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Here's to you, Mr. Weisner

No Weekend Multimedia this week, as we pause to honor the life of Kenneth Weisner, founder of Victory Auto Wreckers and the man behind that legendary TV commercial. Chicagoans, of course you know which one I'm talking about.

As Kenneth Weisner lay in the hospital Thursday, his wife and son spoke with the nurses, who couldn't help but notice their matching Victory Auto Wreckers sweat shirts.

One of the nurses finally asked about them, and the family told them: Mr. Weisner was the owner of Victory, the wrecking company best known for its iconic commercial that has run for more than 20 years.

"And all of them started reciting the commercial, and we heard the whole thing, right there," said his son Kyle. "My dad loved stuff like that; he always got a kick out of it."

From auto salvage to alpaca ranching. Quite the entrepreneur.

September 30, 2007 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

D'Arcy Mansion Saved!


Need more parking for your banquet hall, but there's a 100+ year old, 7,700 square foot, 240-ton mansion sitting on the lot you own next door? No problem - just move that hulking structure to another lot across the street. Kudos to owner Jeff Bussean (whose company catered our wedding reception, by the way) for dropping some very serious cash to save this classic house, when demolition would have been so much cheaper.

September 26, 2007 in Joliet | Permalink | Comments (0)

Edmund White, Hotel du Dream

I rarely link to reviews here, but I'm intrigued by this mention of the latest novel by Edmund White, Hotel du Dream, a fictional take on Stephen Crane and a book he was rumored to have written. Says Morris Dickstein in Bookforum:

Hotel de Dream is really two novels cleverly entwined, the story of Crane's last days in England and Germany and the story he dictates to Cora, "The Painted Boy," set in a gay pocket of the New York demimonde that had already figured in his novels, tales, and journalistic sketches. Shaken by a final meeting with the boy himself, Crane decides improbably to write something "for one man only and that man is myself," knowing it can't be published.

My friend Kirby Gann recommended White's novel Fanny: A Fiction to me a few years ago, but I have yet to read it or any of White's other writings. Perhaps this new book will be my initiation to his work.

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

Steven J. McDermott, Winter of Different Directions

(Note: You might recall that I recently finished my Summer of Classics, checking back in with old standbys that I hadn't read in a long while or had never read in the first place. I'm going to keep the themed reading period concept going for a while longer, which brings me to Short Story September. I'm reading several story collections this month, with the first being Steven J. McDermott's debut collection Winter of Different Directions. Disclaimer: Steve's an online friend of mine, and also published my first story, "Ectoplasm", at his literary journal Storyglossia. But despite our relationship I held his book to the same standard I observe for all book reviews on my blog: I have to genuinely like it, and have some intelligent commentary to contribute.)

Steve McDermott's tough and compelling stories in Winter of Different Directions are populated by characters who all seem, to varying degrees, lost and forlorn - wayward, disconnected souls, each of whom is struggling to gain some semblance of a normal life.

McDermott's stories, and by extension his characters, are at their most comfortable in the great outdoors - on the ocean, in the woods, even on the more civilized climes of golf courses or city parks. In contrast, his workplace stories, being interior and insulated, aren't nearly as well developed, their characters considerably paler and a few of the narratives coming across as mere rants against the excesses of the dot-com era.

But in his outdoor stories, McDermott truly shines. By far my favorite story in the collection is "Oxygen", a sad and elegiac ode to the narrator's grandfather, a retired commercial fisherman whose decades of smoking and other non-clean living have first left him a victim of throat cancer, housebound and unable to sail, and later ultimately takes his life. The narrator, struggling to find meaning in his own empty life, reconnects with his grandfather through one particular smell - and a peculiar smell, too, one which few people would draw any enjoyment from. (Note: the smell is not bodily.) This smell arises again at the touching conclusion of the story, at sea, as the grandson pays his final respects to his grandfather's memory.

In another striking story, the wonderfully titled "Single Malts of the Olympic Peninsula", a not-so-recovering alcoholic also seeks solace and comfort in nature, to such an extreme that he leaves his safe AA meeting to drive headlong into a fierce storm rolling in off the Pacific, reflecting on his troubled life the entire way. His Scotch-fueled journey predictably ends with him driving off the road into dense undergrowth, through which he staggers, only possibly toward safety, all the while noting the surrounding vegetation by their original Latin names. His ex-girlfriend the botanist had once insisted that he do so, refraining from using any of the common names. The fact that he's calling plants by name - and their Latin names, no less - when he should be focused on survival shows how far he is from recovering from that failed relationship and, by extension, how far he is from restoring his failed life.

"Gas Money" is perhaps the saddest story of all, one which movingly relates the plight of a homeless and down-on-his-luck landscaper, who lives in his truck, uses a Porta Potty, a stream and YMCA showers for bathroom facilities, subsists on apples stolen from trees in a city park and types up job proposals on a manual typewriter at a picnic table, all as he strives for that one maintenance contract that will save him and put his life back on track. His is a wretched existence, but the author's empathy has the reader pulling for the narrator all the way as he bravely faces his highly insurmountable odds.

