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Bygone days


I love this old photograph of Frisch's Resort in my hometown of Cary, Illinois. The framing is odd - all of that foliage! - but I really like seeing the gentleman (apparently well-dressed, in suit and hat) as he takes a rest while likely admiring the view of the river. This might even inspire a story from me.

(Via Jeff.)

December 30, 2011 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

12 for 2012

My book selections are usually made on a whim, casually picked from the shelf after somehow catching my eye. That said, here are twelve books I plan to read in the upcoming year.

Kent Haruf, Where You Once Belonged
All of Haruf's four novels are set in the fictional small town of Holt, Colorado. I absolutely loved the best known of these, Plainsong and Eventide, which makes me eager to dive into this earlier novel and see what else Haruf has to tell about Holt and its hardscrabble citizens.

Knut Hamsun, Tales of Love and Loss
Robert Ferguson, Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun
Hamsun was renowned almost exclusively as a novelist (Hunger being my favorite book ever), which makes this short story collection even more intriguing as an answer to whether he could pull off short stories as well as he did novels. And with Hamsun indeed being an enigma - from brilliant young iconoclast to aging Nazi sympathizer - I hope Ferguson's biography will help me understand that disconnect.

Budd Schulberg, The Harder They Fall
What Makes Sammy Run? was the best book I read in 2009, a savage satire of show business and ruthless ambition. And Schulberg will always have a place in my heart for writing the screenplay of On The Waterfront, my favorite movie ever (his novel adaptation, Waterfront, was pretty good too). The Harder They Fall is supposed to be one of the very best boxing novels, and given both my admiration of Schulberg and my weird fascination with boxing (I abhor violence, but am still somehow drawn to the sport's primal rawness), it was inevitable that this book and I would meet.

Ben Tanzer, My Father's House
Ben is a great friend of mine, and I eagerly read everything he writes, but I've already put off this one for several months already. This novella is about a guy who is losing his father to cancer (based loosely on Ben's own experience), a narrative that I immediately knew would hit very close to home for me, after losing my own dad seven years ago. So I deferred reading it (with Ben's blessing), figuring the emotional impact would probably be too painful. But of course I'll read it, and will probably cry my eyes out several times while doing so.

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
Julie is a big fan of Mitchell, has read every one of his novels, and says this one is his best and the one I should absolutely read. I value her opinion far more than the litblog world, which seems pretty much in concurrence as to the book's greatness as well. So finally I'll dive in, despite the book being somewhat longer than I usually prefer.

Kurt Vonnegut, Armageddon in Retrospect
Yes, I should probably read several of his novels instead (I've only read Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat's Cradle and Galapagos, despite him being Julie's favorite author), but even his ephemera is interesting. I'm particularly looking forward to the letter he wrote home from Dresden, whose WWII firebombing he not only survived but birthed Slaughterhouse-Five. Then after this, I'll probably get all gung-ho for more of the novels.

Tarjei Vesaas, The Ice Palace
I wasn't overly impressed with this book when I first read it, over twenty years ago. I had read Vesaas' The Birds in college, and tracked down The Ice Palace at the great John K. King Books in Detroit a few years later. Both have sat on my shelf for decades, for reasons I couldn't have explained (I purged dozens of other books during that time which I had no interest in re-reading), before I finally re-read The Birds two years ago, and loved it. Maybe the intervening years will be similarly kind to The Ice Palace.

Peter Orner, Esther Stories
I loved Orner's contribution to Akashic's Chicago Noir anthology (though he's not a crime writer) but haven't read anything else of his, so when I saw this one priced cheap at a used bookstore this fall in Hilton Head, I grabbed it. During the course of our vacation week, I kept the book atop a pile on the kitchen table, and whenever I was standing around waiting for Julie or Maddie to get ready to go somewhere, I found myself picking up the book and leafing through it. I liked the brief passages I read, and am looking forward to more.

Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Goon Squad
Because I want to see what all the hubbub was about, and whether the book even comes close to justifying the hype. Julie was thoroughly unimpressed with it, which predisposes me to a thumbs-down, but I'll give Egan the chance to really surprise me.

