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1925 Style

LF Beach ad 1925

I love this 1925 ad for the L.F. Beach department store in Joliet. Note the striking similarity and impossible proportions of the models from way back then. Apparently the unrealistic body perception that is instilled by popular culture these days didn't start with Barbie dolls.

July 31, 2009 in Joliet | Permalink | Comments (1)

Reading series in Chicago

My compadre Jason Behrends (What To Wear During an Orange Alert?, Orange Alert Press, etc.) gets top billing in this nice article at Newcity about Chicago's burgeoning reading series, many of which take place in bars versus the traditional bookstore venue. I haven't done a bar reading yet (coffeehouse, bookstore, gallery, so far) but hope to someday. The bar venue trend is certainly promising, and should encourage more of the public to attend and increase exposure for independent publishers and writers.

July 31, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Neal Stephenson Triathlon

My wife finishes her latest Neal Stephenson novel, contemplates a new Olympic event: "the triathlon would involve reading three Neal Stephenson books in a year as their length, heft and girth are enough to test any reader's stamina." I should also point out that although she owns a Kindle, she chose to read all three in their backbreaking hardcover versions. She's quite the trooper.

July 30, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Mike Watt

John Kenyon runs a nice interview with one of my musical heroes, Mike Watt.

New groups are about new musical situations, new places to learn from. I think it helps me keep relevant somehow, keeps the bass from being just a machine and a means to help me keep learning. The different musical situations are like different "classrooms" and I sincerely believe everyone has something to teach me. I'm trying to cram as much as I can in the amount of life I have left...I think about my life... I think, "I'm here to learn!"

Thirty years in the business, and he's still eager to learn. I really admire that.

July 28, 2009 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Moving onward with Twain

After the weighty dystopias of 1984 and Brave New World, and especially their formal, oh-so-British prose, it has been a great relief to turn to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with all of its humor, rollicking Mississippi River adventures and American vernacular language. I've read remarkably little of Mark Twain, which is surprising given his eminence as one of America's greatest men of letters and the easy accessibility of his prose. One would think, at the very least, that I would have had several of his books as required reading during my school days, but no. Twain is one of the most glaring gaps in my literary acumen that I intend to rectify.

Here's a great passage from early in the book, as Huck chafes under the guardianship of the Widow Douglas.

After supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers, and I was in a sweat to find out all about him; but by and by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time; so then I didn't care no more about him, because I don't take no stock in dead people.

Pretty soon I wanted to smoke, and asked the widow to let me. But she wouldn't. She said it was a mean practice and wasn't clean, and I must try to not do it any more. That is just the way with some people. They get down on a thing when they don't know nothing about it. Here she was a-bothering about Moses, which was no kin to her, and no use to anybody, being gone, you see, yet finding a power of fault with me for doing a thing that had some good in it. And she took snuff, too; of course that was all right, because she done it herself.

Even at a fairly young age, Huck is worldly enough to recognize gross hypocrisy when he sees it.

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

The Baffler returns!

No, not some second-rate Batman villian, but the great journal edited by Thomas Frank.

"In my little imagination, I never really felt like The Baffler went away," he said. "I mean, I just got back from the hardware store. I went to buy grass seed. The name of the seed? 'Rebel'! It's like there's almost no point anymore to the word!"

I was big fan of The Baffler back in the day, and am glad to see it return, so much so that I will be a regular subscriber this time instead of sporadically picking it up from the newsstand. My only regret is that, having ceased publication in 2003, it missed the meatiest parts of the Bush administration. The journal's wisdom and common sense would have gone a long way towards comprehending the insanity of that thankfully bygone era.

July 27, 2009 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

If somehow, some way, you can't get enough of me here at Pete Lit...

...I'm also on Facebook, so friend away if you like. Be advised, however, that content is updated there only on weekends, as I can't access Facebook from my work computer during the week. But alas, I don't expect to ever be on Twitter. I already have more than enough ways to waste my time, thanks.

