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The Last Angry Man

At Nextbook, Ben Birnbaum writes a nice appreciation of The Last Angry Man by Gerald Green, who passed away on Tuesday. That lurid 1959 paperback cover notwithstanding, this one sounds intriguing and is a likely addition to my list.

August 31, 2006 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Urgency and the Novelist

Ed Champion recently posted an excellent quotation from Anthony Burgess, following with a fine question that I'd like to address at length. First, the quotation:

The practice of being on time with commissioned work is an aspect of politeness. I don’t like being late for appointments; I don’t like craving indulgence from editors in the matter of missed deadlines. Good journalistic manners tend to lead to a kind of self-discipline in creative work. It’s important that a novel be approached with some urgency. Spend too long on it, or have great gaps between writing sessions, and the unity of the work tends to be lost. This is one of the troubles with Ulysses. The ending is different from the beginning. Technique changes halfway through. Joyce spent too long on the book.

Next, Ed's question:

To what extent does a novelist have an obligation to remain urgent?

My personal experience, as a fledgling writer, tells me that a novelist first has an obligation, to himself, to remain urgent. There's an obligation to readers, too, but that comes secondary to that of the writer. In crafting a novel, the writer is obliged to devote as much attention as possible, in a compressed amount of time, on the novel. Lacking this, a consistency of voice, tone and theme (Burgess' "unity of the work") is inevitably lost. Along with, perhaps, the finished novel itself.

(More, much more, after the jump.)

Thus far as a writer I've focused almost entirely on short stories. The only times I've worked intensively on novels has been during the Novembers of 2002, 2003 and 2005, as part of NaNoWriMo: I worked on a historical novel, Eden in 2002 and 2003 and a more contemporary novel, The Wheatyard Chronicles, in 2005. (In November 2004, I wrote only short stories, recognizing that I owed it to Eden not to start a brand new novel before the earlier one was completed.)

Eden is a pioneer novel set in northern Illinois during the mid-19th Century which tackles a lot of big themes: pioneer settlement, the Utopian commune movement, Irish-American identity, community versus self-sufficiency, personal isolation, and the canal-building mania of that era. As is typical of NaNoWriMo, I wrote the novel in a flurry of creativity, churning out page after page of promising but far from polished prose. Although during NaNoWriMo 2003 I wrote the story straight through to its conclusion, I did so while skipping over a significant portion of the narrative. That skipped passage involved my protagonist, Miles Farnham, adopting a New York City orphan as a foster son, through an ambitious program run by a New York-based charitable organization. I had only read about the orphan relocation mission (which actually existed in real life) from a newspaper article which was based on Steven O'Connor's historical study Orphan Trains: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed. I was having a bit of trouble with the narrative in conceiving the foster son's upbringing in New York, and how it would impact his relationship with the protagonist and his behavior on the desolate prairies of Illinois. I thought that reading O'Connor's book would give me valuable insights into the foster son character, though I obviously wouldn't have time to read the book until after NaNoWriMo. So to avoid allowing my progress on the novel to flag, I skipped over the foster son section and continued writing. Though I did finish writing the novel, I did so while leaving a yawning gap in the narrative.

And that gap continues to this day. I still haven't read O'Connor's book, due to any number of competing distractions, and until I do so I don't feel I can adequately create the missing passage. Yet until I have what I consider to be a "complete" first draft, I can't really justify undertaking the heavy editing that the entire manuscript requires. Thus, the novel is in limbo, and I'm not sure I'll ever take it up again. The 19th Century setting, language and tone makes it a somewhat difficult novel to write (even though my style is relatively straightforward and coventional) which makes resuming the writing to be a formidable psychic challenge. Had I not set the novel aside at the end of November 2003, with the missing passage unwritten, and continued on to finish a complete first draft, I might very well have had the courage to delve into rewriting, and might conceivably have a finished novel today. But I let it lapse, to the novel's detriment. Burgess would undoubtedly say I lost the necessary "urgency."

Wheatyard is a completely different novel, set in the early 1990s and told from a much more informal, first-person perspective. The narrator (ostensibly me) relates the story of a summer spent in a college town, jobless after finishing grad school, and the odd-duck fiction writer he happens to befriend. The writing of Wheatyard (during NaNoWriMo 2005) went extremely well; I really liked the plot and the overall tone that I was able to create last November. However, as NaNoWriMo concluded, the novel was still unfinished.

NaNoWriMo, with its goal of 50,000 words written in one month, is a pretty intense experience for writers, and even more so for myself, as I limited my writing sessions to my train ride to and from work, with no writing during evenings or weekends or the Thanksgiving holiday. (Those are family times, and I never want to be the kind of writer who abandons his family in some lofty pursuit of his art. For me, family comes first, no matter what that means for my writing.) When November ends and one finds himself without the arbitrary stimulus that NaNoWriMo's 50,000-word goal creates, there's inevitably a letdown, an enormous exhalation, and for several weeks afterward one wants absolutely nothing to do with writing. By the time one begins to decompress, and might otherwise start consider resuming writing, it's late December and the holidays have arrived as considerable distractions.

I really want to resume Wheatyard, which I feel is a very promising novel or novella (much more so than Eden), but in reading it now I'm doubting if I could ease back into the narrative, and in particular I'm wondering if I could get the tone just right after being away from the manuscript for nine months. I'll probably still attempt it (it's much easier writing than Eden was, since the former is based largely on personal experience while the latter relies heavily on historical research) but I'm not at all confident that the novel I'd end up with in any way resembles the one I started writing last November. Again, I lost that urgency; had I kept writing during the first couple weeks of December, I'd now have a first draft, with nothing stopping me from revising it into a finished novel. Instead, I have doubt.

So, yes, the novelist does have an obligation to remain urgent. Because without urgency, without churning out prose as if nothing else matters, without later editing and editing and editing some more to get the sentences and paragraphs just right, the novel will never be written.

