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I don't read the blogs of college literary journals very avidly, as most of them seem to miss what I believe is the general idea of litblogging - concise commentary about all things literary. The college blogs seem to run on a bit (the sign of student bloggers with too much time on their hands?) and any time I have to scroll down a page or two to read a post, the blog has already lost me. But this post from The Missouri Review ("Literary Monsters") grabbed my attention, and this item in particular:

3. The Hound of the Baskervilles
When the topic of this blog was announced during TMR’s weekly editorial meeting, my mind leapt instantly to Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, the novella I’d just finished reading for a British literature course I’m currently enrolled in . The literary monster that comes to mind is, of course, the horrifying hellhound of the title, a creature that haunts the Baskerville line starting with Sir Hugo and ending with Sir Henry. Reading about Holmes and Watson’s investigation on the moor sent my mind into overdrive; I imagined the otherworldly beast with flames dripping from its fangs and eyes flashing red. However, I found that the hound was truly most terrifying in my imagination. For this course, which is about adaptation of literature for film, we watched the 2002 Masterpiece Theatre production of the novella, and the obviously computer-animated hound of this version was more laughable than frightening. As the CGI hound pursued Sir Henry on the moor, my classmates and I were overcome by fits of giggles rather than temors of terror. I suppose that goes to show you that sometimes, the scariest part of literary monsters is that they’re only as scary as we imagine them to be–once they are reimagined by others or depicted on the screen, the fear that comes with turning pages is somewhat diminished or entirely eliminated. –Brittany Barr
I remember being a bit spooked myself upon first reading Doyle's timeless tale. But I find it curious that none of these contributors saw fit to mention Poe, who for my money remains the scariest writer America has ever produced. I remember an ill-advised reading of "The Premature Burial" one night in college, just before going to bed. The story concerns a man who falls into a comatose state and is believed to be dead, so much so that he is duly interred. And of course, Poe being the macabre master that he was, the man wakes up and finds himself in a coffin, under six feet of soil. (Or believes that's the case. Read the story yourself.) That story scared the crap out of me, and I couldn't sleep for hours, wondering what would happen if I fell asleep and was similarly diagnosed as expired, only to wake and find myself pushing up daisies. Egad.

October 31, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Coterminous Nationhood"

Richard Grayson just might be onto something. From his "17 Fragments in Search of a Story":

Grandma Tutie is going to Israel. Grandpa Schnitz is going to Palestine. They are both going to the same place.

Because of pressure exerted by OPEC oil ministers, it has been decreed that the two nations of Palestine and Israel shall exist in the same space simultaneously. Now there is no more war in the Middle East. Everyone can go about his or her business. Nationhood is all in the mind.

At a séance, I contact the spirit of my dead buddy Fritz O'Day. Fritz says he hopes the idea of coterminous nationhood will spread. Then people like him will not have to invade places like Cambodia anymore. People like Fritz can be put to better use rounding up pre-teen hoodlums and forcing gasoline down their throats.

I ask Fritz what being dead is like.

"It's all right," he tells me. "It's better than being in the army."
The story is part of Grayson's collection Highly Irregular Stories, which I just finished this morning and will review here soon.

October 31, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"blurbs for some things in my flat"

Chris Killen (whose literary taste I've lauded here previously) has come up with a very funny list of blurbs for mundane things in his flat.

"Reminiscent of the works of McEwen and possibly even Updike, this cross-section of orange throw is up there with the greats."
Clearly, anything can be blurbed, no matter how inconsequential. Which I hope gives you pause next time you see a raving blurb on the jacket of a book you're thinking of buying.

October 28, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

M.R. James

Michael Chabon writes about the British ghost story writer M.R. James (from the recent essay collection Maps and Legends), contrasting James with his better-known American counterpart H.P. Lovecraft:

The contrast is particularly stark when it comes to their portrayal of the unportrayable. Lovecraft approaches Horror armed with adverbs, abstractions, and perhaps a too-heavy reliance on pseudopods and tentacles. James rarely does more than hint at the nature of his ghosts and apparitions, employing a few simple, select, revolting adjectives, summoning his ghosts into hideous, enduring life in the reader's mind in a bare sentence or two.
I must admit that the purported simplicity of James' prose attracts me, as I increasingly find myself drawn to literary understatement and the left-unsaid. So when Chabon further claims that James' "Oh, Whistle, I'll Come to You, My Lad" (available here) is "one of the finest short stories ever written" I really had no choice but to check out that story, which I finally read this morning.

My take? Yes, the prose is nicely understated - no histrionics, no drooling and blood-curdling beast, and the horror might well be nothing more than a figment of the protagonist's overactive imagination - and it's a pretty good tale, but one of the finest short stories ever written? Sorry, no.

