“There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.” - William Zinsser

May 15, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

"...noise or wine or sex or gluttony..."

In Black Like Me (1960), the white writer John Howard Griffin disguises himself as an African-American in order to experience, firsthand, that other side of society. After starting in New Orleans, he moves on to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, which is simmering with imminent racial unrest after a white jury refused to indict members of a mob suspected of lynching Mack Charles Parker. Here, he reflects on African-Americans' seeming ability to remain joyous in the face of injustice and deprivation.
The music consumed in its blatant rhythm all other rhythms, even that of the heartbeat. I wondered how all of this would look to the casual observer, or to the whites in their homes. "The n***ers are whooping it up over on Mobile Street tonight," they might say. "They're happy." Or, as one scholar put it, "Despite their lowly status, they are capable of living jubilantly." Would they see the immense melancholy that hung over the quarter, so oppressive that men had to dull their sensibilities in noise or wine or sex or gluttony in order to escape it? The laughter had to be gross or it would turn to sobs, and to sob would be to realize, and to realize would be to despair. So the noise poured forth like a jazzed-up fugue, louder and louder, to cover the whisper in every man's soul, "You are black. You are condemned." That is what the white man mistook for "jubilant living" and called "whooping it up." This is how the white man can say, "They live like dogs," never realizing why they must, to save themselves, shout, get drunk, shake the hip, pour pleasures into bellies deprived of happiness. Otherwise, the sounds of the quarter would lose order and rhythm and become wails.
Or, as the old blues lyric goes, "I'm laughing just to keep from crying." Powerful book, one that I'm really enjoying.

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

"I like that devilish thing in children."

William Trevor, from a 1989 interview with The Paris Review:
My skill in art and English made me impatient, and I found those subjects rather dreary to teach as a result. “Why are the art room walls covered with pictures of such ugly women?” a headmaster asked me once. “And why have some of them got those horrible cigarette butts hanging out of their nostrils?” I explained that I had asked the children to paint the ugliest woman they could think of. Unfortunately, almost all of them had looked no further than the headmaster’s wife. I like that devilish thing in children.
Trevor (one of my favorite writers) must have been a marvelous teacher, though at least one headmaster's wife would surely disagree.

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


Radical publisher Richard Carlile was once brought to trial in England on charges of blasphemy and seditious libel for publishing Thomas Paine's writings, which were banned by the authorities. His response?
At his trial Carlile argued that the jury could only judge whether Paine’s work was seditious and blasphemous if they heard it for themselves, and splendidly read out the whole of Paine’s The Age of Reason, an attack on institutionalised religion and church corruption. This was a sneaky ploy to get the book into the public domain: verbatim trial proceedings could legally be published. It later sold 10,000 two-penny copies.
Despite its official suppression, The Age of Reason became one of history's seminal texts. Thank goodness for rational, forward-thinking people like Carlile.

May 5, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)


"I believe the most interesting human beings, so far as talk is concerned, are anthropologists, farmers, prostitutes, psychiatrists, and an occasional bartender. The best talk is artless, the talk of people trying to reassure or comfort themselves, women in the sun grouped around baby carriages, talking about their weeks in the hospital or the way meat has gone up, or men in saloons, talking to combat the loneliness everyone feels.” - Joseph Mitchell

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

Forgotten bookmark

image from http://www.boogaj.com/.a/6a00d83451ce9f69e201bb081f3d46970d-pi

Business envelope from Chicago magazine, postmarked January 9, 1979, which probably once contained a subscription renewal notice. Found inside A Petrakis Reader by Harry Mark Petrakis (Doubleday, 1978).

April 17, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...throw it to hell and gone..."

Harry Mark Petrakis' "The Passing of the Ice" tells the story of Mike, one of the last icemen who once delivered big blocks of ice to businesses and homes every day before the trade finally ended with the rise of commercial refrigeration. Mike's world is slowly vanishing, which he grimly acknowledges.
"Sometimes," Mike said, and there was a fierce edge to his voice, "I want to drag out that ice and cut it down and throw it as far as I can, throw it to hell and gone. I want to empty the big house once of every last block and scatter every last damn chunk over the hill. Make the fat man sit up. Make everyone understand that after forty years an iceman don't just lay down his pick and tongs with a goddam whimper."
Mike's vow is poigantly echoed in the final scene of the story, which I won't spoil here. I've always been fascinated by industries that are in their dying days, and have long been aware that Petrakis wrote a novel about Chicago icemen, Twilight of the Ice, which was published in 2003. After reading this story (first published in 1962) and a summary of the novel, it's clear that Petrakis expanded the kernel of the story into the later novel, which I'm now very eager to read. Now if I can just readily find it.

April 17, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Greatest ever Chicago book?