August 31, 2006 in Books, Fiction, Wheatyard | Permalink | Comments (0)

Another Sad Demise...

"All sales are final" at Brent Books right now because, sadly, the cozy Loop bookstore is in its final days. I haven't seen any press on the impending closing, but just from chatting with a sales clerk today I confirmed that the store is indeed closing, apparently yet another victim of megastore discounting, vaster selection at big chains, online sales, declining numbers of serious readers--all the usual suspects.

I must admit, however, that I won't miss the store nearly as much as I'll miss what it might have been. It seems like it could have been a great little independent store, with impeccable heredity (owner Adam Brent is the son of legendary Chicago bookseller Stuart Brent), a perfect West Loop location, helpful staff and comfy digs. But the store's inventory was maddeningly light on both local authors (other than the very biggest names) and small presses, and their selection largely mainstream. When book hunting downtown, I'd always give them the first crack at my business, but would invariably never find what I wanted there and would end up walking four more blocks to the Borders on State Street. I really wanted to support this store, but it almost always disappointed me. (Pretty much all of the opinions expressed here are consistent with my feelings about the store.) As much as I hate to see another independent disappear, in their case it will impact me very little.

Every book in the store is 50% off, as has been the case for the past year, but now with inventory not being replenished the shelves are starting to thin out. Sad. I picked up three books--Ward Just's Forgetfulness, Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio and William Trevor's The Hill Bachelors--as a way of quietly saying goodbye. Farewell.

August 30, 2006 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Billy Pilgrim and Kilgore Trout

Another excerpt from Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, as Billy Pilgrim first encounters the science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, whose writing career is so inconsequential that he has to work as circulation manager for a small-town newspaper, overseeing a brigade of paperboys:

Billy Pilgrim parked his Cadillac in the alley, and waited for the meeting to end. When the meeting broke up, there was still one boy Trout had to deal with. The boy wanted to quit because the work was so hard and the hours were so long and the pay was so small. Trout was concerned, because, if the boy really quit, Trout would have to deliver the boy's route himself, until he could find another sucker.

"What are you?" Trout asked the boy scornfully. "Some kind of gutless wonder?"

This, too, was the title of a book by Trout, The Gutless Wonder. It was about a robot who had bad breath, who became popular after his halitosis was cured. But what made the story remarkable, since it was written in 1932, was that it predicted the widespread use of burning jellied gasoline on human beings.

It was dropped on them from airplanes. Robots did the dropping. They had no conscience, and no circuits which would allow them to imagine what was happening to the people on the ground.

Trout's leading robot looked like a human being, and could talk and dance and so on, and go out with girls. And nobody held it against him that he dropped jellied gasoline of people. But they found his halitosis unforgivable. But then he cleared that up, and he was welcomed to the human race.

The idea that society considers halitosis to be abhorrent, while accepting the dropping of napalm on innocent civilians, is a particularly devastating aside from Vonnegut's blistering pen.

August 30, 2006 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

New Nick Hornby Arriving Soon...

McSweeney's is putting out a new collection of Nick Hornby's monthly "Stuff I've Been Reading" columns from The Believer. (By the time my Believer subscription ran out last year, Hornby's columns were pretty much the only reason I still read the magazine.) It's called Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, and it ships within the next week or two. As always, the columns chronicle Hornby's ongoing struggles to read as many books as he buys, along with his wonderfully unpretentious commentary on the books he manages to read. There's no excerpt on the McSweeney's site, but their email update included the following gem:

I picked up Candide because my publishers sent me a cute new edition, and though that in itself wouldn't have persuaded me, I flicked through it and discovered it was only ninety pages long. Ninety pages! Who knew, apart from all of you, and everybody else? A ninety-page classic is the Holy Grail of this column, and when the Holy Grail is pushed through your letter box, you don't put it on a shelf to gather dust. (Or maybe that's exactly what you'd do with the Holy Grail. Is it ornamental? Has anyone ever seen it?) Anyway, I have now read Candide. That's another one chalked off...

I really enjoyed Hornby's last collection, The Polysyllabic Spree. And with this new one including columns I haven't already read, I'm looking forward to it even more than I did Spree.

August 29, 2006 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tournament of Tunes:
Ted Leo vs. Morphine

The semifinals of the Tournament of Tunes finally begin. As I note at the top of the play-by-play page:

At this late stage in the competition, everything about the remaining songs’ merits has pretty much already been said. Given this, along with the fact that this competition is dragging on far longer than I ever anticipated, I’ll be as succinct as I can. Beyond some point, words can no longer convey what makes a song truly great—and there’s no denying that these are great songs. Read my brief thoughts, and take them or leave them. But you owe it to yourself to track down each one of these songs, adopt them and make them as major a part of your lives that they are to mine. You won’t be disappointed, I assure you.

That being said, here is the first semifinal match:

Ted Leo - Loyal to My Sorrowful Country [mp3]
Morphine – Whisper [RealAudio]

Each of these songs is wonderfully emblematic of the artist’s body of work and creative ethos. “Loyalty to My Sorrowful Country” is simple, direct, passionate, guitar-based, punk in attitude if not necessarily in execution, overtly yet tactfully political. “Whisper” is slow, moody, sultry, mysterious, seductive, a mesmerizing come-on of a song. Both songs share the authenticity and genuineness that I look for in all of my art; there’s absolutely nothing fake here. Further, through these songs I feel like I know Ted Leo and Mark Sandman personally, while I’ve never actually been so honored.

So which is the greater song? Depends on which moment in time you happen to ask me. If I’m angry, disgruntled, frustrated, wanting this country and the world to be so much more than they currently are, and wanting to shout out lyrics in defiance of the status quo and to just cathartically blow off steam, then it’s “Loyal to My Sorrowful Country.” If I’m more calm, placid, happier with my place in the universe, feeling a bit playful and pretending to be the ultra-confident flirt that I’ve never been (it’s true—just ask my wife), then it’s “Whisper.”

