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"...the stuff to start sons and daughters..."

Whew, that Whitman sure was a lusty beast.

It is I, you women, I make my way,
I am stern, acrid, large, undissuadable, but I love you,
I do not hurt you any more than is necessary for you,
I pour the stuff to start sons and daughters fit for these States,
I press with slow rude muscle,
I brace myself effectually, I listen to no entreaties,
I dare not withdraw till I deposit what has so long accumulated within me.

Reading many similar passages in Leaves of Grass, I doubt that "stuff" ever accumulated within him for very long, but instead was regularly disposed of, one way or another, together or alone.

July 30, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

A free novel concept, just for you

As a writer, I'm good at coming up with ideas, but no so good at seeing those ideas through to a completed story or book. It's something I'm working to rectify, but at the same time I'm aware of my limitations, and know that some of my ideas will absolutely, positively never come to fruition and aren't worth my pursuing.

Case in point is this story from this week's Chicago Reader. Essentially, this entrepreneur is working on perfecting the process of cold fusion, with the intent of creating energy reactors for individual homes which, it's hoped, will drastically reduce a home's gas and electrical usage and mostly remove consumers from the energy grid. Although the science is far from perfected - no one is quite sure just how the original experiments in cold fusion created energy - the entrpreneur seems somewhat paranoid, worrying that highly vested interests (big oil companies, oil-producing nations) in the fossil fuel industry are gunning for him, seeing him as a threat to their business. In other words, he seems to think he might be an assassination target. Probably far-fetched, of course - but also great fodder for a thriller novel. It has so many great elements - the lone, little-guy hero, the big bad oil companies, shadowy assassins (whether real or imaginary), an elusive technology and the big overriding themes of global warming and the future of the planet and the human race.

That said, it's a novel that won't be written by me. Thrillers aren't my thing, and I could never do justice to the complicated science of cold fusion. Which is why I'm handing the concept over to you, fellow writers. Free of charge. All I ask is a tiny mention of me on your acknowledgments page.

July 30, 2010 in Books, Fiction | Permalink | Comments (2)

Jack Clark's cabbie noir

Intriguing piece here at the Reader about Nobody's Angel, by Chicago cabbie Jack Clark.
Set in the early 1990s, the book is an eye-opening immersion in a cabbie subculture built around a daily series of judgment calls and crapshoots aimed at avoiding the passenger who'll stiff or kill you. Written in prose that goes down easy as a cold beer, it offers locals the same delight-in-recognition we get from a good locally shot film, immortalizing the streets we walk and the neighborhoods we hang out in.
Equally interesting is the book's publication history.
About 20 years ago Jack Clark fashioned a noir novel out of a string of vignettes drawn from his night job as a Chicago cabbie. Having failed to find a publisher for it, he tried to get it serialized in the Reader. When the Reader took a pass, Clark self-published 500 copies under the title Relita's Angel and began distributing them from his taxi. For the next year or so, he carried a stack of the paperbacks in his cab, unloading them at $5 each—$3.14 more than his printing cost—on any passenger willing to say what the hell.
I don't read much crime fiction other than Jim Thompson, but I might just take the plunge on this one.

July 29, 2010 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)


"When Blago says 'It's in God's hands', I want to slap the crap out of him."
- Metra commuter, 7/29/10

July 29, 2010 in Chicago Observations, Overheard | Permalink | Comments (2)

Coming soon...


July 28, 2010 in Books, Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)


Three (and a half) Things Poets Should Never Write About
(1) The moon
A lot of poets are insomniacs, or up late drinking, or busy sobbing into their green tea as they draft encomium after encomium about the autumn leaves’ brave last bursts of color against winter and impending death. In any event, we’re often awake at night, and unless you’re in some horribly cloudy place like London or Seattle or something, there’s a pretty good chance of seeing the moon on a given night.
As junior editor/assistant flunky of a literary zine, I fully concur. Though I've seen a lot more self-references to poetry than moon metaphors.

July 25, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...they do not ask who seizes fast to them..."

Wow. From Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself":

Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore,
Twenty-eight young men and all so friendly;
Twenty-eight years of womanly life and all so lonesome.

She owns the fine house by the rise of the bank,
She hides handsome and richly drest aft the blinds of the window.

Which of the young men does she like the best?
Ah the homeliest of them is beautiful to her.

Where are you off to, lady? for I see you,
You splash in the water there, yet stay stock still in your room.

