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From sublime to schlock


Nice (and exasperating) then-and-now series: Demolished! 11 Beautiful Train Stations That Fell To The Wrecking Ball (And The Crappy Stuff Built In Their Place). Particularly galling are the Chicago examples of Grand Central Station and the Illinois Central Depot (pictured above), both of which were demolished decades ago for vacant lots (in the South Loop at Harrison & Wells and Roosevelt & Lake Shore Drive, respectively) which still remain undeveloped. The Chicago and Northwestern Station was a great loss, too, though at least there somebody bothered to build something (albeit something hideous) in its place. In retrospect, it's a minor miracle that Dearborn Station is still standing.

(Via Boing Boing.)

June 30, 2009 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (2)

Maddie is a punk rocker

Move aside, Sheena. If any aspiring and very generous punk bands would like to provide free instrumental backing to her vocals, YouTube glory may be imminent.

June 29, 2009 in Music, Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

No No No No No

White House drafting indefinite detention order

This is NOT the sort of thing we voted for in November. This is nothing more than a continuation of Bush's abhorrent status quo, and if the majority of voters really wanted unfettered executive power such as this, we would have voted McCain into office. If we really want to set an example for the rest of the world and show our commitment to liberty and personal freedom, giving the executive branch the unilateral power to detain terror suspects indefinitely without trial is absolutely NOT the way to do so. I don't care if the executive order can be rescinded at any time - merely enacting it sets a dangerous precedent, particularly for the next paranoid conservative to occupy the Oval Office.

June 29, 2009 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Their embrace had been a battle, the climax a victory."

In 1984, Winston has just had his first rendezvous with Julia, but he's not exactly in love. Hell, he's not even in lust. As she's standing naked before him, he's thinking not of any of the usual things, but how her licentiousness has the potential to undermine the Party. Later, after they've finished (Orwell having dispatched their act with the remarkably understated single line "This time there was no difficulty"), Winston further reflects on what his sleeping lover represents.

The young, strong body, now helpless in sleep, awoke in him a pitying, protecting feeling. But the mindless tenderness that he had felt under the hazel tree, while the thrush was singing, had not quite come back. He pulled the overalls aside and studied her smooth white flank. In the old days, he thought, a man looked at a girl's body and saw that it was desirable, and that was the end of the story. But you could not have pure love or pure lust nowadays. No emotion was pure, because everything was mixed up with fear and hatred. Their embrace had been a battle, the climax a victory. It was a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act.

What a hopeless romantic.

June 29, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing"

I'm honoring Michael Jackson's life the best way I know how to...by listening to the Minutemen.

June 27, 2009 in Music | Permalink | Comments (1)

You are cordially invited to a brawl


The poet Langston Hughes was apparently both a socialite and ephemera buff, if this collection of rent party invitations from the Beinecke Library at Yale is any indication. Rent parties are a bygone pastime in which renters would throw a party at their apartment, pass the hat and with any luck take in enough money to pay the rent for the month. Though many of the invitations shown are for "whist parties" (whist is a card game, similar to bridge), I suspect that genteel title was cover for much more nefarious and entertaining goings-on. Which makes me really admire the party host from the invitation shown above, whose blunt honesty I find quite refreshing.

June 24, 2009 in Ephemera | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Who controls the past...controls the future..."

Sharp passage here from 1984, as Winston Smith performs compulsory morning calisthetics under the watchful eye of the "telescreen" surveillance monitor.

The frightening thing, he reflected for the ten thousandth time as he forced his shoulders painfully backward (with hands on hips, they were gyrating their bodies from the waist, an exercise that was supposed to be good for the back muscles) - the frightening thing was that it might all be true. If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened - that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death?

The Party said that Oceania had never been in alliance with Eurasia. He, Winston Smith, knew that Oceania had been in alliance with Eurasia as short a time as four years ago. But where did that knowledge exist? Only in his own consciousness, which in any case must soon be annihilated. And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed - if all records told the same tale - then the lie passed into history and became truth. 'Who controls the past,' ran the Party slogan, 'controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.' And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. 'Reality control', they called it: in Newspeak, 'doublethink'.

'Stand easy!' barked the instructress, a little more genially.

