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"Finally he put the hand down."

I can't think of a better way to mark Memorial Day than reading another great WWII dispatch from Ernie Pyle. "This One is Captain Waskow" is brief but incredibly powerful. 
Finally he put the hand down. He reached up and gently straightened the points of the captain's shirt collar, and then he sort of rearranged the tattered edges of his uniform around the wound, and then he got up and walked away down the road in the moonlight, all alone.
Wow. Though I'm no war buff, I think I'll pick up that Pyle collection from Library of America soon. 

May 29, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Handicapping the Handicapped"

Just came across this gem: Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger's irreverent primer on the dubious crop of GOP presidential candidates. Here's their take on Herman Cain:
What's his problem?
He insists that as a black Republican, he's "Obama's worst nightmare." He's one of those annoying "run America like a business" douches who insists you can apply lessons learned from running a crappy pizza chain to being commander in chief of the armed forces. He's widely regarded as the best speaker in the field, though it's unclear if Republicans just say that because they're shocked a black guy can form complete sentences on conservative subjects.
Just in case you somehow needed a reason not to vote for any of these yahoos, read this. And laugh.

May 27, 2011 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

"...the difference between talking and not talking is slowly wiped out..."

Lovely passage here from Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses, during which the narrator Trond Sander hosts his neighbor Lars, trying to communicate while wrapped up in his own thoughts. Lars abruptly breaks a long silence.

"Of course, I was supposed to take over the farm."

"Which farm was that?" I ask, although there can only be one farm in question. But I was not quite with him in my thoughts, and I wonder whether that is how we get to be after living alone for a long time, that in the middle of a train of thought we start talking out loud, that the difference between talking and not talking is slowly wiped out, that the unending, inner conversation we carry on with ourselve merges with the one we have with the few people we still see, and when you live alone for too long the line which divides the one from the other becomes vague, and you do not notice when you cross that line. Is this how my future looks?

"The farm at home. In the village, of course."

May 23, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)



From BibliOdyssey, illustrations by the great Arthur Rackham for J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, from 1906. Full set of images here. Wow. Sugarcoated Walt Disney, it sure ain't.

May 22, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Dubious record reviews from Archive.org

Following on my lost stories discovery yesterday at Internet Archive, I made three more unexpected finds. During the late 1990s I wrote three record reviews for Green Mountain Music Review, a one-man shop operated by the mysterious J. Laramie. Sometime this century the site disappeared, and even the Google webpage cache brought nothing, and I feared the reviews were lost - I didn't even have a hard copy, having written them on an office computer from two employers ago. Have no fear, Internet Archive to the rescue:

The Outnumbered, Surveying the Damage
Various Artists, Suburbia (soundtrack)
Various Artists, The Lounge Ax Defense and Relocation Compact Disc

I had a lot of fun writing record reviews back in the day, and even toyed with launching my own music site (dubbed Hearing Voices, after the Galaxie 500 song), which I created a beta version of but never launched. Seeing the reviews is a pleasant glimpse back at the person I used to be. And still am, to some extent - after reading that review again, I might even burn some Suburbia tunes on to my iPod, where Outnumbered and Lounge Ax tunes already reside.

May 22, 2011 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)


One of the downsides to publishing online is that sometimes websites go defunct, without warning, and your work is lost. But not always lost forever, as I've pleasantly discovered. I first found the wonderful Internet Archive from its vast library of live music recordings, but only recently learned that it also archives old web pages. So here are two lost stories of mine that I rediscovered yesterday:

"Guaranteed", in Spillway Review: Spillway was a New Orleans-based journal that managed to survive Hurricane Katrina. In fact, I sent them "Guaranteed" before Katrina, but after the storm I just assumed the journal was no more. I was pleasantly surprised to hear from them months later, and the story was published in 2006. But the journal has since disappeared. Reading this early story, I now realize that my work had much more humor than now. Maybe I'm getting old and serious.

"Have a Pleasant Commute on Metra", from This Is Grand: Chicago literary impressario Jonathan Messinger (featherproof Books, The Dollar Store, etc.) once ran this site, which collected true stories from CTA trains and buses. Somehow I managed to convince him to take this brief Metra piece, one of my earliest publications which first appeared in 2004. I later sent in another Metra piece, "So Much On My Mind", but when the site went black soon after the piece was orphaned, and I published it here instead.