July 26, 2009 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

Antitrust: good news, bad news

Good: the new antitrust regime in Washington is getting aggressive.

President Obama’s top antitrust official and some senior Democratic lawmakers are preparing to rein in a host of major industries, including airline and railroad giants, moving so aggressively that they are finding some resistance from officials within the administration.

Bad: Some Obama administration officials are resisting.

In some cases, though, the new approach is being opposed by administration officials. Some fear that the crackdown is coming at a bad time, as corporate America reels from the recession. Other officials embrace the Bush administration’s view that larger companies and industry alliances can provide consumer benefits by making their businesses more efficient.

I really don't understand the latter, especially since two of the administration's biggest problems right now - reining in the excesses of Wall Street and reforming the healthcare system - are the direct result of previous administrations abdicating their antitrust responsibility, stepping aside and allowing the financial and healthcare industries to consolidate. Power became highly concentrated within those industries, competition slackened, prices rose and consumer choices decreased, and now those major players are so politically and economically strong that they can easily block any attempt at reform.

Repeat after me, Mr. Obama: increased industry power does NOT benefit consumers or society as a whole - no matter what those industries tell you. Do everything in your power to regulate industry and restore the critical competition that your predecessors let slip away.

July 26, 2009 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

ML Press

I'd like to put in a good word here for indie publisher ML Press and especially for Charles Lennox's A Field of Colors, a lovely story that was my introduction to the press. Lennox's tale is spare but affecting, intriguingly telling of a father and his two daughters as they navigate the wreckage of a broken marriage. That summary may make the story sound like standard fare, but it's anything but. Very nicely done.

At first ML Press is focusing on limited edition, single-story chapbooks (like A Field of Colors) which it is selling both on an individual basis and by subscription. The Lennox chapbook is plainly but effectively designed, and really puts the focus on the story instead of the packaging. I'm impressed with what I've seen of ML Press so far (and further enticed by other raves I've seen), so much so that I might just overcome my stingy nature and spring for a subscription one of these days.

July 23, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Preach it, Brother Neil

Though I've never read any of Neil Gaiman's books, I'm going to start reading his blog, if for no other reason than the frankness and perfect sensibility of this response to a reader:

Look, this may not be palatable, Gareth, and I keep trying to come up with a better way to put it, but the simplicity of things, at least from my perspective is this:

George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.

Bingo.

(Via Read Street.)

July 22, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

"I believe one would write better if the climate were bad."

Just finished Brave New World yesterday. I'll save my final thoughts on the book for my Summer of Classics recap sometime in early September, but for now I'll say that the book was good, but not nearly as good as 1984. Here's one last excerpt. In contrast to Orwell's imagined world, where independent thinkers/heretics are "disappeared" (forcibly removed, killed and erased from the historical record), in Huxley's dystopia such rebels are merely exiled to remote islands, where they are free to pursue their various whims while not corrupting the highly conditioned minds of the complacent masses. In this passage, the Controller is about to banish Helmholtz Watson and Bernard Marx to an island, albeit one of their own choosing:

"It's lucky," (the Controller) added, after a pause, "that there are such a lot of islands in the world. I don't know what we should do without them. Put you all in the lethal chamber, I suppose. By the way, Mr. Watson, would you like a tropical climate? The Marquesas, for example; or Samoa? Or something rather more bracing?"

Helmholtz rose from his pneumatic chair. "I should like a thoroughly bad climate," he answered. "I believe one would write better if the climate were bad. If there were a lot of wind and storms, for example …"

The Controller nodded his approbation. "I like your spirit, Mr. Watson. I like it very much indeed. As much as I officially disapprove of it." He smiled. "What about the Falkland Islands?"

"Yes, I think that will do," Helmholtz answered.

Familiar theme there - that writers need discomfort and dissatisfaction to stimulate their art.

July 22, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

The looming death of the major labels

The majors have been on life support for the last several years. Now a viable alternative business model appears to have risen, which just might finish off the majors for good.

Under the Polyphonic model, bands that receive investments from the firm will operate like start-up companies, recording their own music and choosing outside contractors to handle their publicity, merchandise and touring.

