you, sadly, will probably wonder what all the excitement is about.

For the nostalgically-inclined such as myself, this woman's entire site is well worth a few minutes of your time. As it turns out, I went to high school with her, but in all honesty I don't remember her at all. (Sorry, Lisa!)

December 13, 2004 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (3)

Literacy Chicago

Those of us who love to read probably take the ability to read for granted. I can barely remember the time in my life before I was able to read. It's such a precious and inherent part of my life that I can't imagine not being able to read. But there are thousands, millions of Americans who can't, and as this story illustrates, lacking this most basic of skills can hold back otherwise talented and dedicated people from success in life.

Robert Grant was a master of odd jobs--bagging groceries, cutting lawns and carrying bricks in his native Jamaica. He even worked in a band, and was singing at a Montego Bay resort when he met Sheryl, and they became romantically involved by the end of the week. Grant left the island in 2001 and came north and married Sheryl. But with only a grade-school education, Grant's job prospects were dim. Without a high school diploma, his goal of becoming a well-paid union bricklayer in Chicago was as far away as his homeland.

He couldn't understand decimal points, or calculate fractions, or translate the tiny notches on a measuring tape--crucial skills in a business where an error of an eighth of an inch can result in crooked walls or throw doors out of alignment.

"I was caught in a situation where I'm getting older and this is it," said Grant, now 31. "All doors are closed without that GED."

Grant found help through an organization called Literacy Chicago.

Literacy Chicago looks like a very worthy organization. While it's rather sobering that groups like this are even necessary to begin with, the state of our public education system, particularly in the inner cities, makes such groups indispensible. You might considering making a donation to them, either of money or volunteering time, to help give others the gift of literacy.

Because literacy is, truly, a gift. I'm strongly considering a donation myself.

December 12, 2004 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Michael Chabon, The Final Solution

Now, here's a first--a review of Chabon's new novel which never mentions Sherlock Holmes by name. True, the book never does either, but the inference is, by all accounts, brutally obvious. Surely the reviewer recognized Holmes as "once celebrated detective in London", didn't he? If so, was he just trying to be unique in not naming Holmes? Interesting question...

Having been a Sherlock Holmes fan since I was about eight, when my book-loving Mom bought me both volumes of The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Chabon's book is at the very top of my wish list this year.

December 12, 2004 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Photo of the Day

These CDs are apparently designed specifically for Luddites.

December 9, 2004 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fire in Chicago

(Photo by Jim Frost, Chicago Sun-Times)

Fire at the LaSalle Bank building, 135 S. LaSalle St. No fatalities, fortunately (or at least so far). My guess is that the city's 12-year phase-in plan for requiring buildings to be retrofitted for sprinklers will soon be accelerated to, oh, 12 months.

The local news coverage was, as usual, comically inept. The local news anchors proved, once again, to be little more than well-coifed, orthodontically-perfect script readers, and not journalists. (NBC-5 weatherman Brant Miller was an on-camera mainstay, his meteorology degree apparently not making him any less of a journalist than the others.) Coverage consisted largely of the anchors watching the same live feed as the rest of us, and spending most of the time speculating and ooh-ahhing. No fire safety or architectural experts were brought in, and very few on-street interviews were done with people who escaped the building.

At one point, NBC-5 cut frantically to a "news conference" with a LaSalle spokesman, who revealed in just a few sentences that he had absolutely nothing to say, other than yes, indeed, this is the headquarters of LaSalle Bank. And although his words were soon drowned out by the whump-whump-whump of a fire department helicopter circling overhead, the newscast stayed with him for several inexorable minutes. Which lead, after they cut back to the studio, to the rather amusing scene of the anchors speculating on what they thought they heard him say.

And, sadly, all those hours of coverage failed to include one of those classic, hastily-arranged news conferences at City Hall, starring a flustered, sleep-deprived and testy-to-the-point-of-hostility Mayor Daley, seething over reporters' impertinent questions and blurting out responses in his incomparable Bridgeport-ese.

December 7, 2004 in Chicago Observations, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (4)

Merry Chri$tma$

From the Center for American Progress:


A White House transcript of President Bush's speech at the Christmas tree lighting on Thursday originally read, "We think of the patient hope of men and women across the centuries who listened to the words of the profits and lived in joyful expectation."

Nineteen minutes later, a corrected transcript changed "profits" to "prophets."

December 6, 2004 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

More Nick Hornby

Nice interview with Hornby here. Two enticing revelations:

1. "I've just finished my fourth novel..."
2. His wonderful "Stuff I've Been Reading" columns for The Believer have been compiled into a forthcoming McSweeney's volume, The Polysyllabic Spree. And as if mere publication wasn't good enough: "All proceeds from this book will be split between 826NYC, a writing center in Brooklyn offering free classes to students between the ages of 8 and 18, and Treehouse, a London-based charity for kids with autism."

December 6, 2004 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Let The Pogrom Begin...

If this is the sort of cultural enlightenment we can expect from the "moral values" conservative regime, maybe I'll start checking Joliet-to-Toronto house-moving rates after all.

Gay Book Ban Goal of State Lawmaker

(Via NewPages.)

December 6, 2004 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Golden Rule Jones

Golden Rule Jones joins the Emerging Writers Network's latest lit-blogger roundtable:

What do you hope to accomplish with your efforts?

