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Happy Halloween!

I'll be spending my evening at home, stealing Maddie's candy and (I hope) creeping myself out with a reading of Poe's "The Premature Burial". I first read the story in college, right before bed, and was so creeped out that I couldn't get to sleep for hours. It will be interesting to see if it has anywhere near the same impact today, more than 25 years later.

October 31, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Maeshe's Cafe Menu"

Library of America is publishing a new anthology, Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns, which has me intrigued. Though I admire LoA's mission, I'm not enough of a completist to want to own or read the entire works of a single author - I haven't even read everything Nelson Algren ever wrote, and the only LoA title I have is James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy, which I've owned for years but have still read only the first book. But this new anthology is promising in that it seems to collect so many priceless pieces that would be difficult or even impossible to find elsewhere, which might be just enough for me to pick it up.

Thinking of newspaper columnists inevitably brings me back to Mike Royko, one of my biggest writer heroes. Here's a passage from "Maeshe's Cafe Menu", his 1977 tribute to a recently deceased Chicago restaurateur:

Maeshe, who passed on last week in the trunk of his car, used to run a restaurant called the H&H, on LaSalle Street, a couple of blocks north of City Hall.

Maeshe didn't go in for fancy decorations. His tables were in understated Formica. The only colors in the place were the varicose veins on the legs of his harried waitresses.

The cuisine was acceptable, if you fancy corned beef on rye, pickles, a bowl of borscht, and potato pancakes.

What made it popular was the atmosphere and the magnetic personality of Maeshe.

The distinctive atmosphere was provided by the lunchtime clientle, which included lawyers, judges, traffic court fixers, bondsmen, bailiffs, bagmen, aldermen and other Loop wildlife. Nobody ever talked above a whisper, for fear of being overheard and indicted. Many of the customers seemed to communicate solely by winking, nodding, and passing unmarked envelopes.

One day a waitress reached to pick up what she thought was a remarkably large tip. A judge gave her a karate chop on the wrist.

That wry phrase "...who passed on last week in the trunk of his car..." just kills me every time I remember it. "Maeshe's Cafe Menu" was included in Royko's long out-of-print Sez Who? Sez Me, but sadly not in either of his more recent University of Chicago Press anthologies.

October 30, 2011 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Halloween Parade"

Yesterday I finished the second draft of my new story collection, Where Once the Marshland Came to Flower. Though the title is a nod to a line to Nelson Algren's Chicago: City on the Make (each story is set in a different Chicago neighborhood), the impetus to my collection was a single line ("and some crack team from Washington Heights") from Lou Reed's "Halloween Parade." That line came to mind one morning five years ago as my train approached the Washington Heights station on Chicago's South Side, and as it stuck with me I began to imagine a collection of Chicago stories, with each inspired by a song from Reed's New York album. The book would never have existed without Lou, and particularly that great album, and even more particularly that memorable song. So in Lou's honor, here's the song:

Lou Reed, "Halloween Parade"

October 30, 2011 in Fiction, Marshland, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Serious fans

Pittsburgh

Love this image of University of Pittsburgh students watching the 1960 World Series from high above Forbes Field, apparently atop the Cathedral of Learning. Several of the guys even appear to be wearing suits and ties. Truly a lost era.

(Via Big Other.)

October 28, 2011 in Photography, Sports | Permalink | Comments (0)

Ha!

Pencil

My retro/throwback/old-school/geezer self loves this. I have two of these computers in my messenger bag, and use them daily.

(Via The Week Behind.)

October 27, 2011 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...where two strangers can meet on terms of absolute intimacy..."

In The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, Jonathan Lethem talks to Paul Auster about the future of books:

Lethem: The sweet irony is that so much of the online world takes a written form. What was meant to be a post-literate or visually literate culture is now obsessed with epistolary exchange. Letters. Or diaries.

Auster: Exactly. That gets back to the question of fiction. Over the generations, countless people have predicted the death of the novel. Yet I believe that written stories will continue to survive because they answer an essential human need. I think movies might disappear before the novel disappears, because the novel is really one of the only places in the world where two strangers can meet on terms of absolute intimacy. The reader and the writer make the book together. You as a reader enter the consciousness of another person, and in doing so, I think you discover something about your own humanity, and it makes you feel more alive.