McDermott's best stories are tightly wound and concise, ending not a moment later than they should. For the most part, the author says what he has to say, and then moves on. This leaves the stories open-ended, as I generally prefer my fiction - no tidy conclusions, no grand but false summations. Sometimes, however, McDermott ends his stories a bit too abruptly - occasionally I found myself wanting one or two more hints of where the protagonist's life may lead after the story ends. But that concern is only minor; overall, McDermott's debut is a fine collection of stories and characters whose lives I very much enjoyed sharing, if only for a few moments.

September 25, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

55 Words


September 25, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Dybek, Genius

Anyone who has read Stuart Dybek's wonderful short stories would have to agree with him being honored with a MacArthur Fellowship, a/k/a the "Genius Grant."

"For me, it couldn't have been more fortuitous, more serendipitous," Dybek said. "For the last 10 years, I've been working on three different manuscripts...and it's getting kind of crowded in my head. It's like walking around pregnant all the time. Nevermind the pains of childbirth, you just want to get it over with so you can resume your human shape."

My heartfelt congrats to a good guy and great writer.

Update: Dybek's profile at the MacArthur site can be read here - "an almost palpable sense of place" puts it rather nicely.

September 25, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Daley's Nowhere

Missing from most of the political/racial hysteria about the proposed move of the Chicago Children's Museum to Grant Park is any discussion of what the potential site actually consists of. Lynn Becker provides an welcomed antidote, with a gallery of photos from the relatively bucolic and quite ironically-named Daley Bicentennial Plaza. And his accompanying commentary is dead-on accurate:

Opponents to the museum believe, as did Daniel Burnham, that it is essential to have places of beauty and nature that are not extensions, but antidotes to the congested density and frenzied activity of a great city.

As you will see from these photos, that's the indispensible role that the park at Daley Bicentennial Plaza plays. It is a place of scenic beauty and wide, untrammeled lawns. It is the place where neighborhood families take their kids to play, and people come to read in the sun or sit in quiet contemplation. It's a calm counterpoint to Millennium Park's fizzy, aggressive urban pop on the other side of Columbus Drive.

Count me among those opponents of the museum's move. Not every city park has to be a tourist spectacle on the scale of Millennium Park. Most of them need to just be city parks - Daley Bicentennial Plaza included. Give the place a few upgrades like those Becker mentions, but for heaven's sake don't drop a huge traffic-drawing museum in there. If the Children's Museum truly has to leave Navy Pier, there are any number of appropriate alternatives to exacavating Chicago's Front Lawn.

September 24, 2007 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

Oh, the hypocrisy!

Compare and contrast:

Bush to seek more war funds
By Julian E. Barnes Tribune Newspapers: Los Angeles Times
September 22, 2007

WASHINGTON - After smothering efforts by war critics in Congress to drastically cut U.S. troop levels in Iraq, President Bush plans to ask lawmakers next week to approve another massive spending measure -- totaling nearly $200 billion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through 2008, Pentagon officials said.

Bush: Kids' Health Care Will Get Vetoed
By Jennifer Loven, Associated Press Writer
September 22, 2007

WASHINGTON - President Bush again called Democrats "irresponsible" on Saturday for pushing an expansion he opposes to a children's health insurance program.

Hmmm...war is okay and deserves more funding; poor kids' health isn't okay and deserves no more funding. Nice to see that your priorities are firmly in place, Mr. Bush.

September 22, 2007 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Weekend Multimedia

The Clash in 1981, on Tom Snyder's show, being interviewed and performing "The Magnificent Seven". Damn, we'll likely never see the likes of the Clash again.

Chin Up Chin Up is one of the more interesting bands in Chicago, and anywhere in fact. Here's the video for "This Harness Can't Ride Anything", from their most recent release of the same name. An enjoyable artist's depiction of the band - at first it made me think of the Simpsons, but later it did indeed invoke Yellow Submarine. It's always nice to see bands branch out from the conventional "live video of the band performing" format.

I don't know if still images truly qualify as "multimedia", but you know what? This is my blog, and I don't care about such petty distinctions. Hence, witness these gorgeous illustrations by Pascal Blanchet. And while all of them are very much worth browsing, I'd particularly like to point out this one, which quite perfectly captures my Monday mornings.

(Clash link via Coudal, Blanchet link via Drawn!.)

September 22, 2007 in Art, Music | Permalink | Comments (1)

Uncle Knows Best

My friend and fellow writer Richard Grayson remembers his uncle, the renowned klezmer clarinetist Dave Tarras.

When I was a kid, Uncle Dave lived on Tilden Avenue in East Flatbush, just across the street from Tilden High School (closed last June and broken up into smaller schools). At one point my mother decided I should have clarinet lessons and Uncle Dave came over and gamely tried to instruct me.

But I have no musical ability whatsoever and I hated the taste of the reed in my mouth. Although I loved Uncle Dave and wanted to please him, whatever came out of my clarinet must have sounded like a catfight.

After just a few weeks, he said, "You don’t like this, do you?"

I shook my head.

"What do you like to do?"

"I don’t know. . . writing?"

