"There is a kind of corn whiskey bred in Florida which the natives declare is potent in the proportion of seven fights to a drink." - Stephen Crane

February 13, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"It's a goddamn pączki!"

Mike Czyzniejewski (a Chicago native who now teaches in Missouri) prefaces his review of the Stuart Dybek story "Tosca" with this anecdote about yesterday's holiday:
One Walmart in town — of the nine (not a typo) — carries them, but I have to get there a day or two before, because they sell out early (something I found out in the dark, dark February of 2014). Then, if a colleague says, “Thanks for the donuts, Mike!” I go completely apeshit, throwing whatever I have in my hands against the wall, exclaiming, “It’s not a fucking donut! It’s a goddamn pączki!” So far, I think I’m winning the battle, getting the word out, but every year, I spend the day after Pączki Day with my Human Resources rep, discussing better ways to channel the rage I feel in the workplace.
Mike is doing great work with his new blog, Story366, in which he's reviewing a different story each day of this year. Writing that many reviews would already be enough of a challenge, but he takes it a step further - he only reviews a story that he's just read for the first time. The reviews have been great, and the personal asides even better.

February 10, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"You never knew what books would come in the door..."

Robert Archambeau shares his fond memories of Ron Ellingsen, co-owner of Chicago's old Aspidistra Bookshop, who recently passed away.
The Aspidistra is a plant, but not just any plant: it’s a plant you can abuse or ignore, but not kill.  You can put your cigarette butts out in its soil and it will keep growing.  You can put it in a coat closet for a month with no light and no water and it’ll laugh the experience off.  For Ron, it was an apt symbol not just for his bookshop, but for literary culture as a whole.
I passed the store many times - they always had sale shelves outside on the sidewalk - but never stopped in. And every time Robert reminisces about it on his blog, I really wish I had. Sounds like it was a unique place.

January 30, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"Better a cruel truth than a comfortable delusion." - Edward Abbey

January 29, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"My loins trembled as the scent of toupee adhesive and spray tan swept through my nasal cavity."

I think I just found the next book to read. Dubious literary merit aside, it will certainly be more entertaining than Marilynne Robinson.

January 26, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"My imagination functions much better when I don't have to speak to people." - Patricia Highsmith

Preach it, sister.

January 21, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Good Friday and Easter Sunday

At Belt Magazine, Mark Athitakis interviews author and Joliet native Patrick Michael Finn.
They definitely have a side of Good Friday. I think at that time I was writing them, I just had such a young, angry doomsday view of the world. What I’m trying to write now, I certainly want a lot more Easter Sunday in it. I want to have more of the joy in it.
I enjoyed Finn's story collection From the Darkness Right Under Our Feet and still need to hunt down his novella, A Martyr for Suzy Kosasovitch - both books are set in Joliet, a genuine rarity. From the interview, however, it seems like his next book will instead be set in the Southwest, where he has lived since high school. Though that change will be Joliet's loss, it will better reflect the happier person he is now, and his fiction will undoubtedly be stronger for it.

January 20, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"There were hundreds of these scruffy dusty old shops with proprietors who were commonly more interested in the book they were reading behind the counter than in any customer."


At Spitalfields Life, "The Gentle Author" shares his charming story of collecting the first one hundred Penguin paperbacks.

I can't help but be reminded of my own job-hunting story, twenty-plus years ago, when I rode the train from my parents' house into Chicago for job interviews. But even at that relatively late date, the days of downtown Chicago bookstores were already long gone, and so instead of the pleasant discovery of good used books, after the interviews I had to settle for a solitary beer at a bar near the train station, while waiting for the next departure home.

January 17, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

A few reading resolutions...

...for 2016:

+ Ten novels or story collections written by women. My record of reading women writers is sorely lacking. The next book on my list is Marilynne Robinson's Gilead; also high on my list are Carson McCullers, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Margaret Atwood, Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty.

+ One Kurt Vonnegut novel per quarter. He's Julie's favorite writer and was very prolific, but I haven't read nearly as much of his as I should - and we own pretty much every book he ever wrote, so I really have no excuse for my record so far. I'm currently reading Breakfast of Champions.

