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About that U.S. Postal Service crisis...

As it turns out, one of the biggest factors that's driving the USPS into insolvency is not its obsolesence and inefficiency, but instead a 2006 federal law that requires retiree health benefits to be prefunded for the next 75 years over a very short ten-year timespan. That's right - the USPS is required to pay for the healthcare of employees it hasn't even hired yet, including those who haven't even been born yet. By Ralph Nader's calculation, without this ridiculously boneheaded law, the USPS would actually have a $1.5 billion surplus today.

I'm sure the law's original sponsors tried to justify this by claiming it was intended to keep the USPS viable, but in doing so they have ensured the service's imminent bankruptcy. The cynic in me can't help wondering whether the Republican-controlled Congress and Bush White House of 2006 pushed this through at the behest of FedEx and United Parcel Service.

So get to work, Congress: either ease the restrictions of this law right now, or abolish it entirely. If you have any common sense at all, that is, of which I'm far from certain.

September 28, 2011 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...it isn’t so much a city as it is a vasty way station..."

Perhaps the most frequently quoted passage in Nelson Algren's Chicago: City on the Make is this one:

Yet once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.

Certainly a memorable quote. Yet it is immediately preceded by this:

You can live your whole life out somewhere between Goose Island and Bronzeville without once feeling that, the week after you move, the neighbors are going to miss your place. For it isn’t so much a city as it is a vasty way station where three and a half million bipeds swarm with the single cry, "One side or a leg off, I’m gettin’ mine!" It’s every man for himself in this hired air.

That attitude - of the disconnected and indifferent nature of city residents - has been with me throughout the writing of my current story collection, Marshland. Most of my characters are loners, and though I greatly admire unified story cycles like Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, I didn't even try for such a thing with my book. Each story is set in a different Chicago neighborhood, from West Pullman to Rogers Park, Garfield Ridge to Austin to Dunning, and the characters in each story don't cross paths with characters in any other story, with very few of them even setting foot outside of their immediate neighborhood. And even within those tight confines, few have neighbors who will miss their place the week after they move.

September 27, 2011 in Books, Fiction, Marshland | Permalink | Comments (2)

Cain Lost, Found


Duane Swierczynski and Charles Ardai have an interesting discussion of Ardai's quest for and discovery of James M. Cain's "lost" novel, The Cocktail Waitress, which is being published by Hard Case Crime next year. (What I wouldn't give for something similar, with my hero Algren.) I particularly like Ardai's description of Cain's typescript, which concludes thusly:

One spot of whimsy: When he got to the last page of the novel, he had a lot of blank space left after typing the last line, and he filled it up by typing “T H E E N D” vertically on a slant. You can almost feel the man’s relief and joy at having made it to the end. He knew he was getting on in years and according to his biographer would talk about his own death a lot; he wasn’t sure he still had it in him to write a novel. But man, did he ever.

And I love that photo that Duane used, by J.R. Eyerman. Julie and I are very fond of Midcentury Modern design, and finally started watching Mad Men for the first time. I can totally picture Don Draper drinking in a bar like that - and probably picking up a waitress.

September 25, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Southern boys just like you and me

By now the word has gotten around that R.E.M. is breaking up, after 31 long and mostly fruitful years together. I'll readily admit that the band hasn't been a constant in my life, as my tastes and theirs have shifted here and there, and that they haven't made an album that's meant much to me since Automatic for the People, which came out in 1992. Still, they were a big part of my college years, though only intermittently since then. But I'm still staggered by the shimmering brilliance of the first three albums (Chronic Town, Murmur and Reckoning), and if no album of theirs has totally floored me after that, each had several songs that lodged in my brain and wouldn't budge, even now. I'm very glad that the band is going out on its own terms, and has the good sense to realize that it's the right time. I'll be forever grateful to them, and many of their songs, from "You Are the Everything" to "Gardening at Night" to "King of Birds" to "Perfect Circle", will always be with me.

So farewell, gentlemen. Rest, reflect, and take your time figuring out what comes next. Because there will certainly be a next for each of you, if not all together. But meanwhile, stroll through your garden, smell the roses, and count every one of those hundred million birds.

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

"You Look at Me Like You've Never Seen a Neo-Hipster Before"

I don't read McSweeney's much, but this piece by Jacob Pacey gave me a good laugh. Ford Focus, Linkin Park, Target, low-risk mutual funds...all ironically, of course.

September 21, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Volt Early, Volt Often

This morning I finally started reading Alan Heathcock's story collection Volt, which I've been eagerly anticipating while slowly (s-l-o-w-l-y) making my way through the ponderous Great Expectations and Jude the Obscure during my just-completed Summer of Classics. And Heathcock's first story hit me in an unexpected way, as I relate in this post at the Contrary Magazine blog.