What is truth, exactly? Unfortunately, it's often nothing more than what official history says it is. Which is why I admire truth-tellers like Howard Zinn as much as I do.

June 24, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"They were travelling for a dream/and could give all/and must go on in their searchings/and their unease..."

Nicely understated poem here by the Norwegian writer Tarjei Vesaas, as translated by Eric Dickens. I'm familiar with a few of Vesaas' novels, including The Birds, which I read during college and plan to revisit soon. Though well regarded, I'm not sure the book is classic enough to warrant inclusion in my Summer of Classics, so I'll probably wait until September or later.

June 23, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

End of an era

Kodak kills Kodachrome film after 74 years

I must admit, I'm as responsible for this photographic icon's demise as anyone. I never shot much slide film to begin with (in fact, I never owned a carousel projector) and have gone almost exclusively digital during the past five years or so. Still, without Kodachrome, the viewing of boring vacation photos will never be the same - crowding around a digital's tiny viewer screen can never replace sitting in a darkened living room watching a slideshow and trying not to doze off.

June 22, 2009 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (2)

Too big to fail? How about too big to exist?

Excellent essay here by Eric Dash in the NYT on financial insitutions which have been deemed "too big to fail" and thus are considered deserving of a federal bailout to protect the financial system as a whole. But if these institutions have grown so large (through predatory consolidation and the complete abdication of antitrust oversight by the government) that their failure would cause the entire system to collapse, then why allow them to continue to exist in their enormous, bloated and unwieldy form? If their sheer size is implicitly a threat to the system, shouldn't they be broken up?

Once upon a time, our government diligently enforced antitrust law, recognizing the threat to our economy and society itself of unfettered corporate power, but such oversight has been all but abandoned as our government has caved in to free-market zealotry. The free-market argument for unchecked consolidation - that it generates critical economies of scale and allows banks to compete globally - has been completely refuted by the organizational basket case that is Citigroup. And also, I suspect, Bank of America, which has experienced considerable indigestion from its swallowing of Merrill Lynch and Countrywide, two colossuses in their own right whose great size couldn't prevent their collapse.

Bailing out companies like these without breaking them up - and the recently proposed industry regulation is a nice idea, but doesn't go nearly far enough - simply ensures that they'll be back soon for another bailout. Which doesn't help anyone other than Wall Street.

June 22, 2009 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Message to my fellow Metra commuters

If you want to have a lively, boisterous conversation with your train buddy, then sit right next to them on the train. If you want to blather on with your buddy about the inexorably tedious minutiae of your daily life, then sit right next to them on the train. If you want to tell your buddy about every single delay you experienced last night on the 6:12 train that your buddy didn't experience because they were on the usual 5:25, then sit right next to them on the train. Do not, under any circumstances, sit on opposite sides of the aisle, each of your backs to the wall, as far apart as you can be, and shout back and forth at each other at a decibel level normally reserved for airport ground crews. Especially when I'm sitting right in front of you, trying to concentrate on my reading. Thank you.

June 19, 2009 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (1)

"What a sorrowful act must that be - the covering up of wells!"

I really like this passage from Walden, in which Thoreau's forced winter solitude turns his thoughts to the people who once lived in the area but have long since vanished, along with almost all traces of their humble homes.

Now only a dent in the earth marks the site of these dwellings, with buried cellar stones, and strawberries, raspberries, thimble-berries, hazel-bushes, and sumachs growing in the sunny sward there; some pitch pine or gnarled oak occupies what was the chimney nook, and a sweet-scented black birch, perhaps, waves where the door-stone was. Sometimes the well dent is visible, where once a spring oozed; now dry and tearless grass; or it was covered deep - not to be discovered till some late day - with a flat stone under the sod, when the last of the race departed. What a sorrowful act must that be - the covering up of wells! coincident with the opening of wells of tears. These cellar dents, like deserted fox burrows, old holes, are all that is left where once were the stir and bustle of human life, and "fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute," in some form and dialect or other were by turns discussed. But all I can learn of their conclusions amounts to just this, that "Cato and Brister pulled wool"; which is about as edifying as the history of more famous schools of philosophy.