Tom Williams, The Mimic's Own Voice
This one comes with the raving recommendation of Mr. Tanzer. That's more than enough for me.

Mark Twain: The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1
Like several hundred thousand others, I got caught up in the hype of this book's release, which was one of the biggest literary events of 2010. I asked for it for Christmas, and got it, but not until it arrived did I fully appreciate what a massive physical object it is, and how mentally daunting. I've heard that even the introduction runs to around 250 pages, at which point in a novel I would already be getting antsy and counting down the pages until the end. So I'll have to get creative with this one, reading 5-10 pages every now and then, before setting it aside again for a while, as I continue to read other books. I've used a similar process during the past two years with two other lengthy nonfiction books (Studs Terkel's Working and The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers), and it's worked well for me. I would never read such books exclusively, cover to cover, but with this method I can make it through. I'll also be blogging the Twain book as I go, which should keep me focused and moving forward.

December 30, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (4)

Good Reading 2011

2011 was a slow reading year in terms of quantity - I only finished 19 books, mostly due to it taking me four months to slog through just Great Expectations and Jude the Obscure during my Summer of Classics. But here is my annual list of the best that I did manage to read, several of which were excellent.

Top Ten:
1. Bohumil Hrabal, Too Loud a Solitude (Review)
2. Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses (Review)
3. Sholom Aleichem, Selected Stories (Review)
4. Alan Heathcock, Volt (Review)
5. Nelson Algren, Nonconformity: Writing on Writing (Review)
6. Ben Tanzer, You Can Make Him Like You (Review)
7. Ben Katchor, The Cardboard Valise (Review)
8. Isaac Bashevis Singer and Richard Burgin, Conversations with Isaac Bashevis Singer (Review)
9. Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure
10. Aharon Appelfeld, The Iron Tracks (Review)

Honorable Mention: Stona Fitch, Senseless; The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers; Jim Thompson, Savage Night

Re-Reading: Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry (Review)

+ Oddly enough, my top three books were all translated works. Though I usually read a fair amount of translations, they never sweep the top rankings. And the translations I read usually skew toward Scandinavian, which this year only includes Petterson. So I broadened my reading somewhat this year, with Yiddish (Aleichem), Czech (Hrabal) and Appelfeld (Hebrew).
+ Great year for Structured Reading (with Aleichem, Singer and Appelfeld all making the top ten), but only marginal for Summer of Classics (enjoyed Hardy but only endured Dickens). I've decided to go more modern in my classics next year, with Hemingway, Faulkner, etc.
+ My great friend Ben Tanzer finally cracks my top ten, which had nothing to do with only reading 19 books. I thoroughly enjoyed You Can Make Him Like You, which would have made my list in pretty much any year.
+ Another light year for non-fiction, with Algren, Singer and the Believer book (plus Len O'Connor's autobiography) being the only ones I read. Something I'm looking to rectify in the coming year.

2010 List
2009 List
2008 List
2007 List
2006 List
2005 List
2004 List
2003 List
2002 List

December 29, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Joliet Police Blotter Story of the Year

I've only run a couple of Joliet police blotter stories in 2011 (here and here), both of which were pretty good, but this beauty from the Herald-News easily takes the title of Joliet Police Blotter Story of the Year.

Fowl play: Taxidermied duck blown up in Joliet
JOLIET — Stuffed duck may have graced several holiday tables, but only one was offered as entertainment with enough explosives to warrant a criminal investigation.

Police say the taxidermed waterfowl was destroyed and two houses were damaged at a Dec. 4 party in the Cumberland subdivision.

Police were called the following day when siding damage was discovered on residences in the 1800 block of Mandan Village Drive, Lt. Joe Egizio said.

"Investigators learned about the party and reports of the explosion," Egizio said. "They recovered the remnants of a taxidermied duck and a duck call from a large hole in the sod of the backyard."

