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Love this photo...

Obama van dyke

Two of my absolute heroes.

(Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

June 30, 2010 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Jesse White is my hero

Not only is Mr. White the founder of the ever-wondrous Tumblers, but his Secretary of State office has now instituted self-service kiosks (at the Loop facility, at least) for license plate renewals. The entire process is as follows: 1) scan the barcode on your renewal form; 2) swipe your credit card; 3) remove your sticker and registration from the printer. No waiting in roped-off lines, no suffering the indignity of having your personal check cross-checked against the deadbeat list. This new process is even easier than renewing by mail, which I rarely get around to doing in time anyway.

June 28, 2010 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (1)

Stuart Brent, 1912-2010

Farewell to a bookselling legend. I never visited his namesake store, but did frequent his son Adam's Brent Books in the West Loop for several years and thoroughly enjoyed Stuart's memoir The Seven Stairs. My daughter has also been a member of the Stuart Brent Children's Book Club for several years, and their selections are consistently wonderful and first-rate.

June 27, 2010 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

Henry Blake Fuller

The Chicago Reader's "Best of Chicago" issue includes this entry: "Best Underappreciated Chicago Novel", which Whet Moser says is Henry Blake Fuller's Bertram Cope's Year.
Too gay for its time and too closeted to be ahead of it, it seems that Bertram Cope’s Year is destined to be rediscovered as a historical curio every couple decades, but it deserves better. Fuller was at his best when his prose was at its most dry and ironic, and taboos forced upon his writing a subtlety lacking in the overwrought realist fiction of the era.
Anyone who has slogged through Dreiser (whom I've enjoyed, though it's somewhat of a chore) has to be intrigued by that "subtlety" aspect. And "underappreciated" might be generous - not only have I not read Fuller's novel, I hadn't even heard of it before. With those past accolades by the likes of Carl Van Vechten and Edmund Wilson, of course I'll try to hunt it down, but given that my otherwise well-stocked local library doesn't even have Fuller's best-known novel, The Cliff-Dwellers, I'm not optimistic.

June 27, 2010 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (4)

Dostoevsky in the subway


I heard this story on NPR last night about murals that were installed in a Moscow subway station which included scenes from Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and The Devils. Seems there's some controversy, in which some are claiming that the violence-themed works are too depressing and might compel people to commit suicide. (Obviously not the artist's intent, or else he would have depicted the climactic scene from Tolstoy's Anna Karenina instead.) At first I scoffed at the idea, figuring that anybody who committed suicide after seeing the murals probably would have done so anyway - it seems unlikely that mere murals could finally push someone over the edge.

And now, after seeing some images of the murals, I'm even more convinced. The murals are quite stylish and somewhat abstract - not the graphic, lurid, blood-and-gore spectacle that I would have expected. Makes me wonder what those critics are getting all worked up about. I wouldn't even mind having one of these on my wall at home.

June 24, 2010 in Art, Books | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Sherlock Alger"

Today marks the publication of Joe's Luck: The World's Longest Literary Remix, in which 150 writers (myself included) remixed/rewrote a single page of Horatio Alger's 1910 novel, Joe's Luck: Always Wide Awake, under the editorship of Jason Boog at GalleyCat. (Explanation here.) The abridged version can be read here, with my page starting on page 32 of the Scribd viewer (the text between the sentences in red is mine).

For my piece, I took what was originally a fairly uninteresting scene with truly terrible dialogue, and reimagined it as a lost passage from a Sherlock Holmes story. To refresh my memory before I began writing, I re-read some Holmes stories for the first time in years, and was surprised at how densely wordy Doyle's tales were - to create a truly faithful homage to Holmes, I would have needed four or five times the number of words that were allotted to me for this project. Because of this, my version of a Holmes story comes off as almost minimalist in style. But given the constraints I was working under, I'm pretty pleased with the result. And it was certainly fun to write.

June 24, 2010 in Books, Fiction | Permalink | Comments (1)

Baby, if you ever wondered, wondered whatever became of me...

No, I haven't been living on the air in Cincinnati, Cincinnati WKRP - just visiting there over the weekend for a family reunion. Until this weekend, I never realized how much my family is into euchre - the late-night scene in the "hospitality suite" we always rent at the hotel is now confined almost completely to cards - or how much more difficult candlepin bowling is compared to regular bowling.

