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Reading and Buying Indie

I try to patronize indepedent businesses whenever I possibly can - publishers, record labels, retailers, restaurants and the like. My annual Christmas shopping for my family also happens to consist almost entirely of book buying. I usually buy books that I've already read and enjoyed, and which I hope my various family members will enjoy as well. I did so again this year, and only after the fact did I look back to see which of the books came from indie publishers and which ones came from the majors. Here's the list.

Coffee House Press - Sam Savage, Firmin
Counterpoint Press - Miriam Toews, A Complicated Kindness
Ig Publishing - Various Writers, Proud to Be Liberal
Sarabande Books - Ander Monson, Other Electricities

Anchor Books (Random House) - Hjalmar Soderberg, Doctor Glas
Pantheon Books (Random House) - Marjane Satrapi, Embroideries
Picador (Macmillan) - Stephen Elliott, Happy Baby
Picador (Macmillan) - Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise
Picador (Macmillan) - Alan Weisman, The World Without Us
Riverhead Books (Penguin) - Nick Hornby, Slam
Viking Books (Penguin) - Geraldine Brooks, March
Vintage Books (Random House) - Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye
Vintage Books (Random House) - Kent Haruf, Plainsong

As much as I enjoy waving the indie flag, a glance at this list suggests that it really doesn't matter whether the publisher is indie or major, small or big - great literature is everywhere. No, that's not any deep insight on my part, but given my tastes I'm a bit surprised the indies weren't better represented on my shopping list.

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

Nick Hornby, A Long Way Down

A few words on Nick Hornby's most recent "adult" novel, A Long Way Down, which I just finished reading. (His latest book, Slam, is generally considered "young adult", though both of the non-young adults in our household will soon be reading it, after I gave it to Julie for Christmas.) Though the opening scene is fairly contrived (it seems rather unlikely that four such disparate individuals would simultaneously gather, on New Year's Eve, on the same rooftop in order to commit suicide, let alone that all of them would reconsider without a huge amount of persuasion), Hornby effectively goes beyond this stage piece to explore how each of these people arrived at such a desperate point in their lives and, more importantly, how they cope and grow from there to realize that life is indeed worth living. The book has plenty of Hornby's trademark wit (I laughed aloud several times, in public, especially near the end) and pop culture references, and is a breezy read despite the uncharacteristically dour subject matter.

Of particular note is that in Maureen, the lonely, middle-aged mother and character of a disabled young man, Hornby delivers the first compelling, complete and sympathetic female character of his career. (For what it's worth, of the four she is also the character who would be the most justified in wanting to commit suicide.) Hornby attempted a major female character once before, as the narrator of How To Be Good. That book had a nice premise - a wife wishes her cantankerous, cynical husband would become a better human being, but when he finally does so he becomes so pure and self-righteous that she simply can't stand him any longer - but Hornby never got the female voice right, which made the book the weakest of Hornby's career. But with Maureen he nails the voice (which may be partly due to Hornby himself having an autistic child, and thus he and the character think along the same lines) which shows that Hornby is really growing as a writer. Which is good news for all of us. Another winner from one of my favorite writers.

December 28, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Festivus for the rest of us

Oh man, I love this.

Capitol Festivus pole goes up, and gripes begin
Festivus display at Illinois Capitol

Christian guy: "Festivus is nothing — it means nothing, it represents nothing...At least the atheist sign had a viewpoint...I think (the Festivus pole is) a mockery."

Atheist gal: "If the state's going to create a forum for religion at this time of year, which we do not approve of, this is what's going to happen,"

Festivus guy: "I'm halfway thinking about complaining about the location."

AP writer: "Festivus was, after all, a holiday built around the airing of grievances."

Religious displays have no place on any government property. Even if our country was founded as a Christian nation - and that's highly debatable - the Constitution prohibits the establishment of an official religion, and to my mind allowing nativity scenes or menorahs or whatever on public property is an officially sanctioned promotion of religious beliefs, one which has no place in our multicultural society. If you really want a nativity scene, just slap one on your front lawn between the plastic reindeer and the inflatable Frosty the Snowman, just like all my suburban neighbors do. Now that's the true American way.

December 25, 2008 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)



Yes, you're absolutely right...we're quite adorable.

