Sunday, June 27, 2010


Dear Internet,

Please excuse the interruption in my promised weekly blog updates for the week of June 24th.  I have been very busy writing but sadly none of it is quite ready to be posted publicly yet.  Some of this work pertains to my upcoming novel The Damnation of Memory, which I have just secured really tremendous cover art for by a well-known Chicago artist whose name I will be shamelessly dropping at every opportunity once the cover design is finished and ready to debut.  Other projects include an essay about the impetus behind the novel and my adventures with grappling with the underlying themes of it.  Also a lengthy literary analysis of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash that I wrote as part of my application to Northwestern University's Creative Writing MFA program and will be posted here as soon as I get the results of my application in a month or two.  Finally, I have the conclusion of the Man Cave series on deck, and it awaits some photo goodness from the solution my wife and I came to.  Since this work is still in progress, however, this will have to wait a bit.

So here I am, in limbo, with all this rich creative stuff happening and nothing to share with you, right?  How lame, Mark.

Well, I do have two things to share with you, and those things are Ben Tanzer's short story "More Than Anything" and Jason Fisk's short story "Do Not Recuscitate", both available online for your reading pleasure.  Some pretty introspective stuff, alternately cerebral and almost lyrical at times, both of these stories are very much worth your time. 

More soon.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Repetition Patterns, a review

Maybe it's because I came of age in the 80's and the imagery of Repetition Patterns is right there in full-color for me, maybe it's because I'm also a young father with a son who teaches me more about real living in any given ten minutes than I learned in the entirety of my life up to his arrival, maybe it's just because Ben Tanzer is a hell of a nice guy, but for me, this book was one of the best things I've read so far this year.

To start with, I will admit that I read relatively few books like this. I am a writer myself and my work is largely speculative and somewhat futuristic so I read a LOT of speculative fiction and this leaves me with little enough time to read other mainstream or genre fiction. I take recommendations though, from people I trust, and I do try to read the work of my contemporaries in the Chicago literary scene because they're great people and they're generally producing interesting, relevant work.

That said, I found myself making a list as I was reading Repetition Patterns of all of the people I wanted to put it into the hands of to read. Happily, and I'll get to this in a minute, the distribution method of this book is very conducive to word-of-mouth. Anyway, for every father I know of young children, and every couple I know who grew up when I did and has seen the world change the way Tanzer and I have, I thought "this person really needs to read this book." Technically, it's like buscuits and gravy; understated, rich, and satisfying. The metaphorical subtext is present enough to color the whole thing beautifully the way some great indie films manage to do. You read it and you can't exactly put your finger on it, but you need little encouragement to devour it. Writing about my generation, the generation neither firmly Gen X nor Millenials but rather something more like "Garbage Pail Kids" where our first movie at the movie theater wasn't Star Wars but rather E.T. or The Return of the Jedi, is nothing new, but I've rarely seen it done this well, and usually when it was it was in the form of a screenplay.

When contemplating the skill needed to write something meaningful about this generation, you have to wonder if all of the cliches don't just instantly bog down the story before it can get off the ground. Culturally, our generation is such a mishmash of corporate marketing and kitsch mixed with genuine emotion and weird moments of spontaneous "things that happened", that making sense of it in any cohesive way is something that would require confidence on the order of Chuck Norris at a kindergarten introductory karate class.

Repetition Patterns has a palpable flavor of metaphor in it, but never does this seem heavy-handed or trite, and Tanzer's recognizeable characters shine through it vividly. I say "recognizeable" because there's more than a hint of northern New York in the book as well, which being from there I particularly appreciated. Another thing I loved about the book that others have mentioned is the small-town flavor of it. Tanzer does a terrific job of making the book very readable even if one has little or no experience with small towns, but if you do, you'll find yourself thinking about the one in your own personal past almost immediately. Inclusion of nostalgic memories + small town flavor = instant, bittersweet literary homesickness. There are living people in this book, which is probably the highest thing that I can think to say of a piece of contemporary fiction. Regardless, Repetition Patterns would have been a great piece of fiction on its own even had it not been for the terrific way it was produced and released.

