"...a florid, square face, well-visored with good living and sane opinions..."
Willa Cather, from her short story "A Gold Slipper":
In the moment her bright, curious eyes rested upon him, McKann seemed to see himself as if she was holding a mirror up before him. He beheld himself a heavy, solid figure, unsuitably clad for the time and place, with a florid, square face, well-visored with good living and sane opinions - an inexpressive countenance. Not a rock face, exactly, but a kind of pressed-brick-and-cement face, a "business" face upon which years and feelings had made no mark - in which cocktails might eventually blast out a few hollows. He had never seen himself so distinctly in his shaving-glass as he did that instant when Kitty Ayshire's liquid eye held him, when her bright, inquiring glance roamed over his person.
McKann is a coal merchant, and Kitty is an opera singer that McKann sees perform. Much of the story involves their stark differences, which are told through a long conversation they later have on a train bound for New York. Fine story, one that reminds me a lot of Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser. That paragraph above is excellent throughout, and I particularly like the "pressed-brick-and-cement-face": McKann is an industrialist, a capitalist, and the face he has isn't natural like "a rock face" would be, but instead manufactured from years of business dealings.
Several times during the past few years I've done "structured reading" - reading three related books in succession, which I've found interesting in how the books contrast with and even comment on each other. My next structured reading will be sometime next year, consisting of three novels of early 20th Century Midwest realism: Cather's My Antonia, Sherwood Anderson's Windy McPherson's Son and Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons. I already own the first two, but need to pick up a copy of Tarkington. Looking forward to that.
"The Cries of London"
Spitalfields Life presents a charming 19th Century pamphlet, titled "The Cries of London", which displays the cries of various London street merchants. Though I wonder why someone ever published this in the first place - maybe for tourists? - it's a lovely relic that I'd love to own.
"Singing for the Here and Now"
My short story "Singing for the Here and Now" has been published at the online literary journal Anthology of Chicago. Many thanks to editor Rachel Hyman.
This story is the first to be published from my Chicago neighborhood collection Where the Marshland Came to Flower, and has a rather unique provenance. Years ago I wrote a short story, "Hope Cafe", about an idealistic young woman who quits her corporate job to open up a coffee shop on Chicago's South Side, just across the street from the recently demolished Robert Taylor Homes public housing projects. For various reasons that story remains unpublished, but a secondary character, Tonya, has stayed with me ever since. As I was develping Marshland, I thought up a story which had Tonya as protagonist, and which delved more deeply into her uncertain feelings about religious faith and her complicated relationship with her grandmother, both of which were briefly alluded to in the earlier story. To me, "Singing for the Here and Now" is a much deeper, richer and more realistic story than "Hope Cafe" is or ever will be, which is partly due to having a more interesting protagonist but most likely due to me having developed into a more mature writer by the time the later story was written.
I haven't published many short stories during the last few years, as my writing has focused more on book-length projects rather thainstead of individual stories. I hope to publish a few more Marshland stories in the future, but I'm hesitant to publish too many of them. If and when Marshland is finally published as a collection, I'd prefer to have most of the stories appear for the very first time, to give readers something fresh.
"Strange to think of the endless labour..."
Margaret Atwood, from Oryx and Crake:
Then he makes his way to a jagged concrete overhang that was once part of a bridge. Beneath it there's a triangular orange sign with the black silhouette of a man shovelling. Men at Work, that used to mean. Strange to think of the endless labour, the digging, the hammering, the carving, the lifting, the drilling, day by day, year by year, century by century; and now the endless crumbling that must be going on everywhere. Sandcastles in the wind.
Fifty pages in, and very good so far. To this point Atwood has offered only tantalizing glimpses of the degraded, almost post-apocalyptic world Snowman lives in, and how it got that way, which keeps me eager to read more.
"Words still have a meaning, still clear and still the same..."
Kenneth Fearing was a noir novelist and poet, and probably best known for the novel The Big Clock. The Neglected Books blog posted his poem "Cracked Record Blues" (from Afternoon Of A Pawnbroker And Other Poems, 1944), which I like quite a bit:
Cracked Record Blues
If you watch it long enough you can see the clock move.
