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Mark Sarvas Joins the Establishment

Über-litblogger Mark Sarvas (of The Elegant Variation renown) has announced the selling of his first novel, Harry, Revised, to Bloomsbury, with a publication date of Winter 2008. Mark's short story "The Everhappy Eterna Comfort Band" is actually part of a chapter of the novel, but stands up quite well on its own. Do check it out.

I couldn't be happier for Mark, or jealouser. Actually, that's not entirely true -- I could be a lot jealouser, if I could ever finish one of my own damned novels.

February 28, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Literary T-Shirts

Because, seriously, why should rock bands get all the glory? Behold the wonderful collection of literary-themed t-shirts from Literary Rags. I particularly like the Vonnegut quote: "Who is more to be pitied, a writer bound and gagged by policemen or one living in perfect freedom who has nothing more to say?"

(Via Largehearted Boy.)

February 28, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Ask Not For Whom The Bell's Tolls

Left: Going.
Right: Gone.

Absent a road trip, this will be the last Bell's I consume for quite a while. Au revoir.

February 25, 2007 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Dinaw Mengestu

The Tribune book section was uncharacteristically loaded with fiction reviews this week. One that really grabbed my attention was The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, by Dinaw Mengestu, which reviewer Laura Ciolkowski calls "eloquent" and "deeply moving." This quoted passage is particularly touching:

"Here we were, an older man and a girl young enough to be the man's daughter, sitting in a store on a winter morning reading a novel together. I tried not to notice too much, to simply just live, but that was impossible. Every time I looked at her I became aware of just how seemingly perfect this time was. I thought about how years from now I would remember this with a crushing, heartbreaking nostalgia, because of course I knew even then that I would eventually find myself standing here alone."

Given the Trib's usual record of reviewing a book months beyond its release date, long after the buzz has passed, it's rare for the newspaper to introduce me to a title and author I've not only never heard of before, but that I'm genuinely interested in. Kudos to the Trib, and Laura Ciolkowski, for this one.

(Tribune site requires registration. Use "bugmenot@gmail.com" for the user name, "bugmenot" for the password. Thanks, as always, to bugmenot.com.)

February 25, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Public Art in Joliet

Today's Chicago Tribune Magazine ran a short piece on the "identity columns" which grace the landscape of Joliet, my adopted hometown.

Urban mosaic
Authorship: Jeff Lyon
Published February 25, 2007

FOLKS IN JOLIET talk about "pillars of the community," they may be speaking literally. That's because in recent years the fast-growing city of 145,000 southwest of Chicago has commissioned almost 40 "identity columns"-original sculptures mounted on pedestals, many of mosaic tile.

It's a joint effort of Joliet and a local group, Friends of Community Public Art. FCPA's president, sculptor Kathleen Farrell, conceived the project. "To me," she says, "the idea that a specific type of art object could appear repeatedly throughout the city and become recognizable as a Joliet icon was very exciting."

The plan called for local artists to produce the sculptures, and columns have gone up honoring such natives as pro basketball's George Mikan and subjects like city firefighters and Route 66. Now the FCPA has published a book of poetry inspired by the works. This is from local poet Ted Thompson's tribute to Route 66:

"The last of a century of pioneers / Traveled that road in beat-up Chevies / Getting their kicks dreaming of new beginnings / Until the west filled up / Into megalopolis / And the dream faded / Into the smog and gridlock / Of an outsourced reality.

"But while the dream motored on / America was young / And believed it could do anything- / And that anything it did was right- / Now we enshrine that road- / Writing elegies to our lost innocence / Erecting this tombstone for the dream.

FCPA does a really nice job with public art around town. Being an old railroad town, Joliet has more than it fair share of viaducts, whose drab concrete walls could otherwise be rather unsightly eyesores. But FCPA's murals (gallery here) on the viaduct walls (and elsewhere) are lively and colorful tributes to the people, places and events of Joliet's history. The identity columns (gallery here) are a more recent development which pay similar tribute at intersections further away from downtown. Definitely worth checking out if you're ever in the area.

