Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Growing the Outfit

by Libby Hellmann

It’s spring, and the growing season is upon us.

The Outfit is growing, too.

We’ve been posting as a group for nearly three years – hard to believe it’s been that long – and with the same cast of characters. (See the bar to the right) That’s got to be some kind of record in the blogosphere, but if it isn’t, we’re just proud we survived that long. I’m not sure any of us expected to last more than six months.

Whether you’re new to the Outfit or you've been reading us from the start, thank you for spending your precious time with us. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed our takes on writing, crime, and Chicago – eclectic as they may be -- with an occasional political rant thrown in. And hopefully, you’ll continue to follow us as we add three new voices.

With ten members we’ll each share a week-day, which should keep us more organized and will make it easier for you to keep tabs on us, too. We’ll have new blogs up pretty much every week day, and the topics we’ll cover, thanks to the infusion of fresh blood, should be fascinating. I’m pumped, and after you read our "made members'" backgrounds, I suspect you will be too.

Laura Caldwell is a Chicago trial attorney turned novelist. She is published in the legal field and is currently an Adjunct Professor of Law at her alma mater, Loyola University School of Law. She is also founder and director of the “Life After Innocence” Project, a program to help recently exonerated and wrongfully prosecuted people reclaim their lives; in fact, she’s currently writing a true-crime book about one of her cases. As for fiction, Laura began publishing thrillers and suspense novels in 2005 and has 7 novels under her belt. This summer Mira will release a trilogy of thrillers by Laura, starting with RED HOT LIES. All of them feature her new protagonist, entertainment lawyer Izzy McNeil. Follow her on Twitter at LauraACaldwell

David Ellis is an attorney, too, and he’s currently working as Counsel to the Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives. In that role, he led the impeachment effort of former Governor Blagovevich. He is also the author of five acclaimed legal thrillers. In fact, David won the Edgar for his first novel, LINE OF VISION. Although he currently lives in Springfield, he used to practice law in Chicago, and he grew up in Downers’ Grove. That qualifies him as a Chicagoan.

Dave Heinzmann has covered crime for the Chicago Tribune for nearly a decade. He covered the Chicago Police Department beat from 2002 to 2007, and has written extensively about street gangs, drugs and murder, gun-running, as well as police misconduct scandals and a range of other criminal justice and political issues. He started his journalism career with the Associated Press in Baltimore and Atlanta. He lives in Oak Park with his family. Dave’s first crime fiction novel, A WORD TO THE WISE, will be published by Five Star in December. In it, his lawyer protagonist, former FBI agent Augustine Flood, is faced with a case that carries him deep into Chicago’s crooked politics, wheeler-dealer development and organized crime. His website will be up soon, but you can follow him now on Twitter at davidheinzmann.

As long as I'm posting pics, you might like to see an original Outfit photo, taken by Crain’s Chicago about 18 months ago.

The new schedule will start somewhere around the middle of May. As always, we love your feedback – whatever it is – so don’t stop. This is your blog as much as ours. Thanks again, and please welcome our new members with a comment or two.

PS Don't forget about Indie Day, Friday, May 1. Go to your favorite independent book store and buy that book you've been thinking about...

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Take a Break, Shake that Frown, Reassess What’s Going Down

By Kevin Guilfoile

A week after his first novel The Rachel Papers came out, Martin Amis saw someone reading it on a train. He didn't say anything to the person because he assumed, now that he was a novelist, he would be constantly encountering random people enjoying his work on trains and planes and park benches and waiting rooms.

It didn't happen to him again for 15 years.

This Friday, May 1, thousands will recognize the Buy Indie Day holiday by stopping in at one of their favorite independent bookstores and making a purchase. A few weeks ago, I asked readers to do that, but also to announce ahead of time where they will be going. The point, after all, is not some one-day indie bookstore stimulus package, but to remind people of their local indies and to raise awareness about the best independent booksellers around the country. You can find an indie bookstore near you here or here.

Below is a list of stores where a number of writers will be on Friday, not as authors promoting their books, but as readers buying a book. If one of those writers sees you holding his or her book you will likely make their day because it really doesn't happen as often as you probably think, even for the big guys. If they don't notice, feel free to make the first move.

I will continue to update this list all week, so authors please write to me (kevin[at] if you want to be added. And I'd encourage everyone to give some love to your favorite indie bookstore by telling us in the comments where you're going to celebrate Buy Indie Day. And tell folks on your blog. And on Facebook. And at your book club.

The holidays are no fun to celebrate by yourself.

