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While I'm brooding over non-winning entries to online contests which offer only fleeting Internet recognition in lieu of prizes of cold, hard cash, I might as well mention this. Daily Kos recently announced its Cheers and Jeers Knuckledragger Award for Not So Fine Literature, which asked readers to "write the opening paragraph for a really bad novel starring your favorite right-wing wacko."

The chosen few are here, while this is my (presumably) failed attempt:

The creature, which was centuries later classified as homo cheneyus but with its exact place in the human evolutionary cycle forever undetermined, sat in the dripping depths of its cave, hammering out flints with the blunt edge of a heavy rock. Behind him crackled fire, a terrifying but fascinating phenomenon he had just recently discovered which, as he dully considered from the foggy depths of his protean intellect, would be useful for incinerating the likes of his cavemate, a fellow male who had boldly touched him in an inappropriate but strangely pleasurable area of his nether regions.

July 30, 2005 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

A Shout-Out From Bookslut.com

This week I received my very first link from the wonderful folks at Bookslut. (Thanks, Michael!) Free review copies of books, Joe Meno liking my writing, Aleksandar Hemon answering my query as if I actually knew what the hell I'm talking about...and now this.

My Lord, I almost feel like I've finally arrived.

July 30, 2005 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

Bulwer-Lytton 2005. Boo, Hiss.

I failed to win, place, show or even gain honorable mention in the 2005 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Here's the winner:

As he stared at her ample bosom, he daydreamed of the dual Stromberg carburetors in his vintage Triumph Spitfire, highly functional yet pleasingly formed, perched prominently on top of the intake manifold, aching for experienced hands, the small knurled caps of the oil dampeners begging to be inspected and adjusted as described in chapter seven of the shop manual.

Dan McKay
Fargo, ND

And here's my entry:

He looked up into the sky overhead, where you can see clouds that looked like mounds of mashed potatoes—not the perfectly-formed fake Potato Buds kind but the kind made by his mother, lumpy and often cold—you’d think that his mother, such a perfectionist and maintaining such high standards and disappointed in everything he did, wouldn’t settle for lumpy and cold, but there they were, in the sky overhead.

Naturally, I strongly suspect that fraud or at least nepotism was involved.

July 29, 2005 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

Apologies in Advance

My blog posting volume may be highly diminished over the next few months. My company is retrofitting our office space for fire sprinklers--finally--and we've been moved to temporary space which has a lot less privacy than previous. So my ability to discretely spin the long-winded musings and ratings you've come to love--or at least cringingly tolerate--may be compromised for a while.

Bear with me. I'll do whatever I can to get us through this crisis.

July 29, 2005 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (2)

Getting Serious About Writing, Part Deux

Last week's writers conference at Northwestern was a great experience. It was very positive and inspiring, and only increases my commitment to my writing.

I could have listened to Bill Savage talk all day (and he probably would have, with little provocation--he's a very enthusiastic instructor) about Chicago and its spatial impact on writers. I hadn't ever read any Gwendolyn Brooks before (I'm slapping my own wrist as we speak) but will definitely do so in the future. Interestingly, Bill's own life has been shaped by Chicago's physical characteristics from day one--he was born in the vestibule of his parents' Rogers Park apartment building because the paramedics couldn't find the building due to the way the El tracks are configured.

Barry Silesky gave us an interesting exercise, asking each of us to jot down a series of remembrances of Chicago. Then two of us were asked to read our entire list, with the rest of us asked to jot down the most memorable item from each list. Then we had to write two paragraphs which incorporated those two completely unrelated items. My two items involved chickens scratching around the yard next door, and a man with a Southern accent; the resulting story fragment is oddly intriguing, and may very well prove to be the basis of a full-length story.

But as good as Savage's and Silesky's classes were, the highlight of the day for me was the workshop class run by Joe Meno. Unlike the cutthroat story workshops at MFA programs, Joe's class was based on positive reinforcement. Each writer read the first chapter of their novel-in-progress, and the class was invited to first offer their positive reactions to the writing, followed by questions about areas which required clarification. In other words, no harsh criticism of either the writing or the writer, both of which could prove debilitating. All of us in the class were fledgling writers, and the last thing anyone of us needed was a major blow to the ego which would likely result in abandoning writing altogether.

I got a lot of good feedback on my novel "Eden"--everyone seemed to like my writing ability and where the story was going, and Joe commented repeatedly on the epic sweep of the narrative I'm daring to attempt. But I also got great suggestions on how to improve the structure to draw the reader more deeply into the story, and I've already begun incorporating the class' ideas.

And afterward, there were author readings from my hero Aleksandar Hemon, Elizabeth Crane and the highly entertaining poet Calvin Forbes. I asked Hemon if we could expect to see any more of Josef Pronek, subject of both a long story in The Question of Bruno as well as the protagonist of Nowhere Man . He replied at this point in time, no, but that he said the same thing after Bruno--he said he'd never write about Pronek again, and then he went ahead and wrote an entire novel about him. He says that's the way the muse goes for him. He's never sure which direction he'll suddenly veer off to. And he very nicely inscribed my copy of Nowhere Man, one of the best novels I've ever read.