Still grows the vivacious lilac a generation after the door and lintel and the sill are gone, unfolding its sweet-scented flowers each spring, to be plucked by the musing traveller; planted and tended once by children's hands, in front-yard plots - now standing by wallsides in retired pastures, and giving place to new-rising forests; - the last of that stirp, sole survivor of that family. Little did the dusky children think that the puny slip with its two eyes only, which they stuck in the ground in the shadow of the house and daily watered, would root itself so, and outlive them, and house itself in the rear that shaded it, and grown man's garden and orchard, and tell their story faintly to the lone wanderer a half-century after they had grown up and died - blossoming as fair, and smelling as sweet, as in that first spring. I mark its still tender, civil, cheerful lilac colors.

When Thoreau sticks to close descriptions of the natural and built environments like this, the writing is absolutely marvelous. Unfortunately, he's also often prone to ponderous philosophical abstractions, which I could easily do without.

June 18, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Schaub-man Returns

It's great to have Michael Schaub blogging again at Bookslut, after a hiatus of several years. Here's just one of his great recent posts.

LA Weekly talks to James Wood, author of How Fiction Works and "the most vilified literary critic alive." Oh, and he hates you:

My true enemies skulk in a deep Dostoevskian Underground called the Internet, and never see the light of day — that is their punishment for hating me so much; it matches the sin, as in Dante.

Ha ha ha! That's good stuff, James. Good stuff. This might explain why Walter Kirn ended his now famous review of Wood's book with the sentence "But there is one question this volume answers conclusively: Why Readers Nap." And why Colson Whitehead parodied Wood thus:

When we see a word, we must ask ourselves foremost, What does it mean? This is the first step in comprehension. When we have accomplished this, we can proceed to the next, and so on. In due course, we have read the sentence in toto. By returning to the beginning of the sentence to perform a close reading, we unlock its essence. I learned this skill at university.

I'm rather puzzled at why Wood continues to garner so much attention from the literary community. He's just a commentator who makes a living waxing either rhapsodic or vitriolic on other people's works of fiction, and who justifies the aphorism "Opinions are like assholes; everybody's got one." Yes, his opinions may use fancier words than yours or mine, but they're still just opinions. And the condescension that oozes out of that Dostoevskian Underground comment leads me to believe you can't have an honest argument with him, and probably don't even want to be in the same room with him. 

June 17, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water."
- Ernest Hemingway

June 15, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Get well, Chris Knox!

New Zealand indie rock legend Chris Knox has had a serious stroke, which has left him temporarily without speech and potentially permanently unable to walk. Here's hoping for his quick and full recovery. If you're unfamiliar with Knox's music and need an example of its wonderfulness, check out the "Half Man/Half Mole" video above, from his 1995 album Songs of You and Me.

(Via Mac.)

June 14, 2009 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Book recycling 2009


Though I once praised my restraint at last year's Will County Book Recycling Event, having only taken home nine books, yesterday my self-control showed signs of strain. My take is most of the left-hand pile: Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Nevil Shute's On the Beach, Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, Richard Condon's Death of a Politician, Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain, Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim, Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, William Leuchtenberg's Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, Frank Norris' The Octopus, Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Andre Dubus III's House of Sand and Fog, John Cheever's Falconer, Calvin Trillin's Runestruck, and Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run?

Random thoughts:
+ Whitman, Amis, O'Neill, Norris and Flaubert were absolute no-brainers.
+ Shute's book has been recommended repeatedly around the web as a post-apocalyptic classic, a genre which I find myself compulsively drawn to.
+ Condon wrote The Manchurian Candidate, which I absolutely loved.
+ Obama's neo-New Deal policies have me thinking I don't know nearly enough about the original New Deal, and Leuchtenberg's book is supposedly one of the better single-volume studies of the subject.
+ Trillin is one of my favorite writers, and I think this is one of only two novels he's written (the other being the wonderful Tepper Isn't Going Out).
+ Falconer gives me one less excuse for never having read Cheever.
+ I already read and loved What Makes Sammy Run? in a cheap paperback edition, but this one is the 50th anniversary edition in hardcover, which includes Schulberg's magazine short stories that were the genesis of the novel.

Julie picked up a few sci-fi titles, and the entire right-hand pile is Maddie's. And that is her, of course, doing some sort of book recycling interpretive dance.