December 25, 2008 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Fairytale of New York"

It was Christmas Eve, babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me
'Won't see another one'
And then he sang a song
'The Rare Old Mountain Dew'
I turned my face away
And dreamed about you

Got on a lucky one
Came in eighteen to one
I've got a feeling
It's years for me and you
So Happy Christmas
I love you, baby
I can see a better time
When all our dreams come true

They've got cars big as bars
They've got rivers of gold
But the wind blows right through you
It's no place for the old
When you first took my hand
On a cold Christmas Eve
You promised me Broadway
Was waiting for me

You were handsome
You were pretty
Queen of New York City
When the band finished playing
We howled out for more
Sinatra was swinging
All the drunks, they were singing
We kissed on the corner
And danced through the night

The boys of the NYPD choir
Were singing 'Galway Bay'
And the bells were ringing out
For Christmas Day

You're a bum, you're a punk
You're an old slut on junk
Laying there almost dead
With a drip on that bed
You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas, your arse
I pray God it's our last

The boys of the NYPD choir
Were singing 'Galway Bay'
And the bells were ringing out
For Christmas Day

I could have been someone
But so could anyone
You took my dreams from me
When I first found you
I kept them with me, babe
And put them with my own
Can't make it all alone
I built my world around you

The boys of the NYPD choir
Were singing 'Galway Bay'
And the bells were ringing out
For Christmas Day

-Words by Shane MacGowan and Jem Finer
-Vocals by Shane MacGowan and Kirsty McColl
-Music by the Pogues

December 24, 2008 in Music | Permalink | Comments (2)

Second Thoughts at Borders

The long and slow holiday checkout lines at Borders obviously give customers plenty of time to reconsider their selections, if the wayward books seen in inappropriate locations are any indication. Here's just a sampling of such books that I just saw at the State Street store a short time ago.

Cormac McCarthy, The Road
Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner
Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath
Robert Frost, The Poems of Robert Frost
Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated
Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin, Skinny Bitch
J.M. Coetzee, Diary of a Bad Year

McCarthy and Hosseini were in the crime section, Plath and Frost were on some sort of gift rack (don't remember exactly which - maybe Burt's Bees, maybe desk calendars), Foer was on top of a huge stack of coffee table books, Skinny Bitch was on the Barack Obama shelf (perhaps that customer was making some sort of rude commentary on our next President?) and Coetzee was on a shelf that was labeled something like Last Minute Gift Essentials.

December 23, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

What I Listened to On My Way to Work Today

With yet another nod to GE, here's what my iPod's shuffle play served up this morning.

The Decemberists - Here I Dreamed I Was an Architect
Listening to the uber-literate Decemberists might not be the smartest thing to do while reading somebody else's story manuscript, which is exactly what I did this morning. Here's hoping said writer wasn't unfairly slighted by my assessment.

Dumptruck - Alive
Dumptruck - Make a Move
Sometimes I wonder about just how random the iPod's shuffle play is. I only have one Dumptruck album (D Is For Dumptruck) loaded on my iPod, and yet it "randomly" picked three songs from it this morning.

Tommy Stinson - Bite Your Tongue
As I've mentioned here before, Village Gorilla Head, the first official solo album Replacements enfant terrible Tommy Stinson, was one of my most pleasant surprises of 2004 - or any other musical year. High quality, almost shockingly mature, and kicks the ass of pretty much everything Paul Westerberg has created since the Mats broke up.

Morphine - Lisa
A little segue tune, consisting almost entirely of Dana Colley's saxophone noodlings.

Pavement - Rattled By the Rush
For some reason Pavement really lost me after Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. This song didn't engage me either. Hearing this song - good, but nothing earth-shattering - reminds me that I really need to finally load up Slanted and Enchanted.

Tom Waits - Fannin Street
Tom Waits - You Can Never Hold Back Spring
Both of these are from the wonderful Orphans, the second being one of my favorite Waits tunes from the very first time I ever heard it.

Lou Reed - Caroline Says
A bleak song from what a recent live recording of what has been described as one of the bleakest albums ever (Berlin), Reed absolutely nails this one. His voice has really aged nicely over the years, maturing and deepening in tone - yes, of course he's still talk-singing and can't (or won't) hit all the notes, but it's still one of the most expressive voices in rock and roll.