September 19, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...a kind of lonely misery sort of thing..."

Maryilynne Robinson, in conversation with Cornelia Dixon in The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers:

Frankly, the book (Gilead) became possible because it suddenly seemed to me as if I knew that man (the narrator, John Ames), and it was a pleasure to write from that point of view, because writing a book is normally a kind of lonely misery sort of thing. But I would feel even after I've had a difficult day, I can go home and be with this old man.

Robinson's conversation didn't do much for me, as it delved only little into writing, and mostly about sociology and feminism, both of which I can read about elsewhere. But I did enjoy the idea of not only living with a fictional character you've created, but actually looking forward to going home to him at the end of a long day.

September 18, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Um, Graywolf...

Nowhere_man_pb Birkerts

...I love your books and everything, but couldn't you have spread the illustration work around a little bit? I'm sure there are plenty of starving illustrators out there who would love to hear from you. And besides, I didn't comprehend the image when it was used for Hemon's book, and no more so now with Birkerts. (No bonus points for inverting the image, either.)

September 16, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"I did myself irreparable damage."

Okay, so maybe I don't admire Richard Phillotson as much as I previously thought. In Part 6, Chapter 5 of Jude the Obscure, Sue has decided to abandon Jude and re-marry Phillotson. This comes despite the fact that Sue doesn't love Phillotson (and is even physically repulsed by him) and despite her long opposition to the legal/religious institution of marriage. Though Jude is clearly her soulmate, she inexplicably feels obligated to Phillotson even though they are legally divorced. Just before the wedding, Phillotson is talking to his friend Gillingham:

Gillingham had evidently been impressed with the indefinable charm of Sue, and after a silence he said, "Well: you've all but got her again at last. She can't very well go a second time. The pear has dropped into your hand."

"Yes! ... I suppose I am right in taking her at her word. I confess there seems a touch of selfishness in it. Apart from her being what she is, of course, a luxury for a fogy like me, it will set me right in the eyes of the clergy and orthodox laity, who have never forgiven me for letting her go. So I may get back in some degree into my old track."

"Well -- if you've got any sound reason for marrying her again, do it now in God's name! I was always against your opening the cage-door and letting the bird go in such an obviously suicidal way. You might have been a school inspector by this time, or a reverend, if you hadn't been so weak about her."

"I did myself irreparable damage -- I know it."

So even though Phillotson knows she will never love him, he's taking her back, partly to have a pretty face around the house but more importantly to restore his social standing and professional career. Maybe he did himself "irreparable damage" in letting her go, but he has no problem with re-marrying her and doing irreparable damage to the rest of her life. Pretty reprehensible. I previously thought he was noble in letting her leave him, but not now.

September 14, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Call me Even Steven

Yesterday I stopped by the Borders on State Street, hoping to score a last-chance bargain or two. What a sad sight. The top two floors were closed off, and even with all the remaining inventory consolidated into the ground floor the shelves looked barren and almost completely picked over. Even at 90% off I couldn't find anything I wanted to buy. So, no new books from there.

But that was all a moot point, because when I got home from work, Mel Bosworth's Freight had arrived in the mail after I had ordered it last week. It's second in my queue (after Alan Heathcock's Volt) after I finally finish Jude the Obscure. After reading nothing but long, ponderous, 19th Century novels since June (Great Expectations was the other), I'm very eager to dive back into lean, modern fiction again.

(Farewell, Borders. Yesterday will be my last visit ever.)

September 13, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Oh yes, oh yes


I think my birthday gift just arrived. Gorgeous.

(Via Coudal.)

September 12, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Books for Binghamton

Binghamton Father

Great friend, great writer, great cause: Ben Tanzer is donating the revenue of the next ten copies sold of his new novella, My Father's House, to his childhood elementary school in Binghamton, New York, which was heavily damaged by recent flooding. He will also be personally matching that donation dollar for dollar, with a personal donation of his own.

Of course the new book is high on my list. But as I've already told Ben, I expect the subject matter will hit uncomfortably and emotionally close to me, and I'll need some time for the courage to read it. And he graciously said he's fine with that. But read it I will, and will undoubtedly be rewarded. Eventually.

September 12, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Intolerance, Back of the Yards


During the past two weeks The Reader ran an excellent piece by Steve Bogira called "The Price of Intolerance" (part one, part two) about a senseless and yet not unexpected tragedy that occurred in Chicago's Back of the Yards neighborhood in 1971, and has echoed through the decades ever since. And here's one difference between journalism and fiction - fiction would have put a much rosier gloss on Sam Navarro's feelings at the conclusion.