Chicago Reader names the winner of The Greatest Ever Chicago Book Tournament, which is...um, a book which focuses on three individuals, only one of which has anything to do with Chicago. And as much as I loved the runner-up, Studs Terkel's Working, I've never thought of it having a particular focus on Chicago. Apparently I greatly differ with the judges on what, exactly, a Chicago book is. Of the books in the tournament, my top two choices would have been Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and Nelson Algren's Chicago: City on the Make; and only recently have I realized, and been baffled by, the tournament's complete omission of Alex Kotlowitz's There Are No Children Here, which just might be the greatest Chicago book of all.

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

"Tonight and all the other nights."

In Harry Mark Petrakis' story "End of Winter", Wally - married, with two kids and third on the way - has been cheating on his wife, Della. And, as anyone who has watched Mad Men or any other domestic drama of the past forty years will not be surprised to hear, he finally gets caught.
"There was no meeting tonight," she said. "Lawrence called for you. And then I thought of all the other meetings late at night that you have attended the last few months. All the other things that suddenly fall into place. Then I knew it was a girl."

Her face was naked and her flesh tight across her cheeks.

"Yes," I said. "Tonight and all the other nights. Yes, there is a girl."

She must have expected me to say that, but still her face loosened as if the bone beneath the skin had suddenly broken. I was sorry I had not lied, that for a little while I had not indulged all the heated denials.

"Do you want a divorce?" she asked.

"Del," I said. "It was just a girl. I don't want a divorce. It didn't mean that much to me."

"It means that much to me," she said.
I like what Petrakis does here with verb tenses. Della first says "it was a girl", as if hopeful the affair is in the past, or soon will be. But instead of confirming her suspicion by repeating her verbatim, Wally says "there is a girl", as if he's not quite ready to put the affair behind him. Then, after seeing her strong reaction, he downplays the significance of the affair, switching from is to was, and saying that the affair didn't mean that much to him - past tense, insisting that it's now behind him. But when she repeats him, she changes the verb to present tense. She's saying that although the affair might be over (but not necessarily over, I think - Wally seems to have enjoyed it too much for that) she will never forget or forgive his unfaithfulness. It seems highly likely their relationship will never be the same. Very subtle, and very well done.

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


"It’s a very, very grim play. Nevertheless, it’s a play that is full of extraordinary, touching scenes of real love and real devotion of Cordelia to him and him to Cordelia that don’t redeem the action on the stage, but do something to elevate the spectator or the reader in a way that I find very moving.

That’s what good literature can do. It doesn’t evade any of the terrible things in life. It faces them and faces them squarely, but puts them in a context in which they have a richer meaning than they would as simply raw, descriptive facts."
- Anthony Hecht, on King Lear

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

Bukowski, via Waits

I haven't read much Charles Bukowski (though I did include a reference to the poet in Wheatyard), but after hearing Tom Waits' beautiful reading of "Nirvana" (on the third disc of his album Orphans), I finally tracked the poem down, and really like it. Here's a taste:
And the young man watched the snow through the window.
And he wanted to stay in that café forever.
The curious feeling swam through him that everything was beautiful there.
And it would always stay beautiful there.

I can just see this entire narrative, playing out in my mind.

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


"Just you wait. I'll become famous after I'm dead about ten years." - Jim Thompson

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


It's Opening Day but I really couldn't care less, having lost my passion and almost all of my interest in baseball years ago. Which is remarkable, given how much the game consumed me until I was around thirty. Opening Day used to be almost a holiday for me - I went to five or six openers at Wrigley Field, despite it always being raw and cold there in early April. (One opener I attended was snowed out. I spent most of the afternoon in the concourse beneath the grandstand, waiting for the inevitable cancellation announcement, standing - oddly enough - elbow to elbow with film critic Gene Siskel and Chicago Bear players Gary Fencik and Brian Baschnagel. This was the pre-skybox era, when local celebrities still mingled with the riffraff.) And the regular season was an endless six months of watching every Cub game (and quite a few of the White Sox, and even the Braves on cable), scouring the box scores and calculating statistics by hand.

I can't pinpoint exactly what drove me away from the game. Certainly the obscene amount of money involved has something to with it, and the steroids, and the over-amplified, ad-infested spectacle that the teams and TV networks forced on what was once a quiet, pastoral game. And the 1994 strike, which took away the daily rituals that I thought were essential but suddenly learned I could live without.

That said, I'm still interested in the older traditions of the game as it once was. Which is why, on Friday night, I took Martin Gardner's The Annotated Casey at the Bat: A Collection of Ballads About the Mighty Casey off the shelf, and finished it last night. I've long loved Ernest Thayer's immortal comic poem, having memorized it at age eight (and recited it during a few family gatherings) and much later wrote a short story ("Mighty Casey") which was published by Zisk Magazine in 2006.

Gardner presents several of Thayer's versions of the poem, but even more interesting are several dozen parodies of the poem written by both the famous (Grantland Rice, Ray Bradbury) and the totally anonymous. Most of the parodies aren't very good - repetitive verse that copies the original meter and rhyme pattern, and offer only a slight narrative twist: Casey rebounds the next game with the winning homer, Casey emerges from the stands decades later as a 68-year-old substitute to again be the hero, Casey's wife and kids later play in baseball and softball games, striving to restore the family's honor, etc.

