Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Worst From the Worst

A hilarious list, even if I don’t agree with all of it. But I will say this: as little as I have read of Franzen, I really just don’t give a fuck about his work. He sets his sights on being the next Faulkner but I just can’t get past his persona, which I fully admit is media created and cobbled from out of context sound bites largely pulled from the Oprah debacle. Still, I just can’t get it within myself to read more than a page of his so-called great American novels. I very well might be missing some brilliant fiction, but when I heard him on NPR reading from his latest, almost universally praised novel, I was annoyed, bored, and depressed. Is this what we want: big toothless examinations of the American upper-middle class? I suppose their stories are as significant as anyone’s, but I don’t give a damn at the moment. When Franzen dies, maybe I’ll care, as is the case with his buddy, David Foster Wallace, who annoyed the shit out of me right up until the moment he killed himself. Oddly, I am only now getting interested, but maybe that says more about me.

Anyway, I did recently purchase Adam Levin’s The Instructions, which is big, literally and figuratively. It is rare that I buy a book from the McSweeney’s press, but I am partial to this tome as it was written by an instructor at Roosevelt, is a first novel by a Chicagoan, and is ambitious as fuck. I applaud ambition, even if it falls flat. So I was not on board with David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest at the time of its publication, but maybe I can get in on the ground floor of another Illinois writer of big, meandering, PoMo fiction. And if it sucks, well I can use the 1,000 pager as a weapon. I can find Mr. Levin in the halls of RU and bludgeon him (metaphorically). Either way, I thought I’d take a chance on the thing, even if it popped up on this worst of 2010 list. More on that someday.

Lastly, let me say that "worst of" lists are annoying as shit and evidence of an asshole author, as in the case of the worst American writers list from Anis Shivani that caused a bunch of discussion, debate, and fist shaking. These lists are great fun but should be regarded as more junk food than criticism. I love a slice of pizza too, but bran is better for me. Oh well, it’s the holidays; enjoy some intellectual eggnog.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

North American Cities

In an interview, the great G. Cabrera Infante was asked about his exile from Cuba, to which he replied (paraphrase) that he was not exiled from Cuba, but from Havana. I have long made this distinction in regard to my status as a Chicagoan who happens to live also in the United States of America. I’ve never been what you might call a patriot (patriotism kind of annoys me), but I understand a bit of the loving something because it is so familiar thing when it comes to cities. That being said, I have been trying to travel as much as possible in my late 30s so that I might explore the world, obviously, but also as a means of weighing the whole Chicago vs. Everywhere Else mentality that I, for some dumb reason, evince whenever someone talks shit about my kinda town.

Example: I went to London a few years back, and (as reported in a long ago post) found myself defending my city to an expat from North Carolina. I was annoyed not so much because the guy was measuring London vs. Chicago (why bother?) but because of the automatic assumption that London, or anywhere else, was somehow better. Had he evidence, even anecdotal in nature, or had he any real experience to back up his boasts, then maybe I’d let it go, but to my knowledge he had none. Mostly I was annoyed at myself for stepping up and defending my town. It all seems rather foolish, and I admit to being the worst proponent of us-against-them, but it’s difficult to avoid. I can be as critical of Chicago as the next guy, but when confronted by those who want to talk some shit about the great stacker of wheat, I will throw down.

In the interest of being slightly less provincial, though somewhat domestic, let me talk a bit about the great cities of North America that rival my beloved Chicago. I am omitting the bits about other parts of the world as I have probably written on them already and with a lot of fanfare, a whole bunch of sound and fury signifying sweet fuck all. For the record: Lisbon was magic, Paris is beautiful, Taipei was surreal, Tunis incredible, and I am anxious to see Spain, Italy, Russia, Ireland, Japan, Chile, Argentina, Cuba (please, Mr. President, lift the embargo), and a bit more of Africa. But let’s stick with this continent for the length of this post.

Cities to Rival Chicago:


A special place in my heart, primarily because the great Carla lives there, but also because it was when I was there last (the first time—though a second trip looms) that I discovered how a city can be both urban and yet retain much of nature in its construction. Parts of town contain the asphalt, glass, and steel that comprises my view of a proper city, yet getting to trees, water, and mountains is a snap. It is a clean city that would appear to be in perfect balance were it not also for the east side of downtown and the street called Hastings. Of course, a city without a slum is pretty hard to come by, and Vancouver is no exception. Hastings Street remains a skid row that I had only imagined possible before seeing it with my own eyes. Junkies stagger like zombies and shout their odd exclamations—it’s very exciting! We went through it in the rain, which seemed the best way to see the sights. It was bizarre and, oddly, sort of beautiful.