In the following weeks, detectives interviewed several party guests to learn what happened, a difficult task since many were drinking the night the duck was destroyed.

Detectives questioned Joseph T. Bundy, 35, of Aurora, on Monday. Bundy told police he had found the duck in the street when he arrived for the festivites.

"He admitted he’d also brought a large firework and decided to blow up the duck for entertainment," Egizio said. "But he underestimated the power of the firework."

Bundy was charged with illegal possession of fireworks and released on bond.

As long as Bundy makes restitution to the people whose houses were damaged, the city will not prosecute the case as a criminal violation.

That poor duck has been desecrated three times - when it was killed, when it was stuffed and mounted, and when it was obliterated by drunken yahoos.

December 29, 2011 in Joliet | Permalink | Comments (0)

Books given, books received...

...actually, it was a light year for gifts received as books, so here are just those that I gave as gifts.

Michael Ruhlman, Ruhlman's Twenty: Cookbook that came so highly recommended by Julie as a gift for someone else, I bought it for her too; Per Petterson, In Siberia: Loved Out Stealing Horses, bought this one in the hopes of someday borrowing it back; Pamela Losey and Shirley Beene, Cary and Fox River Grove (Images of America): Photo history of my hometown and its across-the-river neighbor, from Arcadia’s endlessly fascinating series; Andrew Ervin, Extraordinary Renditions: Strong debut novel (or linked novellas, whatever) by a writer friend of mine; Austin Kleon, Newspaper Blackout: Given to my niece, whom I can easily foresee becoming a newspaper blackout junkie; Aaron Petrovich, The Session: The only book I’ve ever been paid to review (by the Chicago Reader), one that’s still stuck in my head years later; Alan Heathcock, Volt: One of the best debuts in recent years, and deserving of even more hype that it’s gotten; Kirby Gann, Our Napoleon in Rags: An old favorite that I somehow never gave anyone as a gift, an oversight now rectified with my apologies to the author (also a friend) and publisher (Ig Publishing, to whom I’m currently pitching my first book); Dan Leroy, The Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique: Because it’s time to get someone else hooked on Continuum’s fantastic 33 1/3 series; Bonnie Jo Campbell, Once Upon a River: Have heard plenty of good things about this one and am eager to read it myself; James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice/Double Indemnity/Mildred Pierce: Handsome Modern Library hardcover edition of Cain’s classic noir novels; Lee Sandlin, Wicked River: Historical narrative about the Mississippi before it was tamed physically (by dams and levees) and mythologically (by Mark Twain), which I also hope to read soon.

Oh, one more thing...three of these are for my nephew, who won't be getting them until he comes home in February, so keep this on the hush-hush from him.

December 28, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...working hard, I missed my original idea that I started with..."

In The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, playwright August Wilson talks to Miles Marshall Lewis about not over-revising:

How much is too much? At a certain point, you can overwork something. I've seen painter overwork a painting. I've done some drawings and my wife, she'll go, "It's overworked." I'll go, yeah, I worked real hard on that. And working hard, I missed my original idea that I started with. That can happen in the plays, too. You can work so hard and rewrite so much that you get confused or can't remember what's in there, ain't in there, or why this particular thing is in there. Then you're lost. That's too much. But as long as you have some control over your materials and you're working to make the story clearer, working to improve it...As long as you don't get lost up in the rewrites, you're OK. Once you get lost and you don't know why you're doing what you're doing, you're in trouble.

For better or worse, I never do any more than four or five revisions of any piece. I figure if the writing isn't getting better by then, it probably never will, and so the piece is done. If that means it's not perfect, then so be it.

December 26, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

A Very Jim Thompson Christmas

Just this morning I started reading Savage Night, because nothing says Merry Christmas, Joy To The World and Peace On Earth quite like a Jim Thompson tale of murder, mayhem and lust. It occurred to me that I've probably read more books by Thompson than any other writer, but that's probably as much a function of their quantity (he wrote more than 30) and brevity (usually under 200 pages) as anything else. The list currently stands at nine: The Grifters, The Getaway, The Killer Inside Me, After Dark My Sweet, Wild Town, The Nothing Man, The Kill-Off, Pop. 1280 and now Savage Night.

