"Best Chicago Novels by Neighborhood"

At Gapers Block, Adam Morgan compiles a nice list of Chicago fiction, by neighborhood. For the record, I've read nine of these (Sinclair, Anderson, Hemon, Dybek, Dreiser, Wright, Farrell, Algren, Meno's Office Girl), and another five are already on my to-read list (Cather, Meno's The Great Perhaps, Norris, Fuller's The Cliff-Dwellers, Motley). The most obvious omission that comes to mind is Don De Grazia's American Skin, set in Lakeview; Harry Mark Petrakis certainly has to be included in there as well - probably for Greektown - though I've yet to read any of his novels.

(I've actually read a tenth book on this list, but people really need to stop referring to Larson's embellished history as fiction. So, I'm not counting it.)

September 1, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Summer of Melville has ended.

Summer of Melville was a mixed blessing. I'm glad to have finally read Melville in depth, but I'm even more glad to be finished. I ended it last night, several days early - had I enjoyed the experience more, I could have continued on until a more typical ending of summer, either August 31st or Labor Day. Other than my long-time favorite Bartleby the Scrivener, I highly doubt that I'll ever read Melville again. He's simply not my style of writer - dense, long-winded, pedantic, with flashes of brilliance that occur far too rarely to endure the dross.

Moby-Dick was everything I expected, both good and bad, and I can easily see why the novel is so divisive, and how everyone who reads it either loves it or hates it, with very little middle ground. Then Bartleby (possibly the first office-politics fiction ever written?) was as great as always, and Benito Cereno was a pleasant surprise, with its building tension and mystery overcoming what could have been just another seafaring tale. But The Confidence-Man was a bloated collection of essays masquerading as fiction, the stories in The Piazza Tales (other than Bartleby and Benito Cereno) were fairly underwhelming, and Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War was useful only as evidence that Melville should never have attempted poetry.

The above is simply a brief recap of my experience. If you want to read my Goodreads reviews for more depth, here they are:
Bartleby the Scrivener and Benito Cereno
The Confidence-Man
The Piazza Tales
Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War

With Melville behind me, I'm eagerly moving on to much more modern and concise fare, and started Bohumil Hrabal's Closely Observed Trains (or Closely Watched Trains, depending on your translator) this morning.

August 28, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


“The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last forever. Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year—days when summer is changing into Fall—the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change.” - E.B. White, from Charlotte's Web

Lately I've noticed the return of crickets, and a definite cooler snap in the air. Fall is coming already. Bring it on.

August 25, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Far footfalls died away till none were left."

Sobering verse from Melville's Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War:
Ball's Bluff.
A Reverie.
(October, 1861.)

One noonday, at my window in the town,
  I saw a sight—saddest that eyes can see—
  Young soldiers marching lustily
      Unto the wars,
With fifes, and flags in mottoed pageantry;
    While all the porches, walks, and doors
Were rich with ladies cheering royally.

They moved like Juny morning on the wave,
  Their hearts were fresh as clover in its prime
  (It was the breezy summer time),
      Life throbbed so strong,
How should they dream that Death in a rosy clime
    Would come to thin their shining throng?
Youth feels immortal, like the gods sublime.

Weeks passed; and at my window, leaving bed,
  By night I mused, of easeful sleep bereft,
  On those brave boys (Ah War! thy theft);
      Some marching feet
Found pause at last by cliffs Potomac cleft;
    Wakeful I mused, while in the street
Far footfalls died away till none were left.

Melville's Civil War poems have been criticized for their distance from the subject; he visited the battlefront only once, in 1864. But the perspective of this poem - the narrator at home, watching cocky young men march off to war and their likely doom - is much closer to Melville's personal experience, and the poem is much richer for it.

August 24, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Summer of Melville update

Summer of Melville is now winding down. I've read Moby-Dick, Bartleby and Benito Cereno (in a single volume), The Confidence-Man and the story collection The Piazza Tales. I was underwhelmed by the last two, and strongly considered ending the summer early. But with one week left, I've decided to keep it going with one last book, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, his collection of Civil War poems. Melville dedicated himself almost exclusively to poetry during his final few decades, so after reading some of his novels, novellas and short stories, it will be interesting to read his poetry which obviously meant much to him.

I've enjoyed my Melville immersion, but I'm also looking forward to returning to fiction which is more modern and concise. I've already lined up books by Bohumil Hrabal, William Maxwell and my great friend Ben Tanzer for September.

August 23, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Book fantasy

Do you know how there are baseball fantasy camps, in which middle-aged dreamers participate in a week or two of training to indulge their love of baseball? Well, I just found my version of fantasy camp: running a book store in Scotland.

For the sum of £150 a week, guests at The Open Book in Wigtown, Scotland’s national book town, will be expected to sell books for 40 hours a week while living in the flat above the shop. Given training in bookselling from Wigtown’s community of booksellers, they will also have the opportunity to put their “own stamp” on the store while they’re there.

I'd love to own a book store, but right now I have neither the time nor the capital to make it work. But a store in a book-loving town, which would cost just $235/week, with no equity investment required, and that I could simply walk away from at the end? Sounds perfect.

August 23, 2015 | Permalink | Comments (0)


"A writer, or any other kind of artist, who partly or largely need not depend on pleasing the public, who in effect has his fee guaranteed whatever the quality of his product, is tempted to self-indulgence and laziness." - Kingsley Amis

August 22, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"Civilization begins with distillation." - William Faulkner

August 20, 2015 in Food and Drink | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fading Ad: Midwest Barrel Company



This ad for Midwest Barrel Company (412 N. Peoria St., Chicago) is actually two ads for the same company. In the second photo, you can see the older ad across the top of the green rectangle ("Midwest", then a picture of a barrel, then "Barrel"). Then, superimposed on the older ad, there is a newer ad, with another barrel picture at the left, and "Midwest Barrel Company" to the right in an oh-so-1970s typeface, with the last two words stacked. The "412" at the bottom of the rectangle appears to belong to the older ad; in the first photo you can see a later "412" which was added to the right of the overhead door. I love the unusual green color of this, and also the delicate brickwork near the roofline - I'm always amazed that builders used to include this sort of detail on what was an ordinary building and for a very mundane, unglamorous business.

Midwest Barrel was in business from 1963 to 2006.

August 16, 2015 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Farewell, Maurice Lenell

image from http://www.boogaj.com/.a/6a00d83451ce9f69e201b7c7bf6894970b-pi

Maurice Lenell dodged the bullet in 2008, when the brand was taken over by Consolidated Biscuit. But now Consolidated is pulling the plug.
The company, which produced about 275,000 packages of Maurice Lenell cookies annually, discontinued the line shortly after the new year, when it also took down its website offering holiday gift tins. Antiquated equipment, slow sales and recipes that included controversial trans fats all led to the decision to stop making the cookies, Jasper said.

Today, all that remains of the old-fashioned treats are what's left in stores, including The Cookie Store and More, which opened in 2010 blocks away from the shuttered factory to serve as the unofficial local outlet for the brand. The store now has a "Last Chance for Maurice Lenell" countdown sign hanging in the front window. As of Thursday, the sign said 18 days until supply runs out, said Jeff Bach, the store's owner.
This time I doubt Lenell will find another rescuer, which means those wonderful, old-fashioned cookies will be gone for good.

August 14, 2015 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)