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

What I Listened To While I Raked Yesterday

With a heavy nod to GE, here's my playlist from yesterday's leaf-raking. I specifically selected the first song (which I purchased earlier in the day) but all the rest are from random shuffle play.

Morrissey: "We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful"
I was never much of a Morrissey fan in the day - the relentless woe-is-me misery always put me off - but I'm developing a late appreciation for his music. This song even makes a brief appearance in my novel Wheatyard, so I figured I should finally own it. (from Your Arsenal)

Scruffy the Cat: "Ticket to Ride"
Great live cover of the Beatles classic from one of my alltime favorite bands. (Live recording at Newbury Sound)

Ted Leo: "The High Party"
Solo version of the great song from Hearts of Oak which proves Leo could easily become a successful subway busker if the economy really tanks. (from the Balgeary EP)

Joel R.L. Phelps and the Downer Trio: "Hope's Hit"
One of my favorites from this particular album, whose lyric "as blown as the barflies" directly inspired one of my microfiction pieces. (from 3)

R.E.M.: "Gardening at Night"
In many ways R.E.M. never really topped their first three records, of which this EP was the first. Timeless. (from Chronic Town)

Pavement: "No Tan Lines"
A real hoot: "You will be my candy striper/Junior leaguer, bedpan wiper/Convalesence, enema essence/I live to be gray/I live to be gray!" (from the Shady Lane EP)

Morphine: "The Other Side"
Mystical and spooky, this is the very first Morphine song I ever heard, on Champaign's great WEFT circa 1992. (from Good)

Sebadoh: "Everybody Has Been Burned"
Though I'm a longtime fan of Sebadoh, I only just now heard this one for the first time, as Jason Behrends included it on the mix CD ("Where Were You in '92?") that he compiled and bundled with Ben Tanzer's latest novel. (from Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock)

Pavement: "Wanna Mess You Around"
Parental note: Malkmus never actually sings "mess", but instead a rather blunt word which begins with the letter F. Maybe as punk as Pavement ever got. (from the Shady Lane EP)

Lou Reed: "The Last Shot"
Reed's narrator finally gets clean, yet regrets not having exited dissolution with more of a bang. (from Legendary Hearts)

Ted Leo & the Pharmacists: "Come Baby Come"
Unlike most of Leo's extended jams, this one does not descend into dissonant anarchy. (from Treble in Trouble)

Tom Waits: "Never Let Go"
Considering I have the entire second disc ("Bawlers") of Orphans loaded up, it's surprising that shuffle didn't serve up Waits much earlier. This one's a beauty, quite majestic and lovely, sort of like "In the Neighborhood" as a love song. (from Orphans)

Tom Waits: "Danny Says"
A touching lament from a musician stuck out on the road. (from Orphans)

Bob Mould: "Heartbreak a Stranger"
The prettiest song on Workbook, and possibly the jangliest Mould has ever been. (from Workbook)

Tom Waits: "Young at Heart"
Shuffle play quickly makes up for lost time. One of two covers I'm aware of on the "Bawlers" disc (the other being a boozy "Goodnight Irene"). (from Orphans)

The Feelies: "The Good Earth"
Jangle rock at its very finest. (from The Good Earth)

Bob Mould: "The Silence Between Us"
More Mould, this one post-Sugar. Good stuff, though it seems he might never reach the musical heights (or emotional abyss) of Husker Du again. (from The District Line)

The Pixies: "Where Is My Mind?"
Another one from Jason Behrends. I'm quite glad to have this one in its entirety; years ago a friend made me a tape of the Matter of Degrees soundtrack, and "Where Is My Mind" was the last one on the side, and the tape sadly ran out before the song ended. So I had never heard the complete song before. (from Surfer Rosa)

Joel R.L. Phelps and the Downer Trio: "Give Me Back My Animal"
Another lovely song from a very fine album: "this year winter's come with autumn missing." (from 3)

October 27, 2008 in Music | Permalink | Comments (2)

As if I needed any more convincing!

Obama secures the coveted endorsement of...Opie/Richie, Sheriff Taylor and the Fonz. Surely nobody would dare call the Fonz elitist! Heeeeeey! Let's rumble!

October 24, 2008 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Chicagoan


Wow. This looks awesome.

While browsing the stacks of the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago some years ago, noted historian Neil Harris made a surprising discovery: a group of nine plainly bound volumes whose unassuming spines bore the name The Chicagoan. Pulling one down and leafing through its pages, Harris was startled to find it brimming with striking covers, fanciful art, witty cartoons, profiles of local personalities, and a whole range of incisive articles. He quickly realized that he had stumbled upon a Chicago counterpart to the New Yorker that mysteriously had slipped through the cracks of history and memory.
While this might sound like a fanciful work of fiction, it's for real. Check out the stunning pdf preview. I particularly like the cartoon on page 13, with the caption "The 'W.G.N.' Staff discovers a pacifist." (W.G.N.: "the world's greatest newspaper", as the Chicago Tribune used to immodestly and inaccurately call itself.)

