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Ben Tanzer, I Am Richard Simmons

We recently read I Am Richard Simmons, the new chapbook from Ben Tanzer (our colleague, kindred spirit and bestest lunch companion) and swooned all over again, as the story's eponymous narrator projects the energy and mania and exuberance and positivity and, yes, also the veiled desperation and sadness and heartbreak that seems to underlie all of that celebrity's public appearances. The chapbook is part of Mud Luscious Press' ongoing series, and while reading both the book and series are very much worth your time, they may not necessarily change your life. But maybe, just maybe, it will, and at any rate it will definitely change Ben's.

October 30, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Dorothy & John


I submitted this photo to the wonderful My Parents Were Awesome several weeks ago, but since I've gotten impatient waiting for the site to post it, I thought I'd just go ahead and post it here. That's my parents, Dorothy and John Anderson, during their college years in the late forties. And for the record, though my awesome but late dad is no longer with us, my mom is still thriving and remains quite awesome.

October 30, 2009 in Personal, Photography | Permalink | Comments (2)

Yes We Can

U.S. GDP rises 3.5% as stimulus kicks in. Well done, Mr. President.

October 29, 2009 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Mark Costello, The Murphy Stories

I recently read Mark Costello's 1973 story collection The Murphy Stories, and was thoroughly impressed. The stories all center on Murphy, a middling Midwest academic with a troubled personal life. Costello's descriptions of Murphy's unhappy marriage and empty affairs alternate between harrowing and relentlessly sad, so much so that, given the general similarities between Costello and Murphy, I truly hope for the writer's sake that these stories aren't overly autobiographical.

Although the well-anthologized "Murphy's Xmas" is probably the best known story here, I think the strongest is the first, "Callahan's Black Cadillacs", which shows Murphy (unnamed, yet clearly the same protagonist as the later stories) during his difficult midcentury childhood, when his only adult role models are his Republican bureaucrat father (who devotes far more attention to getting political jobs for locals than minding his own family), pious Great Aunt Hatt (who becomes his foster mother after his parents temporarily move to Chicago for his father's wartime job) and boozy vagrant Uncle Mort, all of whom provide less-than-ideal influences on young Murphy and set the stage for the unhappiness of his adult life, as depicted so convincingly in the later stories.

Costello hasn't been widely published, with just two story collections to his name, which is presumably the result of his focus on teaching creative writing, primarily at my alma mater, the University of Illinois (where I happened to hear him give a reading in the mid 1980s). Based on the strength of The Murphy Stories, I'd say his students' gain is clearly the reading public's loss, as I'd really love to see much more of his work than what's out there. Then again, writing stories as emotionally wrenching as these has to be hard on the writer, so maybe he's personally better off for not having written more than he has.

October 28, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Progressivism Then (As Now)

Edmund Wilson, from "Meditations of a Progressive", circa 1930-31 (collected in The American Jitters: A Year of the Slump):
...Still, one who like to see them come out and say, "Capitalism has got to go. It's just a question of time, so we're trying to make the transition easy." If they're going in for scaring the manufacturers, they might as well scare them good and proper. I suppose they're afraid of scaring their constituents, too. But why do the American progressives have to be tongue-tied with inhibitions? - they're shy of the whole language of real political thought. The surest way to shake an American reformer and make him back down has always been to accuse him of socialism - that's what they did with Bryan, and we ought to be beyond the Bryan stage. I suppose that we still have a lingering feeling that God is going to strike us dead if we admit that our old-fashioned republic isn't the last word in political science. A few high words would do no one any harm.
Clearly things have changed little since Wilson's day. We're still not "beyond the Bryan stage" - any proposal for genuine political reform, for wresting power away from the plutocracy, is met with charges of socialism (as if socialism is really that bad - it's done quite well for the standard of living in many countries in Europe), from which progressive reformers nearly always shrink in fear, weakly retreating from their positions and leaving the status quo intact.

October 24, 2009 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Critiquing New York

The "Review Revue" feature on KEXP's blog pulls an old record from the station's archives and transcribes the various comments on the record that the staffers have jotted down on the album cover over the years. The latest installment is of one of my favorite albums, Lou Reed's New York. Interesting commentary - plenty of love and plenty of hate, just as I'd expect to see in response to an often-polarizing artist like Reed. I have to agree with this one in particular: "Very few albums these days (1989) make you stop what you are doing & listen to the lyrics. This is one of them."