As I've mentioned previously, whenever we're out of town we like to find a local coffee shop for our daily espresso instead of taking the lazy way out at Starbucks. This trip was no exception - after an aborted stop at one local place I found on Google last week, a bit of technologically-assisted intuition (our car's GPS gave us a list, and from those names and addresses I divined the right place to go) brought us to the wonderful Branch Hill Coffee in Loveland. It's a charming little place, just up the road from the Little Miami River, that had a real espresso machine (none of that pushbutton crap you find everywhere these days) and fresh baked goods - the scones were not only right out of the oven, but were even still on the cookie sheet when we arrived. The espresso was great. If you find yourself in the north suburbs of Cincinnati and in need of a coffee fix, I highly recommending finding this place.

And right across the parking lot from our hotel was a Graeter's ice cream shop, which quite simply is just about the best ice cream I've ever had. The caramel ice cream was incredibly smooth and melted (literally and figuratively) in my mouth. Definitely worth a visit, whether or not you have calories to spare.

June 22, 2010 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

"So you keep on reading your cursed books, when you ought to be watching the saw?"

Nice passage from Stendhal's The Red and the Black, which I just started over the weekend:
As he approached his mill, Pere Sorel called Julien in his stentorian voice; there was no answer. He saw only his two elder sons, young giants who, armed with heavy axes, were squaring the trunks of fir which they would afterwards carry to the saw. There were completely engrossed in keeping exactly to the black line traced on the piece of wood, from which each blow of the axe sent huge chips flying. They did not hear their father's voice. He made his way to the shed; as he entered it, he looked in vain for Julien in the place where he ought to have been standing, beside the saw. He caught sight of him five or six feet higher up, sitting astride upon one of the beams of the roof. Instead of paying careful attention to the action of the machinery, Julien was reading a book. Nothing could have been less to old Sorel's liking; he might perhaps have forgiven Julien his slender build, little adapted to hard work, and so different from that of his elder brothers; but this passion for reading he detested: he himself was unable to read.

It was in vain that he called Julien two or three times. The attention the young man was paying to his book, far more than the noise of the saw, prevented him from hearing his father's terrifying voice. Finally, despite his years, the father sprang nimbly upon the trunk that was being cut by the saw, and from there on to the cross beam that held up the roof. A violent blow sent flying into the mill lade the book that Julien was holding; a second blow no less violent, aimed at his head, in the form of a box on the ear, made him lose his balance. He was about to fall from a height of twelve or fifteen feet, among the moving machinery, which would have crushed him, but his father caught him with his left hand as he fell.

"Well, idler! So you keep on reading your cursed books, when you ought to be watching the saw? Read them in the evening, when you go and waste your time with the curate."

Julien, though stunned by the force of the blow, and bleeding profusely, went to take up his proper station beside the saw. There were tears in his eyes, due not so much to his bodily pain as to the loss of his book, which he adored.
What a terrific introduction to Julien Sorel. I like him already.

June 14, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

What I'm Writing

You heard me, writing.

In the past, I occasionally posted "What I'm Writing" updates here, most of which were stories and novellas which would ultimately remain unfinished. Though at first I might have had a spark of a great fiction concept that excited me - enough so to shout it to the blogosphere - for whatever reason I saw very few of those concepts through to fruition. Getting publicly excited about ideas that would never go anywhere seemed like an increasingly pointless exercise, so I ended the updates. I decided that I'd abandon that practice until I finally had something significant to mention.

And it seems that time is now.

Last summer I revived my concept (yes, yet another concept) for a Chicago-based short story collection that used Lou Reed's New York album as a framework. I first kicked a few stories around several years ago, but like so many other writing projects I simply let the rest languish. Then just about a year ago I had a sudden inspiration - which I'll discuss explicitly in the near future - that threw me back into the collection. Suddenly it seemed like the collection had real potential, and I set a concrete goal for myself: I would write the first draft of each of the remaining twelve stories (for fourteen stories in total, one for each of the songs on New York), one per month, over the following year. With my first attempt at a story collection (circa 2005) having turned out to be a unsatisfying hodgepodge of styles, voices and themes, with the new collection I thought it would be best to create all the first drafts first, before even beginning to edit. This way, I hoped, I could polish the stories, one after the other, and create a steady tone and what I hoped would be a more unified collection. And besides getting an even tone, I knew that this method would greatly increase the likelihood of ever gaining a finished product - if I tried to write each story one at a time, from first draft through endless revisions, the challenge of doing so over and over again, fourteen times, would have been overwhelmingly daunting. I’m not a highly productive or motivated writer, and it doesn’t take much of an obstacle for me to abandon work that once seemed promising.