Instead of receiving an advance and then possibly reaping royalties later if they have a hit, musicians will share in all the profits from their music and touring. In another departure from tradition in the music business, they will also maintain ownership of their own copyrights and master recordings — meaning they and their heirs can keep earning money from their music.

Artists retaining ownership of their copyrights and masters is a particularly welcome development. I've never quite understood why major labels think little enough of certain albums that they let them go out of print, and yet still hoard the albums to themselves, not letting the rights revert to the artists who have an interest in releasing it themselves. One example is the Mekons' brilliant Rock & Roll, which was released by A&M in the late 1980s but flopped commercially (did A&M really think an idiosyncratic band like the Mekons could become a mainstream success?) then let it languish, keeping it out of print for over ten years before an independent label finally picked it up and re-released it. For years I owned only a worn cassette dub of the album (not wanting to pay a fortune for a less-than-pristine used copy of the original release) and only recently acquired the re-release - which in itself was superior to the original, as it included two good tracks from the original UK release that had been deleted from the original U.S. release.

I've always felt that labels should be allowed to retain album rights only if they keep it in print and readily available - if they let an album go out of print, the rights should immediately revert to the artist. And in this digital age, there's really no excuse for albums being out of print - the labels could easily make them available online (through iTunes or whatever) at little to no additional cost. All of which may become a moot point if the Polyphonic model takes hold. Here's hoping.

July 22, 2009 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Six Word Stories

The folks at Six Word Stories have published a story of mine which (whaddya know?) has only six words. Check it out. Incidentally, the footnotes are by the editor, not me. Personally I think nanofiction like this should stand on its own, without any additional explanation. If you have to explain what you wrote, that probably means you didn't write it well enough.

July 21, 2009 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (2)

J.F. Powers

Powers

I've been enjoying the ongoing series of National Book Award fiction winner tributes, and J.F. Powers' Morte D'Urban grabbed my attention on several levels. First the story itself, which based on Joshua Ferris' vivid description (which reminds me of Sinclair Lewis) sounds like one I'd really like to read. Second, that Powers is an Illinois-born writer (from downstate Jacksonville) that I've never read. And third, for that remarkable cover design:

+ The author's last name is the same font and size as the title, thus blurring the distinction between the two.

+ The wonderfully bold "J.F.", which is given a prominence one wouldn't usually associate with a debut novelist.

+ The addition of "...A Novel", which is so common these days that I assumed the practice was a fairly recent development. But this book was published in 1962, so it's been going on for quite some time now.

July 20, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (3)

Walter Cronkite

Cronkite
(Photo by CBS)

I'm sure the tributes for this great man will keep rolling in, from people who knew him well or speak more eloquently than I can. For me, all you need to know about Cronkite was the comment that Lyndon Johnson made after the anchorman returned from Vietnam and expressed serious reservations about the war effort: "If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America." We will never have another journalist as influential, respected and trusted as Walter Cronkite. Rest well, sir.

July 18, 2009 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

No caption needed

Wiener
(Photo by Tom McCauley, Associated Press)

Although this picture speaks for itself, I welcome your suggestions for an appropriate caption. Feel free to leave one as a comment.

July 18, 2009 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Mencken's hooch tally

Mencken

One of my literary heroes, H.L. Mencken, once inscribed one of his books with a tally of the alcohol he drank during the three years it took to write the book. I particularly love the "more or less" at the end - anyone who drank like Mencken couldn't possibly keep track of exact varieties or quantities, no matter how good the bookkeeping.

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

Perry Mason

Mason

It warms my heart to hear that Sonia Sotomayor was such a fan of Perry Mason while growing up. (And indeed, it's very hard to imagine Calista Flockhart or James Spader inspiring a young person to go into law, as Raymond Burr did for Sotomayor.) I was a huge fan myself, especially during grad school, so much so that I was often late for my noon class in trying to catch the last minutes of episodes that started on WTBS at 11:05 a.m. There was just something about the tone and mood of the show - the relentless pursuit of justice for the wrongly accused, the unapologetic sanctimony, the dark suits and Thunderbirds and swanky cocktail lounges, the endless befuddlement of authority as embodied by District Attorney Hamilton Burger. Even the utter implausibility of the latter factor - Burger losing every case to Mason, who always extracted a courtroom confession from an unwitting witness - never dampened my ardor for the show. Glad to see I'm not alone.

