« February 2008 | Main | April 2008 »

Earth Hour

In a way it's sad that: a) we have to formally designate sixty minutes as "Earth Hour" to get people to truly reflect on their personal impact on the environment; b) it only lasted sixty minutes; and c) for most people it will be the last thought they ever give to the topic. Still, it's a start. If it gets even a few thousand people to be more aware of what we can do to sustain the Earth, then it's worth it.

At our house Earth Hour was a quietly enjoyable experience. No computers, no Nintendo (since even using a fully charged handheld would have eventually required recharging), no TV - just three people entertaining each other. First it was making shadow puppets on the ceiling with the light from the candle (just like my sister and I did when we were kids, with a flashlight, when camping out with sleeping bags in the living room), then talking about organized labor and the episode of This American Life that Julie just heard (she's convinced John Hodgman is the funniest man alive), then exercise time which showed that Maddie and I need a lot of work on our situps. True, there were several moments of blankly looking at each other and saying "What do we do next?" but those would have been all but eliminated with adequate preparation. We're going to try to do Earth Hour every Saturday night at 8, but from now on we'll definitely have to have some activities laid out in advance.

I encourage everyone to try it, at least once.

March 30, 2008 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Intimations of Mortality from Recollections of Early Adulthood*

Yesterday marked a significant turning point in my life. Now, for the first time since I was 19 years old - I'm now 42 - I am without a stereo. It's been a long time coming, but yesterday finally settled the matter. Last fall we had major renovations done on our family room, with new hardwood floors installed and the room repainted. In preparation we cleared everything out of the room, which included my disassembling the stereo that resided in the entertainment cabinet. The stereo was stored in the sun porch (which is closed off for the winter) along with other items from the family room, but even though the work was finished by November, I never got around to putting all the stuff back. Yesterday I finally did so, with everything put back in place but the stereo. It sat there, dusty and forlorn, on the dining room floor as I inwardly debated what to do with it.

That stereo had been a big part of my life for the better part of two decades. It was my first major purchase as an independent adult. After getting by with an inherited turntable and cheap speakers (no receiver or tape deck) during my freshman year in college, during the following summer I went to Pacific Stereo in Schaumburg and splurged on what was then a pretty nice setup - an Onkyo analog receiver, Technics turntable, Sony cassette deck and a wonderfully oversized pair of EPI speakers. Though I upgraded in later years, replacing the Sony with a Nakamichi deck and entering the digital age in 1989 with a Denon CD player, that orignal core setup was the source of untold hours of listening pleasure. Whenever I would move into a new apartment, the stereo would be the first thing taken out and set up. Clothes might not be unpacked for a few days, and kitchen utensils for weeks or even months, but from my first hour in that apartment the stereo would be fully functional and most likely cranking out music as I settled into the new digs. At one time I could have told you the first music I played in any given new place, and though I've forgotten the rest by now I can still reliably report that when I moved into my apartment in Roscoe Village in 1996 the first thing I listened to was a sampler disc from CMJ New Music Monthly that included the Apples in Stereo, which was soon supplemented by The Lounge Ax Defense and Relocation Compact Disc which was purchased on the evening of my move.

In short, that stereo was my constant companion which, due to its complete unportability, meant I was home a lot. As much as I like to fondly recall the few crazy nights of too much drinking and too little responsible behavior from those days, for the most part I was a homebody. Which is all fine. It's who I am, and who I'll always be. That stereo got me through countless hours that were solitary but not necessarily lonely.

Which brings us to yesterday. My passion for music is nowhere near what it once was, and though I still listen a lot I do so almost exclusively online, or with my iPod or laptop, or in the car. The stereo has languished during recent years, especially since my daughter was born, as I've opted for the more modern and convenient modes of listening. As I looked at the stereo sitting there on the dining room floor, wires disconnected and looking quite aged, I finally realized that its time had passed. One by one I lugged the components up to the attic, where I returned them safely to their original boxes which I've kept for all these years. So while I haven't discarded the stereo completely, up there in the attic it's very much out of sight, out of mind, and most likely I'll never listen to it again.