May 22, 2011 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

Kotlowitz and Maier

Two Chicago greats: Alex Kotlowitz on Vivian Maier. I love the suggestion that a pairing of Maier and Studs Terkel would have rivaled the celebrated James Agee and Walker Evans. I think Maier and Terkel might have even surpassed them - though Maier wasn't quite in Evans' league as a photographer, Terkel's subtlety and grace would have easily surpassed Agee, whose prose in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men I often found pretentious and unreadable.

May 19, 2011 in Books, Chicago Observations, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wheatyard: more unconscious influences

Several years ago I posted about unconscious literary influences - specifically, bits of Kent Haruf's Plainsong - that somehow snuck into my novel-in-progress, Wheatyard. The Haruf influences were relatively minor. But when I read Joe Pintauro's 1988 Algren essay just last week, I was floored by this passage that describes Algren's house in Sag Harbor:

Almost every inch of wall space was covered with heavy framed homemade collages consisting of old headlines, letters, clippings, and photos depicting the recent history of the world in terms of rape, war, sports, violence, literature, and art. Framed photographs, paintings, and documents hung from thick nails that bristled the walls. At the foot of the stairs was a huge blowup of the famous photograph of a Vietnamese girl, doused with napalm and running toward the camera screaming. Nearby, another blowup depicted a man from Bangladesh carrying his wife, who looked as if she had been beaten or raped. From the walls stared D. H. Lawrence, Marcel Proust, and Abraham Lincoln: "The family heirloom is that Lincoln — my grandmother saved that. It was from Lincoln's assassination. She was in New York at the time. Oh, I’ve got stuff don’t have room for," he said in all innocence. "I’ve got almost all the wall space used up that I can." Only the corner where he kept his desk and typewriter was spartan and clean.

The plastered-wall aspect of Algren's house is heavily echoed by Wheatyard's living room, which is similarly covered with magazine advertisements, studio photos of old movie actors, German Expressionist artworks and the like. But the strange thing is that until I read Pintauro's description of Algren's house last week, I had absolutely no recollection of it. I certainly hadn't read Pintauro's piece before.

The only place I could have possibly read that description was from Bettina Drew's autobiography of Algren, A Life On the Wild Side. I checked my copy, and discovered that Drew had indeed quoted from the Pintauro passage, though I hadn't remembered that at all. So while I hadn't read the biography since around 1998, I didn't write my own description of Wheatyard's living room until 2005 or 2006. And yet somehow Pintauro's description of Algren's house (via Drew) must have subconsciously stayed with me all that time, and finally resurfaced as I wrote about Wheatyard's own eccentric dwelling, years later. Odd how the mind works.

May 16, 2011 in Books, Wheatyard | Permalink | Comments (0)

Burying Nelson Algren

My hero Nelson Algren died thirty years ago, just this past week. Chicago Magazine has republished a very moving 1988 piece by Joe Pintauro that gives an enlightening glimpse at Algren's last years. Pintauro befriended Algren during his final days in Sag Harbor, Long Island, during which time Algren enjoyed a brief resurgance, reveling in attention after feeling ignored during the end of his time in Chicago. Pintauro even took care of most of Algren's funeral arrangements himself, including picking out a fitting gravesite. Pintauro, a novelist himself, really gets the essence of Algren and his writing:

Nelson consciously directed himself to identify with society’s outcasts. He became blood brother to the loser, the addict, the outcast, because in those characters the possibility of transcendence and glory was rare and delicious. And when they didn’t make it, he honored their losses with tenderness. Nelson may not have given us characters with whom we all can identify, but they were never empty vessels. To him both winners and losers were heroes. Winners because they had won, and losers because they had taken the risk. The wasted souls were the cowards, those who never had to make a gambler's choice, those born to privilege, those to whom it was given. That’s why he liked Goethe’s famous statement: “I have never heard of a crime of which I am not myself capable.”

Very nicely done.

(Via Mark Athitakis.)

May 15, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Quoting myself

"Heroes can't be emulated if you don't really know how they live."

There it is: the theme (motif?) of my next novel.

