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Heckuva job, Bushie

Gdp

Yes, I know I previously said that this would be my last jab at Dubya, but unfortunately the impact of his "leadership" will continue to be felt for the indefinite future - and felt quite painfully. So ongoing commentary may be warranted.

January 30, 2009 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Dressing down at the White House

As if I didn't already have enough reasons to love this guy:

President Barack Obama has brought a more relaxed style to the White House, according to Sheryl Gay Stolberg of the New York Times, among other things going suit coat-less in the Oval Office and allowing others to do the same.
Though dress shirts and ties are apparently still required in the Oval Office, I still appreciate the gesture. I'm one of only two or three male bankers in my office who never wears a tie or suit - just button-down shirts, slacks and dress shoes. (My attire raised a few eyebrows at first, but since then everyone seems to have gotten used to both that and my goatee, which appears to be even more rare in the facial-hairless banking world.) Since leaving my last job (which was jeans-casual) for the prim and stuffy world of banking, I've regularly questioned the strict adherence to the old-fashioned business dress code. It makes even less sense when you consider that most of our clients have already abandoned suits in favor of business casual, so I keep asking who it is, exactly, that we're dressing up for.

And as if I didn't already have enough reasons to despise this guy:

One of the story's most memorable anecdotes is actually not about Obama but former President George Bush and it was told by Dan Bartlett who was a senior adviser to Obama's predecessor.

"I'll never forget going to work on a Saturday morning, getting called down to the Oval Office because there was something he was mad about," said Dan Bartlett, who was counselor to Mr. Bush. "I had on khakis and a buttoned-down shirt, and I had to stand by the door and get chewed out for about 15 minutes. He wouldn't even let me cross the threshold."

Bush was really a stickler about no one, including himself, entering the Oval Office without a tie and suit coat on.
I guess if Dubya chafes at retirement - after all, there's little brush-clearing to be done in his new and snooty Dallas neighborhood - he can always come and work for my bank. He'd fit right in.

January 29, 2009 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Unconscionable

Economic stimulus plan passes the U.S. House, despite not a single Republican voting for it. You read that right - the GOP voted 178-0 against this critically-needed legislation.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- In a swift victory for President Barack Obama, the Democratic-controlled House approved a historically huge $819 billion stimulus bill Wednesday night with spending increases and tax cuts at the heart of the young administration's plan to revive a badly ailing economy. The vote was 244-188, with Republicans unanimous in opposition despite Obama's frequent pleas for bipartisan support.
Is it really possible that not a single Republican congressman thought the stimulus plan was a good idea? I doubt it. The GOP, for all their America-first, flag-waving patriotism, don't care nearly as much about America and its citizens as they do about playing nice within their little party sandbox. The American economy is collapsing, and they all vote the party line instead of doing what's right. Shame on them.

January 29, 2009 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (2)

Joliet Police Blotter

Wow. This is certainly an inauspicious start to the kid's driving career.

Joy ride?
JOLIET TOWNSHIP -- Maybe driver's ed will help.

On Jan. 17, a 15-year-old Crest Hill boy was pulled over by a Will County deputy. According to reports, the underage motorist "seemed to have stopped his vehicle when he suddenly reversed it and struck the passenger side of the deputy's squad car."

Police say the driver then drove away, crashing into the street sign at Fifth and Davison. He reportedly left the vehicle and took off on foot, but the officer was able to track the fresh footprints in the snow and apprehend him.

The juvenile was arrested and booked into the River Valley Juvenile Detention Center on charges of possession of a stolen motor vehicle, attempting to elude police, hit and run, resisting a police officer, driving without a valid license, driving without insurance, no front license plate and disobeying a stop sign.

January 29, 2009 in Joliet | Permalink | Comments (1)

John Updike

I've read very little of Updike's work, so I'll leave the eulogizing to the better-informed. But this paragraph from his Ted Williams piece "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu" (from the 10/22/60 edition of The New Yorker) has always stuck with me - in fact, the phrase "as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of" inexplicably popped into my head yesterday during my frigid, two-block walk from the evening train to my car.

Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs—hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn't tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted "We want Ted" for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.

