As it turns out, yesterday was Independent Bookstore Day. Which is wonderfully fitting, since in the afternoon I happened to stop in at Book Market in Crest Hill, which is about as indie a store as you'll ever find. I was there specifically looking for a copy of T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, which I saw there a few years ago but passed on buying. Last night, Maddie performed in a high school stage adaptation of the book, and I thought the book would be the perfect gift to commemorate her performance. Luckily for me, the store still had it, and I bought it. I gave it to her after the show, and she loved it.
Eliot's book is also the basis for the legendary Broadway musical Cats, though the adaptation we saw was more of a dramatic recitation of the poems, without music. Maddie played the character Skimbleshanks, and she was great, as was the entire cast. I'm amazed at how talented these kids are.
This edition is illustrated by Nicolas Bentley, but from browsing Goodreads, I see that there is another edition illustrated by Edward Gorey, one of my favorite artists. I'll keep an eye out for the Gorey edition - I would love to add it to our library.
Quote"When bankers get together for dinner, they discuss Art. When artists get together for dinner, they discuss Money." - Oscar Wilde
(I don't know what sort of boho bankers Wilde hung out with, but the next Art discussion heard at my bank will be the first.)
"We see our own efforts, dreams and imperfections in these honest or shady lawyers, these scammers and fixers struggling to keep from going under, seeking love and approval in obviously the wrong places."
Francine Prose on Better Call Saul, which is probably the best show on TV right now. It's almost as good as Breaking Bad, which I think is the best show ever.
"...luxuriating in six feet of clearance..."
This is my unexpectedly large haul from this weekend’s Joliet Public Library book sale: a Margaret Atwood essay collection, a John McPhee themed essay collection about freight handlers, Eudora Welty’s 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and an anthology of Irish stories that I plan to read for next year’s Irish March.
I’m particularly interested in McPhee's Uncommon Carriers, and specifically “Tight-Assed River”, his piece about his excursion on an Illinois River barge (over a thousand feet long, and longer than the Queen Mary luxury liner) and its towboat, the Billy Joe Boling. Here is part of his description of the pilot’s navigation through the narrow support piers of a railroad bridge in Pekin:
Fifty feet from the bridge, and his head corner on the port side is lined up so that is should miss the nearest pier by six feet. He is steering the Queen Mary up an undersized river and he is luxuriating in six feet of clearance. Meanwhile - back here a fifth of a mile - the dry riverbank is ten feet behind the stern rail. The stern is so close to the bank you could almost jump off without getting your feet wet.
The entire passage is quietly thrilling, especially while the pilot and McPhee listen to one of the mates (standing on the front end of the barge, a "fifth of a mile" away) over a walkie-talkie, calling out the steadily narrowing distance between the barge and the pier. Later, after the bridge has been safely cleared, the pilot matter-of-factly explains that he steers the barge as closely to one pier as he can, knowing that by the time the entire thousand feet of barge has passed, the river current will shift the barge almost all the way to the other side. The towboat only clears the opposite pier by a few feet.
Last night, even though I’m already in the middle of two other books, I couldn’t resist diving into “Tight-Assed River.” I’ve wanted to read the piece for years, ever since I first conceived a short story about a river deckhand who is also a mostly absentee husband and father. The story was inspired by James McMurtry’s lovely “Song for a Deck Hand’s Daughter”, but with the song being told from the daughter’s perspective and offering no details of a deckhand’s work life, I realized I would have to turn elsewhere for background. I knew McPhee’s barge piece was out there, and it’s been in my mind ever since, even though the short story is long behind me and likely will never be finished. But at least I’m finally reading “Tight-Assed River”, and really enjoying it.
"My Grandfather Frazee had spoken rather contemptuously of poets in my self-important infant presence. He said they were clever men, and we liked to memorize long passages from their works, and it was eminently desirable that we should do so. But almost all of them had a screw loose somewhere." - Vachel Lindsay
"...the barrier between the living and the dead is dissolved..."In Aharon Appelfeld's Laish, the titular protagonist is a fifteen-year-old orphan traveling with a ragtag group of Jewish pilgrims through eastern Europe, bound (or so they hope) for the Holy Land.
I love the evening prayers. During them, more so than during any of the other prayers, I sense the presence of my parents, who were cut off from me. For days on end I may not think of them or recall them, but sometimes during the evening prayers they rise from the dead and are pulled toward me, and the barrier between the living and the dead is dissolved. Not that this miracle occurs every evening. On the contrary; at times during the evening prayers a bitter mood descends upon me. It darkens my eyes, and I feel my orphanhood all the more keenly; it is as if my life is not rooted in the world and I want to disappear...
Death and taxes*
In honor of Tax Day (which, for some reason, is April 18 this year), Robin Bates posts a poem by Edward Guest, which includes this stanza:
But when I reflect on the city I love,
With its sewers below and its pavements above,
And its schools and its parks where children may play
I can see what I get for the money I pay.
And I say to myself: “Little joy would we know
If we kept all our money and spent it alone.”
Or, as Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, more concisely though less poetically, "Taxes are what we pay for civilized society."