Oh, and if picking up fourteen books in one day wasn't enough, we're going back today. But only to drop off six more boxes of old books that have been sitting in our basement for six years. Really, I swear.

June 14, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (8)

"Marjorie May's Twelfth Birthday"


This is certainly the loveliest piece of feminine hygiene ephemera I've ever seen. And probably the only one too.

(Via Boing Boing.)

June 14, 2009 in Ephemera | Permalink | Comments (0)


Ten years ago today, I said "I do" to the love of my life, and I'd eagerly do it all over again.

June 12, 2009 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (2)

Bassist Wanted


I've been greatly enjoying Porter Mason's indie rock webcomic Bassist Wanted for several months now, but never so much as today. Retro swing bubble indeed...we had a swing band play at our wedding reception (ten years ago this week) not because we were hipsters caught up in the trend of the moment, but because we genuinely hated wedding reception DJs. As it turns out, the band was great and kept everyone - old and young - dancing right up until closing time. Usually wedding reception DJs will play quieter stuff early on, but once they start rocking out the older generation either tunes out and retreats to the outer tables, or leaves entirely. But everybody loved the swing band, and even the oldsters didn't want to go home.

Incidentally, I also once owned Setzer's first swing band album, and it was truly terrible. One of the very worst records I've ever owned.

(Legal mumbo jumbo: All original content on PorterMason.com is © 2009 Porter Mason. Bassist Wanted by Porter Mason is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.)

June 10, 2009 in Music | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tidal wave ahoy!

This weekend marks the return of the Will County Book Recycling Event, to be held Friday through Sunday at Pilcher Park Nature Center, 2501 Highland Park Drive, Joliet. Very simple: arrive with your old and unwanted books, leave them, and depart with as many old and wanted books as you like. Any books remaining at the end of the event will be responsibly recycled. We attended last year, and it's a mesmerizing experience - walking around and around the long tables, neck oddly craned to read the book spines, knowing you can grab any book that strikes your fancy for free while trying to restrain yourself from claiming too many books that you know you might never end up reading.

I'm pleased to report that of the nine books I picked up last September, I've already read three: Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, Studs Terkel's Working, and Michael Harrington's The Other America: Poverty in the United States, which might sound like a small proportion but is certainly better than my previous book sale hauls. If you live anywhere near Joliet, I encourage you to attend. Look for us - we'll be the skinny bald guy, lovely auburn-haired woman and cute blond eight-year-old girl who are walking in circles and pretending to have willpower.

June 10, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thoreau, on the city and country

Charming passage here from Walden, as Thoreau comments on the symbiosis between the city and the country. That final phrase actually made me laugh, which is remarkable in that thus far I've found Thoreau to be anything but humorous.

The whistle of the locomotive penetrates my woods summer and winter, sounding like the scream of a hawk sailing over some farmer's yard, informing me that many restless city merchants are arriving within the circle of the town, or adventurous country traders from the other side. As they come under one horizon, they shout their warning to get off the track to the other, heard sometimes through the circles of two towns. Here come your groceries, country; your rations, countrymen! Nor is there any man so independent on his farm that he can say them nay. And here's your pay for them! screams the countryman's whistle; timber like long battering-rams going twenty miles an hour against the city's walls, and chairs enough to seat all the weary and heavy-laden that dwell within them. With such huge and lumbering civility the country hands a chair to the city. All the Indian huckleberry hills are stripped, all the cranberry meadows are raked into the city. Up comes the cotton, down goes the woven cloth; up comes the silk, down goes the woollen; up come the books, but down goes the wit that writes them.

June 9, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Can you name the 100 best novels according to Modern Library (1900 to 1998)?

I named 60, in 14 minutes. And I'm only kicking myself over one that I missed - E.M. Forster's Howards End, which I've already read but blanked on the title.

June 5, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

More thoughts on Cheever

In a recent issue of Bookforum, Matthew Price's essay/review on three new John Cheever volumes (Blake Bailey's bio and two Library of America collections) includes the following excerpts from Cheever's stories.

“...the shoestring aristocrats of the upper East Side—the elegant, charming, and shabby men who work for brokerage houses, and their high-flown wives, with their thrift-shop minks and their ash-can fur pieces, their alligator shoes and their snotty ways with doormen and with the cashiers in supermarkets.”