+ Following on last year's Summer of Melville, this year I'm leaning toward a Summer of Steinbeck. Again, another great writer I haven't read much of. I loved The Grapes of Wrath when I read it ten-plus years ago, and am currently dabbling in his non-fiction A Russian Journal, but that's it so far.

This will probably be all the formal reading resolutions I have for this year - depending on the length of the Steinbeck novels I choose (I have a big collection of his short novels that I'll surely draw on heavily), these resolutions will account for around twenty books, out of my goal of forty-five total for the year. And I like to freestyle my reading choices too much to tie myself down with any more resolutions. That said, I do intend to pursue the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge, but a lot of these "resolution books" will also meet the Book Riot qualifications, so I'll only have to choose a few books specifically for the challenge.

January 11, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"It’s a book for anyone who feels they’ve ever held themselves back when something that truly mattered was within their grasp."

At The Guardian, Peter Beech shares his deep appreciation for Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, one of the finest books I've read during the past several years. In fact, though I almost exclusively give books as Christmas gifts, Ishiguro's great novel is one of the few that I've given more than once.

January 7, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

"...fairness or brotherhood or hope or happiness..."

The narrator of Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions has just finished describing the American flag and "The Star Spangled Banner", and moves on to the national motto:
The motto of Dwayne Hoover's and Kilgore Trout's nation was this, which meant in a language nobody spoke anymore, Out of Many, One: "E pluribus unum."

The undippable flag was a beauty, and the anthem and the vacant motto might not have mattered much, if it weren't for this: a lot of the citizens were so ignored and cheated and insulted that they thought they might be in the wrong country, or even on the wrong planet, that some terrible mistake had been made. It might have comforted them some if their anthem and their motto had mentioned fairness or brotherhood or hope or happiness, had somehow welcomed them to the society and its real estate.
Familiar sentiment, especially from Vonnegut. My only surprise is that he didn't discuss the country's secondary motto: "In God We Trust." He could have gotten a lot of mileage out of that one.

January 6, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Structured Reading: Willa Cather's Great Plains Trilogy

About a month ago, I finished my latest Structured Reading, with the three books of Willa Cather's "Great Plains Trilogy" (O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark and My Antonia). The reason I haven't commented until now is that I was, quite frankly, unimpressed with the books. Which puzzles me - given Cather's stellar reputation and subject matter, I thought I would love these. Which certainly isn't the case.

First off, it's strange that the books are presented under the "Great Plains Trilogy" moniker, since they really aren't a trilogy. There's no real connection between the books, with no overlapping characters or even much common geography (the second is even set in the big cities of Chicago and New York as much as in small-town Colorado); I suspect that writing a trilogy wasn't Cather's intent, with the trilogy concept instead being the creation of a publisher in search of a marketing angle.

Though many of the details of the three books are already slipping away, one thing that still strikes me about the books (and maybe Cather in general - I haven't read anything else by her) is how distant the narrative is from the stories and characters. In O Pioneers!, the most compelling portions of the Bergson family story (the patriarch's first breaking of the desolate, arid land, and daughter Alexandra's later assemblage of various land parcels into a veritable empire) aren't presented at all, but only referenced in summary after the fact. Instead, the story shows the Bergsons after they've become established, which is mildly interesting but not as much so as reading about their struggles would have been.

Similarly, The Song of the Lark has little conflict or tension, as Thea Kronborg makes a steady ascent from small-town preacher's daughter to big-city opera star; unfortunately, her character is such a self-centered diva that it's hard to cheer for her (unlike the appealing Alexandra Bergson, who is easy to empathize with). Cather also mostly avoids directly illustrating most of Thea's daily life, with the reader's impressions of her largely coming only second-hand, through the windy observations of the series of men who endlessly fawn over her.