Speaking of slums, let’s talk about the D.F.:

Mexico City

Is there a more baffling city? Those who think New York is difficult to navigate (it isn’t), or that Chicago’s diagonal streets are confusing, should try to make sense of the immense, complex, and expansive spectacle of Mexico City. The city has it all: grit, grime, slums, tall buildings, gorgeous neighborhoods, fine dining, public art, history, grandeur, a huge population, and the most frightening highways on the continent. There may be speed limits, but I didn’t notice them. Certainly no driver obeyed them if they do exist. Getting around town may be easy for locals, or even seasoned visitors, but I admit to being confused when I, a mere passenger, was trying to map the streets and find my way through the labyrinthine city. A fond, excruciating memory: trying to find the Mercado Insurgentes, which the lovely Cassandra had visited years prior, and which our driver was sure didn’t exist. Finding it was like looking for the lost city of gold (in this case: diamonds, silver, and knock-off crafts), but it was worth the effort not only to finally get to the fabled market but also for the experience of seeing so much of the sprawling city, even if by wayward vehicle. We essentially settled on El Zócalo as a drop off/meeting place. It’s hard not to find your way to the large plaza and from its nucleus spring many streets, all of them filled with shops, cafés, and all those urban elements that seduce me. The slum we saw (not far from El Zócalo, closer to Garibaldi and the famed street mariachis) was best seen at night, as the night provided cover. Rolling through that part of town in the day might have resulted in trouble; it’s easier to be spotted as a tourist in the light.

San Cristobel

As wonderfully complex and urban as Mexico City is, San Cristobel is infinitely more laid back, though still very urban, at least in its core. Shops, street vendors, and churches (sadly infested with American hippies) adorn the landscape, and it is easy to feel centered but even easier to get lost. The proximity of mountains and predominance of Mayan culture color the town well, offering the humble Yankee a bit of escape. I loved the town when I was there—I loved walking at night through the plaza and the streets, hitting shops, getting food, taking it easy, and, unfortunately, getting sick. But as ill as I was, I still felt happy to be in that magic city.

New York

Okay, I’ll admit it: I liked New York a whole lot when I finally got there (almost a year ago). I had so many planned trips, all of them failed, and it started to seem as though I would never see the so-called big apple. It also seemed that it might be for the best. How else but disappointed could anyone feel after years of preparation? I mythologized the city far too much (as have many far too often) to not be let down. But, saints be praised, the fucking town was pretty grand. Brooklyn charmed and Manhattan delighted. Aside from a few touristy snafus (Times Square—to be seen once in your life—was as close to hell as I’d like to get; The Strand was a disappointment), the city appealed in all the ways I thought it would. Obviously there are the requisite skyscrapers. There is also nature, though mostly in the rather imposing famed Central Park, and pizza on every corner (some better than others, none of it as good as Chicago’s finest deep dish) (sorry, I had to resort to some Chi v NYC shit for a moment). I even found a great bookstore, which, though I am sure there are plenty others in and about the town, seem to be a dying entity these digital days. Harlem was a highlight, as I am rather fond of and intrigued by the Harlem Renaissance (I, as you may know or suspect, tend to contextualize cities and counties by their literary history), and walking down from uptown to midtown before seeing Fela! on Broadway was the topper of the trip. My favorite part of the island might be the East Village with its gritty appeal and hip vibe. Also it’s where Bongwater, The Lounge Lizards, and all those cool 80s-90s cats hung their hats. Oh yes, I’d give New York another dance, though I can't really see myself living there. Those born and bred are not so bad, but there may be no more annoying creature than the person who moves to NYC and immediately decides that all else is empty prairie. It’s like when I quit smoking—my biggest fear was that I’d become an aggravating non-smoker. (For the record, I am a reformed smoker.) I can’t imagine going east and suddenly boring my friend from Chicago with tales of the city, how much better everything is over there, how it is the “greatest city in the world,” a self-proclamation New Yorkers like to boast, proving beyond a doubt how deluded they are.

Moving on… let’s talk about the big easy:

New Orleans

A recent trip to this town, my first visit, though I hope to go back often, made me think that life outside Chicago was possible. Oh yes, I know—there is life all over the world, probably all over the universe, but I have long said (worried?) that I might not be able to exist outside of Chicago. I go to these places with an eye on moving. Could I thrive and survive in San Francisco, Seattle, Albuquerque, Portland, Kansas City, Asheville, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Columbus, or any of the other places I’ve seen? Sure, I could, but I don’t seem willing. No, Chi has claws and those claws dig deep. Nevertheless, it was while walking through the French Quarter, newly married and all aglow, having visited Faulkner’s house turned a bookstore, a café au lait sitting well in my stomach, that I thought a life in that town would be fine and sweet. Well, then I realized that the hurricanes might prove a challenge, not to mention the sweltering summers, and a local (originally from the north) informed me that while life was slower in the big easy, there were downsides. If he needed an electrician, say, it might be a while. People took a relaxed attitude to work, not a bad thing per se, but it sometimes bites one in the ass. When you need a job done quickly, you might not get so lucky. Accustomed as I am to quick turn-around, this might prove grating. No, I think regular trips to New Orleans sound good, with the base of operations elsewhere. Still, I will always hold the town dear, as it is where I made my legal union with my beloved.

So that’s it, for now. I have yet to see Boston and much of New England. I want to visit the southwest a little more and maybe some more of that California I’ve heard so much about. But these are my favorite North American cities in no real order. I’m off to Vancouver at the end of the month to do some recon, enjoy the snow, and see if junkies freeze in winter. More on that when I return.