This is a few weeks overdue, but I (semi-)recently took a road trip from Chicago to Austin with my girlfriend. Along the way, we made a few stops, of various lengths, in various cities, for various reasons.

I didn't want to write a series of posts about how great Austin is or the freedom of being on the road and away from work. You already know these things. Austin is just as great as everyone says it is. I'd love to go back. At the same time, it's not quite correct to say this was a vacation. I had too much on my mind to call it a vacation. The trip was thought-provoking in ways I did and did not expect.

At nearly 17 hours of driving, it'd be damn near impossible, and unnecessarily exhausting to reach Austin from Chicago in a day. We decided to rent a room in Memphis, TN for a night; folks in Memphis seemed used to the fact that many visitors were "just passing through." Along the way we stopped in Springfield, IL for gas, coffee, and to take a selfie in front of the Capitol building; we stopped in St. Louis, MO, for a more important reason.

We stopped in St. Louis, MO because I wanted to go to a bookstore. 


On Writing, On Fiction

Here are a couple quotes I saw recently about writing and what makes fiction work.

The first is from Lauren Groff, the editor of the most recent edition of Ploughshares (which I wrote a bit about here already). She rehashes the age-old idea of the lonely, pain-filled writer, with a bit of twist in her words.
"Writers are perennially lonely, and a writer's longing to connect is what fills her work with urgency." 
Key words: longing, connect, urgency. Of course, the other side of the debate, and one I struggle with, is how much importance do I place on making a "connection?" Isn't it more about just getting the story out there that I believe needs to be told, and to express myself in the artful medium I chose (or chose me if you want to get all whimsical about it)? You can read more about Groff and her writing process on Ploughshares ("She writes early drafts by hand, on legal pads. Once she has a complete draft of a novel, she throws the pages away, and begins again, writing the new draft (again by hand) from memory.").


Literary Chicago: Ploughshares Summer 2015

Ploughshares, the collection of fiction and poetry put out three times a year by Emerson College (of which Denis Leary is a council member of the non-profit publication), was capaciously endowed with scenes from a Literary Chicago. Four stories mentioned this city, and at least three of the authors in the collection have called Chicago home at one point or another (Osama Alomar, Jesse Ball, Rebecca Makkai, and Alex Shakar). One story mentioning Chicago in a collection isn't particularly noticeable, but seeing the name of this city in four out of eighteen stories called for some attention, even if just a coincidence. Here's how a few contemporary writers fictionalized Chicago:

"That fall, she was starting graduate school at the Art Institute of Chicago. "Chicago," I said later that night, after our date. We were in bed; we'd just had sex. "You know, I've been a Cubs fan since I could stand on first base.""
"Later, we joked that the only reason I came to Chicago was because she needed someone to carry her paintings."
- Kevin A Gonzalez, Palau

"My racial color code as established by the Chicago Bank of Life is white...When I am donating to the Chicago Bank of Life, I do not think of her." 
- Fiona Maazel, Dad's Just a Number


Rachel Kushner - 'Telex From Cuba'

First thing I've read by Kushner. It was highly acclaimed in 2008 when it was released and a finalist for the National Book Award. Naturally, I was skeptical, but every bit of praise for this book is well deserved. The story follows multiple characters in Cuba leading up to the revolution of 1959 which found the US backed Batista overthrown by Fidel Castro. The book reveals tensions between the Cubans that worked in the sugar cane fields run by US expats...sorry, US *immigrants*. Much of the perspectives are through the children of these wealthy families, often having fled the US for various legal reasons, or have lived a life in limbo throughout various Latin and Central American countries.

Kushner's writing fulfills all of the senses. Not a scene passes without her describing the various smells and sounds of the country and its people, about the myriad colors that lend themselves to the landscape. There are lyrical flourishes on every page, such as "the wind gusted like a personality" or "it was an afternoon of time outside of time."

But these subtle flourishes don't allow themselves to dominate the story either. Each character, whether the naive children, drunk housewives, a cabaret dancer, Cuban militants, or a secretive French agitator, are fully formed with reflective, philosophical thoughts bubbling throughout the narrative. Of course, some characters are more receptive to these philosophical inquiries than others that would rather deny the painful truths, and the impending revolution about to take place.


