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Good Reading 2007

Once again, here's my year-end best-of list. As always, these are all books that I read during 2007, not that were published in 2007, with the latter being prohibited by my chronic sloth in checking out new releases. The envelope, please...

1. Ward Just: Forgetfulness (review)
2. Ian McEwan: Atonement (review)
3. Laila Lalami: Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits (review)
4. Bayo Ojikutu: Free Burning (review)
5. Cormac McCarthy: The Road (review)
6. Sherwood Anderson: Winesburg, Ohio (review)
7. William Trevor: The Hill Bachelors
8. Kurt Vonnegut: A Man Without a Country (review)
9. Aaron Petrovich: The Session (review)
10. Ben Tanzer: Lucky Man

Honorable Mentions: Jon Krakauer: Under the Banner of Heaven; Calvin Trillin: Travels With Alice; Nathanael West: The Day of the Locust; James M. Cain: The Postman Always Rings Twice; Edward Gorey: Amphigorey Again

Re-readings: Samuel Beckett: Waiting For Godot; Herman Melville: Bartleby the Scrivener; Sinclair Lewis: Babbitt; Knut Hamsun: Hunger

Friends and Acquaintances: Steven J. McDermott: Winter of Different Directions; Rick Kogan: A Chicago Tavern: A Goat, a Curse, and the American Dream; Various Writers: All Hands On: THE2NDHAND Reader

2006 List
2005 List
2004 List
2003 List
2002 List

December 30, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

BibliOdyssey, the book


One of the books that I was particularly pleased to get for Christmas was BibliOdyssey: Amazing Archival Images From the Internet. (The gift was from my wife Julie, who was paying sharp attention to my mention of the book in November.) Like the website of the same name, the book is absolutely gorgeous, and promises many hours of slow, sumptuous study. The image above is from one of my favorite recent posts, "Dutch Advertising Graphics"; as much as I enjoy the older, more academic/scientific images that BibliOdyssey specializes in, I'm even more of a sucker for more recent (relatively speaking) advertising images such as these.

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

Peace on earth, goodwill to...Ow!

Several individuals have become early entrants on the negative side of Santa's 2008 Nice/Naughty ledger...

Seven hurt in punch-up at Church of the Nativity

Antarctic base staff evacuated after Christmas brawl

It's the holidays, people - can't we at least hold off on the fisticuffs until the New Year?

(Via Boing Boing.)

December 29, 2007 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Song of the Month: M. Ward

I've been quite remiss in regularly updating the "Listening" section of my sidebar - so much so that I'll now be calling the updating post "Song of the Month" instead of "Song of the Week." The latest song is "A Voice at the End of the Line" by M. Ward. I came around to this charming and gentle song in a rather interesting manner.

I've admired Ward for a while now, and very much enjoyed his second album End of Amnesia but for whatever reason never got around to purchasing any subsequent releases. I did accumulate a few MP3s, including "A Voice at the End of the Line", but was less than impressed with the tracks I heard off of Transistor Radio, his fourth album, enough so to put me off of his third, The Transfiguration of Vincent. (Following me so far?) I did like the Vincent tracks well enough to put that album on my Amazon wishlist, but after buying only a handful of CDs over the past several years (iPod reigning supreme) that wishlist had become considerably outdated.

Then on Christmas morning at my mother-in-law's house, my gift pile included two packages which were, beneath their neat and tasteful wrapping, unmistakably CDs. My mother-in-law knows virtually nothing about my musical tastes, so I figured she must have pulled up that mostly outdated Amazon wishlist. As the rest of the family took turns opening their gifts, I racked my brains over what exactly I had in that list. I could only remember a few, and upon finally opening those two packages I was thrilled to see The Mekons Rock n' Roll (I've truly wanted this on CD, literally for fifteen years) but only moderately pleased to see The Transfiguration of Vincent. Though I've loved the Mekons forever, I had assumed my appreciation for M. Ward had all but passed.

Well, I'm pleased and pleasantly surprised to report that I'm now halfway through my second listen of Vincent and am really enjoying it. It's slightly more folk-rock (that is, more uptempo and with a full band) than the acoustic folk of End of Amnesia, but there are still plenty of moments of quiet introspection, old-timey and idiosyncratic instrumentation, and Ward's craggy and timeless vocals to be very satisfying. This album is probably one of those "growers" and, as it turns out, I'm very glad to own it. (Thanks, Carroll!) And now I'm sharing one small slice of the album with you. Enjoy.