It's interesting to note that although The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280 are generally considered to be his best, I thought both had major flaws and neither was a favorite of mine. The ones I've enjoyed most are The Getaway (great suspense), The Nothing Man (killer plot twist) and The Kill-Off (brilliant inverted structure: not a whodunnit but a who'll-do it). Thompson is definitely a guilty pleasure of mine.

December 23, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Vonnegut, writ large


Although the subject of this photo is specifically the creative re-use of seats from Indianapolis' old Bush Stadium, I couldn't help admiring the large Kurt Vonnegut mural on the building in the background. Nice touch. I assume this is in the vicinity of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library.

(Via Unconsumption.)

December 22, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (3)

Ben Katchor, The Cardboard Valise


Despite my great admiration for Ben Katchor's work, it took me a while to really get into his latest, The Cardboard Valise. For most of the book there's little plot or narrative cohesion, but instead a series of typically quirky episodes. The book follows two primary characters in the fictional Fluxion City - Emile Delilah, the long-forlorn son of a corporate executive, and Elijah Salamis, a "supranationalist" idler who forsakes all cultural and national influences in a quest for universal purity. But while both men live in Fluxion City, neither really belong to it, Emile because he is compulsively drawn to the vacation locales of Tensint Island and Outer Canthus, and Elijah because he distances himself from all things local.

While all of these episodes are entertaining in themselves - and also incisively muse on consumerism, nationalism and religion - the book didn't really seem to go anywhere, and after a while it began to feel more like an anthology of unrelated strips than a unified narrative. But then, just a few pages from the end, Katchor marvelously brings Emile and Elijah together, reuniting Emile from his estranged parents and giving Elijah a final act of personal accomplishment. Yet even that very satisfying conclusion doesn't end the book - instead, Katchor defies convention and has the final page depict the return of the deposed king of Outer Canthus from his exile in Fluxion City back to his home, neatly transported by the very suitcase of the book's title. Another lively, weird story from Katchor, whom I continue to believe is the best graphic novelist going.

December 22, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

First lines, 2011

The last time I ran a "first lines meme" here was in 2007, and since I so enjoyed that self-indulgence then and it's very slow at the office this week, I thought I'd run it again. Below are the first lines from my first blog post of each month of 2011. The skinny: Royko and drinking, novel writing update, indie rock, local publisher, bad poetry, Summer of Classics, photography and Chicago history, politics, obsessing over a single phrase from a 100+ year old novel, Maurice Sendak, saving an architectural relic, Joliet history and my tenuous connection to it. Yes, that covers most of my obsessions, though admittedly I don't really think about Sendak that often.

January: Mike Royko, "How To Ease That Hangover" (2.7mb download)

February: Hüsker Dü did the job last evening, and I eked out three or four pages of line edits.

March: The iPod shuffle-played the following for my walk from train to office...

April: Chicago-centric publisher Lake Claremont Press is running a sale on its stock of returned books.

May: For the same reason that I once avidly watched such cringeworthy TV fare as The A-Team, The Tim Conway Show and Quincy, I can't help but appreciate the sheer awfulness of the poem "Abbottabad".

June: "The business of the poet and the novelist is to show the sorriness underlying the grandest things and the grandeur underlying the sorriest things." -Thomas Hardy

July: I was pleased to recently see the first photo, shown above, at Shorpy.com.

August: The really mind-boggling thing about the budget mess is that the debate could be this acrimonious without any of the final proposals including even a tiny increase in taxes.

September: I have a new post up at the Contrary Magazine blog, about a single phrase from Jude the Obscure.

October: The Guardian has a great profile of Maurice Sendak.

November: The rapidly-expanding electronics chain H.H. Gregg reportedly plans to buy and demolish the former Michael Brand Brewery complex at 2500 N. Elston, for a new store location.

