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Writing stiffs

Hooray for Alexis Jenni, and "Sunday writers" everywhere. Keep on keeping it real.

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


At MobyLives, Paul Oliver has written a nice piece on Ashtabula, Ohio and its local Occupy movement.

While Wall St. is certainly the fortress of everything the movement is fighting against, a city like Ashtabula is everything that the movement is or should be fighting for. The 99% is a wide-ranging demographic, but at its bottom is the forgotten mill and port towns. Places like Ashtabula, Ohio or York, Pennsylvania.

Though I've never been there, Ashtabula will always have a place in my heart, as it was the setting of my first published story, "Ectoplasm". (The inspiration for the story was the same Dylan lyric that Oliver mentions.) Clearly, the same economic conditions that drove my story continue today, and have even worsened. I'm not sure that my protagonist would have still had his teaching job in 2011.

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

"...I wrote a novel in which I didn't use my whole life..."

In The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, Francisco Goldman talks to Susan Choi about the writing of his third novel, The Divine Husband:

Goldman: For four years I had no life but this book. You know that. I wasn't seeing anybody really. I would have these sort of impossible loves. Now my friends from Mexico say, "You really chose impossible loves during those years because you were really only interested in your book." For years I was sort of inhabiting this alternative parallel universe...As I say, I was living almost too solitary a life. I think there's a certain loneliness in the book. Everyone in the book is looking for love. I think that in some weird way - it sounds crazy and I'll certainly never do that again - the loneliness I had in my own life was part of writing that book, part of the heart of that book and why I was able to write about Maria de las Nieves in the way that I was.

Choi: Do you worry when your friends say to you, "You were single the whole time you were writing this book, because you couldn't have been writing the book if you weren't single"? You're not single now. So now what?

Goldman: I think that I've learned that I'm ready to be more whole in some way.

Choi: Do you mean living less in your books?

Goldman: Maybe now I can live in my books in a healthier way. I think that I learned how to really write novels, writing this book...I wrote a novel in which I didn't use my whole life...

I'm always fascinated by the tug of war that novelists face between their writing and personal lives. It sounds as if Goldman threw himself so completely into writing The Divine Husband that he had nothing left over for a normal life, and seemed to regret doing so. Or maybe regret isn't the right word - perhaps he saw such immersion as essential for the creation of that particular book, but learned enough about novel-writing in the process that he would no longer need to repeat the experience.

As I've mentioned here before, in Conversations With Nelson Algren, Algren attributes his relative lack of late-career productivity (he published no novels during the last twenty-five years of his life) to not wanting to completely sacrifice his personal life for two or three years to create a "big book." He made a clear distinction between his "writing life" and "real life", and figured if he wasn't going to be satisfactorily recognized for his writing (he always felt underappreciated as a writer, his winning of the inaugural National Book Award in 1950 notwithstanding) that it was no longer worth giving up several years of "real life." I suspect that Goldman would understand, even though he seems to have learned to balance his two lives better than Algren did, and has remained productive despite considerable personal tragedy.

November 28, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Happy Thanksgiving


Today I'm grateful for Julie and Maddie and the rest of my family, and Mud and Spike, and close friends, and still being gainfully employed with a solid roof over my head and working furnace and full refrigerator, and my reading and writing and everything else that keeps me engaged and sane. In other words, for everything it would be so easy to just take for granted.

November 24, 2011 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Contrarily speaking

My latest column - on Sholom Aleichem, including an excerpt from his great story "You Musn’t Weep – It’s Yom-Tev" - is now up at Contrary.

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

"...a sort of goiter on an otherwise smooth shape..."

George Saunders, on assembling short story collections, from a conversation with Ben Marcus in The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers:

My usual approach so far has just been to put everything together that feels like it came out of the same aesthetic suite of ideas, which usually corresponds to a certain three-to-four-year time period - and then weed out the weaker links, or the anomalous ones. I usually have two or three pieces I start and don't finish, and another two or three that I finish but am not happy with, and then another couple that I'm happy enough with, but don't seem to fit with the rest. They make a sort of goiter on an otherwise smooth shape. And then I figure that, if each of the pieces represents an intensive move in some direction, a move that I played out aesthetically, then if I put them all together, with attention to the order - the book should be more than the sum of its parts. That's the theory, anyway.

