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Short Stories 2009

My 2009 short story project now draws to a close, with the 17 stories reviewed falling well short of my goal of 25. Overall it's been a rewarding experience, with my favorite stories being those of J.F. Powers, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Mark Costello. So please check out the final installment, of the famous Proulx story, if you wish. I'm sure I'll review more stories in the coming year, but this time around I won't impose a similar goal on myself.

Annie Proulx, "Brokeback Mountain"
So many people have the seen the movie that was based on Proulx's story that I don't have much to add here, other than that the story is every bit as laconic, sobering and heartbreaking as the movie, which in turn proved to be remarkably faithful to the original, right down to specific lines of dialogue (including the quietly devastating "I wish I knew how to quit you") and yes, that sex scene in the tent. (Source: Annie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain) (Posted: 12/31/09)

Kendra Grant Malone, "Rape Children"
The story's narrator has a relationship, but it's clearly not the one she wants. She has fun with her significant other; they go out drinking, watch TV for hours, shout provocative but extremely inappropriate things (such as the title phrase of the story) in public just to get a reaction. But she wants it to be more than that - deeper, more emotional, maybe even to the point of saying "I love you", and more intimate than their long-distance relationship allows. Yet she can't get them beyond that level by the end of their weekend together, and faces a long - and longing - bus ride home. Sad and strangely affecting. (Source: ML Press) (Posted: 12/14/09)

Karl Koweski, "Holly Go Darkly"
Vic's online affair has escalated into a physical one and, desperate to escape the emptiness of his loveless marriage, he impulsively professes to Holly his love which she emphatically does not share. When she resists he strikes back, with just enough tact to avoid the sour-grapes litany of her physical shortcomings that suddenly runs through his mind, yet still utters his frustration that their relationship is to her nothing more than a casual fling. She exits the hotel room, likely ending whatever happiness - though temporary and conditional - he might have had with her. Koweski's spare prose is full of longing and sadness, concisely imparting the hopes and sober reality of Vic's life. (Source: Fried Chicken and Coffee, 10/5/09) (Posted: 10/29/09)

J.F. Powers, "Bill"
Father Joe has a small yet comfortable parish, but no curate to help with the work; an established career, but no professional collegiality; a well-stocked liquor cabinet, but no drinking buddy. A curate is finally appointed, raising the priest's hopes and setting him into action. Curiously, though, over the course of a week we see him performing few of his official duties - saying Mass, taking confession or even interacting with his parishioners. Instead we mostly see him fretting over who the new curate will be and furnishing the curate's quarters - haggling with furniture salesmen, conferring with an interior designer, arranging the rooms. But when the curate finally arrives, Father Joe finds him to be neither the deferential nor convivial colleague he hoped for, and in expressing his frustration provides a glimpse of how he feels about himself and his own life. This light and quietly comic story has really whetted my appetite to read Morte d'Urban, Powers' acclaimed novel of the similarly situated Father Urban. (Source: Modern Irish-American Fiction: A Reader) (Posted 10/16/09)

William Walsh, "Muse"
Spare and lean, and consisting primarily of terse dialogue, this story involves every male poet's fantasy: an attractive woman who not only recognizes the narrator as being a poet and offers inspiration for his verse, but is also willing to sleep with him with very little effort from him. But reality concerns aside, her presence isn't strictly literal, but a metaphor for what inspires all writers - that single spark which creates "fifty, sixty" works or more. The story might also be a commentary on the old conceit that creative writers shouldn't marry, that whatever passion and focus they devote to relationships would be better directed to their writing. That's not an opinion I agree with, but the narrator seems to meet it halfway - he gives up "possibly an endless number" of inspirations from her, instead accepting with their new relationship just a single inspiration, one which he'll use again and again. And will likely be happier for it. (Source: Night Train, October 2009) (Posted: 10/15/09)

Mark Costello, "Callahan's Black Cadillacs""
Devastating from the very first line ("Out of World War II he swings, fat, flatulent, hemorrhoidal, hyberbolic, sleepy, lazy, squat, penniless, hypertense."), this great story alternates between the adolescent narrator's interactions with his ravaged and ruined Uncle Mort (just 26 years old but already well on his way to death) and pious, grieving Great Aunt Hatt during and in the aftermath of World War II. Gradually the two story lines draw together, first via Mort's incessant pleas for money from Hatt and then to Hatt's deep secret which only Mort seems to be the only other person to know, and finally to the demise of each, the details of which blur together in the memory of the narrator as he looks back as an adult. Simply stunning. (Source: The Murphy Stories) (Posted 10/14/09)

Paul Lamb, "The Manuscript"
The premise of this story is terrific - a hardluck guy named Quincy who proves to be the angel of death for every organization he's ever been associated with, the portentous job he's about to assume, and the rash act committed by the narrator which presumably averts global disaster - and the telling is straightforward and logical. Just two problems: first, the narrative device used - a secondary narrator discovers the primary narrator's written confession - adds little to the story; and second, the narrator's over-explaining of the implications of Quincy's employment history, when just a recital of the company names (Braniff, Enron, WorldCom) would have been more than enough to get the point across. Still, an entertaining story overall. (Source: Mirror Dance, June 2009) (Posted 9/21/09)

Dan Chaon, "The Hobblers"
A spare and sorrowful work of flash fiction that explores marital loss and grief. The narrator's feelings about the old couple who walk past his house every day, and his subtly-rendered resentment over what they represent, have a quietly powerful impact. (Source: Smokelong Quarterly.) (Posted 9/10/09)

