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Forthcoming titles

I don't comment much here about soon-to-be-published titles, but the Spring 2011 catalog of Houghton Mifflin really got my attention, particularly:

+ Ward Just's latest novel, Rodin's Debutante (p. 10 of the catalog), which returns to Ward's hometown of Chicago. His last Chicago novel, An Unfinished Season, was simply terrific.

+ What There Is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell (p. 27). Two great writers practicing the now-anachronistic art of letter-writing.

+ Steve Earle's debut novel I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive (p. 49), which imagines the life of Doc Ebersole and his doomed patient, Hank Williams. I've always admired Earle as a musician, and look forward to his writing. Yes, I'm already aware of his previous story collection Doghouse Roses (I even appropriated the title for a microfiction piece that was published a few years back) but never got around to reading it. The novel's premise sounds intriguing, so for my literary introduction to Earlie I think I'll start there.

I'm tempted to request a review copy of the Welty/Maxwell book, but given that Just and Earle are both still alive and kicking (and need to put food on the table) I'll probably buy those retail and financially support their continued literary efforts.

November 30, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

The world's smallest bar

Love this brief story by Sarah Holland, at Six Sentences: "Hermit Bar". This is something I've never thought about before, and yet it makes perfect sense: of course this is exactly what a bar for hermits would be like. I can see it quite vividly in my mind. Well done.

November 29, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

William Trevor

In the NYT, Charles McGrath has an excellent review of William Trevor's Selected Stories that captures many of the aspects of Trevor's writing that I admire (and, I now realize, emulate in my own writing) - the avoidance of simile ("Nothing in a Trevor story is 'like' something else; things are what they are.") and topical cultural references ("A mention of Madonna in the story 'The Dressmaker’s Child' is so surprising that you have to read the sentence twice to be sure it’s not the other Madonna, the one in all the paintings."), as well as a distinctly timeless quality that McGrath captures perfectly:

Trevor’s prose has a precise, well-made solidness that is itself a kind of protest against change. These are stories that wear well and will never go out of fashion because they were never entirely fashionable to begin with.

Trevor is no "kid of the moment", which means he'll never be immensely popular with either the tastemakers or the general reading public, but will also never seem dated. I strongly suspect he'll still be fondly read a hundred years from now, which is more than you can say for most of the popular writers of, say, 1910.

November 28, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)


"Thanksgiving goes probably far deeper than you folks suppose. I am not sure but it is the source of the highest poetry...We Americans devote an official day to it every year; yet I sometimes fear the real article is almost dead or dying in our self-sufficient, independent Republic. Gratitude, anyhow, has never been made half enough of by the moralists; it is indispensable to a complete character, man's or woman's — the disposition to be appreciative, thankful. That is the main matter, the element, inclination — what geologists call the 'trend.' Of my own life and writings I estimate the giving thanks part, with what it infers, as essentially the best item. I should say the quality of gratitude rounds the whole emotional nature; I should say love and faith would quite lack vitality without it."
- Walt Whitman

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

November 25, 2010 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

"He flattered himself that he approximated the model husband."

Terrific story from George Ade's 1903 collection In Babel: Stories of Chicago: "The Set of Poe". The Waterbys' marital miscommunication nearly brings about irreconcilable differences, but their conflict is neatly and pleasantly resolved at the end. The tone of this collection is not at all what I expected - so far they're all serious short stories, with little of the humor of Ade's "fable" stories for which he was so well known. But even without that comic touch, the stories are still very much worth reading.

November 23, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)



Jason Pettus is really pumping up the volume. His Chicago Center for Literature and Photography (CCLaP), besides running its trademark arts commentary, is also ramping up its publication efforts, with my great friend Ben Tanzer's latest, 99 Problems, raking in widespread praise from inside and out of the literary community. It's a book that even Ben (a relentlessly prolific writer) admits probably wouldn't exist without Pettus pushing/prodding him.