I should clarify that I read the ebook version of this story, which I bought at CCLaP's main page and paid $5.00 for. This in itself bears mention because I normally hate reading ebooks and though I have read a few and I tolerate them because of their free-ness, this is the first one I've ever paid for. I couldn't have picked a better first electronic purchase. Tanzer and CCLaP Editor Jason Pettus seem to have found a combination that not only got past my dislike of the medium, but made me feel very willing to plunk down some cash in the future for more of the same if produced similarly. Most of the time I feel like publishers tack on a "digital" version of their books as an afterthought, but Repetition Patterns was the first one I've seen that was honed to ebook perfection with the medium directly in mind.The book is slim at 40-ish digital full-sized PDF pages, but my sense of size was quickly lost when reading it on the Stanza iPhone player and rendered completely irrelevant once I realized that at this length it was MEANT to be comfortably read as an ebook. It was like getting a nod from some considerate and understanding architect who, knowing that your butt was going to be in them, made the benches in his modernistic museum convex instead of hard and flat. Comfortable and inviting is a big shift for me when it comes to digitally-presented literature, so I gave the book a lot of credit for that, too.

Read it, and don't be afraid to buy it instead of just getting it for free, it's 100% worth it. The only thing about Repetition Patterns I found myself still wanting was a place for it on my bookshelf alongside my other favorites, but hey, it's the 21st century right? Maybe my new bookshelf will be a virtual one or something.
Available at

A Man Cave of One’s Own, Part II: Where there's a will

So I’ve had a surprising amount of comments about my man-cave post from a couple of weeks back, and I’m happy to say that the responses were universally good. Far from the “suck it up and quit whining” replies I was in slight fear of, I instead got some good encouragement from other bloggers and other men my age who live in even more cramped quarters with sometimes more than one child. These guys provided me some much-needed solidarity in my hunt to find a solution to the man-cave dilemma.

As it turns out, my hunt was over almost before it started, but I’m getting ahead of myself. I wanted to take this post to show you some of the ideas I found with regards to carving out a space for oneself in a small, shared living area.

First, and most obvious, is to convert a room of your house, a basement, or a garage into a sort of separate sanctuary. This would be the most ideal situation because it doesn’t take you too far from home base and doesn’t require much additional expense. To help you with the conversion, there are a variety of websites that offer furniture and ideas specifically tailored to the task. Some of these are predictable theme caves, while my own personal preference would be more like a Winslow Homer study. Lots of wood and leather. Oh well, this idea got tossed out for me straightaway because I have neither a basement, spare room, nor a garage.

Plan B is to rent a small space somewhere else. This is at once tricky and deceptively affordable, even in Evanston. Tricky because you’re leaving most of your prized possessions unwatched for large chunks of time, which I always shy away from doing because I feel like it invites vandalism or theft, especially in a communal or remote location. A storage locker would be an affordable storage solution, but a man-cave is about far more than just storage, so we need something that can at least hold the majority of our gear AND one or two people. In Evanston, there was a studio apartment for rent for $690.00 a month. This sounds horrifically prohibitive for those of us who have children who handle most of our surplus income management, but if you’re able to pay off a car, for example, you could cut the effective cost down into the $300 range, which is not horrible for a space meant for habitation. This was a 650 sq foot apartment with hardwood floors and an included kitchenette and bath. This is about as good as a man-cave would ever need to be in my opinion. If you can’t fit all of your stuff into 650 square feet, you need to sell some of your stuff.