December 28, 2007 in Music | Permalink | Comments (1)

Books given, 2007

This year, continuing a protracted trend, the Christmas gifts I've given to my family have been almost exclusively books. (With the exception of my wife, with whom I have considerably more imagination in my gift giving.) Here's what my undoubtedly grateful family is thanking their lucky stars for having received this year.

19-year-old nephew
(College freshman who is still finding his place in the world and likely in need of examples of roads not to take)
Joe Meno - Hairstyles of the Damned
Knut Hamsun - Hunger
Ben Tanzer - Lucky Man

23-year-old niece
(Recent college graduate and fledgling writer who has already seen more of the world than I will likely see in my entire life)
Laila Lalami - Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits
Ian McEwan - Atonement
Various Writers - Literature from the Axis of Evil

30-something wife
(Voracious reader and English major who can recite Beowulf in the original Middle English yet still loves Harry Potter)
Simon Armitage (translator) - Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

40-something sister
(Casual reader who is not too bold in her reading choices and owns far too many Stephen King hardcovers)
Gregory Maguire - Wicked
Elizabeth Kostova - The Historian

Never-mind-how-old mother
(Another voracious reader who is forever interested in her Scandinavian heritage)
Per Petterson - Out Stealing Horses
Barbara Sjoholm - Palace of the Snow Queen

December 27, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Man subjects self to waterboarding...

...is horrified by the experience.

It's torture. No question. Terrible terrible torture. To experience it and understand it and then do it to another human being is to leave the realm of sanity and humanity forever. No question in my mind.

The next Bush Administration official who insists that waterboarding isn't torture should be politely asked to submit to the procedure. And if that official, being the good loyal soldier, somehow insists afterward that it isn't that bad, then Bush and Cheney are up next. You know, just to make sure.

(Via Boing Boing.)

December 27, 2007 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Algren's Long-Ago Cons

It's the holiday season, a time of peace and goodwill to men (and women), of nostalgic remembrances of the past. What better time to read about my patron saint Nelson Algren reflecting on some of the finest con jobs he pulled during his boyhood? I find it utterly impossible to resist, especially this Christmas-themed one...

Around Christmastime the paper guys had cards printed and sold them to us little paper guys for a nickel apiece. They read something like this:

Christmas comes but once a year
When it comes it brings good cheer
So open your heart without a tear
And remember the newsie standing here.

That got them, every time. Especially if there was a light fall of snow. And the swindle in the card routine was this: After he'd paid for the verse and would be thinking he owned it, you'd have to tell him no, it was your only card, you just wanted him to see the sentiment on it, it had cost you a nickel, so please mister could you have it back?

I've been meaning to pick up the reissue of The Last Carousel for a while now. Reading priceless reminiscences like this piece just might clinch my purchase.

(Via Destinyland.)

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


Hands down, THE news video of 2007. My wife and I have been fans of Ravi Baichwal on ABC 7's weekend newscasts for a while now, and after witnessing this I think he might be the most professional television journalist there is. I don't know about you, but if a minivan crashed through a wall right behind me at my workplace, my verbal reaction would have been quite a bit more colorful. After that brief initial shock, his composure was rather remarkable.

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

Merry Christmas from Old Scrooge

It suddenly occurred to me that an annual reading of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol might be a nice family tradition to adopt. I could have sworn we had a small hardcover copy (the kind you see, in large undisturbed stacks, on the gift tables at B&N this time of year) somewhere, which I haven't found, nor is it in any of the numerous Norton Anthologies that my English major wife and I have around the house. (Not serious enough literature for the Nortons, I guess.) Sure, the story is available online, but I find it less than warm and cozy to gather the family and curl up around my Dell laptop. I'll probably check the after-Christmas sales at the bookstores and start the tradition next year.

For those of you who are indeed comfortable with curling up around the laptop, I direct you to this nice clean copy of Dickens' classic seasonal tale. I'm often called a Scrooge myself, though I like to pretend it's in reference to the Christmas morning, buying the fattest goose, dinner at the Cratchits version. So in a way I identify with the old guy.

Merry Christmas to you and yours (or Happy Holidays or whatever greeting you prefer) from this old Scrooge. Bless us every one.

December 24, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

J. Robert Lennon has had enough!

Fellow writer and blogger J. Robert Lennon was deeply disappointed by the most recent fiction issue of The New Yorker, decrying the been-there-done-that of the stories therein.