Their conversation took place around 2003 or 2004, during the early days of blogging, so Lethem's comment is no longer quite so accurate now, with online video having become much more pervasive. But his point is still valid. And I totally agree with Auster about writer-reader intimacy - during just the past few months I've felt a genuine connection with several deceased writers, including Thomas Hardy and Bohumil Hrabal. With movies being much more of a collaborative art form, the filmmaker-viewer relationship isn't nearly as direct - yet with as much money as Hollywood makes from them, I doubt that movies will be going away any time soon.

October 26, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Buffed to a pale silver nub

In the NYT, reviewer Randy Boyagoda passes along some rather egregious prose from Charles Frazier's new novel, Nightwoods:

It’s too bad the writing gets in the way of the storytelling — or, to be truer to Frazier, it’s plangently unfortunate the writing style gets all up and troublesome-like in the whisper-leaved way of the true and fine telling of this terrible and valiant tale of priapic violence and distaff recompense. A little girl doesn’t hurt her nose, she "pierced the wing of her nostril." Bottles don’t spill or break, they are left "shattering with spewing concussion" and falling "in festive breakage." Furniture doesn’t just age with time and use, but instead is "buffed to a pale silver nub by many decades of buttocks."

Egad. Frazier's bestseller Cold Mountain has been on my shelf for several years now, after I picked it up for free at a book recycling. Though I'm intrigued by the book's storyline and have been meaning to read it, now that I've seen Frazier's prose style, I think I'll pass. If I read the book, I might go blind from all the eye-rolling that would ensue, and possibly also injure a fellow commuter on my train when I fling the book away in disgust.

October 25, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (4)

"...the kind of book I wanted to write and hadn't yet written..."

I just started reading Conversations with Isaac Bashevis Singer (by Singer and Richard Burgin) and love this passage about an imaginary book:

As a young man I had a dream that kept on repeating itself. I went somewhere, to a library or to a Jewish study house, and there I found an old book, which was both my book and somebody else's, written in very small letters, and I read it and it was full of wonderful stories. And while I read it I thought about taking it home, borrowing the book from the library. Sometimes I did take it home and I always felt that this was the kind of book I wanted to write and hadn't yet written. Sometimes I still see the book in my dreams, and the stories in it are queer and wondrous. Sometimes I still hope to both find this book and write it.

Imaginary, and yet to Singer it was palpably real. Fascinating bit of inspiration for the writer.

October 24, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

New, at Contrary

My latest column - on my observations and presumptions of a single suburban street - is now up at Contrary.

October 23, 2011 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (1)

Bohumil Hrabal, Too Loud a Solitude

Goodness, what a phenomenal little book this is. Powerful with so few words. Thoughtful, philosophical, touching, funny, and ultimately tragic. But though tragic, the conclusion makes perfect sense in light of the preceding narrative, and the narrator gains a fate which is greatly preferable to the unpalatable alternative that he otherwise faced.

Hanta is a common laborer in Prague during the Soviet era, whose entire adult life has been spent compacting wastepaper into bales to be shipped to the paper mill for pulping and reuse. He avoids monotony by rescuing rare books from the compactor, reading them one line at a time as he works. (As he states on the first page, "Because when I read, I don't really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol...") He also takes books home, where they are crammed onto precarious shelves in his tiny apartment. Those books that he doesn't rescue are placed inside the wastepaper bales, opened to pertinent passages, as some sort of lasting tribute to the written word (though of course the tribute will be destroyed when the bales are pulped). As Hanta absorbs the thoughts of the great philosophers, he becomes increasingly convinced of his own greatness despite the obviously decrepit conditions of his workplace and apartment. Yet he seems destined to indefinitely continuing his daily grind - filthy work attended by lofty thoughts - until he visits a modern compacting plant which both awes and terrifies him with its implication for his future. His tragic fate - again, perfectly fitting and even welcomed - is his quietly defiant statement about the world of ideas and the independence of the individual.

The book has shades of Knut Hamsun (the solitary, intellectual, reality-challenged narrator of Hunger), George Orwell (the stubborn permanence of the written word, a la 1984) and Franz Kafka (inhuman bureaucracies and the overall surreal tone), three writers whom I greatly admire, a list to which I now add Bohumil Hrabal. During my life I've only re-read a handful of books, but Too Loud a Solitude is one I will definitely be returning to, and probably more than once.