Walter S. Tevis, "The Big Bounce"
Odd story, sort of Sci-Fi Lite, about two amateur scientists and their accidental discovery of a rubber-like substance with amazing - and soon to be ominous - qualities. The piece is awkwardly structured, with the first half a stiff, dialogue-heavy narrative that reminded me of the here's-how-it-all-happened conclusion to a Hardy Boys mystery (with plenty of scientific jargon that to my layman's ear might be realistic but could just as well be nonense) while the second half is a rollicking adventure yarn as the two chase their creation as it careens out of control. Mildly interesting but less than compelling overall, and not at all what I expected from the writer of such realistic dramas as The Hustler and The Color of Money. (Source: Project Gutenberg.) (Posted 9/9/09)

Eudora Welty, "Why I Live at the P.O."
After reading this rollicking, darkly funny story, the question is no longer why the narrator lives in the back room of a small-town post office, but instead why she lived with her family - ignorant, insensitive, mean-spirited and any number of other negative adjectives - for as long as she did. A terrific little slice of Southern life, as I suspect most of Welty's stories are. (Source: Short Story Masterpieces, edited by Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine.) (Posted 8/24/09)

Spencer Dew, "Scrapbook of Fatal Accidence"
Jack has woman problems: there's his ex, Larissa, who he won't be getting over any time soon; and Z, very desirable but married with kids and forever unattainable; and Eileen, who may be his ex-lover but is more than likely an old friend or even sister, a painfully self-aware young woman who endlessly spews her acute self-diagnosis, which Jack only listens to some of the time. But despite his difficult interactions with these three women (or non-interaction, in the case of Larissa), Jack is too passive to do anything decisive about any of them. So on he goes, meandering through life and clearly getting nowhere. The title is a nod to Nelson Algren (in The Man With the Golden Arm, Zosh keeps her own "Scrapbook of Fatal Accidence", a collection of newspaper clippings of grisly car crashes and train wrecks), and it's a good fit with Dew's story, which is sort of Jack's own scrapbook of tragic wrecks. Like a scrapbook, the story is a scattershot collection of events and places from Jack's life, each of which may seem disjointed in isolation but taken collectively present an effective portrait of a very lost soul. (Source: Thieves Jargon, Issue 81, January 5, 2009) (Posted 8/14/09)

Randa Jarrar, "The Life, Loves, and Adventures of Zelwa the Halfie"
Having followed the author online for several years, I wanted to like this story much more than I did. And there's plenty here to like - the concept of half-human/half-beasts living in the everyday world (rendered very matter-of-factly, just enough for suspension of disbelief), the "halfie" narrator's use of the movie Splash as a litmus test to see how her dates really think of her and her kind, the tense relationship with her father. But the delivery just seems a bit off. There is too much explanation of the narrator's life, instead of illustration; I would have preferred to see that life shown in a few more vivid scenes rather than having the narrator tell everything. A little more left unsaid, and a lot less explanation. (Source: Oxford American, February 2009) (Posted 6/9/09)

Ambrose Bierce, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"
Kind of an odd story - the first two sections are straight, realistic narrative, the first showing the impending hanging of a Southerner during the Civil War, the second showing some of the protagonist's backstory which lead him to his fate, with both sections being fairly static and heavy on physical description. Then the third section continues in the same realistic vein but ramps up the action as the protagonist suddenly makes his escape from the Northern troops. Or so it seems, as the very last line delivers a devastating twist which abruptly proves the preceding action to be false, and the mere fantasy of a doomed man. Extremely well done, and a story very much ahead of its time. (Source: Project Gutenberg) (Posted 4/29/09)

Nelson Algren, "Entrapment"
I'm not sure "Entrapment" fully works as a short story, but it certainly does so better than its original intended form - a novel, for which Algren wrote 300-something pages but never completed. A full-length novel like this would have been unbearable to read - not because of the writing, which is typically wonderful Algren, often at his very best, but instead the tone. While Algren leavened his grim fiction with black humor and glimmers of slim hope, there is none of that in "Entrapment", just bitterness and regret, as the utterly disconsolate narrator talks in circles as he punishes himself for pushing away the only woman he would ever love. This is a touching and emotionally devastating sketch of a man's life, drawn heavily from Algren's own experience, that gives an intriguing glimpse into the writer's inner self. (Source: Nelson Algren, Entrapment and Other Writings) (Posted 4/5/09)

Isaac Bashevis Singer, "Joy"
"Joy" is the lovely story of Bainish, a revered and beloved rabbi in a small European town who has a crisis of faith after four of his children die of an unnamed disease. The rabbi abandons his leadership of the local synagogue and privately renounces his faith, completely retreating from the world in his stricken grief. But one day he has a vision of his recently-deceased daughter, who admonishes him to return to his religious duties and tells him that she will come back for him (clearly, to lead him to death and the afterlife) after the high holidays. Her appearance (or his hallucination, if you prefer) revives him from his torpor and doubt, and he resumes his duties with an enthusiasm and vigor not seen before, his religious faith restored just before his daughter's return. It's not entirely clear what makes the rabbi suddenly recover his faith - the shock of the vision of his daughter, perhaps, or his realization that a state of doubt at the time of his death will doom him to eternal damnation. Maybe seeing truly is believing - though the rabbi didn't actually see God, he did see a manifestation (or delusion) of deity, and that was enough for him. Faith is a tricky and delicate thing - sometimes, Singer seems to be saying, simply wanting to believe is enough to foster belief - and the rabbi clearly wanted to believe, never abandoning the personal pious rituals even during his time of doubt. Though this is a very religious story (as are all the other stories in this collection), even the non-religious can be heartened by it: for the rabbi's vision of his daughter, as a reminder to him of what was lost, makes him realize what is truly important, and gives him the strength to celebrate life again with the time he still has left. (Source: Isaac Bashevis Singer, Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories) (Posted 3/3/09)