All in all, a great experience. I hope Northwestern runs this program again next year, and brings back all the same instructors. And other universities in the Chicago area would be well advised to launch similar programs.

July 28, 2005 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

Kirby Gann, Our Napoleon in Rags

Kirby Gann's Our Napoleon in Rags vividly depicts the odd denizens of a down-and-out bar in a scruffy neighborhood in the fictional Kentucky city of Montreux: atheist banker-turned-pornographer Romeo Diaz, mentally unstable janitor and artist Mather Williams, aging bohemian bar owners Glenda and Beau Stiles, rogue cop Chesley Sutherland, and the protagonist, the wonderfully-drawn would-be revolutionary Haycraft Keebler. The group is together every day--or more accruately every night--though they are somewhat dyfunctional and prone to getting on each other's nerves.

The name of the bar, the Don Quixote, says it all--the messianic Keebler is on a quioxtic quest to extend the feeling of goodwill and community which he senses at the bar into the surrounding neighborhood, and ultimately the entire world. Gann rather beautifully captures this hoped-for projection is this early passage:

He stares at the room and then the window, falling deep into the light outside as it grows fine as sand, whirling with red and blue, singing with descending sirens; soon that light filters to black, and the reflection of the bar in the glass stretches narrowly into the leaf-dusted, bottle-strewn boulevard. The illusion of the bar extending into the streets is definitive to Haycraft: All his efforts were focused on bringing the strangely patient camaraderie from inside the building out to spread over the neighborhood, and to bring the people from outside, in.

Capture this picture in a long slow dissolve, these few souls held static in their particular share of solitude. They offer singular visions of companionship to whomever happens along. A picture hesitant through the following hours, expectant, waiting for midnight to arrive like some longed-for music, waiting for each night to be stirred alive.

One problem for Keebler is that he has this bold and highly admirable goal without having any idea how to bring it about. He publishes a ragsheet, The Old Towne Fair Dealer, which is filled with his philosophical rants but has virtually no readership. He causes a bus accident, with no apparent purpose in mind, and only after the fact regrets the possibility of people being injured due to his actions. He organizes a team of street urchins to spray-paint in gold all the junk lying around the neighborhood, which the city hasn't bothered to remove; the city, suddenly aware of the eyesore, finally has the junk cleared away. (This turns out to be Keebler's only successful initiative.) In his final big statement, he has two of his commandos attack Sutherland at the Don Quixote's closing party, spray-painting him in gold, the obvious implication being that the city needs to remove him as well.

But the biggest problem of all is that Keebler's grand mission is based on a faulty premise, for the community of the Don Quixote that he wants to extend to the entire world doesn't actually exist. The only thing holding the bar's denizens together is the bar itself--and when the bar closes, they find themselves having nothing in common, scattering and having little more to do with each other. It's almost as if Keebler wanted the bar's warmth and camaraderie to be real; he is a lonely, lost soul who is searching for soulmates and emotional connection, and the bar's patrons are the best he can find. But because of this false premise, his mission is ultimately doomed.

Blinded by the utter failure of his scheme, Keebler fails to see that he did succeed at changing one person's life for the better, which gives this otherwise bleak novel a sense of hope. Every generation produces only a few exceptional people who are capable of changing the world, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi being two prominent examples. Haycraft Keebler is clearly not in that world-changing stratosphere, nor are most of the rest of us; but the important thing for all of us to remember is that if we can change just one other person's life for the better, then each one of us can make the world a better place, even if only by a tiny increment. And if several million of us do likewise, it all adds up to something truly significant.

It's an important lesson to be learned, and one which Kirby Gann brings across quite convincingly in this marvelous story.

July 26, 2005 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Prowling Poets

I picked up an old copy of The Writer's Chronicle, which included this great anecdote from James Harris, owner of Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City, home of the Iowa Writer's Workshop and, for a few short days in 1995, one rather enterprising chap.

"Not long after winning a Nobel Prize in 1995, Seamus Heaney came to Iowa City for a reading. To say that the entire city eagerly anticipated the visit is putting it mildly. Two auditoriums were booked to handle the capacity crowd, even though it was mid-May and many University of Iowa students had departed for the summer. As is my habit, I went home for lunch and, upon my return, was told that Heaney was upstairs in our café talking to an attractive woman. I went upstairs but didn't see anyone who looked even remotely like him. I knew what he looked like from magazine and newspaper photographs, and I had listened to him read 10 years earlier in Iowa City. But the only people in our café were a middle-aged man and an attractive thirtysomething female. The man had introduced himself as Seamus Heaney to the woman, and asked he if he could join her for a coffee since he was new in town. What happened next, I'm not sure, but this fellow did not appear in the auditorium that night nor have I seen him in Iowa City since then."

Say what you will about the state of Iowa and its supposed lack of sophistication, but Iowa City has to be the only place in the U.S. where literature is so highly revered that a would-be Lothario would have even a remote chance at success using this ploy.