But what about us regular guys? The ones who have a hundred bucks a month of extra spending money to ourselves (maybe)? I found a listing also in Evanston to rent an artist’s studio space, 200 square feet, for $145 a month. This I thought was very reasonable as well. It loses a lot in the downgrade, including the bathroom, but it did have a sink and electricity and lights so it has a slight immediate advantage over something like a finished basement. Disadvantages are, like I mentioned above, a somewhat communal building space with who-knows-what for locks and security. Just the same, if you wanted a space to do something like darkroom photography it would be pretty excellent. I’m a writer, so I don’t need a ton of space or bells and whistles, I just need somewhere comfortable away from too many distractions where I can sink into some writing for an hour or two. I’m imagining an artist’s space would be loud-ish, but that’s why God gave us earphones.

But alas, what about us guys that can’t even justify $145 a month to keep our sanity and personal sanctity? There are some other solutions for mobile, virtual, or micro-man-caves that I explored as well. The first idea I found, which I thought was actually pretty savvy, was to take photos of your prized possessions and make a laptop wallpaper collage out of them. I actually did this and I was surprised to note that it DID make me feel like wherever I was using my laptop got a little more comfortable. Just the images right there for your eyes to glance over inadvertently, images of you and the things that make you feel at home, had an effect. Another interesting, but slightly expensive idea I couldn’t explore was to purchase an old-style rolltop desk with a lock. This way when you step away from your desk you can just pull the cover down and lock it and you’ve got instant exclusivity and security from the curious hands of your children or the just-put-this-mail-anywhere carelessness of grown up family members. I do love different types of desk, but my home desk is pretty much perfect for me. It’s an enormous slab of mahogany with deep drawers and a wide leg space. I’d sooner leave the apartment and move away entirely than give up my desk. Finally, for the truly strapped, I found a neat little iPhone app on iTunes for $1.99 that lets you walk through a 3D virtual art gallery and on the walls of the gallery are the photos you’ve got stored in the phone’s memory.

So there’s some ideas to get you started. If you’re completely stuck and have no money to spend, I do strongly encourage you to try the laptop wallpaper trick. Even if it’s just for an instant every day, you can see the things you cherish. It makes them seem real, as opposed to just an inconstant memory or an unpleasant contemplation when you remember that these things are stuffed in a basement somewhere.

Tune in next week for the story of how I decided to tackle the man-cave issue, and how my wife became a surprising ally in my hunt.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

New Playlist

Because I was feeling a little mellower.  And because the world needs more Lisa Hannigan.

Peek-a-boo with a baby beluga whale

This is the video I've been telling everyone about. I was at the Shedd two weekends ago and we're members so I was the first person in the underwater viewing gallery and a little baby beluga played peek-a-boo with me for 4-5 thrilling minutes. I got about a minute or so of it on video but this went on for what seemed like forever. There was a little section over on the far right hand corner of the tank where it was backlit pretty brightly by the stairwell and some stupid starfish exhibit that made it difficult to take a video in the tank. I think the lighting let the whale look in at ... See Moreme, though, because I was the only one in there at the time and he stayed right in front of me for several minutes and responded with little flips of his head and tail when I reached out to touch the glass. It was one of those moments that just never happens at a place like this and I thought to myself if I didn't take a video of it no one would believe it happened.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Printer's Row Festival 2010 Recap!

Printer’s Row was a blast this year with quite a bit of fun to be had despite the now-traditional lousy weather and precipitation. Here’s a recap with loads of clicky/linky goodness:

I arrived around 2 and immediately ran into Amy Guth and Tiffany Tate who had just left the Young and Restless panel that Amy had moderated, and the three of us made our way to Flacos Tacos for what turned out to be a very tasty lunch. If there’s something that goes better with lit fests than pork tacos and Sangria, I’m not sure what it is. After this, we split up for a while and I perused the multi-block book fair and visited the tables of several friends and my personal festival favorites. I stopped by and said hi to Terry Gant at the Third Coast Comics table, who had on display a variety of awesome graphic novels that I wish I’d had more time to look at. Of all the various genres of fiction I read, I regret most my coming late to the graphic novel medium and I wish I knew more about them. It’s been lingering at the middle third of my to-do list for years and now that the Evanston Library has a decent collection of them I’m going to have to take the plunge.