My first attempt at a short story collection (five or six years ago) resulted from basically throwing together every story I had written to that point, and thus was full of the same "goiters" that Saunders strives to eliminate. The collection was pretty much a failure in terms of cohesion, but I've learned my lesson. The last two collections I've put together were structured very thematically.

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

Forgotten bookmarks, remembered


Forgotten Bookmarks is, just as the name indicates, a website which exhibits ephemera found in old books by bookseller Michael Popek. Each object is shown alongside the book it was found in, with most of the books being lovely old relics in themselves. I love pretty much everything Michael comes across, though perhaps none more so than this charming image, taken from a photo negative found inside a Dickens novel. As a reader and photographer, I would love to go back in time to meet the person who would use a negative as a bookmark - and also to pet that rascally cat.

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

"...the concentration has to be more long-term, more introspective, more enduring..."

In The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, Haruki Murakami (talking with Sean Wilsey, in translation via email) discusses the role of concentration in writing a novel:

I believe that concentration plays an equally central role in both music and the creation of a novel. Only the outward appearance of that "concentration" is different. The performance itself is usually the final expressive form in the case of music, and so the appearance of that concentration inevitably turns out to be more short-term, more expressive, more tangible. In the case of the creation of a novel, the concentration has to be more long-term, more introspective, more enduring. The way I see it, emotion is more an ordinary part of everyday life. It exists in everyone. Human beings devoid of emotion simply don't exist (do they?). In order to get a firm grasp on an emotion and express it with precision in an objective medium, however, what is required is strong enough powers of concentration to bring time to a temporary standstill. And for that what you need is the physical strength and stamina to maintain that concentration as long as possible. This is not something available to just anyone.

Personally, I haven't been blessed with that degree of concentration, which would explain why I'm such a notoriously slow writer.

November 20, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Life doesn't have to prove itself."

In The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, Shirley Hazzard (talking with Vendela Vida) discusses the place of coincidence in fiction:

Hazzard: In that same book (The Transit of Venus) I say a similar thing: that one wouldn't dare put into a novel the amount of coincidence that occurs in life itself.

Vida: Yes, one of the characters says: "I've thought there may be more collisions of the kind in life than in books." Maybe the element of coincidence is played down in literature because it seems like cheating or can't be made believable. Whereas life itself doesn't have to be fair or convincing.

Hazzard: Life doesn't have to prove itself. Life happens; we have to accept it. Reading fiction, the disbelieving, skeptical critic likes to feel in control. Yet his own existence, all existence, is subject to the accidental element, to the inexplicable or magical, or dreadful intervention that cannot be justified by logic.

I completely agree with her, partly because I'm facing a similar quandry with publishers' reactions to my novel, Wheatyard. Not with coincidence - nobody has yet questioned the plausibility of the narrator (a recent business school graduate) first encountering the eccentric, reclusive writer Wheatyard. Instead, questions have been raised as to why the narrator becomes so fascinated/obsessed with Wheatyard.

I think I did address this question - as I tell in the story, just a few weeks after graduation, the unemployed narrator has already begun to doubt the corporate finance career he once so thoroughly believed in, with his growing disillusionment making him more receptive and attracted to Wheatyard's independent lifestyle and outsider status. Not that the narrator is eager to embrace that sort of lifestyle himself, but it does show him another side of life that he hadn't experienced before, with Wheatyard's sudden appearance becoming an interesting diversion from his own depressing prospects. Of course I could have spelled out the point more bluntly, but bluntness is something I generally hate in fiction. I'm a quiet, subtle person, and I'd rather tell my stories quietly and subtly than hit the reader over the head with my message. I don't understand the need to baldly explain everything - Why is the narrator so fascinated with Wheatyard? - when the reader could easily take the cues I've given and answer the question himself.

