Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Upcoming Events: SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE

Hi, all. Just wanted to remind you that I'll be doing three events in the next 10 days to launch SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE. If you're in the area, consider yourself invited. There will be food, wine, and entertainment!

In Andersonville:
Thursday, December 2, 7:30 PM
Women and Children First

In Forest Park
Saturday, December 4, 2 PM
Centuries and Sleuths

And in Winnetka
Sunday, December 12 2 PM
The Book Stall

Here's a preview. I was incredibly lucky to get footage of 1968 from artist and film-maker Tom Palazzolo. Thanks again, Tom.

Hope to see you soon.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Meet Brian Doyle, Writer

By Bryan Gruley

Committed a sin yesterday, in the hallway, at noon. I roared at my son, I grabbed him by the shirt collar, I frightened him so badly that he cowered and wept, and when he turned to run I grabbed him by the arm so roughly that he flinched, and it was that flicker of fear and pain across his face, the bright eager holy riveting face I have loved for ten years, that stopped me then and haunts me this morning; for I am the father of his fear, I sent it snarling into his heart, and I can never get it out now, which torments me …

I wish I could write with, at once, such abandon and such skill. The passage above is from an essay called “A Sin” (www.up.edu/portlandmag/2005_fall/asin_txt.html.) by Brian Doyle.

If you don’t know Doyle or his writing, you should.

I’ve been reading his scribblings, as he calls them, since we argued about Salinger and the New York Yankees over Stroh’s and bongs at Notre Dame in the late 1970s. Today he edits Portland Magazine, the University of Portland’s excellent alumni magazine, and he writes: essays, poems, remembrances, ponderings, and a novel, Mink River, that Publishers Weekly called a “fresh, memorable debut.”

He writes with great lucidity and lyricism in an oddly disciplined but fiery free verse in which he’s never afraid to stack adjectives atop one another like chimney bricks. Several of his essays have been chosen for the annual Best American Essays collection. My favorites are about altar boys, Van Morrison, and grace. The last one, “Grace Notes,” begins, “Is there a richer and stranger idea in the world than grace? Only love, grace’s cousin, grace’s summer pelt.”

I always feel better after reading something Doyle wrote. Even when it’s a bittersweet rumination on the heart malady his boy was born with. Always.

I introduce him to the Outfit because Doyle lived for a while in Chicago, loves the city, and has been writing about it. For the last several months, bits and pieces of his scribblings on Chicago have been showing up in my snail-mail box. This one, which came with a pencil drawing of a horse and a long-haired bearded man resembling Doyle, made me laugh:

One time when I lived in the seething salty city of Chicago I met a horse walking down the street – this was on Lincoln Avenue, near the lake. The horse was enormous and reddish in color. We stopped and contemplated each other, and you will think this is fiction, but I assure you that some sort of message was communicated, some sort of graceful exchange of intent – a cheerful witness of the other’s presence, with something added of respect. I mean, a horse is a remarkable being, and it’s not every day you have a chance to encounter one in the middle of a serious city, while shuffling along wondering about baseball and girls and newspapers and trains and ancient scent of the redolent lake as big as a sea.

I asked Doyle in an email what he planned to do with all these pieces, and he replied that he wants to compile them “into a little dinky comic book just like the Silver Surfer comics I loved as a boy – I am going to find a printer here to do it for next to nothing and make like 100 copies on shitty newsprint just for fun.”

That’s the other thing about Doyle. He always reminds me, without even trying, why we write. As he puts it in an essay called, “Why Write?” …

My job—my itch, urge, dream, hobby, entertainment, prayer—is to tell stories on paper, to try to choose and tell stories that both inform and move their readers, and that is what I do to shoulder the universe forward two inches. I was given the urge, and a little of the requisite skill, and I have to do it. It’s what I do, and what I love to do, and no one else can do it quite like I do.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thomas Dolby - Airwaves

As an addendum to my earlier Radio post, here's Thomas Dolby's AIRWAVES.


Friday, November 26, 2010

A Twenty-first Century Thanksgiving

by Barbara D'Amato

Ah, the aroma of roasting turkey! The spicy scent of bubbling cranberry sauce. Baking squash with cinnamon and brown sugar. Rich gravy. Buttery mashed potatoes. The family gathered round.

But wait. One is a woman who is lactose intolerant. One is a man who won't eat meat on principle. One is boy who is gluten-sensitive. One a woman with reduced gall bladder function who has to drastically limit fats. One an older man who has to limit fats and salt. Another on a strict low-cal diet. And so on. A few [bless them] who can eat anything.

There are solutions to the menu dilemma. Fresh turkey, unlike frozen, is not injected with salt water. Put out veggies. The big fruit platter looks beautiful.