But there are some real gems, including Bradbury's Casey/Moby-Dick mashup and Mad magazine's 1960 version of the original, rewritten in hipster-beatnik lingo. And this stanza from "Casey at the Plate", by an unknown author, made me laugh out loud:

The pitcher threw, and Casey swung; he hit the empty air.
Another pitch and Casey made his strikes an even pair.
And then a lusty bleacher voice, a helpful thought advanced:
"Go get the guy a snowshoe! Let him have a sportin' chance!"

As much as baseball has changed, one thing that will always stay the same is the fickleness of its fans. Cheer your heroes one minute, boo them the next.

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


"The Midwest has never thought of itself as a region nor has it been entirely sure what its boundaries are. We can’t bring to mind typical people or forms of expression held in common. And we don’t really connect with other states. An Illinois farmer would never think of Michigan as Midwest, though he knows it is. Michigan is another world, and Indiana is just a bad first draft of Illinois." - Richard Spilman

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


"A child is an almost platonic reader. His imagination remains unbounded." - Eric Carle

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


"There is something fierce and starved about first ideas." - John Darnielle, Wolf in White Van

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

Art imitates life

Yesterday's Obit of the Day had a literary angle: Chester Gillette, who was executed on March 30, 1908 after a sensationalistic murder trial, was the basis for Theodore Dreiser's novel An American Tragedy. I must admit, however, that as much as I admire Dreiser, the novel is a doorstop of a book that I've never dared to try to read. I even walked away from a nearly-free copy last year at a library sale.

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

Eugene Field, fender-fisherman

The poet Eugene Field was an enthusiastic fisherman (or angler, in the parlance of his day). Er, sort of. From the chapter "The Delights of Fender-Fishing", collected in In The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac:
My bookseller once took me angling with him in a Wisconsin lake which was the property of a club of anglers to which my friend belonged. As we were to be absent several days I carried along a box of books, for I esteem appropriate reading to be a most important adjunct to an angling expedition. My bookseller had with him enough machinery to stock a whaling expedition, and I could not help wondering what my old Walton would think, could he drop down into our company with his modest equipment of hooks, flies, and gentles.
The bookseller objects when Field raises an umbrella against the hot sun, yet grudgingly tolerates it; but when Field starts to recite some angling-inspired poetry, the bookseller says enough is enough, and calls it a day. Which undoubtedly satisfied Field; he liked fishing, but not the actual catching of fish. Instead, he describes himself as a "fender-fisherman" who exults over fishing and the natural world from a distance, indoors in conversation before a roaring fire (a fender is a frame or screen in front of an open fire) or through readings of Izaak Walton, Christopher North and others. Interesting guy.

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

"My Fathers, The Baltic"

I picked up Philip Levine's News of the World at the library a few weeks ago, shortly after his death, and have slowly been paging through it. For as much as I admire his factory-and-diner poetry, it's "My Fathers, The Baltic", with its evocation of a rocky Baltic beach and remembrance of immigrant ancestors long gone, that I like best so far.

Yusel Prisckulnick,
I bless your laughter
thrown in the wind’s face,
your gall, your rages,
your abiding love
for money and all
it never bought...

Simply lovely.

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


"In time I came to feel that real editing means changing as little as possible. Various editors and proofreaders would put their oar in, and sometimes I had to change hats and protect the writer from his own agreeableness, or fear, or whatever it was that made him say yes when he ought to have said no. What you hope is that if the writer reads the story ten years after it is published he will not be aware that anybody has ever touched it. But it takes many years of experience—and love—to be able to do that." - William Maxwell

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

Irish March

Oops. I guess I'm not doing Irish March this year. It's already the 13th and I only just now remembered my annual reading exercise. Well, I did read William Trevor's The Old Boys last month, so at least that's something. If you're somehow feeling cheated, I guess you could read my recaps from 2014, 2013 (actually, a preview), 2012 or 2011.

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


"The secret of the afterlife is nothing at all - or, rather, it is only one secret, compared to the infinite number of secrets having to do with this life that the dead take with them when they go." - William Maxwell

March 12, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Everybody's a critic...

...and James Joyce wasn't even safe at home.
Nora was not fond of her husband's style of writing, and not usually content with a yawn. When she discovered that he was "on another book again," just a year after the misery of Ulysses, she asked her husband if, instead of "that chop suey you're writing," he might not try "sensible books that people can understand."
Joyce started Finnegans Wake on this day in 1923, obviously without the support of his wife. But I think I would have liked Nora. "Chop suey" is one of the most memorable bits of criticism I've ever encountered - just a notch below Poe calling someone's poem "an illimitable gilded swill trough."

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


"If you can’t annoy somebody with what you write, I think there’s little point in writing." - Kingsley Amis

March 7, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

"...the old life we no longer needed..."

In Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog, the former Iranian air force colonel Behrani reflects on the new life he had dreamed of for himself, a dream which is steadily slipping away. He imagines his family and that of his old friend General Pourat...

...all seated at a grand sofreh upon a floor of the finest Isfahani carpets; we would drink French champagne and eat the finest chelo kebab; we would laugh at Pourat’s jokes and riddles, his gentle teasing of the children. Nadi and Pourat’s wife would embrace each other in joy while Pourat and I would retire to the balcony overlooking the city to smoke Cuban cigars and speak of the old life we no longer needed.

Inside the air-conditioned mall, I sit at a white plastic table in front of the many food concessions and eat a Japanese lunch of fried beef and noodles, and I know in my heart that this is no holy vision of Pourat and me on a balcony in America; it is a lie, a dooroogh born of heat and hunger and thirst and a need for my old life that is sometimes so strong I feel I would do nearly anything to retrieve it. But I cannot, no more than Pourat can rise from the dead to extract the revolutionaries’ bullets from his wife and children and then himself.

Good book, and getting even better now that I’m past the parts I remember from the movie adaptation.

March 1, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)


"Royko is like his city. He has sharp elbows, he thinks sulphur and soot are natural ingredients of the atmosphere, and he has an astonishing capacity for idealism and love devoid of goo. He has written about Chicago in a way that has never been matched." - Bill Mauldin, quoted in Royko: A Life in Print by F. Richard Ciccone

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

"He knew far more profanity than Scripture, and used and enjoyed it more."

H.L. Mencken, on the so-called Father of our Country:


If George Washington were alive today, what a shining mark he would be for the whole camorra of uplifters, forward-lookers and professional patriots! He was the Rockefeller of his time, the richest man in the United States, a promoter of stock companies, a land-grabber, an exploiter of mines and timber. He was a bitter opponent of foreign alliances, and denounced their evils in harsh, specific terms. He had a liking for all forthright and pugnacious men, and a contempt for lawyers, schoolmasters and all other such obscurantists. He was not pious. He drank whisky whenever he felt chilly, and kept a jug of it handy. He knew far more profanity than Scripture, and used and enjoyed it more. He had no belief in the infallible wisdom of the common people, but regarded them as inflammatory dolts, and tried to save the republic from them. He advocated no sure cure for all the sorrows of the world, and doubted that such a panacea existed. He took no interest in the private morals of his neighbors.

Inhabiting These States today, George would be ineligible for any office of honor or profit. The Senate would never dare confirm him; the President would not think of nominating him. He would be on trial in all the yellow journals for belonging to the Invisible Government, the Hell Hounds of Plutocracy, the Money Power, the Interests. The Sherman Act would have him in its toils; he would be under indictment by every grand jury south of the Potomac; the triumphant prohibitionists of his native state would be denouncing him (he had a still at Mount Vernon) as a debaucher of youth, a recruiting officer for insane asylums, a poisoner of the home. The suffragettes would be on his trail, with sentinels posted all along the Accotink road. The initiators and referendors would be bawling for his blood. The young college men of the Nation and the New Republic would be lecturing him weekly. He would be used to scare children in Kansas and Arkansas. The chautauquas would shiver whenever his name was mentioned....

And what a chance there would be for that ambitious young district attorney who thought to shadow him on his peregrinations—and grab him under the Mann Act!

Mencken's bellicose verbosity often makes his true feelings inscrutable, but I think he's being complimentary here. This piece is collected in Damn! A Book of Calumny (1918).

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

Especially the Congressmen.

H.L. Mencken was no fan of zoos. But he did see some practical value in the study of zoology:
Science, of course, has its uses for the lower animals. A diligent study of their livers and lights helps to an understanding of the anatomy and physiology, and particularly of the pathology, of man. They are necessary aids in devising and manufacturing many remedial agents, and in testing the virtues of those already devised; out of the mute agonies of a rabbit or a calf may come relief for a baby with diphtheria, or means for an archdeacon to escape the consequences of his youthful follies. Moreover, something valuable is to be got out of a mere study of their habits, instincts and ways of mind—knowledge that, by analogy, may illuminate the parallel doings of the genus homo, and so enable us to comprehend the primitive mental processes of Congressmen, morons and the rev. clergy.
I don't agree with his espousal of animal testing and vivisection, but the jabs at archdeacons and Congressmen really made me laugh. That's the thing about about reading Mencken - to enjoy his acerbic wit, you often have to put up with him infuriating you.

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

"I already have a place to live."

I love this little anecdote of Philip Levine, who was the first in his family to graduate from college.
“When I turned college age I had to make a decision about what I was going to do about my life,” he told The Paris Review in 1988. “My high school teachers encouraged me to go to college. I stood in line at Wayne State University to enroll, and when I got up to the head of the line, this woman said, ‘Can I help you?’

"I said, ‘I’d like to go to college.’ She said, ‘Do you want a bachelor’s?’