My Antonia was a major disappointment, and probably my least favorite of the three books. This is partly due to expectations - I assumed that the story would revolve tightly around Antonia Shimerda's headstrong, free-spirited personality. But to me Antonia didn't even feel like a major character - she was absent for long stretches of the narrative, and the narrator seemed just as eager to describe his own life and numerous other characters as much as Antonia. And at a more basic level, my subdued response to the book is because the basic story (that of Antonia, the narrator and the others) just never seemed to amount to much.

In all three books, Cather writes beautifully, and especially about the natural world - when her characters interact with nature, the results are often quite moving. But her characters and stories just didn't do much for me. I doubt that I'll read any of her other books, and O Pioneers! is the only one I would consider re-reading.

January 5, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"Laugh at them. Be flippant. Laugh at everything, all their sacred shibboleths. Flippancy brings out the acid in their damned sweetness and light." - Noël Coward, Private Lives

January 5, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Good Reading 2015

As always, this list covers books read during 2015, regardless of publication year. I rarely stay current with new releases, and whatever books I do acquire tend to simmer on my shelf for months and even years before I finally crack them open. The envelope, please…

Top Ten:
1. Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon (review)
2. John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me (review)
3. Harry Mark Petrakis, A Petrakis Reader (review)
4. Bohumil Hrabal, Closely Watched Trains (review)
5. Ben Tanzer, After the Flood (review)
6. William Maxwell, They Came Like Swallows (review)
7. John Darnielle, Wolf in White Van (review)
8. Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Spinoza of Market Street (review)
9. Joseph G. Peterson, Gideon's Confession (review)
10. H.L. Mencken, A Religious Orgy in Tennessee (review)

Honorable mention: Pär Lagerkvist, The Sibyl; J.M. Synge, The Aran Islands; Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; Willa Cather, O Pioneers!; Tom Williams, Don't Start Me Talkin'; Jack London, The People Of The Abyss; John Williams, Stoner; Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games trilogy.

Re-readings: Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener; F. Richard Ciccone, Royko: A Life In Print

As I started to compile this list, my first thought was that it hadn't been a very good year in reading, but as I looked over the titles I realized that impression was mostly due to having devoted so much time (four or five months) to Herman Melville and Willa Cather, both of whom underwhelmed me (though I did admire O Pioneers!, and give Melville a lot of credit for the sheer audacity of Moby-Dick). I finally realized that it was indeed a very good year, which is really underscored by the high quality of books that only made honorable mention - especially Lagerkvist and Synge, whose books I enjoyed enough to give as Christmas gifts.

Toni Morrison, quite frankly, blew me away - this is the first time I've ever read her, and I'm now really looking forward to digging deeper into her work. Same for Petrakis, a longtime Chicago writer who for some reason I had never gotten around to reading. And John Howard Griffin's landmark book should be required reading in every high school in America, especially during this era of racial divisiveness.

My friends Ben Tanzer and Joe Peterson came through again, my old favorites Hrabal, Singer, Mencken and Maxwell again failed to disappoint, and John Darnielle proved himself to be every bit as great a novelist as he is a songwriter.

I read a personal record of fifty books this year (due to both diligence and favoring shorter books), and I'm aiming for forty-five this year. I don't have any specific reading projects in mind right now, other than to read many more female authors than I have in the past.

2014 List
2013 List
2012 List
2011 List
2010 List
2009 List
2008 List
2007 List
2006 List
2005 List
2004 List
2003 List
2002 List

January 1, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


My end-of-year reading (Toni Morrison, H.L. Mencken) has been so strong that my annual Good Reading list won't appear until this weekend. I pretty much know where Morrison will end up, but it still remains to be seen about Mencken, who is making an unexpected late rush into my top ten. So, patience is requested from the one or two of you who actually care about this annual event.

December 30, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Poe and Paris

The new Paris editor of the (New York-based) Paris Review, Antonin Baudry, draws a parallel between the Paris terrorist attacks and Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", in which the atrocities were, in Poe's words...
something excessively outré—something altogether irreconcilable with our common notions of human action, even when we suppose the actors the most depraved of men.
Also interesting is the observation that not even Poe could imagine his horrific murders being committed by a human being. So unlike today.