Ear Relevant: 7.27 - 8.10

Been awhile since I've done one of these. I've bought an absurd amount of records lately (well, for me at least. It's been a particularly diverse group of records too. 

First off, things started with getting a little buzzed and heading over to Permanent. Picked up 60s French pop star Claudine Longet's self-titled debut, the reggae-filled soundtrack to "The Harder They Come" featuring plenty of Jimmy Cliff, soulman Syl Johnson's Dresses Too Short (my first Numero LP), and Ray Manzarek's hypersynth version of Carmina Burana produced by Phillip Glass. Yes, that's just as weird as it sounds.

The next week there was a release show for Vamos and Ego, two mainstays in Chicago's punk / garage / DIY scene. They each had LPs out on Maximum Pelt so I got both of them; each have some rad album art. The show was at the Empty Bottle and I forgot my ear plugs like a stupid fucking idiot. Think it was worth it though. Made sure to bring the plugs the following night for Twin Hits (Twin Peaks + Today's Hits), Heavy Times, and the Lemons. No music purchased that night.


Cyn Vargas 'On The Way' / Rey Andújar 'Saturnalia'


First off.

There's not really too much of a reason to lump these two books together. Other than the fact that they are both collections of short stories written by authors living in Chicago, put out by Chicago presses, and I finished reading both on the same day. And the settings for both alternate between various locations in Latin America and the United States. Other than that, there's not much of a connection, and I'm writing about them together solely based on my timing of reading them. Let's start with On The Way.

I picked this book up at City Lit about a month ago. I'm always game to try anything Curbside Splendor puts out, even if the epigraph is a Radiohead lyric. But a blurb on the back from Bonnie Jo Campbell meant I would pick it up anyway.

Let's start with this: these stories are not uplifting. They're not always tragic, but they are often heartbreaking. It's not the fact that death always awaits us (it does sometimes), but that more often, bad things happen and the devastation permeates itself in its wake throughout a life; lucky are we who don't have to identify with many of these stories. The protagonists are generally women. They've been abused, they've been cheated on, they've been divorced, they've been abandoned in physical and existential ways. Vargas writes about women young and old, who've experienced a lot and who've experienced a lot of pain. Rarely do they find redemption. In an interview with Kati Heng, Vargas revealed her personal connection with some of these characters, how she identifies with them, and why they need their voices to be heard: "To appreciate the joy, you have to have the pain too. I think I am able to write bittersweet stories because I have lived through it."


Kathy Acker (Pt 2)

I'd put this book down for awhile and finally finished it the other week (part one here). Acker is...well, you probably already know about her reputation. Difficult is one word. Some call her problematic. The last piece in this book, Hannibal Lecter, My Father, is the testimony of The Federal Inspection Office for Publications Harmful to Minors in Germany and their reasons for banning the book Tough Girls Don't Cry. In addition to the hypersexual content and coarse language throughout, they cite the book as being difficult to follow, adopting too many styles, and for plagiarism.

I can't argue that this book should be read my minors. I've thought about this in the past when I first read Naked Lunch. Or first heard the Velvet Underground. I wonder if I have kids what kind of media I would expose them to, or what of mine they would find on their own. I'm all for the possibility of expansion of ideas especially in children and teenagers. But how does one determine when one can begin to handle such dark and surreal or evocative and cerebral texts? Making works taboo only makes them more attractive.

The disjointedness of Acker makes me think I won't read anything of hers again, or at least any non-non-fiction work (essays, interviews, etc). I like her thoughts but can't get into the prose. I think I could have appreciated this experimental writing style actually if I were still in high school or college. She eschews conventional tactics entirely. Of course, this is also a work of her earliest material, and maybe I need to find the Acker that's best for me.

I've thought a lot lately too about conventional texts and sounds. Music becomes more monotonous to me over time. Musicians have decided that one note must be followed by another of only two or three notes, or can be played simultaneously with a handful of notes. It's boring. Granted, I've heard much more music than I have read literature. But will we get to the point where writing too becomes so predictable? That any given word can only be followed by a handful of words? Are we already there?