This one is clearly a toss-up. Yet “Whisper”, in all of its subdued, slow-burning sultriness, lacks just a tiny bit of the fire that fuels Ted Leo’s art. It saddens me to send Morphine packing, as they will forever remain one of my favorite bands, but on the merits of just these individual songs, I’m going with “Loyal to My Sorrowful Country.”

Winner: Ted Leo - Loyal to My Sorrowful Country

(As always, brackets here, play-by-play here and previous recaps here.)

August 29, 2006 in Music, Music: ToT 06 | Permalink | Comments (2)

Krugman Fans, Rejoice!

In an analogue to MP3 blogs which wantonly post MP3s as a means of subverting the evil clutches of the record industry, this site wantonly posts Paul Krugman's columns as a means of subverting the evil clutches of the NYT's subscription-only online content. (Frank Rich, Maureen Dowd, Bob Herbert and others are in there as well.) Krugman's one of our most insightful politcal and economic commentators, and you owe it to yourself to read his columns if you aren't doing so already.

I also recommend Krugman's collection of columns, The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century, which is very good indeed.

August 28, 2006 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Micro Monday: "Of the Gulag"

Of the Gulag

They called us zeks, inmates. To call us prisoners would imply we were imprisoned, against our wills. But the will is a human attribute, and to the guards we were anything but human.

My name is Pavlo Gregorev but I am called Gulagovich. A child of the Gulag. I was born here, live here now, and in all likelihood will die here. I don’t cling to the foolish false hopes held so pathetically by the other zeks. Even should I complete my term, the Bureau has the power to simply give me a fresh one, for whatever reason they wish.

August 28, 2006 in Fiction, Micro | Permalink | Comments (0)

In today's Wingnut Gazette...

Katherine Harris:

(W)e have to have elected officials in government and we have to have the faithful in government and over time, that lie we have been told, the separation of church and state, people have internalized, thinking that they needed to avoid politics and that is so wrong because God is the one who chooses our rulers. And if we are the ones not actively involved in electing those godly men and women and if people aren’t involved in helping godly men in getting elected than we’re going to have a nation of secular laws. That’s not what our founding fathers intended and that’s certainly isn’t what God intended.

(Emphasis added.)

Er, you probably ought to read your Constitution again, Ms. Harris. It's not a lie at all, but in fact it's right there in the Bill of Rights, and smack dab on top:

Amendment I - Freedom of Religion, Press, Expression.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Remember, freedom of religion also means freedom from religion, particularly the brand that you'd like to impose on the rest of the country. And as for the Founding Fathers' intent, well, here's some more assigned reading for you.

Franklin, Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton. Far from being the conventional pious Christians we too often imagine, these men were skeptical intellectuals, in some cases not even Christians at all. Moral Minority presents unforgettable images of our iconic founders: Jefferson taking a razor to the Bible and cutting out every miraculous and supernatural occurrence; Washington rewriting speeches others had crafted for him, so as to omit all references to Jesus Christ; Franklin and Adams confiding their doubts about Christ's divinity; Madison expressing deep disapproval over the appointment of chaplains to Congress and the armed forces, and of what we would now call "faith-based" initiatives.

August 27, 2006 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (2)

Featherproof Books Profiled in P&W

Turning to the annual feature on independent presses in Poets & Writers, I was quite pleased to see that the leadoff article was on the fledgling local indie Featherproof Books. (Unfortunately, the story isn't online, but I encourage you to buy the new issue of P&W, or at least just intently browse through it at your bookstore.)

One book per year is not an especially heavy editorial schedule, even for a small press like Featherproof, but (co-founder Jonathan) Messinger says that no one is in a hurry to rush the books out the door. "One of the things we offer, being such a small press, is the amount of time that we personally invest in each book. We really want to be able to spend a full year promoting (Todd Dills') book like we did with (Brian Costello's), and we want to be able to work extensively with the next author on all the edits like we did with Todd. So, while we get our finances settled and everything, we might as well just take a year and really put all of our time into working closely on those books."

That, writers, is exactly why you should strongly consider going with an independent press, where the people truly love literature and will give your book all of the attention it needs. Unless, of course, you're intent on becoming the next James Patterson or Nora Roberts, in which case go right ahead and pursue the faceless conglomerates--just don't expect your phone calls to be returned.

August 27, 2006 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Ward Just, Forgetfulness

I just found out that Ward Just has a new novel out, Forgetfulness. I hadn't heard a bit of advance word about it, making me rather surprised to see it on the shelf at Brent Books here in Chicago. The Tribune is apparently asleep at the switch, once again, but the book gets strong reviews in the Sun-Times and even in the September issue of BookPage (not yet online now online here). Here's what the former review, by Mark Athitakis, had to say:

Forgetfulness has a persistently melancholy mood, but it never bogs down -- it has a sturdy, propulsive feel that stems from Just's willingness to address Thomas' grief head-on. And in the process of exploring Thomas' sadness and confusion so closely, he's a powerful allegory for the larger disorientation of these violent, terror-stricken times.

The book sounds intriguing, and I'm pleased to see Just confront the subject of terrorism by having a middle-aged protagonist experience it directly and react to it--badly or otherwise. And not by invoking "you are there in Lower Manhattan on 9/11" pathos or, even worse, with a middle-aged upper-class white guy novelist presumptuously and vainly trying to assume the voice of a teenaged Muslim extremist (looking at you, J.U.). I thoroughly enjoyed Just's last book, An Unfinished Season, and I'm really looking forward to the new one.

August 26, 2006 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Quit These Hills, Exeunt"

I have a new flash fiction piece, "Quit These Hills, Exeunt", online at The Clarity of Night. It's an entry in TCoN's latest contest (details here). The contest remains open to entries through Tuesday night, so fire up the old Commodore 64 and send in a story!

