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Poor Little Rich Criminal

I haven't been following the Conrad Black trial very closely (as long as he gets strung up by his thumbs, like he deserves, that's all I need to know), but I was struck by Naomi Klein's excellent column in The Nation which relates the trial's jury selection proceedings. Klein passes along a chorus of discontent from potential jurors (all common folk, to Black's considerable chagrin) about this latest example of corporate executive malfeasance. This paragraph is particularly telling:

Regardless of what else happens in the Black saga, the jury-selection process has already provided an extraordinary window onto the way regular Americans, randomly selected, view their elites--not as heroes but as thieves. As far as Black is concerned, this is all terribly unfair--he is being "thrown to the mobs" because of rage at the system and, unlike American billionaires, he doesn't "dress in corduroy trousers" or donate his fortune to AIDS charities. Black's lawyers even argued (unsuccessfully) that their client could not get a fair trial because the average Chicagoan "does not reside in more than one residence, employ servants or a chauffeur, enjoy lavish furniture, or host expensive parties."

Sorry, Lord Black, but I doubt you'll ever truly find a jury of your peers because there are, mercifully, very few people like you. And what few of you there are either buy or finagle their way out of jury duty, lest they sully themselves by associating with the unwashed, corduroy-wearing hordes.

I guess you'll just have to settle for being judged by twelve everyday people -- the kind of people you've built your fortune on the backs of, either as the rank-and-file of your companies or the readers of your crappy papers.

March 30, 2007 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Shorpy: My Latest Photographic Obsession


That wonderful photo above is of the Waffle Shop (522 10th Street NW, Washington D.C.), circa 1950 by Theodor Horydczak. It came from Shorpy, a terrific photo blog I recently discovered, which displays a plethora of vintage photos from both renowned and lesser-known photographers. (However, the blog's tagline, "The 100-Year-Old Photo Blog", is a stretch, as many of the photos are from the 1940s and 50s. But I'm not complaining -- I love images from those decades as well.) I strongly encourage you to check it out. It's quite addictive.

March 29, 2007 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (2)

"The phrase and the day and the scene harmonised in a chord."

What's more important -- the real world, or the words used to describe it? From A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce:

He drew forth a phrase from his treasure and spoke it softly to himself:

--A day of dappled seaborne clouds.

The phrase and the days and the scene harmonised in a chord. Was it their colours? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the greyfringed fleece of clouds. No, it was not their colours: it was the poise and balance of the period itself. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour? Or was it that, being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of a language manycoloured and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotion mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose?

I suppose a well-turned phrase -- lucid supple periodic prose -- can heighten our appreciation of the marvels of nature and humanity, but to my mind descriptive words are a poor substitute for the actual subject itself.

March 29, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"Everybody's got an apprenticeship period, and nobody can tell you how long it's going to last. For me, it was seven years. For Harry Crews, it was ten years. For Faulkner, it was about five years. It's different lengths for different people, and if you quit, nobody's ever going to hear from you. So, you have to write all this stuff and throw it away and fail and fail and fail and keep going, until you finally suceed."
-- Larry Brown, from Conversations with Larry Brown

I'm about four years into my own apprenticeship, and this is a nice reminder to keep at it...incidentally, I'm a very tardy arrival to Larry Brown, of whom I've heard nothing but raves for the past few months. I suspect that my next few years will be devoted to rectifying my oversight.

(Via Beatrice.)

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

Song of the Week: Sally Timms

Although I own very little of her music, Sally Timms just might be my favorite female vocalist. Her voice is simple yet supple, offering a pure and clean counterpoint to the rougher singing of her Mekons bandmates Jon Langford and Tom Greenhalgh. Her vocals on that band's great The Mekons Rock 'n' Roll are quite outstanding -- "Learning to Live on Your Own", "Club Mekon", "I Am Crazy" and "When Darkness Falls" (the latter a duet with Greenhalgh). "Millionaire" (from I (Heart) Mekons) is quite good as well.

But as much as I love her work with the Mekons, my song of choice for her is "Half Past France", from her 1994 solo debut To the Land of Milk and Honey. Her vocals on this song are as lovely as always, and the stately instrumentation is particularly appropriate. Listen, and be entranced.

