"I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather: that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary."
- John Milton

November 26, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...to make no noise, to leave no trace..."

The narrator of Willa Cather's My Antonia reflects on his late teenaged years in small-town Black Hawk, Nebraska (which Cather modeled on her home town of Red Cloud):
On starlight nights I used to pace up and down those long, cold streets, scowling at the little, sleeping houses on either side, with their storm-windows and covered back porches. They were flimsy shelters, most of them poorly built of light wood, with spindle porch-posts horribly mutilated by the turning-lathe. Yet for all their frailness, how much jealousy and envy and unhappiness some of them managed to contain! The life that went on in them seemed to me made up of evasions and negations; shifts to save cooking, to save washing and cleaning, devices to propitiate the tongue of gossip. This guarded mode of existence was like living under a tyranny. People's speech, their voices, their very glances, became furtive and repressed. Every individual taste, every natural appetite, was bridled by caution. The people asleep in those houses, I thought, tried to live like the mice in their own kitchens; to make no noise, to leave no trace, to slip over the surface of things in the dark. The growing piles of ashes and cinders in the back yards were the only evidence that the wasteful, consuming process of life went on at all.
Ouch. Even Sinclair Lewis would have been hard-pressed to describe small-town life so darkly.

November 23, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Modern hunger

The Rumpus has an interesting review , by Tara Merrigan, of Carrie Brownstein's memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl. Merrigan takes exception with Brownstein's lack of candor about her personal relationships.
However, when it comes to her personal life, Brownstein is less direct, using vague allusions to discuss her romantic desires. She describes herself as “queer” and briefly mentions girls she dated or desired, but she refuses to delve deeper. This limits Brownstein’s portrayal of herself, and her portrayal of the band’s development because her sexual history is intertwined with Sleater-Kinney — she and Corin Tucker, the band’s other singer and guitarist, dated.
One aspect of rock bands that fascinates me is what happens when two of the members fall in love - and, even more dramatically, when they break up. Bands spend so much time together - in the studio or on the road - that the tensions that inevitably arise after a breakup have to be almost unbearable. For a band to survive two of its members breaking up seems like nothing short of a miracle.

Superchunk (with Mac MacCaughan and Laura Ballance) and Versus (with Richard Baluyut and Fontaine Toups) are two bands I know of that survived a breakup; in contrast, Sonic Youth's stellar career ended after three decades, at least partly due to the separation and subsequent divorce of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon. (Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley are the happy rock-breakup exception - they founded Yo La Tengo in 1984 and have kept both the band and their marriage together ever since.)

Though I still want to read the book, Brownstein's apparent omission is indeed disappointing. I would have loved to learn her personal take on how her relationship - and breakup - with Tucker impacted the band. And how the band survived.

November 19, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...the material out of which countries are made..."

Early in Willa Cather's My Antonia, the narrator Jim Burden is remembering being ten years old, and riding in a wagon through the pitch-black night of nineteenth-century Nebraska.

There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. No, there was nothing but land—slightly undulating, I knew, because often our wheels ground against the brake as we went down into a hollow and lurched up again on the other side. I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man's jurisdiction.

I like the feeling here of being in complete wilderness, of which the utter darkness of night is emblematic. I've only felt this once, sleeping outdoors without a tent in the Alaskan backcountry. But even there, I knew the lodge was only a short walk away, with just enough civilization to make it feel not quite like total wilderness. I certainly had more creature comforts than young Jimmy Burden had at this point in Cather's novel. It's telling that he doesn't express any unease over his surroundings, but more a sense of wonder.

I'm enjoying the book quite a bit - much more than The Song of the Lark.

November 15, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"I can’t be a pessimist, because I am alive.” - James Baldwin

Though I was underwhelmed by Baldwin's non-fiction last year, I really should re-read Go Tell It On the Mountain soon. It's been a very long time.

November 14, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"We sit in the mud, my friend, and reach for the stars." - Ivan Turgenev

I haven't read Turgenev, but Fathers and Sons and First Love (the latter in Melville House's way-cool Art of the Novella edition) are both on my list.

November 10, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (3)

"When we had reached the last step of this glorious ladder, it was difficult to get down again without stumbling."