This week, I finished the first draft of the fourteenth and final story in the collection, and I'm quite pleased with what I've come up with so far. The next step is to transcribe the stories from longhand (written in composition books, mostly on the train to and from work) onto my laptop, and then the editing can begin. Transcribing will probably take a while, but I'm sure it will feel worthwhile and not so tedious, since I have fourteen vivid stories (or the potential for such) to work with, and I'm eager enough to see the final product that all of the labor will have real meaning.

It's been a long, drawn-out process, but one that has really excited and engaged my imagination. During the past six months I've had, for various reasons, periods of erratic sleep, and while lying awake in bed at night I've often found myself working out story ideas in my head, which not only fueled my creativity but also helped pass many long and restless hours until I finally fell asleep or it was time to get up. My current job is also fairly uninspiring and has few intrinsic rewards, and I'm grateful that I've had my writing - and this story collection concept in particular - as a critical creative outlet.

It's been a slow couple of years, but I finally feel like I'm a writer again.

June 11, 2010 in Fiction, Marshland | Permalink | Comments (1)

Summer of Classics begins anew

Last week I resumed what has become my annual tradition, Summer of Classics. From June through August, I read nothing but classic novels, one or two per year of which I've read before and longed to revisit, but for the most part they are widely revered works that for whatever reason I've never gotten around to reading. This morning I just finished Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (good, but not as earth-shattering as I had expected) and next up is Stendhal's The Red and the Black. Though I'll be posting memorable excerpts here and there throughout the summer, I'll hold off on giving capsule reviews (same as last year) until early September. This has always been an entertaining and educational experience for me, and I'm sure this year will be no exception.

June 11, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Mighty indeed


Plenty of tired but happy people around town this morning. Myself included.

June 10, 2010 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (3)

Here come the Hawks, the mighty Blackhawks...

...and several years earlier than I would have expected. I had thought the Blackhawks were right there on the brink, though maybe still a year or two away from being championship caliber. Yet here they are, just one win away from their first Stanley Cup in almost fifty years.

I must admit that my Blackhawks history is surprisingly spotty. Given that I come from a Chicago-area spectator-sports-loving family and was quite a sports a fanatic myself for my first three decades, and have always admired hockey, I've never really been a big fan of the team.

When I was five or six, I remember listening to Hawks games on WIND in the evening, to lull myself to sleep. That was at the tail end of the era of Bobby Hull (part of the renowned MPH line, with Pit Martin and Jim Pappin), just before Hull bolted for the richer pastures of Winnipeg and the fledgling World Hockey League and put the team on a downward spiral that it didn't recover from for nearly two decades.

After Hull departed my fandom did as well, and was revived only during the late 80s and early 90s when, fresh out of college, I finally attended my first Hawks games at the legendary old Chicago Stadium and was instantly hooked. Watching games from the second balcony there was truly an unforgettable experience. Cheap-seats Hawks fans are probably the most passionate and knowledgable sports fans anywhere - and also cynical and sarcastic, which of course immediately endeared them to me. Two anecdotes from that period:

First: Back then the Hawks' power play was particulary inept. Even with a man advantage they'd be lucky to get off more than one or two shots on goal, and rarely scoring - in fact, a shorthanded goal by the other team was at least as likely as the Hawks scoring on the power play. It got so bad that when the Hawks were on a power play and dumped the puck across the blue line (since Denis Savard seemed to be the only guy on the entire team who could stick-handle the puck across the line, even with a man advantage), the guys in the second balcony would call out "Line change!", as if the best the Hawks could hope for on the power play wasn't a goal, but a moderately successful change of lines. Thing is, those fans were deadly accurate in that assessment.