March 28, 2007 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Mirabell Reviewed by Chicagoist

Chicagoist has seen fit to give a nice restaurant review to one of my old favorites, Mirabell, which for my money has always been the best German joint in the city. The place is pretty obscure due to its off-the-beaten path locale (neither downtown nor on the traditional German strip of Lincoln Avenue) but is defintely a hidden treasure. Years ago I tried to stop there for dinner on a Sunday afternoon with my parents, only to find a hand-written sign on the door, which I roughly translated (with my four years of high school German) as "We are closed. Sunday is a day of rest." Checking the website, I see that admirable policy remains in place.

March 26, 2007 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

New Featherproof Stories

Featherproof Books' always enjoyable Light Reading series has two sharp new stories: Rana Kelly's deeply unsettling "Witch of the Bayou" and Fred Sasaki's ethereal "And If I Kiss You in the Garden in the Moonlight Will You Pardon Me?", with the latter incorporating a nice homage to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. As always, the stories are in .pdf format which can be printed out and assembled into tidy little booklets.

March 26, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Spring Has Sprung


"...like a glimpse of paradise across a dull and bitter land..."

March 25, 2007 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, "Retired Ballerinas, Central Park West"

I don't read much poetry, but I couldn't help being struck by the sharp imagery in this poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who is celebrating his 88th birthday today.

Retired Ballerinas, Central Park West
by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Retired ballerinas on winter afternoons
      walking their dogs
in Central Park West
(or their cats on leashes—
The cats themselves old highwire artists)
The ballerinas
      leap and pirouette
      through Columbus Circle
      while winos on park benches
      (laid back like drunken Goudonovs)
      hear the taxis trumpet together
      like horsemen of the apocalypse
      in the dusk of the gods
It is the final witching hour
      when swains are full of swan songs
      And all return through the dark dusk
      to their bright cells
      in glass highrises
      or sit down to oval cigarettes and cakes
      in the Russian Tea Room
      or climb four flight to back rooms
      in Westside brownstones
      where faded playbill photos
      fall peeling from their frames
      like last year's autumn leaves

(Via Minnesota Public Radio.)

March 24, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

21 More 33 1/3's

The next batch of titles from Continuum's wonderful 33 1/3 series (to be published in 2008-09) has been announced:

Funkadelic: Maggot Brain - by Matt Rogers
Slayer: Reign in Blood - DX Ferris
Tori Amos: Boys for Pele - Elizabeth Merrick
Fleetwood Mac: Tusk - Rob Trucks
Nas: Illmatic - Matthew Gasteier
The Pogues: Rum, Sodomy & the Lash - Jeffery Roesgen
Wire: Pink Flag - Wilson Neate
Big Star: Radio City - Bruce Eaton
Pavement: Wowee Zowee - Bryan Charles
Madness: One Step Beyond - Terry Edwards
Israel Kamakawiwo'ole: Facing Future - Dan Kois
Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation of Millions... - Christopher R. Weingarten
Van Dyke Parks: Song Cycle - Richard Henderson
Weezer: Pinkerton - Jessica Suarez
Black Sabbath: Master of Reality - John Darnielle
Wu-Tang Clan: Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) - S.H. Fernando, Jr.
Afghan Whigs: Gentlemen - Bob Gendron
Flying Burrito Brothers: Gilded Palace of Sin - Bob Proehl
Elliott Smith: XO - Matthew LeMay
Outkast: Aquemini - Nick Weidenfeld and Michael Schmelling
The Flaming Lips: Zaireeka - Mark Richardson

I'm really looking forward to the Pogues, Madness, Elliott Smith, Big Star and Pavement (maybe: I would have greatly preferred Slanted & Enchanted). And though I have no interest whatsoever in Black Sabbath, I still might pick that one up for the very rare treat of reading the book-length musings of the great John Darnielle (of Mountain Goats renown).

Though I toyed with the idea of re-submitting last year's book proposal for Morphine's The Night, I decided against it. Three unfinished novels are more than enough, thank you.

March 22, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Auslander: It Doesn't Matter!

Shalom Auslander finds himself in that most terrifying of author locales: Between Books.