And then I think about plot uses for all this. You want to make a witness to the crime less alert? He is lactose intolerant and someone has slipped him milk in what looks like innocent coconut pudding. Gluten? It is almost impossible to taste wheat in what purports to be all-cornmeal bread stuffing. And this is not even getting to the really serious intolerances like peanut allergies.

Sabotaging food is a fine and rarely used resource for fiction writers.

But don't try it at home.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Turn It Up, Radio...

by Sean Chercover

My love affair with radio began when I was about seven or eight years old. My father bought me a build-it-yourself crystal radio kit, and we built it together and set it up in my bedroom. My dad climbed the TV antenna on the house next door to fix the longwire antenna that led to my bedroom window. And with that, we were in business, as my dad used to say.

The crystal radio is an amazing thing. Just a copper wire wrapped around a tube, and a metal bar that you slid along the tube to select which AM frequency you wanted to tune into. The real mind-blower, to me, was that it had no apparent power source. It drew power from the very radio waves that hit the antenna.

To me, that was magic.

My dad used my fascination as an opportunity to teach me about radio frequencies and electricity and so on, and I spent countless hours sliding up and down the dial, catching radio signals right out of the air.

After a while, my ears began to hurt from the headphones, so he took me to Radio Shack and we bought a little tweeter, and wire and whatnot. At home, we built a little box and Dad drilled holes in it, and we mounted the little tweeter inside and wired it up, and - voila! - we had a speaker to hook up to the crystal radio kit.

Of course, we had "real" radios in the house that got better reception and, being powered, offered far better sound, but they weren't magic like the radio we built ourselves that needed no power.

Fast-forward to summer, 1977. I'm 10 (and-a-half) and my sister is 13. We lived on the back porch that summer, listening to 1050 CHUM on a little transistor radio, and we strung a telephone out on the porch.

CHUM was running a contest, calling people at random. If you answered the phone, "Hello," you didn't win. So all that summer, Holly and I answered the phone "I listen to CHUM!" Which probably annoyed our parents to no end, but it payed off. Twice. The prize was a record of your choice. Holly won first, and picked WINGS OVER AMERICA. After she won, she graciously let me answer the phone whenever it rang. And, just a few weeks later, I won too. I chose ROCK AND ROLL OVER, by KISS.

Going to the radio station to meet the DJ and pick up your prize was exciting as hell. There were rumors of degenerate disk jockeys seducing young girls with drugs and booze, but I think all Holly experienced was gentle flirtation.

Nobody overtly flirted with me when I picked up my record, and I didn't get to meet a DJ, but the pretty receptionist smiled at me, which made me feel ... unusual.

That was also the year of my first concert - KISS, with CHEAP TRICK as the opening act. The pot smoke was so thick you could hardly breathe (and thus, I got my first contact high at the tender age of 10). The guy sitting behind me was tripping on something, and bit his phosphorescent necklace open and spat glowing green stuff all over me. Gene Simmons spat blood and breathed fire, and people in the audience filled their mouths with vapor from Bic lighters and breathed fire right back, and one guy set his hair on fire. Rick Neilsen played a six-neck guitar and was all kinds of awesome.

But I digress...

As a grown-up (heh...) I became fascinated by DX (distance) AM, and bought altogether too many radios and antennas, experimenting with different combinations until I could listen to Cubs games from Chicago and the Atlanta radio stations we used to listen to when in Georgia, all the way in Toronto.

And then there was Shortwave. I loved the hunt - late at night, playing with the antenna, scanning through the static, finding stations in Africa, China, Norway, Israel, Iran, Russia. One of the really cool things about Shortwave is that it was the favored medium for government propaganda. Voice of America, Radio Havana, and so on. Each country, arguing its case in the marketplace of ideas, sending signals over the airwaves...

The magic was back. Also great for getting the News from the perspective of so many different countries.

But with the growing popularity of the Internet as a radio delivery medium, people just aren't listening to Shortwave in the numbers they once did, and many countries are abandoning their Shortwave service.

Which brings me to now.

I recently installed two radio apps on my iPhone, and they are incredible. The first is WunderRadio, which carries over 39,000 radio stations from across the globe. It has apps that work on all the Apple products, plus Android, BlackBerry, and WindowsMobile.

The other is TuneIn Radio, which carries over 40,000 stations, but only works on the Apple products (iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch).

They're both terrific. As I write this, I'm listening to Voice of Barbados. I spent most of the morning listening to WWOZ New Orleans (the best radio station in the world). Last night, I set the sleep timer, and we fell asleep listening to BBC Scotland. In the last 24 hours, we've listened to radio from DR Congo, Afghanistan (not very good - smooth jazz crap, mostly), Iraq, Taiwan, Norway (they dig really good jazz in Norway), Radio Margaritaville (Parrotheads Unite!), and so on.

It's amazing. But is it magic? Not really.