If you're puzzled by the title of my story, bear in mind that it's a companion piece to "Quit These Hills", my entry in TCoN's previous contest. I'm planning to merge the two pieces, embellish the narrative a bit (but not too much--I like the spare innuendo of the prose as it stands right now) and hopefully end up with a more complete and polished story.

August 24, 2006 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

Billy Pilgrim and Roland Weary

Here's a prototypical passage from Kurt Vonnegut's great Slaugherhouse-Five, which nicely shows off his spare yet vivid prose:

Billy and the scouts were skinny people. Roland Weary had fat to burn. He was a roaring furnace under all his layers of wool and straps and canvas. He had so much energy that he bustled back and forth between Billy and the scouts, delivering dumb messages which nobody had sent and which nobody was pleased to receive. He also began to suspect, since he was so much busier than anyone else, that he was the leader.

He was so hot and bundled up, in fact, that he had no sense of danger. His vision of the outside world was limited to what he could see through a narrow slit between the rim of his helmet and his scarf from home, which concealed his baby face from bridge of his nose on down. He was so snug in there that he was able to pretend that he was safe at home, having survived the war, and that he was telling his parents and his sister a true war story--whereas the true war story was still going on.

August 24, 2006 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Micro Monday: "Gathering"


The mouse’s mate needed sustenance for the difficult days just ahead. Were it just him, he could let the hunger go on for a while longer, but for his mate’s well-being, and that of their soon-to-arrive, he had no choice but to venture forth in search of food--a crumb of bread, a kernel of corn, a speck of cake, anything the humans might have left behind.

His nose sniffed the air and his whiskers flicked, but flicked just a bit too much. The sudden motion caught the feline’s vision, leading it to pounce. All went to black.

August 21, 2006 in Fiction, Micro | Permalink | Comments (0)

Finally, there's hope for me...

Who needs Rogaine, anyway?

August 21, 2006 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tournament of Tunes - The Final Four

A quick recap on how the four finalists got here...

Ted Leo, "Loyal to My Sorrowful Country"
Round 1 - Smothered Bedhead, which issued nary a whimper of protest.
Round 2 - Scratched and clawed past a scrappy Tommy Stinson, who fared much better than Westerberg ever would have.
Regional Semis - Struggled past Archers of Loaf and the best downtempo tune they ever created.
Regional Final - Eased, with simplicity and passion, past the often-bloated Built to Spill.

Morphine, "Whisper"
Round 1 - Knocked off, with a sultry swagger, indie titan Dinosaur Jr.--much to the dismay of John from Iowa.
Round 2 - Waltzed past the slackers of Pavement, who were presumably too ironically bemused to care.
Regional Semis - Vanquished the great Elliott Smith with surprising ease.
Regional Final - Brought the endearingly overachieving Scruffy the Cat's inspired run to an end.

The Pixies, "Debaser"
Round 1 - Pummelled Miracle Legion, who never knew what hit them.
Round 2 - Subdued Yo La Tengo, which would have fared far better ten years ago.
Regional Semis - Overran the seminal Mission of Burma, which failed to bring its heaviest artillery.
Regional Final - Topped a valiant Joel Phelps, who surely deserved a better fate.

Camper Van Beethoven, "Sweethearts"
Round 1 - Trounced an overmatched Peter Case.
Round 2 - Marched past the Replacements and their timeless song of teen angst.
Regional Semis - Dispatched Saturnine, with not even a drop of sweat expended.
Regional Final - Surged through the Mudhoney maelstrom, using every ounce of strength saved up during the previous round.

Semifinals next week, finals the week after. Your continued patience is appreciated, your brave endurance admired.

August 17, 2006 in Music, Music: ToT 06 | Permalink | Comments (2)

All Hail Judge Taylor!

At last, a voice of reason.

"It was never the intent of the Framers to give the president such unfettered control, particularly where his actions blatantly disregard the parameters clearly enumerated in the Bill of Rights."

Her decision will be appealed, of course, and will probably end up before the Bush-friendly Supreme Court, where it will likely be overturned. But for a little while it will nice to pretend that the Constitution still means something.

August 17, 2006 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Handgun Owner of the Year

In honor of Mike Royko's old yearly award, I pass along this story from my hometown of Joliet. Yes, ma'am, you have a Constitutional right to bear arms. You also have a moral responsibility to keep said arms secured under lock and key in your home--not hidden under a lawnmower in an outside stairwell, where children exponentially more numerous than your own could find it.

Gunning for a child safety award?

JOLIET — A concerned woman wanted to keep her apartment safe for visiting children. So she hid her 9 mm Glock under a lawnmower in an outside stairwell for the day.

Unfortunately between 7 p.m. Aug. 7 and 3 p.m. Aug. 8, someone removed the case containing the gun and two magazines from its hiding place in the 100 block of Baker Avenue.

The woman went to retrieve her gun and found it missing. She called police and explained she'd hidden the weapon under the lawnmower because "she had numerous small children inside her apartment."

Police reports did not indicate if the lawn had been mowed recently.

Genius, sheer genius. People like her are a strong argument in favor of repealing the 2nd Amendment.

August 17, 2006 in Joliet | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Why Hemingway Is Chick-Lit"

Or, to put it more accurately, "Why All Fiction Is Chick-Lit." Lakshmi Chaudhry's new article in In These Times addresses the pronounced gender gap in fiction readership. The article makes some very valid points, not the least of which is giving David Brooks a well-deserved smackdown.

(Lisa Zunshine's) book, Why We Read Fiction, argues that fiction as a literary form offers us pleasure because it engages our ability to mind-read, "a term used by cognitive psychologists, interchangeably with 'Theory of Mind,' to describe our ability to explain people’s behavior in terms of their thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and desires." Fiction, therefore, "lets us try on different mental states."