January 27, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Charles Simmons, Wrinkles

Charles Simmons' Wrinkles is an unusual book. Not that there's anything particularly unusual about the basic storyline - boy grows up, marries, has extramarital affairs, divorces, has some professional success, drinks too much, confronts aging and death in himself and others. What's unusual is the structure - forty-plus chapters of roughly four pages each, with each chapter consisting of a single paragraph which presents one aspect of the protagonist's life (career, sex, neighborhood, etc.) as it changes throughout his life - from childhood through young adulthood (both in past tense), to middle age (in present tense - the protagonist is roughly in his fifties at the time of narration) and then old age (in future tense, as he anticipates what will happen to him later).

The effect of this method is unsettling, as if the protagonist's life is being lived over and over again through the narrow prism of its various aspects. I imagine this book as being a series of circles - the reader witnesses the cycle of the protagonist's life again and again. The narrative method benefits the book as a means of livening up what is admittedly a very ordinary plot, presenting an unremarkable life in a fresh and innovative way. On the other hand, however, it makes the narrative very fragmentary; despite the focus being entirely on the protagonist, with the ancillary characters being mere sketches, I never got a fully clear portrait of him: when his parents died, exactly what his corporate career involved, who were the various women in his life, and what his writing (yes, he's also a writer) was all about. Arranged in a conventional manner, all of these fragments might very well have presented a full portrait of the man; however, that conventional portrait might have well have been neither interesting nor compelling. So in that sense, the narrative method works. And I'm not sure the method would have worked with a complex plot at all - it might have rendered the story all but incomprehensible - so the structure is a good fit with this basic story.

All in all, Wrinkles was a fascinating read - not necessarily a great book, but one which uses a very interesting approach to storytelling.

(Incidentally, I came across the book after it was featured at The Neglected Books Page, an excellent site which spotlights out-of-print or otherwise forgotten books. Despite Wrinkles having been published by the esteemed Farrar, Strauss and Giroux and a finalist for the National Book Award in 1978, the book is out of print and Simmons appears to have disappeared off the face of the earth - I couldn't much biographical info about him online other than a one-sentence entry at Wikipedia. If anyone out there has more background on the author, please leave a comment below.)

January 27, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Acquisition: Native Son

To me, the joy of literature is not just what I'm currently reading, but also what I will read next. The latter involves both mulling over books I currently have access to, either on my own shelves or the library's, but also ones to be acquired. Due to cost and storage, I've tried to be prudent about what books I buy, only buying new those ones which I expect to cherish and re-read over the long term, with the more speculative remainder being acquired used or heavily discounted.

Though I visit chain stores frequently, there I'm almost always just browsing, checking out titles I've heard about and want to explore further, but without buying. It's only in our local used book store, Book Market, that I regularly take the plunge and buy. Since I do enjoy the thrill of the hunt nearly as much as the reading itself, I've decided to periodically mention and discuss new acquisitions here.

When I'm at Book Market I focus almost exclusively on two fiction sections - first, contemporary literary fiction, and second and more increasingly, classic fiction. Yesterday I found several copies of Richard Wright's Native Son, one of them the very edition that I first read back in high school. But the first two copies were what I only recently learned is the standard but expurgated text. I had seen and browsed the "restored" edition at Borders, but the copy I reviewed there didn't seem to fully explain what was originally deleted or why. This had me intrigued. I loved the book back in high school, and though I was sure I had read it a second time during the intervening years I didn't own it, and thus have been on the lookout for a copy for several years. But knowing there was a "restored" edition available kept from from wanting either of the "expurgated" copies I saw yesterday. I was about to resign myself to buying nothing and to keep looking, when I turned and, browsing the pile of books on the other side of the aisle - the store has such a huge inventory in a limited space that such piles are everywhere - I was thrilled to find a third copy of Native Son, this one being the restored edition. Of course I bought it.

Reading through the appendix, as it turns out the book was originally published by Harper, in conjunction with the Book of the Month Club. (It would eventually be the first Book of the Month Club selection by an African American author.) It seems as if Harper was amenable to publishing the book consistent with Wright's artistic vision, but the club (presumably fearing its members' sensitive natures or even government censors) took exception to several passages, most notably a sex-tinged scene in a movie theater balcony towards the beginning of the story. Wright acquiesed, probably grudgingly, to the club's wishes, and completely rewrote the theater scene. The restored version of the book represents the final manuscript that Wright prepared prior to publisher intervention, and brings back not only the original theater scene but also the other passages changed by the publisher, all of which are included in an appendix for reference. Based on the relatively brief lengths of the changed passages, it doesn't appear that the two versions of the book are dramatically different, although the editor indicates that the original theater scene is critically important to the narrative, and that its restoration makes for a significantly stronger book overall. We'll see about that - it's hard to imagine the standard text being dramatically improved upon - but it will still be nice to read the book in a version that is faithful to the writer's original conception.