Magic, is a radio that you build yourself and that has no apparent power source. Magic, is surfing through the static to find messages from a far-off-place. There's romance in the static. The world is a very big place, and foreign cultures are truly foreign.

There's no romance in this new technology. But it is convenient, and it sounds clearer, and I love it for all that. There's no denying that it is an improvement over the past, even if the romance is lost.

I wonder if the romanticizing of old technology is applicable to the resistance to ebooks...

I don't own an ebook reader, and I'm in no hurry to get one. I will, I'm sure, in time. And I see the benefits. Convenience, speed, and the saving of trees, chief among them.

But there's romance in a book that simply does not exist in an ebook. I'm not anti-ebook. They'll never completely replace dead-tree technology, for me, but I can see how they'll fit into my life, as a compliment to "real" books. Just as these iPhone apps fit into my life as a compliment to "real" radio.

We read books, primarily, for the stories within, just as we listen to the radio for the shows being broadcast. The delivery device is an important part of the experience, but it isn't the primary part of the experience.

That's all I got. If you dig radio, check out the links to the apps above. You'll thank me later.

Oh, and buy books for Christmas. By which, I mean, "real" books.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The credibility of the story

By David Heinzmann

When I was invited to talk to my kid’s kindergarten class last week about being a reporter, I decided the best way to explain journalism to a bunch of six-year-olds was to tell them that I tell stories for a living.

But not just any kind of story, of course. I told them there are two kinds of tales in this world: those that are make-believe and those that really happened.
As a reporter, I tell the ones that really happened.

I showed the kids my digital voice recorder (always use a prop of some kind when trying to hold the attention of the shorties) and told them I use it so that the words of people in my stories are down just exactly as they said them. No foggy recollections of what was said. Nothing made up.

When I asked for an example of a story they know that really happened, one little girl raised her hand and blurted out “The Titanic.” Excellent. However, given that my own 6-year-old is pretty sure that certain heroic events really did happen A Long Time Ago, in a Galaxy Far, Far Away… I probably should have asked them for an example of a story they knew was made up. That’s harder. We all want to believe on some level that these stories we hear or read could really be true, right? Otherwise, who cares.

By the way, bless these children—and their parents—because when I asked for a show of hands if an actual newspaper gets delivered to their front door every morning, nearly all of them went up. (which says more about my zip code than the future of print journalism. But still.) I was presently surprised by the notions they’ve formed at such a young age about the nature of stories.

After drilling them on the importance for a journalist to make sure everything it true, I figured it better to not open any cans of worms about the fictional side of my writing life. I had only twenty minutes with them, and their desire to hear their own voices played back on my fancy little digital recorder had created a bit of a frenzy ten minutes in.

But I’m always pre-occupied with this issue of make-believe and factual reality, and how they mix in writing. Both as a writer and a reader. Can a nonfiction book that takes liberties to “reconstruct” conversations and events really be regarded as truth? And does a novel really benefit from a writer’s care to get some facts of the real word just write in the book? In crime stories, I think the geography should be right, for the most part, and the criminal justice system should be represented somewhat accurately. But maybe the reporter side of me is fooling the novelist side about what really matters.

Part of me wants to believe this level accuracy helps a story reflect some central sense of truth. It’s not just make-believe. But then again, truth isn’t dependent on the accuracy of the street signs or cop nomenclature. Real truth in fiction comes from characters readers can believe in.

Friday, November 19, 2010

You Know I See It Written Across the Sky

By Kevin Guilfoile

This week, rocker Patti Smith won the National Book Award for her memoir Just Kids. (First of all, yay.) In her acceptance speech, Smith said:

"I dreamed of having a book of my own, of writing one that I could put on a shelf. There is nothing more beautiful than the book, the paper, the font, the cloth. Please, no matter how we advance technologically, please don’t abandon the book. There is nothing in our material world more beautiful than the book."
Her comments have been endlessly retweeted as part of the ongoing discussion of the place of eBooks in contemporary literature. But they struck me as being more significant than that. They represent an artist calling on all of us, as we rush into a future that is as uncertain as it is inevitable, to always treat words with reverence and respect.

George W. Bush has a memoir out, too. As reported by the Huffington Post, Bush lifted large portions of the book--including his own direct quotes--verbatim from other memoirs and accounts of his administration. Some of Bush's sources even included books whose accuracy the White House had dismissed when they were published.

Like many presidents writing their autobiographies, Bush employed a ghostwriter, a former Yale classmate of his daughter Barbara who had gone on to become a favored White House speechwriter. Christopher Michel was a college sophomore when Bush took office and the president apparently treated this project like weekend homework. Instead of sitting down for extensive interviews with Michel, it seems Bush charged him to go out there and figure out what happened for himself and when he was done the president would sign off on it. Where else could Michel go except to Bob Woodward and Tommy Franks? And why interview them when you can just copy their words from a book?