From there, I visited the table for Old Towne Books and Tea. Based in Oswego, IL, they are an indie-friendly bookstore recommended to me by my friend and fellow Chicago author Larry Santoro, who I sadly missed due to getting there just a bit too late in the afternoon. I did also manage to briefly say hi Susie T from the Book Cellar at their table. All I can say about the Book Cellar is that it must be hard to be so beloved by virtually every Chicago author I know, including me.

By this time it was approaching 5pm and it had rained more than once and several booths and tables had decided to pack it in for the day. Also narrowly missed was my friend Gina Frangello founder of Other Voices books and author of the book I’m reading right now titled Slut Lullabies. Jason Pettus, founder of the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography had to make the tough call to cancel the CCLaP social event that was scheduled for the late afternoon due to the fact that it had now started to rain in earnest and the main fair festivities were starting to wrap up quite literally under sheets of plastic to keep the books dry.

Instead of going to the CCLaP event, I went with plan B: shopping for cheap used books. Last year I visited the Open Books booksale and took home as many books as I could fit into my laptop bag. This year I smartened up and brought some grocery bags with me to carry my loot in the form of several books I had been meaning to add to my collection for a number of months and had waited for this festival specifically to buy them. Why wait, you ask? Well, for starters, they had literally every book on my list, and the most I paid for any one book was $5. Some were $3, and a couple of them only $2. It’s a reader’s and book collector’s paradise and worth waiting for if you need to buy more than just a couple of titles.

So in my search I hit the Open Books tent and the Chicago Tribune tent, who between them had everything I was looking for. I picked up copies of Neal Stephenson’s brilliant Snow Crash, which I recently finished reading and wrote a pretty extensive critique of that I’ll be posting here at some point in the future. I had read a library copy but wanted one for myself. I also picked up Stephenson’s latest book Anathem, which was one of the only titles last year to get a perfect 10 score from Jason Pettus at CCLaP in his reviews. I’m looking forward to digging into that one. I got copies of Barbara Erenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and Robert Bly’s Iron John since I named my son partly after the title character and every copy that I’ve owned of it I’ve loaned to people and they’ve never returned them. So now I have it in hardcover. Again. I grabbed Douglas Coupeland’s Generation X, the book from which the phrase originates and which from reading the first chapter seems as brilliant as it is unusual so far, and Chuck Palahnuik’s Lullaby, which I read a while ago from the library and rivaled anything else he wrote in sheer creativity. Here’s hoping if they make a film about this one they won’t utterly ruin it (I’m looking at YOU Choke). Also, hilariously, I had a copy of Like Water for Chocolate hurled at me some time later at Reading Under the Influence during the audience participation phase of the readings where I correctly identified Ernest Hemingway as the author of Old Man and the Sea. Hooray for flying literature!

My last stop on the shopping binge was at the Out of Print Clothing table, where I bought this awesome T-Shirt. There were many, many great book-related items at this store but once I spotted it I only had eyes (and enough disposable cash) for this one. Given that the aesthetic of Bradbury’s classic was one of the chief influences of the aesthetic of my first novel Red Ivy Afternoon, you can imagine my unabashed geeking out over it. In other news, I wore it today and it’s very soft and high-quality. I highly recommend you check out their store at

Among the fun moments of the day was the point at which the vendors and publishers who had prepped their tents and tables with plastic dropcovers started unfurling them. You’d think it would be a claustrophobic experience to be in a roughly 16x16 foot tent covered with plastic on all sides in the waning afternoon light, but it actually made for sort of a unique throwback-type, we’re-all-in-this-together-and-isn’t-this-fun? Experience. I snapped these pics while I and some other undaunted lit-loving browsers kept shopping and exploring to our heart’s content even when many of the vendors were starting to pull up their anchors for the night.