October 23, 2009 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records

I just finished reading the terrific Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, The Indie Label That Got Big and Stayed Small, by John Cook with Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance. It's a history, primarily oral, of Merge, the great indie from Chapel Hill, North Carolina which has brought out so many great albums - not just by Superchunk (McCaughan and Ballance's band) but also Neutral Milk Hotel, Magnetic Fields, Spoon, Arcade Fire and many others - over the past twenty years. Mac and Laura started Merge from nothing, from being merely a vehicle for releasing 7-inch singles by Superchunk (whose first three albums weren't even on Merge) and their obscure Chapel Hill friends to becoming one of the most important record labels around, indie or otherwise. It's truly inspiring to read how Mac and Laura have made Merge into a success completely on their own terms, simply by doing what they love and following their hearts. None of Merge's artists were brought on because of their hitmaking potential, but because they made great music that Mac and Laura wanted to bring to the world, and because of the great music and the label's passion and commitment to doing things the right way, some of Merge's albums became bonafide hits (Arcade Fire and Spoon in particular). As the physical album gives way to the digital delivery of MP3s, the book ends on a somewhat nervous note, as even Mac and Laura seem uncertain that Merge can continue to thrive in the post-CD age, but if anyone in the record industry can pull it off, it's them. I'll certainly be cheering for Merge, the little label that could - and can.

(Special thanks to John Kenyon at Things I'd Rather Be Doing for sending me the book.)

October 19, 2009 in Books, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Royko vs. Sinatra

Oh god, this is fantastic: Frank Sinatra's angry letter to Mike Royko, in which Old Blue Eyes threatened Royko after the latter had written a column that criticized the Chicago Police Department for providing free bodyguards to Sinatra during a 1976 visit to the city, will soon be up for auction. Royko's followup column, "Don't Bet Against Sinatra" (or something like that - I lent my copy of Sez Who? Sez Me, which includes the column, to a friend), is one of my very favorite pieces of his. Though I'll follow the auction with interest, I won't be bidding, as the pdf copy is more than enough for me.

And coincidentally, the current owner of the letter, Vie Carlson (the mother of Cheap Trick drummer Bun Carlos), is a very distant shirttail relative of mine, whom I've never met.

October 18, 2009 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

"She's doing her caressin' with a tiny Smith & Wesson"

Barbara Feldon singing "99." No further explanation necessary. Just savor.

October 17, 2009 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Actual conversation

Maddie: Will you help me fight the dark?
Pete: Sure, but later.
Maddie: There is no 'later' in fighting the dark.

October 17, 2009 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (1)

Mad Men and Typewriters

Boing Boing links to a long interview with Scott Buckwald, the original prop master for Mad Men who had the delicious task of obtaining props which were faithful to the show's early 1960s era. Writer geek that I am, I couldn't help but enjoy this bit on typewriters:

I thought Mad Men made a big mistake on the typewriters. They knew what the right history was, but they ignored it. The secretaries at that advertising firm would have still been using vintage-style typewriters, but they used IBM Selectrics simply because the producer liked the way they looked and they made less noise on set. So we got many letters about how they were wrong, but, again, that’s his call. And right or wrong, it’s his show. He can do whatever he wants with it.

There was a typewriter repairman in North Hollywood, California. He couldn’t believe it when all of a sudden someone deposited 24 vintage typewriters on his doorstep and said, “Make them look new.” He probably hadn’t had that much work in the last 25 years. He was probably just about ready to hang up the “Going out of business” sign and cursing the arrival of the laptop computer when all of a sudden here I come with 24 typewriters.

October 16, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Finality" and "Endurance"

My submissions for the Hint Fiction anthology were not selected for publication (the contributor list has some real heavy hitters, Stuart Dybek and Joyce Carol Oates among them) so here they are for your perusal and enjoyment.

Smoke rising to the sky, gray-black and eye-stinging, soon was all that remained of the cabin. Pocketing the matches, he walked away.

The coffee's warmth failed to calm her this time, tasting only bitter. She shoved the mug away. It would end soon, she insisted silently.