As I undertook this sober act yesterday, my wife sensed what was going on inside my head. I finally made an attempt at a lighthearted comment, saying in mock-solemn tones that I had reached a major turning point in my life. She was an English major in college, and in response she laughed and said "Oh, okay, Prufrock." She specifically cited Eliot's line "Do I dare to eat a peach?", which got me thinking of the entire stanza. A quick perusal of the Norton Anthology brought these once-familiar verses back to mind:

I grow old…I grow old...
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

Quite a reflection on aging and mortality, that was. But never mind. Despite the somber mood of all of the above, there's no need to worry about me. I've moved on with my life. And I'll still hear the mermaids singing, each to each - just not via my Onyko TX-21 analog receiver.

(*My deepest apologies to Wordsworth. The Prufrock comment got me nostalgic for the few poems I remember from my British lit class. Here's to you, Dr. Cole, wherever you are.)

March 30, 2008 in Music, Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

Song of the Week: The 6ths

The 6ths: "Falling Out of Love With You"

The 6ths was one of the numerous projects of songwriter extraordinaire Stephin Merritt (best known for the Magnetic Fields) in which various indie rock luminati were recruited to sing Merritt's songs, with singers like Lou Barlow, Barbara Manning, Chris Knox, Bob Mould and Gary Numan interpreting the songs to Merritt's synth-pop instrumental backing on two albums released in 1995 and 2000. I originally dove into Songza looking for "Heaven In a Black Leather Jacket", a wonderful 6ths tune sung by Robert Scott of the Bats, which I've owned on a vinyl seven-inch since the mid 1990s. No luck there, but I did find the charming "Falling Out of Love With You", with vocals by Dean Wareham of Galaxie 500/Luna (semi-)fame. I've been a fan of Wareham for a long time, though for his guitar work and admittedly not his vocals. But he does quite well on this song, I think.

Wareham has been getting a fair amount of press lately, with his rock memoir Black Postcards having just been published. Guest reviewer Tim Frederick gave the book a glowing assessment recently at Largehearted Boy. Sounds like a good one, and a refreshing break from all the narcissistic, here's-all-the-drugs-and-women-I-did Rock God dreck out there.

March 29, 2008 in Music | Permalink | Comments (2)

John McGahern, The Barracks

For the past several Marches I've made it a tradition to read one or two Irish novels. At first I thought I'd work my way through all of Joyce's works - two years ago I read and loved Dubliners, even if it required a history primer near at hand to catch all of the period references, but last year I slogged through Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which definitely had moments of greatness but overall seemed too self-consciously 'artistic' for my tastes. Though Dubliners initially gave me enough courage to consider tackling Ulysses, after reading Portrait (which isn't generally considered a "difficult" work) I decided to step away from Joyce and move on to other worthy Irish writers.

My next stop was John McGahern. I hadn't ever heard of him until he passed away several years ago, but what I read of him at that time reminded me quite a bit of William Trevor, one of my very favorite writers. I figured if McGahern was anything at all like Trevor I'd really enjoy reading him. Last week I finished reading McGahern's first novel, The Barracks, which I very much enjoyed. It's a good novel, or, to qualify that somewhat, it's a very good first novel. The story itself - set in rural West Ireland just after WWII, when the country was still adjusting to self-determination after several decades of independence - is a sensitive, emotionally gripping one. The story revolves around Reegan, a police sargeant and former partisan who finds himself thoroughly disillusioned that his country's fight for freedom merely exchanged the oppression of a colonial occupation for the oppression of a self-imposed bureaucracy, and his wife Elizabeth, who's struggling with both breast cancer and a failing quest for self-fulfillment. Reegan and Elizabeth live together but never truly connect - she never really senses how much he's chafing under the constraints of the police force or appreciates his dream of quitting the force and buying a farm, and he's so preoccupied with scraping together enough money to pursue his dream that he never realizes how much pain she's in. Neither of which is simply a case of either being oblivious to the other, however - they never really make the effort to reach out to each other, and instead settle for wallowing in self-absorption.