In the meantime, and not incidentally, an anonymous individual who ghostwrites college term papers for a fee wrote a tell-all over at The Chronicle Review. It's a chilling if sadly unsurprising read for anyone who trusts in the sanctity and integrity of work and learning.

Last year I wrote about an anecdote in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest that is presented in the book as original but was, in fact, cut-and-pasted from an old joke that was surely being passed around by hand and email at the time Wallace was writing. As I said then, I don't consider it plagiarism--the anecdote is eventually revealed to be part of an insurance scam and I can accept that we are to assume that the character is the plagiarist (although none of this is explicitly stated). Still I thought it was problematic enough to warrant a discussion. When I brought it up over at the Infinite Summer web site, however, I was surprised at the number of people, especially young people, who saw nothing at all wrong with copying something off the internet and presenting it as one's own work.

(Indeed almost anyone who has written for the internet has had the experience of stumbling across his own writing with another person's byline on it. Among my own work, the piece that has been most appropriated is, for some reason, this one.)

All of which is to say that cynicism over the written word has been growing for a long time, but it's especially disheartening to discover, all politics aside, that a former president of the United States approaches his own account of one of the most important periods in American history like an overdue assignment at an offshore correspondence school.

And so in a week that also brought news of another misadventure in commercial cynicism, the "James Frey Fiction Factory," Smith's suggestion that words are not commodities, that writing is art and that the written word should be treated with respect by both readers and authors, was particularly welcome. One day I hope a history professor holds both the Bush book and the Smith book in front of his class and says, "One of these is an account of wartime America by the most powerful man in the world. The other is the story of a naive young woman coming of age in punk-era New York. Now guess which one is actually important."

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Parestsky and Aleksy: Chicago Crime Fiction Winners!

Opened my email this morning to some fabulous news from Mystery Writers of America!

Here's Part One:

November 18, 2010 - New York, NY – Sara Paretsky has been named the 2011 Grand Master by Mystery Writers of America (MWA). MWA's Grand Master Award represents the pinnacle of achievement in mystery writing and was established to acknowledge important contributions to this genre, as well as a body of work that is both significant and of consistent high quality. Ms. Paretsky will be presented with her award at The Edgar Awards Banquet, which will be held at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City on Thursday, April 28, 2011. When told of being named Grand Master, Paretsky said, “I'm so glad to win this. I'm glad to have this for my very own."

Paretsky revolutionized the mystery world in 1982 with her novel Indemnity. The book introduced detective V.I. Warshawski, a female private investigator who used her wits and fists, challenging a genre in which women typically played minor or passive roles. Paretsky, who lives in Chicago, has written twelve best-selling Warshawski novels. She has also penned a memoir, two stand-alone novels, a collection of short stories, and has edited four anthologies. In 1986 Paretsky founded Sisters in Crime, an organization that supports women crime writers, earning her MS Magazine’s 1987 Woman of the Year Award. The British Crime Writers awarded Paretsky both the Cartier Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement and the Gold Dagger for best novel of 2004. Her books are currently published in thirty countries.

"The mystery genre took a seven-league stride thanks to Sara Paretsky, whose gutsy and dauntless protagonist showed that women can be tough guys, too," said Larry Light, Executive Vice President of Mystery Writers of America. "Before, in Sara's words, women in mysteries were either vamps or victims. Her heroine, private eye V.I. Warshawski, is whip-smart and two-fisted, capable of slugging back whiskey and wrecking cars, and afire to redress social injustice."

And here's Part Two:

Two exceptional mystery bookstores will be honored with the 2011 Raven Award. Established in 1953, the award recognizes outstanding achievement in the mystery field outside the realm of creative writing. Once Upon a Crime, in Minneapolis, MN, and Centuries & Sleuths in Chicago, IL, will receive recognition for their contribution to the mystery community. They also will receive their awards at the Edgar Award Banquet in New York City on Thursday, April 28, 2011.

Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore was named one of the Ten Best Bookstores in Chicago by the Chicago Tribune. Many customers have tagged the owner, Augie Alesky, as the coolest bookseller in Chicago. "I have always wanted a Raven. The mystery community is such a great place,” Alesky said upon hearing the news.

The store has hosted hundreds of author readings and talks, with both new and established writers. Augie’s programs are innovative, including mock trials, debates, and numerous “Meeting of Minds” programs similar to the PBS series. In fact, from the very first days of opening, actors and then authors themselves were encouraged to dress in period costumes to illustrate and dramatize a book. Centuries & Sleuths was nominated for the American Booksellers Association “Bookseller of the Year” award in 2008. The store marks its 20th Anniversary this year.

