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Some thoughts on New Year's

"Youth is when you're allowed to stay up late on New Year's Eve. Middle age is when you're forced to."
- Bill Vaughan

I hear you, Vaughan. I remember feeling so grown up when I was eight years old, and could stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning. (Does anyone remember the Marx Brothers marathons that WGN used to run on New Year's Eve during the mid-1970s? Those were great.) These days I'm thrilled - no, make that relieved - to make it until midnight.

"New Year's is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls and humbug resolutions."
- Mark Twain

Hear you too, Twain. New Year's Eve, like St. Patrick's Day, is Amateur Night for drinkers, and is best spent safely at home. And I've never been big on resolutions, except...

"Nothing changes on New Year's Day."
- Bono

The turning of the year itself changes nothing, except the need for a new calendar on the wall. You have to make change happen. So I'm striving, if not strictly resolving, for three changes: 1) getting my two books-in-progress finished and sent off to publishers; 2) exercising five days a week, no exceptions (I've slacked off this year); and 3) career.

December 31, 2010 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (3)

First-of-Month Meme

I ran this meme a few years ago, and thought I'd revisit it. The following are the first sentences of the first blog post I made during each month of 2010.

January: I'm continuing to work my way through Nelson Algren's story-and-essay collection The Last Carousel.

February: This morning I started reading Kent Haruf's Eventide which my wonderful wife gave me for Christmas.

March: Longtime readers of this space may recall that every March I read nothing but Irish fiction.

April: As I mentioned earlier, before my latest reading of Gulliver's Travels I was under the presumption that at least some of the book's satire must have specifically pertained to the age-old conflict between England and Ireland.

May: "Another attendant opened the door for him at the top of the stairs, and a huge roar of smoke-hazed, lime-lit laughter, coming out of the door like blast from a bomb, hit him in the face..."

June: We know how you feel, Mr. Hayward, because we'd like our Gulf back.

July: Sure, I realize it's spread over three days, but dear gawd what a lineup.

August: Okay, so I have thousands of ways to back up that statement, more than I could ever fully elaborate upon here.

September: Over the weekend, Julie was kind enough to buy me the charming little camera shown above - a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye from the 1960s.

October: Ah, to be independently wealthy.

November: Do your civic duty and vote today, or else refrain from complaining about our political system for the next two years.

December: Hard to imagine Poe as a college student.

So let's see: literary, literary, literary, literary, literary, shot at hapless BP CEO, musical, spousal appreciation, latest camera acquisition, Scottish pub for sale, civic call to arms, literary. Almost looks like I made a concerted effort to have more diverse, or at least non-literary, interests starting in mid-year. Also interesting to note that the February, August and September posts all involved spousal appreciation - I guess Julie was particularly good to me this year. (She's very good to me every year, of course.)

December 28, 2010 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)


My favorite graphic novelist, Ben Katchor, will soon be publishing The Cardboard Valise, his first book in over ten years. Release date is March 8, 2011. Drooling commences.

December 28, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Books given, books received

Tarjei Vesaas: The Birds
Mark Bittman: How To Cook Everything
Kent Haruf: Plainsong
Arthur Koestler: Darkness at Noon
Ben Tanzer: Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine
J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
Margaret Peterson Haddix: The Shadow Children, Books 5-7
William Trevor: Love and Summer
Jane Leavy: The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood
Eric Siblin: The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece
Marcia Bartusiak: The Day We Found the Universe
Alex Kotlowitz: There Are No Children Here

Mark Twain, The Autobiography of Mark Twain (Volume One)
On backorder, due to its totally unexpected smash success, with delivery sometime in January. For just the first volume of an uncoventionally written autobiography of a 100-years-dead author to be such a popular success really speaks to how much of a hold (conscious or unconscious) the great Twain still has on America.

David A. Taylor: Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America
With so many topics of my fascination rolled into one - great writers, the Depression, progressive politics - it's hard to imagine not loving this book.

Bohumil Hrabal: Too Loud a Solitude
A writer that I've never even heard of - not that I'm even remotely well-read in Czech fiction - but one that comes highly recommended by my niece Beth. She's a very thoughtful and discerning reader, so I'm eagerly moving this near the top of my to-read pile. And if nothing else, that's certainly a great title.