January 26, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Plimpton and the old swimming hole

The current issue of The Paris Review presents a lengthy and quite interesting oral history of the journal's early years, revolving of course around its founder George Plimpton and his cohorts in Paris. Here, the writer Pati Hill reflects on Plimpton through a very telling anecdote (Sadri Khan was a Saudi prince and later a patron of the journal):
George sometimes said things that sounded simple enough but followed you around afterward. One that comes to mind now was about Sadri Khan and it was the result of a slight altercation. George had asked me for the second or third time to some event with Sadri, and I had refused, saying I thought it would be just boring, and George said - sharply - that he would imagine it would be rather hard to be bored by an evening with somebody who was in line to be the absolute leader of millions of Muslims, and from my point of view, that was puzzling. However, George did manage to make me see that he didn't live in the same world as I did. And maybe not in the world most writers live in. I mean that whereas in general writers are trying to keep the door shut so we can get on with counting our bedbugs or whatever we hold dear at the moment, George saw everything out there as one huge old swimming hole to plunge seriously into and come up with a fish in his mouth.

Though it's rather hard for me to picture Plimpton - the famously erudite Brahmin - diving into a swimming hole and coming back up with a fish in his mouth, I still really like the metaphor.

January 25, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Working: Policeman

In Working, policeman "Vincent Maher" reflects on the role and authority of police in the community, past and present:
To me, when I was a kid, the policeman was the epitome - not of perfection - was a good and evil in combination, but in control. He came from an element in the neighborhood and he knew what was going on. To me, a policeman is your community officer. He is your Officer Friendly, he is your clergyman, he is your counselor. He is a doctor to some: "Mr. Policeman, my son just fell and bumped his head." Now all we are is a guy that sits in a squad car and waits for a call to come over the radio. We have lost complete contact with the people. They get the assumption that we're gonna be called to scene for one purpose - to become violent to make an arrest. No way I can see that. I am the community officer. They have taken me away from the people I'm dedicated to serving - and I don't like it.

The cop on the corner took you across the street, right? Now, ten o'clock at night, he's still there on the corner, and he tells you to get your fanny home. He's not being nice. The next time he tells you, he's gonna whack you with the stick. In the old days, when you went home and told your dad the cop on the corner whacked you with a stick, you know what your father did? He whacked you twice as hard. "You shouldnt've have been there. The policeman told you to go home, go home." Today these kids defy you.

January 25, 2009 in Books, Studs Terkel: Working | Permalink | Comments (0)

Amen

Kudos to U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman, for ruling that Illinois' "moment of silence" law - a thinly-veiled attempt toward easing prayer into public schools - is unconstitutional.

As passed by the Illinois General Assembly, the law allows students to reflect on the day's activities rather than pray if that is their choice and defenders have said it therefore doesn't force religion on anyone.

But Gettleman backed critics such as the American Civil Liberties Union, who say the law is a thinly disguised effort to bring religion into the schools.

The "teacher is required to instruct her pupils, especially in the lower grades, about prayer and its meaning as well as the limitations on their 'reflection,'" Gettleman ruled.

"The plain language of the statute, therefore, suggests and intent to force the introduction of the concept of prayer into the schools," he said.

I was opposed to the law from the start, and am glad to see that at least one member of our federal judiciary has more common sense than the Illinois state legislature.

January 23, 2009 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Good tune, good cause

I'm posting a link to Neko Case's new single "People Got a Lotta Nerve" not so much because it's a good song (which it is, but there are oodles of good songs out there that I never formally acknowledge here) but because there's a good cause involved. For every blog that links to the song, Case and her record label ANTI- (one of my faves) will donate $5 to the Best Friends Animal Society, a major animal rescue organization. I'm a great animal lover - we have two cats now, and would likely have a vast menagerie of critters were it not for the cost and maintenance involved - and am often saddened to see cases of cruelty and neglect. I applaud what Case and ANTI- are doing here, and am very glad to help. If you're a blogger and want to join in, all the details are here.