Anyway, here's a now defunct website that put Kathy Acker lines into the comic Cathy.


Ron Currie Jr. - 'Everything Matters!'

I had high hopes for this book especially after how much I gushed about God is Dead. I don't know, even though I finished this book within 36 hours, I wasn't as blown away as I expected to be.

On the plus side, there was plenty of Literary Chicago, since one of the main characters plays for the Cubs.

"Partying means drinking. It also means playing records by Lou Reed and Chicago, which I thought was a city but is also a band it turns out. Uncle Rodney explained this to me. It's a band and a city and when I'm older he'll take me to Chicago to see Chicago play, he says."

"Chicago is not the ideal place to go to when you've recently lost your mind and plan to curl up in the bottom of a bottle and wait for the feeling of having your insides ripped repeatedly from your body to subside."

"...except this time you were not a toddler but a twenty-year-old man, lying on a bench near the Dearborn Street bridge, staring straight up to where the stars would have been were they not  obscured by the megawatt towers..."


Pitchfork Music Festival 2015

The following is a bit of notes I took on Saturday afternoon. An existential/Wallace Shawn style exploration on identity and creation. 

Attention. That's what's on my mind right now, sitting in the grass in Union Park at the Pitchfork Music Festival. What am I here to devote my attention to? How do I decide how to use my attention? Is attention the most important thing at an environment like this? Or is it best to have divided attention?

Are we here for art or diversion? Or other? (commerce)

Bully from Nashville starts. I'm still sitting. There's a decent crowd for the early side of the day on the smaller stage. Various forms of attention are around me. People totally focused, me with divided attention, as my attention is primarily on my thoughts. But I'm also processing the music.

If what and how we consume is dictated by marketing, is what and how we create also a product of that same marketing? Does the "I" ever have a say in creation? Is creation just an expression of consumption?, ie, what am I doing here? Is there an "I" here? Or is my "I" just someone else's creations that I've consumed? And if I've never decided what I've consumed, then how can I say I've created anything? And what have I consumed to have made me think these thoughts?

So why am I here? What's the difference between habit and ritual? There's supposed to be something sacred about ritual, right? (I may just be thinking that because a church is looking down at me) But what if you hold nothing sacred? Can that be true though, literature, the Clash, the simple act of helping someone up off the ground.


Reading list (1/2)'15

First half of 2015 is up. Been keeping busy this year. I'm a firm believer that you can't be a better writer without being a better reader. Here's what I read for the first half of the year. Bolded my favorites. Gonna try to devote the second half of the year to reading more 2015 stuff.

Uki Goni - The Real Odessa (2002)
Kazuo Ishiguro - Never Let Me Go (2005)
James Tadd Adcox - Does Not Love (2014)
Jami Attenberg - The Melting Season (2011)
John Darnielle - Wolf in White Van (2014)
Leslie Jamison - The Empathy Exams (2014)
Aleksandar Hemon - Nowhere Man (2002)
Eugene Ionesco - Rhinoceros and Other Plays (1994 edition / originally written in 1959)
Louise Erdich - The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001)
Orhan Pamuk - My Name is Red (1998)
Ron Currie Jr - God is Dead (2007)
Albert Camus - The Rebel (1951)
Djuna Barnes - Nightwood (1936)
Wallace Shawn - the Fever (1990)
Italo Calvino - Marcovaldo (1963)
Jack Kerouac - The Dharma Bums (1958)
Jessica Hopper - The First Collection of Criticism By A Living Female Rock Critic (2015)
Aleksandar Hemon - The Making of Zombie Wars (2015)
Douglas Adams - The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
Ron Currie, Jr. - Everything Matters! (2009)
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. - Slaughterhouse Five (1969) (reread) (just as good as it was in high school)
Wallace Shawn - The Designated Mourner (1996) (reread)

Apparently The Empathy Exams is my favorite book I've read recently I haven't written about. I think I was so surprised by how captivating it was that I didn't realize how much I was in love with it until much later on. Not to mention it's one of the few non-fiction books I've read this year. Anyway. That is all. On to the next ones...