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Song of the Week: The Spinanes

The Spinanes: Sunday

This week, during my drives to and from the train station, I renewed acquaintances with The Spinanes. Although two-person rock bands are pretty common these days, the Spinanes were fairly unique to their mid-1990s era, and especially to their home city (Seattle) and record label (Sub Pop), both of which were the epicenter of grunge. Though their music had definite punk overtones, Rebecca Gates and Scott Plouf owed just as much of a debt to Northwest pioneer Lois Maffeo. To me, Rebecca Gates is kind of like a Lois Maffeo who wanted to rock out - and rock out she did, banging away on the basic chords of Lois-like melodies on guitar while Plouf drummed like a madman.

"Sunday" is from the band's invigorating 1993 debut, Manos, and nicely encapsulates their sound. The Spinanes put out two more albums, Strand (1996) and Arches and Aisles (1998), before breaking up. The latter was effectively a Gates solo album, with Plouf having left to join Built To Spill, and though Gates released her formal solo debut in 2001, she appears to have all but given up music. But while she was still at it, she and Plouf put out some very memorable music, of which this song is a great example.

August 30, 2008 in Music | Permalink | Comments (2)

And there was much rejoicing.

Great news: Laila Lalami has finished her new novel, titled Secret Son, which is slated for an April 2009 release. I loved her debut effort, the novel-in-stories Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits (so much so that I gave it to my niece as a gift and lent my own copy to several other people) and am certain the new one will be every bit as good.

August 29, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


Lately John McCain has taken to calling himself "The Original Maverick." (Technically speaking, James Garner was the original Maverick, but I digress.) What does this mean, exactly?

Is it maverick for a Republican to support an open-ended U.S. military presence in Iraq? To cozy up to oil companies? To push for even more corporate tax cuts? To oppose gun control? To advocate strict constructionism on Constitutional law? To punish illegal immigrants instead of offering a pathway to citizenship? To oppose women's reproductive rights? To advocate free trade, including the offshoring of American jobs? To vote with George Bush 100% of the time in 2008 and 95% in 2007?

Sorry, but when I look at McCain I don't see a maverick, but a disciple to the Republican dogma that has our country headed for ruin.

August 28, 2008 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Oh dear gawd


As the subject line says, OH DEAR GAWD. That image shown above is a prototype for the redesigned Chicago Tribune, as reported by Editor & Publisher via Crain's Chicago Business. Apparently the Tribune is hellbent on making USA Today look, by comparison, like the New York Times. Suffice it to say that the day this prototype becomes will be the exact moment I stop reading the Tribune for good.

Given the state of the newspaper industry, it's likely the Tribune was already dying when Sam Zell took over, but he seems intent on finishing it off once and for all, as if administering chloroform to a stricken animal.

August 27, 2008 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

William Least Heat-Moon

Birthday greetings to a writer I haven't thought of in a while.

It's the birthday of travel writer William Least Heat-Moon, born William Trogdon in Kansas City, Missouri (1939). He's best known for an account of his journey across the back roads of America, Blue Highways.

Of mixed English-Irish-Osage ancestry and the son of a lawyer, he spent the first part of his life immersed in academia, earning four degrees: a bachelor's, master's, and Ph.D. in literature, and then a bachelor's in photojournalism. He had been a university professor in the late 1970s when, within the course of a few months, his life seemed to have fallen apart: He lost his teaching job because of declining student enrollment at his school, and his wife of 11 years separated from him.

He decided to take to the open road and "live the real jeopardy of circumstance." He had a 1975 Ford van, which he made into a camper, and he gave it the name "Ghost Dancing" — a reference to ceremonies by Plains Indians of the 1890s, who "danced for the return of warriors, bison, and the fervor of the old life that would sweep away the new ... the dying rattles of a people whose last defense was delusion." He brought along a sleeping bag, portable stove, four gasoline credit cards, some cameras, a cassette recorder, various notebooks to write in, and his remaining life savings, which totaled less than $500. He also brought a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.