Colum McCann, "Phreak"
McCann's story revolves around the Philippe Petit's 1974 tightrope walk between the towers of the World Trade Center. The first section is absolutely wonderful in its depiction of the bustling street milieu of Lower Manhattan, as some people congregate on street corners, craning the necks upward in wonderment at the tiny blot in the sky between the towers, while just as many hurry past, intent on reaching their destinations. But the second section falls completely flat as the writer attempts to introduce a bored computer hacker in California who dials in to payphones near the WTC, hoping for a firsthand account of the event. The vivid street scenes of the first section are abandoned for a long and unsatisfying series of choppy, back-and-forth phone dialogue. The third section reverts to the style of the first as it tells of the aerialist's arrest, completing the story but mostly failing to connect with the second section - which, quite unintentionally, drives home the point that the second section is mostly irrelevant. The first section would have made a great short story on its own, but the writer simply took it too far. (Source: The Paris Review, Fall 2008) (Posted 1/19/09)

Franz Kafka, "The Judgment"
Starts slowly (too slowly, I think) but ends swiftly and with a bang. Plenty of father-son dynamic tension, from an aging father who feels shoved aside and a son who may not have been aware that he was the one who shoved. Interesting story, though not the true classic I had been lead to believe it is. (Source: Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis and Other Stories) (Posted 1/18/09)

December 31, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Music: Best of the Oughts

I don't devour music anywhere near as maniacally as I used to. While I once bought four or five CDs a month (and had to physically restrain myself from buying more), now it's no more than two or three a year. And I typically don't delve into new (to me) artists, but usually fall back on the tried and true that I'm already familiar with. Since the best-of-year lists I used to crank out annually in the eighties and nineties would be laughably thin now, the end of the first decade of the 21st Century (or Oughts, for lack of a better term) gives me the excuse to compile a best-of-decade list here. Albums are limited to those released during the decade that I've heard in their entirety which, sad to say, is probably no more than twenty in number, although no such restriction is imposed on the songs list which thus gives the songs a bit more variety than the albums side.

Top Ten Albums

1. Morphine, The Night (2000)
Though Cure For Pain hit me more viscerally - somewhere in the sternum, at high volume - it's The Night that I keep coming back to, wondering what intriguing directions the band might have taken if Mark Sandman hadn't been taken away so suddenly.
2. Tom Waits, Orphans (2006)
Sprawling three-disc collection that shows Waits from every angle, from bluesy swamp rock to poignant balladry to wryly comic insanity. Portions of this were previously released earlier, but there's enough new material here to not qualify as anthology.
3. Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, Hearts of Oak (2003)
Loud and raucous yet thoughtful, Leo channels everyone from Joe Strummer to Paul Weller to Graham Parker to stellar effect.
4. Tommy Stinson, Village Gorilla Head (2004)
The most wonderfully pleasant musical surprise of the decade. The Replacements' incorrigable enfant terrible grows up without mellowing. This is miles better than anything his old bandmate Paul Westerberg has put out solo.
5. Mark Sandman, Sandbox (2004)
An unusual career retrospective of Sandman's various musical endeavors, primarily Morphine and Treat Her Right but also numerous side projects. Unusual, in that it's not a greatest hits but instead unreleased or limited-release material, much of which is every bit as great as what his bands put out as regular releases.
6. Joel R.L. Phelps & the Downer Trio, Inland Empires (2001)
Lovely collection of covers, from Fleetwood Mac, Steve Earle, Iris Dement, the Go-Betweens and Townes Van Zandt, plus Phelps' heartbreaking tribute to his late sister, "Now You Are Found."
7. Elliott Smith, From a Basement on the Hill (2004)
Another musical genius who left us too soon. This album, pieced together after his sudden death, is too scattershot to be considered amongst his best work, but even substandard Elliott Smith is superior to almost anything else out there. "Fond Farewell" is great (but not the ominous premonition you might expect it to be), as is the stunning closer "A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity To Be Free" which even hints at an emergent political consciousness.

8. The Shins, Chutes Too Narrow (2003)
Their first album was ragged, their third overly slick, but this - their second - nailed it perfectly.

9. Victor Krummenacher, Bittersweet (2001)
Best known as co-founder and bass player of Camper Van Beethoven, Krummenacher's deep and thoughtful solo work bears little resemblance to the giddy mania of his old band. In a good way.

10. Death Cab For Cutie, Narrow Stairs (2008)
I actually like the band's earlier stuff much better, but this is the only DCFC album I've heard in its entirety. Plus I'm giving it props for being the album that first established Maddie as our little indie rocker.
Honorable Mention:
Built to Spill, Ancient Melodies of the Future (2001)
Glenn Mercer, Wheels in Motion (2007)
The Hold Steady, Separation Sunday (2005)
Yo La Tengo, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out (2000)
Billy Bragg, Mr. Love & Justice (2008)

Top Ten Songs (Not Appearing On The Top Ten Albums)

1. Ted Leo, "Loyal To My Sorrowful Country" (from Tell Balgeary, Balgury Is Dead, 2003)
Ted is pissed as hell, and he's not going to take it any more. And neither should we.
2. The Mountain Goats, "Palmcorder Yajna" (from We Shall All Be Healed, 2004)
Certainly the most rousing song ever written about recreational drug abuse in a seedy motel. And the headstones climbed up the hill.