Now Pettus is delving deeper into live events. In what I believe is CCLaP's second official event, Pettus is renting out Stage 773 in Lakeview for a conversation with Nathan Rabin, head writer of AV Club. The event is next Monday night, and includes none other than Ben Tanzer as the opening act, reading a new movie-themed piece which, from what I've heard, is quite funny and likely worth the admission price all on its own. Should be a very interesting evening.

November 22, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Translating Lardner

Ring Lardner's "The Young Immigrunts" (1920) is a very funny parody, ostensibly written by his four-year-old son. In it, the youngster describes his long, arduous drive (in an open car, often through rainstorms) with his parents, from Indiana to their new home in Connecticut. Like most of Lardner's works, the piece is written in colloquial language - full of grammatical errors, misspellings and almost completely devoid of any commas or semicolons. I encourage you to read the original piece at the link above, but in case the colloquial is too daunting, I've taken the liberty of "translating" Chapter 5 ("My Father's Idear") into more standard and modern language. As the scene opens, the family is having breakfast at a hotel in Rochester, preparing for the drive to Syracuse.

My Father's Idea (Chapter 5 of "The Young Immigrunts")
by Ring Lardner

While participating in the lordly viands, my father hauled out his map and looked it up and down.

"Look here," he finally said. "There seems to be a choice of two main roads between here and Syracuse, but one of them goes way up north to Oswego while the other goes way south to Geneva, while Syracuse is straight east from here. So it looks to me that we would save both mileage and time if we would drive straight east through Lyons, the way the railroad goes."

"Well, I don't want to ride on the rails," said my mother with a loud cough.

"Well, you don't have to, because there seems to be a little road that goes straight through," replied my father as he removed a fly's cadaver from his costly farina.

"Well, you'd be better off sticking to the main roads," said my mother, tactlessly.

"Well, you'd be better off minding your own business," replied my father with a pungent glance.

Soon my father paid the check and gave the waiter a lordly bribe, and once more we sprang into the car and were on our way. The less said about my father's great idea, the better. In a word, it turned out to be a holocaust of the first order, as after we covered miles and miles of ribald roads, we suddenly came to an abrupt halt at the side of a stopped freight train that was stone-deaf to honking of the car horn. My father sat for nearly an hour reciting the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in an undertone, but finally my mother mustered up her courage and said, affectedly, "Why don't we turn around and go back?" I can't spell what my father replied.

Finally my father decided that Lyons would never come to Mahomet* if we sat out there all winter, so we backed up, turned around, retraced four miles of shell holes and finally reached our destination by way of Detour.

Pulling up in front of a garage, my father beckoned to a dirty mechanic.

"How do we get to Syracuse from here?" asked my father, blushing furiously.

"Go straight south to Geneva, then east to Syracuse," replied the dirty mechanic with a loud cough.

"Isn't there a short cut?" asked my father.

"Go straight south to Geneva, then east to Syracuse," replied the dirty mechanic.

"You see, daddy? We go to Geneva after all," I said, brokenly. Luckily for my piece of mind, my father doesn't believe in corporal punishment, especially in front of Lyons people.

Soon we were on a fine road, and nothing more happened until we pulled into Syracuse at seven that evening. As for the conversation that took place in the car between Lyons and Syracuse, you could put it in a telegram and send it for thirty cents.

(*I have no idea what this phrase means.)

November 18, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)


"The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons."
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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

Wallace Stevens, Working Stiff

It's Wallace Stevens Week over at Big Other, and I really enjoyed Amber Sparks' piece on the interplay between Stevens' poetry and his unusual (unusual for major poets, at least) day job - an insurance executive with Hartford.

When he was traveling extensively, checking people’s claims, he was able to see for himself the vast diverse geography, the shifting terrain and weather across the U.S. The weather, temperatures, the shape of the land, became crucial elements in his poetry, in expressing mood and theme, the search for the perfect and something in between. I would also argue that his lack of sentimentality about things like religion, heavenly pursuits --and his focus instead on people, what we do here and now and what kind of place we make for ourselves -– probably comes at least in part from his day to day interactions with people, his interest in the social fabric of society and how we keep it together.