He wrote that he began his journey "with a nearly desperate sense of isolation and a growing suspicion that I lived in an alien land. ... I took to the open road in search of places where change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected."

Over the course of several months, he traveled 13,000 miles around the United States. He sat in local coffee shops and diners and parks and conversed with residents, listening to people narrate stories of their town. He said, "I wanted a journey that would present people, specific people, with names and addresses almost, so that the reader could pick up a Rand McNally and follow along and know almost mile by mile where this particular traveler was."

The book in which he chronicled his adventures, Blue Highways: A Journey into America, was published in 1982 and garnered widespread acclaim.

He's also the author of PrairyErth (A Deep Map): An Epic History of the Tallgrass Prairie Country (1991) and River-Horse: The Logbook of a Boat Across America (1999).

Blue Highways has been sitting unread on my shelf for five years now, a used hardcover I picked up at Brattle Books in Boston. I've been meaning to crack it open but for whatever reason haven't gotten around to it. I read River-Horse back in 2001, and liked parts of it. Here are my thoughts on it from back then:

Like the cross-country boat trip this book describes, getting through this book is a test of endurance. I greatly enjoyed Heat-Moon's narrative as he journeyed through towns on the Hudson, the Erie Canal and the Ohio, but things bog down quite a bit as he travels the Missouri, whose valley is so wide that few towns are adjacent and the only structures to describe are the inhumanly-scaled dams foolishly plunked down by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Maybe it's the "test of endurance" thing that is holding me back from Blue Highways, because reading descriptions of that book gives me the vague feeling that it's very similar to River-Horse - one on land, one on water, both meandering and often without direction.

August 27, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

That forever-elusive heap of bounty

"Some of these days He'll bust loose with a heap of bounty and all us poor folks will have all we want to eat and plenty to clothe us with. It can't always keep getting worse and worse every year like it has got since the big war. God, He'll put a stop to it some of these days and make the rich give back all they've took from us poor folks."
- Erskine Caldwell, Tobacco Road

It's been 76 years, Jeeter, and we're still waiting for that.

Just started this book this morning, and am liking it so far. Caldwell comes across a bit like a concise and to-the-point Steinbeck.

August 25, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Just for the record...

I own one house.

August 24, 2008 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (2)


"This is something novels can do, which drama and epic usually cannot: following up on what happens after the tragedy. How life goes on. This is why a lot of great novels seem a little flat at the end; ending things really isn’t their business."
- Ursula K. LeGuin, from an interview at The Inkwell Review

(Via Bill Ectric.)

August 21, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Follow the money

John McCain. Charles Keating. Lincoln Savings and Loan. $112,000 in political donations and a cozy family relationship. Senators lean on bank regulators. $2,000,000,000 tab paid by U.S. taxpayers. "The Keating Five".

This is, presumably, not the career experience and sound judgment that McCain keeps talking about.

August 20, 2008 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

O'Connor on McGahern

At The Guardian, Irish novelist Joseph O'Connor pens a warm appreciation of John McGahern. In addition to surveying the late writer's career, O'Connor tells of his teenage act of transcribing, then gradually rewriting McGahern's story "Sierra Leone":

Each man kills the thing he loves. And so the vandalism continued, over many an evening, with me editing and rewriting this once perfect story, slashing and burning, twisting, demolishing, with all the respectful deference of a wrecking ball in a cathedral, until gradually, over the span of my teenage years, every trace of McGahern was bludgeoned out of the text. Sierra Leone had become Glenageary. The story had been desecrated, but at least the resulting ruin was mine.

When, once, in my later life, I had the opportunity of relating this tale of destruction to the master whose work I had so abused, he replied, somewhat gravely: "Mine's a pint."

Apparently this act of youthful desecration taught O'Connor volumes on the craft of writing. But still - kids, don't try this at home.

I enjoyed McGahern's debut, The Barracks, this past March (as part of my recently established tradition of reading only Irish fiction during that month) and am now hungry for more. I have Amongst Women already lined up for next March, probably paired up with some William Trevor.