KAREN ABBOTT (Sin in the Second City): McNally Jackson Bookstore*.

TASHA ALEXANDER (A Fatal Waltz, and the upcoming Tears of Pearl): Mysterious Bookshop.

ROSECRANS BALDWIN (You Lost Me There): McIntyre's Fine Books.

SEAN CHERCOVER (Big City, Bad Blood, Trigger City): Partners & Crime.

BARBARA D'AMATO (Death of a Thousand Cuts): At the many indie booksellers at Malice Domestic.

MICHAEL ALLEN DYMMOCH (M.I.A.): At the many indie booksellers at Malice Domestic.

JONATHAN EIG (Luckiest Man, Opening Day): Unabridged Bookstore.

JOE FINDER (High Crimes, Paranoia, Company Man, and the upcoming Vanished): Mysterious Bookshop.

BRYAN GRULEY (Starvation Lake): Cornell Store ("Although," Bryan says, "if I were home I'd be at Centuries and Sleuths in Forest Park, Illinois").

KEVIN GUILFOILE (Cast of Shadows): Centuries and Sleuths.

LIBBY FISCHER HELLMANN (Easy Innocence): The Book Bin.

JOHN MOE (Conservatize Me): The Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, although John is understandably nostalgic for Seattle's great Elliott Bay Book Co.

SARA PARETSKY (Bleeding Kansas and the upcoming V.I. Warshawski novel, Hardball): Seminary Co-Op.

DANIEL RADOSH (Rapture Ready): The Golden Notebook.

DAVE REIDY (Captive Audience): Quimby's.

J.D. RHOADES (Breaking Cover): The Country Bookshop.

MARCUS SAKEY (The Blade Itself, At The City's Edge, Good People): Unabridged Bookstore.

BRENDAN SHORT (Dream City): The Book Table.

LUIS ALBERTO URREA (The Hummingbird's Daughter and the upcoming Into the Beautiful North): Anderson's (Naperville, IL)

*Karen Abbott told us she wished she could be in Chicago Friday to support the many local booksellers who helped propel Sin In The Second City to the bestseller lists. And since we're a Chicago-centric blog, we are happy to publish Karen's all-star list of Chicago indies:

Anderson's Bookshops
The Book Cellar
The Book Stall at Chestnut Court
Centuries and Sleuths
Lake Forest Book Store
Powell's Chicago
57th Street Books (The Seminary Co-Op)
Women and Children First

Follow Kevin on Twitter.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Columbine, 10 years on

Dave Cullen, a reporter at, spent 10 years working on his newly-published account of the Columbine massacre. Difficult as the event was to comprehend at the time, his book raises troubling new questions. One has to do with the way the media depicted both Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. We were meant to believe they were troubled loners who one day just "snapped." Instead, they were both socially active, involved with a group of ten or fifteen friends. They weren't Goths, they weren't part of a "Trench Coat Gang," and they didn't just snap. They spent more than a year planning a major school massacre, including acquiring pipe bombs, a major gun arsenal, and building other incendiary devices. They had hoped to kill as many as 2000 people. On the day of the massacre--April 20, 1999, they installed a propane-fueled bomb in the school cafeteria and various pipe bombs. When none of their bombs detonated, they began shooting people, and then killed themselves.
Cullen's study of the boys' diaries, websites, and conversations with their friends leads him to believe they wanted to make a sort of horrific live action movie, something along the lines of Quentin Tarantino.
Harris came to the attention of local authorities about a year before the massacre. A parent, alarmed by his website, contacted the police. A search warrant for the Harris home was issued, but never executed. Why, we'll never know.
And the father of one of the two boys, I believe Klebold, actually found one of the pipe bombs some months ahead of the massacre. He apparently took no action.
I'm grateful I never had to deal with the issues the Klebold and Harris households did, and even more grateful I never suffered the kind of loss that the parents of the victims went through, but reading about the father's discovery of one of the weapons reminded me of a very unpleasant time in my own household.
Some thirty years ago, I discovered that one of my stepsons was growing dope in the attic, selling it in the neighborhood for pocket money that he used in turn to buy more significant drugs. We had a very hard time dealing with this. He was angry and he was very big and when I finally, after many months of living with the situation, confronted him, it was one of the most difficult days of my life. We didn't have a happy ending, or at least, we did, but it lay many years down the road. I wondered what I would have done if any of my husband's sons, who all lived with us, had been making weapons. What would you have done?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Fun on a Dime

by Barbara D'Amato

Michael Dymmoch’s excellent post, The Best Things in Life Are Free . . . [April 17] got me thinking. Several people lately have complained to me about the cost of entertainment in these days of constricted funds. Especially, some have said, “It’s too expensive to take a kid for food and out to a movie. I can't afford it!” And yet, they don't want to stay home all the time, as who would?