The passages written from Reegan's perspective are, to me, more effective than those of Elizabeth. Maybe that's just the guy in me talking, but I really connected with his frustrations. I think one reason that his passages worked best is that they were delivered via action and dialogue - working his potato patch on company time and getting caught by his snooping boss and having to cringe his way through saying all the "right" things to appease him, or enduring the endless but quite funny banter of his patrolmen. In contrast, the passages written from Elizabeth's perspective were largely internal dialogue - often long-winded, sometimes abstract and overall relentlessly grim. (Which is not to say many of them weren't extremely powerful - in particular, I won't be forgetting any time soon the tormented scene in which she wakes up in excruciating pain after tumor surgery.) I suppose the internal dialogue makes sense, because Elizabeth is, even more so than Reegan, very much alone. I just felt that her passages needed to be tightened up a bit to be as effective as they could have been.

Despite my preference for Reegan's passages, however, for some reason one paragraph of Elizabeth's has really stuck with me, weeks after first reading it. To put the following in context, Elizabeth had lived in London for twenty years, where she worked as a nurse before returning to her home village to care for her dying mother, the same village where she met Reegan (who was stationed there) and where most of the novel takes place.

Elizabeth knew it would suit them if she stayed, stayed to nurse her mother as she crippled, the mother who had seemed so old when she died three months ago that not even her children wept at the funeral, she meant as little as a flower that has withered in a vase behind curtains through the winter when it's discovered and lifted out a day in spring.

A vased flower forgotten behind curtains and withering to nothingness - what a magnificent image and devastating metaphor that is, all economically delivered with an minimum of words. Maybe the reason I like that paragraph so much is that it hints at how much more powerful this book might have been had all of Elizabeth's passages been written with such economy and restraint.

Overall, as I said earlier, The Barracks is a very good first novel. Anyone reading the book back in 1963 would have clearly recognized the young McGahern as a writer of considerable talent who had a bright future ahead of him, an assessment which would be borne out by the acclaim with which his later novels were received. I know I'll be reading more McGahern in the future - I've already set my sights on Amongst Women.

March 25, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

This Land Was Made For You and Me

My story chapbook This Land Was Made For You and Me is now finished, and has been submitted to DIAGRAM for their chapbook contest. When I first started this project three or four years ago I envisioned it as a much larger collection of twenty or more stories, each based on a different photograph from the Farm Security Administration archives. But the project languished at just seven stories as my attention moved elsewhere, and the prospect of creating two dozen more stories to round out a longer collection apparently was just intimidating enough to prevent me from continuing to work on it. It was a project that was always in the back of my mind but which quite frankly I just assumed would end up in my writerly dustbin. I did scavenge a few individual stories that I've circulated around to various journals, one of which, "Deep in the Northwoods", was published in Wheelhouse, but my hopes were very slim for ever seeing a unified collection of stories based on FSA photographs.

My sudden late discovery of the DIAGRAM contest changed all that. The contest sought chapbooks (fiction included) of up to 44 pages in length which, I quickly realized, was just about the total length of the seven stories I had already written. And I always do better with hard external deadlines (in this case, April 1) to get things finished instead of relying on my own inner drive. (I'm a procrastinator at heart, even for something as important to me as my writing.) Fortunately, given the short deadline, most of the stories were already close to finished form, and required only light pruning. One story ("Chicago, Illinois") did require a complete rewrite, as the original was almost entirely exposition with no real narrative, but it's a much better story now than it was originally. So, I now have a finished story collection that I'm quite proud of, and though I'm under no delusion that the book will win the contest, I'm somewhat encouraged by the fact that New Michigan Press will consider all entrants for publication, and has published numerous non-winning chapbooks in the past. Just the thought of my manuscript being read by such a great writer as DIAGRAM/NMP head honcho Ander Monson is enough to make the effort worthwhile - hell, even if he doesn't read it, the possibility of him personally tossing it in the recycling bin is enough for me.

As promised, I'll be publishing a few teasers from the collection here from time to time. First up is an excerpt from "Cimarron County, Oklahoma" (which was inspired by this photograph):

They approached the house. It was long, low and windowless, and built haphazardly of rough planks, many of which had been pried away by the storm. The house sat encircled in dirt, and the youngest, not comprehending, laughed when the door would not budge as his father tugged at it. The door normally swung outward but was now wedged in by two feet of soil.