December: Here's an interesting historical piece in the Joliet Herald-News about the old Porter Brewery, including a column by the late John Whiteside on the Feds' attempted crackdown during Prohibition.

December 21, 2011 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

When soccer ruled Chicago

Nice rememberance here at the Chicago News Cooperative about the Chicago Sting's 1981 NASL championship.

"We were a good show and fans liked that when they came to games, lots of them for the first time," said midfielder Rudy Glenn, who scored the winning goal against the Cosmos. "We always pushed for goals, showed that soccer doesn’t have to be dull. We came from behind so many times. Then you had Pato with that long, straight hair and I had long curly hair, and Davey Huson, with little hair, blowing kisses to the crowd when he scored."

I played soccer at Cary-Grove (and was even on the school's inaugural team, in 1980), and was at the 1981 semifinal game at Comiskey Park. It was a miserable, rainy night, but the fans' enthusiasm would not be deterred and old stadium was rocking. I still have a piece of netting from one of the goal cages, as a souvenir of that memorable event.

December 21, 2011 in Chicago Observations, Sports | Permalink | Comments (0)


"Christmas, of course, is an anachronism in New York. It belongs to non-converted brownstone houses and gaslights and streets banked high with snow, to a day when there were still suburbs on Manhattan Island. The perpendicular city has no place for it." - Wolcott Gibbs

More on Gibbs here, by Patrick Kurp. Saying that Gibbs' writing holds up better than that of the revered likes of James Thurber and Dorothy Parker seems like a pretty strong statement, but having never read Gibbs yet I'll have to trust Patrick's judgment.

December 20, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Structured Reading: Old-school Jewish writers

I recently completed my latest Structured Reading exercise, this time with old-school Jewish writers. The three books - Conversations with Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sholom Aleichem's Selected Stories and Aharon Appelfeld's The Iron Tracks - were each very different, yet were somehow cohesive when read in succession.

Conversations is a series of discussions between Singer and editor/writer Richard Burgin, in which Singer expounds on his theories of literature, philosophy and humanity. Singer was certainly a traditionalist, revering Dostoevsky and Chekhov while having little interest in modernists like Beckett and Joyce, and values old-fashioned storytelling over what he saw as the style-over-substance emphasis of modern fiction. Though the discourse was often invigorating, I wish I had first read more of Singer's fiction (I've only read Gimpel the Fool) which would have helped me make more sense out of the book-specific discussions between Singer and Burgin. Maybe I'll re-read the book ten or twenty years from now after I've had a chance to read more Singer.

At one point in Conversations, Singer says:

"The Jews are waiting for another Sholom Aleichem and America is waiting for a new Mark Twain or for an American Gogol. But I don’t think the American people would appreciate a really humorous book about themselves. They would say it’s false, it’s not accurate, it’s contrived. This is also true about modern Jews. If they had a Sholom Aleichem today, they would call him a Jewish anti-Semite. They would complain that he makes us look silly and that he helps our enemies."

Over the course of reading Selected Stories, I came across several other references elsewhere to Aleichem being "the Yiddish Mark Twain." I think that description is accurate in that Aleichem depicted old-fashioned Jews, often humorously, in fable or tall-tale form, much like Twain did with Americans. But beyond that I don't think the Aleichem-Twain connection really fits - Twain was cranky, cynical, pessimistic and certainly no fan of the majority of the human race, while in these stories Aleichem comes across as much more warm, generous and loving even while he playfully skewers the absurdities of small-town Jewish life. Selected Stories is a wonderful collection which showcases the range of Aleichem’s talent - the humorous stories are joyful and entertaining even as they focus on the downtrodden of Jewish society, and when he turns more serious (especially in "Hodel" or "You Musn’t Weep – It’s Yom-Tev"), the results are emotionally powerful.