July 24, 2005 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Getting Serious About Writing

Tomorrow I'm doing just what the title says, and am participating in Art and Craft: the Northwestern Summer Writers' Conference. It's the first writing instruction of any kind that I've taken since I was an undergrad, twenty long years ago. I'm taking the following classes:

Writing your Chicago
Bill Savage

Chicago authors Nelson Algren, Gwendolyn Brooks, Stuart Dybek and Carl Sandburg skillfully depict the meaning of a person's life through specific details of the urban spaces in which they live. We will read a selection of works and discuss the approaches these writers take to the city and its particular spaces – streets, alleys, buildings, vacant lots, the El, bars, theatres – and how their methods can provide a structure with which to think about your own work in relation to the city.

Chicago Memories
Barry Silesky

In this workshop, we will explore Chicago memories of places, events and people, emphasizing the use of all five senses. Through discussion and writing exercises, participants will begin pieces of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction based on significant Chicago experiences. We will also talk about strategies for elaborating on and shaping the short works developed in this class.

First chapter/pages diagnostic
Joe Meno

What's the best way to begin a story? Addressing the difficulty of hooking your reader from the first line, this workshop will focus on issues of point of view, voice, character development, conflict, and the dramatic scene as it pertains to the opening sections of novel length material. Participants will read from their first chapters and fellow attendees will discuss the strengths of these beginnings, and then respond with specific questions with an eye towards rewriting.

If the conference accomplishes nothing else, at least it kicked my ass into starting to work on my novel again--after letting it languish for over a year--since I'm required to read the first chapter for Joe Meno's class. Hopefully the results won't be too horrific. And even if they are, there will be quite a consolation prize--an author reading by one of my heroes, Aleksandar Hemon. I'll be bringing along my copy of Nowhere Man in the hope that he's willing to sign it.

July 21, 2005 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (2)

Scholarships for the Ignorant

MoorishGirl dutifully reports the following:

Norton Names 9/11 Charities
The NY Times's Edward Wyatt reports that W.W.Norton, which published The 9/11 Commission Report, will donate $600,000 (approximately 10% of gross proceeds from the book) to the following charities: the Center for Catastrophe Preparedness and Response and the International Center for Enterprise Preparedness, both at New York University, and the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, of Johns Hopkins University.

I can't help but notice that the Nitze School is home to Professor Fouad Ajami, who, by the by, notoriously predicted that after the invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam, the streets were "sure to erupt in joy." I can't imagine what kind of scholarship that kind of money is going to fund.

Er, that would be the Ajami Scholarship for Ludicrously Excessive Wishful Thinking.

July 21, 2005 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Or Do You Say "Smythe"?

A quiet farewell to a Chicago icon.

John M. Smyth To Close Its Stores
By Sandra Guy, Chicago Sun-Times
July 21, 2005

Chicago's 140-year-old John M. Smyth's Homemakers furniture stores are going out of business at month's end, doomed by fierce competition and a series of struggling owners.

(Full story)

I remember my Mom dragging my sister and me to the old John M. Smyth store in the Loop, just after we had been to the eye doctor. My sister and I both had drops put in our eyes by the doctor, diluting our pupils and making us both functionally blind. But there we were at Smyth, with my mom having forgotten her glasses and asking us to read price tags for her. The three blind mice, as it were.

My first apartment was outfitted with a genuinely ugly end table that I bought in the "bruised and reduced" section of Homemakers' megastore just off North Avenue. As soon as refined aesthetic tastes arrived on the scene (i.e., I started dating Julie), the table quickly found itself in a garage sale.

July 21, 2005 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fiction? Or Memoir?

Every fiction is an education.
--Robert Birnbaum

I came across Birnbaum's sage quotation in his recent interview with Ian McEwan, and I couldn't agree more strongly. Even though I've read some very good novels recently which clearly were at least partially autobiographically-based (most notably The Book of Ralph and Happy Baby), I've also grown a bit frustrated with the long parade of authors who closet themselves entirely within the realm of their own personal experience. To me, the role of a fiction writer is to step outside of themselves and conjure up an entirely fictional world. Fictional relative to the writer's past, that is; I'm not advocating that everyone write sci-fi or fantasy and come up with complete alternate universes. You can create a fictional world that remains faithful to the actual world, whether past or present. But writing novels based primarily on one's one personal history is more akin to memoir than fiction. Not that there's anything wrong with memoirs, of course; plenty of people have lived fascinating lives that I'd love to read about. But if someone wants to write a memoir, or creative nonfiction based on their own lives, they should call it as such and not pretend it's fiction.

I really admire McEwan's Saturday for his ability to craft pure fiction. Although the story is the highly recognizable environs of London in 2003 against the backdrop of the looming Iraq War, McEwan could easily have taken the easy route and had his protagonist be a writer, an artistic type who could easily ponder the meaning and ramifications of world events. But Henry Perowne is a neurosurgeon--about as far from McEwan's background as he could have gotten--which required McEwan to meticulously research neurology as background material for the book. His descriptions of surgical procedures are thoroughly convincing (at least to a layperson such as myself), which effectively brings across the idea that it's a man of science narrating this story, which provides a different perspective to his topical insights than if the narrator had simply been someone with a background comparable to that of McEwan himself.

Personally, as much as I'd like to pretend otherwise, my own background isn't particularly interesting, and I doubt that anyone outside of my immediate family would have much interest in reading about it at length. Thus my fictional characters come exclusively from outside of my realm of experience--a 19th Century Irish farmer, an elderly African-American home gardener, a high school biology teacher. Of course, this approach to writing requires doing a substantial amount of upfront research in order to achieve situational accuracy. But the extra work is completely worth it--my writing is more involving and colorful than if I had simply based it on my suburban middle-class upbringing and, as a bonus, I enjoy the educational aspect of the research itself.