January 22, 2009 in Music | Permalink | Comments (2)

Six Word Stories, New and Old

Soon something even worse befell him.

A new website, the aptly-named Six Word Stories, compiles these stories from here and there, from writers famous and not so famous. I'm in the latter category, as they were kind enough to re-publish my first attempt at the form. But I like the new one above even better.

January 21, 2009 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

Barack Obama, and Why My Dad Was Wrong

Today represents a monumental turning point in America's history. Our country was founded on the ideals of freedom and equality, two principles which for the better part of two centuries remained mere ideals and were never fully put into practice. Political and economic power became concentrated, in Washington and on Wall Street, while the vast majority of everyday citizens simply had to make do and scratch out the best existence that they could. While Wall Street could be excused for its actions - it has always unapologetically been a money-making venture and nothing but, and by its very definition is motivated entirely by profit and greed - Washington could not. Despite being the seat of our national government and the birthplace of democracy - government of the people - Washington increasingly became an exclusive club, a self-perpetuating establishment of incumbent politicians, lobbyists and cronies who ran our country however they pleased. For most of its existence, our government has excluded women and racial minorities, as well as the voices of everyday citizens, belying the oft-repeated claim of America's greatness as a bastion of freedom and equal opportunity.

The inauguration of Barack Obama as our 44th President is the first step towards true democracy. Obama truly represents the American Dream - the son of a mixed-raced marriage, of an immigrant father and Heartland mother, who grew up in a struggling but loving single-parent household, who struggled with his identity before ultimately embracing his roots, who rose from his humble and peripatetic beginnings to an Ivy League education and the national political stage while never losing sight of and compassion for the common man. By a wide margin, American voters have elected a man who is not only African-American but also has a middle name which is Muslim in origin, and looked beyond both superficialities to the man within or, in the words of Martin Luther King, "the content of his character." America chose compassion and optimism and change over the petty, small-minded status quo. With Barack Obama, America has taken the first step toward fulfilling the democratic promise on which the country was founded more than two hundred years ago.

Four years ago, after Obama was elected to the United States Senate, I was talking to my father, a loving man but lifelong political conservative who would pass away from cancer a few months after the election. I asked him what he thought of our new senator, and he replied that Obama seemed like a good man but that he'd never rise any higher than the Senate "with a name like that." My father was no bigot, or at least no more bigoted than other men of his era who grew up mostly apart from minorities. I don't think he meant Obama any ill will or thought any less of him because of his skin color or name, but instead meant that he didn't think America was tolerant enough to elect such a man, or openminded enough to look beyond superficialities and truly consider the content of his character.

I am quite pleased to say that my dad was utterly and completely wrong. We are that tolerant and openminded, and because of that we have elected a good man who will help all of us, together, work toward true equality and opportunity for everyone. Liberty and justice for all.

January 20, 2009 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Her

Julie

Tis the season. Try one of your own.

January 18, 2009 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (2)

Shatner recites "Rocketman"



No joke - this is William Shatner reciting the lyrics to Elton John's "Rocketman." I saw this when it was first broadcast on live TV, and even to my innocent, gentle, naive, twelve- or thirteen-year-old mind, I realized that WILLIAM SHATNER IS BATSHIT INSANE.

(Via The Rumpus.)

January 18, 2009 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Official George W. Bush Presidential Librarium

Rightly questioning the merits of a Presidential library which honors a man of limited intellectual curiosity and an even more limited grasp of objective truth, the good folks behind Goodnight Bush present an alternative: the George W. Bush Presidential Librarium. Some of the highlights for me are Rummy's Believe Me or Not, Church & Skate ("the half-pipe where we erase the separation between wicked and awesome!") and Wet N' Wild Waterboarding ("It should be a crime to have this much fun...somehow, it isn't").

Yes, I'm indulging in one last dig at the Fratboy In Chief before sanity is restored on Tuesday. Or actually second-to-last: my final disrespectful act will be, of course, the ceremonial flush.

January 17, 2009 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Otto's

Ottos

Another interesting bit of Joliet ephemera - a matchbook from Otto's, which once served the unbeatable combination of root beer (undoubtedly homemade) and barbeque. This address is just a few blocks from where we live now but the place is sadly long gone (the building currently houses a Polish bakery/grocery/deli/restaurant/bar) as apparently also are the Lankenaus, for whom I could find no listing in the phone book.