August 18, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Long Gimlet

"What they call a Gimlet is just some lime or lemon juice and gin with a dash of sugar and bitters. A real Gimlet is half gin and half Rose's Lime Juice and nothing else. It beats martinis hollow."
- Terry Lennox, speaking to Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye

Over the weekend, I took Lennox's advice and picked up a bottle of Rose's Lime Juice at the liquor store. Then I went home and cracked open a bottle of Bombay Sapphire, mixed it fifty-fifty with the Rose's per the strict Lennox recipe, and enjoyed the very refreshing cocktail while lounging on our brand new patio. First time I've ever had a gimlet, and definitely not the last. Life, as they say, is good.

August 18, 2008 in Books, Food and Drink | Permalink | Comments (4)



I have a real weakness for ephemera. Were it not for my general reticence to spend money - okay, cheapness - our house could easily be soon filled with esoteric items which would be considered valuable to only a few people in the world other than myself. But my resistance has been sorely tested the past two weekends, when we've gone to a couple of local estate auctions. I don't know how other estate auctions work, but this particular auctioneer combines smaller household and memorabilia items into individual boxes, so a box may contain one or two interesting things while the rest is all junk.

This past Saturday I was tempted by a box that included a bunch of old advertising blotters from long-defunct Joliet businesses, and the previous Saturday it was two 1960s vintage Chamber of Commerce-type publications that purport to show how proud local merchants were of their fair city of Joliet, but in reality are really just advertising vehicles. (Which is fine with me - I love the old ads, regardless of what was really behind these publications' coming into being.) But I never saw either box come up for bid, and after being at both auctions for several hours we had had enough and went home, and I realized I really didn't need any of that stuff.

But Julie went back to Saturday's auction for a second time, and after picking up a few more items of her own she also got some free books that the auctioneer had been lugging around for a while and was glad to get rid of. The quirky old books were interesting enough in themselves, but to our surprise one of them contained the photo shown above. I have no idea who this pleasant couple is (they're not even necessarily the old couple whose estate was being sold off) but I've decided to call them Phil and Estelle. The photo is now my favorite bookmark.

August 18, 2008 in Ephemera | Permalink | Comments (0)


"Bad luck for the young poet would be a rich father, an early marriage, an early success or the ability to do anything well."
- Charles Bukowski, who was born on this day in 1920

August 16, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Rialto's Opening Night


The Rialto Square Theatre is the jewel of Joliet, a magnificent Vaudeville-era movie palace which has been fully restored to its original glory. Julie and I were lucky enough to have our wedding reception there, in 1999, and the setting couldn't have been more perfect.

The image above (click on it for full size) is an ad that appeared in the Joliet Herald-News on the day the Rialto opened, May 24, 1926. I can't even begin to imagine what "The Evolution of Joliet" - a stage musical, apparently commissioned specifically for the opening festivities - could possibly have been like. Prison! Air-clogging steel mills! A nascent mafia!

I kid. I truly love living here. And the history is nothing short of fascinating.

August 16, 2008 in Joliet | Permalink | Comments (0)


At The Morning News, Robert Birnbaum comes up with a list of great books made into great films. Check it out. While I'll preface my comments by saying that neither my book-reading or film-viewing careers are particularly comprehensive, here are the books-to-film on Birnbaum's list that I've either read or seen, or both.

Read and Seen: Grapes of Wrath, The Maltese Falcon, To Kill a Mockingbird

Read Only: The Scarlet Letter, The Long Goodbye, Catch-22, The 25th Hour

Seen Only: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Random thoughts:
+ Wow - I had no idea about Catch-22. And I've always been a fan of Alan Arkin. I'll have to search this one out.
+ I just so happen to be reading The Long Goodbye at the moment, and I'm having a very hard time picturing Elliott Gould as Marlowe.
+ To Kill a Mockingbird is definitely my top book/film pairing. The film still gives me goosebumps.
+ Ed Norton is one of my favorite actors, but I thought so little of the book of The 25th Hour that I doubt I'll ever bother with the film.
+ Birnbaum must not be a fan of Ian McEwan, because Atonement is one of the best books I've ever read, and a pretty damned good film, too.