It's as if a literary Goldilocks has found her way into my head: this idea's too short, this one's too long, this one's too serious, this one's too funny. Or too shallow, or too self-important, or too Jewish, or too obvious, or too boring, or too desperate, or too clever, or too ordinary, or too traditional, or too experimental. Too everything and not enough everything else. I picture the bears coming home and tearing her little head off.

Too Palahniuk, says Goldilocks.

March 22, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Song of the Week: The Decemberists

Perhaps it's my mild disappointment with the latest Shins album, Wincing the Night Away (a solid effort, though far short of the pure pop brilliance of Chutes Too Narrow), but I've recently found myself driven into the waiting arms of the Decemberists. Yes, I've heard all the critical raves for their latest, The Crane Wife, but it's their previous album, Picaresque, which bears the song that's playing in my head right now, on endless repeat: "The Engine Driver". Soaring melody, majestic pace, delicate instrumentation, subtle female backing vocals behind Colin Meloy's slightly-nerdy lead and, of course, the lyrics for which Meloy gets endless praise: yeah, it's all there, and all good.

I am a writer, writer of fictions
I am the heart that you call home
And I've written pages upon pages
Trying to rid you from my bones

Were it not for the ridding-from-bones part, this might have become my theme song.

March 21, 2007 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Writers Read

Writers Read has graciously run my short reviews of three novels I've read recently: Bayo Ojikutu's Free Burning, Ward Just's Forgetfulness, and Laila Lalami's Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits.

My thanks go to Marshal Zeringue (proprietor of the burgeoning Campaign for the American Reader empire) for his continued support.

March 20, 2007 in Books, Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

Ben Katchor Coming to Chicago!

I'm a huge fan of Ben Katchor, who is by far my favorite (take your pick) cartoonist/graphic artist/graphic novelist. He's making a rare Chicago appearance next month at the Abbey Pub, in conjunction with Nextbook:

Ben Katchor
April 18 2007, 7:00 PM
The Abbey Pub

In his "picture stories," Ben Katchor turns the American city into a wonderland of tin ceilings, illuminated storefronts, and unusual enterprises: the Senseless Elaboration Parlor, the Sublime Vision Center, the Mortal Coil Mattress Store. The first cartoonist to win a MacArthur "genius grant," Katchor is the author of The Jew of New York, Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, and The Cardboard Valise. He has also collaborated on several works of musical theater, including The Carbon Copy Building, The Rosenbach Company, and The Slugbearers of Kayrol Island. His comic strips have appeared in The New Yorker, The Forward, Metropolis, and other newspapers and magazines. In his public appearances, Katchor elevates the slide show to a form of performance art.

I'm on Katchor's mailing list, and most of his appearances seem to be in NYC or Massachusetts, which makes this Chicago event particularly tempting. Even to a suburban dad like myself.

March 20, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Corned Beef and Soda Bread and Stout, Oh My!

The wife has blogged about our St. Patrick's Day feast. (We're stay-at-home types. No braving Amateur Night for us.) Mmmm, that was some goooood eating.

March 19, 2007 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tribune Book Highlights

Today's Tribune has a surprisingly large number of noteworthy literary items:

Lynna Williams reviews A Miracle of Catfish, the final novel from the late Larry Brown. The novel remained unfinished at the time of Brown's death in 2004, and his longtime editor and friend Shannon Ravenel whittled down 700+ pages of manuscript "to streamline the narrative and lighten some sections" into a final publication length of 455 pages. The reviewer states:

...each cut is marked by ellipses, so readers can track where additional material once was.

No other editorial changes were made, (Ravenel) says, and there was certainly no effort at 'ending' the novel. Instead, the last writing we see from Brown is a half-page of notes for those final, unwritten chapters.

Reading "A Miracle of Catfish," it's impossible not to wonder how those notes would have been transformed into chapters -- and how those chapters would have truly ended the novel.

This is certainly an interesting editorial approach to completing an unfinished novel. To me, it's highly preferable to an editor presuming to know a late author's exact intentions for how the finished novel should be. (Which, of course, assumes that the author himself had a clear idea of such.) I was quite disappointed with the posthumous editing of Ralph Ellision's epic lifework, Juneteenth, which ended up as a disjointed, convoluted mess. I like the fact that Ravenel implicitly admits that she's not much more enlightened regarding Brown's intentions than anybody else, and largely leaves interpretation in the hands of the reader.