3. Orchestra Morphine, "The Night" (from Live On Tour, 2000)
Yes, more Morphine material. After Sandman's death, his bandmates Dana Colley and Billy Conway were joined by many of Sandman's friends from the Boston music scene to form a big band that performed Morphine songs. This version of the already-great "The Night" is a revelation, turning the moodiness of the original into a rousing New Orleans jazz funeral, and is as fitting a tribute to Sandman as I can think of.
4. Okkervil River, "The War Criminal Rises and Speaks" (from Down the River of Golden Dreams, 2003)
A human monster begs listeners to remember that he is indeed human, and maybe not that different from everyone else. I wish more Okkervil River sounded like this, instead of reminding me way too much of Counting Crows.

5. American Music Club, "Patriot's Heart" (from Love Songs for Patriots, 2004)
Slow, grinding, filthy yet sensual. Mark Eitzel squeezes out every drop of empathy within him and pours it into this song.
6. Ben Folds, "The Luckiest" (from Rockin' the Suburbs, 2001)
The message of this charmer is something I remind myself every day. When Folds sticks to emotional, heartfelt songs like this and eschews the smartassery, he's a brilliant artist. Unfortunately, he quite enjoys smartassery.

7. Billy Bragg, "Take Down the Union Jack" (from England, Half English, 2002)
One of our most thoughtful public commentators rings down the curtain on England's role of prominence in world affairs.

8. Yo La Tengo, "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind" (from I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, 2006)
Droning, guitar-god rock at its finest. If you prefer the less eclectic, 1992-vintage Yo La Tengo, check this one out.
9. The Decemberists, "The Engine Driver" (from Picaresque, 2005)
Melodic and lyrically significant song, one which even inspired me to begin writing a novella (since abandoned) of the same name. Thanks anyway, Colin.

10. Chin Up Chin Up, "Virginia Don't Drown" (from We Should Have Never Lived Like We Were Skyscrapers, 2004)
Ah, what could have been. Sigh.
Honorable Mention:
Lou Reed, "Caroline Says" (from Berlin: Live at St. Ann's Warehouse, 2008)
Teenage Fanclub, "It's All in My Mind" (from Man-Made, 2005)
The Walkmen, "The Rat" (from Bows + Arrows, 2004)
The Clean, "E Motel" (from Getaway, 2001)
Tom Waits, "Alice" (from Alice, 2002)


Big Dipper, Supercluster: The Big Dipper Anthology
I'm still puzzled how I could possibly have missed out so completely on Big Dipper the first time around. Not to mention the rest of the music-loving public. Fun, energetic music full of big hooks and memorable choruses. In a fairer world this band would have been as big as the Pixies.

Inspired Album Title

Radiohead, Hail to the Thief
For no other reason than the fact that the 2001-08 span regrettably made the decade one which it will take decades to recover from.

December 29, 2009 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

"There's people in hell would like ice water..."

Great passage here from "Dark Came Early in That Country", the leadoff piece in Nelson Algren's The Last Carousel. The narrator, a journeyman boxer, is talking to his corner man, a hustler named Dominoes.
I asked him did he know anything about some clown calls himself Indian Mickey Walker.

"Strictly an opponent," Dominoes told me, "I seen him fight a prelim at the Garden when he come up from the bushes; but he come up too fast. Went down even faster."

"All the same he done better than I done," I had to admit. "Closest I've got to the Garden was McArthur Stadium in Brooklyn."

"Never been there."

"McArthur Stadium or Brooklyn?"

"Neither," he told me, "but I'll tell you what I think. I think you need a manager."

"What for?" I asked the man, "I never needed somebody to tell me the best hand to hit an opponent with is the one closest to his jaw. I never needed somebody to teach me that when you clobber someone it's a shrewd idea to duck. What can a manager do for me beside robbing me blind?"

"He might get you in at the Garden," Dominoes decided--"or wouldn't you like that?"

"There's people in hell would like ice water," I told him, "but that don't mean anyone's bringing the pitcher."

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

Books Given, Gifts Received

Frankly, if it somehow ever gets to the point that my family has absolutely no interest in books whatsoever, I might just have to swear off Christmas forever since I'd have no idea what to buy for anyone.

  • For my Anglophile mom: Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
  • For my freelance writer niece (whom I hope will help me comprehend the latter): Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust/Miss Lonelyhearts
  • For my countercultural nephew: Don De Grazia, American Skin; Jeff and Ann VanderMeer, editors: Steampunk
  • For my Harry Potter fanatic niece (who has worn out her entire series in paperback and is now collecting the hardcovers): J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
  • For my Hoosier sister of uncertain literary tastes: Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler's Wife
  • For my brother-in-law (whom I hope likes the crime fiction I've bought him the past two years): Stieg Larsson, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
I've already started reading the first two, both of which are quite good. I loved Algren's forty-years-later post mortem on the 1919 Black Sox (sort of wizened-grownup, journalistic companion piece to "The Silver-Colored Yesterday", his magnificent chapter in Chicago: City on the Make which describes his boyhood reaction to the scandal), which I read while sitting on the couch at my mother-in-law's house on Christmas afternoon, completely absorbed and to the considerable amusement of my in-laws. And after I've read the Minutemen book, I plan to read it again while listening to the album, as their song titles have such a tenuous connection with their songs that I'm not always sure which song the writer is discussing at any given time.