Second: Ed Olczyk was a local Chicago kid who was a high draft pick of the Hawks and played several unaccomplished seasons with the team. Then he was traded away, to Winnipeg, and I happened to be at his first game back in Chicago after being traded. "This is cool," I thought. "The fans will definitely give the local guy a warm welcome on his return. Was I ever wrong. When they announced Olczyk before the game, some guy in the second balcony yelled, "Hey Olczyk! Your wife's a dyke!" Obviously I have no idea how accurate that comment was, but it was hysterical none the less.

Back then, the team's dinosaur owner, Bill Wirtz, refused to broadcast home games on local TV, even when the games were sold out, arguing that it wasn't fair to the ticket-buying fans. (Who presumably couldn't care less, since they wouldn't need to watch on TV anyway.) This mindless stance even extended to playoff games, and when the Hawks made the playoffs in 1991, I went so far as to watch every game at Sluggers in Wrigleyville, which swiped every game off the satellite dish and made a small fortune showing them on a huge projection screen in their back room. (Being there also gave me the memorable sight of a drunken patron, who had been at the Cub game that afternoon and whose drinking day had undoubtedly commenced around mid-morning, blearily marking the end of a Hawks' loss by flinging a full can of beer at the big screen. And not being ejected.)

My buddy Chris and I would sit there in the plastic lawn chairs at Sluggers during the Hawks-North Stars opening series, drinking far too many beers for a weeknight, and wondering if there would be enough players left on the ice to finish the game after the endless fights (especially between the troglodyte tag-teams of Stu Grimson-Mike Peluso vs. Basil McRae-Shane Churla) sent most of both rosters to the penalty box. But spending the next two years in Champaign for grad school dampened my ardor for the Hawks, even despite them reaching the 1992 Stanley Cup finals but losing to Pittsburgh, in what would be their last finals appearance before this season. And I've mostly been away from the team ever since.

Ah, yes, this season. Bill Wirtz passed away several years ago, and his son Rocky has totally revitalized the team, doing all of the right things. Putting home games on TV. Embracing the team's old icons - Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Tony Esposito - and bringing them back as heroes and the best goodwill ambassadors the team could possible have. Signing the team's young stars - Kane, Toews, Keith - to expensive long-term deals, locking them up as the stable core of the team for years to come instead of pinching pennies and letting them escape as free agents. And now they're one win from their first Stanley Cup since 1961.

And yet I can't really claim to being a fan, or truly savoring their fantastic playoff run. I just don't have that emotional attachment to the team, haven't been to a game in person for fifteen years didn't even watch a substantial portion of a game on TV this season until just this past Sunday, and am only just now figuring out how to pronounce "Byfuglien." So instead of getting stark-raving-mad, red-jersey-attired like most of the city seems to have become, I'm instead admiring the Hawks from a safe distance. Part of that is that I hate bandwagoners and know I have no right to claim to suddenly be a fan after ignoring the team for so long, and suppose part of it is also that, being so familiar with Chicago sports for so many years, there's always the nagging feeling that defeat will ultimately be snatched from the jaws of victory, as the Bears and especially the Cubs have proven so memorably, time and again.

When the Hawks win it - and I do mean when; they truly seem to be the team of destiny - I'll just sit back, smile, and raise a glass to them. But I won't be getting shitfaced drunk, running out to the souvenir stand or lining up for the victory parade. It will be their victory, and that of their true-blooded and long-suffering fans, but not mine. And I'm fine with that. This is great for Chicago, and I'm glad to be a part of it, even from such a far distance.

June 8, 2010 in Chicago Observations, Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

Michael Tanzer


The art historian Albert Boime wrote "Michael Tanzer: An Artist Searching For His Routes", a lovely appreciation for the art and life of Michael Tanzer (the late father of my great friend Ben) which variously discusses the artist's interests in Jewish folklore, the concept of the outsider, and tattooing as fine art. Sounds like he was quite a man, and clearly a great artist.

The image shown above is Tanzer's Enigma (Kafka Enigma No. 1) which is one of many examples of his passion for Franz Kafka.

June 4, 2010 in Art | Permalink | Comments (1)

“You know, I’d like my life back.”

We know how you feel, Mr. Hayward, because we'd like our Gulf back. But I suspect you'll be getting your wish long before we get ours.

June 4, 2010 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)