"Then you should write." He went downstairs and told my mother the clarinet was not for me.

I wish my own uncles were as understanding. When I was scraping around after grad school, jobless and living with my parents, my California uncle repeatedly mailed me the help wanted ads from the San Jose Mercury - because he loves California so much that he thinks everyone in the world should live there - and my Ohio uncle tried to recruit me into selling Amway. Thanks, no, I replied both times, as diplomatically as possible.

September 21, 2007 in Books, Music, Personal | Permalink | Comments (1)

Writing in Progress

Another update on various writings which are floating around, both in manuscript and in my mind.

New to the list:
Emboldened by the publication of "Deep in the Northwoods", I'm resuscitating my project of stories based on Farm Security Adminstration photographs, under the working title This Land Was Made for You and Me (with a nod to Woody Guthrie). Half a dozen stories are written so far, with at least another ten needed to make a decent collection. The stories are a bit on the short side, but I'm planning to publish them accompanied by the corresponding photos (all of which are in the public domain), so I'm counting on the pictures themselves telling a good portion of the story. Worth a thousand words, right?

Still on the list:
As I previously mentioned, I've finished the handwritten edits on the second draft of the novella Wheatyard, which are now waiting to be typed up.

Once I finished reading that second issue of Steampunk Magazine, my early interest in The Engine Driver quickly drooped. But I just picked up the first issue of the magazine, so maybe the piece will come to life again soon. Still, though, it's another novella, so I probably won't start writing this in earnest until the second draft of Wheatyard is finished.

Removed from the list:
The story "The Fable of the Small 'Suburb' Which Aspired to Be More Than It Was." As I suggested last time, the corner of my mind that contains this story has been gathering cobwebs. Best to set this story aside. Maybe listening to some more of Ron Evry's wonderful George Ade podcasts will bring the tale back to life someday.

September 21, 2007 in Fiction, Wheatyard | Permalink | Comments (0)

Just Shoot Me

Shalom Auslander endures - no, enjoys his first photo shoot.

The makeup man wipes his fingertip under my eye one last time.

"Such bags under your eyes!" he sighs.

"Those bags are why I'm here," I answer. He laughs. The woman who brought me the wine laughs. The woman who did my hair laughs. I am too much.

"You are too much," she says, fluffing my hair.

I finish my wine. Someone brings me more.

Ah, the punishing wages of success.

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

"Deep in the Northwoods"

My short story "Deep in the Northwoods" has been published in the very fine online journal Wheelhouse Magazine, where my humble piece now resides next to the esteemed likes of Peter Orner, Jim Ruland and Steve Almond, among many others. My deepest thanks to the editors for taking this one.

Longtime readers of this blog may recall my old project which consisted of stories based on photographs from the Farm Security Administration archives. This story happens to be one of them, and was inspired by this 1937 photograph by Russell Lee. Interestingly, while walking to work this morning I suddenly remembered this long-forgotten project, and got to thinking that I really should resume working on it - I have about half a dozen stories written so far, and at least ten more inspiration photographs I'd like to use. Maybe this publication in Wheelhouse is just the shove I need.

September 20, 2007 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (1)

Free at last, free at last...

...Paul Krugman is free at last. And castigating Alan Greenspan for his self-serving revisionism about Bush's tax cuts. Nice to have you back, Mr. Krugman.

See the NYT's footnote:

A Note to Our Readers: We have ended TimesSelect. All of our Op-Ed and news columns are now available free of charge. Additionally, The New York Times Archive is available free back to 1987.

The rational and clearheaded Krugman speaking free and unfettered to the online masses during the past several years of Bush Administration atrocities could have done all of us a lot of good. Oh, well, management always has to have some newfangled but misguided business model to play with. Never mind the editorial mission.

Update: Krugman now has a blog (via James Tata.) Sorry, NYT, this in no way absolves you.

September 19, 2007 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)


Yesterday I finished the second draft of my novella, Wheatyard, and I'm pretty pleased with what I've accomplished. I'm generally good at starting things but not so good at finishing them, so while writing the first draft came relatively easy, knuckling down and revising the entire thing took some rather concerted effort. So finishing the second draft feels like an even greater accomplishment than finishing the first one.

Now I need to type up my handwritten edits into polished form, and then hand it off to my wife Julie, whose opinion (literary and otherwise) I cherish more than any other. She's only read a few fragments of the story, several years ago, and I'm very eager to see what she thinks of the whole thing. Once the third draft is finished - I'm guessing it will be about six months from now - I'll probably recruit a few other readers to look it over and give me more feedback.

September 19, 2007 in Fiction, Wheatyard | Permalink | Comments (3)

Courtroom sketches of the Chicago Seven trial...

(Image by Franklin McMahon.)

...are, rather surprisingly, quite artistic. That fine image above depicts Abbie Hoffman casually reading a book during the trial proceedings, to the obvious chagrin of the judge. And there's many, many more.

These images are among 483 courtroom sketches from the 1969-70 Chicago Seven conspiracy trial recently acquired by the Chicago History Museum. The pictures, the work of famed news artist Franklin McMahon, tell the story of one of the more bizarre spectacles in U.S. courtroom history, a trial that reflected the divergence of the youth counterculture of the 1960s from the previous generation.