PS The other bookstore to win the Raven was ONCE UPON A CRIME in Minneapolis, which many Chicagoans consider a suburb anyway. Like Augie, Pat and Gary go out of their way to host mystery writers, talk up our books, and pretty much make themselves indispensable to the mystery community.

Way to go, MWA. Please join me in congratulating Sara, Augie, and Pat and Gary!!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Opposites Attract: Making a big point with imagery and dialogue

by Jamie Freveletti

I'm a huge fan of classic movies (and songs). If you're a writer you need to watch the old ones to see just how conflict between women and men or evil and good should be done. I've been fairly outspoken about my dislike of the current "torture porn" movies and books. I'm not really blaming the writers, we all realize that the world we live in is getting more vicious by the year--one only has to watch the political attack ads to see that civility is long gone, but I do think that there is still a lot of room for finesse.

There's no putting the graphic scene back in the corner. We're seeing way too much violence in our world and media now to act as though it's not happening.

Do these books work? Yes. Are they going to last? Maybe. Should you write one? If you want, but before you go straight to the scene where the woman is strapped to the bed and being attacked you should probably watch some classic movies. These writers had to produce the same thrill and do it by igniting the imagination, not by writing an overt scene.

Case in point: What are these two going to be doing next? (Spoiler alert)

If you said making love, you would be right. This scene oozes sex, and just about everyone over a certain age can see it. They're at the end of their dinner (the coffee's on the table), he's doing something for her -an act of deference and a courtly gesture--and she's holding his hand lightly as she responds. Now, if you wrote this scene, but changed his behavior just slightly, everything changes:

What if she had asked for a light and he simply handed her the lighter? Would those two be racing to her room? I think not. And if you wanted to show that he is even more uninterested, or perhaps even a boor, you would have him toss the lighter on the table.

Second shot-- Look at the photo of Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant above. Who flirting here?

Clearly the woman. Audrey Hepburn's next line, "How do you shave in there?" Great bit of dialogue that points out his cleft chin. If this scene was in a novel the fact that he had a cleft chin and she points at it and you added that line it would speak volumes about his looks without using the word "handsome" anywhere. These two also end up in bed, but only after he insists on marriage. Nice twist, and Cary Grant is the one who wanted to have the woman chase and the man hold out.

Contrast that with this scene:

He's definitely on the move and Doris Day is considering her next one--should she say yes or no? Since it's a Doris Day movie she says yes only after safely married. But if you write a scene that describes a man stepping up behind a woman, gently placing his hands on her bare shoulders, and whispering in her ear, that paragraph screams intimacy and approach, and you never once have to clarify his intentions.

But conflict is always best when writing mysteries and thrillers, and this photo says it all:

What I like about this scene is he's angry--his face shows it and he's got her by the wrist--but look at her, she's not intimidated at all. Her chin is up and she remains relaxed and doesn't try to pull her arm away--all moves that a writer would describe if she wanted to send the message that the woman is not worried. Here Grace Kelly's character looks like she's still got the upper hand: and she does, because he doesn't leave--they end up...

Having sex-okay some behavior is universal and I guess when you're Cary Grant you end up having a lot of sex in your movies, but in this case it was unclear whether he was going to go for it. For most of this movie Grace Kelly's character spends her time chasing him in order to unmask him as the famous cat burglar and he was fascinated by her but more often than not angry, too. In the actual movie the ending was changed. Initially Hitchcock had them going their separate ways, but he was pressured to change the end to a more "hollywood" happy one. He does it with a funny little twist.

I like the subtlety of the classics. I like the challenge of making a statement without overtly saying it, and I don't always get it right, but I hope to keep working at it. Thrillers generally require broader images, but readers notice the small ones too. Here's to adding more of those!

Monday, November 15, 2010

elementary education

by Michael Dymmoch

Young children are nearly always highly imaginative. They need watchful parents because they do things no sane adult would even think of trying. Unless their parents are hyper-anxious, young kids are fearless because they haven’t yet learned what to fear. They’re inventive because they haven’t learned the prescribed uses for stuff. They try things out without preconceptions. They think of different uses than those intended by the manufacturer. (Highly successful companies encourage their employees to do this, too—to "think outside the box.")

Then kids are sent to school where they learn the “correct way” to do things. That’s what school is for. (To teach people to be good citizens and do their jobs the “right way” “because I said so.”) But most schools have a one-size-fits-all approach and a “No-child-Left-Behind” method of measuring success, and they don’t pay great teachers nearly what they're worth. So children gradually learn to hate school, and they lose the creativity and the natural curiosity they’re born with—the attributes they most need as adults to succeed in our competitive world. And along with curiosity and creativity, they lose their willingness to try anything and their fearless disregard of being wrong.

An unintended consequence of what passes for education in most schools is what children do learn—that good grades are more important than a great education, that being right is more important than being effective, that winning is everything. And if kids do learn to rebel, they often do it without learning to think through the point or the consequences of their rebellion.