Louis Masur doesn't think much of John Evangelist Walsh's The Night Casey Was Born: The True Story Behind the Great American Ballad "Casey at the Bat". (Guess you'll just have to settle for "Mighty Casey".)

"New in Paperback" has three intriguing titles: Lance Olsen's Anxious Pleasures: A Novel After Kafka (an alternate take on "The Metamorphosis" from the perspective of the rest of the Samsa family), James Green's Death in the Haymarket (on my radar screen for quite some time), and Vasily Grossman's A Writer at War (check out Nextbook's feature on the book).

The Arts section even had two literary pieces. First, a gorgeous, full-page, full-color article on Continuum's great 33 1/3 series on classic rock and soul albums, including a great old photo of James Brown. (A quibble: they failed to cite my favorite 33 1/3 title, Colin Meloy's lovely memoir treatment of the Replacements' Let It Be.) Second, as part of feature in which all of the paper's arts writers were asked to assess one artist whose career started out inconspicuously (from an artistic, if not commercial, standpoint) but went on to have a major turning point, Julia Keller cites Stephen King's short story collection Everything's Eventual as being the point at which:

His work acquired an emotional richness and psychological acuity that it heretofore lacked. Most impressively, King was able to shift to this higher gear without losing the storytelling brio that made him famous in the first place: the colloquialisms, the regular-guy narrators, the vivid descriptive details, the ability to scare the bejabbers out of you.

Forgive me if I reserve judgment on Keller's raving claims. Though I'll try to track down that book and check out the particular story she cites, for now I'll keep doubting that the writer of earlier books about a possessed and homicial automobile and an ax-wielding nurse/bookworm is capable of emotional depth and delicate nuance.

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

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

St. Baldrick's -- Thank You!!!


Once again, my heartfelt thanks go out to everyone who donated to St. Baldrick's on my behalf. Including cash and checks, I was able to raise $1,246 in donations this year, just topping my $1,200 goal. The fight against childhood cancer is a never-ending battle, and I'm glad to be able to help the cause in any way that I can. I truly appreciate your continued support.

That photo above is my "after" shot which, believe me, despite its general gruesomeness actually looks much better than me with hair. I always try to have a decent head of hair going by the time St. Baldrick's rolls around, to give the barber something moderately worth cutting off. As a result, I hadn't cut my hair since October, and it was looking pretty sloppy on Friday morning. I think my wife Julie is quite relieved that it's finally all cut off.

Thanks again, everybody!

March 18, 2007 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

Writerly Persistence

M.J. Rose's Backstory blog relates the truly inspiring story of the creation of Jack Getze's debut novel, Big Numbers. Nearly twenty years elapsed between the first finished version of the novel and its ultimate publication.

In two weeks I knew I was onto something special. I couldn’t stop writing. I was making myself laugh in the wee small hours of darkness. I couldn’t wait to show the opening to my agent. When she read the first 30 pages of the new Big Numbers, with its down-and-out protagonist trying to provide for his estranged children, my agent said, “This is funny. This is you. This is what I’ve been waiting for.”

Note to self: Hang onto all those unfinished manuscripts. There might be gold hidden in there somewhere.

March 15, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Song of the Week: The Drovers

As I've mentioned here on several occasions, the Drovers were Chicago's version of the Pogues, with the biggest difference being that the Pogues came of age during the punk 1970s while the Drovers came of age during the jangle pop 1980s. Or, to put it more specifically, the Pogues cut their teeth on the Sex Pistols while the Drovers did so on R.E.M. Though neither Irish band sounds anything like either of those predecessors, the Drovers drew heavily from the spirit of R.E.M., as the Pogues had with the Pistols, with thoroughly satisfying results.

The Drovers were Chicago club mainstays during the late 80s and early 90s, although, I regret to say, I never saw them perform live. I did, however, once see their offshoot band Wilding (floutist/vocalist Kathleen Keane, fiddler Sean Cleland and drummer Jackie Moran, all of whom left when the band moved from its traditional roots to more of a psychedelic sound) give a lovely performance during a particularly blurry evening at The Hidden Shamrock. (The only time I've ever been thrown out of a bar. Don't ask.) Before those three mainstays departed, the band released one excellent album, World of Monsters, which included the very first Drovers song I ever heard, "Love Won't Be". The song has everything that made the band great in those early days -- the propulsive rythyms, the male/female vocal harmonies, the jaunty fiddle and flute -- and serves as a great introduction to the band.