July 16, 2009 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Who said it?

"When I get a case about discrimination, I have to think about people in my own family who suffered discrimination because of their ethnic background or because of religion or because of gender. And I do take that into account."

Sonia Sotomayor? No, Samuel Alito. And yet the same Senate conservatives who had no problem with this position in 2006, when they confirmed Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court, now hypocritically insist that a Supreme Court Justice should never practice empathy when making their judicial decisions, thus making Sotomayor (who has professed similar empathy) somehow unfit for the Court. Oh, please.

(Via Think Progress.)

July 14, 2009 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

One Sentence Movie Reviews: Doubt (2008)

Doubt

Doubt (2008): Even the certain are never completely sure.

Notes: Impeccably acted (Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman are in typically strong form) and beautifully filmed, this tense drama asks as many questions as it answers, to completely satisfying effect. A must-see.

(Thanks to Kevin Smokler for the "one sentence movie review" concept.)

July 13, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (0)

New Ward Just

One of my favorite writers, Ward Just, has a new novel out, Exiles in the Garden. His last two novels, Forgetfulness and An Unfinished Season, were nothing short of great. I expect the same from his latest. This notice from Powell's also reminds me that I need to pick up the pace on my Just reading - Echo House and The Weather in Berlin remain unread on my shelf, for which I will now slap myself on the back of the head.

July 10, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Reimagining 1984

1984-02B
(Image created by Alex Charchar)

Having just finished 1984 this week, I was pleased to see this take on the various covers of the book from over the years, as well as Alex Charchar's own imaginative rendition of the cover. I agree that few of the official covers truly capture the spirit of the narrative, many of them lazily falling back on the eyeball/"Big Brother is watching you" theme. But Charchar's version strikes me for two reasons: first, the officious font and drab color scheme are faithful to the regimented and lifeless society depicted by Orwell; and second, the fact that the original title (as I mention in the comments) isn't perfectly eradicated, just as Orwell's totalitarian government could eradicate history from the official written records, but never completely from the memories of its citizens. Well done indeed.

(Via Coudal.)

July 9, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

National Book Awards show Algren some love

The National Book Awards are celebrating their sixtieth anniversary by posting tributes to each of the fiction award winners. First up is the debut winner from 1950, Nelson Algren's The Man With the Golden Arm, with appreciations from Rachel Kushner (from whom I'd have preferred to hear less about her personal life, and more about the book) and Harold Augenbraum, from whom I couldn't help admire the following:

But when you immerse yourself in Algren’s language you will see why so many other writers of his time and ours have appreciated him. He takes the American idiom and bends it all around. The tone and diction of his narrative leech into his dialogue, and vice versa, style so impressively written that it pushes the story itself to the background.

The entire series can be found here.

July 8, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"the murmur of bees and helicopters"

Telling passage from Brave New World:

Outside, in the garden, it was playtime. Naked in the warm June sunshine, six or seven hundred little boys and girls were running with shrill yells over the lawns, or playing ball games, or squatting silently in twos and threes among the flowering shrubs. The roses were in bloom, two nightingales soliloquized in the boskage, a cuckoo was just going out of tune among the lime trees. The air was drowsy with the murmur of bees and helicopters.

All that idyllic imagery, of naked children cavorting, roses blooming, nightingales and cuckoos singing, and then...helicopters. Considering the latter usually has negative assocations - think war, evacuation, surveillance - that's a very interesting ominous tone that Huxley has flung in there.

Following up on yesterday's post, it looks like Huxley's hero has indeed arrived. Or heroine, specifically - Lenina Crowne. She doesn't seem to have quite fully absorbed all of the society's dictates. Whether or not she actively resists or even outright rebels remains to be seen, but I see some promise in her.