Dancing and laughing along the beach came the twenty-ninth bather,
The rest did not see her, but she saw them and loved them.

The beards of the young men glisten'd with wet, it ran from their long hair,
Little streams pass'd all over their bodies.

An unseen hand also pass'd over their bodies,
It descended tremblingly from their temples and ribs.

The young men float on their backs, their white bellies bulge to the sun, they do not ask who seizes fast to them,
They do not know who puffs and declines with pendant and bending arch,
They do not think whom they souse with spray.

Youthful exuberance, loneliness, longing, simmering lust. Seems to me this is the raw material for a very moving short film. I've been struggling to get into Whitman so far, as I've found I need near-silence to really concentrate on the verses while my fellow train commuters have been unusually chattery and distracting this week. But this morning, the car I rode was blessedly and atypically quiet, and I breezed through. 

July 23, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Save John King!

Legendary Detroit bookseller John King's two satellite bookstores are in trouble, with prices being slashed in a desperate attempt to boost revenues and gain survival. Detroiters, please do your literary/community duty, set aside your Kindles and support these stores.

According to the article, King's flagship store, the awe-inspiring John K. King Used and Rare Books (ONE MILLION BOOKS!), is supposedly safe for now, but it seems likely that the same market forces that are punishing the Ferndale and Cass Avenue stores will also hurt the flagship store eventually. I haven't been in Detroit for fifteen years and see little other reason to do so, but if I get even a whiff that the flagship store is in trouble, I will make an immediate pilgrimage to 901 West Lafayette Boulevard.

(Via NewPages.)

July 22, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...ever and ever yet the verses owning..."

I quite like Whitman's preface to Leaves of Grass:

Come, said my soul,
Such verses for my Body let us write, (for we are one,)
That should I after return,
Or, long, long hence, in other spheres,
There to some group of mates the chants resuming,
(Tallying Earth's soil, trees, winds, tumultuous waves,)
Ever with pleas'd smile I may keep on,
Ever and ever yet the verses owning—as, first, I here and now
Signing for Soul and Body, set to them my name,

Walt Whitman

I believe in the idea that one has immortality as long as there are people still living who remember you. Admittedly, however, this brand of immortality only lasts two or at most three generations, after which any memories of you become mere hearsay. Which is why I admire Whitman's words here, which basically say that his verse will live long after him (a presumptuous claim for any writer, although time has proven Whitman correct), thus essentially keeping him alive ("...ever with pleas'd smile I may keep on..."). In other words, making him immortal.

True, this doesn't work for all writers, just the great ones. Most of Whitman's 19th century literary contemporaries are forgotten today, their memories all but vanishing as their works went out of print and the surviving copies slowly crumbled to dust. But Whitman's memory endures, thanks to the quality and uniqueness of his writing.

Which for me is a sobering reminder to not only get my writings into print, but to make them as good as possible so that they stand the test of time. So I'll be remembered.

July 21, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Chicago words

Chicago Magazine presents the top forty English words produced by the city. Before reading the list, "clout" (which came in at #3) was the first word that came to mind, though I didn't realize it was from Irv Kupcinet - I had always associated it with Mike Royko. Other personal favorites on the list are smoke-filled room, Mickey Finn, razzmatazz and Dopp kit (that's what my Chicago-native dad always called a toiletry kit), and I had no idea that many of the other, more common words (like cloud nine, jinx, jungle gym, egghead, midway and yuppie) had Chicago origins.

(Via Wordorigins.org.)

July 21, 2010 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

Summer of Classics update

Whew. I finally finished slogging through 491 pages of The Red and the Black, which turned out to be not so much the political/social protest I was expecting, but instead an overwrought romance novel. Still, I saw it through to the end, and have now moved on to the considerably more pleasant realms of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. I like it so far, even though I've already found that the creative (or archaic?) grammar he uses can be quite jarring at times.

July 21, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"These Are Their Stories"


This is fantastic. The artist Brandon Bird has compiled a list of one-sentence plot summaries of Law & Order ("A toy collector is accidentally shot", "A video-game player goes missing", etc.) from DirecTV, and solicited various artists to create works of art around them. Bird has published a handful of them at "These Are Their Stories" and is also curating a one-week exhibition of the works at Gallery Meltdown in Los Angeles. L&O is one of my favorite shows ever, and this is a truly wonderful tribute.

The image shown above is "Lawyer is Secretly a Stripper" by Brigid McCabe, my favorite of the online works.