Being a writer/working stiff myself, I admire his ability to juggle the two roles. Though I wonder if his bosses knew he dictated poems to his secretary for her to type up, on company time. I know my employer wouldn't be too pleased at such a prospect - not that we have dictation-and-typing secretaries anyway, of course.

November 15, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)


Mmmm...glögg. It's getting to be that time of year. My dad always used to say the best thing about glögg was that if you imbibed a few glasses, no matter how cold it was outside you could comfortably walk home without your coat on. My favorite nickname for the stuff is "Scandinavian antifreeze." If you're not lucky enough to be invited to my mom's place for Christmas this year - and her guest list is highly exclusive - Simon's will have to suffice.

November 15, 2010 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...a black bandage sewed around my left funny bone..."

Here's a great example of Ring Lardner's humor, from his 1921 novella The Big Town. The narrator is describing his father-in-law, a government contractor and war profiteer.

Well, the war wound up in the fall of 1918. The only member of my family that was killed in it was my wife's stepfather. He died of grief when it ended with him two hundred thousand dollars ahead. I immediately had a black bandage sewed round my left funny bone, but when they read us the will I felt all right again and tore it off. Our share was seventy-five thousand dollars. This was after we had paid for the inheritance tax and the amusement stamps on a horseless funeral.


"Just think," said my wife, "after all his financial troubles, papa died a rich man!"

"Yes," I said to myself, "and a patriot. His only regret was that he just had one year to sell leather to his country."

November 4, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

More from Concord Free Press


I just scored a copy of Rut by Scott Phillips, the latest edition from Concord Free Press. For the unitiated, CFP gives away its books for free, with two caveats - the recipient agrees to make a donation to a charitable institution, and to pass the book onto someone else under the same conditions. The idea is to both disseminate literature and encourage giving to worthy causes, and the press has helped generate over $160,000 in donations so far. I happened to read the first CFP book, Give + Take by Stona Fitch (founder of CFP and co-founder of beloved Boston band Scruffy the Cat), but missed out on the next several releases. But when I read the description of Phillips' book - basically, dystopian satire - I couldn't resist. It looks like there are still copies available, so head on over to the CFP site if you wish.

November 3, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Another six-word story of mine...

...is up at Six Word Stories.

November 3, 2010 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (1)


Do your civic duty and vote today, or else refrain from complaining about our political system for the next two years. Vote for the party and/or candidates of your choice, but vote. And if you're not sure which way to vote, use this general rule of thumb: as long as the Democratic candidate isn't under federal indictment, vote Democratic. Unless you're a corporate executive or Wall Street tycoon, the Democrat is the one looking out for your interests, not the Republican. And while the Republican Party was already dangerously out of touch in the 2008 elections, they've become even more extreme as they pander to their tiny but vocal Tea Party minority.

A few rebuttals to tired Republican talking points from this election cycle:

+ Obama's healthcare reform is NOT a government takeover of the healthcare system. Instead it works within the existing system of corporate insurers, instilling competition that has largely dissipated while the industry has consolidated into a handful of giant players, prohibiting insurers from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions and other technicalities, and offering more affordable policy coverage.

+ The progressive political cause espoused by Obama, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi is NOT about government infringing on personal freedoms. Instead it's about bringing corporations more under control - and since consumers have increasingly been unable to do so as several decades of deregulation has reduced industry competition, it's up to the government to do so.

+ The much-reviled Wall Street bailout not only saved the financial system and our economy as a whole, the government is actually turning a profit on its investment in Wall Street banks - and news reports out this week indicate the government will likely profit from its AIG bailout as well. The only portion of the bailout that will likely lose money is the rescue of General Motors and Chrysler, but I don't really remember there being widespread calls to just let the U.S. auto industry die.

+ Obama's stimulus plan saved several million jobs while also investing much-needed billions in our physical infrastructure and educational system.

+ The U.S. economy has now expanded for five consecutive quarters. While this expansion has not yet made a dent in unemployment, it's only a matter of time before continued economic growth encourages employers to start hiring again.

Keep all of that in mind when you're trying to decide whether our Democratic political leadership should be retained. I think it should.

November 2, 2010 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)