These are tough times. Let’s talk about what you can do with children, say over four and under fifteen, when they become extremely picky.

I’m grateful to Michael Dymmoch for telling me about a Chicago Sun Times article [April 1, 2009] explaining that there are still a lot of free days at Chicago museums:

The Mexican Fine Arts Museum is free year round -- 1852 w. 19th.

So is the Smart Museum at the University of Chicago – 5550 S. Greenwood.

The Adler Planetarium has certain free days. Call to inquire.

The Art Institute of Chicago is free 5-8 pm Thursdays.

The Chicago Children’s Museum is free 5-8 pm Thursdays.

The Field Museum is free the second Monday of the month and certain other days. Call to inquire.

The Museum of Contemporary Art [220 E. Chicago] is free every Tuesday.

The Museum of Science and Industry and the Shedd Aquarium are free certain days. Call to inquire.

Also, if you have a valid library card you can get a museum passport that gets you into several museums for free.

But I don’t want to talk just about Chicago. Speaking of libraries, in most of the country, libraries are one of the places to find a lot of entertainment for little or no money. Story-telling time. Play groups. Special-interest lectures.

Then there are parks. Many parks have free children’s events. But you need to look. I once lived just two blocks from a wonderful park my child would have liked and didn’t know it because my usual path didn’t go that way.

Make picnic lunches and take the child to the beach, the riverfront, or whatever you have nearby.

Tell the child, “Invite two friends over and we’ll make candy.”

An older child might be challenged by this: “See if you can buy the food and make dinner [with my help] for four for under twenty dollars.”

Let’s plant tomatoes in the back yard.

As I write, these suggestions all seem obvious, but then I think about all the obvious things I’ve completely overlooked in my life. And the suggestions are intended to spark ideas. Do you have free or cheap ideas that have worked for you and a child?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Secret Worlds in Starbucks

by Marcus Sakey

I recently got a new laptop, as my old one started making this sound like ball bearings dropped down a garbage disposal, or a grandfather endlessly gargling. Not the best for the concentration.

The new one is slick, lightweight, and has three features that make my geeky day. The first is a back-lit keyboard, handy when you do a lot of writing in the late afternoon on the front porch. Somehow my best streaks always seem to come just when it’s getting damn hard to see the keys. The second is a battery with mad life, about six hours of word processing time. And the third is a ‘roided-up WiFi card which lets me connect pretty much anywhere (e.g., the front porch.)

Besides making me happy because I’m a big nerd, the new laptop makes me happy because it expands the way I can work. Or more precisely, where I can work.

Most every time I do a speaking gig, someone asks what my routine is: How many words a day, how many days a week, what kind of computer, where I work. The answers are 5000 a week, five days a week, a PC, and…well, that last is trickier.

One of the unexpected challenges in taking your writing seriously is learning how you work best. It took me twenty short stories and two novels before I had a reasonable idea. It’s the little things. For example, for two years, I spent mornings pacing, banging my head against the wall, trying to will myself to work. I’d break for lunch, then come back around two, sit down and nail my word count. It took me two years to realize that maybe I ought to just not try to write in the morning—that I should take care of other things, and assume that I didn’t have fuck-all to say until two in the afternoon.

Another thing I learned was that I need to change locations. I write probably 50% of a novel sitting at my desk in the second bedroom we’ve converted to a den. But the other 50% is split up into a bunch of little shavings. 8% sitting in front of the open window. 6% on the front porch. 3% standing at the kitchen counter. 4% in the coffee shop. 4% in the bar. And so forth.

For me, the simple change of physical locations seems to unlock something. Maybe it’s new stimuli, or a clarity that comes with novelty, or maybe it’s just a trick I play on my head—there’s a lot of that to writing as well, tricking yourself. But whatever the reason, I find it makes a big difference to move around.

Which got me thinking. The last time I was working in a coffee shop, I took a break between paragraphs and looked around, and I noticed that pretty much everyone there had a laptop. A lot of them were obviously emailing or Facebooking or Twittering or browsing porn (okay, probably not), but some of them were clearly writing.

And maybe they were writing fiction.