His father turned toward him and glared, just mean enough to make the boy draw back, his laughter cut short. Gone was his father’s good mood of the hours in the truck, gone was the adventure of the long walk and the disappearing footprints. The boy’s quiet wonder slowly gave way to tearful sniffling.

Through misting eyes he now saw, for the first time, that there was really nothing here but dirt. He suddenly remembered the young wheat stalks which had just emerged from the ground during the last few days. The family planted the wheat themselves, the first time the youngest was old enough to do so, and he waited with excitement for the plants to grow. Finally they emerged, tiny and green, and he imagined how they would look when fully grown.

But now the wheat was nowhere to be seen.

March 25, 2008 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (1)

What I'm Writing

As I mentioned earlier, I'm working on This Land Was Made For You and Me, rushing to meet an April 1 submission deadline for the chapbook contest at DIAGRAM. I just finished the latest round of revisions, and have started designing the layout. I might publish some excerpts here soon, but for a teaser here are the FSA photographs that the seven stories are based on:

Dorothea Lange: Nipomo, California
Russell Lee: Craigville, Minnesota
Jack Delano: Greene County, Georgia
Arthur Rothstein: Shellpile, New Jersey
Arthur Rothstein: Cimarron County, Oklahoma
Russell Lee: Chicago, Illinois
Russell Lee: Prague, Oklahoma

Beautiful and powerful images all. I couldn't help being inspired by them.

March 15, 2008 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (1)

Song of the Week: The Pogues

The Pogues: "The Body of an American"

(What, with as much as I go on and on about the Pogues, which Irish band do you think I'd feature this week? U2? Hah!)

This is one of my very favorite Pogues songs (standing proudly alongside "Thousands Are Sailing", "Young Ned of the Hill" and "Streams of Whiskey"). It just might be the quintessential Pogues song - the gently beautiful intro and outro, the rollicking middle portion and singalong chorus, Shane MacGowan's rapid-fire vocals and touching lyrics about the immigrant experience, all of it centered around a drunken Irish wake. The line "At five o'clock in the evening every bastard there was piskey" never fails to bring me a smile.

"The Body of an American" first appeared the vinyl-only EP Poguetry in Motion back in the eighties and, as was the case with most EPs during the later digital age, became somewhat of an orphan, all but unavailable on CD (other than perhaps a few Pogues greatest-hits collections which were superfluous to me, who already owned all the full-length albums). I've owned the EP for ages, having scoured it out of some long-gone used record store, and loved this song so much that I contemplated going to all the trouble of having the EP converted to digital. Then, a few years back, the great Rhino Records resissued the band's Rum, Sodomy and the Lash and was wise enough to append Poguetry and two more bonus tracks to the reissue. And am I ever glad they did - the song sounds as great as ever. Poor old Jim Dwyer.

Happy St. Patrick's day, everyone! Slainte!

March 15, 2008 in Music | Permalink | Comments (2)

Hillary Clinton's "Experience"

Hillary Clinton repeatedly touts her "experience", saying that for 35 years she's been fighting for change. But what she doesn't mention is that the longest portion of that period - 15 years - was spent at Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, representing Arkansas' biggest and most powerful businesses, including Wal-Mart and Tyson Foods. At The American Lawyer, Susan Lehman interestingly reflects on Clinton's legal career and why she's not exactly inspiring the passion amongst voters that Barack Obama is.

This anecdote is particularly telling:

Hillary's ability to assert moral residency on different ideological sides of an issue showed itself soon after she joined the Rose firm. The Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now, a group that works on behalf of the poor, had helped pass a local ballot initiative that gave low-income residents a break on utility bills and increased rates for businesses. Wanting to put a quick stop to this handout, the business community called upon its lawyers at the Rose Law Firm and asked them to defeat the ordinance in court.

Hillary soon found herself battling ACORN's founder -- and her close friend -- Wade Rathke in court. Deftly marshaling constitutional theory, she convinced the judge that the ordinance constituted an unlawful taking of property. The law was nullified. Wade Rathke never spoke to Hillary again. For Hillary, though, the matter seemed entirely impersonal: She has maintained strong connections with ACORN and works with them today on minimum wage and election reform issues. She fought with and defeated a friend in court. That's business. That's what lawyers do.