December 29, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Every outward expression of sorrow was shown."

The Guardian republishes its lovely eulogy to Washington Irving, which the paper first ran on this date in 1859. I might continue my public domain reading with some Irving this year. Other than "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow", I don't think I've ever read him.

December 24, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (4)

"...unfit her for eighty percent of the useful work of the world..."

In Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, Corinthians Dead - college-educated but 42 years old and still living with her well-off parents - longs for the independence of a career.
She considered going to the state teachers' school to take the required courses, even went to the administration building to register. But the sight of those torpedo breasts under fuzzy blue sweaters, the absolute nakedness of those young faces, drove her out of the building and off the campus like a leaf before a hailstorm. Which was too bad, because she had no real skills. Bryn Mawr had done what a four-year dose of liberal education was designed to do: unfit her for eighty percent of the useful work of the world. First, by training her for leisure time, enrichments, and domestic mindlessness. Second, by a clear implication that she was too good for such work.
Interesting take from an author with a B.A. in English from Howard University.

December 21, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

A year (okay, almost a year) of public domain reading

One of my reading goals for 2015 was to read one public domain book per month on my second-generation Kindle. (I'm not a big fan of ebooks, but they're the best way to read old, obscure works that are difficult and/or prohibitively expensive to find in physical form. Project Gutenberg is the best place to find public domain books, and Amazon also has a huge library of free public domain books - if you're using a Kindle, Amazon is also the easiest downloading option.)

In short, I fell short of my goal, reading only nine books and giving up in October. The quality of the books was very uneven, and the low points were low enough to discourage me from continuing on. Also hindering me was taking up guitar in September - most of my public domain reading was done in 15-20 minutes right before going to bed, but once I started guitar, that pre-bed time was devoted to practicing instead.

By far the year's standout was J.M. Synge's The Aran Islands. Synge was an Irish playwright who also wrote several books of his immersion in regional cultures, and this book is his account of his time in the remote Arans, off the west coast of Ireland. Synge writes lyrically and touchingly of the Aran people, who were first driven to the desolate islands during the time of Cromwell, where they struggled to scratch out an existence. Even during the time of Synge's visits, more than a hundred years ago, the unique culture of the islands was already slowly yielding to modernity, and it's safe to say that virtually everything he described (other than the rocky terrain, bitter winds and icy sheets of rain) has since vanished. The book is a vibrant relic of a lost culture.

Two books by writers I've long admired were everything and every bit as good as I expected: Jack London's The People of the Abyss and H.L. Mencken's Damn! (a Book of Calumny). London is typically angry and eloquent in telling of the poor people of London's East End (and the unjust social structures that kept them that way), while Mencken is characteristically acerbic and witty as he skewers numerous deserving targets of his day.

On the flip side, as a longtime fan of the humorists Ring Lardner and George Ade, I was greatly disappointed by Lardner's The Real Dope and Ade's Fables in Slang. Lardner returns to the character Jack Keefe, the semi-literate ballplayer made famous in the excellent You Know Me Al, as Keefe reluctantly leaves the big leagues to fight in World War I. Separated from the baseball context which Lardner knew so well, Keefe's character becomes thinly-drawn, unfunny and generally unpleasant to be around. Ade's fables, though mildly amusing at first, are ethereal and ultimately forgettable. I've already forgotten pretty much all of them, after just a few months.

Also pleasantly humorous but forgettable (but not suffering from disappointment of being by a writer I admired, as with Lardner and Ade) are Eugene Field's The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac (I consider myself a bibliomaniac, and thus enjoyed spending time with a kindred spirit), and George Lorimer's Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son, which suffers greatly from endless repetition. Lorimer wrote these pieces as a newspaper columnist, and clearly on a deadline, to their long-term detriment. Despite its stellar reputation, Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater was a dud - if you're going to use that title, your book had better be the harrowing travails of an addict. Instead, it's wordy and digressive and slow to ever get to the point - assuming it ever got to the point. I wouldn't know, since I gave up halfway through. And the less said about John Richardson's racist and badly-written Hardscrabble; or, the fall of Chicago. a tale of Indian warfare, the better (I won't even bother linking to it).