I like that idea. It makes me happy to think that people are creating worlds all around us; that the guy on the subway looks a million miles away because he’s planning the next chapter in an ongoing fantasy, or that the shy girl in the library is actually banging out a crime novel. I wonder if any of them are books I’ve read, or if any of them have read my books. An almost-connection.

Anyway, what about you? Do you find that you work best in one particular place, or do you need to nomad it? If you go out, where do you go? After all, I’m always looking for ideas…

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Best Things in Life are free...

by Michael Dymmoch

...Almost . Take public television. An annual membership for WTTW is $40—$0.11 a day. For the same modest donation, WYCC gives you a program guide and dozens of informative (BBC news), educational (TV college lectures), and entertaining (Night Owl Theater) programs. Annual membership is $75, which includes 2-for-1 savings at Chicago area restaurants and travel discounts. A daily Chicago Tribune or Sun-Times is $0.75, more on Sunday. And you can usually tear through either publication in half an hour. "Free" commercial television costs you about twenty minutes/hour of your time and subjects you to insultingly stupid, often disgusting messages. (There are exceptions. I find Mac and, recently, Microsoft commercials, and the new 3G/4G ads amusing.) Public TV can be "free" if you choose not to subscribe, but if you want it to continue...

Maybe I'm preaching to the choir here (yeah, I know that's a cliche), because if you're reading this blog, you're a reader, and you probably don't get all your news from superficial sources. What I'm trying to point out is that not everything going on in the world is bad news. And you ususally don't hear about the good stuff on on the nightly news. Public television (and radio) has features far below the radar (read mass selling appeal) of most commercial stations. Like Chicago Tonight's April 13 report on deconstruction. And the BBC's April 15 report on the Pirate Bay founders jailed in Sweden. Where on commercial TV will you find an expert who gets more than three minutes to explain his point or plug his book? Charlie Rose and Tavis Smiley do it every day on PBS. Chicago Tonight does it every night. When the live-on-the-scene commercial reporters do a report, it's almost always about something that happened hours ago. And the time spent on an "In-depth report" is often less than the length of the commercials advertising the report.

If this sounds like an extended plug for public Television and radio. It is. Please support them.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

And Now, A Musical Interlude. . .

by Sean Chercover

So I get an email out of the blue from some guy in Australia, who says very nice things about my writing. He says he's coming to Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto, with a show called Scotland The Brave. He asks if I'd like tickets. Hell yes, I would. I visit his website and learn that he is Australia's most prolific composer/conductor/producer/musician.

His name is Sean O'Boyle, and there are music clips on his site.

I start listening, and I'm mightily impressed. This guy is, as the kids say, the shit. He has composed and recorded jazz (plays the hell out of the clarinet), TV soundtracks, opera for children, a ton of orchestral stuff, and so on. I'm particularly struck by the beauty of his Concerto For Didgeridoo and RiverSymphony (available together on one CD) and I tell him so.

So I take Agent 99 and her parents to see Scotland The Brave, and we all have a great time. Agent 99 and I go to the after-party, where Sean gives me a CD of RiverSymphony and I give him a couple books. We drink beer and laugh a lot, and it feels like we've known each other for years. He loves crime fiction and I love music, and we trade recommendations.

This is one of the real unexpected pleasures that comes from writing. We write our books in relative seclusion, and then they go out into the world. And every once in a while, our work resonates with someone on the other side of the globe, and a connection is made.

This is a beautiful thing. So please indulge a shout-out to Sean O'Boyle and his music. This guy is worth your attention - I promise.

Here's a TV profile of the man himself (some strange '80s music video intrudes from 4:48 to 7:46 - you can skip that part):

In part 2, you can hear some of Concerto for Didgeridoo, and see some of his incredible new work with didgeridoo, vocal, and clarinet. Check it out:

Since we're on the subject of music, I think it's time to share the songs that have most recently become hits with The Mouse:

God-damn, the Clash was a great band.

Chicago Peeps - Catch you on the other end of the highway.

Peace out,

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Mob's Worst Nightmare

by Libby Hellmann

While many in Chicago are still consumed by the indictment of former governor Blagojevich and the alleged criminal organization he created, another criminal organization – once the foremost crime syndicate in Chicago and quite possibly the world—was in the news two weeks earlier.

The final chapter of the "Family Secrets" trial ended March 26 with the sentencing of its star witness, Nick Calabrese. For those of you who come from another planet, the federal Family Secrets Trial in 2007 convicted a top Mafia boss and four other high-profile members of the Chicago Outfit of over a dozen murders spanning three decades. The brother of one of the accused, hit man Nick Calabrese, turned states evidence and informed on his brother as well as others.