Women are more likely than men to enjoy reading fiction, period (as opposed to just reading about "feelings and stuff"), because "they generally want more input for their Theory-of-Mind adaptations," says Zunshine. "They want to experience other 'minds in action'—which is another way of defining 'empathy'—much more than men do."

As an aspiring novelist myself, I urge you ladies to please keep reading until my fellow male lunkheads finally realize that reading fiction isn't just a girly pursuit.

August 16, 2006 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tony Fitzpatrick, Bum Town

Tony Fitzpatrick’s book-length poem Bum Town is a tough but deeply moving ode to Fitzpatrick’s father and the disappearing Chicago they once knew. From the very first stanza (“From 79th Street/Southworks flexed its/Muscle of light,/An infinite halo/Of orange and white;/Like they had captured/The sun/In four steel walls…”), Fitzpatrick sets the tone: his poem will not be about the Chicago of skyscrapers and celebrities and victory, but of railroad tracks and steel mills and rubbled lots, of death and the commercial gaudiness of Western Avenue and local hero Tony Zale losing his title bout to Graziano at the Stadium on one should-have-been-magic evening in 1946.

Much of the narrative consists of Fitzpatrick’s memories of driving around with his father—to Montrose Harbor (where the smelt are “a whir of silvery light—/As indecipherable as/The tails of/Comets”), to a butcher shop at 18th and Halsted and the garlic smell which overpowers the car’s interior, past the Stadium and the site of Zale’s defeat, and to Mt. Olivet Cemetary, where Fitzpatrick’s Uncle Ray (a childhood victim of a train accident) is buried and haunts Mr. Fitzpatrick’s waking hours. Their meanderings are set to a soundtrack of Bob Elson announcing White Sox games and Mr. Fitzpatrick’s memories of and reflections on the city.

The verse is written in short and crisp lines which cleanly present the vivid descriptions of the city passing by:

I could feel the
Murderous rumble
Of my Dad’s Oldsmobile
Weaving in and out of
Night and day traffic
Like a gull in the wind.
He’d tool up Western Avenue
And remind me that the
Green Hornet streetcars
Once rode the longest line
In the world,
Right here.

And Western would trot out
Its goods: grocerías
And tarted-up car lots
Lit up like the Carnival
Or Saint Rocco’s day,
Used cars and short skirts,
Hot-dog joints and the union hall.
Then like now
Western looks like the girl
With too much eye-shadow.

In the scrap lots,
Bottle-gangs of invisible men
Drank pints of Mad-dog
While burning garbage
Kept them warm. They seemed to
Disappear into the smoke
One orange ember
At a time.
Like human coal
The city shovels
Into itself.

Although the tone is elegaic, Fitzpatrick acknowledges that the past isn’t really gone—his father lives on in Fitzpatrick’s memory, and the old neighborhoods, while no longer familiar to him, live on for their new and very different residents. The past is present, as it were. Fitzpatrick is, of course, also a very accomplished artist, and the verses are accompanied by his wonderful pencil-sketched collages, with the images and the verses complementing each other perfectly.

Bum Town is a wonderful work of art, one which deserves a place on the shelf of great Chicago literature alongside Algren’s Chicago: City on the Make, Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, Farrell’s Studs Lonigan triology, the poems of Carl Sandburg, the stories of Stuart Dybek and the newspaper columns of Mike Royko. It’s that good. I can’t recommend it more highly.

August 16, 2006 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

Todd Dills Is Invading Your City

You've been warned.

I received the message below from local indie publisher featherproof books. I've already pre-ordered Sons of the Rapture (excerpt), and am really looking forward to reading it. (Full disclosure: Todd publishes THE2NDHAND, and recently ran my short story "Immortality." But you really shouldn't hold that against him.)

Dearest Pete Anderson,

Have you been long saddened at the selfishness of Chicago when it comes to all things featherproof? Well cry no more, one of our own is venturing out of the nest, and coming to a town near you, or possibly even a town all around you.

And, thank your lucky stars, the fledgling is none other than Todd Dills, author of the newest featherproof book Sons of the Rapture! This is the first leg of a gigantic looping tour, so if you aren't represented here, fret not, there is more to come. In the meantime, pre-order the book at featherproof.com. Read an excerpt, or, if your eyes hurt, let Todd read you an excerpt. Really? Yes, really. Listen to it here.

See you on the road:

Todd Dills with Joe Meno (The Boy Detective Fails) and Mickey Hess

**CLEVELAND Mon Aug. 21, 7PM, Mac's Backs, 1820 Coventry Rd, Cleveland Hts, 216-321-BOOK

**PITTSBURGH Tue Aug. 22, 7PM, Artists Image Resource, 518 Foreland St., 412-321-8664

**NEW YORK CITY Wed Aug. 23, 7PM, Bluestockings, 172 Allen St., 212-777-6028

**WASHINGTON, D.C. Thu Aug. 24, 7PM, Olsson's (Dupont Circle), 1307 19th St. NW, 202-785-1133

**PHILADELPHIA Fri Aug. 25, 7PM, Robin's Bookstore, 108 S. 13th St., 215-567-2615

We're learning to fly.

Love, featherproof

August 15, 2006 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fly Ash, We Hardly Knew Ye

Another literary site departs. Matt and Josh, your fiction postings will be missed. Thanks for inspiring my Micro Monday project--I'll carry the banner onward as well as I can.

August 15, 2006 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Robert Olen Butler in Verb

Here's a nice audio piece...Robert Olen Butler reading from his unpublished novel Alvin's Wild Ride, on the podcast of Verb: An Audioquarterly (9MB mp3, 9:37). A teenaged boy exploits the soon-to-arrive nuclear holocaust to get in the knickers of a girl he'd never have a chance with otherwise, in an oddly poignant way, and utters probably the most oddly inappropriate anatomical description I've ever read.