Oh, she's got experience, alright. Experience in helping the establishment gain even more power. Which is not at all the kind of experience we need to overturn the plutocracy and corporation-coddling of the past eight years.

March 14, 2008 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fight childhood cancer! Donate to St. Baldrick's!

Several people have asked me if I'm doing St. Baldrick's again this year. The quick answer is no, but please continue reading. My friends, family and longtime blog readers should be very familiar with St. Baldrick's by now, but for everyone else here's a quick synopsis.

St. Baldrick's Foundation is a charitable organization which raises funds for clinical research and treatment of childhood cancer. Despite tremendous progress made over the years, cancer remains the single most deadly disease for children. Every year, in the months leading up to St. Patrick's Day, thousands of St. Baldrick's volunteers solicit donations which are passed along to several hundred medical institutions involved in research and treatment of childhood cancer. Since its inception in 2000, St. Baldrick's has raised over $34 million in donations for cancer research, with annual totals escalating rapidly as the group's exposure has widened dramatically. As part of the fundraising process, just before St. Patrick's Day there are also St.Baldrick's events scheduled at dozens of public locations at which the volunteers (men AND women) have their heads shaved as a show of solidarity with child cancer patients, many of whom lose their hair from chemotherapy treatments.

I participated in St. Baldrick's from 2004 through 2007, raising over $5,000 in donations from generous souls like yourselves, despite my nearly complete lack of sales and/or coercive skills. However, for reasons I can't quite explain, I never got around to registering for this year's event despite the fact that I still firmly believe in St. Baldrick's and the fight against childhoood cancer. But just because I'm not directly participating this year doesn't mean that you can't donate to the cause, and thus I strongly encourage all of you to consider making a tax-deductible donation. No amount is too small, and every little bit helps. Every dollar raised gets us that much closer to curing childhood cancer.

If you're interested, you can donate online with a credit card, or you can mail a check (payable to "St. Baldrick's Foundation") to:

St. Baldrick's Foundation
1443 E. Washington Boulevard, #650
Pasadena, CA 91104-2650

To all donors, my sincerest thanks!

By the way, I fully intend to resume my participation in St. Baldrick's next year, complete with the regular badgering of everyone I know for donations, and the public shearing of my already balding scalp. Meanwhile, though I won't be getting sheared at a formal St. Baldrick's event this year, over the weekend I'll shave my head in St. Baldrick's honor and post my photo here.

March 13, 2008 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

At Maurice Lenell, one taste will tell...

Marshall Field's becomes Macy's, fine. Jay's Potato Chips goes bankrupt and gets sold to an out-of-state company, fine. Wrigley Field might change its name, fine. But one thing in transition in Chicago business that ISN'T fine: Maurice Lenell Cooky Company is in Chapter 11 reorganization and is being forced out of its long-time home.

The 70-year-old Maurice Lenell Cooky Co. factory and store at 4474 N. Harlem Ave. have been sold to a developer who wants to open a Costco-anchored retail center on the site and surrounding property.

Maurice Lenell Cooky Co. — whose Jelly Stars, Almonettes and other cookies are a Chicago tradition — is operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and could either reorganize or be sold, according to Ken Mann, president of Equity Partners Inc., the broker Maurice Lenell hired to find investors or buyers for the business.

The company has apparently been done in (at least partially) by our federal government's perpetually misguided agriculture subsidies which prop up domestic sugar and corn production, those same subsidies that have already killed off most of Chicago's candy industry. Nice work, Washington.

Maurice Lenell was a cherished staple of my childhood. Quite frankly, though, I hadn't thought much about Lenell literally for decades, until this past Christmas, when a client of my company sent over a gift package of Lenell cookies that briefly found a home atop a filing cabinet ten feet from my desk. And I do mean briefly - I blissfully gorged myself on all my old favorites, delighted to discover that all of them tasted exactly the same as they did thirty years ago, and did more than my fair share of polishing the assortment off. This is one local institution whose demise would truly sadden me.

Say it ain't so, Maurice!