February 25, 2007 in Joliet | Permalink | Comments (0)

Song of the Week: Bob Mould

Bob Mould is truly one of the punk rock greats. His groundbreaking band Hüsker Dü, in which he was ably abetted by drummer/singer Grant Hart and bassist Greg Norton, developed quickly beyond its loud-and-fast hardcore roots to incorporate more melody and -- gasp! -- pop hooks, setting the stage for the grunge era of the 1990s. (It's genuinely hard to imagine Nirvana without the precedent of Hüsker Dü.) Trouble is, the band didn't quite make it to that era and enjoy the widespread success it deserved, gasping to a halt in 1987. By all accounts the band's existence was preposterously creative (six full-length LPs in just five years, two of which were double albums) but emotionally draining; relentless touring and endless studio time kept the band in uncomfortably close proximity leading to an abrupt flameout which was perhaps, in retrospect, inevitable.

While perhaps inevitable, Mould took the band's implosion very hard, holing up in a Minnesota barn to pick up the shattered pieces and, not surprisingly, writing songs to make sense of it all. The end result of this period of introspection, Mould's 1989 solo debut Workbook, is a finely crafted but often painful glimpse of the tragic end of a relationship -- in this case, the relationship was with the band, and Hart and Norton, and everything it represented in Mould's life.

Just yesterday, Mould put one of his Workbook songs, "Sinners and Their Repentances", up on his site. I hadn't anticipated ever being able to feature one of Mould's songs here, since I have yet to find any which are available for free public consumption. But thanks to his generosity, which has an Ash Wednesday tie-in, this quietly powerful song is now available to all. I'm sure you'll enjoy it.

February 22, 2007 in Music | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Insomnis"

Insomnis

Another minute passed, merely one of identical hundreds that night, the night itself identical to hundreds of others.

The minute passed with a click from the clock radio, the metal leaf flipping over, 1:40 disappearing and 1:41 appearing. Lying in bed, amidst tousled and twisted sheets, James wished he had a newer clock, one whose illuminated digits changed silently as the hours crept past, instead of this one with its insistent click, low in volume but deafening in the emptiness of the room.

Then again, he considered, perhaps the noise was appropriate, given all the other night sounds resonating through the darkened flat. The water dripping, every forty-five seconds, in the bathtub. The refrigerator condenser cycling on every thirty minutes with a low hum. The outer door rattling whenever another in the building slammed shut. He was already hearing all those noises, long being familiar with the timbre and frequency of each, so maybe the clock was simply one more instrument in the orchestra that accompanied his ceaseless, sleepless nights.

He remembered the bottle which sat, still sealed, on the shelf of the medicine chest, but shook off the idea. He still thought, hoped, he could do it himself, go it alone.

His now-opened eyes were drawn to the slit between the window's curtains, through which he saw a glare of red neon, beckoning from the stifling narrow room where he once spent all of his nights, where everyone was so familiar, so friendly, where the drinks went down far too easily and too often.

James shivered, thinking again of the pills in the medicine chest. He hadn't kicked that old dependence, he thought, just to start up a new one. He closed his eyes, willing sleep to come.


(Note: I wrote this story specifically for the "Late Night Tales" competition at The Guardian. I finished writing it today and was just about to submit it, only to discover this: "4. The promotion is only open to residents of the UK and Ireland." I guess I really need to start reading submission guidelines more closely.)

February 19, 2007 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

New Adam Rapp Story

Joliet native Adam Rapp has a new serialized story, "That Time When All the Sad People Came and Stayed at My House" up at Five Chapters. The story will appear in five installments this week, one per day.

This morning I believe my life took a subtle but tectonic shift when I realized that I hadn't taken the robe off in nine days. I smell like the attic, or maybe the attic smells like me. One of the strange symptoms of even the mildest form of agoraphobia is that it gets more difficult to distinguish between personal and household odors.

The appearance of Rapp's story reminded me that I've been remiss in mentioning the Powell's review of his new novel, The Year of Endless Sorrows. Nutshell: they loved the richness of his prose, but not so much the plot. Still, sounds like a pretty good read.