(As a side note, David Galef supports my point rather succinctly in a fine myth-deflating essay at Poets & Writers: "Write about what you know: This dictum has brought us countless student workshop stories about dormitory life and sick relatives.")

Flannery O'Connor once said, "I write to discover what I know." I'm sure McEwan would agree.

July 20, 2005 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Shalom Auslander, "Giving Up The Ghosts"

Shalom Auslander, whose debut story collection Beware of God I'm eagerly anticipating reading, tells the wonderful story "Giving Up the Ghosts" at This American Life, about his former job as a nineteen-year-old shiva sitter. (Story starts at 42:00.)

"Lately I had been feeling less and less Jerusalem, and more and more Gomorrah."

Eighty five bucks a night for listening to your Walkman, smoking joints and taking a nap. Nice gig.

July 19, 2005 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Where Does Your Senator Stand?

As we all know, politicians will say almost anything to get elected. But it isn't until they finally get into office and start officially making votes that we can finally see where they stand. ProgressivePunch.org is a highly informative website which ranks U.S. Senators and Representatives on their rollcall votes, based on how their votes matches up with the prevailing "progressive" view. (See the website for the methodology used.) Below are the current overall Senate rankings. As I suspected, we have great reason to be proud here in Illinois, with Durbin and Obama along with native expatriates Corzine and Clinton.

Most Liberal:
1. 96.87 Sarbanes, Paul D MD
2. 96.78 Reed, Jack D RI
3. 95.51 Kennedy, Edward D MA
4. 95.23 Boxer, Barbara D CA
5. 94.60 Corzine, Jon D NJ
6. 94.32 Durbin, Richard D IL
7. 93.02 Levin, Carl D MI
8. 92.03 Lautenberg, Frank D NJ
9. 91.85 Obama, Barack D IL
10. 91.72 Clinton, Hillary D NY

Most Conservative:
100. 2.34 Craig, Larry R ID
99. 2.45 Cornyn, John R TX
98. 2.81 Chambliss, Saxby R GA
96T. 2.94 Burr, Richard R NC
96T. 2.94 Kyl, Jon R AZ
95. 2.96 Inhofe, James R OK
94. 3.05 Lott, Trent R MS
93. 3.11 Bunning, Jim R KY
92. 3.28 Allard, Wayne R CO
91. 3.58 Crapo, Michael R ID

Most Conservative Democrats:
45. 50.05 Nelson, Ben D NE
43. 72.52 Baucus, Max D MT
42. 74.17 Lincoln, Blanche D AR
41. 74.19 Carper, Thomas D DE
40. 74.96 Landrieu, Mary D LA

Most Liberal Republicans:
46. 41.10 Chafee, Lincoln R RI
47. 35.37 Specter, Arlen R PA
48. 31.75 Snowe, Olympia R ME
49. 30.04 Collins, Susan R ME
50. 16.45 Shelby, Richard R AL

The average "Progressive Score" is 42.9; the Democrat average is 85.3 while the Republican average is 8.9. Interestingly, the average Republican is closer to the political center than the average Democrat.

You can also drill down to specific issues such as environment, labor rights, etc. Identical information is also available for the House of Representatives.

July 18, 2005 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Getting Copyright-Infringed Runs in the Family

Hmmm...first Julie, now me.

Welcome to "Chicago Lit," as we're calling this corner of the Sun-Times' New, Revised and Improved Book Section. (What you might recall as "Chicago Lit" -- our listings of upcoming area literary events -- is now called "Literary Listings," not a very original title, but you have to admit it's descriptive.)

Now, what's this new Chicago Lit going to be about?

A lot. This city and its environs are one of the most fertile gardens for authors and readers in America, and we'll be cultivating the whole meadow from fence to fence as best we can. Chicago's motto, after all, is "urbs in horto" -- a city in a garden. A literary city.

One, "Chicago Lit" sounds suspiciously similar to "Pete Lit." Two, "Urbs in Horto" was the original title of my very bestest short story, "Mahalia", the opening fragment of which remains online here, under that earlier title. (I will concede, however, that the Sun-Times' abuse of tired metaphors is entirely original.)

Okay, I'll admit that I'm not getting ripped off as blatantly as Julie was. Maybe the Sun-Times is just better at this sort of thing than Belle Armoire.

July 18, 2005 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Andrew Winston and Adam Langer

Ron Hogan's latest Author2Author segment at Beatrice.com features Chicago authors Andrew Winston (Looped) and Adam Langer (Crossing California).

I tend not to outline when I write, and I only knew Crossing California was set in Chicago when I typed the words "California Avenue," only knew what period about which I was writing when I typed the words "It was 1979." Which sounds like hocus-pocus when I think about it, but that's pretty much how it happened; when I outline, I lose interest, but when I don't know what's happening next, I keep writing to find out.

I feel pretty much the same way about outlining. It seems to destroy the creative impulse for me.