Lord Byron describes a bout of pre-Halloween overindulgence and its aftermath, in 1815.
Kinnaird and I had to conduct Sheridan down a damned corkscrew staircase, which had certainly been constructed before the discovery of fermented liquors, and to which no legs, however crooked, could possibly accommodate themselves.
Actually, I doubt that Halloween parties were a thing back then. Most likely this binge had nothing to do with any seasonal occasion. Cold and rainy here today - I doubt we'll have any trick or treaters.

October 31, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)


"Son, never trust a man who doesn’t drink." - James Crumley

October 31, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Giddy was indebted to the dictionary for the privilege of keeping his lady."

In The Song of the Lark, railroad man Ray Kennedy is busy making his caboose presentable for a visit from his prospective fiancee and potential mother-in-law.
It was properly the brakeman's business to keep the car clean, but when Ray got back to the depot, Giddy was nowhere to be found. Muttering that all his brakemen seemed to consider him "easy," Ray went down to his car alone. He built a fire in the stove and put water on to heat while he got into his overalls and jumper. Then he set to work with a scrubbing-brush and plenty of soap and "cleaner." He scrubbed the floor and seats, blacked the stove, put clean sheets on the bunks, and then began to demolish Giddy's picture gallery. Ray found that his brakemen were likely to have what he termed "a taste for the nude in art," and Giddy was no exception. Ray took down half a dozen girls in tights and ballet skirts,—premiums for cigarette coupons,—and some racy calendars advertising saloons and sporting clubs, which had cost Giddy both time and trouble; he even removed Giddy's particular pet, a naked girl lying on a couch with her knee carelessly poised in the air. Underneath the picture was printed the title, "The Odalisque." Giddy was under the happy delusion that this title meant something wicked,—there was a wicked look about the consonants,—but Ray, of course, had looked it up, and Giddy was indebted to the dictionary for the privilege of keeping his lady. If "odalisque" had been what Ray called an objectionable word, he would have thrown the picture out in the first place. Ray even took down a picture of Mrs. Langtry in evening dress, because it was entitled the "Jersey Lily," and because there was a small head of Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, in one corner. Albert Edward's conduct was a popular subject of discussion among railroad men in those days, and as Ray pulled the tacks out of this lithograph he felt more indignant with the English than ever. He deposited all these pictures under the mattress of Giddy's bunk, and stood admiring his clean car in the lamplight; the walls now exhibited only a wheatfield, advertising agricultural implements, a map of Colorado, and some pictures of race-horses and hunting-dogs.
This book is somewhat sluggish in pace and I'm not enjoying it as much as the more concise O Pioneers!, but occasional passages like these keep me reading. Cather packs so much into that paragraph - Ray's fastidiousness, Giddy's bawdy taste in art, the humorous misunderstanding over "odalisque", the Irish animosity toward the English - and presents it delightfully well.

October 26, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

"...no confidence in his administration of worldly affairs..."

Sharp sketch of a marriage, from Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark:
She had profound respect for her husband's erudition and eloquence. She sat under his preaching with deep humility, and was as much taken in by his stiff shirt and white neckties as if she had not ironed them herself by lamplight the night before they appeared correct and spotless in the pulpit. But for all this, she had no confidence in his administration of worldly affairs. She looked to him for morning prayers and grace at table; she expected him to name the babies and to supply whatever parental sentiment there was in the house, to remember birthdays and anniversaries, to point the children to moral and patriotic ideals. It was her work to keep their bodies, their clothes, and their conduct in some sort of order, and this she accomplished with a success that was a source of wonder to her neighbors.
I quite like that phrase "sat under his preaching" - Mrs. Kronborg deeply respects her husband, but only within his limited realm. He is a man of great words but, apparently, little common sense. I can picture her sitting in the pew, head bowed as Reverend Kronborg's lofty words flurry the air above her, but his domination all but ends at the church door. Back home, she is in charge.

October 19, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


This morning, I learned a new word from O Pioneers!: ducking.
"Now for a ducking, my girl," he said to the mare, gathering up the reins.