If you try hard enough you can hold a little water in the palm of your hand,
If you listen once or twice you know it’s not the needle, or the tune, but a crack in the record when sometimes a phonograph falters and repeats, and repeats, and repeats, and repeats
And if you think about it long enough, long enough, long enough, long enough then everything is simple and you can understand the times,
You can see for yourself that the Hudson still flows, that the seasons change as ever, that love is always love,
Words still have a meaning, still clear and still the same;
You can count upon your fingers that two plus two still equals, still equals, still equals, still equals -
There is nothing in this world that should bother the mind.
Because the mind is a common sense affair filled with common sense answers to common sense facts,
It can add up, can add up, can add up, can add up earthquakes and subtract them from fires,
It can bisect an atom or analyze the planets -
All it has to do is to, do is to, do is to, do is to start at the beginning and continue to the end.
Fearing was a Chicago-area native who attended Oak Park-River Forest High School (alma mater of my father-in-law) and the University of Illinois (alma mater of both Julie and myself), and later co-founded The Partisan Review. After being subpoenaed by the U.S. Attorney in 1950 and asked if he was a member of the Communist Party, he simply replied, "Not yet." Gotta admire that.
Fading Ads and Fading AIDS
My great friend Frank Jump is refining his Fading Ad Campaign series of fading ad photographs, and will soon be incorporating vintage ads into portraits of fellow AIDS survivors, such as the photo of Steed Taylor and the Griffon Shears ad shown above.
As this project has matured and I have become a long-term survivor, the original metaphor of the Fading Ad Campaign that rang true for me fifteen years ago still resounds, but the overtones have modulated. Although I continue to utilize these images to draw light upon the fading problem of AIDS, fostering awareness isn’t the primary focus anymore as is the condition of the aging survivors, many of whom have lost their fear of dying from AIDS but are succumbing to age-related illnesses and complications from pharmacological toxicities. Through this campaign, my life mission is to continue to shed light on this lingering issue that still affects many of us in the LGBTQ community.
Frank has always seen fading ads as a metaphor for perseverance and survival, but this series of portraits and interviews with AIDS survivors will undoubtedly make that connection even stronger. I'm really looking forward to seeing what he comes up with.
Where I write
The Next Best Book Club has just run my short essay about my writing space, also known as "the little eating room" just off our kitchen. My sincere thanks to Lori Hettler at TNBBC for this.
Wheatyard reviewed in American Book Review
Matt Baker writes a great review of Wheatyard in the latest issue (September/October 2013) of American Book Review. (It's just a coincidence that this issue's focus in on "Sex Writing." Nary a hint of sex in Wheatyard, alas.) Here's an excerpt:
What makes Anderson’s straightforward novel so refreshing is the way he portrays the student-mentor relationship; we’d expect the student (the narrator) to fill his role enthusiastically, a pleasing kind of subservience, but rather, the narrator is intrigued by Wheatyard’s nudges to write, and introduction to storytelling, but it isn’t until the end that the narrator unearths, on his own and at the right moment for him, this urge to write.
The full review is here. I've heard great things about ABR but haven't read it yet, so of course I'll be buying a copy. I encourage you to do likewise.
Poe and Verne
At The Guardian, Robert McCrum writes an intriguing overview of Edgar Allan Poe's only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. As McCrum notes, despite its many eccentricities the novel was highly influential, and even inspired a sequel by Jules Verne. That novel, The Sphinx of the Ice Realm, was published in its first complete English translation last year by SUNY Press, whose Verne edition even includes the full text of Pym. My college friend James Peltz is co-director at SUNY Press, and was kind enough to send me a copy a few months ago. My appetite for Poe has really been whetted by my recent re-reading of his stories (I just started "The Pit and the Pendulum" last night), and I'm now eager to read Pym and then Verne's sequel, probably early next year.
Two views of 1950s Chicago
Rush Street, looking south from Delaware Street, in 1954. Love that tawdry, gaudy neon. The area is now informally known as the Viagra Triangle (for the middle-aged divorced guys haunting the steakhouses and trying to get lucky), but there's no way it has the hustle and throb it enjoyed well into the 1970s.
Doorway by Harry Callahan, 1955. Probably far from the glare of Rush Street, and likely in a working class neighborhood. Just in this tight frame, I see advertisements for three beers (Sieben's - painted directly onto the window at the upper right - Schlitz and Budweiser) and two whiskeys (Hiram Walker Imperial and Echo Springs). I like a place that gives you a hint of what's inside before you even step off the street.