Check out the Tribune's selected gallery here.

September 18, 2007 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

Restoring habeas corpus

Alright, Democrats, do you really want to prove you're the party of progressive change? Do you want to make your hard-fought Congressional election victories of 2006 truly meaningful? Then make this happen. Harry Reid, show that you're capable of real leadership and not just a dissenting mouthpiece, and make this happen. Hillary, Barack, Chris Dodd and the rest of you, get the hell off the campaign trail and your narrow, self-interested ambitions and get back to Washington and make this happen.

The Military Commissions Act was one of the worst of the Bush Administration's many harmful initiatives, one which was rammed through Congress by Constitution-shredding Republican majority and a compliant Democratic minority. If you can take a stand on anything, Democrats, then take a stand on this. Show what you're really made of.

All of you, show that there's more to you than just blustery but empty rhetoric. Make this happen.

September 17, 2007 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Weekend Multimedia

I'm starting to realize that this project revolves heavily around music, since I don't go prowling through YouTube looking for quirky, non-music videos. I did, however, find two non-music items to pass along this week. But the music comes first.

First up is a band whose name I can't print here on this family-values blog of mine. But you really have to admire the popup-book-as-music-video concept. It puts that old A-ha pencil sketch video to shame. Well done, gents.

Tim Midgett and Andy Cohen may have brought Silkworm to an end after the senseless death of drummer and longtime friend Michael Dahlquist, but that doesn't at all mean they're finished making music. They're now at it again, under the name Bottomless Pit, in which they're helped out by Chris Manfrin (formerly of Seam, one of my faves) and Brian Orchard (.22). This tune, "The Cardinal Movements", sounds a bit less edgy than their Silkworm work, but is still a very good listen. Their MySpace page has four other tunes in streaming audio, all of them very Silkwormy.

Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) has directed a book trailer for Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine, which I have not read but is undoubtedly provocative.

And last but certainly not least, WFMU offers up this rarity: the incomparable James Brown, circa the late 1960s, pleading for an end to racial violence, and for the start of more positive initiatives. It's worth a listen, if for no other reason than to hear Soul Brother #1 say the word "antidisestablishmentarianism", but not, unfortunately, to a funky backbeat. If anybody could give soul to that mouthful of a word, it was JB.

(Bottomless Pit link via What To Wearing During an Orange Alert?; Cuarón/Klein link via Bookslut.)

September 15, 2007 in Books, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Summer of Classics - The Recap

My Summer of Classics started a bit late, as much of June was spent reading Atonement and The Road (two great books destined to one day be considered classics, but which have not yet stood the test of time). But I finally got my act together in June and read several true classics - and, admittedly, a few which to my mind were less than classic. Here's a recap.

Sherwood Anderson: Winesburg, Ohio
Like Edgar Lee Masters (see below), Sherwood Anderson surveyed the Midwest small-town life of his boyhood home from the safe distance of adulthood and Chicago. That distance was a well-advised one, as Anderson (like Masters) was largely unforgiving to his characters, as he ruthlessly explored their ugliness, frailty, hypocrisy and anger - qualities which we all share to some degree and which make us so very human. This cycle of stories, most of them anchored by the ubiquitous presence of George Willard, draws in a wide range of characters into a marvelous and emotionally moving narrative which is surprising cohesive from beginning to end. Winesburg, Ohio is a fairly slim book which speaks volumes, and a very impressive literary achievement.

Herman Melville: Bartleby the Scrivener
Melville is best known, of course, for the lengthy, ponderous and meandering Moby Dick, which I have not yet read. But this much shorter tale, effectively a novella, deserves just as much attention as his magnum opus. Melville vividly describes mid-19th Century Manhattan in telling the tale of Bartleby, a talented but oddly reluctant legal clerk and his rather prickly dealings with the other employees of the law firm which employs him. Though not a comic piece per se, this great story still made me smile, even while I was exasperated by Bartleby's refusal to work ("I would prefer not to") and even more exasperated by the way his boss kept tolerating the pathetic little ingrate.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby
I must confess to being disappointed by this one, a novel which I would consider to be very good but far from great. Fitzgerald's setting - among the old money and nouveau riche of Long Island during the Jazz Age - is impeccably described, but none of the characters ever seemed real to me. Not that they were necessarily caricatures, that is, but that I never really connected with any of them. That lack of empathy prevented my ever being full drawn into and absorbed in the story, which for me is always a prerequisite for exploring the big themes which Fitzgerald wished to tackle.

Knut Hamsun: Hunger
Funny, profound, dizzying, provocative, mesmerizing - Hunger is all of that, and much more. Words cannot adequately describe the experience of reading Hamsun's great novel. All I can say is that you must read it yourself.

Sinclair Lewis: Babbitt
Lewis' great satire of middle-class life and city boosterism made me laugh just as hard as the first time I read it, twenty years ago. And somehow I even felt a touch of sympathy for George Babbitt, despite his generally unsympathetic and infuriating qualities.