(Photo of Sam Navarro by Jeffrey Martini, for The Reader)

September 12, 2011 in Chicago Observations, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...you're not exactly from the place you were from..."

In The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, Joan Didion talks to Dave Eggers about writing her California memoir, Where I Was From:

"...I don't think I could have written it before my parents died. I don't mean that we would have had a fight about it - we wouldn't have had a fight about it at all. But I just couldn't have done it, because it was not their idea. That's one thing. The other thing is that the death of my parents started me thinking more about what my relationship to California was. Because it kind of threw it up for grabs. You know, when your parents die, you're not exactly from the place you were from. I don't know, it's just an odd - it's an odd thing."

I've felt much the same way about my hometown ever since my dad passed away, and my mom sold the family house and moved to a retirement home in another town. I just don't feel the same connection to the old place now that I don't have any family there. Though Didion saw that distance as liberating her to write, I haven't felt any urge to write about my hometown. Maybe I still need a few more years away.

September 11, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Michael Hart

I was saddened today to learn of the early passing of Michael Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg. He was truly a visionary, and a champion of literacy and enlightenment. He will be greatly missed. We need many more people like him.

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

"Everywhere there are new developments, new indignities..."

I rag on Writers Almanac a lot, partly because it's the pet project of the increasingly unbearable Garrison Keillor but mostly because it's steadily becoming more about historical events and less about literature. But every now and then the Almanac really nails it. Today being one of those days - first the Edith Sitwell bit, and then this fantastic opener to Malcolm Bradbury's 1975 novel The History Man:

Now it is the autumn again; the people are all coming back. The recess of summer is over, when holidays are taken, newspapers shrink, history itself seems momentarily to falter and stop. But the papers are thickening and filling again; things seem to be happening; back from Corfu and Sete, Positano and Leningrad, the people are parking their cars and campers in their drives, and opening their diaries, and calling up other people on the telephone. The deckchairs on the beach have been put away, and a weak sun shines on the promenade; there is fresh fighting in Vietnam, while McGovern campaigns ineffectually against Nixon. In the chemists' shops in town, they have removed the sunglasses and the insect-bite lotions, for the summer visitors have left, and have stocked up on sleeping tables and Librium, the staples of the year-round trade; there is direct rule in Ulster, and a gun-battle has taken place in the Falls Road. The new autumn colors are in the boutiques; there is now on the market a fresh intra-uterine device, reckoned to be ninety-nine per cent safe. Everywhere there are new developments, new indignities; the intelligent people survey the autumn world, and liberal and radical hackles rise, and fresh faces are about, and the sun shines fitfully, and the telephones ring. So, sensing the climate, some people called the Kirks, a well-known couple, decide to have a party.

If you like opening paragraphs that vividly set the time and place of a story, you can't do much better than that one.

September 7, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"I am not an eccentric. It's just that I am more alive than most people. I am an unpopular electric eel in a pool of catfish." - Edith Sitwell, born on this day in 1887

Writers Almanac passes along this wonderful report on the first London performance of her Facade.

Sitwell's best-known work is Facade, a series of poems that she set to music — each poem was meant to be read in a specific rhythm. The composer William Walton wrote the music and conducted a live orchestra during the performance. All the audience could see was a curtain painted like a huge face, with a hole in the center for a mouth. Sitwell sat behind the hole, reciting her words through a megaphone. Apparently the first London performance of Facade went so badly that an old woman in the audience waited outside the curtain afterward to hit Sitwell with an umbrella...

Now that's what I call honest criticism.

September 7, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...to fail and find your voice..."

Chris Abani, in conversation with Tayari Jones in The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers:

Because I have been censored in my life and I am very leery of censoring anybody, I am very suspicious of this hierarchical rendering of experience - of whose experience is more fascinating than someone else's. I just think that people are not pushed to go to the places where their stories are, so they just write generic stuff. What professors want, what publishers are looking for, what agents are looking for...

After some praise for Percival Everett, he continues.

But I do think that writers here need to be pushed to find their own raw edges. I think the problem of the M.F.A. is that it smooths things over too much. I that the pressure on a first novelist in America is too much. In Europe you are given your first two novels to fail and find your voice and by your third book, you are ready to stand. But here in America if you don't come out with this amazing masterpiece as your first novel, then that's it. You're done. It just seems so ridiculous to me. Writing is about growing.

Interesting commentary, especially given that Abani himself is a professor of creative writing, at Cal-Riverside. I wonder if his students are inherently less "generic" than the norm.

September 4, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Over at Contrary

I have a new post up at the Contrary Magazine blog, about a single phrase from Jude the Obscure. Call me obsessive, but I really think there's something behind that phrase.

September 2, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)