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

Merry Christmas from Etgar Keret

On this most inconsistent of holidays (peace on earth and goodwill to men, versus stomping on a stranger's ribcage to grab the last marked-down waffle iron on the shelf at Wal-Mart, etc.), what could be more contrary than a Christmas message from a Jewish writer from Israel? Behold, Etgar Keret's "Christmas Card", brought to you by Electric Literature, which has authorized me, you or anyone else to re-post the piece in its entirety.

(I've enjoyed Keret's writing over the years, albeit in limited doses, primarily from his old columns at Nextbook. I'm thinking I really should finally read one of his renowned story collections - probably The Nimrod Flipout - in the coming year. It might be one of the few New Year's resolutions I'm capable of accomplishing.)

Christmas Card
by Etgar Keret

There was this guy who could walk on water. Not that that’s such a big deal. Lots of people can walk on water. They usually don’t know that because they don’t try. They don’t try because they don’t believe they can do it. In any case, that guy believed, and tried and did it. And that’s when the whole mess began.

That guy had an apostle who was very close to him and sold him out. Not that that’s such a special thing either. Lots of people are sold out by someone very close to them. If they weren’t very close, then it wouldn’t really be considered being sold out, would it. Then the Romans came and crucified the guy. Which, also, isn’t very unique. The Romans crucified a lot of people. And not just the Romans. Lots of other nations crucified and killed lots of people. All kinds of people. Ones who performed miracles and even ones who didn’t. But that guy, three days after they crucified him, was resurrected. And by the way, even that resurrection thing didn’t happen here for the first time, or even the last, for that matter. But that guy, people say, that guy died for our sins. A lot of people die for our sins: greed, jealousy, pride, or other, less well-known sins that haven’t been around for such a long time. People die like flies because of our sins and no one bothers to even write a Wikipedia entry about them. But they wrote one about that guy. And not just any old entry, but a really big one with lots of pictures and blue-colored links. Not that a Wikipedia entry is such a big thing. There are dogs that have Wikipedia entries about them. Like Lassie. And there are diseases that have entries there, like scarlet fever and multiple sclerosis. But that guy, they say, unlike multiple sclerosis and Lassie, achieved what he achieved through the power of love. Which is something we’ve also heard before. After all, there were those four English guys with the hair and the beards too, just like him, except that they were a little less famous, and they sang many songs about love. Two of them are already dead, just like him. And they, by the way, have a Wikipedia entry too. But that guy, there was something special about him. He was the son of God. Except that, actually, all of us are God’s children, right? We were born in his image. So what the hell was it about that guy that turned him into such a big deal? Such a big deal that so many people throughout history were saved or killed in his name?

Anyhow, every year, around the end of December, half the world celebrates his birthday. In many places, it snows on his birthday and everyone’s happy. But even in places where it doesn’t snow, people are happy on that day. And all because of what? Because a skinny guy who was born more than two thousand years ago asked us all to live lives of love and morality and was killed because of it. And if that’s the happiest thing this weird race has to celebrate, then it deserves a Wikipedia entry too. And actually it’s got one. Go to the nearest computer now. Type in “humanity” and you’ll get the entry. Short. Very short. Not a lot of pictures. But even so. One whole entry on a fascinating and slightly baffling race. A race that could have walked on water and never tried. A race that could have killed all those who believe the world can be a better place and in most cases, made sure to do just that. So merry Christmas to you too.

December 24, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Good Reading 2009

In what is becoming dangerously close to a revered tradition around here, below is my 2009 best-of list. As always, few titles that were published this year, and quite a few chestnuts.

Top Ten:
1. Budd Schulberg: What Makes Sammy Run? (Review)
2. George Orwell: 1984 (Review)
3. Mark Costello: The Murphy Stories (Review)
4. Aleksandar Hemon: Love and Obstacles (Review)
5. Barbara Kingsolver: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (Review)
6. Mark Twain: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Review)
7. Henry David Thoreau: Walden, or Life in the Woods (Review)
8. Nathanael West: Miss Lonelyhearts (Review)
9. Isaac Bashevis Singer: Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories
10. Flannery O'Connor: A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories (Review)

Honorable Mention:
William Trevor: Death in Summer; Edmund Wilson: The American Jitters: A Year of the Slump (Review); John Cook: Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, the Indie Label That Got Big and Stayed Small (Review); Aldous Huxley: Brave New World (Review); Jack Conroy: The Disinherited (Review).

Pär Lagerkvist: The Dwarf (Review)

2008 List
2007 List
2006 List
2005 List
2004 List
2003 List
2002 List

December 21, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

A Study in Scarlet - Suh-weeet!


If I was an oil tycoon, trust fund baby or Mega Millions winner with unlimited financial resources to spend on utterly superfluous curiousities, this would be high up on my list: an 1887 issue of Beeton's Christmas Annual, which contains Arthur Conan Doyle's novella A Study In Scarlet, the first published appearance of Sherlock Homes (my first literary hero). Current market value is a cool $160,000. In case you've never read the story, it's a bit of a Holmes oddity, as vast portions of it consist of backstory (set in Utah amongst the early Mormon settlers) for the London murder which Holmes later investigates. In other words, much of the story doesn't involve Holmes at all. It's a seminal work for Doyle, who tinkers with his new character creation and sets the stage for the more familiar "casebook" Holmes stories which followed.