July 8, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Orwell to Huxley

My Summer of Classics continues on. Yesterday I finished reading George Orwell's 1984, and as of this morning I'm two chapters into Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Huxley's premise - that of a regimented, socially-engineered society in which science has triumphed over nature - has already been firmly established. But now Huxley really needs to humanize the narrative by introducing a hero (who still bears traces of humanity and resists the system) or at least an anti-hero (who has soullessly absorbed and internalized society's mandates, and thus represents what monstrosities such a system would produce). That's exactly what Orwell did, from the very first page, instantly immersing the reader into the everyday life of Winston Smith. Huxley needs to do the same, or otherwise this will turn out to be nothing more than a political treatise, and not a novel. Mind you, there's nothing wrong with political treatises - just treatises disguised as fiction, which I've never had much taste for.

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

Dim bulbs not quite so dim any longer

Gee, what do you know? Government regulation spurs innovation.

When Congress passed a new energy law two years ago, obituaries were written for the incandescent light bulb. The law set tough efficiency standards, due to take effect in 2012, that no traditional incandescent bulb on the market could meet, and a century-old technology that helped create the modern world seemed to be doomed.

But as it turns out, the obituaries were premature.

Left to the free market, the incandescent bulb industry would probably have just puttered along, selling century-old technology that wasted energy and indirectly generated air pollution from the power plants that supply electricity, because doing so was a slow-growth but high-cashflow business. But then, when the government toughens up energy efficiency standards, the industry suddenly realizes it has to do things differently in order to survive, and comes up with a vastly improved product. For the same reason, if the government finally gets tough with the coal industry and the power plants it feeds, the result won't be the death of those industries, but instead revitalized industries that do things better than they did before. Same thing with raising fuel efficiency and emissions standards for the auto industry - if those companies are smart enough to change, they'll survive and even thrive. And if they're not smart enough, they shouldn't be in business anyway.

July 6, 2009 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (3)

Quote

"It doesn't seem interesting to be the same artist all your life, to have the same obsessions."
-Art Spiegelman, from his Be sketchbook (1979)

July 5, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Karl Malden



For me, there's no greater testament to the greatness of Karl Malden than his quietly electrifying performance in On The Waterfront, and particularly the unforgettable scene in the video above, which moves me even more than Brando's famous "I coulda been a contender" scene.

A.O. Scott has written a fine appreciation of Malden (who died this week, at age 97) which is very much worth reading as well. I might just have to rent A Streetcar Named Desire today, on this rainy holiday.

July 4, 2009 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Steve"

Arthurjones_steve 

Steve drove all night, thinking he was getting somewhere.

 

I'm quite delighted today to see the publication of my one-sentence story "Steve" (yes, that's it above, in its entirety), as illustrated on a Post-It Note by the cartoonist Arthur Jones. The premise is simple: write a one-sentence story, email it to Arthur, and he'll decide whether or not to illustrate it. As his illustrations tend to be more lighthearted in tone, I appreciate the dark edge he gave to mine. He did a great job.

July 2, 2009 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (6)

So who's the judicial activist, exactly?

The well-worn refrain is that liberal judges are activists who are bent on dictating social policy, while conservative judges respect precedent and always defer to the decisions of elected officials who are accountable to the electorate. Wrong.

On another point, the (Ricci) ruling underscored the emptiness of the “judicial activist” label that Republicans like to use in debates over nominees to the federal courts, including Judge Sotomayor. In the firefighters’ case, she actually refused to second-guess the city’s decision — an act of judicial restraint. It was the court’s conservatives, including Chief Justice John Roberts, who voted to overturn the decision of an elected government.

Liberal or conservative, all judges are activists sometimes, and status-quo conservators at other times. Sotomayor may have often been an activist in her rulings, but that's not the case here. To dismiss her as a "judicial activist" is simple-minded and just plain wrong.

July 1, 2009 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)