February 19, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Guilty Pleasures of Literary Greats"

How comforting for a literary lightweight such as myself, who never misses an episode of American Idol, to know that the heavyweights of earlier eras wallowed in equally lowbrow cultural pursuits.

Nabokov, "an ardent devotee of Dennis the Menace"? Well, at least it was the comic strip he loved, and not the thoroughly irritating sitcom.

(Via Boing Boing.)

February 18, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Auctorial Quotations in P&W

The January/February issue of Poets & Writers celebrated the magazine's twentieth anniversary, and included year-by-year capsule which highlighted each year's literary highlights, with a focus on items appearing in the magazine. By far the most interesting aspect of these capsules were the quotations from various writers profiled in the magazine. For me, these were the highlights:

"I don't write novels where people aren't victims. I can't imagine feeling it was worthwhile to write a novel if there weren't a genuine victim in it, if something terrible didn't happen to someone who had a justifiable claim to our emotions." - John Irving, 1991

"If you search in the background of any serious writer, it isn't very long before you come upon a major deprivation of one sort or another -- which the writer through the exercise of imagination tries to overcome or compensate for, or even make not have happened." - William Maxwell, 1994

"As far as I'm concerned, I've never considered myself anything but an American writer. I have a passionate relationship with my own language, and that for me is more important than anything I do with it. What I really want to do with English is make love to it." - Harry Matthews, 1996

"Writing is such an internal, interior thing that it can hardly be reached by you, much less by another person. I can't tell you how to write, no more than you can tell me. We're all different from one another, even in the way we breathe. Writers must learn to trust themselves." - Eudora Welty, 1997

"One of the great things about fiction is that if I write an asshole into a story it has to be me. I can't generate him. And it's always funny in the reviews [when] they say my stories are full of losers. I know where I got all those things. I didn't just make them up. I think it's ritualized humanity." - George Saunders, 2000

"I thought, 'There are a lot of poets who have the courage to look into the abyss, but there are very few who have the courage to look happiness in the face and write about it,' which is what I wanted to be able to do." - Kenneth Koch, 2002

"You never know everything that's going to happen to you when you are writing a short story or a novel. You know where you are starting out and you know your destination, but you never know what the weather is going to be like, how the crop is going to look, or how the leaves on the trees are going to change." - Ernest J. Gaines, 2005

February 17, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Song of the Week: Elliott Smith

I was a tardy arrival to the greatness of the late Elliott Smith, having only been familiar with one song of his prior to his sudden passing in 2003. But I caught up rather quickly, acquiring three albums since then, all of which I've loved. "Between the Bars" (from the excellent album either/or) is Smith at his most sadly beautiful, one alcoholic singing to another (Smith had more than his fair share of addictions, alcohol being just one of them). The song's narrative is typically bleak, yet somehow, impossibly, hopeful:

drink up with me now and forget all about the pressure of days
do what i say and i'll make you okay and drive them away
the images stuck in your head
people you've been before that you don't want around anymore
that push and shove and won't bend to your will
i'll keep them still

These two souls are undeniably lost, but still have each other. Quite touching.

February 14, 2007 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Happy Valentines Day, Sort Of

For an offbeat take on today's usual sentiments, I direct your attention to Noel Sloboda's 55-word story, "Love Rocket". Takes me back to the old days of cooties and "Girl germs! No returns!" Not that I particularly miss those days, of course.

(Don't worry, sweetie, the usual sentiments still apply to you.)

February 14, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Joliet Police Blotter

The only worse choices this guy could have made would have been: a) on a squad car; or b) on a police officer.

Had to go bad
JOLIET -- Saying the door was locked and he had to urinate, Antonio H. Tovar chose the northwest side of the Joliet Police Station, 150 W. Washington St., to relieve himself Saturday morning.

Tovar, 17, of 116 Logan St., Joliet was charged with disorderly conduct.

February 11, 2007 in Joliet | Permalink | Comments (1)

Getting bald(er) to fight childhood cancer!