"I said, ‘I already have a place to live.’ Because to me a bachelor’s was a small apartment.”

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

Philip Levine

Sad to hear of the passing of Philip Levine, one of the few poets I'm familiar with but whose work I've always enjoyed. Here's part of "The Two", my favorite of his poems.

“And the lovers?” you ask. I wrote nothing about lovers.
Take a look. Clouds, trucks, traffic lights, a diner, work,
a wooden shoe, East Moline, poached eggs, the perfume
of frying bacon, the chaos of language, the spices
of spent breath after eight hours of night work.
Can you hear all I feared and never dared to write?

The full poem can be read here.

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

"When we left our faces were shining like Micawber’s..."


At the Times Literary Supplement, Thea Lenarduzzi writes a nice report of a gin enthusiasts' event held at the Charles Dickens Museum in London, which is housed in one of Dickens' former homes. The writer mentions Dickens' 1835 article "Gin-Shops" (collected in Chapter 22 of the "Scenes" section of Sketches by Boz):

Although places of this description are to be met with in every second street, they are invariably numerous and splendid in precise proportion to the dirt and poverty of the surrounding neighbourhood. The gin-shops in and near Drury-Lane, Holborn, St. Giles’s, Covent-garden, and Clare-market, are the handsomest in London. There is more of filth and squalid misery near those great thorough-fares than in any part of this mighty city.

The gin drinking at the museum event sounds quite a bit more polite and decorous than it was back in Dickens' day.

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


"As the future narrows one turns too much to the past. One sees it out of proportion, as though it matters." - Wiiliam Trevor, The Old Boys

February 10, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)


"Our American professors like their literature clear and cold and pure and very dead."
- Sinclair Lewis

Yesterday was the 130th anniversary of the birth of Lewis, who has been one of my favorite writers since I first read Babbitt back in college (on my own, not for a class), and his work was also a thematic element in Wheatyard. My narrator loved Lewis, but Wheatyard didn't care much for the writer; Lewis was the first of many points of contention between the two, even though the iconoclast Wheatyard probably would have agreed with this quote.

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


“At ten we ’ops the wag; at thirteen we nicks things; an’ at sixteen we bashes the copper.” - A young boy from London's East End, quoted in Jack London's The People of the Abyss

Or, as London translates: "Which is to say, at ten they play truant, at thirteen steal, and at sixteen are sufficiently developed hooligans to smash the policemen." A grim book, but one that I'm very glad I finally read.

February 1, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

More on Steve Himmer

Clever: Steve Himmer (promoting his workplace-focused novel Fram) does his self-interview at The Nervous Breakdown using what Forbes magazine calls the most difficult job interview questions.
What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?
Definitely my solo trek to the north pole. Or do daydreams not count? In case they don’t, I think writing and trying to publish is also risky. You might reveal the way you see the world only to discover it’s not the world anyone else lives in. And you might try and try to publish while fearing all along that you’re wasting your time and will seem foolish when it comes to nothing, that you aren’t really good enough, and you’ll never really know until it’s too late one way or the other. Honestly, I think the risk of not giving up — not just in writing, but in everything — is the biggest risk all of us take. It’s amazing what people manage to push themselves through without giving up.
Well done - although I'm sorry my favorite question wasn't used: "Where do you see yourself in five years?"

January 28, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

The making of a writer

In the autumn 2014 issue of Granta, Kent Haruf writes a bittersweet essay on his beginnings as a writer. Bittersweet, given that this was probably one of the last things he wrote before his untimely death in November. In writing about his life, Haruf is every bit as self-effacing, reserved and gentle as his fiction.

January 18, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"But one age cannot be another and you make due with what's available when you come along, as Oscar often reminded himself. He was lucky to be where he was, exploring the Arctic with a pension plus health insurance."

An excerpt from Steve Himmer's new novel, Fram, which I'm really looking forward to reading.

January 17, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"A blessed companion is a book - a book that, fitly chosen, is a lifelong friend." - Douglas William Jerrold

I can think of three books that fit this lofty description: Knut Hamsun's Hunger, Nelson Algren's The Man With the Golden Arm, and Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt.

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

"...they were yearning, not for salvation, but for grub."