December 21, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Flannery O'Connor, A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories

The stories collected in Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories are powerful, vividly narrated and masterfully crafted works of art. Yet despite those superlatives I now have absolutely no urge to read these stories again, nor any of O'Connor's other works.

For me, the problem is characterization and tone. At best, her characters are naive, selfish or indifferent, but at worst - which is most of the time - they are bitter, vindictive, ignorant, greedy and relentlessly cruel even to the point of being homicidal. As for tone, based on these stories it would seem that O'Connor thought very little of humanity and its potential for decency and redemption.

Don't get me wrong - I'm no Norman Vincent Peale or Forrest Gump, obsessed with positive thinking and staying on the sunny side of life. I happen to like dark fiction, which usually accurately reflects the oh-so-human shortcomings of our world. But even the darkest fiction has to have a least a glimmer of light to make it worthwhile, and I just don't see even the slightest glimmer in these overwhelmingly grim stories. O'Connor's title doesn't go far enough - not only is a good man, or woman, hard to find here, but it's damn near impossible.

December 21, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)


While driving home today from a family getaway at a resort in Utica, Illinois, we decided we needed espresso. So we looked up "coffeehouses" on our car's GPS and found the nearest shop was in Ottawa, the next town over on our way home. As the GPS often seems to do, it directed us to take a local highway (U.S. Route 6) instead of an expressway (I-80, which we drove to Utica). Figuring we weren't in much of a hurry anyway, we decided to take the scenic route and go with Route 6. Along the way, in a farm field just outside of Ottawa, my attention was grabbed by the sight of a dozen large birds grazing in the corn stubble. Canada geese are such a common sight in our area that those were my first impression, but I quickly realized that these birds were much bigger than geese. "Pheasants?" Julie, who was driving, guessed. "No," I said, getting a better look. "Wild turkeys." And huge ones, at least to my non-hunter eyes.

If roast turkey was a Christmas tradition for us, I would have seriously considered stopping and hurrying into the field with a heavy stick and a burlap bag, in lieu of a Butterball from the store. But we drove on, awed (at least me, anyway) by the sight, and enjoyed our brief visit to Ottawa and what turned out to be pretty darned good espresso.

December 20, 2009 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (3)

Bury My Heart... turns 40

One of the finest books I have ever read (and an early impetus towards my finally challenging conventional wisdom and recognizing the plight of the powerless), Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, celebrated its fortieth anniversary this year. At The Huffington Post, Tim Giago writes a nice appreciation on the book, including this vivid and moving quote:
Perhaps prematurely, Black Elk said, "I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people's dream died there. It was a beautiful dream...the nation's hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer and the sacred tree is dead."
(Via MobyLives.)

December 16, 2009 in Books, History | Permalink | Comments (2)


"I have lived in other cities but been inside only one."
- Ben Hecht

(In case you're wondering, that city was Chicago. 1001 Afternoons in Chicago is one of my very favorite books about our fair city, and is due for a re-reading in the coming year.)

December 16, 2009 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (2)

"why should he downgrade?"

I almost never receive text messages, and most of those I do get arrive in error - the texting version of a "wrong number." Last night I got this wrong number:
Jason will never get back with you regardless of me and him breaking up. why would he downgrade? you should quit while YOU THINK your ahead.
In my younger, bad-attitude days, I probably would have replied to this message, pretending to be the intended recipient and escalating the dialogue into an outright catfight. But I've matured beyond that stage. I think.

December 15, 2009 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (2)

Listening: "Life and Times"

Bob Mould: Life and Times

My admiration for Bob Mould has been expressed many times here before, but this song (from a May 2009 Daytrotter session) deserves special mention. It reminds me a lot of the solo show I saw Mould perform in 1997 at the Vic in Chicago, which remains the most powerful (both musically and emotionally) performance I've ever seen. Mould draws more intensity out of just his voice and guitar than almost anybody else can do with a full band. He's one of those rare artists that I could listen to every day and never tire of.

December 14, 2009 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Five great things

+ Duck sausage sandwich and bitter ale at Goose Island.
+ Lunch conversations with Ben Tanzer.
+ Riding Metra to work, especially on frigid, snowy or rainy days.
+ The fiction of Aleksandar Hemon.
+ Julie and Maddie, my two biggest and best reasons for being.

December 10, 2009 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (2)

Working: Auditor

Another excerpt from Studs Terkel's Working, this time from Fred Roman, a public accountant:
You're an auditor. The term scares people. They believe you're there to see if they're stealing nickels and dimes out of petty cash. We're not concerned with that. But people have that image of us. They think we're there to spy on them. What we're really doing is making sure things are reported correctly. I don't care if somebody's stealing money as long as he reports it. (Laughs.)
I can relate. My first job out of college was as a bank auditor, examining clients and making sure everything there was actually as they claimed. Though the clients were always friendly, they were always suspicious and wary of my presence, and were undoubtedly relieved when I finished my audit and left their offices.

December 10, 2009 in Books, Studs Terkel: Working | Permalink | Comments (0)

Aleksandar Hemon, "Szmura's Room"

Perhaps my favorite story in Aleksandar Hemon's Love and Obstacles is "Szmura's Room" which relates the lonely, lost existence of the Bosnian immigrant Bogdan as he rents a room in Chicago from the thuggish loan shark Mike Szmura. Reading the story (first in The New Yorker, then again in the book) I was genuinely touched by Bogdan's quietly desperate striving for human connection, in the midst of a bewildering new world, with the elderly landlady who lives across the hall.