March 12, 2008 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (8)

Literary Festivals: Good News, Bad News

First, the bad:

The Midwest Literary Festival, which for five years had drawn famous authors and lovers of literature to Aurora, is ending.

City officials cited low income and feeble attendance for ending the two-day festival. In its place, they will host a literary series that will bring in authors one at a time throughout the year.

Fortunately, on the good side, Columbia College Chicago's Story Week is still going strong and kicks off next Sunday.

But then a funny thing happened. Columbia's cute little festival, which drew a handful of people over three days that first year, hung in there. And it expanded. Each year, the crowds increased - those 300 or so people in 1996 had, by 2007, multiplied to more than 5,000 - and the names on the marquee got bigger and bigger, including writers such as Salman Rushdie, Studs Terkel and Dave Eggers. Readings in lecture halls often were transformed into performance art in bars and nightclubs, complete with bands, and lively panel discussions, with a heavy emphasis on the interaction between the audience and the speakers.

If my workload at the office somehow slackens next Wednesday (March 19), I'd absolutely love to sneak off to this event:

11:00 AM
Panel: Beyond the Bookstore Tour, A Look at Guerrilla Marketing for Authors
with Jonathan Messinger, books editor, TimeOut Chicago, publisher, Featherproof Books, and author, Hiding Out; Hillary Carlip, publisher, FreshYarn.com, performance artist, and author, A la Cart: The Secret Lives of Grocery Shoppers; Eric Kirsammer, owner, Chicago Comics and Quimby's Bookstore; Shawn Shiflett, author, Hidden Place; Johnny Temple, publisher, Akashic Books
Host: Sam Weller, The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury
Columbia College Chicago
Film Row Cinema, 8th Floor
1104 S. Wabash, Chicago

Unfortunately, given the hellish pace of my office during the past few weeks, I'm not optimistic I'll be able to attend. Which is a shame, as I'd particularly enjoy the chance to meet Johnny Temple, whose Akashic Books is doing fantastic work these days. I've absolutely loved the last three books of theirs I've read - Chicago Noir, Aaron Patrovich's The Session, and Chris Abani's Song For Night.

March 10, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Song of the Week: Pete Townshend

Pete Townshend: "Save It For Later"

The Who was the first rock band I ever really latched onto, during my junior year in high school. My best friend Mike was an obsessive fan of the band, but despite the addictiveness of his mania I only took a few tentative steps into the water, first with the soundtrack album for The Kids Are Alright, and then a few of the studio albums. My Who collection swelled to about eight albums over the next few years, and though I finally sold them all off as my tastes moved elsewhere, I never stopped appreciating the band. One of the very greatest, I think.

The song above is Pete Townshend's solo version of "Save It For Later", the old English Beat hit. (This was a bonus track [1] from his post-Who solo album White City.) I really like how Townshend strips away the pop sheen of the original to reveal the emotional longing beneath.

[1] You see, youngsters, back in the old days when the record companies were trying to get music fans to convert their collections from vinyl LPs to the new-fangled CDs, they would re-release albums on CD with "bonus tracks" which didn't appear on the original LP. This way they hoped you'd fork over fifteen bucks for an album you already owned. The bonus tracks weren't always worth the extra money, though in the case of Townshend and "Save It For Later" it was very much worth it.

March 8, 2008 in Music | Permalink | Comments (2)

The Bard speaks from the great beyond


"What should the wars do with these jigging fools?"
- William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

(Photo by Charles Dharapak, Associated Press)

March 6, 2008 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Ring Lardner

Happy birthday to Ring Lardner, another of my literary heroes. My ancient copy of The Portable Ring Lardner is one of the most cherished volumes in my library.

It's the birthday of humorist and fiction writer Ring Lardner, born Ringgold Wilmer Lardner, in Niles, Michigan (1885). He was famous for his sports writing and the way he captured the way baseball players spoke in his writing.

When games were boring, Lardner would fill his articles with jokes and stories about the personal lives of players. He wrote for several Chicago newspapers, covering the Cubs and the White Sox. He wrote more than 4,500 articles and columns for newspapers throughout his life, as well as several other longer works of fiction. His first book was called You Know Me, Al (1916), about a made-up baseball player named Jack Keefe. It was supposedly a collection of letters Keefe had written.