May 10, 2011 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

On poetry and dandelions

Right now I'm working my way through Brute Neighbors, an anthology of poetry and prose devoted to the intersection of the natural and urban (primarily Chicago) environments that was recently jointly published by DePaul Uninversity's Humanities Center, Poetry Institute and Institute for Nature & Cutlure. Interesting work throughout. I was particularly struck by this passage from Mike Puican's poem "The Day is 7:03 AM, the Smoking Smart Car":

Emptiness is primed with slate blues
                  and maroons,
          fierce wills of dandelions

that brighten cracks in the sidewalks.

Our lawn has been herbicide-free for the past three years, to avoid weedkiller getting anywhere near our vegetable garden, strawberry plants and blueberry bushes. Gradually, without herbicide the bluegrass is being overrun by heartier natives, particularly clover and dandelions. (Which makes me realize how artificial the typical suburban lawn is. Left on its own, the grass probably wouldn't have a chance.) But I still don't want the dandelions to spread, which means I have to pry each plant out by its roots with a long-stemmed weeding tool, a task which gets more difficult each year. I had my latest dandelion-prying mission yesterday, after which I can heartily attest to the accuracy of Puican's "fierce wills" observation. I pulled out one whose root was over a foot long - that one certainly had a fierce will to live. And the ones whose roots snapped off will undoubtedly return.

Given that dandelions are usually considered an unsightly nuisance, I also like his idea that they can "brighten cracks in the sidewalks." Set against a drab gray sidewalk, I suppose the vivid yellow can indeed be a lively positive, even though I don't appreciate the sight of them in my lawn. All a matter of context, I guess.

May 9, 2011 in Books, Personal | Permalink | Comments (3)

Arrowsmith or Aerosmith?

Fun quiz at The Daily Beast, with paired quotes from two of our greatest writers...Sinclair Lewis and, um, Steven Tyler. 
5. a. “Martin went home engaged to two girls at once.”
b. “So many nights I went to sleep dreaming that two gorgeous, nasty twins were going to knock on my door, cover me in rose petals, and perform an after-midnight rectal examination.”
Okay, make that ONE of our greatest writers. 

May 8, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Boy's gotta have it.


Over five tons of scrap aluminum - specifically, used Chicago street signs. Current bid is only $222. Father's Day beckons.

May 6, 2011 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (3)

Breaching the levee, then and now

Given the big international news events of the past week (Osama bin Laden, the royal wedding), the story of the demolition of a Mississippi River levee in Missouri to ease severe flooding has gotten remarkably high exposure. At the University of Illinois Press blog, historian Jarod Roll (Spirit of Rebellion: Labor and Religion in the New Cotton South) writes an excellent piece on the last time that the Bird's Point-New Madrid Spillway was intentionally breached, in 1937. Back then, the action spurred not only the creation of federal public housing for the displaced, but also government-provided health care.

Although impossible to predict, the effects of the 2011 flood will probably not be as dramatic as those that followed the inundation of 1937. It would be difficult to imagine renewed protests for federal housing projects, especially in a section of Missouri that once routinely voted Democratic, but is now a Republican stronghold. It is perhaps even more difficult to imagine protestors using the flood to not only call for but actually receive a government health service.

Times have definitely changed, and not necessarily for the better.

May 4, 2011 in Current Affairs, History | Permalink | Comments (2)

Known in song and story

I'm really liking this:

Joy J. Henry is writing a series of connected short stories to accompany songs by The Mountain Goats.

First up is "Quetzalcoatl Eats Plums", and not only can you read the story, but also listen to the song. Mountain Goats songs are already so literary to begin with that I'm surprised nobody has done this before. Looking forward to many more - how about "Going to Queens" or "Warm Lonely Planet"?

May 3, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Abbottabad, the poem

For the same reason that I once avidly watched such cringeworthy TV fare as The A-Team, The Tim Conway Show and Quincy, I can't help but appreciate the sheer awfulness of the poem "Abbottabad". Stephen Moss at The Guardian has background on the "poet" (an overly generous term, to be sure), General Sir James Abbott. Abbott makes "Bullwinkle's Corner" sound lyrical and profound in comparison.

May 3, 2011 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)