Part Two

I had other inventions--like a beer called Snap! that came with a toy inside, targeted at Gen X drinkers who bemoaned the passing of their cereal box trinkets--but that, along with 400 other manuscript pages, had to go by the wayside.

Meanwhile, a marketing executive at Anheuser-Busch is beginning to drool. Andrew, I hope A-B gives you a cut of the action.

Part Three

I really like your title and the multiple definitions the word "looped" implies--the dictionary one, the Chicago Loop, of course, the synonym for "schnockered," and so forth. And, given that you start out with the image of a Ferris Wheel, and, toward the end, at State and Madison, you have a character offering a statement that speaks to the circularity and/or looping quality of life ("It is here. The end. The beginning. The beginning of the end"), it seems that you were working with a particular shape in mind as well.

All this geometry and genetics talk is starting to make my head hurt. I've pondered the cover photo of Looped, as well. It seemed to me an odd choice, given the suburbanite-tourist-hell aspect of Navy Pier which is far from the "real" Chicago that Winston apparently depicts. But if it fits with the circularity theme that Langer describes, then I guess it's an appropriate image after all.

Part Four

Since I wanted Looped to have the feeling of a cohesive work created out of many threads, I created a sort of literal tapestry for plotting the novel. I took the various stories and plotted them out over a giant wall calendar, each story with its own color, trying to see the movements and patterns of the whole book.

Fascinating idea, one which I'll attempt once I finally set up a writing office at home. The giant wall calendar would be rather unwieldy crammed into the shoulder bag which currently serves as my office.

Part Five

I'm not sure how being a parent has affected or will affect my writing, other than the facts that I seem to have less time to do it and that I now know for sure that whoever compared writing a novel to giving birth was so wrong it's scary...Whatever readers and critics have said about the supposed cynicism of my work or the negative feelings I'm supposed to have about some of my characters, I can honestly say that I try to like all of them equally and, even when they behave poorly, to understand why. I hope these qualities will make me a better parent.

Ditto on the giving birth idea...after what Julie went through delivering Maddie, writing my novel is the proverbial walk in the park. And, like Langer, becoming a father has made me much less cynical and much more tolerant as well. And hopefully a better writer than I would have been otherwise.

July 18, 2005 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Smoky Links! Get Yer Smoky Links!

I have finally updated my sidebar links, deleting the political site where I contributed editorial comment but which ran out of gas months ago, and adding the following:

My favorite lit blog. (Sorry, GRJ. You really should post more regularly if you want to regain the top ranking.) Jessa Crispin and Michael Schaub prove indefatigable in passing along lit news and their trenchant commentary. Their monthly magazine is a must-read as well--besides all the usual interviews and reviews, I'm smitten by the regular feature Judging A Book By Its Cover, which thoughtfully analyzes book cover design.

Return of the Reluctant
The URL, edrants.com, says it all. Reporting live from San Francisco, Ed Champion provides his willfully undiluted opinions on literature and other life essentials.

The funniest thing to come out of Canada in the past twenty years. (I might have said "to ever come out of Canada", but I also have SCTV and Neil Young's singing voice to consider.)

Kirby Gann
Not a blog--though I'd love to read his insights on a daily basis--but an author website from a genuinely fine human being and rising literary talent. (I'll be posting my impressions of his fine novel, Our Napoleon In Rags, within the next few days.)

July 16, 2005 in Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0)

The British Are Coming!

The ever-insightful Skimble makes a rather brilliant analogy:

The Blair Doctrine. If it is indeed true that the London bombers spent significant amounts of time in Cleveland and North Carolina, the next question will be whether Tony Blair invokes the Bush doctrine — recognizing no difference between terrorists and the countries that harbor them.

UK forces will then be obligated to invade the Red States of Ohio and North Carolina.

Imagine the native insurgents retreating into their holiest shrines--the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cameron Indoor Arena, Ohio Stadium, Lowe's Motor Speedway. Imagine Drew Carey, Richard Petty and Clay Aiken angrily condemning imperialist aggression and demanding immediate withdrawal of the occupying forces. The mind reels.

July 15, 2005 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Operation Iraqi Book Deal

In the New York Observer, Sheelah Kolhatkar reports on the coming onslaught of non-fiction titles from Iraq War veterans.

One besieged editor asks, "Do people go into the war thinking, 'Hey, maybe I can get a movie deal'?"

Come to think of it, a couple of highly publicized six-figure book deals might do wonders for Army and National Guard recruiting. Serve your country, see the world, get your college education paid for and live the glamorous life of a wealthy writer. It might behoove the Pentagon to subsidize ReganBooks with a few million bucks to promote the program. Assuming the Pentagon isn't already subsidizing them, that is.

(Via MobyLives.)