Ah, what could have been.

October 23, 2008 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)


John Steinbeck:

When I wrote “The Grapes of Wrath,” I was filled, naturally, with certain angers—certain angers at people who were doing injustices to other people, or so I thought. I realize now that everyone was caught in the same trap. If you remember, we had a depression at that time. The Depression caught us without the ability to take care of it. It took a long time for us to develop the agencies to take care of such economic difficulties. When the dust came up, people were starving; they had no place to go. Naturally, they went in a direction where they would not suffer from cold: they went toward California. They came in the thousands to California.

And what did they meet—they met people who were terrified, number one, of the Depression, and were horrified at the idea that great numbers of indigent people were being poured on them to be taken care of. They could only be taken care of by taxation. Taxes were already high, and there wasn’t much money about. They reacted perfectly normally—they became angry. And when you become angry, you fight what you’re angry at. They were angry at these newcomers.

Gradually, through government agency, through the work of private citizens, agencies were set up to take care of these situations, and only then did the anger begin to decrease. And when anger decreased, these two sides, these two groups, were able to get to know each other, and they found they didn’t dislike each other at all.
Those government agencies were those of the New Deal which saved our country from utter ruin, and whose modern-day counterparts are conveniently ignored by conservatives who insist that government is inherently bad and has no business being involved in peoples' everyday lives. How utterly wrong they are.

October 23, 2008 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Found poetry

Consult owner before
Repairing or cleaning this tank

Protect interior coating
When entering tank
Wear clean rubber overshoes
Tools must be protected

(Read off the side of a railcar while stuck in freight cross-traffic today. Sometimes the inconveniences of public transportation have their tiny rewards.)

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

Muslim in America

Thank you, General Powell. This really needed to be said.

I'm also troubled by not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said: such things as "Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim." Well, the correct answer is "He is not a Muslim; he's a Christian." He's always been a Christian.

But the really right answer is "What if he is?" Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion: "He's a Muslim and he might be associated [with] terrorists." This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

(Via Orange Crate Art.)

October 20, 2008 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sax Man

(Previous installment)

Again he felt the taste, a phantom on his dry tongue. Dry from playing the sax on the windy bridge for hours, and figuratively from not taking a drink for the past several days. He felt the cold sting of the gin, again, alluring and threatening at the same time. He checked his watch again. 9:35. His shift started in twenty-five minutes and he still had to change into his uniform, and even though the Landmark was only steps away from the hotel he thought he might not have enough time. Lingering those few extra minutes on the bridge, lost in the music while also keeping a hopeful eye out for next passerby who might be generous with spare change, might end up keeping him from the stiff one that would help him through the workday. He debated, as he did on so many other mornings, whether he truly needed it. He thought he still had the will to do without it, but still, it would be such a nice, pleasant addition to his day.

(Next installment)

October 20, 2008 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The real America"

The quote:

"We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation."

The conclusion: whiter and wealthier.

October 19, 2008 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)


"We don't need lists of rights and wrongs, tables of do's and don'ts: we need books, time, and silence. 'Thou shalt not' is soon forgotten, but 'Once upon a time' lasts forever."
- Philip Pullman (one of my wife's favorite writers), who is celebrating his 62nd birthday today

October 19, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Hell has frozen over...

...pigs are flying, the Cubs have won...okay, the Cubs didn't win the World Series, but this is still quite monumental:

Tribune endorsement: Barack Obama for president

Of course, the cynic in me wonders if Obama wasn't from Illinois - or even if he was from as nearby as Indiana, Wisconsin or Iowa - if he still would have gotten the endorsement.

That faint whirring sound you hear is Colonel McCormick spinning in his grave.

October 17, 2008 in Chicago Observations, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

So who's to blame?

John McCain has been blaming the economic mess on lax mortgage lending standards at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and by extension to the Democrats in Congress who supposedly pushed for expanded lending at the two government-chartered institutions. Were Fannie and Freddie responsible for the mortgage mess? No, says a current Zacks Investment Research report.

Let’s review a little bit of history: Fannie dates from 1938, Freddie from 1968, and the CRA was passed in 1977. The worst of the bad mortgages were made from 2003 through the first half of 2007. It sure seems like a very long lead time for Fannie, Freddie or the CRA to be the culprit.

