Blymyer Building, Cincinnati
This 1912 photo of downtown Cincinnati is very cool in general (such bustling energy!), but even cooler is this inset photo of the top of the Blymyer Buidling and this glorious ad:
Unfortunately, it's not a fading ad now, since the building no longer exists - still, this is the most extensive "building directory" ad I've ever seen. That building apparently was quite the mecca of the writing trade - two typewriter dealers, a printer and a stationer.
"...the extraordinary inside the mundane..."
Library of America has an interview with Bernard Malamud's biographer, Philip Davis.
Malamud puts the big within the small, the extraordinary inside the mundane, the struggling, and the hurt. There are geniuses who tower above us: Malamud’s genius was different, more like that of an ordinary man, made extraordinary by his hard-won literary power.
...he needs attentive readers now in defense of what literature is when it does not merely make a loud noise - readers who can know how big these small things are, even whilst Malamud stays loyal to their ostensible smallness. He took the risks of being neglected for the sake of something not facile, something deep.
Though a friend recommended reading Malamud's short stories first, I think I'll start with his novel The Assistant.
"Minnesota"As I've mentioned here many times before, John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats is one of my favorite songwriters. His lyrics are sharp, vivid and truly poetic, and when performed solo on acoustic guitar his songs are particularly evocative and moving. Here is his song "Minnesota" (recorded in 2000 on WFMU).
Seeds came in the mail today from Holland
And the language on the package is wonderful and strange
All sorts of flowers that grow upon the earth
Goodly colored, gloriously arranged
I circled the house and I scattered them around
I let the water sink down into the soil
Stared a long time at the residue
Blood, milk and oil
My god, the humidity is something else again
Our shirts are soaked clean through
The house is throbbing and the heat keeps coming
And I keep looking at you
And you're singing in Dutch to me
I recognize the song
It seems so old, so fragile
And I haven't heard it so long
We may throw the windows open later
But we are not as far west as we suppose we are
Hot wind coming off the water
Sky gone crazy with stars
While we stay here we imagine we are alive
We see shadows on the wall
There's something waiting for us here in the hot, wet air
Sweat, water and alcohol
Just the old love, rising up through the wooden floor again
Just the old blood, asking for more again
"The First Seven Years"
I love this short story by Bernard Malamud, which Library of America is featuring as its Story of the Week. For some reason I've never read Malamud (not even The Natural - seeing the bombastically mythical Robert Redford movie probably drove me away from that novel), but now I'm thinking I really should. Any recommendations would be greatly welcomed.
Further thoughts on Morte D'Urban
Paging through my writing journal, I happened to come across this entry dated 10/1/13. It neatly encapsulates my feelings about J.F. Powers' great Morte D'Urban, my favorite book of last year.
At first glance I was surprised, even impressed, that a layman like J.F. Powers could write so intelligently about the inner lives of priests. But now I realize, at page 90 of Morte D’Urban, that there’s been no prayer and little preaching, almost nothing about these priests’ spiritual lives. Instead, it’s about the mundane, everyday tasks and worldly obsessions of a bunch of career men. (And quite funny, too, in a subtle and wry way.) It’s showing the universality of priests--instead of being special and a breed apart, they’re every bit the same petty, jealous, closed-minded strivers the rest of us are. And that is one of the book’s greatest strengths.I gave the book as a Christmas gift to my mom, who lived through Father Urban's era and has always been fascinated with Christianity, as both faith and institution. I thought the book would be perfect for her. I'm looking forward to hearing what she thinks of it.
Wow, this is so cool: this map depicts the Chicago area at the end of the last ice age, around 14,000 years ago. (I knew about Lake Chicago - the predecessor of Lake Michigan - and was aware of its general environs, but had never seen an actual map.) The shaded portions are the land areas that existed back then, while the dotted lines show the modern-day Chicago River and shoreline of Lake Michigan. What is now the city of Blue Island was indeed an island back then, and even today with the waters having receded, it's an unusually elevated area in an otherwise flat landscape. Same thing for Mount Forest Island, which is between Lemont and Willow Springs; I ride right past there every day on my train.
What's really interesting to me about Mount Forest Island is the two outlets that are shown: the Sag Outlet, the low-lying ground where the Cal-Sag Channel was dug during the early 1900s; and the Desplaines Outlet, which is the current course of the Des Plaines River. As Lake Chicago receded, the Des Plaines formed into a river, bending to the north near McCook Station and roughly following the course of the old shoreline shown in the map.