Good colleges (and a few great lower schools) are an exception to this generalization. But without a great elementary and secondary education, the chances of getting into or staying the course in college are remote.

So if you made it through school without losing your curiosity and creativity, and with the nerve to color outside the lines, thank the creative teachers who inspired you, the parents who encouraged you, and the writers and other rebels who demonstrated that the “right way” often isn’t the only way

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


by Marcus Sakey

As those of you who follow me on Facebook know, I often post questions. Part of the reason is that I find the whole social media thing a little me-me-me oriented, and as a good Midwestern boy, I was raised to find relentlessly talking about myself impolite. But the larger part of the reason is that I'm fascinated by the answers.

Yesterday, my question was this: "What's a book or movie that you've read or watched over and over? Ready, Go."

As of this writing, 49 people have responded. Here are some of the big winners, mentioned multiple times:
  • To Kill A Mockingbird (book and film)
  • The Star Wars Trilogy (the real one, not the one for the kiddies)
  • The Last of the Mohicans (film)
  • The Lord of the Rings (films)
  • Catcher in the Rye
  • North by Northwest
  • The Godfather
  • The Shawshank Redemption
  • Mystic River
This is, at first glance, one weird ass list.

But the more I look at it, the more sense I see. These are all big titles, by which I don’t mean so much that they made a lot of money, though they did, or that they were sweeping in scope, though most of them were.

No, the bigness I mean here is something else. It’s an ineffable sort of bigness. A sense that the story has weight, heft. Something that will endure.

That makes sense, of course, since my question was about books and movies that people have enjoyed multiple times. But as a writer, it’s also an interesting and daunting thing to recognize.

Something made these big. It didn’t just happen. A quality in the idea, or in the telling, or both, took these beyond the norm.

The vast majority of books and movies come out, live their day, and fade into the background. They aren’t lost, but they aren’t likely to get three or four mentions on a list like this. They aren’t likely to haunt the collective imagination of a wide group of people.

If I have a point, I suppose it’s this—I wonder if, as writers, this is a worthwhile test to apply to our own work. It would be a painful one, no question. This is a scary ass hurdle to put before yourself while you’re trying to create something from nothing.

But maybe it’s a good one. Maybe it can help. Maybe, if nothing else, aiming for bigness has value.

Meanwhile, I’d love to see more answers to this question. What book have you read a number of times? What movie can you always watch again?

Ready, go.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Location, Location, Location

by Michael Wiley

We're always happy to have a present or former Chicago guy guest post on the Oufit -- especially one who still writes about Chicago -- and Michael Wiley fits the bill.
Michael writes the award-winning Joe Kozmarski P.I. series, including the Shamus-nominated The Last Striptease (winner of the PWA/SMP “Best First” competition) and, most recently, The Bad Kitty Lounge. St. Martin’s Minotaur will release A Bad Night’s Sleep in June, 2011. Booklist has described Michael’s mysteries as “melancholic” and “howlingly funny,” a combination that sort of scares him. He lives in Jacksonville, Florida, and – whenever he can – Chicago. You can visit him at www.michaelwileyonline.com.

Where the hell am I? And what am I doing here? Although I grew up in Chicago, I’ve spent only three of the past twenty-two years there. The first seven years, I lived in Manhattan, and the past twelve I’ve been in the Deep South, in Jacksonville, Florida.

But my time away hasn’t changed my geographical orientation. You can take the boy out of Chicago, but you can’t take Chicago out of the boy – or something like that – and so, I think of myself as a Chicago writer. I set my Joe Kozmarski mysteries there under the El tracks, on the lakefront after dark, and in the shadows of buildings that line the streets in Ravenswood, Pilsen, Little Vietnam, and the Loop. If someone forced ruby slippers onto my feet and clicked my heels, I’m pretty sure I know where I would land.

Still, there are benefits to living in Jacksonville while writing about Chicago. Jacksonville has features that put Chicago in perspective. We’ll never be sister cities – the physical resemblances end with the brown rivers that cut through both – but Jacksonville speaks about Chicago from across the divide. Here are some of the features of this town that have taught me about Chicago:

1. Jacksonville has manatees. My family lives across the street from a lake that connects by a canal to the St. Johns River, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean, and every few months a group of manatees swims in for a day or two to feed on the grass that grows on the banks.

They look like gigantic sea slugs (cute ones), though up until the end of the eighteenth century sailors called them sea cows and swore that their meat tasted like beef. The same sailors apparently also mistook the oversized sea slugs for mermaids, though, so the information may not be reliable.

After one up-close encounter with these strange, mostly stupid animals, nothing that Chicago politics offers looks odd anymore. If manatees had hair, they definitely would style it like Rod Blagojevich’s.