Joel R.L. Phelps and the Downer Trio - My Mother the Mountain
Phelps is apparently a big Townes Van Zandt fan - both this song (from Phelps' Inland Empires) and "Flying Shoes" (from the bonus EP that came with his latest, Customs) are Van Zandt covers.

R.E.M. - The Wrong Child
A really weird song for the band - no drums, multitracked Stipe vocals, mandolin and piano and some odd sort of keyboard. And that's not even considering the lyrics, which are told from the perspective of a handicapped child whose life experiences are limited to watching, through the window, as other children play outside, and yet quietly accepts it all ("I'm not supposed to be like this/But it's okay"). Certainly a courageous song - nobody else was writing songs like this in 1989.

Joel R.L. Phelps and the Downer Trio - There Is Not Enough
Probably the most listener-challenging song on Phelps' solo debut, Warm Springs Night, as most of his vocal idiosyncracies come out in full force. But still affecting.

Bob Mould - See a Little Light
Still my favorite Mould song, post-Husker Du anyway.

Joel R.L. Phelps and the Downer Trio - Chaplain's Radiotelephone
The zippiest Phelps song I've heard. He's a master at slow-to-midtempo tunes, but this one works for me too. Hell, just about anything Phelps creates works for me.

The Feelies - Tomorrow Today
Strangely, both "There Is Not Enough" and "Tomorrow Today" (from two artists who have little in common musically) are majestic songs with martial beats which appear as the second-to-last song on their respective albums. Not sure what any of that implies, just saying.

Dumptruck - Watch Her Fall
Yet another song from that same Dumptruck album, and a very good one.

Ein Heit - Summer
Ein Heit was the predecessor band to Silkworm from their Missoula days, when they worked with the mysterious JK Manlove. In 1997, Joel Phelps briefly reunited with his Silkworm mates (Midgett, Cohen, Dahlquist) to hook up again with Manlove and create a new Ein Heit album, The Lightning & The Sun, which was recently re-released by Comedy Minus One. Fans of early Silkworm will love this one.

Joel R.L. Phelps and the Downer Trio - Apology Accepted
This tune (also from Inland Empires) is a Go-Betweens cover. If it seems like my iPod songlist is limited in variety, I'd have to agree. I just got the new iPod in September and have only slowly been loading new songs onto it. Getting there, though - at one time, half the songs on it were from Tom Waits' Orphans.

Mark Sandman - Jealous Dream
Sandman's old friends did a lovely job putting together Sandbox, their posthumous compilation tribute to the man and his music. One of the nicest touches was naming the artist on each song as "Mark Sandman", even though they were clearly the work of various bands he worked with over the years, Morphine and Treat Her Right being of course the most prominent. "Jealous Dream" is clearly by Morphine, a somber tune that would have fit in pretty well on Good or The Night.

Ted Leo & the Pharmacists - Sons of Cain
This rabble-rouser of a song was just ending as I arrived at my desk. If anything can get my blood flowing and make me at least halfway functional at work on a Monday morning, it's Ted Leo. Bless his soul.

December 22, 2008 in Music | Permalink | Comments (1)

Digitizing Dickens


Here's a fascinating story and a wonderfully worthwhile project. Worcester Polytechnic Institute has begun to digitize all of the original pamphlets in which Charles Dickens' fifteen novels first appeared in serialization. As the story describes, most of the surviving pamphlets were bound into hardcover books by the well-to-do, which usually involved first removing the covers and all the wonderfully esoteric 19th Century advertisements within. But the Worcester project uses the full, original pamphlets in all their idiosyncratic glory. Since the pamphlets - which were produced cheaply and never intended for long lives - are incredibly fragile at this point, access to them at the university archives is quite understandably restricted. So in order for the public to enjoy the Dickens stories in their original form (the text even differs from its later book versions), the university is going through the painstaking task of digitizing every page. The first book getting the treatment is Dickens' final (and unfinished) novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

The BBC World site has a 66-page excerpt in pdf form. Absolutely lovely.

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

"Alleys Are the Footnotes of the Avenues"

My flash fiction "Alleys Are the Footnotes of the Avenues" has been published at Shoots and Vines. My thanks to editor Crystal Folz for taking this one. Go check it out - if nothing else, it's very short and won't take more than a few minutes of your time.