World of Monsters is long out of print, but the band has generously made the entire album available on its website as MP3s. Do check it out.

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

Ibsen's Ghosts

"I almost think we're all of us Ghosts. ... It's not only what we have inherited from our father and mother that walks in us. It's all sorts of dead ideas, and lifeless old beliefs, and so forth. They have no vitality, but they cling to us all the same, and we can't get rid of them. Whenever I take up a newspaper, I seem to see Ghosts gliding between the lines. There must be Ghosts all the country over, as thick as the sand of the sea. And then we are, one and all, so pitifully afraid of the light."
-- Henrik Ibsen, from Ghosts, which opened in London on March 13, 1891.

March 13, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Shane MacGowan

In this most Irish of weeks, it's quite nice to see the otherwise staid NYT going slumming to profile the wonderfully incorrigable and unrepentant old boozehound himself, Shane MacGowan.

It might be said that Mr. MacGowan speaks in a Joycean stream of consciousness, but a conversation with him is closer to a pinwheeling ramble with a very well-seasoned regular at the corner pub. He speaks in a flurry of digressions, uttered in a semi-slurred Irish-London accent that is tough to decipher at times.

But, oh my, I haven't seen a picture of him in a while. That photo makes him look like Robert Smith of The Cure. (Not a good thing, to these eyes.) Bejappers!

In other recent Pogues news, Dogmatika posts an intriguing review of Pogue Mahone: Kiss My Arse, the Story of The Pogues, by Carol Clerk.

March 13, 2007 in Music | Permalink | Comments (1)

St. Baldrick's - One More Plea!

As I announced earlier, this Friday I'm having my head shaved to support St. Baldrick's Foundation and CureSearch in the fight against childhood cancer. My donations currently total $1,191 -- a mere $9 shy of my $1,200 fundraising goal for this year. (The total listed on my St. Baldrick's page doesn't include cash donations.) I need just one more donation to put me over the top.

If you've already donated on my behalf, thank you once again. And if you haven't donated but might be leaning toward doing so, there's still plenty of time. You can donate online here. (If you want to donate with check or cash instead, just let me know.) I'll even sweeten the pot a bit. The next person to donate and put me over the $1,200 goal will not only gain my eternal gratitude, but also their choice of one of the following books:

Roddy Doyle - A Star Called Henry
Jonathan Raban - Bad Land: An American Romance
Alan Jacobs - The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis
Asne Seierstad - A Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal
Dave Eggers - You Shall Know Our Velocity!

The book will be free, and I'll even cover the shipping charges. If you're the winning donor, I'll follow up for your mailing address. Thanks, everyone!

March 12, 2007 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (1)

A Most Pleasant Surprise

Every night on my way home from work, I drive down Cass Street in Joliet and pass a very nondescript building at the corner of Cass and Chicago. It's a small, two-story commercial building covered in white vinyl siding. (And not even decent vinyl siding, but the cheapest grade available.) The building has clearly seen better days, and can't seem to keep any long-term tenants. The last tenant I'm aware of was the Will County Democrats, who leased the first floor for a few months before last fall's elections. (Will County is pretty conservative -- about 30% of the population, quite incredulously, preferred the wingnut Alan Keyes over Barack Obama in the last U.S. Senate election -- so the Democratic party here obviously operates on the leanest of shoestrings, as evidenced by their sorry digs in this old building.)

Anyway, I never gave this building much thought until last Friday, when I drove past and was pleasantly surprised to see the building undergoing a facelift. The ugly vinyl siding has been stripped away, revealing a once-lovely, red-brick Victorian building with tall arched windows on the second floor (click image for full-sized photo):


Apparently the building was once a jewelry store, as evidenced by the "Hamilton Watches" sign at the corner and the two insistent claims (one facing each street) that "Your Credit Is Good Here":


Two-by-fours were nailed directly (and rather crudely) into the brick surface to affix the vinyl siding. I'm assuming the nail holes in the bricks can be repaired, but I'm not quite as optimistic about the arches above the second floor windows. A few of the arches were removed completely, and the others either have keystones which are damaged (first photo below) or removed completely (second photo below) to accomodate the two-by-fours.