...and I look at the secret place on her body, and it is as pretty as her face. It is the pink of my mother's azaleas and it is pouting like a spoiled child...

Verb looks intriguing, and sounds like it's extremely well-produced, though at $19.99 a pop it's probably out of my price range--the esteemed likes of Butler, Stuart Dybek, Ha Jin, Ed Falco, George Singleton and Peter Case notwithstanding.

(Via Emerging Writers Network.)

August 15, 2006 in Audio, Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tournament of Tunes:
Camper Van Beethoven vs. Mudhoney

The Elite Eight of the Tournament of Tunes finally concludes, with the last match of the Carl Perkins Regional:

Camper Van Beethoven - Sweethearts [RealAudio]
Mudhoney - No One Has [RealAudio]

To my mind Camper Van Beethoven was, in concept and execution, the epitome of indie rock. (I speak of them in the past tense, because though like most 80s icons they’ve recently patched up their differences and reunited, I haven’t heard much about their new stuff and they’ll forever be of the past for me.) They were: Northern California goofballs who never took themselves too seriously; highly talented musicians unafraid to always try something new; funny as hell (I defy you to listen to “Take the Skinheads Bowling” or “Down and Out” with a straight face); brazen enough to set most of their world-music instrumental melodies to the same ska rhythm; unabashedly populist in their political views while recognizing (in “Joe Stalin’s Cadillac”) that all world leaders, left to right, from LBJ to Stalin to Pinochet, are only in it for power and wealth; tastefully eclectic in their choice of cover tunes, from Black Flag to Sonic Youth to Pink Floyd to Status Quo; and, above all, fun—their exuberance and joy compelled you to laugh and dance while also making you think. The band members’ post-breakup efforts (Cracker, Monks of Doom, Victor Krummenacher’s solo career, et al) all had brief highpoints but never came anywhere near the glories they achieved as Camper Van Beethoven.

In contrast to CvB, I don’t have an exceptionally strong personal connection to Mudhoney. I didn’t first come across them until my thirties, and I was never into the whole Seattle grunge thing. But I do have connections with them—my wife was a big fan from way back, enough so to name her (and now “our”) cat after them; I still laugh at the memory of seeing a publicity photo in CMJ during the My Brother The Cow era, with Mark Arm jauntily wearing a crown, like an actor out of an old Imperial Margarine commercial; and I’ve published a short story, “Freewheeling”, which imagines a hardcore fan’s emotional reaction to the band’s breakup. (Yes, of course they’re now back together.) Their music is undeniably great—loud, raucous, funny, don’t-give-a-frig rock & roll that blows away most of the grunge pretenders who emerged in their wake. I have the utmost respect for the band, particularly their willpower in churning out such consistently good music for so many years.

As for the songs themselves: “No One Has” is a hoot, and must have been thrilling to hear stretched out to eight or nine minutes in some tiny, sweaty club, the audience a sea of humanity and dancing as one. Thing is, I have no idea what the song is about. Which is maybe their point, though this weakness still prevents me from completely embracing it. But I’ve truly loved “Sweethearts” for over fifteen years now, my intellect completely getting the point of the lyrics while my soul is immersed in the lovely country rock melodies, and that alone is enough to advance this great song past the visceral thrill of “No One Has.” Camper decamps, and marches on to the Final Four.

Winner: Camper Van Beethoven - Sweethearts

(As always, brackets here, play-by-play here and previous recaps here.)

August 15, 2006 in Music, Music: ToT 06 | Permalink | Comments (2)


Encyclopedia Brown and the Mysterious Presidency of George W. Bush.

Mostly, Encyclopedia did not trust George W. Bush’s idea of “Compassionate Conservatism.” To Encyclopedia, this sounded like how it was before Sally became his partner, when Bugs Meany would pat him on the back and call him “pal” before giving Encyclopedia an atomic wedgie.

Encyclopedia worried that if George W. Bush became president, he was going to give America an atomic wedgie.

(Via Coudal.)

August 14, 2006 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Archambeau's Lost Sessions

Over at Samizdat, Robert Archambeau posts "the lost sessions", a list of posts he meant to write but which will likely never to be published. Which is odd, in a way, since in describing those posts he does, sort of, publish them. Of particular note is his reflection on Chicago's late and lamented Aspidistra Bookshop.

We'd all watch the O.J. Simpson trial on a tiny black and white T.V. and wait for the inevitable moment when Ron would throw some hapless customer out of the store for saying something that fell beneath the standards of intellectual integrity, literary zeal, or boho cool.

I shamefully admit to never venturing into Aspidistra, despite having many opportunities to do so. Which is too bad--sounds like it was a very unique place.

August 14, 2006 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

In the Tribune...

One interesting item in the Tribune book section--A Hungry Heart, the final memoir of film director, photojournalist and writer Gordon Parks, of which reviewer David Thigpen says:

This retelling of his wonderful life, finished shortly before his death, is rendered with a marvelously confident and easy touch that reflects the satisfaction and confidence he earned as a barrier-smashing photojournalist, musician, novelist and film director.

As I mentioned previously, prior to Parks' death I hadn't been aware that he started out as a Farm Security Adminstration photographer, with many great images to his credit. (Here's all of his FSA images--click on "Gallery View" for more manageable browsing).

(Trib site requires registration...if not already registered, use "double@mailinator.com" to log on, with "123456" as the password. Thanks to bugmenot.com, as always.)

August 14, 2006 in Books, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Micro Monday: "Button"


She hurried along the platform, heels clattering and shoulder bag bouncing off her hip. Ahead the conductor leaned out, urgently waving her forward, his gesture saying she had only a few more seconds to climb aboard. She felt relieved that the bag was her only luggage; anything more would have slowed her down, might have kept her here.