Once again this year, I'm having my head shaved in support of St. Baldrick's Foundation, which raises funds for CureSearch, a great organization which supports research and treatment of childhood cancer. This will be the fourth year I've participated in St. Baldrick's, and so far I've raised more than $3,000 for CureSearch, and since its inception St. Baldrick's has raised over $20 million. Despite great progress made during recent years, more children in the U.S. die of cancer than any other disease, with 160,000 new childhood cases worldwide each year. I'm doing whatever I can to help fight this terrible disease, and hope you will, too.

CureSearch's 200 member institutions represent every pediatric cancer program in North America, with its network of 5,000 physicians, nurses and scientists working in laboratories and hospitals conducting childhood cancer research, identifying cancer causes and pioneering new treatments and cures. This network treats and supports 90% of children with cancer in North America. CureSearch's work is credited with the rapid scientific progress in the treatment of children with cancer over the past 50 years. Though once considered fatal, childhood cancer is now curable overall in 78% of childhood cancer patients. With continued funding and advances in research, CureSearch believes the survival rate can be raised to 85% by 2008.

So great progress is being made, but we still have a long way to go, which is where I (and you!) come in. On Friday, March 16, I will be having my head shaved at Fado Irish Pub (100 W. Grand Ave., in Chicago). Head-shaving is a symbolic gesture which shows support to childhood cancer patients, many of whom lose their hair during chemotherapy treatment. I would greatly appreciate it if you would make a donation to St. Baldrick's on my behalf. Donations are tax-deductible and benefit a truly great cause.

If you would like to donate with a credit card online, by phone or by mail, you can do so on my page at the St. Baldrick's website. Or if you'd like to donate with a personal check or cash instead, just contact me (pete_anderson [at] comcast [dot] net) and we'll make the necessary arrangements.

As always, if you’d like to attend the event at Fado, I’d love to have you join me for a beer and a good laugh at my expense. Though I don’t know the exact time of my shearing, it will probably be sometime in the early afternoon. The event is always a lot of fun—there’s plenty of ongoing raffles, silent auctions with great prizes, etc.

If you have any questions, just let me know. Thanks in advance!

February 11, 2007 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (1)

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits


The image above was scanned from the books section of today's Chicago Tribune. "Opening Lines" is a very worthwhile weekly feature which runs the first paragraph of a notable book. I read Laila Lalami's Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits recently, and really enjoyed it. I thought the first paragraph was particularly strong, and submitted it to the Tribune, which obviously agreed with me. I highly recommend the novel -- it's an easy but very absorbing read, and provides fascinating insights into the lives of everyday Moroccans and their hopes for better lives.

February 11, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thomas McGuane

The Guardian has an intriguing profile of Thomas McGuane.

The kind of writers McGuane loves aren't Trollope or Galsworthy or Wolfe - "writers who concern themselves with the man who rises from the masses to run for president". Rather, "I like Halldór Laxness and Machado de Assis - people who try to understand the human condition by looking at intimate pictures of human life." ... Jonathan Franzen? "I thought the family stuff in The Corrections was phenomenal. But I thought that almost every page was a third too long. It kind of reminded me of reading Thomas Mann; you don't know how you're going to get to the bottom of the page, but somehow you do. I'd rather read something fiery. I'd rather read Stendhal. I just like a hotter surface, I guess."

I must admit to knowing absolutely nothing about McGuane, but his literary sensibilities have piqued my interest. If anybody out there can recommend which one of McGuane's novels I should start with, please enlighten me in the comments below.

February 10, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (5)

Ward Just, Forgetfulness

I just finished reading Ward Just’s latest novel, Forgetfulness, and enjoyed it a great deal. The title refers to how one deals with grief; while forgetting one's loss completely occurs only in rare instances, we all forget to some degree, in the sense of putting the past far behind us and moving on with our lives. The protagonist, Thomas Railles, is unable to completely forget or comprehend his wife’s senseless murder, so instead he weighs other options in his attempts to cope: whether to abandon the house and small-town life in the Pyrenees that they once shared, whether to give up his art, whether to exact revenge on his wife's suspected murderers. He is given a prime opportunity to do the latter, and is even encouraged to do so by his oldest friend, a career CIA agent for whom eye-for-an-eye is an unquestioned tenet of life. Railles, however, is torn between the temporary visceral thrill of revenge and its ultimate futility:

Vengeance might be solace for the seeker and perhaps rough justice for the sought but the object of it would remain -- he supposed the word was unconsoled. Would you be consoled, chérie, to see them dead? To watch them die, hear their cries, perhaps spit on their corpses? Would your soul rest easier? Perhaps it would.