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

Hilton Head, Day 9

Indiana

Mud

Day 9: Berea, KY to Joliet
Not much to say about Kentucky, expect that even if Google Maps tells you there's a Starbucks on the north end of Richmond, you shouldn't necessarily believe it, and you definitely shouldn't bypass the Starbucks that you saw earlier, right next to the expressway. Our unexpected and unnecessary detour ended with us getting back on the expressway without stopping, and finally grabbing coffee in Lexington. Oh, and also that Kentucky handles ramp closures better than they do in North Carolina. Unlike our Asheville misadventure, the detour signs in Louisville easily got us onto I-65, over the bridge and into Indiana.

After all of the thrilling mountains, curvy roads and ramp closures of the southern end of our drive, it was almost comforting to get back to the flat, predictable terrain of the Midwest; that's a typical Indiana view in the first photo. And definitely comforting to finally get back home, where our lonely cats were thrilled to see us. (Julie's family did check in on them daily while we were away, so the cats weren't neglected.) That second photo is Mud sitting on my lap, where she hopped up within seconds of me plunking down on the couch - and she didn't seem to stop purring for about two or three days. We felt likewise. Great trip, but great to be home.

October 19, 2011 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

Hilton Head, Day 8

Perk

Cherokee

Day 8: Hilton Head to Berea, KY
Saturday was the first leg of our long drive home. We packed up the car and drove off the island. Though we do enjoy Java Joe's in Hilton Head for our daily espresso, it's mostly for the convenience (a two block walk from the condo) and not necessarily the taste, which is actually nothing out of the ordinary. So before we left I looked up coffeehouses in the broader vicinity, and saw a listing for Corner Perk in Bluffton, the first town on the mainland. What a terrific little place - cozy (actually, like Java Joe's was at their former location), very good espresso, friendly and helpful staff. And we picked up a bag of locally-roasted coffee beans to take back home. Highly recommended.

I-40 between Asheville and Knoxville is the most spectacular stretch of interstate highway I've ever experienced. It rams right through the Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests (on the North Carolina-Tennessee border) and is filled with twisting, anxiety-inducing curves, sheer rock walls (many sheathed in steel mesh to keep falling boulders off the road) on either side, and soaring, tree-covered mountains that were just turning to fall colors as we passed through. It's actually a fairly short stretch of road (maybe 20 miles) that feels much longer with the white knuckles it often brings on. After that we stopped for dinner in Knoxville before continuing north to Berea, Kentucky, for a much-needed overnight stay.

October 18, 2011 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

Hilton Head, Day 7

Sandstorm

Ladies

Day 7
By Friday, things were definitely winding down. Though eager to squeeze in a few last-minute things, we were also bracing for the long drive ahead, and longing to be home. We enjoyed a round of mini golf (Maddie's first) and went back to the beach for one last stroll. But the weather had started to turn, and a stiff wind from the east whipped down the beach. That first photo is of the mini-sandstorm we walked directly into (I was still scrubbing sand off my shins the next day) and we soon turned to head back. One more walk toward the setting sun, and a lovely shot of Julie and Maddie standing in the surf. (The sight of those surging waves naturally prompted the quoting of "The sea was angry that day, my friend...like an old man returning soup at a deli", from Seinfeld.)

The changing weather - the forecast for the following week was rainy and colder - confirmed that it was time to go home. 

October 18, 2011 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (2)

Hilton Head, Day 6

Ritas

Acorn

Day 6
With both Julie and Maddie being diagnosed with Celiac disease during the past year, eating at Hilton Head was much different this time. The area has a ton of great restaurants, and in past years we ate dinner out every night, as well as bakery goods every day. Now that we're gluten-free, we had to make most of our meals at the condo, as most restaurants are only slowly catching onto the need for gluten-free menus. But with Thursday being one of our last days at Hilton Head, we decided to live it up. Lunch consisted primarily of Italian ices from Rita's (the first photo is the Anderson ladies waiting for their order), followed by a very nice dinner at Bonefish Grill which had an extensive GF menu, including dessert. Lovely.

That second photo is of an acorn that we found in the condo complex's playground, which we visited several times for Maddie to let off some steam. Not sure what kind of tree the acorn was from, but its gorgeous jet-black color made it impossible not to bring home.

October 16, 2011 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Hilton Head, Day 5

Kite

Sunset2

Day 5
On Wednesday, Maddie was gung-ho to fly a kite on the beach, which surprised me since we've only kited once at home and she's never really prodded me to do it again. So we stopped at a kite shop near the condo, bought a kid-friendly (easy to fly) kite, and headed to the beach. In no time she had it aloft, despite the winds being light. A very pleasant experience, and much more successful than when we tried at home.

As for the second photo, I often lag behind when we walk the beach at sunset, hoping to catch quietly beautiful moments like this one.