But one thing about "Szmura's Room" bothered me. Although the story focuses almost exclusively on Bogdan, it is told by a first-person narrator who is one of Szmura's poker buddies. The narrator tells of Bogdan's thoughts and private experiences, neither of which the narrator (who barely knows Bogdan) could possibly be privy to. Although the narrator did learn about some of Bogdan's life from the mocking anecdotes related by Szmura at the poker table, the narrator's descriptions of Bogdan are far too expansive to be believable.

Lately I've been very attuned, both in reading and my own writing, of fictional perspective. I'm suspicious of omniscient narrative in general - to me, being able to see inside the heads of an entire cast of characters is about as unrealistic as fiction can get - and even more so when it's in the first person. When I came across the inconsistency of the narrator relating far more about Bogdan than he could possibly know, I was highly put off, as it tainted my otherwise great enjoyment of the story.

But then it hit me. [SPOILER ALERT.] The narrator - a Bosnian immigrant himself, albeit of an earlier vintage than Bogdan - quietly discloses that he previously rented that same room from Szmura. Presumably the narrator did so when he, like Bogdan, found himself in a strange new country with nowhere else to turn, but later moved out once he had established a new independent life for himself. Thinking through the potential implications, I finally realized that most of what the narrator tells of Bogdan is not about Bogdan at all - instead, the narrator projects his own past onto Bogdan to fill in the gaps of the latter's life of which the narrator lacks direct knowledge. When he tells of Bogdan being ridiculed by Szmura, or enduring the overhearing of Szmura and girlfriend going at it in the next room, or perusing the pathetic displays at the musty Bosnian heritage museum which the landlady curates out of a storefront, the narrator is actually relating his own experiences, ones which he might have forgotten but were dredged up upon learning of the new immigrant renting Szmura's room. The narrator clearly sees Bogdan as a younger version of himself - and this transference gives the story a glimmer of hope. Since the narrator implies that he has managed to carve out a new life for himself in America, then maybe Bogdan's currently pitiful plight won't be permanent either.

This subtle projection or transference is a fine crafted literary touch on the part of Hemon, and a great example of why I enjoy his writing as much as I do.

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

Aleksandar Hemon, Love and Obstacles

In his latest story collection Love and Obstacles, Alexsandar Hemon works through many of his now-familiar themes: immigration, identity and a search for belonging. He also continues his obsession with the Bosnian War - the leadup to the war, the war itself and its aftermath - and its devastating impact on his characters. But he also develops a new theme, that of artistic expression, as his narrator - aspiring poet as a teen, fiction writer as an adult - strives to become the artist he's always dreamed of while confronting the pitfalls of the artistic life. (Admittedly, Hemon may have explored this theme before, but this is the first time I've really been aware of it - and I've read all of his books.) As always, Hemon's storytelling is compelling, gripping and emotionally moving, and his prose (especially those characteristically oddball metaphors) is rich and inventive. This is yet another outstanding work from Hemon, one of our finest living writers and one of my personal favorites.

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

"...slowly, steadily, approaching the inexorable end..."

Another great passage from Aleksandar Hemon's Love and Obstacles, this time from "Good Living", whose narrator holds a job selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door:
My best turf was Blue Island, way down Western Avenue, where addresses had five-digit numbers, as though the town was far back of the long line of people waiting to enter downtown paradise. I got along pretty well with the Blue Islanders. They could quickly recognize the indelible lousiness of my job; they offered me food and water; once I nearly got laid. They did not waste their time contemplating the purpose of human life; their years were spent as a tale is told: slowly, steadily, approaching the inexorable end. In the meantime, all they wanted was to live, wisely use what little love they had accrued, and endure life with the anesthetic help of television and magazines. I happened to be in their neighborhood to offer the magazines.
I occasionally take Metra's Rock Island line train (which runs right through Blue Island) into work. Blue Island is a gritty factory town which has certainly seen better days, yet somehow seems to still be clinging onto some degree of decent living. Though I've never set foot there, I can definitely see its citizens being exactly as Hemon describes - and I love that "five-digit numbers" metaphor.

December 4, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Racine Avenue, No Respect?

Racine Avenue doesn't seem to get much formal respect from the City of Chicago, despite being one of its longest streets. Its path runs for roughly 21 miles (albeit not continuously), from near the intersection of Lawrence and Broadway in Uptown, all the way down to Blue Island where it finally dead-ends at Vermont St. True, it's only a minor arterial street, situated halfway between the major arteries of Ashland Avenue and Halsted Street. But still, despite its considerable length, the street is chopped apart in numerous places, most notably at waterways and expressways where its pass-through would have come at considerable expense. Specifically, Racine does not have even a single bridge over any of the waterways it would potentially cross - not the North Branch of the Chicago River:

Racine - North Branch

Nor the South Branch:

Racine - South Branch

Nor even the Sanitary and Ship Canal in Blue Island - though, admittedly, the lack of a bridge there is a moot point, as the street ends just north of the canal:

Racine - Blue Island

And with highways it's not much better. Racine doesn't get an overpass on the Kennedy Expressway:

Racine - Kennedy

Nor the Stevenson Expressway; in fact, Racine doesn't even exist between the South Branch and 31st Street - had its path been continued, in this photo it would have intersected the expressway roughly at the 55 symol:

Racine - Stevenson

Nor I-57:

Racine - I57

The only expressway where Racine gets an overpass is at the Eisenhower, and even there it only gets one ramp - an on-ramp into the westbound lanes:

Racine - Eisenhower

A little Racine love, Chicago...please!