Maybe it's the weather, but I feel a terrible drear hanging over this issue. Every story's about the same damn stuff--love, marriage, boyfriends, girlfriends. They aren't dead topics, for sure, but can we have maybe one weird story? Just one that conforms to nothing whatsoever?

Even without ever reading The New Yorker, I know exactly what he's talking about. (As much as I love William Trevor, I often wonder why they publish him so damned much. And I know the magazine has several other "pets" in their writer stable.) So Lennon has a great idea - pick one of the topics in the list below, crank out a story and send it to The New Yorker in time for their summer fiction issue.

1) An astronaut on a voyage to Mars ends up someplace entirely unexpected.
2) A day in the life of a five-year-old mind reader.
3) The zoo employees go on strike.
4) Some townspeople are protesting the building of a new bridge, and one goes missing.
5) A woman loses the mayoral election by five votes.
6) A breakfast cereal designer runs out of ideas.
7) A solider in Iraq goes AWOL and is taken in by a cadre of disillusioned reporters.
8) A man tries to commit suicide by walking into the sea, but he can't get it to work.
9) An agricultural scientist is angry at the college where he works because they claimed ownership of his many potato hybrids, and so he plans revenge.
10) An adolescent girl, discovering she is adopted, decides to start a rock band.

So I'm climbing up on my soapbox and cajoling, imploring, exhorting all of you writers who read this blog - Nick, Ben, Ann, Donavan, Kevin, Richard, Josh, Drew, and the rest - to try exactly what Lennon suggests. (At the moment, I'm leaning toward "The zoo employees go on strike" - I promise not to be overly derivative of Madagascar.) Once you have the story written and submitted, please report back to me. I won't even claim an agent's fee. As for Lennon's 10%, well, you'll just have to work that out with him on your own.

Now get to work!

December 23, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

It's the end of the world as we know it...

...and Dubya feels fine. Quite clever, though I'm guessing the creators faked at least a few of the lines, particularly "Lenny Bruce" and "Lester Bangs." It's hard to imagine Bush ever mentioning either of those names in public.

(Via Boing Boing.)

December 22, 2007 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Weekend Multimedia

I am a proud alumnus of the University of Illinois. My freshman year, way back in 1983, happened to blissfully coincide with the Fighting Illini's first Rose Bowl appearance in twenty long, parched, futile seasons. (They proceeded to get trounced by UCLA, but never mind that. At least they got there.) As it turns out, that twenty year drought was downright fecund compared to the years since 1983, when the Illini have had a few scattered moments of prominence but mostly disappointment (despite my occasional and somewhat desperate claim that "The sleeping giant wakes!"), and it's now been another 24 years since the last Rose Bowl berth.

Well, this latest drought has ended, and the Illini are once again Pasadena-bound. (True, thanks to the BCS silliness, the Rose Bowl is only a consolation prize, as Ohio State - whom the Illini beat, in Columbus - will be playing for the national title in some other bowl game.) Anyway, back in '83 a longtime Champaign bar band called Captain Rat and the Blind Rivets released a novelty single called "The Fighting Illini in Pasadena" (a shameless ripoff of the Beach Boys' "A Little Old Lady from Pasadena", of course) which saturated the local airwaves back then. Now, some enterprising chap has wedded the audio of that single to photo images of this year's valiant Illini squad and, yes, posted it on YouTube.

If you're among the Illini faithful, I fully expect you to watch the whole thing and savor all 173 seconds of it. And if your blood does not, alas, flow in a vivid shade of orange, or if you don't get choked up over memories of Kevin Hardy, Jack Trudeau and Johnny Johnson, then I'll understand if you click it off after a minute or so. (The music is a bit grating after one verse, I'll admit.) But either way, please humor one of my baser indulgences.

December 22, 2007 in Sports | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Newgrange Tomb

This is quite amazing. The Newgrange Tomb (which I first heard about last night on NPR) is an ancient Celtic burial mound in the north of Ireland which was ingeniously built with a long passageway that is illuminated along its entire length by sunlight only at the Winter Solstice. Bear in mind that this technological feat was accomplished 500 years before the Egyptian pyramids and 1,000 years before Stonehenge. Awesome, particularly coming from supposedly "primitive" tribes.