I'm hoping the missing arches and keystones are stowed away in the cellar. My initial research on this building (whose official address is 5 W. Cass St.) is scanty -- so far I've only learned that it was built between 1886 and 1891, per an old HABS/HAER survey. I'll keep digging to see what I can find, and will post more photos later on as the renovations proceed.

It's nice to see classic old buildings like this one getting a new lease on life. This is the second recent instance of a downtown Joliet building being shorn of its hideous 1960s facade to reveal hints of its past glories beneath. Let's hope this is the start of a trend. There are several more buildings around downtown that deserve similar treatment.

March 12, 2007 in Joliet, Photography | Permalink | Comments (1)

One Sentence Movie Reviews: The Ice Harvest (2005)


The Ice Harvest (2005): "Indeed, there is no perfect crime."

Notes: John Cusack agains pulls off an engaging noir, the second "comic noir" of his I'm aware of (after Gross Pointe Blank) and the third noir overall (the third is The Grifters, which I don't remember as being comic). He does the regular-guy-in-over-his-head-in-scam bit quite well, but Billy Bob Thornton's performance is only decent, Randy Quaid isn't nearly menacing enough, and Connie Nielsen's attempt at femme fatale allure is laughably wooden. Still, an enjoyable film overall, mostly due to Cusack's considerable talents.

(Thanks to Kevin Smokler for the "one sentence movie review" concept.)

March 7, 2007 in Film | Permalink | Comments (0)

Gimme Indie Rock

"Book Notes" is a regular feature at Largehearted Boy in which authors share the songs which either inspired their work, or served as a soundtrack to its creation. The feature is always an enjoyable read (it's nice to know other writers are as obsessed with music as I am) but yesterday's entry by John Sellers, author of Perfect from Now On: How Indie Rock Saved My Life, really grabbed me.

The fact that the book is an "indie rock memoir" is already enough of a grabber, but when he cites his favorite bands -- Pavement, Archers of Loaf, Guided by Voices, Built to Spill (from whom he borrowed the book's title), Mission of Burma, Silkworm -- it's almost as if he's standing in front of my CD collection, reading names off of the spines. On top of that, he too is unsettled about "that ironic 'z'" in the title of Pavement's otherwise laudatory "Gold Soundz", so much so that he decided against naming the book after that song. (Smart move: Perfect From Now On is a much better title.)

Dude after my own heart. I don't read many memoirs, but I may have to grab this one.

March 7, 2007 in Books, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Song of the Week: Billy Bragg

During the past six months I've enthusiastically rediscovered the music of Billy Bragg, generally through the Yep Roc reissues of his entire catalog but more specifically through the wonders of iTunes. To me, Bragg is at his best solo, with just him and his electric guitar, banging out fiery, passionate anthems which boost socialism and decry conservative capitalist indifference to the plight of everyday people and their struggles. But during the 1990s, Bragg drifted away from his earlier sound, utilizing a full band while (to my ears) losing much of his passion in the process.

Which makes this newer song from 2002, "Take Down the Union Jack", such a pleasant surprise. Once again it's just Bragg and his guitar, this time delivering an elegy to Britain and its past glories. The lyrics below might appear clunky in print, but when delivered by Bragg's inimitable voice, somehow it all works.

Take Down The Union Jack

Take down the Union Jack, it clashes with the sunset
And put it in the attic with the emperors old clothes
When did it fall apart? Sometime in the 80s
When the Great and the Good gave way to the greedy and the mean
Britain isn’t cool you know, its really not that great
It's not a proper country, it doesn’t even have a patron saint
It's just an economic union that’s passed its sell-by date

Take down the Union Jack, it clashes with the sunset
And ask our Scottish neighbours if independence looks any good
‘Cos they just might understand how to take an abstract notion
Of personal identity and turn it into nationhood
Is this the 19th century that I’m watching on tv?
The dear old Queen of England handing out those MBEs
Member of the British Empire - that doesn’t sound too good to me