December 27, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)



As my old college friend Rick used to say, it's a tid nipply out this morning.

December 27, 2010 in Current Affairs, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

George Ade, "The Money Present"

George Ade, "The Money Present"

This is my reading of George Ade's very funny Christmas piece, "The Money Present", which was published in his 1903 collection In Babel: Stories of Chicago. This is my first attempt at recording with my new iPhone, so I'm hoping it's playable in either iTunes or Quicktime. (I couldn't figure out how to do an mp3 conversion on short notice.) Enjoy the story, and the holidays!

December 24, 2010 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Merry Christmas


The family watched the Grinch once again last night, and loved it. I'm thinking it's the greatest Christmas story ever. Though that Dickens guy certainly offered some stiff competition:

Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was dead as a door-nail.

I'm hoping to add another special feature here today or tomorrow, as my dubious audio capabilities allow. Have a magical holiday, and be careful not to get run over by any reindeer.

December 24, 2010 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Tangled in Wishes"

My short story "Tangled in Wishes" has been published at The Journal of Microliterature. I wrote the story in early 2007, during a pretty dark period of my life, when I was about to lose my job and didn't know where I would end up next. I don't know whether that mood comes out in the story or not, but thought I'd mention it anyway. The title is a nod to Iris Dement's "My Life", a terrific song that was brilliantly interpreted by Joel R.L. Phelps (one of my very favorite musicians) on his 2001 album Inland Empires.

December 22, 2010 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

'Tis the Season


That's right, nothing says "It's the holidays" quite like a quartet of Victorian-garbed carolers in a modern office building lobby, singing to indifferent white-collar workers hurrying past. Well, at least I noticed.

December 21, 2010 in Current Affairs, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Good Reading 2010

As always, the list is drawn from all the books I've read this year, not just those published this year. Envelope, please...

1. Arthur Koestler: Darkness At Noon [Review]
2. Studs Terkel: Working [Review]
3. Kent Haruf: Eventide [Review]
4. John McGahern: Amongst Women [Review]
5. Matt Bell: The Collectors [Review]
6. Patrick Hamilton: Hangover Square
7. Nelson Algren: The Last Carousel [Review]
8. Ben Tanzer: 99 Problems [Review]
9. Andrew Ervin: Extraordinary Renditions [Review]
10. Tim Hall: Full Of It: The Birth, Death, and Life of an Underground Newspaper [Review]

Honorable Mention: George Ade: In Babel: Stories of Chicago; Mel Bosworth: Grease Stains, Kismet and Maternal Wisdom; Austin Kleon: Newspaper Blackout; Jamie Iredell: Prose.Poems.

Asterisks: Seamus Heaney (translator): Beowulf [Review]; Walt Whitman: Leaves of Grass [Review].

Re-Readings: Ring Lardner: The Portable Ring Lardner; O.E. Rölvaag: Giants in the Earth [Review]; Tarjei Vesaas: The Birds; Pär Lagerkvist: Barabbas [Review]; Jonathan Swift: Gulliver's Travels; Nelson Algren: Chicago: City on the Make.

+ Koestler's novel was remarkably powerful, and managed the rare feat of being both bleak and beautiful.
+ This year I made a concerted effort to read more micropress books, three of which made my top ten.
+ The asterisked books might have otherwise made my top ten, but Beowulf technically qualified as a re-reading (I've read an earlier translation) and my reading of Leaves of Grass remains unfinished for now.
+ The re-read books deserve a particular place of honor. Given my ever-lengthening list of books to be read, for me to go back to something I've read before (in several cases, after a few decades) is a real testament to their greatness.

2009 List
2008 List
2007 List
2006 List
2005 List
2004 List
2003 List
2002 List

December 21, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)


A group reading of A Christmas Carol, at Housing Works in Manhattan. Francise Prose said it best:
"It’s very moving to me," she said, gesturing towards the crowd. "Here are all these people who could be out shopping for useless presents, and they’re sitting here, listening to Dickens."
I've thought about adding A Christmas Carol to Maddie's bedtime reading list just before the holidays. Next year, definitely.

December 20, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Phil Cavarretta


Farewell to Phil Cavaretta, one of my dad's boyhood heroes, one of the few that were still with us. Phil was a local guy who went to Lane Tech about 10 years before my dad did. Phil went straight from Lane to the majors.