Edgar Lee Masters: Spoon River Anthology
At its best, Masters' poem cycle is a fascinating look at a small Midwestern town of a long-bygone era. But after the first hundred poems or so, Masters starts repeating himself and grows somewhat tedious in his condemnations. Which would be fine, except that the collection runs on for about 250 poems in total. Okay, Ed, you love Lincoln and the "wet" contingent, and hate the corrupt banker who looted his bank and lead to its collapse, along with other assorted hypocrites. Hear you loud and clear. Now, move on.

James M. Cain: The Postman Always Rings Twice
After reading something as weighty as Spoon River Anthology, I like to figuratively cleanse my palette with my next book, which often has me turning to the simple pleasures of noir - and Cain's novella is certainly among the best of the genre. Of course Frank and Cora aren't going to make it to their intended happy ending - not that either of these miscreants deserved anything that pleasant anyway - but the twisting journey the two take as they speed toward their fate makes for a very invigorating read.

Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness
I read this one online, via DailyLit.org, a choice which might have influenced the mixed feelings I have about the story. Online, the thick 19th Century verbiage was a bit hard to follow. But I also had issues with some details of the story itself, most notably the rather ludicrous premise that most of the story (roughly 39,000 words) was narrated aloud by Marlow to several colleagues on the deck of ship, almost without pausing, over the course of a single night. But most importantly, while the "steaming up the Congo River to retrieve the legendary Kurtz" portion of the narrative was very vividly described and maintained a nice degree of tension, this very promising buildup ultimately only lead to a mostly unsatisifying climax. Boat arrives, dying madman Kurtz is encountered, Kurtz dies, Marlow returns to Europe to dispose of Kurtz's effects, Marlow tells Kurtz's grieving fiancee a comforting lie about his last words. Ho hum. The narrative imparts little evidence of Kurtz's purported brilliance and genius, those elusive qualities which compelled Marlow to risk the voyage in the first place. Tension without decent release. Maybe I need to read this story one more time, in print, to fully grasp what's going on here, but my first impression is one of considerable disappointment.

Despite a few missteps, I greatly enjoyed my Summer of Classics, and have already begun plotting out the 2008 version.

September 14, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

No solution.

Bush's latest pronouncement of a troop "drawdown" is nothing more than a reversal of the surge he ordered last winter, one which merely diverted the violence in Baghdad to other parts of the country. Baghdad may have become safer, but the rest of the country more dangerous, resulting in zero net impact overall. The "drawdown" will merely restore our troops to their pre-surge level of about 130,000, which was already too high to begin with, and those troops will remain, in the crossfire of a civil war, with no clear objective in place. And now Bush is invoking Korea, where we've had to maintain a substantial military presence for fifty years, one which did little to deter North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

Bush also insisted that future troop drawdowns are possible if sufficient political and security progress is made, using the phrase "return on success." That sounds nice, until one realizes the implied inverse of the idea - if there's no progress, our military occupation will continue in full force. And considering what little genuine progress has been made in bringing peace and democracy in Iraq, it appears that an occupation lasting decades is very likely.

I couldn't help noting Bush's repeated references to the "success" of our counter-insurgency efforts in Anbar Province. That "success" was repeatedly cited as somehow being proof that his strategy is working. Yet he mentioned only in passing that just yesterday, Abdul Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawi, a Sunni Arab sheik who was a leading U.S. ally in the fight against Al Qaeda in Iraq was killed, along with his two bodyguards, by a roadside bomb. So Anbar Province is a big success story, proof that progress is being made in Iraq - and yet even one of the province's leading political figures isn't safe, not even under armed guard.

There's no progress being made, nor is there likely to be any time soon. Time to get out, now.

September 14, 2007 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Happy, happy birthday to me*

I'm feeling thankful for the small things today. Or yesterday, actually.

Yesterday was my birthday, never mind how many years I was celebrating. (Hint: I've now reached the legal drinking age, twice.) I'm usually impossible to shop for, especially after my wife Julie already hit the gift jackpot with the iPod she gave me two years ago and the laptop last year. My general take on gifts is that there's really nothing I need, and if I wanted something badly enough I'd just buy it for myself and not wait until my birthday for it. So this year I insisted that no gifts were necessary.

So instead, I indulged myself by taking the day off from work. Then I sat in my easy chair and surfed the web for far too many hours, most of them with my daughter Maddie charmingly hovering nearby. Then in mid-afternoon we were off to Dan's Candies for the autumn tradition of caramel apples, followed by stops at the new digs of our local used book store Book Market (where I gleefully picked up Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts/The Day of the Locust, Mark Costello's The Murphy Stories and Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses) and B&N (where I picked up the summer issue of Bookforum - not sure why it was still on the shelf, with the fall issue now being out). Back at home, we had excellent carryout from Fat Terry's Rib Crib and an Eli's cheesecake for my birthday dessert.

A wonderful day all around. Julie kept saying it didn't seem like it was an exciting birthday for me, but it was exactly the way I wanted it.

(*Which, of course, refers to this.)