Fitzpatrick on Shay
At Newcity, Tony Fitzpatrick writes a fine tribute to the great photographer Art Shay, who's still alive and kicking at 91, and currently has an exhibition at Ann Nathan Gallery.
His images of Wicker Park and Algren have no cheap sentiment in them. This was a neighborhood of immigrants, of the poor, of working people, of junkies and hustlers and whores—and Shay romanticizes none of it. For as unsparing as Algren’s prose was regarding this place, Shay matches him note for note. There was despair. There was grinding poverty. And there were transcendent moments of grace. None of it escaped Shay’s lens.
I really need to buy Shay's collection Chicago's Nelson Algren. ("Read Algren and you'll see Shay's pictures; look at Shay's photos and you'll hear Nelson's words.") One of my favorite photographers, and my favorite writer.
Fading Ad: Boston Store redux
My good friend Frank Jump was kind enough to repost this photo that I put up last week on Facebook, where I've been running an album called "Photo a Day", of photographs that I've taken each day this year. One afternoon last week, I was walking down Washington Street and looking for a subject, and happened to look across the street at the Block 37 office building, and was very pleased to see the old Boston Store fading ad reflected in the glass. (I had previously photographed the ad - posted here - and inevitably look for it every time I'm walking nearby.) In his post Frank provides more background on the Boston Store, including a great old newspaper ad. I really like the photo, particularly its juxtaposition of modern and aged.
"...ladling out the old craperoo..."
In the opening pages of Budd Schulberg's The Harder They Fall, the narrator Eddie Lewis (a boxing press agent, or kind of a freelance PR flack for dubious fighters) dreams of writing a stage play about the sport.
One solid job could justify all the lousy years I had frittered away as a press agent for champions, deserved and otherwise, contenders and bums, plenty of the latter. You see, that play would tell Beth, I haven't really fallen so low as you thought. All the time it seemed as if I were prostituting myself by making with the adjectives for Honest Jimmy Quinn and Nick (The Eye) Latka, the well-known fistic entrepreneurs, I was actually soaking up material for my masterpiece. Just as O'Neill spent all those years as a common sailor and Jack London was on the bum.
Like O'Neill and London. It always made me feel better to make those notes. My pockets were full of notes. There were notes in every drawer of my desk at the hotel. The notes were kind of an escape valve for all the time I wasted getting loaded, cutting up touches with Charles, sitting around with the boys, going up to Shirley's, and ladling out the old craperoo about how old Joe Round-heels, who couldn't lick my grandfather and who had just been put away in two over at the Trenton Arena, was primed (I would be starving to death without that word primed) to give Jack Contender the fight of his life.
I love the energy of Schulberg's language, which somehow manages to crackle and be world-weary at the same time. Even at this early stage it's easy to see that Eddie will never be more than a two-bit flack, and will remain mired in the sordid boxing world of the 1940s. Which is fine with me - that's exactly why I'm reading.
"The Character of a Coffee-House"
Spitalfields Life presents a lovely map, by Adam Dant, of 17th Century London coffeehouses, including interesting factoids on each, like the one shown above for Batson's.
"And it wasn’t just coffee they sold but alcohol too," he added, fleshing out the historical background as he sipped his glass, "so you could get drunk in one corner and sober up with coffee in another."
Sounds like my kind of place.
I just started reading Budd Schulberg's midcentury boxing classic The Harder They Fall, but after that I'm going to dive into my latest structured reading. The basic idea is to read three books with related subjects or themes in succession, and see how the books echo and reflect on each other. In the past I've done structured reading on the Depression (Edmund Wilson, FDR and the New Deal, Jack Conroy), early 20th Century American satire (Finley Peter Dunne, Ring Lardner, George Ade) and old-school Jewish writers (Isaac Singer, Sholom Aleichem, Aharon Appelfeld).
My next installment will be focused on African-American writers: Richard Wright's memoir Black Boy, James Baldwin's essay collection Notes of a Native Son (which I believe is partly a response to Wright's groundbreaking novel Native Son - which I was less than pleased with when I reread it two years ago - and to Wright in general) and Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. Looking forward to it, as always.