As they emerged from the shed, a stream of water, running off the thatch, struck the mare on the neck. She tossed her head indignantly, then struck out bravely on the soft ground, slipping back again and again as she climbed the hill to the main road.
Ivar the farmhand is steering his horse and wagon out of the barn, and into a downpour. Though the most common verb usage of "duck" means to dodge, avoid or evade, Webster's also notes "to thrust under water" or "to plunge under the surface of water" as definitions. Ivar is clearly referring to an imminent drenching, akin to those latter definitions.

October 16, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"It sends good dreams."

Charming passage from O Pioneers!:
Old Mrs. Lee had been afraid that family misunderstandings might deprive her of her yearly visit to Alexandra. But on the first day of December Alexandra telephoned Annie that to-morrow she would send Ivar over for her mother, and the next day the old lady arrived with her bundles. For twelve years Mrs. Lee had always entered Alexandra's sitting-room with the same exclamation, "Now we be yust-a like old times!" She enjoyed the liberty Alexandra gave her, and hearing her own language about her all day long. Here she could wear her nightcap and sleep with all her windows shut, listen to Ivar reading the Bible, and here she could run about among the stables in a pair of Emil's old boots. Though she was bent almost double, she was as spry as a gopher. Her face was as brown as if it had been varnished, and as full of wrinkles as a washerwoman's hands. She had three jolly old teeth left in the front of her mouth, and when she grinned she looked very knowing, as if when you found out how to take it, life wasn't half bad. While she and Alexandra patched and pieced and quilted, she talked incessantly about stories she read in a Swedish family paper, telling the plots in great detail; or about her life on a dairy farm in Gottland when she was a girl. Sometimes she forgot which were the printed stories and which were the real stories, it all seemed so far away. She loved to take a little brandy, with hot water and sugar, before she went to bed, and Alexandra always had it ready for her. "It sends good dreams," she would say with a twinkle in her eye.
Mrs. Lee is a Swedish farm woman (she apparently married a non-Swede, hence the Anglo-Saxon name) who is Alexandra's brother's mother-in-law. Alexandra lost her mother when she was quite young, and Mrs. Lee is somewhat of a surrogate for her. Unforunately, this chapter seems to be Mrs. Lee's only appearance in the book - I would have liked to read much more about her.

October 15, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...germs, chaos, dissipation, laughter, unanswerable questions..."

Luc Sante, from The Other Paris:
The past, whatever its drawbacks, was wild. By contrast, the present is farmed. The exigencies of money and the proclivities of bureaucrats — as terrified of anomalies as of germs, chaos, dissipation, laughter, unanswerable questions — have conspired to create the conditions for stasis, to sanitize the city to the point where there will be no surprises, no hazards, no spontaneous outbreaks, no weeds.
Though Sante writes about Paris, he could easily be describing Chicago or any other gentrifying city.

October 9, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"He knew the end too well to wish to begin again."

I admire this moving passage from the early pages of O Pioneers! by Willa Cather. John Bergson is slowly dying, at home in the arid high plains of Nebraska, where he has carved out only a meager existence for his wife and four children, particularly for his beloved daughter Alexandra.
The winter twilight was fading. The sick man heard his wife strike a match in the kitchen, and the light of a lamp glimmered through the cracks of the door. It seemed like a light shining far away. He turned painfully in his bed and looked at his white hands, with all the work gone out of them. He was ready to give up, he felt. He did not know how it had come about, but he was quite willing to go deep under his fields and rest, where the plow could not find him. He was tired of making mistakes. He was content to leave the tangle to other hands; he thought of his Alexandra's strong ones.

"Dotter," he called feebly, "Dotter!" He heard her quick step and saw her tall figure appear in the doorway, with the light of the lamp behind her. He felt her youth and strength, how easily she moved and stooped and lifted. But he would not have had it again if he could, not he! He knew the end too well to wish to begin again. He knew where it all went to, what it all became.
It's striking to read Bergson's wish to be buried, not in a traditional cemetery, but deep beneath the fields he has fought for so long to cultivate. As if admitting that the land had ultimately defeated him.

October 8, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thrifty Dovers


I have a mild but growing addiction to Dover Thrift Editions. There's just so much to like: the classic literature, the compact, uniform size (they look great lined up on a shelf), the bargain price. I have four or five of them right now and am always looking for more at used book stores. These Dovers are so thrifty, in fact, that the epigraph in O Pioneers! appears on the title page - there's no separate epigraph page. In fact, this copy does not have a single blank page. Even Wheatyard - an economical and not exactly lush edition - had several blank pages.