Just as Shirley Hazzard doesn't feel the need to justify coincidence, I don't feel the need to justify my narrator's every motivation. That's just how he is. I've already explained enough.

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

The new hall-of-famers

The Chicago Literary Hall of Fame will soon be inducting its second class: Cyrus Colter, Theodore Dreiser, Harriet Monroe, Mike Royko, Carl Sandburg, and Ida B. Wells. I certainly can't object, since I thought Royko and Sandburg deserved inclusion in the inaugural class, and I've long admired Dreiser's Sister Carrie, one of the best novels written about Chicago (though, admittedly, at least half of the book takes place in Manhattan). Here's hoping for Ring Lardner, Ben Hecht and James T. Farrell, next year.

(Via Chicago Publishes.)

November 14, 2011 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

A sonnet...on pro basketball?

I wouldn't have believed it either, but Nige passes along this lovely verse from William Matthews:
CHEAP SEATS, the Cincinnati Gardens, Professional Basketball, 1959

The less we paid, the more we climbed. Tendrils
of smoke lazed just as high and hung there, blue,
particulate, the opposite of dew.
We saw the whole court from up there. Few girls
had come, few wives, numerous boys in molt
like me. Our heroes leapt and surged and looped
and two night out of three, like us, they'd lose.
But 'like us' is wrong: we had no result
three nights out of three: so we had heroes.
And 'we' is wrong, for I knew none by name
among that hazy company unless
I brought her with me. This was loneliness
with noise, unlike the kind I had at home
with no clocks running down, and mirrors.
Charming. Though of course the charm is how the game reflects on the narrator, and not the game itself.

November 12, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Emil Nolde


My high school German teacher, Fraulein Seeliger, fought a perpetually hopeless battle to instill interest in German culture to our mostly indifferent class. Although most of the avant-garde literature and classical symphonies she exposed us to have long since slipped my memory, the one thing that stuck with me was the Expressionist art, particulary that of Emil Nolde. My favorite Nolde is "Vierwaldstätter See" (shown above), which she had clipped from a calendar and taped onto the wall behind my back-row desk. I always admired it, so much so that one day she took it down and gave it to me. But the print was somehow misplaced sometime after that, and I still miss it.

November 10, 2011 in Art | Permalink | Comments (1)


Driving to work this morning, I saw some debris up ahead in the middle of Black Road, right on the center line. As I got closer, I saw it was a coat, pants, shirt...and a red Solo party cup. Somebody had a good time last night. Hope they got home safely.

November 10, 2011 in Joliet | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Feather dusters was more like it."

In "The Inheritors", Sholom Aleichem tells the very funny story of Maier and Schnaier, twins so identical that nobody can tell them apart as youngsters (so much so that everyone refers to them in the plural). The confusion is miraculously resolved in this witty passage:

But much, much later - after the Bar Mitzvah, when the Maiers and Schnaiers had reached manhood - something happened that made it possible to tell them apart a mile away even at night. What wonders God can devise! The brothers began to sprout beards (they must both have begun to smoke cigars too early) and on Maier's cheeks and upper lip there appeared black hairs (black as ink) and on Schnaier's face red hairs (red as fire). These beards grew as if the devil possessed them (they must both have continued to smoke cigars), so that by the time they were married they both had full beards. Did I say beards? Feather dusters was more like it. A black duster and a red one, that looked as if someone had glued them on.

I love the humor, but also the casual, folksy narration. I'm really enjoying this collection so far.

November 9, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Structured Reading, Part 3

A while back I started an occasional project called Structured Reading, in which I would abandon my usual willy-nilly process of selecting which books to read (usually just trawling my shelves to see what looks interesting at the moment) in favor of a more cohesive approach. Under this method, I pick three books which are thematically connected, with the idea that each book will enlighten, echo or comment on the others. So far I've done non-fiction books on the Depression and collections by great American satirists.