Tourist demand to visit the tomb on the Solstice so far outstrips capacity (according to the story on NPR, 28,000 people applied this year for only 50 available slots) that this year a live webcast will be available from inside the tomb so that everyone can experience it online. The webcast starts today at 8:30 A.M. GMT.

Oops. Now that I've done the time zone conversion from GMT, it looks like the live webcast is over already. But it looks like the webcast is archived here, which I can't view at the office but am very much looking forward to viewing later at home.

December 21, 2007 in History | Permalink | Comments (0)

Hello, Goodbye Green Day

Heartiest congratulations to my friend Donavan Hall, who just completed his first novel Goodbye Green Day. Now comes the fun part - finding a publisher. Donavan, I wish you all the best.

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

In Praise of Potica

My wife Julie salutes "a true cottage industry". Looks like I already have this evening's dessert all lined up.

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

Ed Champion Has Left the Building

Reading this, I suddenly recalled the old TV show Taxi, which boasted a rather remarkable cast - Judd Hirsch, Danny Devito, Andy Kaufman, Christopher Lloyd, Marilu Henner, etc. Other than Hirsch's character, all of the cabbies of the Sunshine Cab Company were only driving a cab to pay the bills as they worked toward their dream career - professional boxer, actress, writer, etc. The cabbies were always sitting around dreaming of the day when they'd make it big in their dream career and finally be able to quit the drudgery of driving a cab. One day, Devito's curmudgeonly character Louie finally gets fed up with such idle pondering, and makes the following pronouncement (I'm paraphrasing here):

"Of all the years I've worked here, there's only one cabbie who ever made it 'out' of this place - James Caan."

After the cabbies smile and look at each other in wonderment, as if thinking that if Caan did it then so could they, Louie bursts their speculative bubble by adding:

"But don't worry. He'll be back."

Enjoy your time away from the blogosphere, Mr. Champion, but don't worry - you'll be back.

December 18, 2007 in Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Hüsker Dü and Portland

At her NPR-based blog, Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein muses over bands that exemplify her city, Portland. She suggests Hüsker Dü were Portlanders in spirit...

So, it's not just the bands who reside in our cities and towns, or who transplant themselves there, that make up the noises that represent our topography or our internal and external landscapes. After all, the chainsaw distortion of Husker Du's guitar sounds conjure the felling of trees as much as Soundgarden embodies our half lit winter months or The Thermals bring to mind a restless frontier.

Well, I'm not sure how Grant Hart and Greg Norton fit in, but at least Bob Mould's imposing physical presence certainly did conjure up images of grizzly bears.

December 18, 2007 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Weekend Multimedia

Film trailer for Horton Hears a Who!. As much as I loved the Seuss story, however, after viewing this I'm only modestly intrigued. As the father of a seven-year-old with an extensive DVD collection, most of these animated movies - especially the animal ones - are starting to look the same. I'm hoping the film retains enough of Dr. Seuss' original verse to distinguish it from the burgeoning crowd.

(Via Coudal.)

December 15, 2007 in Film | Permalink | Comments (0)

RAGAD Reading at Book Cellar

I'm pleased to announce that I'll be doing another RAGAD reading next month, this time at Book Cellar in Lincoln Square, on Saturday, January 19, starting at 7 P.M. I'll be reading along with Spencer Dew, Jill Summers and head honcho/guiding light Nick Ostdick, plus one other potential surprise guest. The event will celebrate the release of RAGAD print issue #5 which, I almost embarrassed to mention, is devoted entirely to my short story "Mercy Day." Yes, I'm blushing.

December 15, 2007 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (1)

How does this man sleep at night?

No, seriously, how does he?

President Vetoes Second Measure to Expand Children’s Health Program
By Sheryl Gay Stolberg, New York Times

WASHINGTON — President Bush vetoed another children’s health bill on Wednesday, effectively killing Democrats’ hopes of expanding a popular government program aimed at providing insurance to youngsters in lower- and middle-income families.

It was the seventh veto of Mr. Bush’s presidency and the second veto of a children’s health bill. Mr. Bush rejected a similar bill in October, despite support from Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers sent Mr. Bush the updated version 10 days ago, and he had until Wednesday to reject the bill or let it become law.

“Because the Congress has chosen to send me an essentially identical bill that has the same problems as the flawed bill I previously vetoed, I must veto this legislation, too,” Mr. Bush wrote in a message conveying his decision to the House.

Maybe bullheaded adherence to misguided ideology has some sort of narcoleptic effect.