October 7, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"O’Connor wrote with complete confidence that there was a higher power, that the Catholic God was going to sort out whatever messes we humans had made. This allowed her to be a little more brutal in her stories. I don’t have that confidence, and so I have to figure out how people can, on their own, redeem themselves." - Bonnie Jo Campbell

One of the highlights of my writing career was being a fellow contributor with Campbell to the anthology On the Clock: Contemporary Short Stories of Work, which was published by Bottom Dog Press in 2010. Her novel Once Upon a River has been on my radar for a while now.

October 7, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Opening Lines

"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.)

October 7, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (4)


"I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I'll go to it laughing." - Herman Melville

October 4, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Structured Reading: Willa Cather

After I finish Isaac Bashevis Singer, next week I'm going to start a highly specialized version of Structured Reading: Willa Cather's "Prairie Trilogy" of novels, O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark and My Antonia. I've always heard great things about Cather but have never read any of her work. If nothing else, at least the first book in the trilogy might become the first book I've ever read with an exclamation point in the title.

Reading a trilogy is admittedly less creative than I've been in past Structured Reading efforts, which required more thoughtful curation on my part: the Depression, great American satirists, old-school Jewish writers and African-American classics.

October 2, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The deader the language, the more alive is the ghost."

Isaac Bashevis Singer, on writing in Yiddish:
"People ask me often: Why do you write in a dying language? And I want to explain it in a few words. Firstly, I like to write ghost stories, and nothing fits a ghost story better than a dying language. The deader the language, the more alive is the ghost. Ghosts love Yiddish, and, as far as I know, they all speak it.

Secondly, I not only believe in ghosts but also in resurrection. I am sure that millions of Yiddish-speaking corpses will rise from their graves one day, and their first question will be: Is there any new book in Yiddish to read? For them Yiddish will not be dead."
Right now I'm reading Singer's 1963 story collection The Spinoza of Market Street, and really enjoying it. His portrayals of the long-vanished Jewish communities of eastern Europe are simply lovely - richly drawn, compassionate and witty.

September 30, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (4)


"When some political or ecclesiastical pamphlet, or novel, or poem is making a great commotion, you should remember that he who writes for fools always finds a large public."
- Schopenhauer

Apparently I already believed this. It would certainly explain why the critical darlings Then We Came to the End and A Visit From the Goon Squad have been sitting on my shelf, unread, for years. And why, after I finally read The Devil in the White City after ten years on the shelf, I wished I hadn't wasted my time.

September 27, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


“To trust people is a luxury in which only the wealthy can indulge; the poor cannot afford it.” ― E.M. Forster, Howards End

September 26, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"We all have our time machines, don't we. Those that take us back are memories...And those that carry us forward, are dreams." - H.G. Wells (born on this day in 1866)

September 21, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...asking us if we knew their names..."

In Matt Bell's story "The Receiving Tower", a group of men, under the iron command of a seemingly maniacal captain, operate a communication tower in the frozen wilderness. With little to occupy their time, each slowly loses his memory (growing "dim") and, with it, the desire to escape and return to a home they are progressively forgetting (and which might no longer exist).
As I remember it — which is not well — young Kerr was the first to grow dim. We’d find him high in the tower’s listening room, swearing at the computers, locking up console after console by failing to enter his password correctly. At night, he wandered the barracks, holding a framed portrait of his son and daughter, asking us if we knew their names, if we remembered how old they were. This is when one of us would remove the photograph from its frame so that he could read the fading scrawl on the back, the inked lines he eventually wore off by tracing them over and over with his fingers, after which there was no proof with which to quiet his queries.

Later, after he had gotten much worse, we’d find him on the roof, half frozen, sleeping beneath the receiving dish, his arms wrapped partway around its thick stem, his mind faded, his body lean and starved and frostbitten.