October 15, 2011 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

Hilton Head, Day 4

Crab

Sunset

Day 4
At Hilton Head we walked the beach at least once a day, and always at sunset. We were constantly on the lookout for shells (and, in Julie's case, shark teeth - unsuccessfully). The shells we found were small (few were wider than a nickel) which made us quite excited to come across the hand-sized conch shell shown above. A shell this big would normally have been quickly grabbed earlier by some other beachcomber, but when we were there it was close to sunset with few other people around, and the high tide was receding, so the shell hasn't been exposed for long. We eagerly picked it up and brought it back to our condo.

When we got back, Maddie shook the shell several times and, hearing a rattling sound, insisted there was a critter (likely dead) inside. Julie and I scoffed at the idea, and Julie held the shell under the streaming faucet to rinse out the sand. Imagine our shock, then, to see claws suddenly emerge! Julie screamed and dropped the shell, and a hermit crab came halfway out before disappearing back inside. After a brief outburst of yells and screams all around, we calmed down again and decided that we obviously couldn't keep the crab, and had to return it to the ocean. Maddie and I walked back to the beach in almost total darkness, and she tossed the shell (with crab still inside) as far as she could into the surf. That done, we lingered to enjoy the sight of the very last traces of sunset, as shown in the second photograph above.

As we walked back, I said it was too bad that we couldn't keep such a great shell. Maddie replied that keeping the shell wasn't nearly as important as saving the crab and returning it to its home. Great kid, huh?

October 14, 2011 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

Hilton Head, Day 3

Courtyard

Day 3
Our first full day in Hilton Head had us renewing old acquaintances, and discovering but also saying goodbye. The local coffeehouse, Java Joe's, is still thriving, and once again became my daily morning stop as I fetched espresso for Julie and myself, and brought it back to the condo for a lazy morning. But sadly, the natural food store Healthy Days closed earlier this year after thirty years in business. We first found the store on last year's trip, just after Maddie was diagnosed with Celiac disease, and the owner there was wonderfully helpful in recommending gluten-free foods. Fortunately, we were comforted at dinner time to find that Mellow Mushroom, the Southeast-based pizza chain, offered gluten-free pizza. We ordered carryout, and were delighted to discover the best GF pizza we've had yet. We only wish they had stores near our home.

On the discovery front, we stumbled across The Courtyard, a combination used bookstore/yarn shop tucked away in the back of a retail center. We look for used bookstores everywhere we go but didn't think Hilton Head had any, which made this quite a pleasant surprise. And Julie's an avid knitter, which made our visit even more appealing; she's been to plenty of bookstores and yarn shops, but can't remember ever seeing a combination of the two. It's a warm, inviting place with plenty of chairs for relaxing and browsing. The photo is of the store's rare book corner (all rare, apparently, other than that bottom shelf with the $2 and $3 signs). I was particularly intrigued by an old first edition of a short story collection by the playwright Thornton Wilder, though when I saw the $130 price tag I gently put it back on the shelf. Between the three of us, we picked up six books for a ridiculously cheap nine bucks, with my own haul being Peter Orner's Esther Stories and J.P. Donleavy's The Ginger Man, both of which I had already wanted to read. The Courtyard will definitely be a regular stop on all future trips.

October 13, 2011 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

Gong!

I just received rejection number three for Wheatyard. I really had high hopes for this one. The publisher is an up-and-coming indie outfit that really seems like it has its act together, and they liked the first two chapters I sent last spring well enough that they recently requested the entire manuscript. (For a writer, I suppose that's like getting a second interview from a prospective employer.) Unfortunately, though they said they admired my writing and had many nice things to say about the book, it just didn't quite work for them.

One specific issue they mentioned was a supposed lack of impetus for the narrator's fascination with the protagonist; though other readers have also made this point, I thought the impetus was fairly clear, and if I said it any more explicitly I might as well beat the reader over the head with it. Since I feel like I need to keep moving ahead with my writing and working new material, I'm hesitant to dive back into the manuscript for yet another revision, so for now I'm keeping it as-is. If some publisher likes the book well enough to give a tentative acceptance that's contingent on resolving the impetus issue, then I'll do more revisions.

This rejection was a real disappointment, but I'm not despairing - in fact, I've already submitted it to another well-regarded publisher. Onward.