December 13, 2007 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

First Lines Meme

Let the year-end recaps begin. Although I haven't been formally tagged, I saw this meme on Kate's Book Blog and realized I hadn't indulged in a meme post in a while. So here it is: the first line from the first post from each month of the past year.

January: In what is surely the result of some bizarrely devious link-clicking bot whose purpose I can't even begin to fathom, my story "Ectoplasm" was the most-downloaded story at Storyglossia during 2006.

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

March: 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:

April: The other day I was saddened to discover that Naperville's charming Bookzeller (which I've lauded here previously) has closed.

May: Now that I've finally started to read Atonement (thus giving my wife one less reason to doubt my literary taste and/or sanity), I can finally pass along this link that I've been sitting on for the last few weeks: the trailer for the film adaptation of McEwan's acclaimed novel.

June: The Spring Books Special issue of the Chicago Reader includes my short review of Aaron Petrovich's very fine novella, The Session.

July: I'm currently reading Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio and am enjoying it quite a bit.

August: Does Bob Mould have a book inside of him, eager to emerge?

September: 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.

October: Once again, it seems that the Illinois Department of Transportation, or IDOT, needs one more "I" in its name.

November: BibliOdyssey: Amazing Archival Images From the Internet, from the truly amazing website of the same name.

December: "A large gleaming machine with an opening at one end was wheeled in, and once again the cycle ran its Micronite Filter."

Let's see: self-promotion, a short story, admired author, indie bookstore, movie trailer, self-promotion, book excerpt, admired musician, local history, political rant, book lust, link to someone else's blog. Yes, that pretty much encapsulates Pete Lit.

So now, to follow standard blog protocol, I'm tagging three others with this meme: Julie, Tim and Ed.

December 11, 2007 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)


"You can have power over people as long as you don't take everything away from them. But when you've robbed a man of everything, he's no longer in your power."
-Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, born on this day in 1918

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

Writing in Progress

New to the list:
"Sweetheart Blues" is a story I started a few years ago, based on a photograph from the Chicago Sun-Times archives. Right now it's not much more than a sketch of a struggling young artist (I won't say what kind, for now) who works in Chicago's nightlife district in the early 1960s but still lives in the blue-collar Southeast Side where he grew up. I came across an old draft of the story in my files, remembered how much I liked the premise, and decided to try to revive it.

"A Son Responds" is already, technically, a finished story, although probably not a finished story that anyone would want to publish. It's already been turned down by half a dozen publications, including one of my favorites, Chicago's own Featherproof Books, whose Jonathan Messinger had some very kind suggestions that I've tried to incorporate into the newest version of the story. It's definitely a better story now than it was before - I'm just not sure if it's better enough.

Still on the list:
Wheatyard will be on the list indefinitely, until it's finally published or incinerated in a fit of artistic rage.

Scent of Wild Onions, my Lou Reed-inspired story collection, is still on the list - but just barely. I haven't touched it in a couple of months and haven't felt much like doing so either. Maybe I have to sit down and listen to New York in its entirety and see if anything transpires.

Removed from the list:
"The Copper Responds" was removed because for once, just for once, I finished the damned thing.

December 11, 2007 in Fiction, Marshland | Permalink | Comments (0)

Weekend Multimedia

The Good:
Merge Records is reissuing the first three indie albums by the long-lost Big Dipper, along with a never-released album from late in the band's career, as the four-disc Supercluster: The Big Dipper Anthology. Here's an MP3 of "She's Fetching", and here's the band's MySpace page where you can stream "She's Fetching", "Faith Healer" (GREAT song!), "A Song to Be Beautiful" and "Nowhere to Put My Love." I completely missed out on this band the first time around, and all of their albums have been out of print for years so I haven't been able to catch up until now. The late discovery will be quite pleasant, I suspect.

The Bad and the Ugly:
Someone named Sue Pitkin singing, in her best faux-Karen Carpenter voice, "We've Got It All in Rockford" from Make It In Rockford, a compilation put out during the late 1970s or early 1980s by the Rockford (Illinois) Chamber of Commerce. Civic boosterism has rarely sounded so awful.

The Indeterminate:
Nancy Walker (aka the Bounty paper towel "quicker picker upper" lady) singing "I Hate Men", from the album of the same name.

(Thanks to John Kenyon and Pitchfork for the first item, thanks/blame to WFMU for the last two items.)