July 15, 2005 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)


    As a pair, the two seemed mismatched. He older, perfectly groomed, his fresh-from-the-cleaners olive-colored Italian suit tailored to just the right proportions, his flawless leather briefcase seemingly carrying important documents for a critical morning conference. She much younger, barely out of her teens, long curly hair cascading down her back and looking just wayward enough to suggest that she had overslept that morning, casually dressed in snug jeans and bright pink blouse, by all appearances on her way to her summer intern job.
    He looked the married respectable type, wife and kids and Golden Retriever back in the south suburbs, Volvo wagon safely parked in the garage and the next Saturday cookout already planned. She projected the image of a college student, exploiting the summer to its fullest, laughing and drinking a bit too much with her friends every night and every weekend. They looked to have little in common.
    Yet he listened brightly and attentively to her animated narrative as they walked away from their train, he amusedly hanging on every word and she grateful for a receptive and adult ear. His attention was not of one who had already heard all her anecdotes and intern intrigues and discovering-the-world insights, the routine familiarity of a couple already together for quite some time. His interest in what she had to say was genuine.
    If she was a conquest, she was one he had not achieved, at least not yet.

July 15, 2005 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

Bargain Book Alert!!!

If you're anywhere near downtown Chicago during the next few days, Brent Books (309 W. Washington, corner of Washington and Franklin) is having a mammoth sale. Every book in the store is 50% off the cover price. And they also just got another big shipment of $5 paperbacks--and even those are 50% off. So I stocked up on William Trevor (The Story of Lucy Gault and Death in Summer) for only five bucks plus tax. Sweeeet.

July 14, 2005 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

A Novel in Three Days

Julie, clear my social schedule for Labor Day Weekend! I've got a book to write!

The 3-Day Novel Contest is a writing challenge that has happened every Labour Day Weekend since 1977. Entrants pre-register and then grit their teeth, lock their doors and try to produce a literary masterwork in 72 hours. A panel of experienced judges reads the results and the winning novel is published.

Were it not for the $50 entry fee and the fact that I have a personal life outside of my writing, I might actually attempt this. But given that last year's NaNoWriMo only got me two short stories for an entire month's work, I highly doubt I'd be very productive having only three days.

(Via Gapers Block.)

July 14, 2005 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

Blago Rides to the Rescue

Once again, Governor Blagojevich does what needs to be done. Bravo.

Gov orders stem cell research
July 13, 2005
by Jim Ritter, Chicago Sun-Times

Skirting the Illinois Legislature, Gov. Blagojevich on Tuesday committed $10 million of taxpayer money to stem cell research.

Last spring, stem cell research bills stalled in the Legislature. So Blagojevich established a stem cell research institute on his own authority, by signing an executive order.

"Stem cell research is a largely untapped medical resource that may lead to cures for painful diseases ranging from cancer to Parkinson's," Blagojevich said.

(Full story)

Pro-life groups and plastic surgeons will undoubtedly be greatly displeased. In other words, a classic win-win situation.

July 13, 2005 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tommy Stinson

I'm partway through a great article in MAGNET which presents an oral history of the 1980s punk rock scene in Minneapolis--with primary emphasis on Hüsker Dü and the Replacements--and thought it would be appropriate to express my long-held appreciation for Tommy Stinson, the Replacements' bass player and now solo artist. The Replacements are one of my all-time favorite bands, serving as the primary soundtrack of my life during the late 80s and early 90s. Though Tommy has never had the attention or acclaim enjoyed by his bandmate, Paul Westerberg, he was the band's punk conscience who often kept Westerberg's sensitive singer/songwriter tendencies in check. (After hearing Westerberg's initial material for Don't Tell a Soul, a puzzled Tommy pointedly asked, "Where are the loud songs?" Paul, chastised, retreated and penned a handful of rockers for that often disappointing album, their last as a true band.)

After the Replacements broke up in 1991 (I saw what turned out to be their final show, a typically sloppy set at Grant Park in Chicago), Tommy bounced around, releasing albums under the band names Bash and Pop and Perfect, and even serving a stint with the latter-day Guns n Roses. I might have written him off completely, just one of dozens of indie rock footnotes in the back of my memory, before learning of the 2004 release of his first proper solo album, Village Gorilla Head. What I've heard of it is simply wonderful, more compelling than most of Westerberg's uneven solo work. Three fine songs ("Not a Moment Too Soon", "Someday" and "Hey You") on Tommy's Myspace.com page have a tunefully amiable feel to them, while "Motivation" (listen here) rocks out with that good old Replacements Stonesy swagger. He also had a nice in-studio session at KEXP in August 2004 that's worth checking out as well.

Great work, Tommy. All is forgiven--even the GnR gig.

July 13, 2005 in Music | Permalink | Comments (1)

Got Book?

My wife Julie is an avid knitter, and her knitblog friends are always swapping yarn, knitting needles and the like. She asked me recently why litbloggers (and bloggers who love to read without blogging about it) don't do likewise with books. An excellent question, and one I couldn't answer. If you're at all like me, you own dozens of books that you've enjoyed but don't expect to re-read in the immediate future, and there are even more books out there that you want to read but that you don't have the budget or shelf space for.

Which is why I'm announcing a swap program, called Got Book?, to circulate our reading favorites and hopefully facilitate some sort of literary discourse over and above what's already occurring in the blogs. If you're interested, email me a list of 10 beloved books you'd be willing to lend, and I'll do likewise. Then we'll each pick one book from each other's list and mail them to each other. Then when we're finished reading we'll mail the books back home again. The USPS's media mail option is quite affordable--a book's roundtrip shouldn't cost more than three or four bucks, which is even less than you'd pay for a used copy of your desired book (if you could even find a used copy, that is).