One of Ring Lardner's good friends and drinking buddies was F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald encouraged Lardner to publish a collection of short stories, and he did with the book How to Write Short Stories (1924). Lardner wrote a lot of satire, and he once wrote of Fitzgerald, "Mr. Fitzgerald sprung into fame with his novel This Side of Paradise which he turned out when only three years old and wrote the entire book with one hand. Mr. Fitzgerald never shaves while at work on his novels and looks very funny along towards the last five or six chapters." Some of Lardner's other fans included Dorothy Parker, H. L. Mencken, Edmund Wilson, and Virginia Woolf.

Ring Lardner said, "Where do they get that stuff about me being a satirist? I just listen."

March 6, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

We Versus She

Clinton supporters chant "Yes she will." Obama supporters chant "Yes we can." That subtle difference - we versus she, partner versus parent - is why I support Obama, and why he'll be our next President.

March 5, 2008 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

W.C. Heinz

The writer W.C. Heinz has passed away, at age 93. Actually, I'm a bit surprised that he was still alive. Having read his best-known novel, The Professional, years ago, I remembered the prose as being so old-school that I just figured he had been gone for decades. I checked back in my reading list, and found it was 2001 when I read The Professional. Here's what I had to say back then:

Heinz is a contemporary of Algren's (both were highly regarded by Hemingway), and this book's themes are vaguely reminiscent of Algren: a boxer pulls himself out of society's lower class, gets a title shot and loses everything on one tiny, impulsive mistake. The narrative portions of this novel are extremely well-written, but ultimately the book bogs down from unnecessary or misplaced dialogue.

I more or less stand by that assessment today. Though I remember him as not having a great ear for dialogue (despite what Elmore Leonard says in that obit), Heinz knew boxing exceptionally well, and the book's fight scenes are outstanding. If you're a boxing fan or (like me) you have a perverse but detached interest in the sport, I strongly suggest you track the book down.

March 3, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"I always like to hang out because, one, it’s a way of avoiding really writing; and, two, sometimes God is a crackerjack novelist and you can plagiarize the hell out of him."
- Richard Price, on doing street-level research for his latest novel, Lush Life

March 2, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)


Whoa. Check out this gorgeous 360º panoramic of The Alchemist, a real charmer of a pub in Saint Malo, Brittany. So vividly life-like, I've got a sudden hankering for a pint of strong ale and an old book.

(Via Coudal.)

March 1, 2008 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (2)

Chicago Cultural Center

This month's art exhibitions at the Chicago Cultural Center look quite interesting, especially these three:


Petronele Gerlikiene: Embroidered Myths and Everyday Stories
through April 6, 2008
Chicago Cultural Center, Michigan Avenue Galleries
78 E. Washington Street

One of the most acclaimed, self-taught Lithuanian-American artists, Petronele Gerlikiene was born in Chicago in 1905 and died in Vilnius, Lithuania in 1979. She spent most of her life working in the countryside but, after retiring in 1972, she moved to the capital to live with her artist son. Fond of needlework and embroidery, she started to create her own compositions on curtains and rugs, with different trees as the central motifs, often surrounded by people and animals, sometimes referring to Lithuanian myths or simple daily life experiences. Organized by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs in cooperation with the Lithuanian Art Gallery Ciurlionis, Inc. and the Lithuanian Consulate in Chicago.


Women of Islam: Photographs by Rania Matar
through March 30, 2008
Chicago Cultural Center, Michigan Avenue Galleries
78 E. Washington St., Chicago

Boston area photographer Rania Matar originally hails from Lebanon, where she has repeatedly returned in pursuit of images of her homeland. This newest body of black and white work provides an insightful, inter-generational study of women and the volatile issue of the head scarf in Muslim culture. Organized by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs.