December 8, 2007 in Music | Permalink | Comments (1)

The dark side of writing

And by dark side, I don't mean writer's block, or ceaseless editing in pursuit of ever-elusive perfection, or hundreds of rejected submissions, or countless phone calls unreturned by agents or editors, or critical and commercial indifference to one's craft. Instead, witness this stirring bit of domestic horror.

Writing has become the focus of his life over the past five years. All of these books eventually get self-published.

As an author, you may think this a marvelous way to spend retirement. I am introverted enough to see its attraction, too. But here is the thing -- my father is not a good writer. He is not even a reader -- he prefers TV and movies to novels. He is a dabbler. He is a dabbler who wants to be rich and famous, but he always chooses arts in which he has no skill or training. His various projects, intended to earn him millions, have included writing music, writing screenplays and scripts for Hollywood, writing novels and nonfiction, and oil painting.

All of the output of these endeavors have been pretty terrible.

Dabbling at writing when you have absolutely no talent isn't bad in itself - after all, it's important to keep busy during retirement. But if you do, keep your writing to yourself, but by no means should you ever cross the line of human decency by inflicting your dubious artistic efforts on your family and, even worse, demanding that they give you feedback. Positive feedback only, that is.

As fathers go, this guy makes John Cheever look like Ward Cleaver. His poor, poor family. They have my deepest condolences.

December 7, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Gin + Greyhound = No More Writer's Block


The inspiration-challenged writer in me couldn't help admiring this above item from Core77's "77 Design Gifts Under $77" holiday gift spectacular. (Click on image for full-sized version.)

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

Please Don't? Please Do!

The debut issue of Chicago-based litzine Please Don't is now live, with writings by Jonathan Messinger, Patrick Somerville, J.D. Greene, Sarah A. Strickley and Kevin Clouther, plus the intriguing first chapter of the serialized story "The Axl Watch", which will be written by a succession of writers.

"Did you just kill Axl Rose?"

The large Asian man raised one hand to rub the sweat from the back of his chubby neck. Then he sighed.

"Not exactly," he said.

More, I say! Give us more!

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

Happy Birthday, Mr. Trillin

Calvin Trillin turns 72 today...

It's the birthday of the essayist and humorist Calvin Trillin, born in Kansas City, Missouri (1935), who started out working for the religion section of Time magazine, which he did not like. He said, "I finally got out of that by prefixing everything with 'alleged.' I'd write about 'the alleged parting of the Red Sea,' even 'the alleged Crucifixion,' and eventually they let me go."

In 1967, Trillin began writing a regular column for The New Yorker magazine called "U.S. Journal," which he saw as a chance to write about ordinary people who didn't usually get covered in the national press. As a result of traveling so much Trillin began eating in a variety of local restaurants, and at a time when most food writers focused on gourmet food from France, Trillin wrote about barbecue ribs in the Midwest. His first collection of food writing was American Fried: Adventures of a Happy Eater (1974), in which he declared that the top four or five restaurants in the world are in Kansas City. His most recent book is his memoir About Alice (2006).

...and by sheerest coincidence I just started reading Travels With Alice this morning, and I'm really enjoying it so far. Damn, that man can write.

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

Lake Shore Athletic Club is saved!

I was quite pleased yesterday to read of this news item: the venerable Lake Shore Athletic Club appears to have been saved. As I've mentioned previously, the classic building had been in grave danger of being demolished by a high-powered local developer in favor of a new condo tower. But the developer backed off, apparently from the very public opposition of new ward alderman Brendan Reilly, and the building is now being sold to a preservation-friendly developer who plans to convert the building to high-end senior housing.

I can't begin to describe how satisfying this resolution is. Had the prevailing opposition to the building's demolition come from the city or the alderman's office, the resolution wouldn't have meant nearly as much. But the developer-friendly Mayor Daley wasn't about to interfere, and even the alderman stuck a neutral stance at first, only gradually coming around to the side of preservation. Instead, this victory came from the little people - grassroots activists and neighborhood residents - who opposed demolition from the very start, rallying public opinion and bringing the alderman into the fold. These are the very same little people who are so often marginalized and ignored in our increasingly undemocratic society. For once, everyday citizens win a victory which, while minor in the grand scheme of things, is heavy with symbolic significance. We the people can make things happen, if we band together for the common good, make our position known and never back down from the ensuring fight.