I really like this passage from Jack London's The People of the Abyss, in which he describes seeking a meal at a Salvation Army mission...
All told, there must have been nearly seven hundred of us who sat down—not to meat or bread, but to speech, song, and prayer. From all of which I am convinced that Tantalus suffers in many guises this side of the infernal regions. The adjutant made the prayer, but I did not take note of it, being too engrossed with the massed picture of misery before me. But the speech ran something like this: “You will feast in Paradise. No matter how you starve and suffer here, you will feast in Paradise, that is, if you will follow the directions.” And so forth and so forth. A clever bit of propaganda, I took it, but rendered of no avail for two reasons. First, the men who received it were unimaginative and materialistic, unaware of the existence of any Unseen, and too inured to hell on earth to be frightened by hell to come. And second, weary and exhausted from the night’s sleeplessness and hardship, suffering from the long wait upon their feet, and faint from hunger, they were yearning, not for salvation, but for grub. The “soul-snatchers” (as these men call all religious propagandists), should study the physiological basis of psychology a little, if they wish to make their efforts more effective.
...especially since I hear its echoes in Nelson Algren's Chicago: City on the Make, which was written nearly fifty years later. Here, Algren describes the legendary, corrupt-yet-benevolent Chicago alderman Hinky Dink Kenna:
Like the city that bred him, he had a heavenly harpist on his bedpost as well as a hustler’s imp stoking the furnace: when hard times came he fed and sheltered more hungry and homeless men than all the Gold Coast archangels put together. And felt frankly outraged when the archangels accused him of trading free lunches for votes at his Workingman’s Exchange.

He’d paid fifty cents in gold cash for every vote he’d bought, he let the archangels know — but what about the missions that were buying blackened souls in exchange for blacker coffee and the easy promise of a heavenly throne? Why was it less noble to pay cash here and now? Let the Gold Coast archangels answer him that.

Those same pious Gold Coasters who took the Righteous Horrors at the nightly carnival put on by the First Ward cribs — while secretly pocketing rents off those same terrible cribs.

Yet in standardizing the price of the vote The Hink did more to keep the city running that bitter winter than did all the balmy summers of Moody’s evangelism. Not even to mention Lucy Page Gaston’s command that the Chicago Cubs stop smoking cigarettes immediately.

Who came out the truer Christian in a hassle like that?

January 13, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

"This street is the very last."

In The People of the Abyss, Jack London describes returning to his comparatively comfortable lodgings on one of the last "good" streets of the East End of London, after his first exploration of the squalor of the surrounding neighborhood.
...I could not quite take in all of my own room at once. The immensity of it was awe-inspiring. Could this be the room I had rented for six shillings a week? Impossible! But my landlady, knocking at the door to learn if I were comfortable, dispelled my doubts.

“Oh yes, sir,” she said, in reply to a question. “This street is the very last. All the other streets were like this eight or ten years ago, and all the people were very respectable. But the others have driven our kind out. Those in this street are the only ones left. It’s shocking, sir!”

And then she explained the process of saturation, by which the rental value of a neighbourhood went up, while its tone went down.

“You see, sir, our kind are not used to crowding in the way the others do. We need more room. The others, the foreigners and lower-class people, can get five and six families into this house, where we only get one. So they can pay more rent for the house than we can afford. It is shocking, sir; and just to think, only a few years ago all this neighbourhood was just as nice as it could be.”

I looked at her. Here was a woman, of the finest grade of the English working-class, with numerous evidences of refinement, being slowly engulfed by that noisome and rotten tide of humanity which the powers that be are pouring eastward out of London Town. Bank, factory, hotel, and office building must go up, and the city poor folk are a nomadic breed; so they migrate eastward, wave upon wave, saturating and degrading neighbourhood by neighbourhood, driving the better class of workers before them to pioneer, on the rim of the city, or dragging them down, if not in the first generation, surely in the second and third.

It is only a question of months when Johnny Upright’s street must go. He realises it himself.

“In a couple of years,” he says, “my lease expires. My landlord is one of our kind. He has not put up the rent on any of his houses here, and this has enabled us to stay. But any day he may sell, or any day he may die, which is the same thing so far as we are concerned. The house is bought by a money breeder, who builds a sweat shop on the patch of ground at the rear where my grapevine is, adds to the house, and rents it a room to a family. There you are, and Johnny Upright’s gone!”

And truly I saw Johnny Upright, and his good wife and fair daughters, and frowzy slavey, like so many ghosts flitting eastward through the gloom, the monster city roaring at their heels.

But Johnny Upright is not alone in his flitting. Far, far out, on the fringe of the city, live the small business men, little managers, and successful clerks. They dwell in cottages and semi-detached villas, with bits of flower garden, and elbow room, and breathing space. They inflate themselves with pride, and throw out their chests when they contemplate the Abyss from which they have escaped, and they thank God that they are not as other men. And lo! down upon them comes Johnny Upright and the monster city at his heels. Tenements spring up like magic, gardens are built upon, villas are divided and subdivided into many dwellings, and the black night of London settles down in a greasy pall.
It's remarkable how well the sentiments of this passage could also describe urban white flight in America during the fifties and sixties. Though in this case, it's whites fleeing from other whites.

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

You say you want a resolution...

A few reading resolutions for 2015. I intend to read:

(1) One public domain book per month, on my hand-me-down Kindle. I'm starting with Jack London's The People of the Abyss. But I won't be reading any ebooks by contemporary authors, because it seems like ebooks are increasingly becoming a tool that Amazon and publishers use to screw over writers (falling prices, dwindling royalties); if I'm going to read those current writers, I'll read them in print so they're better compensated.