The trial dominated Chicago news during the summer of 2007, as much for its drama as the expose of the mob’s activities. Raising the curtain on what arguably had been a feared institution, it revealed the backstories of the men involved. Yes, we heard Joey the Clown deny he murdered anyone, but we also heard about the fear of being a young Mafioso; we heard about bumbling mistakes; we even saw an occasional flash of humor. In that sense, the trial was a watershed event. It’s easy to fear the unknown, but once one has peered “behind the screen,” once the personalities are more than cardboard or Hollywood stereotypes, it’s harder to be afraid.

Chicago Tribune reporter Jeff Coen, who covered the trial from start to finish, has chronicled it in his just-published Family Secrets: The Case That Crippled the Chicago Mob. Full of vivid details and anecdotes, it reads like a novel and should be required reading for anyone who follows the Outfit. Below are some of his thoughts about the trial and its impact, taken from an interview I did with him.

Given Nick Calabrese’s relatively light 12 year sentence, what message was Judge James Zagel (who coincidentally will be trying Blagojevich) sending?

Coen: I think Zagel had different messages for different audiences. He did stop and tell the families of victims that they wouldn't like the sentence, but that the law allows for undeserved leniency in these kinds of situations. In a perfect world, Nick would spend the rest of his life in prison for what he did, but the justice system has to allow breaks for some people like him. If you sentence him to life, same as a Joey Lombardo, then what incentive do future Nick's have to come forward? That's the message to criminals - if you do what's right, there might be hope that you don't have to be locked up for good. It was a tough job for the judge to try to balance this one out.

What was the most surprising or significant development that came out of the Family Secrets trial?

Coen: Some of the surprises were in the details of the high-profile murders. The public record, so to speak, was corrected on the killings of the Spilotro brothers, for example. What really happened - not the "Casino" version (a film made about their murders) - was revealed. That included the stunning testimony about Anthony realizing what was happening and asking to pray. Some of the other things I was struck by were more mundane. I think the trial really offered a rare glimpse of what the everyday, grind-it-out lifestyle was for these guys. You could really imagine what it would be like to be a Nick, driving around to meet juice customers and pick up envelopes and run sports books. Overall I think the most significant part of it is just the place the case and the trial hold now in city history. I was attracted to it as a book project in part because I wanted to preserve that.

How much has the Outfit’s power and influence waned as a result of the trial? What other organized crime syndicates are powerful these days?

Coen: I think the case definitely damaged the Outfit and drove what's left of it even further underground. There are fewer street crews now, and they've retreated into basic activities, such as gambling. Family Secrets was sort of the mob's worst nightmare. It saw the Outfit charged in a conspiracy case as an organization, and saw the first made member in Chicago history testify against it. There aren't lots of people eager to become the public face of organized crime here or draw too much attention.

In terms of organizations that do the most damage these days, in Chicago it is obviously street gangs. They are often less organized than something like the Outift, but they certainly ruin entire communities with narcotics and violence. Street gangs here are responsible for as many killings in two or three years as the Chicago Outfit has been credited with in its whole history. The Chicago FBI aims a lot of resources at major gang cases.

The Chicago Police, especially the rank and file, aren’t happy with Jody Wies. Morale is said to be at an all time low. Do you believe it? What do you see as the repercussions?

Coen: I would agree morale is probably as low as it's been in recent memory. I used to work at the main criminal courthouse in Chicago, and don't recall the kind of ill will we see today toward the Superintendent. Weis has dealt with some scandals, and embarrassments like the 14-year-old who went on traffic patrol. None of that helps, and the police union is still working without a contract. As far as repercussions, maybe it's mixed in terms of what we see on the street. Some important stats have shown some improvement - such as murders being down this year. But over the long haul, you don't need a department that's tearing itself apart.

As far as the Outfit goes, interestingly enough we are about to see another case with police entanglements. There's a case the feds are working out of Cicero that has police there tied up with a crew and running surveillance on FBI agents who were running surveillance on some Outfit guys.

It's always something.

That’s Jeff’s take. What’s yours? (Btw, you can follow Jeff on Twitter @JeffCoen)

Friday, April 10, 2009

I'll Meet You Here Tomorrow, Independen(ts) Day

By Kevin Guilfoile

Last week, bestselling author Joe Finder sent a proposal over the socialnets.

Joe was asking every person who loves books to buy one from an independent bookstore on Friday, May 1.