“We both come from that enormous stratum of the middle class that is distinguished by its ability to recall better times...Lost money is so much a part of our lives that I am sometimes reminded of expatriates, of a group who have adapted themselves energetically to some alien soil but who are reminded, now and then, of the escarpments of their native coast.”


“She had known a man like that. He had worked day and night making money. He ruined his partners and betrayed his friends and broke the hearts of his sweet wife and adorable children, and then, after making millions and millions of dollars, he went down to his office one Sunday afternoon and jumped out of the window.”

To me, these are barely fiction at all, but instead editorializing or - even worse - pontificating. As I mentioned earlier, I've never read any Cheever, and it may well be the case that he gracefully and seamlessly weaved asides like these into genuine narrative. Still, though, reading passages like these gives me very little impetus to finally delve into Cheever's work.

June 5, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (4)

"One Son Resists"

My short story "One Son Resists" has just been published online by Green Lantern Press. This is the same story I read recently at The Parlor Emerging Writer's Festival; Green Lantern runs The Parlor, so it seemed natural to have the story appear in text at Green Lantern's site. My very special thanks to editor Nick Sarno.

I wrote the first draft of this story several years ago, as part of a contest at Ron Slattery's found-photo site Bighappyfunhouse. After it failed to win there, I shopped it around to a few venues, including featherproof, whose Jonathan Messinger was kind enough to provide some great suggestions for improving the story, after which I expanded and refined the narrative and ended up with a much better piece than before. Thanks to Ron and Jonathan for the inspiration and editorial boost, as well as to Todd Dills for his helpful suggestions of Depression-era East Coast summer resorts. Call it shameless name-dropping if you like, but I truly couldn't have done it without them.

June 3, 2009 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...mere smoke of opinion..."

"It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true to-day may turn out to be falsehood to-morrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields."
- Henry David Thoreau, Walden

June 3, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Summer of Classics begins!

Today marks the start of my third annual Summer of Classics. During the next three months I'll read classic works which, for whatever reason, I've never gotten around to. My first book is Henry David Thoreau's Walden, which I started reading more than twenty years ago during a tedious job assignment (don't ask) but never finished. I can already tell it's going to be a slow read, but hopefully will be rewarding if I stay with it. Though I typically stick to fiction during this summers, starting with Walden dovetails nicely with both the nonfiction kick I've been on for the past few months as well as the book I just finished, Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, as they both address self-sufficiency, simplicity and getting back to nature.

After that, it will be on to fiction. Julie is always asking me "You've read this, right?" in reference to any number of beloved classics which I then abashedly have to fess up to never having read, so this year I'll be tackling some novels that she questions my literary sanity and/or scholastic rigor for never getting around to: 1984, Brave New World, Catcher in the Rye, The Stranger, and several others I'm forgetting at the moment. Hard to believe that I never even had these as required reading in high school, I know - in fact, I can remember most of the great films that our English department screened every quarter, but almost none of the novels I read, none of which were any of these that are part of the high school canon.

In case you wondering, here's what I read during the last two summers.

William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow
James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Erskine Caldwell, Tobacco Road
Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye
Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor
Nikolai Gogol, The Overcoat
Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice
Edgar Lee Masters, Spoon River Anthology
Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt
Knut Hamsun, Hunger
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener
Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio

The verdict thus far? Classics: So Long, See You Tomorrow, The Long Goodbye, The Overcoat, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Babbitt, Hunger, Bartleby the Scrivener and Winesburg, Ohio. The others, eh, not so much.

June 2, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life

Just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, and what a wonderful book it is. Her account of going back to the land, raising her own food on a farm in the mountains of western Virginia, is entertaining, informative and most of all inspiring. Though I must admit that I'll likely never go as far as Kingsolver and her family did, instead the inspiration for me is greater awareness of what I eat, where it comes from, and what cost it imposes on the natural world and our economic system. Thanks to this book, though I'll never become completely self-sustaining, I'll grow some of my own food (we've already started this year, with our first vegetable garden and berry patch), frequent local farmer's markets more often and with greater enthusiasm, question the wisdom of eating food imported from the other side of the world, and in general always think about how my own seemingly minor actions impact our fragile planet.

June 2, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)