October 16, 2009 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (2)

The Decline and Likely Fall of Sir Minnes

Well, apparently Sir Minnes is still alive, that is, as of 8/22/1666. It occurred to me that it might be entertaining to follow the gentleman's progress or, given that he's dying, regression. (I don't know how lethal the ague was 433 years ago, but I'm not optimistic for his chances.) So that's exactly what I'll do here, updating this post whenever Pepys makes a new reference to him.
8/22/1666: I perceive (Sir W. Pen) do look after Sir J. Minnes’s place if he dies, and though I love him not nor do desire to have him in, yet I do think [he] is the first man in England for it.
8/26/1666: Being come home, hear that Sir J. Minnes has had a very bad fit all this day, and a hickup do take him, which is a very bad sign, which troubles me truly.
(Almost two weeks have now passed with no further mention of Sir Minnes. But Pepys could hardly be faulted for neglect, as something came up in the meantime that deserved his full attention, namely the Great Fire of London. Check out Pepys' firsthand account of the fire here, starting with his entry of 9/2/1666. Great reading - though my hopes for the already-infirm Sir Minnes, in the midst of this devastation, have dwindled to almost nothing.)
9/17/1666: Thence by coach over the ruines, down Fleete Streete and Cheapside to Broad Streete to Sir G. Carteret, where Sir W. Batten (and Sir J. Minnes, whom I had not seen a long time before, being his first coming abroad) and Lord Bruncker passing his accounts.
9/25/1666: Thence took my wife home to dinner, and then to the office, where Mr. Hater all the day putting in order and entering in a book all the measures that this account of the Navy hath been made up by, and late at night to Mrs. Turner’s, where she had got my wife and Lady Pen and Pegg, and supped, and after, supper and the rest of the company by design gone, Mrs. Turner and her husband did lay their case to me about their lodgings, Sir J. Minnes being now gone wholly to his owne, and now, they being empty, they doubt Sir T. Harvy or Lord Bruncker may look after the lodgings.
(Not sure what to make of this: is Sir Minnes dead or not? What exactly does "gone to his owne" mean? Had he written "gone to his Maker", the meaning would have been obvious. A little help here?)
9/26/1666: Up, and with Sir J. Minnes to St. James’s, where every body going to the House, I away by coach to White Hall...
(Well, apparently Sir Minnes is still alive and well. Although Pepys' mentions of him are limited, Minnes seems to be getting around. Is it possible he kicked the ague?)
9/27/1666: Thence I by coach home to the office, and there intending a meeting, but nobody being there but myself and Sir J. Minnes, who is worse than nothing, I did not answer any body, but kept to my business in the office till night...
("Worse than nothing" sounds like a slam, so Pepys' apparent transition from pity for Minnes to scorn makes me think even more that the latter has fully recovered. I don't even know who Sir Minnes is - I haven't looked for any biographical information, lest I spoil the suspense over his fate - but he appears to be a work colleague of Pepys, so from now on there might be regular and very ordinary references to him. I'm starting to wonder if I should even continue this project - if Sir Minnes lived to a ripe old age and died an ordinary death there may not be much more of interest on the subject.)
10/3/1666: Sir W. Batten, Lord Bruncker, [Sir] W. Pen, come in, but presently went out; and [Sir] J. Minnes come in, and said two or three words from the purpose, but to do hurt; and so away he went also, and left me all the morning with them alone to stand or fall.
(Another mildly negative mention, but this doesn't seem to be going anywhere any longer. Unless Sir Minnes suddenly takes ill again, or escalates into an all-out blood feud with Pepys, I will probably stop following this thread.)
10/6/1666: So he gone I by water to Westminster Hall and thence to St. James’s, and there found [Sir] W. Coventry waiting for me, and I did give him a good account to his mind of the business he expected about extraordinaries and then fell to other talke, among others, our sad condition contracted by want of a Comptroller (footnote: "As Sir John Minnes performed the duties inefficiently, it was considered necessary to take the office from him."); and it was his words, that he believes, besides all the shame and trouble he hath brought on the office, the King had better have given 100,000l. than ever have had him there.
(Oh, great - not only is Minnes apparently healthy again, but now he's been relieved of his Comptroller duties. Which makes me think Pepys will now have little reason to mention him very much.)
10/7/1666: Little Michell and his wife come to dine with us, which they did, and then presently after dinner I with Sir J. Minnes to White Hall, where met by Sir W. Batten and Lord Bruncker, to attend the King and Duke of York at the Cabinet; but nobody had determined what to speak of, but only in general to ask for money...Sir J. Minnes and I home (it raining) by coach, calling only on Sir G. Carteret at his lodging...
(So Minnes is still in the official picture, and he's getting along well enough with Pepys to travel together to White Hall and back. This entry also has an interesting passage on Pepys giving the King and his advisers a rather frank assessment of the condition of the naval fleet, and offending some of his audience in the process. Pepys seems to regret his frankness, and frets a bit over what it might mean to his career.)
10/13/1666: But he (Sir W. Coventry) thinks it not a fit time to be found making of trouble among ourselves, meaning about Sir J. Minnes, who most certainly must be removed, or made a Commissioner, and somebody else Comptroller.
(So I guess Sir Minnes is still Comptroller after all, so I guess I'll continue on. After reading this, I wonder if the Commissioner role was where the politically well-connected but managerially-incompetent hacks were stashed.)