Presumably the "Always Cold" referred to the root beer, and not the barbeque.

January 17, 2009 in Ephemera, Joliet | Permalink | Comments (1)

Just a thought

Almost two years ago I mused that the Pogues' Shane MacGowan didn't appear to be aging well, as evidenced by this photo. But now, after seeing the Uncle Fester-like photos of Boy George in the news this week, I've decided, in terms of 1980s British music icons and how well-preserved they are, that Shane is positively Dick Clark in comparison. And I'm guessing prison won't be kind to "Boy" either.

January 16, 2009 in Music | Permalink | Comments (1)

Pär Lagerkvist, The Dwarf

I first read Pär Lagerkvist's The Dwarf in the mid 1980s in an undergraduate Scandinavian literature course, and though I kept my copy all these years I never re-read it (despite its spurring me to seek out more works of Lagerkvist, who became one of my favorite writers) nor even remembered much about the book other than its Machiavellian overtones. My blog friend Kristin Dodge recently read Machiavelli's The Prince and inquired into related works, and remembering my old classroom discussions I suggested Lagerkvist's book, which she had already read and enjoyed a great deal. This prompted me to give the book another read, and am I ever glad I did. It's a powerful, grim and lacerating meditation on human nature, one which I suspect I'll now be reading again and again.

The story takes place in a royal court in medieval Italy and is told from the perspective of a dwarf who is a personal servant to the kingdom's prince. The dwarf is an angry, bitter and aloof individual who sees himself as both part of the human race (which he was born to) but also of the separate race of dwarves, which he considers the more ancient and superior. The dwarf hates virtually every human he encounters other than the Prince, for whom he has a begrudging and vacillating respect, and Boccarossa, the mercenary warrior whom the Prince retains and whose immense physical power the dwarf is in awe of. The dwarf finds himself mostly powerless at court, which rankles him as he finds all of the dignitaries inferior to himself, and as the kingdom prepares for war he seethes with bloodlust, hoping to fight in battle and gain the empowerment that his court duties fail to provide.

But he is ultimately disappointed as the Prince refuses to let him fight - not even his butchering of an innocent and unarmed fellow dwarf (of the enemy court) can placate him - and also as the army retreats from the brink of the enemy capital due to decimiation of troops and depletion of funds, and further as the Prince negotiates a peace treaty. But the treaty ends in premeditated treachery, which the still-powerless dwarf plays a key but strangely cowardly role in. The dwarf revels in the imagined power of his act, and later achieves further self-exaltation via his tormenting of the Princess, a devout Catholic who is guilt-stricken over the sin of her various romantic dalliances. The scenes with the Princess and the dwarf are relentlessly bitter and cruel, as the latter adopts an almost Old Testament God-like pose as he not only denies her God's absolution (by proxy) but condemns her for her real and imagined sins, driving her from her already fragile state to utter despondency. And yet even as he witnesses her physical and moral degradation, his actions sow the seeds of her ultimately attaining a sort of sainthood which he knows she doesn't deserve.

The dwarf's outsider status gives him the distance and perspective to consider and judge human society, with his insights on war, human relationships and especially religion being remarkably perceptive and, despite his almost uncontrollable hatred and anger, quite level-headed. Lagerkvist writes in clear, concise and plain prose, never saying more than he needs to. This fairly brief book - 228 pages, which is lengthy by Lagerkvist's minimalist standard but short for most other writers - speaks volumes about human nature, which is all the more compelling coming from a narrator who sees himself as being set apart from the human race, and whose actions are almost exclusively inhumane.

January 16, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Quote

"The more serious you are as a writer, the more you feel yourself an outsider — that you'll never be someone who is going to organize the world and transform it in a logical way; you're never going to think in any kind of politically logical way, and you're never going to really have any power."
- William Kennedy, who turns 81 today

January 16, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

99 things

Via (and Viva!) Julie:

Things you’ve already done: bold
Things you want to do: italicize
Things you haven’t done and don’t want to - leave in plain font