Gilbert and George are taking the piss aren’t they?
Gilbert and George are taking the piss.
What could be more British than here’s a picture of my bum?
Gilbert and George are taking the piss

Take down the Union Jack, it clashes with the sunset
And pile all those history books, but don’t throw them away
They just might have some clues about what it really means
To be an Anglo hyphen Saxon in England.co.uk

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

The FBI Reading List

Interesting item by Paul Bedard in U.S. News and World Report:

He's no Oprah. But FBI Director and avid reader Robert Mueller has started a new bureau reading list to help his G-men broaden their horizons. The list has more than 60 books about the FBI's history, terrorism, intelligence, and professional development. "He just thought," says an insider, "that we must have more formalized intellectual stimulation." Some gems: Public Enemies, by Bryan Burrough, about the birth of the FBI; The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright's book about al Qaeda's road to 9/11; China, Inc. by Ted Fishman; and Louis Gerstner's Who Says Elephants Can't Dance? about IBM's historic turnaround. We also hear that Mueller's a big fan of former GE bigwig Jack Welch. So naturally, Welch's Winning also gets top billing.

Broaden their horizons? Only if the other 55+ books on the list offer some semblance of diversity.

(Via The Progress Report.)

March 5, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"I never truckled; I never took off the hat to Fashion and held it out for pennies. By God, I told them the truth."
-- Frank Norris

March 5, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Reading Is Fun! But Other Things Are Funner!

I'm guessing the police are withholding the exact location ("a less-visited area") where the incident occurred, out of respect for the authors whose unread books are shelved there.

Teen sex in suburban library spurs charges
Tribune staff report
Published March 1, 2007, 9:06 PM CST

Police credited a staff member for spotting two teenagers having sex in the Woodstock Public Library, authorities said Thursday.

Raul A. Tapia, 19, of the 700 block of Oak Street, Woodstock, was charged Monday with criminal sexual abuse for having consensual sex with a 16-year-old girl, a crime punishable by up to a year in jail, police said.

"The vigilance of the [library] staff led to the arrest," Woodstock Police Sgt. Richard Johns said.

Authorities wouldn't say where the alleged incident occurred, other than that it wasn't in a restroom.

"It was a less-visited area," said Martha Hansen, network administrator for the library. "I can't give any details but it was an extremely isolated incident, and we're confident it won't happen again."

Tapia posted $100 bail.

I only wish this story had a prostitution aspect to it, so I could work in a joke about Sgt. Dick Johns.

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

Art Shay Exhibition

The Chicago History Museum (f/k/a the Chicago Historical Society) has an upcoming exhibition of the photographs of the great Art Shay, opening March 31.

The Essential Art Shay: Selected Photographs
Saturday, March 31

A retrospective of the nearly 60-year-career of Chicago photojournalist Art Shay will open at the Museum on March 31 in conjunction with the artist's 85th birthday. The exhibition of 140 photographs highlights the broad and varied career of this important Chicago photographer. Each photograph is described in the artist's own words providing visitors with insight into Shay's work and his relationships with his subjects. The exhibition includes Shay's freelance magazine work as well as his more personal photographs of Chicago and those of his friend and favorite subject author Nelson Algren. Celebrities showcased in the show include Marlon Brando, Judy Garland, Liberace, Muhammad Ali, John F. Kennedy, Ernest Hemingway, and Hugh Hefner. The Essential Art Shay: Selected Photographs will be on display from March 31 through September 23, 2007.

That photo at the left of the announcement is one of my favorites, of Nelson Algren leafing through his manuscript of Chicago: City on the Make in his old Wabansia Avenue apartment. I like the photo so much, in fact, that I have it framed and sitting on my writing desk at home, for writerly inspiration.

March 2, 2007 in Books, Photography | Permalink | Comments (1)

Excerpt from Free Burning

The following is a rather striking passage from Bayo Ojikutu's Free Burning. The protagonist Tommie Simms has recently been busted for drug possession, and the slick attorney hired by his wife is admonishing him not to defer to the police, but should instead built up indignation against them to bolster a claim of torture or coercion in order to beat the rap. Even though Tommie realizes that the attorney, Tory Moore, took on his case only to get in Tommie's wife's pants, he still gazes upon the attorney with a mixture of awe and gratitude.