The system is already starting, sort of. Golden Rule Jones has been raving about Like a Fiery Elephant, Jonathan Coe's biography of writer B.S. Johnson, and says he'll lend it to me. In return, I offered to lend him an as-yet-undetermined favorite of my own.

So the ball is rolling. Let's give it another push, shall we?

July 11, 2005 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Poetry Dot Con

Ah, sweet, glorious, precious recognition! At last, all my arduous artistic efforts have finally been rewarded! I am thrilled to announce that I have been awarded Third Prize in a prestigious international poetry competition. As if the tangible prize wasn't wonderful enough--the lovely medallion pictured above--my poem will be published in a handsomely bound volume along with those of many of my similarly worthy compatriots. A volume which I'm entitled to purchase for the very reasonable price of $29.99. Or maybe $39.99--in my giddy euphoria, I've forgotten the exact figure. The fact that I've been asked to pay for the anthology which will be sold to thousands of other people, without receiving any cash payment myself, is of no concern to me whatsoever. What's important is the official recognition, and getting published.

One problem. The "poem" was complete garbage, and this "contest" was an utter sham. The "poem" was a completely unpoetic, unevocative, unlyrical, unrythymic piece of tripe that I tossed off in a few minutes and sent to these people online just for the hell of it. It's a piece that absolutely nobody, save perhaps a handful of dangerously deranged psycopaths, would consider worthy of merely reading once in its entirety, let alone winning an award. I won't even insult the art of poetry by publishing it online. It's buried deep in a spiral notebook which should perhaps be incinerated.

My first inkling that this was a scam was my first letter from this organization--you can read it off the medallion, but I'm by no means printing their name here--which breathlessly told me I had passed the first round of judging, and then briskly proceeded to tell me about the wonderful volume my "poem" would be published in and which was of course available for purchase. (Interestingly, a quick scan of their website appears to make no mention of the fact that they're trying to sell books, even if one happened to be interested.) Despite no response from me, a few weeks later I got another letter saying I had passed the second round of judging and was now a finalist.

I forgot all about it, but then a few weeks ago a package arrived in the mail, with this medallion in a cheap blue box, along with a cheaply photocopied letter which told me I had "won" Third Prize (along with 78 others--what reputable, exclusive contest has 79 third place finishers?) and requested a brief biography to accompany my published "poem." I just laughed it off, mockingly.

This doesn't bother me personally, as I saw through their ruse very early on. But I feel sorry for the thousands of aspiring poets, people who are probably frustrated in their careers or their personal lives and see their (more than likely bad) poetry as a passport to a better life, who got suckered into this scam and dropped their hard-earned cash on this book just to see their name in print, thinking they just missed out on the lucrative first and second prizes and voicing the sentiments I expressed in the first paragraph above.

This is vanity publishing at its most predatory. The perpetrators should be ashamed of themselves.

July 11, 2005 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (3)

The Teetering Pile

Okay, I'm the first to admit that the last thing I needed was another literary journal/zine, given that my unread pile already includes The Ninth Letter (the debut issue, which I bought over a year ago), two issues of night rally, two issues of The First Line, Oyez Review, Ballyhoo Stories and Orchid.

But yesterday I learned of a author reading benefit for a Chicago literary zine, The Banana King (previously unknown to me), which included my favorite zine writer, Al Burian (creator of Burn Collector and Natural Disasters). Intrigued, I explored further and discovered that TBK's latest issue featured typically brilliant cover art by the incomparable Jay Ryan. And when I saw that the issue was only $4 and payable via PayPal, I really had no choice. I willingly, gladly, ecstatically succumbed, and bought it.

Regarding all of those unread journals, as soon as I finish reading my current book I'm going to plow through those journals until I've read all of them. Stay tuned.

July 8, 2005 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

London You're A Lady

Ah London you're a lady
Laid out before my eyes
Your heart of gold it pulses
Between your scarred up thighs
Your eyes are full of sadness
Red busses skirt your hem
Your head-dress is a ring of lights
But I would not follow them
Your architects were madmen
Your builders sane but drunk
Among your faded jewels
Shine acid house and punk

You are a scarlet lady
Your streets run red with blood
Oh my darling they have used you
And covered you with mud
It was deep down in your womb my love
I drank my quart of sin
While chinamen played cards and draughts
And knocked back mickey finns

Your piss is like a river
Its scent is beer and gin
Your hell is in the summer
And you blossom in the spring
September is your purgatory
Christmas is your heaven
And when the stinking streets of summer
Are washed away by rain
At the dark end of a lonely street
That's where you lose your pain
'Tis then your eyes light up my love
And sparkle once again

--Shane MacGowan, "London You're A Lady"

July 7, 2005 in Current Affairs, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)


Readerly impotence, that is. This weekend we drove to Arlington Heights to visit Mitsuwa which is essentially a Japanese mini-mall, comprised of a Japanese grocery, bookstore, discount store, food court and other establishments, all under one roof.

It was bewildering and more than a bit frustrating to walk through the bookstore and be unable to read a damned thing--virtually all of the books were in Japanese, with the exception of the predictable Anglo-friendly subjects such as origami and interior design. Other than the obvious cooking and kids sections (sushi and Tigger being generally universal), I couldn't even guess what subject area I was looking at. The experience gave me an inkling (okay, a very slight inkling) of what an immigrant experiences in our English-dominant culture.