(2) More books by my pressmates at Kuboa Press, particularly Craig Wallwork and J. Bradley. I've already enjoyed Kuboa books by Mel Bosworth, Eddy Rathke and Nigel Bird, and feel like I need to do more to support the press, which has been very good to me.

(3) Several Dzanc books from the pile that was generously sent to me a few years back by Dan Wickett, including books by Matt Bell, Steven Gillis and Billy Lombardo.

(4) Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, during my annual Summer of Classics. I've always been intrigued by the book, but daunted by its bulk, so if in advance I set aside the entire summer to reading it, maybe I won't be as intimidated. Reading the book is probably just a mental hurdle, and probably won't be any more challenging than getting through the Studs Lonigan trilogy last summer; in fact, I finished that trilogy before the summer ended. If the same happens with Moby-Dick, I'll finish up the summer with shorter Melville works, including the novellas Bartleby the Scrivener (a re-reading; one of my favorites) and Benito Cereno.

(5) Forty books in total.

I also have a few writing resolutions in mind, but like in 2014, I'll just keep those to myself, and let you know at the end of the year how they turned out.

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

Found poetry

Many thanks
for the cigars
Hope to see you
in Springfield

Campfire with dog, August 1908

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

Good Reading 2014

2014 was an extremely good year of reading for me, one of the best I've ever had. One telling sign of this excellence is how many very good-to-great books were relegated to Honorable Mention, simply due to not being quite as good as the Top Ten. It was also a very productive year of reading, as I finished 43 books. As always, these are books I read in 2014, not necessarily ones that were published this year. Without further ado:

1. Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides (Review)
2. Joseph Mitchell, Old Mr. Flood (Review)
3. Ben Tanzer, Lost in Space: A Father's Journey There and Back Again (Review)
4. Daniel Woodrell, Winter's Bone (Review)
5. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (Review)
6. Kent Haruf, Benediction (Review)
7. Kate Chopin, The Awakening (Review)
8. James Fearnley, Here Comes Everybody: The Story of the Pogues (Review)
9. Markus Zusak, The Book Thief (Review)
10. Budd Schulberg, The Harder They Fall (Review)

Honorable Mention: Joseph G. Peterson, Beautiful Piece (Review); Dmitry Samarov, Where To? A Hack Memoir (Review); Carl Sandburg, Chicago Poems (Review); Kazuo Ishiguro, A Pale View of Hills (Review); Leonard Michaels, The Men's Club (Review); William Trevor, The Boarding-House (Review)

Re-Readings: Jan Fridegård, I, Lars Hård; Peter Guralnick, Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians; Stuart Dybek, The Coast of Chicago: Stories; Knut Hamsun, In Wonderland

+ It’s been fascinating to watch my great friend, Ben Tanzer, slowly inching his way up my year-end lists. His first two books came in at #10 in 2007 and Honorable Mention in 2008, and from there he progressed to #8 in 2010, #6 in 2011, #8 in 2012 (the slightest of hiccups), #5 in 2013 and now #3 this year with Lost in Space, his best book yet. This clearly shows how wonderfully he’s developing and maturing as a writer.
+ I absolutely adored Old Mr. Flood, and am eager to read more of Mitchell’s work. But for now I’m holding off on simply buying his compendium Up in the Old Hotel, and instead seeking out the individual volumes, all of which I believe are out of print. I like the hunting aspect of the book-buying process.
+ The passing of Kent Haruf was the most tragic one of the year for me, although it’s fitting that it was quiet and understated. I didn’t even know he had been battling cancer until after he died, which now makes me wonder how much he based the dying protagonist of Benediction, Dad Lewis, on himself. Haruf had been my favorite living writer, and a big influence on my own writing; I’m still collecting my thoughts on his life and work for what will likely be a long tribute essay.
+ James Fearnley’s Pogues memoir might be the best book I’ve ever read by a musician, although that honor may be challenged by John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van, which I just got for Christmas and am very eager to read.
+ Although my daughter Maddie is now 14, I continue to read to her every night before bed. I think The Book Thief is probably the first of our bedtime books to reach any of my year-end lists, and certainly the first that is considered “young adult.” Great book, and a great film too.
+ A quick nod to my newfound good friend Joe Peterson, and his debut novel from several years back, Beautiful Piece. I suspect he will make the same steady progress on these lists as Ben Tanzer has; actually, he might make a giant leap, as I will be reading his latest, Gideon’s Confession, early in 2015. I'll undoubtedly be doubling back to read his intervening books later.

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

December 31, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Books given, books received

Books given and received this Christmas.