It was the growth of private-label mortgage-backed securities, largely built on mortgages originated by mortgage brokers, not banks, and funded by non-bank financial institutions such as New Century, Ameriquest and Countrywide (late in its life, Countrywide did get a thrift subsidiary) that created the worst paper.

The mortgages that started in these channels were packaged up by Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and the rest of the big investment banks and sold bypassing Fannie and Freddie.

New Century, Ameriquest, Countrywide...all high-flying (some would say "fly by night") mortgage lenders who would lend to anyone and everyone, but have since crashed. Bear Stearns, Lehman...the Wall Street geniuses who bought practically every mortgage that the lenders sent their way, not because the underlying mortgages were sound but because the Wall Streeters figured they could always sell off the securities to some other sucker. Those "suckers" finally said no, and Wall Street has been pummelled ever since.

October 17, 2008 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Joliet: No to Meijer

The developer of the long-awaited upscale lifestyle center at the northwest corner of Route 59 and Theodore Street has completely shifted gears. Blaming difficult economic conditions, the developer now wants a Meijer store there instead.

The developer of what once was supposed to be a one-of-a-kind, upscale shopping center now plans to put a big-box Meijer supercenter store at the corner of Illinois 59 and Theodore Street.

The 24-hour, 156,000-square-foot store would go into Tower Marketplace of Joliet.

The shopping center, originally called Bronk's Corners, was announced three years ago with much fanfare. Developer Ardmin Properties said then that it planned to create a signature development that would serve as a gathering place for people who would shop at unique stores and dine at upscale restaurants.

That plan, however, has run up against a downturn in the economy and increased competition from other retail projects planned for the area.

Adding a Meijer store is such a change in course for Tower Marketplace that the store will have to get city council approval before it can be built.

What an incredibly bad idea. There's already a Wal-Mart right across the street, and a Target a quarter of a mile away. The area is already ridiculously congested as it is, and adding another big box retailer will make it even worse. Better to leave the land parcel vacant for a few years until economic conditions improve and a better use for it can be found, than to add another big box that the area really doesn't need.

If you live in Joliet and agree with me on this, I urge you to contact your Councilman immediately and voice your concerns.

October 16, 2008 in Joliet | Permalink | Comments (8)

Speaking of Hemon...

Aleksandar Hemon had a sharp new story, "The Noble Truths of Suffering" in The New Yorker last month.

Macalister laughed, for the first time since I’d met him. He slanted his head to the side and let out a deep, chesty growl of a laugh. In shame, I looked around the room, as though I had never seen it. The souvenirs from our years in Africa: the fake-ebony figurines, the screechingly colorful wicker bowls, a malachite ashtray containing entangled paper clips and Mother’s amber pendants. A lace handiwork whose delicate patterns were violated by prewar coffee stains. The carpet with an angular horse pattern. All these familiar things had survived the war and displacement. I had grown up in this apartment, and now it seemed old, coarse, and anguished.

A renowned American writer, a fledgling Bosnian-American writer as narrator (go figure!) and (egad!) lunch with the Bosnian's parents. Not quite the recipe for disaster one might imagine, as it turns out.

One of these days I just might have to index all of the Hemon posts I've written here. I've got something of a cottage industry going.

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

National Book Award finalists

I rarely mention any literary awards here, but this time I must, for it looks like my tardy, proscrastinating, read-books-years-after-publication self is finally ahead of the curve for once.

Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project
Rachel Kushner, Telex From Cuba
Peter Matthiessen, Shadow Country
Marilynne Robinson, Home
Salvatore Scibona, The End

Hemon's one of my favorite writers and The Lazarus Project is the best book I've read this year, so obviously I'm really pulling for him. But if he has to lose, I'd prefer that it be to Matthiessen, whose terrific At Play In the Fields of the Lord was a runner-up for the NBA in 1966 but doesn't seem to get much notice these days.

October 15, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Hurrah for the kids!

This certainly gives me hope for the next generation: Obama Wins Scholastic News Election Poll.

The Scholastic Presidential Election Poll results are in: Democratic nominee Senator Barack Obama won with 57 percent of the vote, to 39 percent for Republican nominee Senator John McCain.

The poll was open to kids from grades 1 to 12 in Scholastic News and Junior Scholastic magazines. Almost 250,000 (a quarter of a million) kids voted by paper ballot or online at www.scholastic.com/news. The poll closed on October 10.

Since 1940, the results of the student vote have mirrored the outcome of the general election all but twice.

Of course, I've heard the well-worn argument that everybody's a liberal until they "grow up and start paying taxes." Actually, I've gotten more liberal as I've gotten older, and wouldn't mind paying more taxes if they're spent on the right things. (Social programs, education, economic development: yes. Overseas military conflicts, shady defense contractors, tax breaks for people and corporations who are already swimming in cash: no.) So I find this encouraging.