(Via Wondermark.)

July 20, 2010 in Art | Permalink | Comments (0)

Howlin' Wolf, "Smokestack Lightnin'"

Howlin' Wolf, 1965. This man was the absolute epitome of cool. I just found out that I missed the centenary of his birth - June 10, 1910, so sharing this vintage video is my way of rectifying my oversight. This song is a bit strange - Wolf identifies it as "Smokestack Lightning" and the instrumentation and melody are definitely that song, but the lyrics are different, sounding more akin to "Mystery Train."

July 18, 2010 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Helen Cresswell, Ordinary Jack

Although Maddie is nine years old already (and soon to be ten), I still read to her every night at bedtime. I suppose part of that is me clinging to her being a little girl (remembering back to the days when I read her Sandra Boynton and Eric Carle), but mostly it's simply a genuinely wonderful bit of father-daughter quality time that I hope doesn't end anytime soon. Usually it's totally her choice for what we read, but during a recent trip to the library I hunted down this book, the first of Helen Cresswell's Bagthorpe Saga series. I had read (and loved) a couple of her other Bagthorpe books back in junior high, but never this one. Indulgent trooper that she is, Maddie agreed with my suggestion that we try Ordinary Jack for our bedtime reading.

What a delight. Ordinary Jack was every bit as good as I remembered the others having been, now over 30 years ago. Set in England, the book is about Jack Bagthorpe, a regular, normal kid in a family of brilliant eccentrics. Everyone else in the family is a prodigy in one or several disciplines - art, sports, etc. - and Jack feels a bit left out, longing to be as special as he perceives the rest of the family to be. (His closest companion is his dog, the appropriately-named Zero, who is as ordinary as Jack thinks of himself.) Fortunately, his sympathetic Uncle Parker concocts a plan which he and Jack hope will make Jack unique in the family, assuming the role of a Prophet who sees visions which - thanks to chicanery on the part of Uncle Parker - increasingly come true. The scheme steadily escalates, the family quickly coming around to the idea that perhaps Jack is special after all, culminating in a hilarious finale involving a family birthday party, a hot-air balloon, two guys in bear suits and a grandmother who longs for the reincarnation of her beloved cat. The book is very funny, full of both clever dialogue and genuine human warmth, as Jack comes to realize that his family does love him and he is indeed special.

I highly recommend Ordinary Jack for any preteen reader. And even adults. In fact, even if Maddie isn't interested in us continuing on in the Bagthorpe series (though she loved the book too), I just might read several more of them on my own.

July 16, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

David Masciotra

David Masciotra is a local guy (grew up in Lansing, went to college in Joliet and is now a grad student at Valparaiso) who has written the intriguing Working On a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen. Right now he's doing a blog tour to promote the book, with his first stop at Big Other this past Monday and upcoming stops here at Pete Lit (probably next week), What To Wear During an Orange Alert? and Mel Bosworth's blog, among others. He's also doing a reading tomorrow at Revolution Books (1103 N. Ashland Ave. in Chicago) at 7 p.m.

I haven't read the book yet but have heard nothing but good things about it, so it's definitely on my list. I've long been an admirer of Springsteen (I even owned his Nebraska LP in high school) if not an actual fan - I might have become one were it not for my freshman year roommate in college, who was not only a Springsteen fanatic but also a grade-A prick whom I genuinely hated. Every time I think of Springsteen I can't help also thinking of my roommate, whose memory will forever taint my impressions of the artist. I know that's not a rational reason to not embrace Springsteen during the past 25 years, but that's just how I am. Maybe Masciotra's book will draw me back into the fold.

July 14, 2010 in Books, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...a bang for his pains..."

I really enjoyed watching the Spain-Netherlands final of the World Cup, more for the spectacle (the camera shots of hundreds of thousands of fans watching the game on TV in public squares in Madrid and Amsterdam were awe-inspiring, especially since such a thing would never happen here in the U.S.) than for the rough, foul-plagued play itself.

And I also enjoyed the British commentators, with their appealingly unique turns of phrase. I remember one instance in which a player made an extra effort to control the ball, only to get tripped up by his opponent - if he hadn't made that effort, he never would have suffered the painful tripping. Here in the U.S., we would have said something like "for all his trouble, he got tripped up", but the British announcer instead said "he got a bang for his pains." Love that.