2. We also have hurricanes and alligators
. Also snakes. And tornadoes and very large cockroaches. Manatees are cute and stupid – more harmed than harmful – but in general if you ignore nature here, it will bite you in the ass. And then it will eat the rest of you and start looking for your family.

Chicago – with its big shoulders and its steel and concrete – looks and feels too solid and strong ever to break, as do the people who run the city, but life in Florida demonstrates that sooner or later everything and everyone can and will fall.

3. Racial politics in Jacksonville are . . . complicated. In Song of Solomon, one of Toni Morrison’s characters calls Jacksonville “Bad, bad country” because of its overt institutionalized racism. As if to confirm the assessment, in the first week after I moved here, a pickup passed me with a bumper sticker that said, “If I’d known it was going to end up like this, I would have picked my own damn cotton.”

But I quickly learned that while racism remains strong in some people, racial relations are as complex here as in any other place I’ve lived or visited – tied into personal and group histories, inseparable from economics, the product and the cause of confused communications: in other words, a mess most of the time, but an interesting mess out of which some good occasionally rises.

I can’t say that living here has given me a perfectly clear perspective on racial relations in Chicago, but it has taught me a lot about the North, the South, and the spaces in between.

4. Jacksonville is the Murder Capital of Florida. As everyone north of the Florida-Georgia border knows, Florida is full of lunatics who kill each other, chop up the bodies, and feed the pieces to their pet alligators. Having lived here for twelve years, I can say that this is true.

But Jacksonville enjoys the additional distinction of being the city with the highest per capita murder rate for ten years running. For residents, this situation pretty much sucks. For a Chicago crime writer, though, there’s always plenty of material. I simply remove the alligators from the news accounts, transplant the crimes a thousand miles to the north, and I have a book.

5. We have swamps. Lots of them. We call them wetlands and we recognize their environmental importance, but then we turn them over to developers more or less for the asking. This city wears the bones of power – political and financial – like an exoskeleton.

Sound familiar?

But Jacksonville’s relatively small size – one million residents to Chicago’s roughly three million – allows for a close-up understanding of the way things work.

And, often enough, the way things work here looks enough like the way things work in The City that Works that I can carry the lessons north – except when a manatee or an alligator rears its ugly head.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Tuesday Mourning

by David Ellis

Things that surprised me on Tuesday:

1. The Republican steamroller, that left Democratic bodies in its wake throughout the country, was stopped in Illinois by … Pat Quinn.

2. Alexi Giannoulias gave a very graceful and dignified concession speech. If he’d have run his entire campaign that well, he might be a U.S. Senator-elect.

3. That dumb special senate election. It didn’t exactly surprise me but I had forgotten about it. The next time President Obama has a chance to appoint someone to the U.S. Supreme Court, and someone mentions Dianne Wood from the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, remember that Judge Wood was the one who authored the opinion that we had to have two elections for U.S. Senate, one for a 6-year term and one for a 2-month term. I think she interpreted the Constitution correctly but the remedy she chose was ridiculous. People were confused as hell about having to vote for two different Kirk-Giannoulias races.

4. It may very well be the case that Scott Lee Cohen hurt Bill Brady more than he hurt Pat Quinn. That’s pretty ironic considering that many observers believed Cohen ran for governor out of spite after he was booted off the ticket with Quinn.

5. Melissa Bean losing (if, in fact, she has lost, which seems to be the case). Yes, it was a Republican landslide, but she had gone to great lengths to vote like her district, which is center-right. Then again, she did vote for that health-care bill.

6. Jalapeno peppers on a pizza are really hot. That has nothing to do with politics but it surprised me on Tuesday.

And a few other observations:

1. The only person who still thinks Bill Brady has a chance to be elected governor is Bill Brady.

2. The thing the polls rarely capture adequately, but which is often the most decisive factor, is

3. All the news outlets had Pat Quinn listed as an incumbent. He wasn’t. See, here’s what happened. He was lieutenant governor and there was this guy in the top spot named Blagojevich …

4. And yeah, as long as I’m being a pain in the ass about this, that also means that Quinn wasn’t “re-elected” to the job; he was just elected for the first time.

5. Although I imagine a lot of people didn’t notice, one of the most significant things that happened on Tuesday was the retention of Supreme Court Justice Tom Kilbride. First of all, he’s a good man. But more importantly, the attack groups were going after him basically for one vote he took on the medical malpractice law. We shouldn’t be kicking judges out of office because we disagree about one vote; judges have to be unafraid to make unpopular decisions. Even the Chicago Tribune endorsed Kilbride’s retention, making that very point. So score one for judicial independence.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The best thing about working with the innocent...

by Laura Caldwell

At the Life After Innocence clinic at Loyola Law School, we work with exonerees—people who were wrongfully convicted—in order to help them start their lives over. Being arrested for something you didn’t do is incredibly difficult, but being convicted when you are entirely innocent is a horror. You would think that exonerees would be the most bitter of people. They certainly have earned the right to be bitter if they chose to do so. And yet, the men and women we work with are incredibly positive, just wanting to live life to the fullest, starting right now. When I think about the emotional tenacity that’s needed to survive such a nightmare, I am so incredibly inspired. It makes me think that if they can survive that, then anything is possible. Anything.