Joseph Mitchell, Old Mr. Flood
Joseph Mitchell's Old Mr. Flood is a fictional portrait of a man who lives in an aged hotel near New York City's Fulton Fish Market during the 1940s; the title character is a composite of numerous individuals that Mitchell knew in the Fulton Market area. The book is endlessly quotable, but I'll restrain myself to just two passages. First, here's Mr. Flood's philosophy on mortality (he's 93 years old, and wants to live to 115):
Many aged people reconcile themselves to the certainty of death and become tranquil; Mr. Flood is unreconcilable. There are three reasons for this. First, he deeply enjoys living. Second, he comes of a long line of Baptists and has a nagging fear of the hereafter, complicated by the fact that the descriptions of heaven in the Bible are as forbidding to him as those of hell. "I really don't want to go to either of those places," he says. He broods about religion and reads a chapter of the Bible practically every day. Even so, he goes to church only on Easter. On that day he has several drinks of Scotch for breakfast and then gets in a cab and goes to a Baptist church in Chelsea. For at least a week thereafter he is gloomy and silent. "I'm a God-fearing man," he says, "and I believe in Jesus Christ crucified, risen and coming again, but one sermon a year is all I can stand." Third, he is a diet theorist - he calls himself a seafoodetarian - and feels obliged to reach a spectacular age in order to prove his theory. He is convinced that the eating of meat and vegetables shortens life and he maintains that the only sensible food for man, particularly for a man who wants to hit a hundred and fifteen, is fish.
And here's how he maintains his surprisingly good health:
Mr. Flood doesn't think much of doctors and never goes near one. He passes many evenings in a comfortable old spindle-back chair in the barroom of the Hartford House, drinking Scotch and tap water and arguing, and sometimes late at night he unaccountably switches to brandy and wakes up next morning with an overwhelming hangover - which he calls a katzenjammer. On those occasions he goes over to S.A. Brown's, at 28 Fulton Street, a highly aromatic little drugstore which was opened during President Thomas Jefferson's second term and which specialized in outfitting medicine chests for fishing boats, and buys a bottle of Dr. Brown's Next Morning, a proprietary greatly respected in the fish market. For all other ailments, physical or mental, he eats raw oysters. Once, in the Hartford barroom, a trembly fellow in his seventies, another tenant of the hotel, turned to Mr. Flood and said, "Flood, I had a birthday last week. I'm getting on. I'm not long for this world."
Mr. Flood snorted angrily. "Well, by God, I am," he said. "I just got started."
The book is a charming, delightful and marvelous evocation of a vanished place and time. At 122 pages, it's a swift and easy read, and when I finished it this morning I launched right back into a second reading - a very rare occurrence for me. The book is currently out of print, but is collected in Up in the Old Hotel, along with three other Mitchell collections.
"...his origins make themselves plain..."
Peter Guralnick, from Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians:
At sixty-three, Ernest Tubb is something like a mirror image of these fans. Although his hair is still dark and he continues to hold himself erect in his turquoise suit, white Stetson, and gleaming brown boots, the once-lean frame has filled out, and the bags under the eyes, wattles under the chin, and slow crinkling smile all give him the look of the plain hard-working men and women who come out to see him. It is almost as if, having cheated fate once when he escaped the bleak West Texas farmland on which he was raised, he has only met it in another guise on down the line, as his origins make themselves plain in the worn weathered features, the honest creased roadmap of his face.
I'm revisiting Lost Highway for the first time in at least twenty years. I first picked up the book specifically for its profiles of blues musicians (Howlin' Wolf, etc.) back when I was really into blues, though I had (and still have) little interest in country music. But Guralnick is such a marvelous writer that I even enjoy his profiles of country musicians immensely.
The guests posed politely, but were itching to go home.
Another marvelous found-snapshot from Ron Slattery at bighappyfunhouse. Apparently taken by a young girl, of a less-than-easygoing group. I wouldn't have guessed this was from 1973; based on the outfits, it seems at least a decade earlier.