None of us realized he was missing until we found his body, trapped in the ice just inside the compound’s gate. What pain he must have felt after he threw himself from atop the tower, after he tried to crawl forward on crushed bones, heading in the direction of a coast he must have known he would never live to see.
Great story, one which I could imagine being expanded to book length. The story is collected in How They Were Found, which I just started reading and have enjoyed so far. This month has unexpectedly morphed into Short Story September - this is the third collection I've read this month (the others are by Ben Tanzer and Joe Peterson) and Isaac Bashevis Singer's The Spinoza of Market Street might be next.

September 21, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"The grenade is a simple reminder that sometimes one needs to lob a grenade into a poem to get a reader’s attention." - Ernest Hilbert

September 16, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Ben Tanzer, After the Flood

As always, Ben Tanzer is a great friend of mine, so this review is by no means objective. And as always, Ben has crafted excellent fiction here. After the Flood is clearly the best of his Two Rivers story collections (all three are compiled in the single-volume The New York Stories, which I plan to read in full sometime next year), with this latest one being unified by not only locale but also by a catastrophic flood which devastates the town and forever changes the lives of nearly every character; the flood gives the collection a haunting, overarching theme as well as tightness and cohesion.

The one word I would use to describe this collection is "desolation" - not just the flood and its aftermath, but the characters themselves, who were already pretty desolate to begin with, before the flood makes things even worse. Ben's characters have moved beyond young adulthood and toward middle age, where they find themselves in a sort of sluggish stasis - they've acquired marriages and kids and houses and careers but then just sort of stopped, unsure what to do next with their lives. So they drink to excess and even oblivion, lust after friends' spouses and sit around impassively as the flood waters steadily rise, threatening to sweep them away.

After the Flood is a dark portrait of a small town where, for its inhabitants, time has mostly stood still.

September 15, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"There are so many instances in history where Europe, and other countries too, shut their doors to refugees, somehow hoping that they would die or vanish. The saddest thing is that the tragedy of people having to risk their lives, and losing their lives crossing the sea or half of Europe, is seen as a desire to steal from us what we have, this wonderful privilege of living in a democracy and having a stable life. And that we must protect it from them, and the only danger for us is their coming—it’s another variation of the zombie fantasy." - Aleksandar Hemon

September 14, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Watching and Waiting"

I've quickly immersed myself in my great friend Ben Tanzer's latest story collection, After the Flood. (It's actually part of an omnibus called The New York Stories, which includes After the Flood and two earlier collections, Repetition Patterns and So Different Now. I've already read the first two, so for now I'm just reading Flood. I plan to read the whole thing, beginning to end, sometime next year.) The book is very good, and probably even better than the first two - the stories in all three are linked by the common locale (a fictionalized version of Ben's hometown of Binghamton, New York), but the latest is even tighter as it also revolves around the devastating storm and subsequent flooding that hit the town in 2011.

All of the stories so far have been strong, but I particularly like "Watching and Waiting" (first published at 3Elements Review, starting on page 11 here), which tells of a lonely, passive woman who has a man drift in and out of her life (arriving as a landscaper and, after a presumably quick marriage, departing with the flood), leaving her "like some sea captain's wife, healing, looking, and waiting for something to happen" and contemplating the rest of her days. I don't usually like second-person narration, but Ben uses it extremely well here. The story and book are well worth your time and, as Ben likes to say, just might change your life.

September 14, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"The truth is life is full of joy and full of great sorrow, but you can't have one without the other." - Andre Dubus III

September 11, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Asbury's crime fiction

At The New Yorker, Jon Michaud looks at the two long-forgotten (and very different) crime novels written by Herbert Asbury, The Devil of Pei-Ling and The Tick of the Clock.
The two styles also evoke the opposing influences of Asbury’s youth—the fear of hell and damnation that shaped the lives of his ancestors, and his own commitment to rationalism, which eventually led him to refute such rhetoric. His upbringing may have made him particularly well suited to inhabit both sorts of fictional worlds.
Asbury is best known for his non-fiction, particularly The Gangs of New York (which later became the basis for the 2002 Martin Scorcese film of the same name). Nearly ten years ago I enjoyed his similar volume The Gangs of Chicago; that book was originally called (with likely sarcasm) Gem of the Prairie but the title was changed at its latest reissue, probably as a ploy to profit from the Scorcese connection. But if that was the publisher's intention, it appears to have mostly failed.