July 13, 2010 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Throw the bums out

While listening to an NPR story this morning about the agency formally known as the Minerals Management Service - the regulatory agency which, to put it very kindly, simply looked the other way and let BP and other oil companies do whatever they wanted - this aspect (from a related AP article) in particular struck me:
While some critics have urged mass firings, Bromwich said he does not intend to clean house at the drilling agency, which has offices ranging from Washington to Louisiana, Texas, Colorado and Alaska. "The risk of saying 'off with their heads' across the board is you risk losing a tremendous amount of knowledge and expertise," he said.
Why not mass firings? I'm in banking, specifically in credit, where I serve as a sort of watchdog over our clients. If I was caught having a too-cozy relationship with the clients I was supposed to be overseeing - nothing as severe as the drug-and-sex parties the MMS was having with the oil companies, but more basic things like ignoring loan agreement violations or doctoring financial records - I would be fired on the spot. No questions asked.

My job is to oversee our loan clients, make sure they're performing satisfactorily and remain good credit risks, and if I fail to do so I deserve to be fired. The MMS' job, as regulator, is really no different - the MMS is supposed to keep an eye on the oil companies, make sure they're acting legally and responsibly. And the BP fiasco makes it clear that with the widespread incompetence and corruption of the MMS, the agency was absolutely, positively not doing its job. And for that, there should be mass firings. Clean house, from top to bottom, and start over. All that "knowledge and expertise" means nothing if the knowledgable and expert regulators are in bed with the companies they're supposed to be regulating.

July 12, 2010 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

J. Elsinger & Co.


Interesting piece of Joliet ephemera here, from the bygone era when retailers still printed up advertising cards - though, admittedly, this is a stock image to which the store's name was imprinted. But I'm a bit perplexed by the store's street address. First, that it lacks the east/west designation that's standard today, but more importantly that during that era neither 34 West Jefferson (the Will County Courthouse) or 34 East Jefferson (the Woodruff Hotel) would have been a likely storefront location - unless Elsinger was located inside the Woodruff. Or it could be instead that, sometime after this card was printed, the city changed its street address system. Back then there were plenty of storefronts along the entire north side of Jefferson (on the opposite side from the Courthouse and the Woodruff) that could have housed this store. A mild mystery.

July 9, 2010 in Ephemera, Joliet | Permalink | Comments (3)

Elliott Smith, "Independence Day"

One last July 4th reference here, from one of my favorite musicians. His voice is a bit ragged and he struggles to hit the higher notes, but still a great song.

July 5, 2010 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Author Photographs: Mark Twain, 1909


A man who needs no introduction, especially on this most American of holidays.

Source: George Grantham Bain Collection (photographer unknown).
(Via Shorpy.)

July 5, 2010 in Books, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Pfaff's Cellar

Over at The Rumpus, Sara Oliver Gordus has a fine essay on Walt Whitman's Manhattan watering hole, Pfaff's Cellar, which has been described as "the Andy Warhol factory, the Studio 54, the Algonquin Round Table all rolled into one." Here's Whitman's own lovely reflection on the place:
I can recall it all now, and, through a vista of cigar and pipe smoke and dim gaslight, see the scores of kindly faces peering at me, some in love; some in question, but all friendly enough; for, while ‘Bohemia’ might differ as to a man’s work or its results, she usually, once he was in, accepted the man, idiosyncracies and all. ‘Bohemia’ comes but once in one’s life. Let’s treasure even its memory.
I'm seriously considering reading Leaves of Grass as part of my ongoing Summer of Classics, and this piece had prodded me further in that direction.

July 4, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Andrew Ervin

My friend Drew Ervin is interviewed in the latest online edition of Hobart, by the fine Chicago writer Bayo Ojikutu.
So, sure, I’m going to rail against the man, but I’m also going to look for the moments of transcendence that invariably emerge from even the most degraded conditions. I’m not sure that provocation was my top priority in writing Extraordinary Renditions, but if that’s what results from the time I spent trying to understand, in some small way, these different cultures and historical circumstances, I’m OK with that.
Extraordinary Renditions, Ervin's fiction debut, comes out on Coffee House Press later this year, and will surely be the rare instance of my buying a book immediately upon its release, instead of dawdling around for months or years before buying.

July 2, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

That sound you hear is my jaw hitting the floor


Sure, I realize it's spread over three days, but dear gawd what a lineup.

July 1, 2010 in Music | Permalink | Comments (2)