September 13, 2007 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (1)


"The capacity of human beings to bore one another seems to be vastly greater than that of any other animals. Some of their most esteemed inventions have no other apparent purpose, for example, the dinner party of more than two, the epic poem, and the science of metaphysics."

- H.L. Mencken, who was born on this day in 1880, and with whom I couldn't be more proud to share a birthday (even more so than Jesse Owens, Barry White and Ben Folds).

September 12, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

"America is bigger than the challenge that came to our shores."

Email message from the good Senator (and, yes, my presidential candidate) Barack Obama:

Six years ago, on a bright and beautiful Tuesday morning, a new kind of enemy came to America's shores.

We will never forget the images of that terrible day -- the planes vanishing into buildings, the thick black clouds of smoke, and the haunting pictures of the missing.

On this anniversary, we pause to remember each and every victim of those attacks.

We celebrate the lives that were tragically cut short. We grieve with the families and friends who lost loved ones. We honor the service and sacrifice of the emergency responders who set an example to the whole world that in America we are our brother's keeper and our sister's keeper.

And we pause to honor the brave men and women of the United States military -- and their families -- who have borne such a heavy burden for the last six years.

We also remember how Americans were stirred to a common purpose. On the lines to donate blood or the candlelight vigils that stretched across our country, there was no red America and there was no blue America. We were united in our grief for our fellow citizens. We were united in our resolve to stand with one another and to stand up to terror. We were united as Americans.

Six years later, the threat to America has only grown. Al Qaeda has reconstituted a new safe-haven where it trains recruits and plots attacks. Al Qaeda's top two leaders, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, continue to disseminate their hate-filled propaganda and inspire legions of followers. Like-minded extremists have struck in scores of countries. The war in Iraq continues to fuel terror and extremism. A Taliban insurgency rages on in Afghanistan. In too many disconnected corners of the world, hate is casting a shadow over hope.

Our calling today remains the same as it was on 9/11. We must write a new chapter in American history. We must bring justice to the terrorists who killed on our shores. We must devise new strategies, develop new capabilities, and build new alliances to defeat the threats of the 21st century. We must extend hope to the hopeless corners of the world and reaffirm our core values to counter the hateful message of the extremists. And we must secure a more resilient homeland.

To write that new American story, we must recapture that sense of common purpose that we had on September 11, 2001.

America is bigger than the challenge that came to our shores. Let us honor the legacy of those we lost by coming together anew. Let us always mark this day by affirming that hope will triumph over fear, and that a new generation of Americans will seek a safer, freer, and more perfect union.

Barack Obama

September 11, 2007 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The horror!"

Kurtz's famous moment of epiphany, as related by the narrator Marlow, from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness:

"One evening coming in with a candle I was startled to hear him say a little tremulously, 'I am lying here in the dark waiting for death.' The light was within a foot of his eyes. I forced myself to murmur, 'Oh, nonsense!' and stood over him as if transfixed.

"Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn't touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror--of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision--he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath:

"'The horror! The horror!'..."

September 11, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

It's Always Time For Pie!

This week my wife and daughter whipped up an apple pie, from scratch. Darn good eatin'!

September 8, 2007 in Family | Permalink | Comments (2)

Weekend Multimedia

Time again for another installment of Weekend Multimedia. As before, I've been accumulating a few links that I'm unable to access at the office, and now I'm sharing them here.

Here's the video for the Minutemen's "This Ain't No Picnic", from my latest obsession, Double Nickels On the Dime. Nuff said.

Glenn Mercer's solo debut Wheels In Motion arrived this week, and it's a good one. Suffice it to say that the Feelies are alive and well, in spirit at least. Mercer's MySpace page has two tracks for your listening pleasure, "Wheels In Motion" and "Morning Lights", both of which represent the album quite well. Once I've given the album a few more listens and have a chance to collect my thoughts, I'm sure I'll be posting a glowing review here.

The venerable Mekons have a new album out, Natural, which no less an authority than John Darnielle (of the Mountain Goats) calls "a masterpiece without any weak points." Touch and Go has put up a preview track, "Dickie, Chalkie and Nobby", that has a really nice rootsy feel to it.

Lastly, here's video of George Saunders' wonderful appearance on David Letterman. Notice that Saunders doesn't once mention his book. Imagine that - a talk show guest that doesn't shill his latest project. How refreshing and, as Jeff Parker's warm essay on Saunders suggests, very much typical of the man.

(Minutemen and Saunders links via Coudal.)

September 8, 2007 in Books, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...they are children playing with countries..."

D. Boon, 1984, back when America's overseas meddling efforts were focused primarily on Central America:

Untitled Song for Latin America
The Western hemisphere
and all inside
we know who is murdering the innocent
they are children playing with guns
they are children playing with countries
mining harbors
creating contras
the games they play
the lives they will take
they bank their money in the country
they steal from the innocent
(a colonial trait that is much too old)
the banks, the lives, the profits, the lies
the banks, the profits, the lives, the lies
I would call it genocide
any other word would be a lie

George Bush, October 2000, just a few months before he would have to start keeping his campaign-trail promises:

If we don't have a clear vision of the military, if we don't stop extending our troops all around the world and nation building missions, then we're going to have a serious problem coming down the road, and I'm going to prevent that.