Aharon Appelfeld may be a more modern writer than either Singer or Aleichem (not to mention still being alive), but many of his themes in The Iron Tracks - Jewish identity, religious devotion, coping with the traumas of the past - wouldn’t be out of place with either of the older writers. The novel follows a mostly-unnamed narrator who travels by train during the 1980s through Austria, collecting Jewish religious relics (either discarded or completely devalued) which he sells to wealthy benefactors for eventual return to Israel. But as the story progresses he slowly reveals the real purpose of his travels - to track down a WWII work camp officer whom he blames for the murder of his parents. The overall tone of the novel is joyless and grim, as the narrator repeatedly connects and disconnects with old acquaintances at each station along the line, broods endlessly over memories of his tragic childhood, and faces his ultimate mission of revenge. Yet even that act of revenge brings him no emotional lift or redemption, and as his life goes on mostly as before he realizes that the atrocities of the past can never be corrected - just as the small-town Jewish culture can never be restored to Austria, which warrants the removal of the relics to Israel and the hope of a brighter future there. The Iron Tracks is a deeply contemplative and satisfying novel, and my first exposure to Appelfeld, a writer I’m sure I will be returning to.

December 19, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Because it crests in some way that satisfies me."

In The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, Jamaica Kincaid tells Robert Birnbaum about how she knows when her stories are done:

The last story in my first book - the title story, "At the Bottom of the River" - took me six months to end. But at the end of the six months, I had not added one word. During the six months, I read "The Prelude," Wordsworth's great narrative poem. I spent six months reading, and at the end of it I understood what I had been writing was finished. And that's almost always true of my writing. I know it's finished through some odd way, not by actually finishing it. I go over it in my mind and say, "That's the end." Because it crests in some way that satisfies me. Not that it ties things up. It just ends.

I've never read anything by Kincaid, and from the description of her work by herself and Birnbaum, I'm not sure I even care to. But I still admire her distaste for tidy endings, for over-explanation - I prefer the unsaid and just the right degree of ambiguity.

December 18, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Liber Floridus


Gorgeous images here at BibliOdyssey from Liber Floridus, a Medieval encyclopedia published 900 years ago in Flanders. Love it.

December 18, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


I just started reading Ben Katchor's The Cardboard Valise, and couldn't help smiling upon learning that the valise is the "Ahasuerus" model. I had always associated that name with "The Wandering Jew", which would certainly be appropriate given Katchor's past subject matter - particularly the meandering Julius Knipl. But immediately it occurred to me that I knew little about the myth, which sent me to my phone and this:

The Wandering Jew is a figure from medieval Christian folklore whose legend began to spread in Europe in the 13th century. The original legend concerns a Jew who taunted Jesus on the way to the Crucifixion and was then cursed to walk the earth until the Second Coming. The exact nature of the wanderer's indiscretion varies in different versions of the tale, as do aspects of his character; sometimes he is said to be a shoemaker or other tradesman, while sometimes he is the doorman at Pontius Pilate's estate.
Interesting stuff. Which now makes me I realize that I should revisit Pär Lagerkvist 's The Death of Ahasuerus, which I read many years ago but remember absolutely nothing about. It's intriguing to note that Lagerkvist also wrote along a similar parallel with his novel Barabbas, which imagines the life of that criminal after being spared by the Romans at the time of Christ's crucifixion. Barabbas wants to have religious faith but can't bring himself to believe, and is condemned to live out the rest of his life in some sort of limbo. Whereas the Wandering Jew is condemned "to walk the earth until the Second Coming", also after a chance personal encounter with Christ. But though I love Barabbas, given that parallel I wonder if The Death of Ahasuerus will seem redundant upon rereading.

December 14, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Note to self...

...write a short story, or at least a character sketch, around this passage from Aharon Appelfeld's The Iron Tracks.

Meanwhile, his buffet is meager, and the customers are few. Once his young wife breathed life into the place, but since her sudden death he has aged. He neglects the buffet and sits by the window most of the day, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee.

Brief and plainly written, yet with so much hidden depth.

December 12, 2011 in Books, Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Be Careful Or You're Going To Dunning"


Love this: The Chicago Neighborhoods.

I love Chicago. I love design. I decided its about time to mash those two loves together, and the logos you see here are the result.