December 4, 2007 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

A Cool Five Thousand (or $10,283 based on current exchange rates)

My enthusiasm for submitting stories for publication in literary journals, and particularly to contests, has declined precipitously over the past year or so. Maybe it's having wearied of beating my head against the wall in trying to get published in this too-many-writers-not-enough-readers climate, maybe it's the fact the journals don't pay their writers or that many contests seem shady and/or sordid, or maybe schlepping a pile of manila envelopes off to the post office has lost its giddy-with-hope thrill. At any rate, the few stories I've submitted lately have been via email - I figure if I'm not going to get published, or if I'm going to get published but not paid, I might as well make it easy on myself. Needless to say, story contests with entry fees (unless it's a venue like Storyglossia or Emerging Writers Network that I feel a strong personal connection to) have been entirely abandoned.

But this week I'm (no pun intended) taking a flyer: The 2008 Willesden Herald International Short Story Prize. Grand prize is £5000 with publication in an anthology, runners-up also get published. AND NO ENTRY FEE. I've got a story printed out and enveloped up, and I'm sneaking off to the post office in just a few minutes - this one is easily worth the overseas postage. Deadline for entries is December 21, writers, so move quickly. (Thanks to Maud for the tip.)

December 3, 2007 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (1)

"The Copper Responds"

(Note: The story that follows was written as a response to Cory Doctorow's story "Printcrime", as told from the perspective of one of the "coppers" in the original story. I suggest you read the original story first, and then read mine; otherwise my story might not make much sense. Special thanks to Cory for the permission and kind words.)

The Copper Responds
by Peter Anderson

Coppers, they called us, at first for the color of the buttons that gleamed down the chests of our navy blue uniforms, but later for the way we always made them cop to their crimes. In time we adopted the name for ourselves. And cop they did - they always confessed. Some pleaded innocence at first, but after only a few minutes inside the interrogation room they'd confess to anything, just to make it stop. We probably could have detained most of them anyway, locked them up indefinitely, but a formal confession made their guilt official, neat and tidy and impervious to any attorney who might get involved, not that many attorneys ever did.

Kessler was different, though, and in some way I admired him for it. Unlike the rest of the printmen riff-raff, he never cried out for a lawyer or claimed innocence. Instead he came along quietly, conceding guilt from the moment the indictment blared out of the bullhorn and we hauled him out of his house, by his ankles, his head bumping down the stairs. Some might say that, as meekly as he submitted, none of the rough treatment - dragging him out and destroying his house - was at all necessary. And maybe they'd be right. But still we swung our clubs, drunk with power, cracking skulls and smashing furnishings, all for the joy of it.

We would always put on a show, getting carried away in the mad spirit of the arrest. Of course it felt good, which is why we did it, but such treatment was also considered a deterrent by the Department, which is why it was official policy. Smash everything - glass lamps, old steamer trunks, appliances, dishes, windows - and leave all of it behind as a reminder of why all citizens should obey the laws whether they agreed or not. Kessler had more junk than other people, probably from illegal printing, and even had this ridiculous birdcage that I destroyed myself, with one stomp of my jackboot. Never did see any bird inside, though if it lived in his house it was must have been a criminal just like him, and deserved whatever it got.

We gave it to Kessler nearly as bad we did his house. Three of us worked him over with our clubs and our fists and, after he fell to the floor, with the steel toes of our boots. He was broken and bloody when we dragged him out. We stopped for a minute to give the newsies a good shot of him, all of us grinning for the camera like we had bagged a twelve-point buck, before tossing him the back of the wagon. Again, deterrence. We knew the newsies would dutifully report on the proceedings, commending our diligence and warning citizens everywhere. Citizens like the neighbors who cowered behind locked doors and never came to Kessler's aid, those very same people that Kessler was helping with his illegal goods.

We would leave behind the outlaw's belongings, as a grim public service announcement - all of it, that is, except the printer, which even smashed up could still be dangerous. These printmen were clever thieves who could undoubtedly extract a machine's specs from its shattered remains and be able to create another, good as new and just as dangerous to civilized order as the original. Printmen had no compunction against producing high-grade pharmaceuticals, computers, regular household goods, anything that was, by sacred law, the sole province of The Corporation. The printer had to be taken to the station house for safekeeping and as a trophy - but rarely, fortunately for us, as evidence for any trial.