September 11, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"Give me a decent bottle of poison, and I’ll construct the perfect crime." - Agatha Christie

September 9, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...not even a second helping all the way round..."

William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows tells the story of eight-year-old Peter “Bunny” Morison and his family, in a small town in Illinois during the waning years of World War I. Knowing what I already did about Maxwell’s life (the novel is highly autobiographical) and the book itself, I nearly rolled my eyes at the first scene that involved the entire Morison family, with Maxwell being almost embarrassingly heavy-handed with his foreshadowing. (Mr. Morison’s out-loud reading of a newspaper article is an almost perfect example of Chekhov’s “gun in the first act” principle.)

But soon after, Maxwell redeems himself with his lovely description of the family’s Sunday dinner. Here, Bunny is listening as Mr. Morison (a dyed-in-the-wool Republican) is ranting about President Woodrow Wilson.
Bunny twisted in his chair uncomfortably. He remembered something that he had meant to tell his mother. About Arthur Cook. When his father held forth in this way, the quiet which belonged to the dining-room seemed to have escaped to the other parts of the house. He thought of the upstairs bedrooms and how still they must be. His mother was eating her salad quite calmly, in spite of President Wilson. When she put her fork down, he might lean toward her and--but it was not easy to describe things. Especially things that had happened. For him, to think of things was to see them--schoolyard, bare trees, gravel and walks, furnace-rooms, the eaves along the south end of the building. Where among so many things should he begin?

Robert would not have had any trouble. We were playing three-deep, Robert would have said. And Arthur Cook got sick.That would have been the end of it, so far as Robert was concerned. He would have not felt obliged to explain how Arthur ran twice around the circle without tagging anybody. And how he stopped playing and said I feel funny. How he went over by the bicycle racks then, and sat down.

“At school last Friday--”

But he had spoken too loud.

“How would it be, son--”

His father let President Wilson alone for a minute and turned his entire attention to Bunny, so that he felt naked and ashamed, as if he were under a glaring light.

“--if you kept quiet until I finish what I’m saying?”

That was all. His father had not spoken unkindly. He was not sent from the table. No punishment was threatened. Nevertheless, Bunny withdrew sadly into his plate. And not even a second helping all the way round could restore his pleasure in this day.

So much is neatly captured in this single page--Bunny’s adolescent timidity and lack of confidence, his jealousy and resentment of his older brother Robert, Mr. Morison’s stern coldness. It’s rich without being excessive.

(If the publisher or copyright holder of the novel objects to my reproducing this one-page excerpt, my apologies. I will remove this immediately. But my feeling is that short excerpts like this, accompanied by my praise--I’m really enjoying the book--can’t possibly hurt your sales. If anything, it might help you sell an extra copy or two. And I’m making absolutely no money off of Maxwell’s work.)

September 6, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Everybody's a critic...

...especially cats.
My cat shit in my archives
he climbed into my Golden State Sunkist
orange box
and he shit on my poems
my original poems
saved for the university archives.

that one-eared fat black critic
he signed me off.
- Charles Bukowski

September 5, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"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)


"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)

"...writing articles on Why Young Men Fail, and making a success of it..."

George Horace Lorimer's Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son is a fictional series of letters from a Chicago meatpacking tycoon to his son, in which the father, "Old Gorgon" Graham, tries to impart wisdom, advice and the occasional remonstrance to his son Pierrepont. Here, he tells of repeatedly trying to set up the overeducated son of a business colleague in a suitable career:
Got him in a bank, but while he knew more about the history of banking than the president, and more about political economy than the board of directors, he couldn’t learn the difference between a fiver that the Government turned out and one that was run off on a hand press in a Halsted Street basement. Got him a job on a paper, but while he knew six different languages and all the facts about the Arctic regions, and the history of dancing from the days of Old Adam down to those of Old Nick, he couldn’t write up a satisfactory account of the Ice-Men’s Ball. Could prove that two and two made four by trigonometry and geometry, but couldn’t learn to keep books; was thick as thieves with all the high-toned poets, but couldn’t write a good, snappy, merchantable street-car ad.; knew a thousand diseases that would take a man off before he could blink, but couldn’t sell a thousand-dollar tontine policy; knew the lives of our Presidents as well as if he’d been raised with them, but couldn’t place a set of the Library of the Fathers of the Republic, though they were offered on little easy payments that made them come as easy as borrowing them from a friend. Finally I hit on what seemed to be just the right thing. I figured out that any fellow who had such a heavy stock of information on hand, ought to be able to job it out to good advantage, and so I got him a place teaching. But it seemed that he’d learned so much about the best way of teaching boys, that he told his principal right on the jump that he was doing it all wrong, and that made him sore; and he knew so much about the dead languages, which was what he was hired to teach, that he forgot he was handling live boys, and as he couldn’t tell it all to them in the regular time, he kept them after hours, and that made them sore and put Stan out of a job again. The last I heard of him he was writing articles on Why Young Men Fail, and making a success of it, because failing was the one subject on which he was practical.
Lorimer was the long-time editor of the Saturday Evening Post, and is credited with growing it from a small-circulation publication into the national cultural institution it would eventually become. Based on what I've read here so far, he was also a talented writer in his own right.