Joseph G. Peterson, Beautiful Piece
Joe Peterson's Beautiful Piece is a simple story made into a complicated one by repetition, which often made it difficult to read. But ultimately the repetition really made me think, and really strengthened the book. The basic story is of a young man named Robert who is wandering aimlessly through life, and drifts into an ill-fated relationship with a young woman named Lucy, who takes Robert back to her place one day despite having a long-time fiancee who may or may not be a psycopath. Robert also has three friends, the placid family man Epstein (whom he admires as an ideal), a grizzled, bitter Vietnam veteran (known only as "the Vet") who is much closer to Robert's reality, and a fatherly bartender named Addison. And that's basically the entire plot.
Robert ceaselessly repeats phrases, conversations and incidents from his middling life, which I often found exasperating when I wasn't in the right frame of mind. But after a while I realized that the repetition makes perfect sense: repetition fills up the enormous empty spaces of his life, and also perpetuates his state of entropy by obsessing over the past instead of moving forward. But it's not just Robert who is prone to repetition - Lucy, Epstein and the Vet all share that weakness, and it's telling that Robert surrounds himself with similarly directionless people, none of whom prod him very much to get on with his life. Addison also reguarly praises him for how well his life is progressing, while it's obvious to the reader that Robert isn't progressing at all. In short, Robert surrounds himself with enablers who keep him stuck in a rut. He's so prone to stasis that when he finally makes a decisive act at the very end, it's one that is poorly thought out and undoubtedly catastrophic.
Many commenters I've seen online have objected to the book being characterized as noir, with all of the preconceptions that come with the genre. But despite the constant presence of a gun - a Glock - I don't think this is noir at all. Instead, it's a psychological character study of an obsessive individual. I think the story goes down a lot easier if it's read within that context, instead of as noir. Overall, Beautiful Piece was a thoughtful and rewarding read.
High praise from Karl Wolff
Yes, it's been an unusually busy day of blogging, but I've saved the best for last. Karl Wolff, staff reviewer at Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, has named Wheatyard as his Best First Novel of 2013, as well as Best Overall Book Design of the year. He calls my narrative voice "by turns, tender and vicious," which is flattering - tender, maybe, but I never thought of my writing as vicious. Maybe a new side to explore? (Karl reviewed the book for CCLaP back in June.)
I had nothing to do with the book design, the credit for which goes Pablo D'Stair, the publisher of Kuboa Press, for overall design and Carlos M. Gonzalez-Fernandez for the cover art. Interestingly, Karl is the second person I've known who commented favorably on the mass-market paperback format. Though I was wary of the format at first (which I had previously associated with Harlequin romances), I soon fell in love with the compact dimensions. It's a beautiful little edition, and Pablo and Carlos did a great job. Kudos to them.
Michelangelo's grocery list
This is pretty wonderful: Michelangelo's handwritten, illustrated grocery list. Illustrated, because his servants were illiterate, and couldn't read the words. I often joke about favorite writers, saying I'd gladly read anything of theirs, even their grocery lists. But Michelangelo's list is surely one of the few that qualifies as a priceless relic.
(Via Austin Kleon.)
"...talking to Epstein on the phone, his happy wife and children making happy sounds in the background..."
In Joseph G. Peterson's Beautiful Piece, the narrator contrasts his two closest friends, Epstein (his ideal) and the Vet (his reality).
When I hung up the phone with Epstein - after calling me in the morning to see if I was still alive - I called the Vet to find out if he was still alive. I'd go from talking to Epstein on the phone, his happy wife and children making happy sounds in the background as they went about getting ready for the day, to talking to the Vet who lived above me in a dump very much like my own one-bedroom apartment, which was also a dump. I go from talking to my Mystic, whom I admired more than any person in the world, to the Vet, whom I was probably more alike than any other person in the world, though it gives me no pleasure to say so.
I just finished the book this morning. It was a very good but challenging read. I'm still collecting my thoughts and hope to have further commentary up on Goodreads soon.
"These are the times that try men's souls."
- Thomas Paine
As Goodreads notes, Paine's (literally) revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense was published on this date in 1776. The manifesto ultimately provide some of the most influential moral and philosophical underpinnings for the American Revolution. No less an authority than John Adams once said, "Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain." Sadly, his later years were marked by obscurity, and only six mourners attended his funeral. He was one of the greatest of our country's founders, but history has largely ignored him, at least compared to the deified Washington, Jefferson and Adams.
I've certainly been no help to Paine's legacy, having never read any of his writings. I hope to finally read Common Sense this year, probably sometime around Independence Day.