"You remember every word these police spoke to you, take your time going over the nature of those conversations. Each curse and every lying promise, every hateful bit of hypocrisy. You don't forgive them for anything. Bubbling gratitude and easy mercy are the African American man's great weaknesses, you know. Remember over these next few days, so we can clear you of this nonsense."

Lies? Yes, this lawyer is hitting it right on with his speechifying -- I see why Tarsha worships him once or twice a month -- acorn head is tearing the mask off their lies. Even if Tory only reveals truth to me so that my wife will thank him by twirling about on his face, he's breaking it down for a brother. Not for him, I would have gone away peacefully, bowed down in gracious deference if that script had damned me for life for dealing weed on 79th Street.

"Good police you is," I would have slobbered. Maybe I would've sung a down home chitlin song for Officer Wee Man and his birds and the law, and the judge who'd send me away, too. Because I need to see the light creeping from Tory Moore's back and forget the shift of his eyes to remember that it doesn't matter that this acorn has thoughts only of the gap hidden by my wife's T.J. Maxx lace or that he's been there and done that (as the Soft Steppin pimps say), up high in the executive bathroom's last stall. His lust for her only means that me and Tory Moore and down for the same cause.

Eyes shifting with this gray light's blink, my lawyer empowers a fool with brilliant, churchy words, and he at least tells me the real deal here in the interrogation room. And he's to be believed, for only a true savior from some place just inside Four Corners appreciates beauty like her trapped beauty.

Tommie grew up fatherless, raised only by his hustling mother and aunt, and the only significant father figures in his life have been the occasional "saviors" who have come to his rescue, prompted only by lust for the women in his life. In considering the attorney, Tommie sees a parallel to his aunt's boyfriend who once saved him from an apartment fire and an insurance adjuster who fixed his mother's case after the fire. And, poignantly, he forsees the day that he will once again need to be saved, with the price to be borne by Dawn, his infant daughter and the only good thing in his desperate life:

No different from the leather trench-coated sugar daddy and even that saving insurance adjuster, and completely opposite to our potbellied Merrill Avenue landlord, this hero has come to save my life, all for the price of taking love from me: Auntie De, mamma, Tarsha. Dawn too -- yes, one day some hustler will slither near to save me for the price of my child's soul.

Powerful, compelling writing.

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

How Do You Get Fired From Your Teaching Job?

When I first saw this story about a teacher being suspended for sending an eighth-grade student home with a poem which the child's parent considered sexually explicit, my first thought was that it was just an overreaction by an uptight and overly protective parent. My conclusion was based primarily on the fact that the poem was not specifically identified at first.

Then, the identity of the offending poem was revealed: "How Do You Make Love To A Black Woman?".

After reading the poem, my first thought was, "Wow. That was really inappropriate for an eighth-grade teacher to do." My second thought was, "Wow. The school district did absolutely the right thing." My third thought was, "Wow. That's really bad poetry."

(Via Bookslut.)

March 1, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Ralph Ellison

The Writer's Almanac from Minnesota Public Radio notes that today is the birthday of an unusually large number of notable poets (Lowell, Wilbur, Nemerov, Hass) but it's this item that really grabbed my attention:

It's the birthday of a man who had a hard time following up on his first book, Ralph Ellison, born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (1914). He originally wanted to be a classical composer, but when he met the great African-American writers Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, they encouraged him to write stories and book reviews for New York magazines. Ellison decided to quit studying music and devote his life to writing.

One day, Ellison was sitting in a barn on his friend's farm in Vermont, staring at a typewriter, when he typed the sentence, "I am an invisible man." He didn't know where it came from, but he wanted to pursue the idea, to find out what kind of a person would think of himself as invisible. The sentence turned into his first novel, Invisible Man, published in 1952.

From that one simple sentence came one of the greatest works of American literature. Inspiring, truly inspiring.

The arrival of the Ellison item is an interesting coincidence, as I'm currently reading Bayo Ojikutu's Free Burning which reminds me quite a bit of Invisible Man, from the urban milieu to the effortlessly feverish prose to the increasingly desperate plight of the protagonist. A very strong effort so far.

March 1, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)