She reached the stairs and stepped up, grasping for the conductor’s hand and knocking loose a button from her cardigan. The button plinked once on the platform and rolled into oblivion next to the tracks. It was all she would leave behind.

August 14, 2006 in Fiction, Micro | Permalink | Comments (1)

Now, That's What I Call Literature

Non-writers sometimes ask me how the hell I come up with my story ideas. For some stories I have no answer to that question, though for most there's a specific source of inspiration, often something as minor as a brief newspaper item. A gentleman named William Ridenhour has been taking the inspiration-to-story process to an extreme--starting from nothing more than reply-to names taken from spam emails, he fictionally kills that fake person off and writes an obituary. I give you The Spam Obituaries:

Wreaks Q. Blurt 1910-2006
...At high school he was riding his skateboard when he hit a stray yak that had escaped from the city zoo. Much to the amazement of his friends Wreaks did his first ever 360 with the yak’s help. It would have been an unheard of 720 had it not been for the flagpole...

Ridenhour's wonderfully wry pieces comes across a bit like a modernized version of George Ade--if I concentrate just right, I can all but hear Ron Evry reading these obits on weekends.

(Via Boing Boing.)

August 12, 2006 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

David Plowden, A Handful of Dust

Here's a stunning set of images from David Plowden's latest photographic collection, A Handful of Dust. I almost feel like I can reach out and touch these dying-or-dead small towns. Quite moving.

(Via Coudal.)

August 11, 2006 in Books, Photography | Permalink | Comments (1)

Colbert, Man of Letters

This is quite funny, and book-related (or fake-book-related) to boot: Stephen Colbert can't seem to sell his 1,800 page manuscript of Stephen Colbert's Alpha Squad 7: Lady Nocturne: A Tek Jansen Adventure, so he's publishing it himself, as an animated cartoon. "The printed word is dead," quoth Colbert.

August 10, 2006 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Brown Trout Bids Adieu

Damn, I'm really going to miss the crotchety old blowhole.

August 10, 2006 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Today in Music

Nostalgic for the droning guitar epics of Yo La Tengo, circa May I Sing With Me? Though the band has gotten away from that sound during the past few years, at least one song on their new album, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, hearkens back to those great old days: "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind". (Via Largehearted Boy.)

And diametrically opposed to the above is video of the lovely, delicate "Woke Up New" by the incomparable Mountain Goats. (Via Sycamore Review.)

Both of the above are quite worthy of your ear, each in its own distinct way.

August 10, 2006 in Music | Permalink | Comments (1)


I'm very fond of the Bibliodyssey blog, which reproduces wonderful old graphic art. (Their tagline is "Books ~ Illustrations ~ Science ~ History ~ Visual Materia Obscura ~ Eclectic Bookart" which pretty much covers everything.) I encourage you to check out the entire site, of course, but take particular note of the following gems:

Norse Edda from Iceland

Victorian Music Covers

Assorted Ex Libris

August 9, 2006 in Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Ralph's Last Call" - Call for Submissions

The online literary journal The Angler (where I happen to be associate editor) is seeking submissions of short stories which build on my own story, "Ralph's Last Call", which was published there in June. Angler founder/publisher/editor Donavan Hall explains:

As you will see, “Ralph’s Last Call” is a setup. The story doesn’t have what would be traditionally thought of as an ending. So what I propose is that we add to Ralph’s story. I don’t want to place too many constraints on your creativity, but I have a few guidelines that I’ll be urging potential contributors to adhere to: (1) respect the other texts that comprise “Ralph”—that is, you should be aware of their content and try to make literary connections with the texts, (2) references to beer are good, but not required, (3) one of the literary reference points for your story should be Herman Melville’s Moby Dick—be creative on how you work in allusions to that famous work.

I imagine that “Ralph” will develop into a collaborative hypertextual novel that threads through all the issues of The Angler. I’m not going to confine “Ralph” to only volume four, even though the story will “start” there. I fully expect aspects of “Ralph” to range into repetition, hallucination, and divination. So grab a beer, read “Ralph’s Last Call”, then grab a pencil and get to scribbling.

As I mentioned previously, "Ralph's Last Call" was originally created as the first chapter to a novel which I abandoned writing years ago. But although the novel never materialized, I always liked the mood of that first chapter, so I revived it almost verbatim as a stand-alone short story. This meant that the story was inevitably open-ended, and thus a good candidate for what Donavan calls a "seed text" from which further narratives by other writers could grow from.

I invite any and all writers who are interested in participating in this project to submit a story that builds on my original. And I can assure you that although I'll be one of the two people evaluating submissions for the project, I won't be biased against stories which deviate from my original vision for Ralph's story. If I couldn't follow through on my vision to create a finished novel, I certainly won't penalize anyone who takes Ralph in an entirely new direction. In fact, it would be a hell of a lot more interesting if, through these stories, Ralph ends up far from where I expected him to be.

August 9, 2006 in Books, Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Dollar Store

On WBEZ's "848" program, local "literary improv" revue The Dollar Store gets a nice profile, featuring its masterminds, Jonathan Messinger and Jeremy Sosenko. If you're intrigued, check out The Dollar Store's selected audio archive here.

August 7, 2006 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Micro Monday: "Men in Black"

Men in Black

The train rattled over 35th Street. Further east, far from view, stood the hallowed ballpark grounds, where fifteen years earlier the worn brick-and-girder relic exhaustedly gave way to a suburban mall of glass and concrete, where nine months earlier a championship, longed-for for decades, was finally won.

Yet here, further west on a ragged corner, where the diagonal cross street cut through a cluster of aged storefronts, where a lone figure stood with shoulders slumped in resignation while still glancing in hope, where a contractor might hire some day laborers, none of that -- ballparks old and new, championships -- mattered much.

August 7, 2006 in Fiction, Micro | Permalink | Comments (0)

Two More Story Publications!