1. started your own blog
2. slept under the stars
3. played in a band (it was marching band, but still...)
4. visited Hawaii
5. watched a meteor shower
6. given more than you can afford to charity
7. been to Disneyland/world
8. climbed a mountain
9. held a praying mantis
10. sang a solo
11. bungee jumped
12. visited Paris
13. watched a lightning storm at sea
14. taught yourself an art from scratch
15. adopted a child
16. had food poisoning
17. walked to the top of the statue of liberty
18. grown your own vegetables
19. seen the Mona Lisa in France
20. slept on an overnight train
21. had a pillow fight
22. hitch hiked
23. taken a sick day when you’re not ill (forgive me IBM, for I have sinned)
24. built a snow fort
25. held a lamb
26. gone skinny dipping
27. run a marathon
28. ridden a gondola in Venice
29. seen a total eclipse
30. watched a sunrise or sunset
31. hit a home run (career total: 4)
32. been on a cruise
33. seen Niagara Falls in person
34. visited the birthplace of your ancestors (Dalsland, Sweden)
35. seen an Amish community
36. taught yourself a new language
37. had enough money to be truly satisfied
38. seen the leaning tower of Pisa in person (if you count the replica in Niles, Illinois)
39. gone rock climbing
40. seen Michelangelo’s David in person
41. sung karaoke (The horror! The horror!)
42. seen old faithful geyser erupt
43. bought a stranger a meal in a restaurant
44. visited Africa
45. walked on a beach by moonlight
46. been transported in an ambulance
47. had your portrait painted
48. gone deep sea fishing (and was quite seasick)
49. seen the Sistine Chapel in person
50. been to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris
51. gone scuba diving or snorkeling
52. kissed in the rain
53. played in the mud (but not recently)
54. gone to a drive-in theater
55. been in a movie
56. visited the Great Wall of China
57. started a business
58. taken a martial arts class
59. visited Russia
60. served at a soup kitchen
61. sold girl scout cookies
62. gone whale watching
63. gotten flowers for no reason
64. donated blood
65. gone sky diving
66. visited a Nazi concentration camp
67. bounced a check (I think)
68. flown in a helicopter
69. saved a favorite childhood toy (Barry!)
70. visited the Lincoln Memorial
71. eaten caviar
72. pieced a quilt
73. stood in times square
74. toured the everglades
75. been fired from a job (downsized, yes, but never singled out)
76. seen the changing of the guard in London
77. broken a bone (cracked skull)
78. been on a speeding motorcycle
79. seen the grand canyon in person (and whitewater-rafted through it)
80. published a book (and soon, dammit!)
81. visited the Vatican
82. bought a brand new car
83. walked in Jerusalem
84. had your picture in the newspaper (River Valley Clarion, circa 1978)
85. read the entire bible
86. visited the White House
87. killed and prepared an animal for eating (fish)
88. had chickenpox
89. saved someone’s life
90. sat on a jury
91. met someone famous (not exactly A-list celebrities, though)
92. joined a book club
93. lost a loved one (way too many times)
94. had a baby
95. seen the Alamo in person
96. swum in the Great Salt Lake
97. been involved in a law suit
98. owned a cell phone (grudgingly)
99. been stung by a bee

January 14, 2009 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (3)

BOOK GIVEAWAY - Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise

I'm giving away a slightly damaged copy of Alex Ross' critically acclaimed The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. The book was intended as a Christmas gift for my sister but arrived damaged in transit, but the damage is minor - the cover is just scuffed and slightly bent, and the book is otherwise fully readable. The bookseller credited my account but just told me to keep the book instead of returning it (they said they wouldn't be able to re-sell it anyway, given its condition) and since the subject matter isn't of great interest to me, I've decided to give it away here. The first person to leave a comment below gets the book, no strings attached. I'll even pay for the shipping. Once the lucky winner has been determined, I'll follow up for your mailing address.

January 12, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (6)

On Blagojevich

Okay, I admit it. I made a mistake, a huge mistake. I not only voted for Rod Blagojevich twice, but very publicly supported him here. (For a complete confession of my Blago blog sins, see links below.) The shady dealings in the governor's office started surfacing during his first term, but I mostly ignored them. Part of that was due to my cynical belief that it was just another case of business as usual in Illinois politics, but mostly because I believed in his progressive causes - universal health care, environmental protection, government-funded stem cell research, etc. I thought he was trying to do the right thing for the people of Illinois, and figured that if the price of that sort of progress was some political chicanery, then so be it.