October 14, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Structured reading

My reading habits are pretty random. I'll finish one book but won't have any inkling of what to read next until I've thoroughly scanned my shelves at home. But that will change, at least momentarily, over the next month or so.

Reading Caleb Crain's fine essay on the Depression's impact on art, I first became aware of Edmund Wilson's American Jitters: A Year of the Slump, a collection of magazine articles written by Wilson which documented his 1930-31 travels around the country surveying the Depression's impact on everyday people. I located the book in my local interlibrary system and put a hold on it, and was just now notified it has arrived at my library. So I've decided to read Wilson's book first, followed by two other Depression-themed books that I own: William Leuchtenberg's Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal (mentioned here) and then Jack Conroy's proletarian novel The Disinherited, which I bought five years ago after years of hunting, only to let it languish unread on my shelf ever since. Conroy was a friend and even a mentor to my hero Nelson Algren, and it's inexcusable for me to have avoided his well-regarded novel this long.

So there you have it - three books that look at the Depression in greatly varying perspectives. I'm hoping each book will inform and illuminate the others while I read.

October 13, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Vintage Vonnegut

This one's for Julie: Kurt Vonnegut's "The Big Trip Up Yonder". It's up on Project Gutenberg, free of copyright, which apparently was not renewed after its original publication in the January 1954 edition of Galaxy Science Fiction.

October 13, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Mark Sandman

I have no idea who Eugene Mirman is (I can't read his name without thinking it's actually "Ethel Merman") but I appreciate his appreciation for the Mark Sandman anthology Sandbox. One challenge I've had with my Morphine-inspired novel (still progressing, though in fits and starts) is having the protagonist be unaware of any of the Sandbox material (particularly on the wonderful first disc, which has no band credits but appears to be mostly Morphine), most of which remained commercially unreleased until after the novel's timeframe.

October 13, 2009 in Music | Permalink | Comments (2)



The foolish young man in this photo is none other than myself, circa 1985. I'm standing on a railroad trestle, about a hundred feet above the Vermilion River in Kickapoo State Park, just outside of Danville, Illinois. It was a single track with no railings or any other safety features other than a single side platform halfway across which one could use to escape from an oncoming train. One had to walk across on just the wooden rail ties, step by careful step, with nothing but empty air beneath. Which, being daring and/or stupid, I did. Though the view was pretty spectacular, in hindsight it probably wasn't worth the risk. My buddy Fred was smart enough to stay off the trestle and instead just take the photograph, which he was kind enough to mail to me recently and remind me what it was like to be young and stupid.

October 12, 2009 in Personal, Photography | Permalink | Comments (3)

Chicago: A Biography

Local historian Dominic Pacyga has a new book out, Chicago: A Biography, from University of Chicago Press. Pacyga is interviewed in the video clip above by Phil Ponce on Chicago Tonight. I greatly enjoyed his Chicago: City of Neighborhoods which I read several years ago, and am looking forward to this one. And check out the gallery of photographs from the book - I especially like this one, of the "Burnt District Coffee House", one of the many fledgling businesses to arise in the ashes - literally - of the Chicago Fire. Nothing represents the city's relentless commercial ambitions quite like some chap who opens a coffee house amidst all of that rubble and devastation.

October 11, 2009 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (1)

L’Anse aux Meadows

As an American of Scandinavian descent, I've long been fascinated by L’Anse aux Meadows, the only confirmed Viking settlement in North America, on the far northern tip of Newfoundland. Atlas Obscura has a nice summary on the site here (including the video clip above, only about the first third of which is of L’Anse aux Meadows). I hadn't realized until now that the actual site was intentionally buried in sand and sod for protection, with a replica built on top of it. It's truly a testament to both the hardiness of the Vikings and the discomforts of months at sea aboard ship for a site this desolate to have been considered a desirable settlement location. This is one of those places that I'd absolutely love to visit, but likely won't due to its extreme remoteness.

October 11, 2009 in History | Permalink | Comments (0)

What I Listened To On My Way To (And From) Work Today (and Yesterday)

Latest in an occasional series...

Morphine, "Wishing Well"
Typically moody and lush, the kind of tune that Mark Sandman could practically toss off in his sleep back then.