December 4, 2009 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (3)

Crossing my fingers on Afghanistan

My support for Barack Obama is well-documented here, but after seeing last night's speech at West Point I'm still not sure where he's going with the war in Afghanistan. Obviously he faces a highly unenviable situation: he can't withdraw troops quickly and just walk away, as Afghanistan's weak, corrupt and questionably-legitimate central government would soon collapse, returning the Taliban to power and giving al Qaeda a comfortable place of refuge; and he can't order a large-scale invasion which would rightly be seen as heavy-handed colonialism by the Afghan people and the rest of the world, and might not eliminate the scourge of Islamist extremism anyway. For all the talk of this being a fight against al Qaeda, the U.S. troops mostly find themselves in the middle of a civil war in a historically unstable region, and if two warring sides are bent on killing each other there's really nothing a peacekeeping force like the U.S. and its NATO allies can do about it.

The thing that most concerns me is the reliance of Obama's plan on the self-sufficiency of Afghanistan's internal security forces. Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan doesn't have a tradition of a large standing army which can be recruited to fight the insurgency. From what I've heard, the Afghan forces are often just as corrupt as the Karzai government itself, meaning that we face to prospect of handing off security responsibility to a bunch of thugs and thieves. I'm also concerned how viable a strong centralized government there could possibly be. At least Iraq has the great advantage of vast oil resources which have the potential to finance security forces and social programs. Afghanistan doesn't have that. Instead its most lucrative product is opium, whose trafficking is controlled by regional warlords who thus hold great power in the country and can dictate their demands to the central government, and not vice versa.

On the other hand, I'm encouraged by claims that U.S. aid (both humanitarian and development) will increasingly not be funnelled through the central government (where it would likely be pilfered) but instead to regional and local authorities who have proven themselves willing and able to responsibly deliver that aid to everyday Afghan people. Raising the standard of living of Afghans is a critical factor in negating the allure of the extremists, and that aspect of Obama's plan is far more important than increasing our military presence.

Obama might have no choice but to insitute the troop surge that he's outlined. But if drawing down troops starting in 2011 is dependent on the Afghans (including Karzai or whomever might succeed him) taking primary responsibility for their own destiny, then I'm less than optimistic. I don't see anything in Afghanistan right now that encourages me to believe such stability and self-sufficiency is possible. Karzai has to be sternly told to get his house in order, weed out and punish official corruption, and quickly develop the military capability to suppress extremism, or else the U.S. will pull out in 2011 whether Afghanistan is ready to stand on its own or not. Our military presence cannot be an open-ended commitment, nor one that is contingent on Afghan self-sufficiency.

Obama has few if any good options. So while I'm trusting his judgment, I'm also crossing my fingers.

December 2, 2009 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...into the infinity of lifedom..."

In Aleksandar Hemon's short story "Everything" (collected in the excellent Love and Obstacles), the teenaged narrator has been given the responsibility of buying a freezer for his family, which requires a long journey from Sarajevo to the remote town of Murska Sobota, in Slovenia. The narrator - sensitive, over-romantic and almost laughably naive - believes his parents have given him this mission to introduce him to the mundane and quotidian world of adulthood, but he resists, fantasizing about escaping that fate.
In my notebook I waxed poetic about the alluring possibility of simply going on, into the infinity of lifedom, never buying the freezer chest. I would go past Murska Sobota, to Austria, onward to Paris; I would abscond from college and food storage; I would buy a one-way ticket to the utterly unforeseeable. Sorry, I would tell them, I had to do it, I had to prove than one could have a long, happy life without ever owning a freezer chest. In every trip, a frightening, exhilarating possibility of never returning is inscribed. This is why we say goodbye, I write. You knew it could happen when you sent me to the monstrous city, the endless night, when you sent me to Murska Sobota.
I love the overwrought romanticism of that passage, so full of longing. I want him to find that world beyond the mundane - "the utterly unforeseeable" - even as I want him to come to his senses and do his duty, which in the end is probably best for him.

December 2, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

What Book Are You? (Part II)

A commenter to a 2004 post (What Book Are You?) alerted me to an updated version of that query. So here is the book that I supposedly am:

You're The Scarlet Letter!
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Raised in a culture steeped in religious values, you raise some serious questions about the nature of that culture. While you no longer see yourself as a part of that society, you are a staunch defender of the rights of those who wish to remain there to do so. At the same time, you illustrate the hypocrisies of that society and some of the better intended people therein. Ultimately, it's possible the best improvement you think anyone could make would be the improvement of communication devices on ships. Your least favorite letter is A.
(Take the Book Quiz II at the Blue Pyramid.)

All told, I was much more pleased to be associated with Vonnegut than with Hawthorne. Like millions of Americans, I endured The Scarlet Letter as a high schooler and have no appetite to ever experience it again. And "A" is actually one of my favorite letters, for obvious reasons.

December 1, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (3)

Boy's gotta have it.

Cormac McCarthy's typewriter. The one he's written every one of his books on. I've only read one of his novels, but wow, would this be a cool relic to own.

I periodically post items under the heading "Boy's gotta have it" as not-so-subtle hints of things I'd love to receive as gifts, for my birthday or Christmas or whatever. I'm notoriously difficult to shop for, as my material needs are few (other than a steady supply of books) and I also subscribe to the philosophy that if there's anything I really want that badly, I'll buy it myself long before my birthday or Christmas rolls around. It now occurs to me that listing a typewriter that's expected bring fifteen to twenty grand at auction under "Boy's gotta have it" proves that I'm not only difficult to shop for, but impossible.

December 1, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)