De Quincey was the final straw - after reading this and several duds just before it, I gave up. I'm a sucker for old books and will undoubtedly read from the public domain regularly in the future (and probably on a Kindle), but I doubt it will ever be another rigid, year-long project like this one.

December 20, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

"...not even to grow old..."

Gilbert Seldes, on writers and commercial success.

Perhaps the most disastrous effect of popularity on a writer is that he is encouraged to stick to the form, or formula, which first caught the public fancy. He is rather like a star in the movies who cannot break out of an established character for fear of "losing her audience." The writer in such a case is asked not to grow; not even to grow old. But the only way to stop growth is to die; and some writers do this, while they continue to write.

Seldes writes this in the introduction to The Portable Ring Lardner, a 1946 collection which he also edited and which I've read several times, each time with genuine pleasure. Lardner was one of America's great satirists, but is mostly remembered today (if remembered at all) only for You Know Me Al. Seldes did an excellent job of curating the collection with Lardner's best work, which must have been quite a task - Seldes, while a great admirer of Lardner's work, readily admitted that the writer was over-published in book form, especially his journalistic pieces. He even draws a parallel to Twain: "The long run usually hardest on writers who work for the next issue; and both Twain and Lardner are improved by severe culling."

I had forgotten about Seldes until this morning, when I happened to read about the passing of his son, the longtime literary agent Timothy Seldes. The name Gilbert Seldes struck me, and I racked my memory to remember where I knew him from. The list of works on his Wikipedia page finally reminded me about the Lardner collection, which I plucked from the shelf and enjoyed reading Seldes' introductory essay again. Another reading of the book itself can't be too far ahead.

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


"We are part animal. Humanity is an aspiration, not a fact of everyday life." - William McIlvanney

December 13, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"War against a foreign country only happens when the moneyed classes think they are going to profit from it." - George Orwell

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

Leaving home

Patrick Wensink, on small towns.
What surprised me was that I realized my motivation to explore small town America was from guilt. Here I was, pontificating on why little towns and villages fail and it became clear that people like me are just as much to blame as factory work going overseas. Pretty much everyone I graduated with that went to college moved away.
Wensink and I are fellow contributors to the Daddy Cool anthology that came out a few years ago, and last year at a Ben Tanzer book release party I heard Wensink read a hilarious piece about his brief stint as a KFC taste-tester (I believe it was called "Optional Hushpuppies") that really grabbed me. Remembering that piece, and now seeing his thoughts on small towns - a favorite subject of mine - has me wanting to read his latest book, Fake Fruit Factory. Sounds hilarious.

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


I'm not writing much these days, so National Novel Writing Month no longer interests me much. But I'm reading as much as ever, so when Austin Kleon came up with National Novel Reading Month - sharing one great novel for each day in November - I was totally up for it. So, to save you the trouble of scrolling through my Twitter feed, here are the thirty novels that I shared, along with my one- and two-sentence reviews (140-character maximum, remember!).

Knut Hamsun, Hunger: My favorite novel for the past 30 years, and most likely the rest of my life. Brilliant on so many levels.

Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm: Gritty Chicago streets and the people who can't escape them, nor escape themselves.

Kent Haruf, Plainsong: An unforgettable portrait of a small town and the intertwining lives of its people.

Bohumil Hrabal, Too Loud a Solitude: A solitary reader and his rapidly vanishing world.

Tarjei Vesaas, The Birds: A young boy doubts he has any place in the world. Mournful, heartbreaking, delicate, beautiful.

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man: A narrator who is seen only as an abstraction, when he is even seen at all.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: Devastating story of daily survival.

James T. Farrell, Young Lonigan: Portrait of the hoodlum as a young man. JTF should have stopped here, and not done a trilogy.

Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt: The only bigoted, misogynist, hypocritical buffoonish blowhard you'll ever love.