This weekend I'm quite pleased to announce that two more of my stories have been published.

The first, "Freewheeling", appears in the latest issue of Dogmatika. (They've been having bandwidth problems recently, so if the story doesn't come up right away, please keep trying.) Thanks to editor Susan Tomaselli for taking this story--its subject matter makes it a fairly esoteric piece, and I was beginning to wonder if I'd ever find a home for it.

The second, "Immortality", appears in THE2NDHAND. This journal consistently publishes some of the most interesting writing coming out of Chicago these days, and I'm quite proud to be associated with them. Kudos to editor Todd Dills for adding me to the posse.

The publication of "Immortality" makes it the second story I wrote during NaNoWriMo 2004 (the year I wrote stories instead of a novel) to be published, which makes that year infinitely more productive than my other three years of NaNoWriMo and the two novels-in-hiatus they created. Sometimes I think that finishing a novel may be well beyond what my patience will allow. I like seeing the finished product, which is why I've found writing stories to be so intrinsically rewarding and writing novels to be so daunting. Not that there's any shame in sticking to short stories, of course--some of my favorite writers, including Stuart Dybek, have made nice careers out of the form. If I could have one-tenth of Dybek's accomplishments I'd be more than pleased with myself.

August 6, 2006 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tournament of Tunes:
Joel R.L. Phelps vs. The Pixies

The Elite Eight of the Tournament of Tunes continues, with the final match of the Johnny Cash Regional:

Joel R.L. Phelps - God Bless the Little Pigs [mp3]
The Pixies - Debaser [RealAudio]

This is a very difficult call. On the one hand, Joel Phelps, a relatively obscure artist whose work I’ve thoroughly enjoyed for many years and who, from what I’ve read, is a genuinely decent human being. On the other hand, postpunk icons the Pixies and one of their greatest songs. My selection could potentially say a lot about me as a listener—whether I favor the lesser known artist, in some snobbish show of exclusivity, or go with the big name, with the latter choice being one that few rock fans would argue with. As tempted as I am to let outside influences filter in, however, I really have to focus entirely on the songs themselves.

“God Bless the Little Pigs” is a cathartic blast of noise, bursting up in the middle of the otherwise reserved album Warm Springs Night. It’s impossible not to be thrilled by this song—the furious guitar squall lead-in, the way the guitar then melds perfectly into the chugging bass line, Phelps’ muted vocals in the verses that erupt into wails, the sharp guitar solo, the bass melody line near the end. And yet…this song simply isn’t Phelps at his best. His finest songs are midtempo, dynamic, emotional pieces that are beautiful in their quiet intensity. Not that there’s anything wrong with rocking out—when Phelps does it he does so quite well—but that’s not the reason I listen to his music. I go for the beauty, not the noise.

A confession: I don’t even own a Pixies album. I’ve got a dubbed cassette of Doolittle and an mp3 of “Debaser” from salon.com or somewhere, and that’s it. I’m aware of their legacy, their influence (some say Nirvana would never have existed without them, though in Nirvana I hear a lot more Hüsker Dü than Pixies), and their inevitable comeback (do 1980s alternative rock icons ever really go away completely?). But I’ve never heard Surfer Rosa or Come On Pilgrim or Trompe le Monde or Bossanova, nor do I particularly care to. I have no emotional connection to the band—in fact, Black Francis’ cartoonish persona pretty much acts as barrier to such devotion—and they’ve never been an integral part of my life. I’ve admired them from a considerable distance, and that’s all. But there’s no denying that “Debaser” is a truly great song, one which is fully emblematic of the band’s sound (or of the sound of Doolittle, anyway, since I’ve never heard the other albums).

I’d love to advance the cause of Joel R.L. Phelps to the masses (or at least the dozens who are reading this) by advancing “God Bless the Little Pigs” to the Final Four, but it’s simply not a better song than “Debaser.” So I’m betraying my heart and going with the Pixies.

Winner: The Pixies - Debaser

(As always, brackets here, play-by-play here and previous recaps here.)

August 3, 2006 in Music, Music: ToT 06 | Permalink | Comments (0)

John McNally Giveaway!

I just started reading John McNally's new novel, America's Report Card, and I'm enjoying it so far. I've been remiss on passing along word of his book tour--in fact, I missed the Chicago dates altogether--but he's in the Seattle area this week:

Tuesday, 8/1/06 - Bellingham, WA - Village Books
Thursday, 8/3/06 - Seattle, WA - Elliott Bay Book Company
Friday, 8/4/06 - Seattle, WA - University Bookstore

John recently had a nice "Backstory" piece about the novel's genesis at M.J. Rose's site, along with a thoughtful interview at The Elegant Variation.

Thanks to a mixup by the publisher, I have an extra copy of America's Report Card to give away. The first person to email me (pete_anderson [at] comcast [dot] net) with the subject line "Ann Coulter = Sheer Evil" gets the goods. Please include your mailing address.

Update: Still no takers on the giveaway, so there's still time for you to win! If, by some highly remote chance, you're an Ann Coulter fan who is offended by the requested subject line but still wants the book, feel free to substitute Michael Moore, Al Franken, Ralph Nader, or the liberal elitist of your choice.

Update 2: The winner is Carolyn S. of Chicago. A big thanks to everyone who entered!

August 3, 2006 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Doorstop Authors, Take Note

Over at The Outfit, FoPL Kevin Guilfoile expounds on his research methods--write everything first, then doublecheck for technical accuracy--and the value of discretion in not committing every single thing you know about a subject into your novel.

...as a writer you will always know lots of cool stuff that you can't fit elegantly into your novel and it takes discipline not to force it all on the reader.

Hear, hear. Incidentally, the anecdote about the call to the horrified genetics professor is apparently a favorite of his, as he told it earlier this summer at Printer's Row Book Fair, deservedly getting a good laugh from the audience.

August 2, 2006 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)