Within minutes, hundreds of people had taken the "Buy Indie Day" pledge on Facebook and countless more had made a promise on Twitter and MySpace and personal blogs and wherever people gather.

Good for them.

I have nothing against chain bookstores. Chain bookstores have been very good to Cast of Shadows. There is a chain bookstore four blocks from my house, the only bookstore within miles, and no doubt that location has sold more copies of my novel than any store in the country. I am thrilled that I live in a place where I can walk or ride my bike to buy a book.

But any writer who has been out peddling his work knows--and I think this is especially true in the mystery/suspense community--there is no greater friend than a passionate indie bookseller who loves your novel. They are gasoline on the word-of-mouth fire, and like almost every small business right now, they are hurting.

So I'm going to ask everyone who reads this blog, if you have the time, to go to your favorite indie bookstore on May 1 and make a purchase. (If you don't have a regular indie bookstore, this might help. Or this.)

But I'm also going to ask you to do something else. Because I think with very little effort, we have the opportunity to turn this terrific idea into a terrific event. And all I want is this:

Announce ahead of time where you're going to buy your book.

Sometime before May 1, tell us on Facebook. And on Twitter. And on your blog. (Or on Joe Finder's official Buy Indie Day Facebook event page.) Tell your co-workers. Your friends. Your relatives. Ask them if they want to come with you, even people you only know from the internet. Let's take the solitary act of buying a book and turn it into a social event.

And if you're an author, I'd like you to do that, plus one more tiny thing. It's nothing at all, really.

I want you to tell me.

Leave the particulars in the comments of this post. Or email it to kevin[at]guilfoile[dot]net. Or tweet me, even if that's still not a request I'm entirely comfortable making to anyone but my wife.

And then on Monday, April 27, four days before Buy Indie Day, I'll publish a list here at The Outfit, organized by city, detailing where those writers will be buying books on May 1.

Wouldn't it be cool if, for one day, dozens or even hundreds of writers and readers could meet informally in small groups at bookstores all across the country, not at some signing with a podium and chairs and a reading and a spiel and the expectation that some or all of those gathered will buy the author's novel, but informally, almost by chance, as people sharing their love of books? (Which isn't to say, of course, that if you met up with an author at a bookstore and wanted a copy of his or her book, maybe as a Mother's or Father's Day present, he or she wouldn't be happy to sign it for you.) Maybe writers will also time their trips to the bookstore so they can get together, too. We spend way too much time emailing each other, frankly, and this would be almost as easy.

I'll go first. I will be out buying books at Centuries and Sleuths in Forest Park, Illinois at Noon on Friday, May 1.

Maybe this won't work at all. Maybe we're all spread too far apart and maybe not enough people care.

But I really don't think that's the case.

There's an opportunity here to make something very cool happen--near simultaneous, informal meet-ups of readers and writers in independent bookstores all over the country--and it can happen with practically no effort at all.

Shoot, that's what the Internet was built for, yeah?

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Playing through the Pain

Passover starts at sundown on April 8. We're supposed to "leave the House of Bondage." I think about the things/feelings I'm in bondage to--my fears, my obsessions--and wonder how I can leave them and enter the House of Freedom.

I just attended a concert by Leon Fleischer. Fleischer, who's 80 now, lost the use of his right hand when he was about 35, and spent the next 30 years performing the left-handed repertoire, conducting and teaching. When he was almost 70, a cure was found for the neurological disorder that afflicted him, and he's now back to performing with two hands, and playing more passionately and beautifully than anyone else I've heard recently.

He says he never was bitter, and I wonder if that's true. I wonder what the process was. I imagine panic, followed by some years of agony, and then moving to a new place in his career.

I have a friend in Houston, a poet and a woman, who was diagnosed with late-onset MS. Her first two years with the condition, she tried to work out in psycho-therapy what fears made her fall over. I wonder if a psychiatrist suggested to Mr. Fleischer that he was afraid of appearing in public and so had lost the use of his right hand. Or do those suggestions only get made to women?

The House of Bondage is often self-imposed, where Fear rules and keeps us inside. The shocking murder last week of three Pittsburgh police officers, by a man who said he was afraid that Barack was going to take handguns away from private citizens-- it's hard to imagine why he let that fear rule him so completely that he had to shoot three other people to keep himself safe.