(*It's often said that the only two sure things are death and taxes. During this endless presidential campaign, I would suggest a third sure thing: political acrimony.)
Randolph Street, then and now (and still sort of then)
Since I started working in Chicago's West Loop and walking around the neighborhood, I was long puzzled by this stretch of Randolph Street (looking west from Desplaines), and why it was extra wide, with the buildings set far back from the main part of the street. The buildings are so far back that there is an extra service lane on each side of the street, which allows rare-for-Chicago diagonal parking. (You can see one service lane on the right side of this photo.)
Then, a few weeks ago, the wonderful photoblog Calumet 412 solved the mystery:
The city's old West Market Hall once stood right in the middle of Randolph Street, at the exact spot where the cars are lined up in the center of my photo. With this important structure being sited there, the adjacent lots on each side of Randolph had to be set back to allow room for traffic to flow around the building. All of which now makes perfect sense to me.
In the old illustration, Desplaines Street is the horizontal street abutted by West Market Hall; the next street up (west) is Union Avenue, most of which was removed for construction of the Kennedy Expressway, and the next street west is Halsted Street. (My office is now located at the upper left corner of the illustration, on what appeared to have then been a small homestead.) Interestingly, although Randolph west of Halsted appears to have originally been a street of normal width, it now has the same service drives as the stretch between Desplaines and Halsted. The street must have been widened and those drives added after the time of this illustration, to accommodate the wholesale food market that later developed along Randolph. Though a lot of wholesalers still operate there, the area is rapidly redeveloping and the old companies are slowing being priced out the neighborhood.
Quote"If you can't annoy somebody, there is little point in writing." - Kingsley Amis
"The two grubby small boys with tow-colored hair who were digging among the ragweed in the front yard sat back on their heels and said, 'Hello,' when the tall bony man with straw-colored hair turned in at their gate."
- Katherine Anne Porter, Noon Wine
"Heraldic and unflagging it chugged up the mountain road, the sound, a new sound jarring in on the profoundly pensive landscape. A new sound and a new machine, its squat front the colour of baked brick, the ridges of the big wheels scummed in muck, wet muck and dry muck, leaving their maggoty trails."
- Edna O'Brien, Wild Decembers
"One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away."
- Willa Cather, O Pioneers!
"I am in Aranmor, sitting over a turf fire, listening to a murmur of Gaelic that is rising from a little public-house under my room."
- J.M. Synge, The Aran Islands
"On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide - it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese - the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope."
- Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides
"A wise man once said that next to losing its mother, there is nothing more healthy for a child than to lose its father."
- Halldór Laxness, The Fish Can Sing
"Studs Lonigan, on the verge of fifteen, and wearing his first suit of long trousers, stood in the bathroom with a Sweet Caporal pasted in his mug."
- James T. Farrell, Young Lonigan
"Dennis awoke to the sound of the old man upstairs beating his wife."
- Tim Hall, Half Empty
"Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board."
- Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
"We always fall asleep smoking one more cigarette in bed."
- Joseph G. Peterson, Beautiful Piece
"Tonight, a steady drizzle, streetlights smoldering in fog like funnels of light collecting rain."
- Stuart Dybek, The Coast of Chicago
"Beware thoughts that come in the night."
- William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways: A Journey Into America
"'There they are again,' the doctor said suddenly, and he stood up. Unexpectedly, like his words, the noise of the approaching airplane motors slipped into the silence of the death chamber."
- Hans Keilson, Comedy in a Minor Key
"Now that I'm dead I know everything."
- Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad
"In the end Jack Burdette came back to Holt after all."
- Kent Haruf, Where You Once Belonged
"It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days."
- Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day
"I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."
- Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
"I'd caught a slight cold when I changed trains at Chicago; and three days in New York - three days of babes and booze while I waited to see The Man - hadn't helped it any."
- Jim Thompson, Savage Night
"Since the end of the war, I have been on this line, as they say: a long, twisted line stretching from Naples to the cold north, a line of locals, trams, taxis and carriages."
- Aharon Appelfeld, The Iron Tracks
"The schoolmaster was leaving the village, and everybody seemed sorry."
- Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure
"Early November. It's nine o'clock. The titmice are banging against the window. Sometimes they fly dizzily off after the impact, other times they fall and lie struggling in the new snow until they can take off again. I don't know what they want that I have."
- Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses
"Picture the room where you will be held captive."
- Stona Fitch, Senseless
"Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk."
- Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry
"Bright, clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon...Bright, clear sky, to-day, to-morrow, and for all time to come."
- O.E. Rölvaag, Giants in the Earth
"Click! ... Here it was again. He was walking along the cliff at Hunstanton and it had come again ... Click! ..."
- Patrick Hamilton, Hangover Square
"It is 1983. In Dorset the great house at Woodcombe Park bustles with life. In Ireland the more modest Kilneagh is as quiet as a grave."
- William Trevor, Fools of Fortune
"The cell door slammed behind Rubashov."
- Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon
(A compendium of memorable opening lines of novels, updated occasionally as I come across new discoveries.)