My dad once told me about driving out to Dunning from Lakeview with my grandfather, who was a family doctor and was apparently called on to treat some patients there. What my dad stressed the most was how long a drive it was in those days (no expressways, obviously), and not the facility itself - which leads me to believe he either had to stay in the car or at most in a waiting room, and didn't see the place any further than that. If he had seen the wards it would undoubtedly have left a lasting and traumatic impression on him, and he surely would have mentioned it to me.

(Via Coudal.)

December 8, 2011 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (1)

"...the unknown reader I sometimes say I imagine..."

In The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, James Salter (talking with Dan Pope) brushes past a question about formal recognition of an author's accomplishments (publication, awards, etc.) and reflects on a surprise reader reaction to one of his books:

There are few thrills like the first one, but not long ago at a party a woman I was being introduced to said simply, "Did she really just read a magazine?" She was referring to a scene in A Sport and a Pastime. She assumed I would know. My God, all the things of inconsequence she might have said! I don't remember her name, but she was the unknown reader I sometimes say I imagine, the woman in her thirties or forties who perhaps lives in Buenos Aires.

It must be a thrill for any writer to encounter a reader who mentally retains the big themes or major characters or settings of one of the writer's books, but even more so when they remember a tiny detail like the one Salter mentions. That shows how vividly rendered the tiny detail was, which really points out the writer's skill. Most writers can nail the big theme or major character, but if one can also nail the tiny details, now that's a real writer.

I also like Salter's idea of the "unknown reader", which to me means that one reader out there which the writer is trying to connect with. It might mean simple motivation for the writer ("This is who I'm writing the story for") or a reality check. For me it's the latter. When I'm writing, now and then I imagine a few specific (not "unknown") family members and friends as future readers, and ask myself: "Would my reader think this character is believable? That this is really how people talk? That this plotline is plausible?" All of which keeps me grounded.

December 6, 2011 in Books, Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

That Tanzer character is at it again!

Different  Nystories

Two more new books from the ridiculously fertile mind of Ben Tanzer: So Different Now, a second collection of stories set in a small town not unlike his hometown of Binghamton, New York (a followup to his earlier collection Repetition Patterns) which is available as an e-book in the standard CCLaP pay-what-you-want mode; and The New York Stories, which combines Repetition Patterns and So Different Now into a single, super-deluxe, handmade, illustrated volume. Just in time for your holiday gift-giving, or for your shameless self-indulgence. Or both.

December 6, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)



A hearty congratulations to the late Ron Santo, on his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. And shame to the Hall itself for taking so long to bestow this honor, and particularly in failing to do so during his lifetime and preventing him from basking in the glory he deserved. He was every bit the equal of Brooks Robinson as a third baseman, and yet Robinson was inducted decades ago. If there was a heaven, right now Santo would be clicking his heels.

Santo will become the fourth and final player to be inducted from the 1969 Cubs (the others were Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins - plus manager Leo Durocher), which makes that team's epic collapse even more inexplicable. Teams with four Hall of Fame players, and three of them still in their prime (Banks had 106 RBI in '69, in his last full season, but retired two years later) simply don't collapse like that.

December 5, 2011 in Chicago Observations, Sports | Permalink | Comments (0)

And what's with that "Kris Kringle" alias? What's he hiding?


Here's a fun little book - The Twelve Terrors of Christmas, by John Updike with illustrations by the incomparable Edward Gorey. Updike hilariously skewers the more outrageous and implausible aspects of the holiday - here's his take on Santa Claus:

A man of no plausible address, with no apparent source for his considerable wealth, comes down the chimney after midnight while decent, law-abiding citizens are snug in their beds - is this not, at least, cause for alarm?

And of course Gorey's illustrations are wonderfully dark and morbid. A contrarian Christmas book if there ever was one.

December 5, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...should the ducklings have stopped swimming?"

I'm almost in awe of this gorgeous passage from Sholom Aleichem's "Hodel", from Selected Stories. The dairyman Tevye has just been told by his beloved daughter Hodel that she is leaving home, likely forever, to be with her husband, an apparent revolutionary who was recently imprisoned.