(Via Orange Crate Art.)

October 15, 2008 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Psyching up

As I mentioned earlier, I'm resuming NaNoWriMo this year, after taking a hiatus last November. I will be reviving a concept I came up with a few years ago for a work of fiction based on Morphine's final album, The Night. The story has been in the back of my mind all this time, so I've decided to give it a month of serious writing to see if there's anything material there. I'm doing so despite being fully aware that Wheatyard needs yet another round of revisions that I haven't started in on yet, but then again I'll only be doing The Night for a month to see what, if anything, materializes. After that, back to Wheatyard.

So now I'm mentally preparing myself for the new book, and gladly immersing myself in all things Morphine. Since every one of the band's albums will figure into the plot, last weekend I downloaded the band's debut, Good (their only studio album that I hadn't already owned), and have been avidly listening to it this week on my new iPod. (Quick assessment: though it's generally thought of as a formative album for the band, as a whole I think it's better than either Yes or Like Swimming.) And this weekend I'm ripping my CD of Cure For Pain onto the iPod - in my story, that album is the one that hits the protagonist like a ton of bricks when he first hears it, much like it did to me, back in 1993. I'll be wallowing in Cure For Pain in the next few weeks, trying to re-experience those first feelings of discovery all over again, and then hopefully I'll be able to translate them into my prose.

October 15, 2008 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

Illinois, 1788

I'm a big fan of Project Gutenberg. For the uninitiated, the site collects public domain works - literature, periodicals, historical arcana - which tireless volunteers lovingly transcribe and reproduce for anyone and everyone to read. I subscribe to their RSS feed, which conveniently notifies me which new works (literally, dozens per week) have been posted. So last week I thought it was interesting, while thoroughly enjoying So Long, See You Tomorrow, William Maxwell's great novel of Central Illinois in the 1920s, to see this come on on Project Gutenberg: Narrative of the Captivity of William Biggs among the Kickapoo Indians in Illinois in 1788. In the plainspoken English of the day, Biggs describes being captured, held hostage and ultimately ransomed by a small group of Kickapoo. It's a fascinating glimpse into everyday life of a long-vanished Indian tribe from an time when white settlers were still very rare in the Illinois Territory, exactly thirty years before it achieved statehood.

October 13, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Underwood joins the family


My wife is the best. Last Friday morning my phone rang at the office, much earlier than I'm used to hearing from Julie every day. She and Maddie had decided, spur of the moment, to go to an estate sale, and she informed me that she had found an old Underwood typewriter, and asked if she should buy it for me. As I suspect is the case with many writers, I have a fetishistic attraction for old manual typewriters, though I had not yet taken the plunge. Trouble is, I had never studied the old machines well enough to know exactly what I was looking for, and Julie knew little about them. So she tried to describe it for me as well as she could, while I prowled typewriter websites looking for something that matched what she was describing, without much success. Finally I said, Oh what the hell, go ahead and buy it. Which she did - for just twenty bucks. Bless her heart - I know that old typewriters certainly weren't high on her list of things she wanted to at during that estate sale, but she still took the time to do so, just for me.

So when I got home that night, here's what I had: an Underwood Universal portable, from 1938. That's it in the photo above, and I couldn't be happier with it. It's in very good condition - it shows well and seems to be in perfect working order. (That website linked to above has their model listed for $450, but that's in completely refurbished condition. Plus that's their asking price - who knows if they'll ever sell if for anywhere near that much. Still, it looks like Julie made a very good deal.) The only thing that needs to be replaced is the ribbon, which was all but dried out. But the ribbon had just enough ink left in it to allow me to type out my first message:


I'm really looking forward to buying a new ribbon and giving the old relic a real workout. I'm toying with the idea of writing an entire new story, start to finish, completely on the typewriter, and mailing off the final typed draft to some literary journal without ever using a PC. I'll let you know how that goes.

("The Lovely Miss Underwood", indeed!)

October 12, 2008 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (4)

Ghosts among us


Love this image, love this post.

October 10, 2008 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Summer of Classics - The Recap

As I mentioned earlier, my tardiness in starting my Summer of Classics required me to take great liberties with the calendar, which is why I'm just now finishing my "summer" in October. Here are my thoughts on what I read this year.