Justin Martin: Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America's First Bohemians
Dmitry Samarov: Where To? A Hack Memoir
Zora Neale Hurston: Their Eyes Were Watching God
Renee Rosen: What the Lady Wants
Daniel Okrent: Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day
Jane Gardam: Old Filth
Pico Iyer: The Art of Stillness
Jeffrey Eugenides: The Virgin Suicides
Ben Tanzer: Orphans
Vikram Chandra: Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty
B.J. Best: But the Princess Is In Another Castle

Tim Federle: Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist
John Darnielle: Wolf in White Van
B.J. Best: But Our Princess Is In Another Castle

(Best's book was my gift to Julie, but also a gift to myself. It's also interesting to note that I've read less than half of the books that I gave. But knowing the receipients, I just had a hunch they would like their books, even though I'm only familiar with the books second-hand.)

December 28, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"With two bathrooms, Capa is a charming, intelligent, good-tempered companion."

In A Russian Journal, John Steinbeck recounts his 1947 travels through Soviet Russia. Here's a wonderful anecdote of his about his collaborator, the great photojournalist Robert Capa:

It was here that I discovered an unpleasant quality in Capa's nature, and I think it only right to set it down in case some young woman should ever listen to any suggestion of matrimony from him. He is a bathroom hog, and a very curious one. His method is as follows: He rises early from his bed and disappears into the bathroom and draws a tub of water. He then lies in that tub of water and reads until he becomes sleepy, whereupon he goes to sleep. This may go on for two or three hours in the morning, and it can be readily seen that the bathroom is immobilized for any more serious purposes while he is in there. I offer this information about Capa as a public service. With two bathrooms, Capa is a charming, intelligent, good-tempered companion. With one bathroom, he is a-------.

Interesting book, but I've been having trouble getting fully immersed in it - due to external influences, not the book itself. I might have to set it aside and come back to it later.

December 21, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Lee Sandlin

Lee Sandlin, writer and raconteur, has passed away much too soon, at just 58.

When I got my first iPhone and was still extremely cautious of not overusing my data plan, I would download articles, turn off the 3G network, and read them offline. The one I remember best is Sandlin's "The American Scheme", which seemed rambling and endless but somehow kept me reading. That's a true testament to Sandlin's gift as a writer. I don't remember whether or not I ever finished reading the piece, but I suppose that doesn't matter. It was something I needed at the time, and I thank him for that.

Sandlin's Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild is on my to-read list. I actually gave the book as a Christmas gift to a family member a few years ago, despite not having read it yet. He sounds like he was a fascinating man.

December 16, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"I can only do what I feel."

In his memoir A Daughter of the Middle Border, Hamlin Garland describes a conversation with his friend Henry Blake Fuller, the Chicago novelist.
One day as we were digging potatoes he gave me a lecture on my duty as a Wisconsin novelist. "You should do for this country what Thomas Hardy has done for Wessex," he said. "You have made a good start in Main-Traveled Roads, and Rose of Dutcher's Coolly, but you should do more with it. It is a noble background."

"Why not doing something with it yourself?" I retorted. "You are almost as much a part of Wisconsin as I am. My keener interests are now in the Mountain West - a larger field. There's no use saying 'Make more of this material!' I can only do what I feel. Just now I am full of Montana."

Fuller was being generous to his friend - even at his artistic peak, Garland never came close to Hardy - and time has not been kind to Garland. If he is remembered today at all, it is for his Wisconsin memoirs and the fiction that Fuller cited, and not for the Western works he thought so highly of. Maybe if he had kept writing about Wisconsin, and hadn't implicitly dismissed the Midwest as a "lesser field", he would be better-read today. I can't help wondering if the fading-away of his Western fiction is due to him writing about a subject and place that he really didn't know that well, from the standpoint of only an enthusiastic tourist and not as a native.

December 15, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...they limped through life on the bad-mend bones for year upon year..."

In Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone, teenaged heroine Ree Dolly imagines her forebears.

With her eyes closed she could call them near, see those olden Dolly kin who had so many bones that broke, broke and mended, broke and mended wrong, so they limped through life on the bad-mend bones for year upon year until falling dead in a single evening from something that sounded wet in the lungs. The men came to mind as mostly idle between nights of running wild or time in the pen, coooking moon and gathering around the spout, with ears chewed, fingers chopped, arms shot away, and no apologies grunted ever. The women came to mind bigger, closer, with their lonely eyes and homely yellow teeth, mouths clamped against smiles, working in the hot fields from can to can't, hands tattered rough as dry cobs, lips cracked all winter, a white dress for marrying, a black dress for burying, and Ree nodded yup. Yup.

Great book. One of the best I've read this year.

December 14, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)


"I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have." - Raymond Chandler

December 12, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


“When things get too much for me, I put a wildflower book and a couple of sandwiches in my pockets and go down to the South Shore of Staten Island and wander around awhile in one of the old cemeteries there.” - Joseph Mitchell

I can relate; I do the same every workday with a forest preserve parking lot, a book and my brown bag lunch. Mitchell is certainly a kindred spirit. His Old Mr. Flood was one of my favorite books read in 2014, in what has been a very good year of reading for me. So good, in fact, that I might delay publishing my annual list until early January, to ensure that I don't snub any worthy book that I might finish this month.

December 5, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)