I speak to her half in fun and half in anger, and all the time my heart weeps. But Tevye is no weakling; I control myself. And Hodel doesn't lose her dignity either; she answers me word for word, speaking quietly and thoughtfully. And Tevye's daughters can talk.

And though my head is lowered and my eyes are shut, still I seem to see her - her face is pale and lifeless like the moon, but her voice trembles...Shall I fall on her neck and plead with her not to go? I know it won't help. Those daughters of mine - when they fall in love with somebody, it is with their heads and hearts, their bodies and souls.

Well, we sat on the doorstep a long time - maybe all night. Most of the time we were silent, and when we did speak it was in snatches, a word here, a word there. I said to her, "I want to ask you only one thing: did you ever hear of a girl marrying a man so that she could follow him to the ends of the earth?" And she answered, "With him I'd go anywhere." I pointed out how foolish that was. And she said, "Father, you will never understand." So I told her a little fable - about a hen that hatched some ducklings. As soon as the ducklings could move they took to the water and swam, and the poor hen stood on shore, clucking and clucking.

"What do you say to that, my daughter?"

"What can I say?" she answered. "I am sorry for the poor hen, but just because she stood there clucking, should the ducklings have stopped swimming?"

There is an answer for you. She's not stupid, that daughter of mine.

Hodel's last comment might be the finest expression of a grown child's need to lead an independent life, and a parent's need to let the child go, that I've ever seen. How wonderful.

December 4, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

I scream, you scream...


Love this photo from Bighappyfunhouse. The guy on the left apparently was not enjoying himself, and preferred cigarettes to ice cream. Also, the lady of the house must not have wanted her kitchen messed up, thus relegating the ice cream-making to the basement.

December 2, 2011 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Let us now praise unknown men

A blogger known only as Beach Sloth lavishes praise on This Zine Will Change Your Life, the online literary journal that I co-curate with Ben Tanzer, Jason Behrends and Adam Lawrence. A response like this makes all the slogging through submissions totally worthwhile. Thank you, Sloth.

December 2, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...not quite dreaming and not quite waking..."

In The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, John Banville (talking with Ben Ehrenreich) discusses the difference between writing fiction and criticism, both of which Banville has done extensively:

In the matter of fiction and criticism I have a split personality, although no doubt each pursuit informs the other, in superficial ways. I was a newspaper copy editor for nearly twenty years; it must have taught me something about precision, clarity, punctuation, etc. Reviewing - and I consider myself a reviewer, not a critic - is a kind of knack that one develops. When one is young one expects to be able to say everything in a review that one feels and thinks about the work under consideration, but rapidly one comes to realize that the demands imposed by word length and deadline and so on mean that one must choose a couple of ideas and reactions and concentrate on them. Fiction - making art - is an altogether more mysterious business, which involves and invokes everything one has to give.

I might put it this way: For me, reviewing is done while I'm awake, and thinking as far as possible in a straight line; art is done while I'm in a form of hypnagogic state that is not quite dreaming and not quite waking. I know all this sounds hopelessly nineteenth-century High Romantic, but there you are.

There may indeed be a dichotomy between writing fiction and criticism, but not for the first reason cited by Banville. Because even in fiction, a writer has to "choose a couple of ideas and reactions and concentrate on them." Because without that focus, the likely result is a 2,000-page doorstop novel that is all but unreadable.

December 1, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Edwin Porter Brewery


Here's an interesting historical piece in the Joliet Herald-News about the old Porter Brewery, including a column by the late John Whiteside on the Feds' attempted crackdown during Prohibition. Edwin Porter's son Harry built our house, in 1927, but passed away before it was completed - his wife re-married shortly afterward and lived in the house for a while. When we first looked at the house I was pleasantly surprised to see that the knocker on the front door is engraved with the name "Porter." I wonder what Mrs. Porter's second husband thought about having that around as a constant reminder of whom came first.

December 1, 2011 in History, Joliet | Permalink | Comments (2)