Joseph Conrad: Lord Jim
This purported classic should have been exactly that - a timeless story of a single act of youthful cowardice, public humiliation and guilt, momentary redemption and sudden failure, and a final succumbing to fate in pursuit of honor. But the story's many high points ultimately are buried in chronic digression, overly ornate language and a completely unrealistic "first person minor" narration. Again and again Lord Jim literally made my eyes glaze over and drove me into sleep, and I finally finished the book with relief instead of the exhilaration befitting a true classic. (Related posts: 1 2 3)

Nikolai Gogol: The Overcoat
This one, by contrast, is a classic, albeit a very strange one. What begins as a sadly realistic tale of a lonely clerk and his quest for dignity before an indifferent and often cruel world, along with a dead-on satire of stifling government bureaucracy, morphs abruptly into a ghost story involving one and perhaps two restless spirits. Gogol died young, way back in 1852, long before the era of the author interview, and based on the widely varying interpretations I've seen he seems to have taken the ultimate meaning of his story to his grave. Which leaves The Overcoat very much subject to interpretation, with just the sort of open-endedness that marks some of my favorite fiction. This one really makes you think. (Related posts: 1 2)

Herman Melville: Billy Budd, Sailor
I've come to realize that just because a book was written by a classic author doesn't make the book a classic. This one is really making me reconsider my vow to finally tackle Moby-Dick, although several people are strongly urging me to still do just that. We'll see. (Related posts: 1)

Raymond Chandler: The Long Goodbye
After the parched trudge through Melville, Chandler's noir classic proved to be the perfect palate cleanser. Chandler tells a great story and tells it extremely well, keeps the reader guessing which of the loose narrative threads will lead to the solution, and despite describing all of those angles in such depth, seemingly to the point of leaving no room for any surprises, still throws in a twist at the end that I absolutely never saw coming. A truly great book. (Related posts: 1)

Erskine Caldwell: Tobacco Road
Caldwell's brutally grim novel of Georgia tenant farmers was intended as social protest, per the related entry in The New Georgia Encyclopedia: "Erskine Caldwell's sympathy for these people and his outrage at the conditions in which they lived were real, and his novel was meant to be a work of social protest. But he also refused to sentimentalize their poverty or to cast his characters as inherently noble in their sufferings, as so many other protest works did." That's no exaggeration - despite Caldwell's intent, the Lester family and their cohorts are drawn so savagely that it's hard to generate much sympathy for their plight, and in fact even makes it as easy to attribute their situation to their own ignorance, arrogance and laziness as to the cruelties of capitalism. Which is not to say the book isn't good - it's very good - but that its author probably didn't generate nearly the protest and outrage that he hoped for. (Related posts: 1)

James Agee and Walker Evans: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Agee's legendary but very frustrating prose veers from documentary, almost clinical cataloging of the minutiae of Alabama tenant farmers' lives, to arcane polemics and then to passages of stunning lyrical beauty. Over and over and over again, over nearly 500 pages. I could have done without all of the polemics and much of the cataloging, which would have left 150 or 200 pages of stunning prose and one of the great works of non-fiction ever written. As it is, it's still a strong book. And Evans' photographs are simply beautiful, and as spare and restrained as Agee's prose should have been. (Related posts: 1 2)

William Maxwell: So Long, See You Tomorrow
A lovely and masterfully crafted portrait of three families, vividly set in small-town Illinois during the 1920s. While at first I thought the multitude of characters was too much for such a brief novel, upon further reflection I am marvelling at how Maxwell was able to tell so much in so few pages. If it's possible for a 135-page book to be an "epic", this is the one. A definite winner.

Hits: The Overcoat, The Long Goodbye, Tobacco Road, So Long, See You Tomorrow
Misses: Lord Jim, Billy Budd
Tossup: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

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

My next five

Ben Tanzer, Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine
Michael Chabon, Maps and Legends
Richard Grayson, Highly Irregular Stories
Ander Monson, Neck Deep and Other Predicaments
Matthew Sharpe, The Sleeping Father

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

So who's the naive and dangerous one?

John McCain has repeatedly disparaged Barack Obama's foreign policy beliefs, calling him "naive" and "dangerous" for insisting that we need to first use diplomacy and direct talks in dealing with hostile enemies such as Iran and the Taliban. McCain also regularly cites his admiration for General David Petraeus' judgment and capabilities. Which made me quite delighted to read this item, as noted by Think Progress:

INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS -- GEN. PETRAEUS SAYS 'YOU HAVE TO TALK TO ENEMIES': The Bush administration has long scorned talking to geopolitical enemies, notoriously referring to such diplomatic engagement as "appeasement." But speaking yesterday at the Heritage Foundation, CentCom chief Gen. David Petraeus, encouraged diplomacy. Citing his Iraq experience, Petraeus said, "You have to talk to enemies." "He added that it was necessary to have a particular goal for discussion and to perform advance work to understand the motivations of his interlocutors," according to the Washington Independent. A draft version of the new National Intelligence Estimate concludes that Afghanistan is in a "downward spiral" and casts serious doubt on the ability of the Afghan government to stem the rise in the Taliban's influence there. Petraeus encouraged diplomacy to tackle the violence. "Negotiations with some members of the Taliban could provide a way to reduce violence in sections of Afghanistan gripped by an intensifying insurgency," he said. He noted how Britain had helped reduce violence in Iraq through negotiations, stating, "They've sat down with thugs throughout their history, including us in our early days."