But the red flags really went up this past summer, when the state government ground to a complete halt during a budget impasse, as Blago kept insisting that his social programs be passed even though the economic downturn meant there was no way to pay for them as long as he held fast to his campaign pledge of no personal income tax increases. While I admire him trying to keep his campaign promises, I admire even more a politician who can face political reality - there's no way his political initiatives would ever make it through the legislature without a major tax increase. But he arrogantly stuck to his guns, scrapping his early call for a huge business tax increase (which had absolutely no chance of ever passing) and feebly insisting that his programs could be paid for by expanding casino gambling in the state. He did all of this while showing absolutely no interest in negotiating with the legislature - it would be his way or no way at all. And "no way" is what it became. Today the state owes billions in Medicare and Medicaid payments to dozens of hospitals throughout the state, still has seriously unfunded the state employee pension plan, and needs even more billions in infrastructure spending, none of which it can possibly pay for. All of this showed me he was incapable of governing, and my support for him quickly faded.

And now it clearly appears that he wasn't at all interested in doing the right thing for the people of Illinois - he only wanted the right thing for himself. It's obvious that every state function under his control - filling a vacant U.S. Senate seat, awarding state contracts - was for sale to the highest bidder, with the proceeds and perks all going directly to him. All of which is appalling in itself, but even more appalling is the outrageous arrogance he has publicly displayed ever since his indictment, refusing to resign and saying he will be vindicated by the legal system. He keeps saying he wants what's best for the people of Illinois, even as he has made the state into a national laughingstock, brought the state government to a standstill, and even bogged down the U.S. Senate, where our elected representatives are supposed to be focused on getting us out of our economic morass but instead have to deal with the political circus of the Roland Burris appointment which Blago went right ahead and made, in defiance of both the Springfield legislature and the Democratic Party leadership in Washington.

Yes, Blago will have his day in court. But no matter whether he's guilty or not - and the feds' wiretaps seem almost inarguably damning - he has completely lost his ability to lead the state. And that, regardless of his legal guilt or innocence, means he should resign immediately - for the good of people of Illinois, whom he keeps insisting that he cares so much about. If he truly cares about us, he would leave office right now.


Blago Mea Culpa:
On drug reimportation
On requiring pharmacists to offer birth control
On state-funded stem-cell research
On children's health insurance
On environmental protection

January 11, 2009 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts

What an odd, bitter and furious book this is. I'm not even sure what to make of it, or what any of it really means, so much so that I can't even begin to review it here. The short of it is that the book revolves around an "agony column" journalist (unidentified throughout the book, other than his "Miss Lonelyhearts" pen name) for a New York City newspaper during the 1920s who finds himself overwhelmed by the grief, anger and sorrow expressed by readers who write letters to him, begging for help and comfort that he is increasingly unable to provide. There's also a cynical, borderline-cruel editor, a long-suffering fiancee, several married women whom the protagonist has dallied with and a score of drinking-buddy lushes down at the speakeasy, all of whom move in and out of the columnist's life as he remains mostly detached, both physically and emotionally, from them. That's the short of it. The long of it is what I don't fully comprehend. There's a lot of metaphor going on here, as well as overarching themes I can't quite grasp upon first reading.

I'm not even sure whether I like this book or not; I'm leaning towards the former, as I somehow find myself morbidly curious in a story this relentlessly dark. I will undoubtedly read this again - it's either a short novella or a long story, and only 58 pages - and maybe I'll gain more insight into it next time and will be able to comprehensively evaluate it here.

January 8, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (3)

Stacey's Bookstore, RIP

It seems like hardly a week passes these days without news of another great independent bookseller going out of business. I never mention these closings here, since I have no personal connection with the stories and thus doing so would seem rather pointless. But today I was saddened to read that Stacey's Bookstore in San Francisco is closing in March, the victim of all the usual causes - saddened, because I did visit Stacey's once and really loved the store. Former San Franciscan Ed Champion (whom I was also lucky to meet, during that same business trip) offers a very thoughtful and heartfelt tribute to the store here.

January 7, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Encouraging your kids

Cleffa

My wife Julie passes along this great story about our daughter Maddie, LEGOS and Pokemon. Although Julie is Maddie's primary homeschool teacher, I too have heard Maddie's "I can't do it" lament on many occasions. The Cleffa story is a wonderful lesson in how important it is to encourage your kids in whatever they do, to help them overcome their initial fear of failure and to ultimately succeed - and by "succeed" I don't necessarily mean to accomplish a specific task, which kids usually won't do on the first try. Instead, they can succeed simply by making the effort and, if they fail, understanding how important it is to try again. As I mentioned in the comments, I couldn't be prouder of my little girl - not just for succeeding, but for having the courage to try.