I greatly admire Just’s restraint, both in the way he has Railles respond to the temptation he faces in the interrogation room, but even more so in the perspective which the author chooses to address terrorism, one of the most important issues of our era. Like most of us, 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror and the Iraq War (two battles which I, in sharp contrast to the Bush Administration, personally consider to be completely distinct entities -- and I suspect Just agrees with me) affected the author deeply, and this book is his way of tackling the issue. One big problem I have with the recent terrorism fiction efforts of John Updike (the novel Terrorist) and Martin Amis (the short story "The Last Days of Muhammad Atta") is the presumptive arrogance of two middle-aged, upper-crust white males attempting to write in the voices of disaffected, ostracized Muslims. Of course it’s important for writers to seek out perspectives different from their own, but in the case of Updike and Amis I instead get the feeling that their writings are nothing more than an author/ventriloquist speaking in the guise of a Muslim extremist. By contrast, Just shows considerable discretion by simply illustrating how terrorism affected one individual, in this case a middle-aged white male -- a protagonist not unlike that of Just himself. With Thomas Railles, Just is able to express thoughts and emotions which are rational, logical and pitch-perfect, in sharp contrast to the presumptions of Updike and Amis. Railles' responses to terrorism, his wife’s death and the question of revenge are all faithful to reality, with Just's choice of protagonist bringing considerable legitimacy to the novel's themes.

The language is typically beautiful, dense with feeling and import yet still a smooth read. The book moves like a thriller up to the point that the suspects are apprehended, maintaining a pleasant level of tension right up to the climax (or anti-climax) of the interrogation scene. But the anti-climax of that scene is by no means unfulfilling, as the narrative continues on for another seventy pages, showing quite poignantly how Thomas pieces his life back together as well as he can. The ending is not necessarily a happy one, but still hopeful.

All in all, Forgetfulness is a quietly powerful and thoughtful book, one which I highly recommend.

February 10, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Morning Frost


This week's Arctic blast brought to mind this photo, from 1996. This was taken through the living room window of my old apartment in Roscoe Village. My building dated from the 1920s and still had, obviously, its original windows.

February 6, 2007 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Song of the Week: Silkworm

I've long admired Silkworm. Though I haven't bought one of their albums since the mid-90s (the excellent Libertine), I've still been keeping tabs on them over the years -- kind of like an old friend that you once had an intense relationship with for a short time, then drifted apart from, but still check in with from time to time. I've followed the band from a distance since Libertine, through the departure of co-founder Joel R.L. Phelps, then a series of albums on Touch and Go and their move from Seattle to Chicago, and right up to their recent demise after the senslessly tragic death of drummer Michael Dahlquist.

Though the post-Phelps Silkworm was an edgy, electric, tried-and-true (dare I say it?) power trio, on "Let's Kill Saturday Night" they unplug and go acoustic in covering this gem of a tune by the great Robbie Fulks. Every dollar I make is a buck I owe -- now, that's some good lyricking.

February 6, 2007 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Hot Babe Reads Chaucer in Middle English!

Give a listen to my English-major wife reading an excerpt from The Canterbury Tales, in the original Middle English. (She can speak Old English, too. Yes, she's quite the Renaissance Woman.) She unveiled this blog post last night when I got home from work, but seemed a bit embarrassed, saying she didn't think I'd be impressed by her effort, that I'd think it was too geeky.

Au contraire, I replied. (Okay, I didn't use that exact phrase, instead saying something considerably more prosaic, in English. She, after all, is the one who's teaching herself to speak French, online, not me.) I am quite impressed by her linguistic abilities. Now, had she recited Chaucer in Klingon or Elvish, on the other hand, now that would have been too geeky. I actually like the sound of Old English -- I caught hints of both French and Scandinavian dialects in there.