August 14, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Let us go then, you and I..."

Happy (belated) 100th anniversary, Prufrock!
It teems with paradoxes: It’s a dramatic monologue that contains zero drama, a series of questions that seek no answer, the product of a consciousness that may not be conscious, the lament of a soul that comes alive only in order to die.
Julie and I often quote random lines from the poem - not as often as we quote lines from Seinfeld, but often enough for it to be a touchstone for us. My favorite lines are probably these:
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

August 11, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...to be a consistent Indian-hater involves the renunciation of ambition..."

Melville's The Confidence-Man includes the tale of the fictional Colonel Moredock, an Illinois pioneer who - there's no nice way to say this - killed Native Americans for sport.
"'At one time the colonel was a member of the territorial council of Illinois, and at the formation of the state government, was pressed to become candidate for governor, but begged to be excused. And, though he declined to give his reasons for declining, yet by those who best knew him the cause was not wholly unsurmised. In his official capacity he might be called upon to enter into friendly treaties with Indian tribes, a thing not to be thought of. And even did no such contingecy arise, yet he felt there would be an impropriety in the Governor of Illinois stealing out now and then, during a recess of the legislative bodies, for a few days' shooting at human beings, within the limits of his paternal chief-magistracy. If the governorship offered large honors, from Moredock it demanded larger sacrifices. These were incompatibles. In short, he was not unaware that to be a consistent Indian-hater involves the renunciation of ambition, with its objects—the pomps and glories of the world; and since religion, pronouncing such things vanities, accounts it merit to renounce them, therefore, so far as this goes, Indian-hating, whatever may be thought of it in other respects, may be regarded as not wholly without the efficacy of a devout sentiment.'"
Our current governor, Bruce Rauner, may often seem heartless, but at least he's a big, cuddly teddy bear compared to the bloodthirsty Moredock.

August 10, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Murakami fans, thank your lucky stars for Dave Hilton.

Haruki Murakami remembers his a-ha moment, at a Yakult Swallows game in 1978.
The satisfying crack when the bat met the ball resounded throughout Jingu Stadium. Scattered applause rose around me. In that instant, for no reason and on no grounds whatsoever, the thought suddenly struck me: I think I can write a novel.
Though more prosaic folks might dismiss this, saying that Murakami already had the talent and passion for writing inside of him, and that it just happened to emerge at this moment, I like the idea that an ordinary, line-drive double by a journeyman American ballplayer is what started it all.

August 9, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"I love Ireland. It is my home, but you know, I sometimes feel I have been trying to leave all my life, and never made it. But I don’t know if writers ever are properly in the place where they live, they’re always in a slight state of exile." - Anne Enright

August 9, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...equality for all..."

From "The Government of Death", by avant-garde musician - and little-known poet - Sun Ra:
all governments
on earth
set up by men
are discriminating
but the government of death is a
pure government
it treats all in an equal manner
it is a startling, revealing picture
of equality for all
and in the realm of death
is nothing else but
Via Robert Archambeau, who has an interesting discussion of Sun Ra as the outsider and the dispossessed.

August 8, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Natur is good Queen Bess; but who's responsible for the cholera?"