Sam: I travel a lot on business and I got tired of missing readings I wanted to see because the local papers only list them a week in advance. So I started keeping my own list. Then I thought, why not share it via the web? I also thought it would be fun to see how many readings of serious fiction, poetry, and criticism we have in Chicago in a given year. (Answer: 500.) About a year after I started, I discovered other literary blogs via the Literary Saloon, and then was inspired to post more frequently. Lately I've been a little more reticent. What was the question?

Chicago's funny in that you have to live here for ten years to know what's going on. Arts organizations of all kinds are just awful at publicizing what they do. The papers generally don't care either, except for our local free weekly, The Reader. So if I have any objective it's to help publicize Chicago's great literary scene. My opinions are your FREE bonus.


...it has allowed me to bore distant people instead of those nearby who could do me more direct harm.

I couldn't have expressed that final point more perfectly.

December 6, 2004 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Nick Hornby, High Fidelity

I just started re-reading High Fidelity, after having first read it on my honeymoon. (I know what you're thinking. But Julie and I are both avid readers and, contrary to popular belief, it's not physically possible--or even desireable--to shag during every waking moment on one's honeymoon.) One of the best things about the book, I've already rediscovered, is sharp, insightful discourses such as this one:

Read any women's magazine and you'll see the same complaint over and over again: men--those little boys ten or twenty or thirty years on--are hopeless in bed. They are not interested in "foreplay"; they have no desire to stimulate the erogenous zones of the opposite sex; they are selfish, greedy, clumsy, unsophisticated. These complaints, you can't help feeling, are kind of ironic. Back then, all we wanted was foreplay, and girls weren't interested. They didn't want to be touched, caressed, stimulated, aroused; in fact, they used to thump us if we tried. It's not really surprising, then, that we're not much good at all that. We spent two or three long and extremely formative years being told very forcibly not to even think about it. Between the ages of fourteen and twenty-four, foreplay changes from being something that boys want to do and girls don't, to something that women want and men can't be bothered with. (Or so they say. Me, I like foreplay--mostly because the times when all I wanted to do was touch are alarmingly fresh in my mind.) The perfect match, if you ask me, is between the Cosmo woman and the fourteen-year-old boy.

Goodness knows I would have been strongly in favor of such an arrangement when I was fourteen.

Just twenty-four pages in, and already I'm totally in love with this book again. Damn. Hornby better come out with a new novel, and soon. His monthly column in The Believer ("Stuff I've Been Reading") is quite enjoyable, but it's the sherbet between the delectable dinner courses that are his novels.

December 3, 2004 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Ruminator Review

I recently received my first issue of Ruminator Review, for which I won a subscription via Bookslut.com (thanks, Jessa!). High quality throughout, but I was most amused by "What Not to Send Your Favorite Writer", a sort of anti-Wish List compiled by Lorraine Garland, personal assistant to author Neil Gaiman. Read it. It's a hoot.

December 1, 2004 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Philadelphia Independent, R.I.P.

Arriving in my inbox this morning was the following sad news from The Philadelphia Independent, a very fine alternative newspaper that I only recently stumbled across. Diverse viewpoints like those of TPI are needed now, more than ever. They will be missed.

Dear Sirs & Madams,

We're currently at work on the Independent's next issue, our twenty-first in nearly three years. It will be out in late December, and it will also be the last issue of the Independent you'll see for a while, maybe the last one for good. After the issue is out, we'll close our office down, slash our payroll to zero, and, following a long-postponed visit to the dentist, start looking around for other work.

Our goal was to give Philadelphia a newspaper of quality and dispel any notion that you need much in the way of money or experience to create such a newspaper. In our first issue, we wrote that we hoped to capture worthy but overlooked subjects in print and remind our readers of the relationship newspapers used to have with cities. In the process, we hoped to change the ways Philadelphia thinks of itself. By these measures, we consider the Independent a success.

The Independent wasn't born as a business, and has thoroughly resisted all attempts to turn into one. Frankly, we are amazed that the Independent has survived and broken even for three years while violating most every rule of (financially) successful newspaper publishing. The only thing we can attribute this longevity to is you--your willingness as contributors, advertisers and readers to throw your support behind this project. Because of you, we've had three years to learn and improve and share stories and art from Philadelphia with thousands of readers around the world.

Last week, we received a letter from a reader named Jessica, who lives in New York but visited Philadelphia as a volunteer during the presidential campaign. She writes: "I've never had such a feeling of love at first sight for a newspaper. Your brilliant masthead and headlines were what first drew me in, but I was impressed by the intelligence and creativity apparent in every eclectic detail, and that a local paper could have features and journalism that speak so relevantly about national and international issues. Every article I read made me want to read further, and I've never felt this way about the Village Voice or the New York Press..."

She has you to thank, and so do we. We're going to throw you and the rest of the city a party in late January, the time and place of which will be published in the next issue. After the issue is out, we'll be happy to sit down with anyone who's interested in picking up where we're leaving off, or discussing how the Independent could eventually resume publication.

In the meantime, send us your free classifieds! All proclamations, personals, rooms for rent, pets for sale, free band names, calls for submissions, and brief farewells are welcome. Send them to editors@philadelphiaindependent.net by this Friday at 8 p.m.


The Editors

December 1, 2004 in Zines | Permalink | Comments (0)