”An empty L, lit by a similar glow, rattles by like massive links on the chain of a ghost.”

Stuart Dybek, from "The Caller" (collected in Paper Lantern: Love Stories, 2014):

The vigil candle at St. Ann's will melt into smoke, though at this moment, after midnight, its tiny flame has the locked church to itself and in the darkness emits a numinous green light that has the stained-glass windows facing the L tracks on Leavitt glowing from the inside out. If a soul flitted mothlike, lost in a once-familiar neighborhood, the light might attract it. An empty L, lit by a similar glow, rattles by like massive links on the chain of a ghost. Blocks away the ring of a phone echoes in a musty airshaft, and all along the street graffitied pay phones, most of them out of order and all of them obsolete and scheduled to be torn out, beging ringing. And then the steeple bells of three churches toll.

Plenty of lovely touches there that convey a Catholic church and the Chicago streets outside. The kitchen in my first city apartment had a window that looked into just such a musty airshaft; the window was painted shut and I could never quite see all the way down to the bottom. I always wondered what might be found there.

January 15, 2020 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

“He drove up in this little sports car, drums were hanging out from every corner.”

I love the story about Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson first meeting Neil Peart, who just passed away at 67.

“He was very tall, lanky,” said Lee. “And he had short hair. All of us had major hair. He had spent two years living in England before that. We didn’t know this. But he had just moved back home and given up his dream of playing in a rock band. And he was working for his dad’s farm equipment store. He drove up in this little sports car, drums were hanging out from every corner. He comes in, this big goofy guy with a small drum kit with 18-inch bass drums. Alex [Lifeson] and I were chuckling – we thought he was a hick from the country. And then he sat down behind this kit and pummelled the drums, and us. I’d never heard a drummer like that, someone with that power and dexterity. As far as I was concerned, he was hired from the minute he started playing.”

I had a brief Rush infatuation in high school, and owned Permanent Waves for a few years. Though my tastes moved elsewhere, I still enjoy a handful of their songs from the early 1980s. And I love hearing Maddie play “The Spirit of Radio” on guitar. 

I didn’t know Peart was the band’s lyricist, which seems somewhat unusual for a drummer. (As goes one of the jokes in fellow drummer Chris Mars’ Gratuitous Drummer Jokes collection: “Q: What is the last thing a drummer ever says to his band? A: ‘Hey guys... how 'bout we try one of my songs?’”) How fitting, then, to have attended a Blackhawks game this past week with Maddie, and sang along to “Tom Sawyer” when it was played over the PA system during a break. 

January 11, 2020 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

“Yes to man as a struggler amid illusions..."

Poetry's poem of the day is an excerpt from Carl Sandburg's book-length The People, Yes, which I first learned of in Harry Lewis Golden's biography of the poet. The People, Yes is on my list despite its 300-page length (some of which is undoubtedly introduction and explanatory notes) - Sandburg is such a joy to read that even a few hundred pages of his verse will surely seem to fly past.

January 6, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

”I’ve squeezed my middle age dry...”

Tove Jansson, writing in 1997 about writer’s block:

What did I tell those kids who wrote and asked how one becomes an author? It was something like write about what you’ve lived, about what you know …

But I’ve done that. I’ve squeezed my middle age dry, and when I got seriously old, I did what I could with that, too, but then I tried to write about really young people, and that didn’t work out so well. And the kids wrote again and asked, And what do we do now, and I said write about your fears, and they did it, at once, and wanted feedback as soon as possible.

And what do I fear above all? To be a sore loser, to be second best. But this is not something one writes about.

Elsewhere in the piece, she parenthetically ponders, “I wonder how it is for other people.” To which I would respond, “For other writers, exactly the same.”

January 1, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Books Given, Books Received

Books continue to dominate my Christmas gift giving. Here’s what I gave this year, plus a handful of fine books that I got in return.

Lee Bey: Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago's South Side
Natalie Y. Moore: The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation
Benjamin Sells: The Tunnel Under the Lake: The Engineering Marvel That Saved Chicago
Bryan Smith: The Breakaway: The Inside Story of the Wirtz Family Business and the Chicago Blackhawks
Edna O’Brien: Girl
Ursula LeGuin: The Last Interview and Other Conversations
Justin Kern (editor): The Milwaukee Anthology
Tim Hennessy (editor): Milwaukee Noir
Anu Partanen: The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life
Tarjei Vesaas: The Ice Palace
Jay Ryan: 100 Posters/134 Squirrels
Miriam Toews: Women Talking
Gillian G. Gaar: Nirvana's In Utero

Alex Kotlowitz: An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago
Amy Bizzarri: 111 Places in Chicago That You Must Not Miss
Lisa Beard: Abandoned Illinois: The Secrets Behind the Spaces

December 31, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Good Reading 2019

As always, this best-of is from the books I read in 2019, not ones that were necessarily published in 2019 - though Hemon's book did come out this year.