So even though his hero Petraeus thinks diplomacy comes first, I highly doubt McCain will change his hardline rhetoric.

October 9, 2008 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Writers & Cartoonists for Obama

I'm more than happy to pass along the announcement of this very worthy event, on behalf of its host Sandi Wisenberg. My "Suburban Dad" status and the fact that this will taken place on a Wednesday night will probably prevent me from attending, but I encourage all of you footloose, fancy-free, city-dwelling, lit- and comics-loving creatures to check it out if you can.

Writers & Cartoonists for Obama FUNdraiser, Oct. 15

You are cordially invited to Writers & Cartoonists for Obama, a fundraiser, Wednesday, Oct. 15, Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St., Chicago. A flock of local writers will read work that is very fun, very interesting, very political (in the broadest sense) and very very brief. Readers include: Sara Paretsky, Stuart Dybek, Haki Madhubuti, Rosellen Brown, James McManus, Jonathan Messinger, Kristiana Rae Colón, Kevin Coval, Quraysh Ali Lansana, Michelle Goldberg, Tom Geoghegan, Marcus Sakey, Libby Hellman, Carlos Cumpian and Cris Mazza. I'm the MC. (I am S.L. Wisenberg.)

The format of the evening:

5:30 pm-Reception and silent auction of signed books (by the above as well as Rick Perlstein, Ayun Halliday, Paula Kamen and Reginald Gibbons).

6:30 pm--Very very brief readings by the writers mentioned at top

8 pm--Group viewing of the final Obama-McCain debate

Cost is $60/person at the door, and $50 in advance, on line. People who are 25 and under can pay their ages. You can pay by donating on this site. CLICK ON THE "DONATE" BUTTON UNDER THE THERMOMETER. Ticket sales go to Obama for America. Cartoon sales go to pay for buses that will take Chicagoans to Iowa to canvass voters for Obama.

More info: Oct15Obama@gmail.com

Authors and cartoonists: If you'd like to donate books or cartoons, please e-mail Oct15Obama@gmail.com, also.

Directions to the Chopin Theatre:

Train - Blue Line, Division stop or Red Line, Clark/Division stop then #70 Division bus west. Other buses - #8 Ashland, #70 Division, #56 Milwaukee. Cab - 5 minute ride from downtown Chicago. Car - Interstate 90/94, Division exit then go 1 block west. Parking - Free, 1/2 block west of 90/94 Division exit at Division. Paid, at Division/Bosworth, across the street (at a diagonal) from the theater.

October 8, 2008 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Spiegelman gets sketched

One of my favorite bloggers, the writer and artist Austin Kleon, has a great blog post up about an Art Spiegelman bookstore appearance in Austin, TX. As he always does when attending cultural events (whether author appearances or musical performances), Austin brought along his sketchpad to record his impressions. Which to me is far more interesting than a video could ever possibly be.

October 8, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds

Charles Mackay proves prescient once again: "Forget Logic; Fear Appears to Have Edge".

"Selling first, and asking questions later", indeed. Call me contrarian, or just reluctant to take action, but I'm holding onto all of my investments right now - and might even drop some spare cash on the market which appears to be approaching its bottom. The market will rebound eventually, and we all just need to grit our teeth and get through the next year or so of financial pain. Meanwhile I'll be counting on President Obama to fix the unfair income tax code and introduce long-needed regulation to the financial system.

October 8, 2008 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Looming in the not-so-distant future...


October 7, 2008 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

So freaking (and belatedly) proud

During dinner with my mom this weekend, she released a skeleton from the family closet - but a good skeleton. As it turns out, my grandmother was a lifelong Democrat. This may not sound like a big deal, given the liberal tone I maintain here, but it's somewhat shocking given that my parents and siblings are quite conservative and I've generally been the political black sheep of the family ever since I voted for Clinton in 1992. But my grandmother voted for FDR every time he ran, even incurring her brother's sharp criticism in the process, and all Democrat presidential candidates after that. So I've got liberal in my blood.

October 6, 2008 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Something that needed to be said

Thank you, Joe Biden.

Look, the maverick -- let's talk about the maverick John McCain is. And, again, I love him. He's been a maverick on some issues, but he has been no maverick on the things that matter to people's lives.

He voted four out of five times for George Bush's budget, which put us a half a trillion dollars in debt this year and over $3 trillion in debt since he's got there.