December 19, 2010 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

Song of the Day

Yesterday in the car, Maddie was whistling what I think was this very song. Obviously it's one that's commonly associated with the circus, but it occurred to me that I had no idea of either the title or composer. Then this morning, not even 30 seconds of websearch revealed it's "Entry of the Gladiators" by Julius Fučík. I love you, Internet. (Or, as Julie and I like to joke, "Thank you, Al Gore!")

December 19, 2010 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)


Waiting, he looks up from a wrinkled magazine, hears the tentative acoustic notes still a half-beat behind the electric, senses those rhythms coming together, smiles.

December 17, 2010 in Fiction, Micro | Permalink | Comments (0)

Here comes the Rooster

The longlist has been announced for the 2011 Tournament of Books, and wow: 85 books, and I haven't read any of them. (Julie has read several, a couple of which she genuinely hated.) And there's only a handful that I even intend to read - Dinaw Mingestu, Ian McEwan, Emma Donoghue, Scott Phillips, Jaimy Gordon. Guess my non-lit-hipster status is safe for another year.

December 15, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (3)

Dumptruck, "Walk Into Mirrors"

Live 1986 recording, from the band's basement rehearsal space. Interesting to hear this great song stripped down, without the Don Dixon studio production sheen. Mind you, I've always loved that sheen, but this is a refreshing alternative.

December 13, 2010 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...we promise to continue working on the loudness..."

From the Department of Shameless Narcissism, I'm passing along this essay by great friend Ben Tanzer at The Brooklyn Rail on Chicago's indie literary scene which (blush blush) quotes me repeatedly. With that kind of spotlight, I really wish I had something more substantial to hype here on my blog than several unfinished manuscripts.

December 8, 2010 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

Andrew Ervin, Extraordinary Renditions

Drew Ervin has been a friend of mine (online - we haven't met in person) for several years now. I greatly enjoyed his earliest published stories, "Diz Lives" and "Phanatic", both of which were wickedly funny, and his contribution to the Chicago Noir anthology, which brought classic-literature overtones to the crime genre. But none of these stories prepared me for the serious and stately prose of his debut novel, Extraordinary Renditions.

The novel (or, technically, three novellas) tells the story of three Americans in Budapest - the celebrated but aging composer Harkályi, the African-American soldier Brutus and the aspiring violinist Melanie. Harkályi's story is the most touching, as he returns to his native Budapest for the first time since WWII (he's a concentration camp survivor) for the public performance of an opera which he sees as the crowning achievement of his long career. His journey is one of redemption and coming to terms with his past, as he honors his vanished family by including a cherished folk melody in the opera's finale, and also wandering the streets of the city before the concert, remembering and reflecting on all that has come to pass. In the book's soaring third section he also connects with Melanie, who plays in the orchestra which is performing the opera but struggles to find purpose to her life. Their lives ultimately come together, and at the book's finale it is clear that a promising mentor-student relationship is about to develop, with Harkályi able to pass along his knowledge while Melanie finally finds direction.

But while Harkályi and Melanie come together, for me Brutus never really connected with the narrative. While his story is interesting and often thrilling, the visceral quality of his story didn't seem to fit with the thoughtful contemplation of the other two sections. Brutus also has only a brief, incidental brush with Harkályi and no contact with Melanie at all. I would have preferred to see the Harkályi and Melanie sections developed more deeply into a single narrative, with the Brutus passages excluded. But that's just a matter of personal preference, and only slightly diminishes my admiration for Ervin's book. He has crafted a thoughtful reflection on art and creativity, on pasts and futures, and I am greatly anticipating reading much more of his work in the years ahead.

December 7, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Edward Gorey book covers

Gorey_conrad Gorey_kafka

Love love LOVE this gallery of book covers illustrated by the incomparable Edward Gorey. Though his trademark morbid/creepy illustrations are great fun, I think the Conrad and Kafka covers shown above are my favorites.

(Via The Faster Times.)

December 4, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (3)

Edgar Allan Poe's dorm room


Hard to imagine Poe as a college student. Given his later writings, I'd guess his college years were anything but frivolous and carefree - even at that young age, he probably already carried the grim weight of the world on his black-clad shoulders.

(Via Mark Athitakis.)

December 2, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)