The background image on my laptop screen is Samuel Beckett's famous quotation, "Never mind. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." Maddie has asked me about this quote several times but I don't think I've been able to adequately explain it to her yet. With age I'm sure she'll understand and appreciate the imperative to not worry about failures, but instead to keep trying and get a little bit better each time.

January 5, 2009 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

Short stories in 2009

I went a bit overboard with last year's literary resolutions, so much so that this year I'm not resolving, per se, to do anything at all. Instead I have a few informal goals that I want to work toward in 2009. If I achieve them, fine, but if not, then that's fine too.

The first goal involves reading short stories, something I don't do nearly enough of. In the past I've set some story goals that were either completely unreasonable (reading a story from the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction every night, right before bedtime, until the book was finished [1]) or overly optimistic (10 stories from authors I hadn't read before, and reviewed at The Short Story Reading Challenge [2]), with my only successful venture so far being the daily reading and reviewing of Hemingway's The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories.

Given my checkered past in this area, this year I'm setting a much more modest goal. I'll read 25 short stories, subject to the following restrictions:

+ Every story has to be from a different book (which will prevent my taking the lazy way out and just reading the Norton Anthology)
+ No more than three stories that I've already read
+ No more than three authors that I've already read (so no overdosing on my personal gods Algren, Dybek, William Trevor, etc.)

Though I'll tally all the stories in a separate page, they may or may not be formally reviewed. I've already started in on stories by Franz Kafka and Colum McCann, so hopefully I'll be able to set such a fast pace early in the year that even after the inevitable late-year slacking I might still hit my goal. Stay tuned.

[1] Fell abysmally short, reading only Woody Allen, Sherwood Anderson, James Baldwin, Honore de Balzac, and Donald Barthelme
[2] Fell woefully short, reading/reviewing only Kevin Brockmeier and Etgar Keret

January 5, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

"...a casual glimpse of something very ordinary..."

Marilynne Robinson, interviewed in the latest Paris Review:

"You have to have a certain detachment in order to see beauty for yourself rather than something that has been put in quotation marks to be understood as "beauty." Think about Dutch painting, where sunlight is falling on a basin of water and a woman is standing there in the clothes that she would wear when she wakes up in the morning - that beauty is a casual glimpse of something very ordinary. Or a painting like Rembrandt's Carcass of Beef, where a simple piece of meat caught his eye because there was something mysterious about it. You also get that in Edward Hopper: Look at the sunlight! or Look at the human being! These are instances of genius. Cultures cherish artists because they are people who can say, Look at that. And it's not Versailles. It's a brick wall with a ray of sunlight falling on it."

I admire Robinson's appreciation for beauty in the mundane, and though I don't consider myself an artist (instead, I'm a journeyman or at best a craftsman) I think I also have the ability to see beauty in unexpected places; it's why I find some old factories to be just as beautiful as anything inside an art museum. I often see that hidden beauty, like an artist does, although my inability to fully convey my impressions in words prevents me from achieving the status of an artist. (Something to work on, I guess.) Robinson's acclaimed first novel Housekeeping has been on my shelf for about six months now, and I'm definitely going to dive into it within the next few months.

January 2, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Nelson Algren, Never Come Morning

I'm rather late in announcing this, but my essay "For Some, Morning Never Comes" (on Nelson Algren's second novel, Never Come Morning) has been published at the Irish online journal dogmatika. I wrote the piece last summer as part of a planned "Algren Week" which would coincide with the author's birthday, but after publication was delayed for a while I kind of lost track of it, and then apparently my RSS reader must have dropped the site's feed since I never saw that the essay had been posted. But now I finally see that it's up, and I'm quite pleased with the results, as well as the editor's inclusion of two vintage photographs of Algren, both of which I believe are by Art Shay.

Although it seems that Algren Week didn't quite materialize as planned, dogmatika does have another concurrent Algren piece, "An American Nightmare: The US Versus Nelson Algren", by Darran Anderson (no relation) that's also worth checking out.

January 1, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)