Though this didn't make it into my author bio, I'd like to give a huge nod to David Berman of the Silver Jews, from whose song "Smith + Jones Forever" I borrowed a line for the title of the story. The story and song don't have much in common other than that, but I've always loved that song, which made me think about street people who live in the most humble of circumstances and long for the most commonplace of things ("they walk the alleys in duct-taped shoes/they see the things they want through the window of a hatchback"). From there it was a short jump to the first character, and then to the story itself.

December 16, 2008 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

"This is a farewell kiss, you dog. This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq."

This is, hands down, the video clip of the year, one which perfectly encapsulates the wrongness of Bush's misguided mission in Iraq and the illegitimacy of our military presence there. Not to mention his almost-flippant, "What me worry?" attitude.

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

Good Reading 2008

The obligatory year-end list...

Top Ten:
1. Aleksandar Hemon: The Lazarus Project (review)
2. Kent Haruf: Plainsong
3. William Maxwell: So Long, See You Tomorrow (review)
4. E.M. Forster: Howards End (review)
5. Raymond Chandler: The Long Goodbye (review)
6. Chris Abani: Song For Night (review)
7. Jim Thompson: The Kill-Off (review)
8. Nikolai Gogol: The Overcoat (review)
9. John McGahern: The Barracks (review)
10. Nick Hornby: A Long Way Down

Honorable Mention: Ben Tanzer: Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine (review); Richard Grayson: Highly Irregular Stories (review); Paul Fattaruso: Bicycle (review); Erskine Caldwell: Tobacco Road (review)

Re-readings: Hjalmar Söderberg: Doctor Glas (review); Nelson Algren: Never Come Morning

Book-to-Movie: Atonement (review)

2007 List
2006 List
2005 List
2004 List
2003 List
2002 List

December 14, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (3)

Record Cover Ephemera


At first I thought this might not qualify as ephemera, since it's an actual record album and thus more of a tangible, functional object. But then I realized that if I owned this, I probably would never play the record, but instead frame this beautiful cover and hang it on my wall. Which, to my mind, does make it ephemera. So there.

(Via Record Cover Lover.)

December 14, 2008 in Ephemera | Permalink | Comments (0)

Song of the Week: Death Cab For Cutie

Death Cab For Cutie: Grapevine Fires

This one's for Maddie - her favorite song. She got an off-brand MP3 player for Christmas last year, but it took us until mid-year to figure out the PC interface it used, just about the same time that we picked up the new Death Cab For Cutie album, Narrow Stairs. She loved the album so much that she wanted to hear it in the car all the time, so instead we put a bunch of DCFC tunes on her MP3 player. There's nothing cuter than seeing her walk around the house with her headphones on, singing along to the song quietly, almost to herself.

December 14, 2008 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

McClelland on Blago

Chicago writer Ted McClelland (whose book Horseplayers I read and enjoyed last year) offers up an excellent backgrounder on Rod Blagojevich at Salon.
Here's a short quiz. Which of the following is statistically more likely to land a Chicagoan in jail: a) joining the Gangster Disciples, b) selling crack on a West Side street corner, or c) becoming governor. The answer is c, of course, which makes me wonder. If governing Illinois is such an at-risk occupation, why don't we just abolish the job and replace it with a board of directors or a court-appointed supervisor?
Like most embarrassed and/or bemused Illinoisans this week - especially those of us who elected him twice - I have plenty of thoughts on Blagojevich, and will be sharing them here soon.

December 12, 2008 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Nick Hornby

My fondness and appreciation for the writings of Nick Hornby goes back nearly ten years, when I read and loved High Fidelity while on my honeymoon. My admiration puts me somewhat out of touch with the literati, many of whom seem more than a bit put off by Hornby for reasons I don't quite understand. Maybe it's the fact that everything he writes seems to fly off the shelves. Or maybe his insistence that's there's nothing wrong with giving up on a book that's difficult or unenjoyable to read. Or maybe that he seems to be a genuinely decent and kind man who doesn't generate outrageous headlines or crave the spotlight. Whatever it is, Hornby just doesn't seem to enjoy the respect he deserves. I admire him partly for the reasons mentioned above (other than the bestselling part, which neither attracts nor repels me), but mostly because the man can just flat-out write. Here's the opening to A Long Way Down, which I just started this morning:

Can I explain why I wanted to jump off a tower block? Of course I can explain why I wanted to jump off a tower block. I'm not a bloody idiot.