August 14, 2008 in Books, Film | Permalink | Comments (2)

Obligatory Ben Tanzer post for August

Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine has hit the streets, and is now featured at The Page 69 Test, where the tireless Marshal Zeringue publishes Ben's riffing on the contents of page 69 of his book but, sadly, not an actual excerpt. Still, plenty of flavor. (And thanks, Marshal, for blurbing my blurb.)

Oh, and I suppose I should post another plug for the official release party for the book. So here it is.

August 14, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Unexpected pleasure

I didn't realize until just yesterday that weeding our big and unruly flower beds can actually be enjoyable, with just the right musical accompaniment. I hauled the old boombox outside, hooked up a long extension cord and extricated rogue grasses and clover to the incomparable strains of Television's Marquee Moon and Tom Waits' Swordfishtrombones. And after the work was done, I relaxed on the front steps in the setting sun, finished the last of my icewater and listened a second time to Waits' hauntingly lovely "A Soldier's Things". Life, as they say, is good.

August 11, 2008 in Music, Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

Melville to Marlowe

Melville's Billy Budd didn't do much for me, so little in fact that I'm now even less inclined to tackle Moby-Dick - maybe someday, but certainly not any time soon. But one thing I'll take away from Billy Budd is a single line, from Chapter 25. Having been condemned to death, Billy is visited by the ship's chaplain, who tries to offer him the comforts of religious faith which Billy, as a non-believer, politely endures without taking any of it to heart. Here's the line:

It was like a gift placed in the palm of an outreached hand upon which the fingers do not close.

For some reason, that one will stay with me for a while.

Time to move on. Thus far during my Summer of Classics I've read only 19th Century works, with Gogol being the only one I've enjoyed and the turgid prose and pointless digressions of the others making me hunger for plainer, more lively and vivid writing. Usually I like to follow something heavy and ponderous with a nice delicious slice of noir or pulp, usually Jim Thompson. So last night, while stopping at the Joliet Public Library to pick up a book my wife had on reserve, I picked up Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye. I'm twenty pages in, and it already beats the hell out of Conrad and Melville.

August 8, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

George Singleton explains why

Love, love, LOVE George Singleton's contribution to the "Why Obama" series that's been running at Largehearted Boy. Besides the usual litany of Obama's admirable qualities (which are, implicitly, the exact opposite of McCain's less desirable traits), Singleton goes one step further, and explains why writers in particular should vote for Obama.

Every time I watch the news, or read a newspaper, or glance at one of the political magazines, my blood pressure rises to something like 210 over 140. It’s been that way for going on eight years. If McCain happened to be the next president, I’m sure that it would continue. Writers cannot thrive when their blood pressure levels get so high that the capillaries in their eyeballs burst without notice, and that constant drumbeat sound in the ears is enough to cause dementia. With dementia comes certain delusional experiences, and with delusion comes weird actions--like voting for Republican candidates.

Hear, hear.

August 6, 2008 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (2)

Leon Lewandowski


Ron Slattery at Bighappyfunhouse has made a truly wonderful find: an extensive collection of photographs of Leon Lewandowski, who studied under Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind at Chicago's Institute of Design during the 1950s. Here's Ron's explanation:

Another wonderful find. A very good friend of mine recently sold me a large collection of photographs, proof sheets and negatives. The photographers name is Leon Lewandowski. He was a student at the Institute of Design here in Chicago. The fun part is, he studied under famed photographers Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind. Leon attend the Institute from 1951 to 1955. He graduated with a Masters in Photography in 1955. In the 1950s there were only 14 other students to do so.

Mr. Lewandowski was one hell of a photographer. Many of his shots are from the streets of Chicago in the 1950s. You can see the influences of Callahan and Siskind in his work. The photos posted today are scanned from some of the proof sheets so I apologize for the quality of the images.