D T Max wrote an essay about David Foster Wallace in the March 9 New Yorker, and quoted a letter Wallace wrote to Jonathan Franzen after he finished Infinite Jest. "I'm sad and empty as I always am, when I finish something long. I don't think it's very goo. [a review] called an excerpt feverish and not entirely satisfying, which goes a long way toward describing the experience of writing the thing." His sister Amy says Wallace was always afraid the last thing he wrote would be the last thing he wrote.
Those are fears that I understand; they keep me in my own house of bondage. I hope whatever fears you hold, you know a way to knock them over and find a path to the House of Freedom.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Enough Negativism!

by Barbara D'Amato

Literacy is not in nearly as much trouble as the doomsayers believe. Publishers Weekly last year [6/11/2008] summarized a Scholastic report that in younger children 82% like or love reading. Twenty-five per cent read for pleasure daily and another 53% read for pleasure one to six times a week.

For fifteen to seventeen-year-olds the reading for pleasure figure drops to 55%. Well, duh. Teenagers are in the midst of social, academic, and hormonal pressures that eat up time. However, they are reading and writing in ways that we hardly even notice.

When I was a child, in parts of Michigan, children could leave school after the eighth grade. And there were places in the U.S. where they didn’t have to go that long. I knew a lot of people that were in practice illiterate. We wrote essays in school, but most of us had no other occasion to just write. My granddaughter emails me every few days. Did I ever, as a child, even consider writing to my grandparents? Maybe once when we were on a trip I sent them a postcard.

These kids we think aren’t reading and writing are texting, tweeting, instant messaging, and blogging their little hearts out. Twenty years ago did you ever see kids on the school bus writing letters? Nope. But now they surely are. Their thumbs and styluses are going like mad. They don’t even realize they’re writing. They think they’re having fun.

And they read what the other kids write back, too, of course.

Worried about all those abbreviations, short-cuts and symbols? I’m not. They’re useful.

On one of the listserves recently, a person posted a humorous announcement. Most of the readers took it as funny, but one or two were outraged at what they saw as arrogance. Now, the poster could have said at the beginning “This is going to be a joke.” Or at the end, “This post was meant in fun.” But either sentence would be pretty lame and would detract from the humor of the post. However, if she had followed the post with :) or ;) the meaning would have been clear without the clue being obtrusive.

Let’s not forget that all language probably started as pictoglyphs. A lot of languages today remain glyph-based.

People texting, IM-ing, tweeting, and so on are manipulating symbols for the purpose of communicating. I call that reading and writing.

No, it’s not all fabulous prose. But it never was. Have you ever looked at “home” writing from, say, the 1900s? I have a friend who collects postcards of Saugatuck, Michigan. The pictures are fascinating and often beautiful. Not so much the messages on the back:

‘Wish you were here.”
“Such a beauniful [sic] place, and with sandy beaches.”
“Been here a week and it rained every day.”
“Granny got poison ivy.”

Our view of the wonderfulness of writing in the “old days” is skewed. The letters that survive and have been collected are the wonderful ones, and they were one-in-a-million cases even then.

My granddaughter is writing on something called She writes stories based on a book she’s read, a movie, a play, or a TV show. Some kids riff on a comic strip, games, anime, or cartoons. She says, “Once your story is posted online anyone can read it, and people review it.” Her email to me ends: “I suggest exploring the site.”

There are more people writing today than ever before in the history of humankind.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

BSG, How I Heart Thee

By Marcus Sakey

It should come as a surprise to no one that I’m a big Battlestar Galactica fan. In fact, I’d have to say that it’s probably the best television show I’ve ever seen. I don't mean to disrespect The Wire, or Rome, or Firefly, but I don't think any other show has matched the breadth, ambition, and accomplishment of the series. Around 80 hour-long episodes, each better than the last. No other show has tackled so much—the war on terror, patriotism and its dangers, religious zealotry, faith and belief—while still managing to be a flat-out blast to watch, a thrill ride peopled with characters that I actually miss.

Anyway, last week my friend Alison Janssen, the talented-and-lovely editor of Bleak House Books and a fellow geek, emailed me to say that she had managed to get hold of the series bible, and would I like one?


A series bible is a document prepared by the lead writers of a television show that lays out the backstory of the characters, the style of the writing and direction, and the overall feel of the program. It’s a way to assure that writers working on separate episodes maintain a consistent tone.

This one is penned by Ronald Moore, a legendary sci-fi writer and the creator of the show. It includes some of the finest, most concise writing advice I’ve ever read. Hopefully Moore won’t mind if I post a segment or two here; no spoilers, and I think that writers, readers, and fans can all gain something from them.