December 8, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (6)

Working: Two Actors

In Working, Studs Terkel interviews two actors. The first, longtime character actor Arny Freeman, relates a funny anecdote that describes the pitfalls of being sort of famous - but not quite famous enough:
I came out of a movie house one day. I hadn't gone more than a few feet when two guys moved in on me, pushed me against the wall. I thought I was being held up. They flashed badges. They were detectives. One said, "Would you mind coming back into the lobby?" I said "What for?" "We'd like to talk to you." So they moved me back and there was a woman, screaming, "That's him! He's the one!" Someone had stolen her purse in the movie house and she fingered me. I played a gangster on TV in those days. The boss would say, "Hey, Shorty, do this." And I'd say "Yeah, boss." They were all alike. I asked the woman if she had seen "T Men in Action" on Thursday. This was Saturday. "Oh my God," she said. "That's where I saw you." (Laughs.) The dicks couldn't do enough. They drove me home in their car.
And Rip Torn takes a more serious tone in discussing the need to take pride in one's work:
A lot of young actors come up and say, "I have respect for you because you never sold out." I've sold out a lot of times. We all have to make accommodations with the kind of society we live in. We gotta pay the rent. We do whatever we can. I've done jobs I wasn't particularly proud of. You do the best you can with that. You try to make it a little better for your own self-respect. That's what's changed in the nature of work in this country - the lack of pride in the work itself. A man's life is his work.

Why, you don't even have the kind of carpenters...He says, "Aw, f*** it." You know they're not even gonna countersink something when they should. They don't even have the pleasure in the work any more. Even in Mexico, there was something unique about the road work. The curbing is not laid out by machine, it's handmade. So there's little irregularities. That's why the eye is rested even by the curbing in Mexico. And walls. Because it's craftsmanship. You see humanity in a chair. And you know seven thousand didn't come out in one day. It was made by some man's hands. There's artistry in that, and that's what makes mankind happier. You work out of necessity, but in your work, you gotta have a little artistry too.

December 7, 2008 in Books, Studs Terkel: Working | Permalink | Comments (0)

Michael Chabon

Recently I've read and thoroughly enjoyed two of Michael Chabon's recent projects, enough so to merit some mention here. The first is his essay collection Maps and Legends, in which he simultaneously celebrates "genre" writing (detective stories, fantasy, comics etc.) while also arguing - quite persuasively - against its ghettoization, insisting that good genre writing is every bit as literary as so-called "literary fiction" and deserves just as much serious attention from the cognoscenti without being dismissed offhand as mere "kid's stuff". From everything I've heard, Chabon's own fiction writing, particularly The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Yiddish Policeman's Union, is both a testament to his belief in this argument as well as compelling evidence of its validity. But Maps and Legends isn't just a pro-genre diatribe - instead, he devotes entire chapters to profiling some of his favorite genre artists, including Arthur Conan Doyle, Philip Pullman, Ben Katchor (one of my very favorites, as well), Cormac McCarthy, Jack Kirby and the like.

Incidentally, I was first drawn to Maps and Legends by its wonderful design (which I raved about earlier). I haven't previously read much Chabon and probably wouldn't have even glanced through this at the store had the design not been so enticing - but I picked it up, read through his wonderful chapter on Sherlock Holmes (a lifelong love of mine) and decided I absolutely had to have the book even though I rarely buy new, full-priced hardcovers. But I did buy it, though I probably wouldn't have done so without that great cover. Publishers, take note.

The second project is Michael Chabon Presents The Amazing Adventures of The Escapist, Vol. 1, which is more Chabon-curated than Chabon-written, as Chabon and a host of writers and artists expand on the fictional comic strip The Escapist (from Kavalier & Clay). The contributors very cleverly build a mythos around the strip and pretend it has existed off and on since the 1940s - presenting not only an as-if series of the strip's various incarnations from past decades, but also its checkered publication history as it moved from its "creators" Joe Kavalier & Sammy Clay to a series of publishers both respected and shady. Overall, this is a very well-executed work of derivative art.

December 7, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Six-year-old plays "Crazy Train"

Clearly, the future of our society is in very good hands.

(Via WFMU.)

December 6, 2008 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)


"The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things."
- Rainer Maria Rilke

December 4, 2008 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)