No apology needed, Ron - all of the photographs are great, even those scanned from proofsheets. Here are the first sets posted so far:

Leon Lewandowski - Part 1
Leon Lewandowski - Part 2

August 2, 2008 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Call me Herman

I think this might have also happened last year during Summer of Classics, while I was reading Bartleby the Scrivener, but having just started Billy Budd yesterday I was pleasantly surprised to see this birthday announcement in my inbox today:

It's the birthday of the man who wrote "Call me Ishmael," one of the most famous first lines in literature: Herman Melville, born in New York City, in 1819. Melville's father was a successful import merchant who told his eight children adventure stories of sailing and distant places. But his father died when Melville was young, and from the age of 12, he worked to support himself as a clerk, farmhand, and teacher. When he was 20, he worked as a cabin boy on a ship that went to Liverpool and back, the first of his many voyages. In 1841, he joined the crew of the whaler Acushnet, which sailed around Cape Horn and through the South Pacific. He spent time as a clerk in Honolulu, and for a while he lived with the Typee people of the Marquesas Islands, a tribe of cannibals who treated Melville well. Inspired by his adventures at sea, Melville returned to his mother's house in New York and settled down to write about his travels. The result was his novel Typee (1946). It was rejected by a Boston publisher, so Melville published it in London, where it became an immediate best seller. He wrote a sequel called Omoo (1847), which was also a big success. But then Melville decided to write for himself instead of to please his readers, so his third book, Mardi and a Voyage Thither (1849), was more psychological, less romantic, and readers were disappointed. He continued to write and publish, but he was never as popular again.

Melville got married and had four children, and the family bought a farm in Massachusetts, where Melville became friends with Nathaniel Hawthorne. Melville was working on Moby-Dick, his story of Captain Ahab's obsessive hunt for the great white whale, and Hawthorne encouraged him to make the novel an allegory, not just an account of whaling.

Melville became consumed with writing Moby-Dick. He would work all day without eating until evening, and he would bellow across the house, "Give me Vesuvius' crater for an inkstand!" He was elated when he finished his novel (published in 1851) and considered it his greatest work yet. He wrote to Hawthorne, "I have written a wicked book and feel as spotless as the lamb." But it was a flop. Readers didn't like it. His American publisher only printed 3,000 copies, and most of those never even sold; in 1853, a warehouse fire destroyed the plates and the unsold books, and the publisher refused to reset the book or compensate Melville.

Melville wrote two more novels just to make money, and he said the experience was like "sawing wood," but he still couldn't make enough to live on. His work became darker and more psychological, and it sold even fewer copies, and Melville began to get depressed. His last major work was The Confidence Man (1857), a biting satire of American life. He wrote poetry but couldn't find a publisher, so he had to publish it himself. He moved to New York and got a job as a customs inspector on the New York docks. The manuscript of his final work, Billy Budd, was found in his desk after he died. At the time of his death, Melville had been almost completely forgotten, and The New York Times called him "Henry Melville" in his obituary. Moby-Dick is now considered one of the great American novels.

In Moby-Dick, he wrote, "Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air."

He said, "It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation."

And, "Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian."

Incidentally, though Melville is anything but a humorous writer, I was amused by this wry aside in Billy Budd, in which the author deftly pre-empts any objection to a forthcoming digression from his narrative:

In this matter of writing, resolve as one may to keep to the main road, some by-paths have an enticement not readily to be withstood. I am going to err into such a by-path. If the reader will keep me company I shall be glad. At the least we can promise ourselves that pleasure which is wickedly said to be in sinning, for a literary sin the divergence will be.


August 1, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (4)

On the neighborliness of cities

"And St. Petersburg was left without Akaky Akakiyevich, as though he had never lived there. A being disappeared, who was protected by none, dear to none, interesting to none, and who never even attracted to himself the attention of those students of human nature who omit no opportunity of thrusting a pin through a common fly and examining it under the microscope..."
-Nikolai Gogol, The Overcoat

"You can live your whole life out somewhere between Goose Island and Bronzeville without once feeling that, the week after you move, the neighbors are going to miss your place. For it isn't so much a city as it is a vast way station where three and a half million bipeds swarm with the single cry, 'One side or a leg off, I'm getting mine!' It's every man for himself in this hired air."
-Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the Make

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