Summer of Melville continues, with The Confidence-Man (1857), which takes place entirely on a Mississippi River steamboat. In this scene, a hearty backwoodsman encounters a invalid miser, who has just bought an herbal remedy from a quack "herb-doctor." ("Yarbs" are apparently "herbs" in the local dialect.)
He must have overheard some of the talk between the miser and the herb-doctor; for, just after the withdrawal of the one, he made up to the other — now at the foot of the stairs leaning against the baluster there — with the greeting above.

"Think it will cure me?" coughed the miser in echo; "why shouldn't it? The medicine is nat'ral yarbs, pure yarbs; yarbs must cure me."

"Because a thing is nat'ral, as you call it, you think it must be good. But who gave you that cough? Was it, or was it not, nature?"

"Sure, you don't think that natur, Dame Natur, will hurt a body, do you?"

"Natur is good Queen Bess; but who's responsible for the cholera?"

"But yarbs, yarbs; yarbs are good?"

"What's deadly - nightshade? Yarb, ain't it?"

"Oh, that a Christian man should speak agin natur and yarbs — ugh, ugh, ugh! — ain't sick men sent out into the country; sent out to natur and grass?"

"Aye, and poets send out the sick spirit to green pastures, like lame horses turned out unshod to the turf to renew their hoofs. A sort of yarb-doctors in their way, poets have it that for sore hearts, as for sore lungs, nature is the grand cure. But who froze to death my teamster on the prairie? And who made an idiot of Peter the Wild Boy?"
In many ways, The Confidence-Man is a more difficult read than Moby-Dick. It's sort of a picaresque, but with no protagonist and barely any plot. Instead, it's a long series of philosophical conversations between unnamed strangers, one of whom is inevitably trying to rip off the other. I hope the first two hundred pages I've read so far are some sort of slow buildup to something dramatic.

August 4, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

"I will need at least 450 pages of sailing before I find him."

The late E.L. Doctorow, on Moby-Dick.
So let me propose that having done his first hundred or so pages of almost entirely land-based writing, Melville stopped to read what he had written. What have I got here?—the author’s question.

“This Ishmael—he is logorrheic! Whatever he writes about, he takes his time. With this Ishmael, if I have a hundred or so land-based pages, if I am to keep the proportion of the thing, and the encounter with the whale is my climax, I will need at least 450 pages of sailing before I find him. My God.”
Indeed, of all the things Ishmael could be accused of, haste is certainly not one of them.

July 31, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"To a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain."

Interesting take on compassion, from Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener"; the narrator has bent over backwards to help Bartleby, but soon realizes that his employee is probably beyond hope.
My first emotions had been those of pure melancholy and sincerest pity; but just in proportion as the forlornness of Bartleby grew and grew to my imagination, did that same melancholy merge into fear, that pity into repulsion. So true it is, and so terrible too, that up to a certain point the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not. They err who would assert that invariably this is owing to the inherent selfishness of the human heart. It rather proceeds from a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill. To a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain. And when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succor, common sense bids the soul rid of it. What I saw that morning persuaded me that the scrivener was the victim of innate and incurable disorder.
Bartleby is still one of my favorite short stories ever.

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


"I think that the minute a writer knows what his style is, he’s finished. Because then you see your own limits, and you hear your own voice in your head. At that point you might as well close up shop." - E.L. Doctorow (1931-2015)

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

Update on Summer of Melville

My Summer of Classics (this year, renamed "Summer of Melville") continues. I just finished Moby-Dick yesterday (in a word: "Whew!") and this morning started another re-reading of the long story "Bartleby the Scrivener"; this is the third or fourth time I've read the story, and am enjoying it as much as ever. After that, it will be the novella Benito Cereno, and then The Confidence-Man. My old blog friend Golden Rule Jones is a big Melville fan, and at a recent lunch he recommended the latter novel as a fine way to round out my summer reading.

I'm going to refrain from any extensive commentary until the summer is over, so for now I will just say that Moby-Dick was every bit as thrilling and exasperating as I expected it to be.

Moby admirers might appreciate Peter Orner's recent essay "Brief Early Morning Thoughts on Ahab" at The Rumpus, in which he reflects on whether Ahab's monomaniacal quest was simply a ploy to avoid going home.

July 21, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)