I know my law students are inspired by the exonerees too, but I wondered if it was for the same reasons that I am. I decided to ask some of them, ‘What’s the best thing about working with exonerees?’ Here are their responses:

The best thing is being able hear firsthand about the experience of being wrongfully convicted, and then helping these folks re-establish their lives, find their purpose, and move forward.
-Rebecca Blabolil

I think the best thing is being inspired to fight for all the people who are still in - working with exonerees exposes you to people who have had everything taken away from them, yet the only thing they want is to make sure it doesn't happen to someone else - that gives me a purpose and a desire to keep working for the cause.
-Adjunct Professor Emily DeYoe

Many attorneys try to minimize these emotional connections in an attempt to leave their work at work, but working with exonerees I have found the opposite to be desirable. The connections that we are able to build with individuals who are often slipping through the cracks of the legal justice system are part of the benefit to our work, rather than the burden.
-Chris Reed

Exonerees are down to earth and really help keep problems, and what's important, in perspective. You might even call it wisdom.
-Sara Stretch

The best part is helping to use my law education to help those who were so wronged by the law - essentially trying to make amends for this injustice in some small way.
-Kate Tresley

Monday, November 01, 2010


By Bryan Gruley

Thirty-five years ago, I had a professor who told my English class that the greatest line ever written in American literature resided in a short story by J.D. Salinger. I saw the professor last week for the first time since I graduated from Notre Dame.

Bill Krier did not remember the Salinger line. But he reminded me of what makes a great teacher, and how important that can be to his students, whether they’re 18 years old or 52.

I met him on campus in his book-filled office. He looked the same but for the hair going white and the paunch asserting itself. He spoke with the same wry humor and well-chosen words I remembered from his classes.

I reminded him that the first story he taught was Updike’s “Should Wizard Hit Mommy?”, about a father and his daughter and the moral obligations attached to the telling of stories. Professor Krier shook his head and chuckled.

He told me he’s teaching film classes now, and in minutes we were debating the classic western Shane, and why Clint Eastwood’s remake, Pale Rider, was a pale imitation (Krier: Michael Moriarty played too weak a character in the role Van Heflin played in Shane).

Thirty years disappeared.

Professor Krier said he’s also teaching noir movies, and after he described to me the concept of the “loose woman” (not what you think), I thought of a character in one of my books and mentioned that I had written two novels. The professor’s eyes went wide. “No!” he said. “What genre?” I told him mystery. “Wow,” He said. “Do you know Steve Hamilton?”

I think he was asking whether I knew Steve’s books. Of course I do, but I’m also lucky to know Steve himself. Which my old professor thought was terribly cool. And which I, in turn, thought was surprising as hell. Here was a guy who taught me Updike and Fitzgerald, Borges and O’Connor. How could a guy who taught The Portrait of a Lady like mysteries?

“I love mysteries,” he said.

And I am an idiot.

I’m a newbie at this crime fiction thing, and while I’ve read and enjoyed mysteries and thrillers my whole life, I wouldn’t call myself an aficionado. Still it irks me that mysteries are so frequently disqualified out of hand from being considered “literary.” Maybe it stems from that rejection letter that said my first book was “too nuanced” to be a genre mystery. Say what?

Maybe I should get over it. But it felt pretty good to hear the guy who taught me not just about stories but about the morality of telling stories that he loved mysteries.

I don’t know why I was so surprised, because so much good crime fiction is imbued with the values of moral story telling: Good and bad, punishment and redemption, and the gray spaces between that confound us as writers--and our characters—as together we make our decisions toward an end.

I wound up attending one of Professor Krier’s film classes, and was catapulted back in time watching him banter with his students about whether the hero, Shane, actually slept with the wife of the rancher (Krier: no way. Students: Possibly). The kids were having as much fun as Krier.

The next day, I visited with a junior who wanted career advice. By coincidence, she had been in that film class I attended. “Professor Krier,” she told me, “is the best professor I’ve had since I came to Notre Dame.”

“Yep,” I said.

By the way, that Salinger line came from “The Laughing Man,” maybe my favorite short story ever. It’s about a group of boys in New York City in the 1940s and their mentor, a young man they call The Chief. He tells them stories, and he makes a heartbreaking choice about how to tell them. You’ll have to read the story to understand, but here’s the line:

For poise, I picked up a stone and threw it at a tree.