Virginia Lee Burton
I just came across this three-year-old birthday tribute to Virginia Lee Burton, which provides some interesting biographical detail on the author. Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel was my favorite book as a child, but for some reason I never read any of her other books until about ten years ago, when Maddie received a four-book Burton omnibus as a gift. Mike Mulligan was included in that edition, of course, but I was utterly charmed by The Little House, from which the illustration above is taken. It's a quietly beautiful and poignant story about social change, and ultimately about returning to slower, simpler times, and in which Burton manages the neat trick of generating empathy with an inanimate object: the little house, the unlikely protagonist.
I absolutely love this cover of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" by June Tabor and Oysterband, at the 2011 Shrewsbury Folk Festival. Tabor and John Jones are two of my favorite singers, and though I loved their 1990 collaboration Freedom and Rain, I hadn't heard from them in a long time. So nice to hear their voices together again. By the way, I was aware of the Joy Division original but had never heard it until just now, after I looked it up online. Though I don't think the original has aged terribly well - very dated, borderline-cheesy new wave - Tabor and Oysterband's rendition sounds timeless and beautiful.
(Via Steve Himmer.)
"He creates - and at the same time affirms - the dark we’ve all got inside us."
A month ago, reading a William Trevor story, I became overcome by an unnerving feeling, a sensation that morphed, two or three pages in, to one of absolute recognition. I must have read the story in 2007 when the book first came out, or maybe even earlier in a magazine. I didn’t finish "The Dressmaker’s Child" for a second time. Nor will I finish it. Why the need to read it again when, in my own way, I’ve been living it, re-reading it, for years now?
Trevor and Orner are two of my favorite writers, and I'm very pleased to see that Orner and I share admiration for the great Irishman. Besides his fiction, Orner's Lonely Voice columns at The Rumpus are consistently rewarding.
Catholics and girlies and air raids, oh my!
Love this 1942 photograph by Fenno Jacobs of a magazine stand in Southington, Connecticut. If you click here for the full-sized image, you can zoom in on the various covers. I particularly like how randomly the publications are arranged - that inset photo shows, all within a few inches, Catholic International, Smiles (based on the cover, some sort of girlie/lingerie pulp?), Little Oscar's First (Air) Raid and an astrology magazine.
"We were scared, as we didn’t know what to do – I think some of our best music came from that."
I just came across an interesting 2008 interview with Paul Westerberg in the UK music magazine Uncut, which is presented as his commentary on most of the Replacements' albums and Westerberg solo albums. This is from his comments about Let It Be:
Writing songs like "Androgynous" and "Answering Machine" wasn’t difficult - I’d been tinkering with stuff like that early on. Presenting them to the group was. It was hard getting across the idea we should just put the best songs on the record, even if there wasn’t always a place for Bob to have a hot lead. Bob was the hard one to get to acquiesce. So the breakthrough LP ended up putting the chink in the armour of the idea of us as a four-piece rock band.
Bob Stinson's presence seems to hover over every one of Westerberg's responses. Clearly he hasn't gotten over Bob's death, and probably never will.
"...ragged and smelling of liquor, wearing his two suits one over the other..."
In this passage from "Chopin in Winter" by Stuart Dybek, the narrator remembers his wayward grandfather:
Dzia-Dzia hadn't been at Grandma's funeral. He had disappeared again, and no one had known where to find him. For years Dzia-Dzia would simply vanish without telling anyone, then suddenly show up out of nowhere to hang around for a while, ragged and smelling of liquor, wearing his two suits one over the other, only to disappear yet again.
"Want to find him? Go ask the bums on skid row," Uncle Roman would say.
My uncles said he lived in boxcars, basements and abandoned buildings. And when, from the window of a bus, I'd see old men standing around trash fires behind billboards, I'd wonder if he was among them.
Now that he was very old and failing he sat in our kitchen, his feet aching and numb as if he had been out walking down Eighteenth Street barefoot in the snow.
"Chopin in Winter" is a lovely family story that revolves around how the narrator Michael and his grandfather are improbably (but only momentarily) drawn together by the piano music that wafts downward from the apartment upstairs. Dybek is one of my favorite writers, and "Chopin in Winter" (collected in The Coast of Chicago) is one of my favorite stories of his. I wish he published more often, but I guess his focus has been more on teaching young writers.