Kessler quickly submitted to justice, quietly accepting his verdict, and my superiors were so pleased that such a high-level bootlegger had been neutralized that they gave me a promotion, to punitive officer at the prison where Kessler was kept after finally being released from the hospital. From the moment he arrived I hounded him, waking him at odd hours, spoiling his food, even inciting a fight between him and another con that left him with a bad limp and forever looking over his shoulder for me.

But times changed. The Corporation still reigned, of course, but a new Administration assumed power, one that foolishly pitied criminals who continued to be, even while behind bars, a grave threat to the state. The Administration took over the Department, recklessly granting leniency to cons they called "the unjustly convicted," including Kessler, who was pardoned only ten years into his fifty-year sentence. And I was demoted, put back on regular patrol, and since I was powerless against either the Administration or the Department, I exercised power where I could. Namely, Kessler. After I heard reports of him asking around about printer goop, looking for a fresh supply now that his old sources had been eliminated, I knew he was up to something.

Back on patrol, though, it isn't like the good old days. I can't just kick down doors and crack heads, or interrogate a confession out of the defiant ones. Instead I have to spy, gather evidence and obtain warrants - real ones, not the rubber stamps of before - to arrest anybody, for even the smallest crime. Instead of brute force, I have to watch and observe, which is interesting in a way - an intellectual exercise instead of the old physical release. So I watch and observe both Kessler and his daughter, a luscious eighteen-year-old named Lane. She was just a kid when I put Kessler away, but since then she's ripened into quite a looker. Through Kessler's kitchen window I watch them one afternoon, in the parlor, him sitting in a corner and her nervously pacing around - long legs and snug pants - but though I can see them well enough I can barely hear them through the screen.

Early on I figure out that Kessler has changed his methods. No longer are neighbors parading in and out of his house at all hours, coming and going for their pharma and knicknacks and appliances. Instead only one or two visitors arrive each day, coming with nothing but hopeful faces and soon leaving with nothing at all. Kessler must be going upmarket, I think, operating on a larger scale, and either doesn't have product available yet or has product so costly that no one can afford it.

Outside the open kitchen window, I hear only scattered phrases - "worth going to jail," "never again" - and hear him slurp, as if from a glass, and give out a loud sigh. "Let me whisper..." I hear him say, before his voice drops off, drowned out by the hum from the generator works. He is telling a secret, only to her, about the scheme he must have thought up.

Through the window, past a tattered screen and grimy curtain, I peer into the parlor, catching a glimpse of the daughter's slender hips as she leans over him, coming in close to hear his secret. For a moment I think of being in his place, not as a criminal whispering his latest scheme, but as the object of attention of a young woman like her, soft and supple and warm, with sweet breath and deep brown eyes, and unlike Kessler my thoughts are not at all fatherly. And I imagine...no, I can't imagine anything like that, not now. Right now I have a job to do. Let the rest be a fringe benefit of the job, eventually, but not the job itself.

I see the girl straighten up suddenly, as if shocked, as if his scheme is so audacious that she's recoiling at the thought. Kessler has obviously thought up something big, and I'm onto him. For now I'll just investigate, going at it the hard way that's been imposed on me and the other coppers, but even handicapped I'll put Kessler away, for good this time. I should be able to get him with evidence, delicately and gently, but I'd rather do it the old way, by breaking down doors and cracking heads. And soon I'll be able to again, since this Administration is already losing its grip - power is shifting back to the other side, back to coppers like me who prefer using force. That sweet day will come soon, and when it does I'll appreciate it that much more, for having been without it for so long. Getting it back will be worth more than anything.

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December 2, 2007 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (3)

Weekend Multimedia...sort of...

I was first struck by the wonderfully vivid cover art of this Efterklang album, but after clicking through to the post on Sleevage I became utterly charmed by the demonstration video, which shows how the cover is actually a puzzle that can be arranged in numerous configurations. Beautiful and ingenious!

Incidentally, Sleevage is one of my favorite recent finds, a blog devoted entirely to innovative album cover art. Do check it out. It may not change your life, but will make your life more pleasant for a while.

December 1, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Ads Nauseum

"A large gleaming machine with an opening at one end was wheeled in, and once again the cycle ran its Micronite Filter. Mild, Smooth Taste. For All the Right Reasons. Kent. America’s Quality Cigarette. King Size or Deluxe 100s."

Paul Collins has a typically smart and fascinating column in the NYT this week about the (mercifully past) era of advertisements bound directly into paperback books. Though the heyday was in the 1960s and 1970s, even Charles Dickens wasn't immune, over a hundred years earlier.

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