September 7, 2007 in Current Affairs, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Crappy crime does pay

This livened up my day considerably: J. Robert Lennon's "Compulsory Crappy Crime Novel Elements". A few of my faves:

- If there is a crazy person wandering around uttering nonsense, that nonsense must actually hold the clue that solves the crime!

- Serial killers must be brilliant and love taunting cops.

- Detective must have special tavern/bar hideaway, preferably named after an animal.

- Effusive acknowledgements section naming dozens of helpful police officers

- Seven-figure advance

Also note my contribution, in the comments section. I think Mr. Lennon should strongly consider incorporating all of these dubious elements into a single story which gently (or not so gently) lampoons the genre.

September 6, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

George Saunders...

...is guest blogging all this week at Powell's. First up: an imagined and (of course) very funny visit to Gitmo.

Like many Americans, I've been troubled by rumors of mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

So last week I paid Gitmo a visit.

Although it's difficult for the "average citizen" to gain access, I had an advantage: the great respect (bordering on awe) the American government has for us "literary types." As you may know, all a writer has to do to gain access to a restricted federal facility is show up at the front gate and declare his or her genre. You just declare "short story writer," or "literary essayist" or "lyric poet," and they let you right in. Of course, sometimes there's a bit of a hold-up when the sentry wants to ask some question about the use of mis-en-scene in Chekhov or something, but I usually enjoy this part, and do my best to reciprocate by getting the soldier to teach me something about his gun or a grenade or something, just so he doesn't feel outmanned.

Saunders is making an appearance here in Chicago next week, and even though I still haven't read any of his books (just this and this), I'm seriously considering attending. With Vonnegut gone, Saunders might just be the funniest and most insightful satirical writer we have.

September 4, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Writing on the fly

Ronan Bennett writes about the precarious process of writing his serialized novel, Zugzwang, which first appeared weekly in The Observer.

For the first few weeks, I was confident, even breezy, about the undertaking. Mark Lawson, interviewing me for Radio 4's Front Row, playfully suggested that the novel had already been written and it was all a wheeze by my publishers (if only). No, I told him, I had exactly four chapters in the bank. And you're comfortable with that? Lawson asked. It's more than enough, I replied airily.

Talk about misplaced confidence.

One lesson for authors considering a similar endeavor: have at least ten installments already finished by the time the first one is published. This will ease any deadline pressure and actually allow revisions to be made before the public sees it. Writing fiction is hard enough as it is without having to get it perfect on the first try.

Bennett, by the way, contributed a very strong essay, "Talking About Emotions", to Voices for Peace. I very much enjoyed the collection and still fully intend to discuss it here - soon, I promise. And I appreciated Bennett's sensibilities in that essay to such a degree that I'm now on the lookout for his novel The Catastrophist, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread award a few years ago.

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

"One Evening in St. Paul"


"One Evening in St. Paul"

I guess it wasn't fair to him. Or funny either, as I hoped it would be. I thought being funny would make it easier, maybe take the edge off. Oh, that card! I still chuckle when I remember it. After what happened that night, sending the card just seemed like the right way to tell him. Breaking the news that way seemed right at the time, though now I realize it was the wrong thing to do.

I surely wasn't out looking for a good time, or not that kind of good time, if you know what I mean. At first it was just me and Hettie, out for a perfectly innocent stroll on the promenade along the river. It was a pleasant evening, warm but not hot yet, with none of that sticky air you get later in the summer. As Hettie and I walked along the water, the sun was slowly setting in the sky, with beautiful bands of orange light streaming out from behind purple clouds on the horizon. Though it was getting dark, it was still early, maybe six or six-thirty. It was May, you see. In the fading light, I never saw him coming.

Hettie was chattering away about her latest beau, Will, a dry-goods clerk at Hemmingsen's, and how he was always trying to get fresh, but then just a minute later she was saying he was never affectionate enough. I shook my head, which she probably took to mean that I shared her perplexion over Will, when in fact I was perplexed over her own behavior. Make up your mind, honey, I said to myself, do you want affection or do you want him not getting fresh? Hettie made no sense sometimes. That's just how she was.

I was about to say something reassuring, that Of course there's no explaining men, when he suddenly appeared, coming out from around the corner of Hegel's Mill and striding toward us. Our eyes met for a second, but I turned away, embarrassed. But what I saw of those black-brown eyes was so deep, so intense, so handsome, that I had to look at him again. I stopped listening to whatever Hettie was saying - she ignored my silent pause and went right on - and kept my attention on him.

As he passed, he smiled and tipped his cap, saying something about lovely ladies and a lovely evening - I can't remember his exact words, as if my hearing wasn't working right - and Hettie and I walked on together for a few more steps. But then I stopped, apologized to Hettie and, nodding back toward him, told her I had to go. I knew she'd understand what I meant.