October 12, 2011 in Fiction, Wheatyard | Permalink | Comments (1)

Hilton Head, Day 2

Sage

Day 2: Knoxville, TN to Hilton Head
After driving I-40 through the spectacular Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests (more on that later), a deliberate detour into Asheville, NC brought us to Green Sage Coffeehouse (shown above) for espresso. We discovered Green Sage on last year's drive to Hilton Head, and it's become one of our must-stops along the route. This photo was taken on our way out of town, shortly before a ramp closure lead to a rousing game of Lost in Asheville. Our matrimonial bond was somewhat strained [1] before we finally decided to take the interstate loop all the way around town, which despite being the long way at least got us back on track.

Then a long drive across geographically featureless South Carolina brought us at last to Hilton Head. (True, most of Illinois is flat as a board, but at least there you can see the terrain for miles and miles. In South Carolina the interstates are thickly walled in with trees, and you can hardly see anything.) Our first walk along the beach brought the unexpected and totally delightful sight of dolphins leaping offshore, over and over (though, sadly, too far out to get any good photos with our iPhones). Earlier, we stopped at the Piggly Wiggly right across the street from our condo for provisions. I took a long look at the beer aisle and was tempted by several New Belgium varieties before realizing how little sense it made to drink Colorado beer in South Carolina. So instead I went local and opted for Palmetto Brewing Pale Ale, from Charleston. Though far from earth-shattering, it was a good basic ale that I enjoyed for the rest of the week.

[1] Julie's comment (below) reminds me that I failed to mention the best part of our Asheville misadventure: once we were back on the right road, she turned to me and said, "See? THIS is exactly why we're never going on The Amazing Race." We both had a good laugh, and were friends once again.

October 12, 2011 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Lines For Autumn"

The trees surrender
For another year
Reds oranges golds browns
Wither in resignation
When the winds come up
Leaves shimmer down like sleet
Crackle and pelt the ground
Later to soften with the rain
Bedding for next year's growth.

October 11, 2011 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

Hilton Head

Cross

Julie, Maddie and I just got home from a week's vacation at Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. Since I don't like to broadcast the fact that we're out of town (might as well run a Craigslist ad for house thieves), I refrained from any vacation-specific posting to my blog while we were away. So now that we're back, I'll run a daily photo diary of our trip, with each posting occurring ten days after it actually occurred.

Day 1: Joliet to Knoxville, TN
After driving the length of Indiana and seeing numerous billboards for various sin palaces ("adult superstores", liquor stores, fireworks stores, etc.) near the Kentucky border, Julie wondered aloud, "Are we really in the Bible Belt?" and then shortly afterward answered herself with, "I guess you can't have salvation without sin." (It was interesting to note that billboards like these seemed to be clustered at the northwest and southern borders, as if Illinois and Kentucky are uptight/conservative states whose citizens are eagerly welcomed by the more permissive Indiana.)

This photo was taken along I-75, just north of Carysville, TN. Though you can't see from the photo, just beyond this massive cross is an establishment called Adult World. There's no church nearby, so there's no obvious reason for the cross to be standing there. It's almost as if the cross people put it there to shame the customers of Adult World, giving them the guilts for whatever they might be buying or browsing at the store. The proximity of those two landmarks is one of the most appropriate sin/salvation metaphors I've ever seen.

October 11, 2011 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

“Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”

 Visionary, world-changer
Regis McKenna...said Mr. Jobs' genius lay in his ability to simplify complex, highly engineered products, "to strip away the excess layers of business, design and innovation until only the simple, elegant reality remained."
Jobs was 56. I'm 46. What will I accomplish in the next ten years?

October 6, 2011 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Maurice Sendak

The Guardian has a great profile of Maurice Sendak. Sounds like he's just blunt and cranky enough, yet with a soft side, to be my kind of guy. I was particularly moved to read this account of his Brooklyn childhood, as his father learns that his family back in Europe had been exterminated in the concentration camps:
"This is true. My father belonged to a Jewish social club. The day of my barmitzvah he got word [through the club] that he had, no longer, a family. Everyone was gone. And he laid down in bed. I remember this so vividly. And my mother said to me, 'Papa can't come.' And I was having the big party at the colonial club, the old mansion in Brooklyn. And I said, 'How can Papa not come to my barmitzvah?' And I screamed at him, 'You gotta get up, you gotta get up!' And of course he did. And the only thing I remember is looking at him when the guests burst into For He's a Jolly Good Fellow. And my father's face was vivid, livid, and I knew I had done something very bad, that I had made him suffer more than he had to. This 13-year-old ersatz man."
Wow. 

October 3, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)