(Ron, if you're out there and object, please email me and I’ll yank it immediately—and probably write you a love poem in iambic pentameter. Also, before anybody asks, no I won’t make you a copy, and neither will Alison. Unfair, I know, but I’m not really in the mood to piss off a guy I admire.)

Anyway. A few select bits:
“The key to the success of this series is to never, ever let the air out of the balloon--the Battlestar Galactica lives in a perpetual state of crisis, one in which the Cylons can appear at any moment, and where terrorist bombs, murders, rebellions, accidents, and plagues are the unfortunate routines of day to day life. There are no days off for our characters, no safe havens, nothing approaching the quiet normal existence they once knew. They are on the run for their very lives.”
That's a feat they managed to accomplish for 80 episodes. And they did it without wandering into the silly or exploding the premise.

From a section titled “Plot-Driven Stories”:
“Our plot-driven stories should be reality-based problems that our people could conceivably face on a journey like theirs. They have run into the night with little more than the clothes on their backs and whatever happened to be stowed on the ship on the day the world came to an end. Finding food, fuel, and air supplies are going to be never-ending problems as are dealing with the real-life difficulties in rationing those same supplies…

Our stories should spring from within the fleet wherever possible. In other words, we should avoid storylines which begin with, The Galactica discovers a strange space phenomenon which… Our goal is to tell human stories that are a natural outgrowth of the premise of the show.”

Which is immediately followed by a section called “Character Stories”:

“Our show is, first and foremost, a drama. It is about people. Our characters should always be the most important element of every story. Breaking the traditional rule of the genre, we should sacrifice plot at every turn in favor of character. Time spent discussing the technical problems of outwitting the latest Cylon plot will be better spent dealing with the emotional fallout of the Adama / Lee relationship.

Do not be afraid to expose our characters’ faults, for in their frailties also lie the seeds of their triumphs…Our people are deeply flawed, deeply human characters. They are not, by nature, innately heroic or noble creatures. They do not always make the right decision and do not always do the right thing. They make mistakes, act out of pettiness and spite, and occasionally do things that are reprehensible. However, they are also capable of growth, of change, of learning to overcome their many flaws and rising to he challenges laid before them and performing great and mighty deeds.

They are human.”
For any aspiring writers out there, read those again. Then again. There's gold in them.

If you haven't seen the show, by the way, start at the beginning, with the original miniseries. My money says you'll be hooked from the drop.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

More on media

by Michael Dymmoch

Yesterday's news about the Sun-Times had me seriously bummed—some of my favorite writers work for the paper. If it goes under, where will I find Roeper and Ebert, Carol Marin, and Mark Brown? And Cathleen Falsani, Neil Steinberg, Laura Washington or Mary Mitchell?

Then I read Sean Chercover's blog and Clay Shirky's thoughtful essay about newspapers and the revolution Gutenberg started. Print writers are scrambling to find a place in a world fundamentally changed by the Internet. Printed books will probably be around a while in spite of Kindle®. But newspapers as we've known them...

Part of the problem I had writing this blog today mirrors what I see as the conundrum of our age—there is too much to occupy our time. Unlike our life and attention spans, information is unlimited. A Google search turns up thousands, sometimes millions of references. Even Wikipedia often yields dozens of pages of information and pages of further references. So many books are published annually that libraries have to discard the old to fit in the new.

Non-fiction books quickly become outdated, so it's just as well for taxpayers and the environment that the information is available electronically. But on the internet how do you sort out the accurate from the innuendo? The alarming-but-true from the paranoid? More choices are available—more radio stations, more TV channels, more books, more cable, but people seem more poorly prepared than ever to judge what is true, accurate, or appropriate. One of the advantages of newspapers is that most have some standards for accuracy and journalistic integrity. And they prominently display the names of their contributors and editorial boards.

And what about all the great fiction that libraries dump because it's not circulating? I gave up trying to keep Another Country in my local library after the second time someone put it on the Discards-For-A-Quarter shelf. The argument was that some library in the Inter-Library Loan System still had a copy, so it was still available. But how is anyone to discover it—as I did—while browsing? Kindle and Project Gutenberg are genius ideas, but old out-of-print books will still have to be recommended to new readers by someone. And living writers will still need to be compensated for their work.

I don't subscribe to cable—can't begin to keep up with the great programs available via rabbit ears—so most of my news comes from the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Tribune, WTTW and the BBC. If Clay Shirky's correct, I'll have to adapt to a world without the daily papers. Which is why I just wrote a check for Channel 11 and made an online contribution to WYCC.