He has not been a maverick in providing health care for people. He has voted against -- he voted (against) including another 3.6 million children in coverage of the existing health care plan, when he voted in the United States Senate.

He's not been a maverick when it comes to education. He has not supported tax cuts and significant changes for people being able to send their kids to college.

He's not been a maverick on the war. He's not been a maverick on virtually anything that genuinely affects the things that people really talk about around their kitchen table.

Can we send -- can we get Mom's MRI? Can we send Mary back to school next semester? We can't -- we can't make it. How are we going to heat the -- heat the house this winter?

He voted against even providing for what they call LIHEAP, for assistance to people, with oil prices going through the roof in the winter.

So maverick he is not on the important, critical issues that affect people at that kitchen table.

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

Straight Talk Express veers off the rails

If she was really the honest straight-talker she claims to be, last night she would have answered, on any number of occasions, with: "Gwen, I have no idea what you're talking about, so instead of addressing the issue I'll just respond with vague but folksy generalities."

October 3, 2008 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (4)


My short story "Moonlight" has just been published by the good folks at decomP. I wrote the story several years ago during a brief Frank Sinatra phase and while I was particularly obsessed with his rendition of "Moonlight Serenade." Writing the story, I tried to impart the feeling I get whenever a great song like "Moonlight Serenade" completely absorbs me, and to project that feeling onto a protagonist who is reflecting on what that song once meant to him during much happier times. I hope I was successful, and that you enjoy it regardless.

October 1, 2008 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (1)

Now that's what I call leadership

Our local (and blessedly departing) U.S. Representative made quite a distinction for himself - the only member of the House to be absent for Monday's monumental vote on the banking bailout.

U.S. Rep. Jerry Weller's spokesman said the congressman won't miss the next vote that could save the nation's economy.

But if Weller misses that vote, as he did Monday, it probably won't come as a shock to local political and community leaders who have seen much less of Weller since he decided not to run for re-election.

Weller, R-Morris, was the only member of the House of Representatives in the United States to miss the Monday vote on the $700 billion bailout plan, which is considered by many to be the most drastic economic measure attempted by the federal government since the Great Depression.

That's 433 House members taking a vote that could become the stuff historians study when looking back on a turning point in the nation's economy.

Weller was absent as the House turned down the bailout plan.

But Weller has been absent a lot. He's missed 284 votes in this congressional session.

And, he has not been seen much in his 11th District, which runs from the Indiana border past Starved Rock State Park at Utica and includes most of Will and all of Grundy counties.

As far as I'm concerned, this yahoo should do all of his constituents a big favor and stay away for the rest of his term. Start your retirement early, Jerry, and step aside for somebody who will actually do some good. Who, by the way, is Debbie Halvorson.

Addendum: And two days before he skipped the bailout vote, Weller also blew off a vote related to the Canadian National Railway's pending acquisition of the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern railway, which would result in a dramatic and damaging increase in freight traffic in Weller's district.

U.S. Rep. Jerry Weller, R-Morris, has received a lot of attention for being the one member of the U.S. House to miss Monday's vote on the $700 billion bailout plan. But he also missed a vote Saturday on one of the most controversial issues in his 11th District.

The House failed to pass a bill Saturday that would have forced railroad regulators to give the interest of local communities greater weight when deciding whether to approve Canadian National Railway's bid to buy the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway.

The Canadian National deal is the biggest regional issue in Weller's district as a number of suburban communities try to block what would be a huge increase in rail traffic crossing area roads.

Hmmm, for some reason the lyrics to "Call Me Irresponsible" ("call me irresponsible/call me unreliable/throw in undependable too") are running through my head.

October 1, 2008 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Classics old, classics new

For the last two weeks of Summer of Classics I'll be shifting gears. Early on, while muddling through Conrad and Melville, I came (somewhat painfully) to the conclusion that not all of the works of an undisputably classic author should necessarily be considered classics. I've now extrapolated that to a new concept, namely that not all classics are necessarily old. Certainly in contemporary fiction there is great debate over authors' merits (Ian McEwan seems to be a particularly polarizing figure, which I can't quite understand given how thoroughly I've enjoyed his work) which all but prevents the bestowing of the title "classic", but in some rare cases there are indeed newer works which seem to enjoy nearly unanimous acclaim.

Two of my recent acquisitions seem to fit that bill - William Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow and Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, both of which seem to be truly beloved novels (or whose detractors have largely kept silent) and which I will presume to be, for the time being, Modern Classics. So I'm adding them to my Summer of Classics list, right alongside Gogol and Chandler and Agee. I've been particularly looking forward to reading Maxwell's book for a while now, so that one will be next up.

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