Big Dipper, "Nowhere To Put My Love"
Previously unreleased track which escaped the major-label dungeon that ended Big Dipper's career, and finally surfaced on the great Supercluster anthology on Merge Records. Terrific song, one of several should-have-been-a-hit songs that the band had.

Tom Waits, "Little Drop of Poison"
Dark and eccentric tune which I can imagine being performed by the piano player in the bar scene of Shrek 2 (the character which, indeed, performed Waits' contribution to that soundtrack).

Smog, "I Feel Like the Mother of the World"
"...with two children fighting." Bill Callahan's being metaphorically opaque here, and I like it.

Billy Bragg, "Which Side Are You On"
Another pro-union rouser from the incomparable Bragg.

Joel R.L. Phelps and the Downer Trio, "Chaplin's Radiotelephone"
Uncharacteristically brisk tune from the fine but nearly forgotten album 3.

Death Cab For Cutie, "A Movie Script Ending"
Earlier Death Cab effort, when the band was still flying under the public radar and their songs were more simple than now.

Red Red Meat, "Gauze"
Bunny Gets Paid has to be the most unlikely album to get the deluxe-reissue treatment that I'm aware of. Terrific song - long, slow, langorous, indie-white-boy blues.

Yo La Tengo, "Pablo and Andrea"
Probably my favorite Yo La Tengo song - midtempo and gentle, with Georgia's lulling vocals yet also Ira's shimmering guitar work.

Pylon, "Crazy"
As discussed previously.

Gordon Gano and the Ryans, "The Man in the Sand"
Gano's voice has matured, but in doing so seems to have lost the boisterous whine that made it so distinctive back in the Violent Femmes glory days. I'd also rather hear the old acoustic guitars instead of the electric band here.

The Feelies, "Higher Ground"
Intricate, tight, controlled. Only Life isn't my favorite Feelies album - as it mostly abandoned the exhilirating guitar interplay of The Good Earth for a more conventional lead guitar/rythym guitar pairing - but is still a very good one overall.

October 8, 2009 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Joe Hill

Time to honor a great American (or great American immigrant), the organized labor hero Joe Hill, who was born 130 years ago today. Or more accurately, as Mobylives points out, Joel Emmanuel Hägglund, Hill's given name. I had no idea he was Swedish. And check out the Wikipedia section on the remarkable fate of his remains - Billy Bragg, you're a braver man than I.

October 7, 2009 in Current Affairs, History | Permalink | Comments (1)

A pantheon of one's own

This is a very welcomed development: The Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. The nominees for the inaugural induction class of 2010 are the usual local luminaries, plus several more that I must admit I've never heard of: Gwendolyn Brooks, Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Richard Wright, Studs Terkel, Harriet Monroe, Mike Royko, Carl Sandburg, Lorraine Hansberry, Ben Hecht, Shel Silverstein, Jane Addams, Leon Forrest, Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway, James T. Farrell, Ida B. Wells, John Callaway, Edna Ferber, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Edgar Lee Masters, Sherwood Anderson, Franklin Rosemont, Fenton Johnson, Oscar Brown, Jr., Cyrus Colter and Norman Maclean.

I don't have an official vote, but if I did my votes for the Original Six would go to Brooks, Algren, Bellow, Terkel, Royko and Sandburg. And once the old guard is adequately represented, I expect future inductees to include Stuart Dybek (who is one of the current judges), Joe Meno and Aleksandar Hemon, among others.

(Via Robert Duffer.)

October 6, 2009 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Easier than not doing 'em."

Right now I'm reading Matthew Sharpe's The Sleeping Father but I still haven't really engaged with it. Part of the problem is the characters, none of whom are particularly sympathetic to cheer for, nor sufficiently loathsome to hate. The closest I've come to being drawn to a character is Tim, the boozing, chain-smoking grandfather of Chris and Cathy Schwartz who first appears about halfway through the book. I particularly like this understated, well-crafted passage, as the grandkids and their mother visit Tim, who is anything but a graceful host.

Tim uttered a one-syllable toast that none of them could make out, upended a shot of scotch over his wide-open mouth, popped a beer, sipped it, lit a cigarette, smoked it.

Cathy said, "You're amazing."

"I know, I know," Tim said meditatively.

She stared at him for a minute with his slicked-back white hair and his gaunt, white-stubbled face. "Why do you do all that stuff, Grandpa Tim?"

"All what?"

It seemed to Cathy that right now he was doing about five decadent things, but she could only name two: "Smoke, drink."

"Easier than not doing 'em."

Trouble is, after accidentally glancing several chapters ahead, I already know that Tim won't be around much longer. Which will leave me with just the rest of the characters again.

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