On a tangentially related note, I then directed her to this excellent Mountain Goats song, "Grendel's Mother", which is told from the perspective of Grendel's mother as she speaks to Beowulf. Charming.

February 3, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Brent Books Comes Back From the Dead!

Or back from limbo. As it turns out, Brent Books is indeed still in business, albeit in a transition phase.

Last week, in a post about Chicago's indie bookstores, I commented "Brent Books is no longer in business, having been replaced months ago by a generic discount bookstore." I had based my position on the following observations: 1) Several Brent employees told me last year that the store was going out of business, with one saying that the retail space would be filled by a discount bookstore; 2) One day late last year, I saw that the store (at 309 W. Washington) was completely vacant; and 3) Shortly after that, another bookstore opened up in that space, under the name "Red Dot Discount Books."

Based on this evidence, which I considered to be quite compelling, I thought it was reasonable to assume that Brent Books was indeed defunct. Then a gentleman named Colin objected, saying he works at Brent Books, which is still very much alive. Figuring that most working people know where their paycheck comes from, I gave Colin the benefit of the doubt and decided to stop by the store this afternoon. The big signs still read "Red Dot Discount Books" but now there's a smaller sign that says something like "Brent Books Inventory Clearance - All Books $5." Confusing, yes?

So I went inside and chatted with a clerk who told me that Brent Books had tried the discount model for a while, under the Red Dot name, but it hadn't worked out very well. (Indeed, the store's inventory does look like a discounter's, with multiple copies of mostly mainstream titles.) But now, the clerk said, they were blowing out that inventory and going back to the old Brent Books format, and that the Red Dot signs will soon be replaced.

I welcome their return, and am hoping that my numerous disappointments about the old store will be rectified this time around. (To which I'd add one more to the list: Get a website, already. This is the 21st Century. The Internet's not just a fad.) Come on, Brent Books, the Loop needs a great independent book store. You can do it.

February 2, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Joe Smith, Profiled

In an encouraging sign that not every single print journalist is terrified and/or disdainful of bloggers, Maryland-based The Gazette profiles Joe Smith, publisher of The College Park Observer and The Die, proprietor of Manual Publishing and faithful Friend of Pete Lit.

After printing 1,000 copies of The College Park Observer newspaper last August, Smith said the blog could attract a citywide reader base that proves essential to any print publication.

‘"This is the first college town I’ve ever seen without a local, alternative paper...[The blog] could really drum up support so I can maybe [distribute the newspaper] again."

Joe's blog includes some amusing backstory on how the interview went down. Actually, that photo didn't really turn out that bad.

February 2, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"We Do Not Approve"

We Do Not Approve

She came home from college one day and announced, from out of nowhere, that she was quitting school.

"I just don’t see the point of it any more," she said, her tone striving, unsuccessfully, for defiance.

Obviously we were displeased. Our family had always placed such a high value on education, as a springboard for getting ahead and enriching the intellect, that to quit school and reject learning was all but heresy. We didn’t have to say so to her; she already knew how we felt, and the pained look on her face showed that indeed she knew.

Sensing our disapproval, she continued on, unprompted, as if she could somehow justify her decision.

"I’m going to Hollywood," she said weakly, unconvincingly.

To be? we asked with our silent stares, already knowing the answer.

"To be an actress, of course."

Oh, we thought, show business. It wasn’t bad enough that she’d leave school, but that she’d do so for something so disreputable. For a sordid business that all but required a young woman, no matter how talented, to sleep her way to the top. We knew that the days of the casting couch had never really gone away.

"I’m an adult, so you really can’t stop me," she insisted, somewhat more firmly.

No, our look and our turning away told her, we can’t, but you can’t stop us either.

Go to Hollywood. Go, and no longer be part of our family. Go. Just don’t think you’ll ever get to come back.


(Note: Most of this piece was written at Northwestern's writers' conference last summer, in a flash fiction class taught by Deb Olin Unferth, who instructed us to write a story in third person plural. It's certainly a challenging perspective to write from, but I think third personal plural turned out to be a pretty effective way of conveying the unified opposition of the family to this young girl wanting to follow her dreams.)

February 2, 2007 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)