Cormac McCarthy, The Road: Father and son keep moving, but have nowhere to go.

O.E. Rølvaag, Giants In The Earth: High-flown dreams meet bitter reality, in 1870s pioneer South Dakota.

Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener: Clerk refuses work, unclear on exactly what he does prefer to do. Proto office fiction.

Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project: Lazarus rises, not from the dead, but from the fog of forgotten history.

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day: An aging butler muses on a vanishing way of life, wonders if it was all worth it.

Ian McEwan, Atonement: Small incidents escalate into enormous problems. The Dunkirk section is jaw-droppingly intense.

Matt Bell, The Collectors: Tragic, devastating portrait of two reclusive, hoarding brothers.

Tom Williams, The Mimic's Own Voice: Wonderfully inventive fictional biography of the world's greatest professional mimic.

Virginia Lee Burton, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel: A story and life lesson that will always be with me.

Nick Hornby, High Fidelity: The adult male human, and its strange habitat and baffling behavior.

Jack London, White Fang: Life amidst the threatening, merciless, deadly wilderness.

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath: The American Dream turns dark, but might, just might, brighten after all.

Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels: Humanity's foibles on vivid display, in perhaps the greatest satire ever written.

Ander Monson, Other Electricities: Lost, lonely souls reach across a harsh, endless winter, desperate to connect.

J.F. Powers, Morte d'Urban: A 1950s Catholic priest, not so much a man of faith but instead a businessman and promoter.

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God: Unforgettable portrait of a defiant woman who will not be defeated.

Daniel Woodrell, Winter's Bone: Fearless teenager fights for her family in the harsh, unforgiving Ozarks.

John Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer: A riot of characters in a riotous city during a riotous time.

Hjalmar Söderberg, Doctor Glas: Vague longing and distant empathy cause an act that ends up not as altruistic as intended.

Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides: Five tragic sisters and the boys who can't stop watching them, but only from a distance.

Upton Sinclair, The Jungle: Poor, naive immigrants are crushed by capitalism at its unrestrained worst.

December 6, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (3)

"...whoop for Genesis undefiled..."

"It is an old and bitter observation that, in armed conflicts, the peacemaker frequently gets the worst of it. The truth of the fact is being demonstrated anew in the case of the Tennessee pedagogue accused of teaching Evolution. No matter what the issue of that great moral cause, it seems to me very unlikely that either of the principal parties will be greatly shaken. The Evolutionists will go on demonstrating, believing in and teaching the mutability of living forms, and the Ku Klux theologians will continue to whoop for Genesis undefiled."
- H.L. Mencken, "The Tennessee Circus" (collected in A Religious Orgy in Tennessee)

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

Forgotten bookmark

image from http://www.boogaj.com/.a/6a00d83451ce9f69e201b7c7f4c3ba970b-pi

Post-it Note, with Julie's jottings for potential purchases at Egghead Software and ubid.com. Found inside Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (Signet, 1978).

December 3, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"The theme of displacement is very natural for me. It always comes up in my books because I have been a foreigner all my life and I don’t feel I belong anywhere. I’m an immigrant." - Isabel Allende

December 3, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"A great department store is an offensive thing, because it pretends that trade is carried on in a dignified manner. The strong towers and wide façades of these immense shops make believe that Commerce has become a god, for whom it is meet to build a temple: whereas, in its present-day development, it is a vampire, to be buried at the cross-roads, with a stake through its heart."
- Rebecca West

And West didn't even live long enough to experience Walmart on Black Friday. Just imagine her reaction to that.

November 29, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Once upon a time, a work was considered a failure if it did not make you cry."

Margaret Atwood reflects on literature, particularly literary tearjerkers.
But “The Little Mermaid” simply made me furious. Cutting off one’s hair, losing one’s voice, replacing one’s tail with two painful feet, all for such a worthless prince, and it doesn’t work out in the end? Feh, I exclaimed to myself. Or the ’40s child equivalent.
I always love Atwood's frank sensibility. So refreshing.

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


"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 (2)

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)