His name was Frank, and he was new to St. Paul, and was just so, so...oh, I suppose I shouldn't go on gushing about him, especially since we were only together that one time, on that lovely evening in May. But despite what came of it, and what you might think of me, I'm still too much of a lady to tell everything that went on. Not that I can remember many of the details, anyway - most of it, other than watching the sunset, his first sweet words, his urgency and the strange discomfort that came after, was a blur.

But one thing I do remember is that mother cat. As Frank and I began walking together - those first sweet words coming out of his mouth - a chubby cat cut across our path, followed by four tiny kittens. The kittens were colored completely different than the mother, and Frank joked that, tonight, somewhere in St. Paul there was a happy and proud tomcat. I laughed, and as he laughed too it was if the ice had broken between us, the dam gave way, and our conversation became more intimate, and then our actions.


When I got the word - the doctor said there was absolutely no doubt - I was calmer than you might expect. But, after all, it was something I wanted for myself eventually, if not right at that time and not with him. I guess I was calm because I knew I'd make the best of things, just like I've done every time anything unexpected happened to me. I was a fool for letting it all get that far, falling for those black-brown eyes and sweet words, and I have only myself to blame.

But even though I didn't blame Frank, I still thought he should know. Not that I expected him to take responsibility or anything - he was a young man with big plans for his life - but that he should know. Maybe he'd even be proud, like that tomcat.

I found the post card in Miller's Drug Store, in a rack filled with cards covered with pictures of flowers and Gibson Girls, none of which seemed right for the occasion. Then I saw this funny one, with cats - a mother, four kittens, and an eager male - and thought it was perfect. At the counter I fretted over what message to write but finally settled on a simple "Guess what!" and began to address it to him - Frank Haedeker; I only guessed at the spelling - before I realized I should be more discreet. So instead I put the card into an envelope, addressed it to him at the hotel where I hoped he was still staying, and dropped it in the mail-box on the corner.

The news must have shocked him, for he never responded. In fact, I never saw him again, or even heard anything about him. Once, out of curiosity, I stopped by his hotel, but the desk clerk said he moved out months before, and left no forwarding address. But the clerk also said there wasn't any mail waiting there for him, so I know Frank got my message.

At least he knows, and I hope it makes him proud. I'm not angry with him - I only blame myself, after all, and everything worked out as well as I could have hoped - and I only want him to know and remember.

As he goes through life, I hope he remembers what he left behind here in St. Paul, and that every now and then it gives him a smile.

September 1, 2007 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

Joliet, "one of the greatest centers of the Illinois motordom"


Like many small industrial cities of the early 20th Century, Joliet was home to a handful of automobile manufacturers, very small outfits which were destined to last only a few years. But while those golden years lasted, Joliet and other cities reveled in unabashed civic pride over their place within the fledgling industry. Below is an article from the March 13, 1909 edition of the Joliet Evening Herald (via the Joliet Public Library's wonderful "Joliet Remembers" site). I'm amused by the manner in which the article quickly shifts from boosting the car dealerships and one local manufacturer to a shameless cataloging of the relative horsepowers of the city's elite.

Golden Era Dawns For Auto Trade

Prospects for Present Season Brighter Than Ever - General Opinion Points to Magnificent Business

The golden wreath has twined itself around the wheels of Joliet auto industry and the season of 1909 is certain to mark an epoch which will rank the city as one of the greatest centers of the Illinois motordom. Throughout the union the auto trade is advancing and Joliet is not behind in the race for before the snow flies the experts claim that one hundred machines of all makes and sizes will be added to the city's roster.

Two new garages have opened, in anticipation of the summer season, making four now in operation. They are the Steinhart & Jensen, 100 Cass street; L.J. Kinnel, 104 Jefferson st., Campbell & Keeling, 106-108 Joliet street and Peterson garage, 206 Clinton street. The Cadillac is handled by Steinhart & Jensen, the Mitchell by Kinnel, The "E.M.F. 30" by Campbell & Keeling, the Ford by Arthur Howard and the Buick by Peterson. The Oakland, the car introduced a few days ago, will probably by handled by R.C. Bruce, with headquarters at 1600 Collins st.

Perhaps the greatest step toward making Joliet an automobile center was made by Dr. J.C. Flowers in the establishment of the Economy Motor Buggy company's works. A three story brick structure was erected at Cass and Maple street and the manufacture of vehicle automobiles was started on January 13. The cost of the plant and equipment was about $50,000. The output of machines has been continuous since the first wheel was turned and the demand has at all times exceeded the capabilities of the plant.

Many large vehicles

Colonel John Lambert is the owner of the largest and best equipped car in Joliet, a Mercedes of 65 H.P.; Geo. Woodruff is the owner of a Stearn machine, 55 H.P., and W.F. Pilcher drives a Chalmers of Detroit of 40 H.P. P.D.R. Mathias, superintendent of the Steel mills is the possessor of a 30 H.P. White Steamer, while many other owners have expensive cars.

National automobile interests are represented by C.F. Jensen, a member of the firm of Steinhart & Jensen. Mr. Jensen was chosen president of the National Retail Automobile Dealer's association at an election last year and has since been called upon to act as mediator in some of the large and most important conflicts that have assailed auto interests.

September 1, 2007 in Joliet | Permalink | Comments (0)