1. Aleksandar Hemon: My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You
2. Ronald Reng: A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke
3. Kim Cooper: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
4. Mike Royko: I May Be Wrong, But I Doubt It
5. William Trevor: Reading Turgenev
6. David Masciotra: Barack Obama: Invisible Man
7. Joseph G. Peterson: Gunmetal Blue
8. Richard Russo: Empire Falls
9. Carl Sandburg: Cornhuskers
10. Patrick Michael Finn: A Martyr for Suzy Kosasovich

Honorable Mention: Jane Gardam: Old Filth; Giano Cromley: What We Build Upon the Ruins; Jeff Sypeck: The Beallsville Calendar; Lou Reed: The Last Interview and Other Conversations

Re-Readings: Knut Hamsun: Under the Autumn Star; Vilhelm Moberg: The Emigrants; Ander Monson: Other Electricities; Nelson Algren: The Man With the Golden Arm; George Ade: Artie: A Story of the Streets and Town; Marjane Satrapi: The Complete Persepolis



- Other than the top 14, it wasn’t quite a sterling year of reading, largely due to my Summer of Classics, with Moberg's Emigrants saga being such a letdown and the last two books of the saga being abandoned, and replaced only by two good-but-not-great Hamsun novellas.

- The top 3 were very strong, with Hemon at his very best, Reng movingly telling the story of a tragic German goalkeeper, and Cooper writing one of the best 33 1/3 Series books I've read so far, about Neutral Milk Hotel's brilliant, idiosyncratic album. And Royko was quite good too, especially his pieces about race in the aftermath of the MLK assassination.

- It was somewhat bittersweet to read I May Be Wrong, But I Doubt It, which is the last book of Royko's that I've read that was published during his lifetime. I'll never again read, for the first time, a book that was published according to his wishes (or mostly according to his wishes), and not just the product of some publisher rehashing previously published or substandard pieces.

- Another good year for writer-friends (Masciotra, Peterson, Finn, Cromley, Sypeck). I hope to someday write the greatest Joliet novel ever, but until then that honorific belongs to Patrick Finn.

- I attended more literary events this year than ever before: Joe Peterson's launch party for 99 Bottles (which will undoubtedly make my 2020 list) at the Green Mill, Hemon's launch of My Parents..., a panel discussion at City Lit Books about the Illinois chapter of the Federal Writers Project, a discussion by Stuart Dybek and Dominic Pacyga about Polish Chicago, the annual Chicago Literary Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and a reading by Chris L. Terry at Columbia College.

- Lots of re-readings this year, including The Man With the Golden Arm (the fifth or sixth time I've read that great book), and my first (and certainly not my last) return to Monson's weird, tragic and starkly beautiful Other Electricities, which will certainly go down in history as the best book ever written about Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

2018 List
2017 List
2016 List
2015 List
2014 List
2013 List
2012 List
2011 List
2010 List
2009 List
2008 List
2007 List
2006 List
2005 List
2004 List
2003 List

December 30, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright

My serialized story "All Is Bright" was completed on Christmas Eve. My deepest thanks to anyone who read it, whether the entire story or just a few installments. For ease of reading, I have compiled the individual installments into chronological order, so the entire story is now available in a single post.

December 28, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)


“He just signed those cashier’s checks smooth as glass and went down and got the enchiladas the Mexican cook had left him.” - Ted Binion

Bergstrom’s story sounds like it might have come straight from the fertile imagination of Tom Waits.

December 27, 2019 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (24)

Novak locks the front door and checks his watch—a few minutes until midnight—then moves back to the doorway of the storeroom, where he flips off the light switch. The dining area falls dark, as does the kitchen, but from the weak light of the storeroom he can see that he left his coffee cup on the counter where he stood talking to the salesman.

Installment twenty four (the finale) of "All Is Bright."

December 25, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (23)

The door closes behind George with a rush of cold air, and they watch him shuffle past the front window, moving much more casually than one would expect on such a frigid night. Maybe he really does like the fresh air, Larry thinks.

Installment twenty three of "All Is Bright."

December 24, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)