Marcelino Stuhmer: The Recurring Dream
through March 23, 2008
Chicago Cultural Center, Michigan Avenue Galleries
78 E. Washington St., Chicago

Marcelino Stuhmer's new installation of paintings presents a 12-foot diameter panoramic painting depicting the famous dream sequence from the Cold War film classic, The Manchurian Candidate (1962). In this scene, the camera pans 360º around the room, transforming an elderly women’s meeting on hydrangeas into a brutal Communist display of mind-control. As part of the installation, Stuhmer is also exhibiting a series of portraits of the American character actor Henry Silva, who has consistently been typecast in movies as an ethnic bad guy. While Silva's Korean Communist character Chunjin actually appears in the panoramic dream sequence, the portrait series entitled The Silva Screen, consists of manifestations of the actor, drawn from the numerous minority menaces he's played throughout his career. Organized by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs.

And I also see there's an upcoming exhibition by one of my favorite artists, Tony Fitzpatrick, starting in May that I'll be sure to attend as well. When I first starting working downtown, over five years ago, I was very diligent about regularly attending art exhibitions in the Loop (including the Cultural Center, the Illinois Gallery at the Thompson Center, and Columbia College) but even though I saw some great shows early on (most notably Gary Stochl and Jay Ryan) I haven't done much of that lately. I'll certainly be rectifying that soon, starting with these shows.

March 1, 2008 in Art, Chicago Observations, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sounds Quite Super

A recent Utne article introduced me to Superman Stories, a zine by Mark Russell which re-imagines the Man of Steel as an everyday guy. An everyday guy who can leap tall buildings at a single bound, of course, but one that's also wracked by doubt, relationship problems and other human foibles. Russell even goes so far as to dispense with the whole Clark Kent alter-ego thing altogether, as he quite sensibly explains in an interview at Every Day Is Like Wednesday:

One difference which was entirely intentional was the lack of a Clark Kent alter ego, which never made much sense to me. Britney Spears could put on a beekeepers’ outfit and she’d still get mobbed by fans the second she stepped out the door. The notion that a world famous and damn near omnipotent guy like Superman could put on a pair of glasses and a bad gray suit and simply melt into the crowd just struck me as ridiculous.

Sounds terrific. I'm working on obtaining a copy right now.

March 1, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Reading in Public: San Francisco, 1941


Another newspaper reader, this one aboard a San Francisco streetcar in December 1941. (They just don't print headlines like that anymore, not even in the New York Post.) Photograph by John Collier for the Farm Security Adminstration/Office of War Information. (Full photographic record here.)

(Reading in Public series is indexed here.)

March 1, 2008 in Reading in Public | Permalink | Comments (0)

On Leonard Michaels

In the latest Poets & Writers, Dan Barden becomes the latest voice in the MFA yes-or-no debate [1]. In the midst of his self-described rant, Barden pens a fine remembrance of his former writing instructor, Leonard Michaels:

I’m a bastard, actually, from a tradition of bastards. I never had a better creative writing teacher than Leonard Michaels. He was a bastard because he (a) never prepared for class, (b) didn’t apparently care much for his students, and (c) used no filter whatsoever on his opinions. What I learned from Michaels—what, apparently, many people learned from Michaels—was to jealously love literature itself. He cared so deeply about what he read, even that miserable story of yours, that he could not be moved to lie about it. He could not be moved to blunt the force of his delight that you had delighted him or his anger that you had failed him. Nothing personal: He just cared more about the writing than anything else.

I don’t teach like Michaels. It would be hard to keep a job if I did. He read our stories aloud until the moment he didn’t care anymore. Then he would stop reading and ask us why he didn’t care anymore. Sometimes this took only two sentences.

I've been meaning to read Michaels for several years now, ever since hearing Shalom Auslander's appreciation of Michaels at Nextbook. (Sadly, it appears that Auslander's full reading of Michaels' wonderful story "Murderers" is no longer available on the site in mp3.) Until recently, I could blame my inaction on most if not all of his work being out of print, and also not on the shelves of my otherwise well-stocked local library. But now that he's back in print again, mostly notably with The Collected Stories, I no longer have any excuse. I'll finally read Michaels this year - I promise.

[1] Despite the passage on Michaels, I really don't recommend reading the rest of the article, having grown throughly tired of the whole MFA debate. If you want an MFA, go get one. If not, then don't. Either way, don't bother telling me about it. I won't be listening.

March 1, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (3)