Then again, maybe I was simply bringing the frustration upon myself. In the magazine section, where I could easily have flipped through the car titles and gawked at the 2006 Acuras and Infinitis, I instead found myself perversely hunting for the literary journals. Even if I couldn't read the titles, I figured I would recognize them--perfect bound, offbeat cover art, in pristine condition due to an extended lack of physical contact from browsing shoppers. But the hunt was in vain. Clearly, Mitsuwa knows what sells, and what gets remaindered.

July 5, 2005 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Crossing My Mind

Gee, we're sorry, Garry, but few of us enjoy the privilege of your internationally syndicated platform in sharing our thoughts with the world. We'll all just keep quiet and bask in your genius. (Link via a blogger I can't recall, and to whom I apologize profusely.)

Fred Sasaki's piece at This is Grand, "Ring of Desire", makes me think that maybe I really don't miss city living, after all. I'll just settle for my dull, ordinary, Metra-transported suburbs, thanks.

And because I can't promote Barrelhouse nearly enough, check out their enjoyable new blog.

July 5, 2005 in Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times

Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times (Basic Books), edited by Kevin Smokler, is a sharp and thoughtful collection of essays from some of our best young writers on the love of writing and reading. The book is a pointed response to the NEA's infamous "Reading at Risk" study which pointed to a sharp decline in serious reading and made rather dire predictions for the future of "active and engaged literacy." The writers emphatically counter the NEA's argument, from many different angles.

Adam Johnson's "A Call for Collaboration" is just that, while Kelley Eskridge and Nicola Griffith's "As We Mean to Go On" describes the end result of writer (and in their case, life partner) collaboration--although they admit to being very different writers, Eskridge and Griffith insist their relationship has made them both better writers. Dan Kennedy's "Welcome. Grab a Broom" is an amusing account of Kennedy facing writer's block in creating the essay itself, while Paul Flores argues in "Voice of a Generation" that spoken word poetry has effectively given even non-writers the means to express themselves.

Tara Bray Smith's "Marginalia and Other Crimes" lovingly describes her lack of reverence for the book as a physical object, with penciled-in margin notes allowing her to collect her thoughts on the material; she also finds that the margin notes of a book's previous owner provides a fascinating look inside that stranger's mind. Neal Pollack's "Her Dark Silent Cowboy No More" is a hilarious (if you like Pollack, that is) take on fan fiction; Pollack challenged his critics to channel their contempt for him into writing a story--if someone sent him an email calling him an asshole, he'd ask them to instead write a short story about how and why Neal Pollack is an asshole. Unfortunately, Pollack enjoyed the megalomaniacal benefits of being the subject of fan fiction so much that he succumbed to it himself, writing Never Mind the Pollacks with himself as the lead singer of a fictional rock band, with less than stellar results. (He has since recanted his related Greatest Living American Writer hubris in the oft-blogged NYT piece "Persona.")

Michelle Redmond's "From Somewhere South to South Beach" has gotten a fair amount of attention from the litblogs due to its often salacious accounts of the active sex lives of MFA candidates. But it was her description of the gauntlet of the fiction workshop that struck me more vividly:

Big personalities make for big conflict, especially in the lion's den that is the writer's workshop. While some programs take a kinder, gentler approach to criticism, the fact is that the timid just don't fare well in most writing programs. Sitting around a table for an hour and a half while a roomful of writers--some friends, some enemies--tear one's writing to shreds requires more than a thick skin; it requires an ardent and sometimes completely misplaced certitude that one is indeed a writer, to hell with them all.

The essay that stood out the most for me was Paul Collins' "121 Years of Solitude" in which he describes his dutiful reading of 121 years of back issues of the periodical Notes and Queries--one year per day--at the Portland Public Library. While his single-minded devotion might be a tad obsessive, it also points to his genuine love of reading and a healthy curiousity into the pastimes and worries of a very different and now-vanished society.

Given the obvious passion, commitment and skill of the writers in Bookmark Now , I'm not overly concerned about the future of serious writing. As long as writers like these are in the vanguard, serious readers will continue to care.

July 5, 2005 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Six-Word Stories

Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write a story in six words. Rumor has it that he considered his result ("For sale: baby shoes, never used.") to be his greatest work. In its most recent issue, Utne reprinted a piece from the Fall 2004 issue of BlackBook in which that magazine asked 25 big-name writers to write their own six-word stories. Unfortunately, neither magazine had the story online, but here are some of the highlights:

Irvine Welsh: "Eyeballed me, killed him. Slight exaggeration."

Robert Olen Butler: "Saigon hotel. Decades later. He weeps."

Norman Mailer: "Satan--Jehovah--fifteen rounds. A draw."

Tobias Wolff: "She gave. He took. He forgot."

David Lodge: "I saw. I conquered. Couldn't come."

Augusten Burroughs: "Oh, that? It's nothing. Not contagious."

I think I like Butler's and Mailer's the best. Here's my own offering:

Aging skier goes downhill. Literally, figuratively.

Please feel free to post your own in the comments section!

July 1, 2005 in Books, Fiction | Permalink | Comments (188)