So with a bag full of delicious merch I headed for (or rather “ducked into to escape the worsening rain”) Bar Louie next to Dearborn Station for a few beers and some Buffalo wings while I waited for the rain to slacken off. I checked out my new books and wrote some emails to various people I was attempting to meet up with later and in the process discovered that the band Augustana was playing for free at the main stage in less than an hour. Happily, by about 6:15, the skies started to clear up and the Lit After Dark portion of the night got started. I wandered over to the main stage and caught the last three or four songs of the opening band’s set. The headliners, Augustana, played an acoustic set that included their hit “Boston” which I had previously downloaded and enjoyed a year or so ago, but they had the show somewhat stolen from them by their opener band, the relatively unknown Kirkland, who were a surprisingly lively, entertaining high-energy six-piece rock band with a frontman/frontwoman combination that made for a great sound. Kirkland closed out their set with an up-tempo backbeat-enhanced perfectly-sung cover of Four Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?” I liked them so much in fact, that I bought Kirkland’s CD on the spot which is something I almost never do at concerts. Definitely someone to check out of if they’re playing near you.

It was during the Augustana set that I managed to meet up with my new friends Ben Tanzer and Jason Fisk, whom I had met two weeks ago at the CCLaP live event at the OpShop that I participated in, and my niece Katy and her friend Hannah, both hip, smart recent graduates of New Trier high school who are budding creative writers and were interested in the lit scene and wanted to see what it was all about. The five of us then adjourned to the Lit Garden to watch a special installment of Reading Under the Influence, the reading series normally held on the first Wednesday night of every month at Sheffield’s, and one of my favorite recurring literary events in the city. Voted Chicago’s top reading series and held in one of the best bars in America according to Esquire magazine, RUI is always a good time. Last night in particular was a treat because all four of RUI’s regular members, Jesse Jordan, Amy Guth, Robert Duffer and Julia Borcherts were in attendance and treated us to readings. Many fun trivia questions ensued, as usual, and books were tossed high and low to those who knew the answers, including Michael Crichton’s novel Sphere which caused a minor scrum/riot of people trying to snatch it out of the air like a wedding bouquet.

Ok, I made that part up.

After RUI was concluded, I spotted Deb Lewis who had moderated a panel last year that I sat on at the Pilcrow Lit Fest about writing sexuality, and had been very kind to me last year by introducing me to several other authors who are now friends of mine. It’s always a pleasure to run into her and you can catch her at 2nd Story (see website for upcoming dates), yet another great Chicago reading series.

At this point, Ben, Jason, Katy, Hannah, and I were invited to the impromptu after-reading drinks at Kasey’s Tavern nearby where I got the chance to kick back with lots of the aforementioned authors as well as Brandon Will, staffer of the Book Cellar, J. Adams Oaks (whom I had never met but seen at a reading once and was glad to get the chance to finally talk to), and Bill Adee from the Chicago Tribune, who aside from being one of those rare individuals who seems to effortlessly make you feel like the world is full of interesting things to talk about is just a heck of a nice guy in general.  We also encountered the largest dog I've ever seen, a Great Dane that was amazingly not yet a year old.

Though I had a great time at the festival last year, overall I’d have to say there was a palpable jump in quality from last year to this year at Printer’s Row, due in no small part to the melding of some of last year’s events at the Pilcrow Lit Fest into the festivities of Lit After Dark. As much as I loved the festival this year, the very best part of it was of course the little informal gathering at the end and I was inwardly thrilled to be included. There has been much talk this year of Chicago being the new “Capital of independent publishing”, and though my perspective on such things is probably too narrow to offer any definitive verdict, I will say that Chicago last night felt like the capital of a friendly, welcoming, and warmly-inclusive community of writers, editors, and publishers. If indeed the future of books rests on their shoulders, whether indie, mainstream, traditional, or digital, I can assure you the future looks very refreshingly bright even in this awful economy and even in the rain.