Recently I started my third such effort, this time with old-school Jewish writers: Isaac Bashevis Singer's Conversations With Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sholom Aleichem's Selected Stories (a very cool 1956 Modern Library edition) and Aharon Appelfeld's The Iron Tracks. I've finished and greatly enjoyed Singer's book and am already loving Aleichem, whom I've never read before. And though Appelfeld is still quite alive and writing (which might seem to preclude grouping him with the other two writers) from what I know of him, he seems rather old-school and traditional in style and subject matter, so I think he'll be a good fit. When I'm finished with the three books (a few weeks from now) I'll post a recap here.

November 7, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Modern Library


I love this - the inside of the dust jacket of Selected Stories of Sholom Aleichem, which lists the entire Modern Library catalog, circa 1956. It further directs you to a coupon on the back of the jacket, which you would clip and fill out to order more Modern Library titles. I wonder how many thousands of dust jackets were destroyed as a result.

It also includes this thoughtful inscription:

For Janet
Who will, we are sure, always keep an open mind about her friends and neighbors, whoever and wherever they may be.

Mother and Dad
Christmas 1962

Two more delightful things that readers are losing in the headlong rush to Kindles and Nooks.

November 6, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

"...the story is but a hint..."

Isaac Bashevis Singer, from Conversations with Isaac Bashevis Singer:

I have said to myself many times that one of the wonderful things about the Book of Genesis and the Bible generally is that the stories there are very, very short - so short that even a short short story today would be too long in comparison. Often a short story is told in five or six sentences. I said to myself that modern literature suffers terribly from verbosity. No matter what they tell you, they tell it to you again and again and it makes it so that there's no place for the reader's imagination. In the Bible, so much is left to the reader that actually the story is but a hint and the rest is for the reader to finish. I don't mean that you should make things short when you have to tell a lot, but to give the essentials, and leave as much as possible to the imagination of the reader.

Singer died in 1991. I wish he was still alive, for many reasons - including being able to ask him what he thinks of Jonathan Franzen.

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

Sometimes my iPod is a genius

Usually my iPod is an idiot. The shuffle mode is often baffling - from nearly 1,600 songs, it seems to get into ruts where it repeatedly serves up songs from an artist for which I only have one album. For months it was on a Little Walter kick, picking one of his songs from Confessin' the Blues every day or two while much better-represented artists would go weeks without being heard. And lately it seems fixated on the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, again from just one album.

But on rare occasions the iPod's selections seem almost sublime. This morning it played, in order, Television's "Guiding Light", Galaxie 500's "Way Up High" and Yo La Tengo's "Pablo and Andrea." Television to Galaxie 500 to Yo La Tengo - such a wonderfully natural progression, almost perfect. Okay, so the Velvet Underground would have been a better fit than Television, but still, this is a dumb machine we're talking about here. I remain impressed with the choice of that troika of bands, even though I'm sure the iPod will be baffling me again soon.

November 4, 2011 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Save Michael Brand Brewery!


The rapidly-expanding electronics chain H.H. Gregg reportedly plans to buy and demolish the former Michael Brand Brewery complex at 2500 N. Elston, for a new store location. As the linked-to article notes, there's plenty of vacant land and underused buildings along that stretch of Elston (which is also already saturated with big-box stores) which the company could easily use for a new store. Surely it would be better to save and rehab the Brand complex instead of just wantonly throwing it away. I can hope.

I visited the site during the late 1990s, when I took several photographs and even scavenged a few old bricks I found lying behind the building. Interestingly, back then I thought that only the northern building (at the far right in this 1970s-vintage photo, from the excellent Forgotten Chicago website) was the Brand Brewery, but after seeing the photo I now realize that the southern building was part of the brewery, too. (What a shame that the charming archway between the two buildings is long gone!) The northern building also briefly housed the short-lived Golden Prairie microbrewery during the mid-1990s, which was gone by the time of my visit. The only thing marking the building as Golden Prairie was a sheet of paper with the brewery logo, which was hanging inside a plastic sleeve on the side door. Hard to believe I didn't scavenge that as well.

(Via Gapers Block.)

November 1, 2011 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)