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Sorry, Printers Row Lit Fest...

...but your festival happens to fall on the same weekend (June 8-10) as an event that is much more local and important to me, the Will County Book Recycling. There, just across town, not only will I unload my never-to-be-reread, less-than-essential books, but also bring home a whole new batch of books, for free. And without enduring a two-hour round trip, paying for parking, fighting crowds and facing the possible monsoon-like storms that hit Printers Row so often. Prior year Book Recycling recaps are here, here, here and here. Though I've read only a minority of the books I've brought home so far, there are very few that I've given up on and want to re-recycle.

May 31, 2012 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Writer's voice, book's voice

Ordinarily I roll my eyes and flip/click past those "what writing is" essays, which are usually terminally plagued by vague generalities and so-broad-they're-meaningless pronouncements. But I actually like this piece by Sadie Jones at Powells.com about persistence and the writer's voice:

I prefer to think of it in terms of the book's voice; for me that is an altogether more vibrant and fascinating thing. The book itself has life, has its voice, and my job is to discover it. I am often convinced when writing that the world of the story exists effortlessly somewhere and I must use all my facility, all my energy, my persistence, in fact, to find it.

Though I probably haven't been persistent enough with that novel concept I mentioned a few months back (which is on hiatus for now), still, that story is doing a very good job of hiding itself.

May 30, 2012 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Summer of Classics

Remember what I've been saying about this year's Summer of Classics, and getting away from the 19th Century slog (Dickens, Hardy, Flaubert, Stendhal) that I went through in recent years, and reading something more modern and lean instead? Well, forget that. Somehow my mind has gotten stuck on reading Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and Gogol's Dead Souls. Both 19th Century, both lengthy. But other than Gogol's great novella The Overcoat, I've never read any of the Russian masters, so this year I'll give them a try. Maybe I'll read some modernists next year.

May 30, 2012 in Books | Permalink | Comments (3)

Elliott Smith

I listened to a lot of Elliott Smith over the weekend, including burning an retrospective disk for a friend. The brilliance of Smith's music and the tragedy of his life make such a compelling mixture that I can't help being drawn in, again and again. I didn't start listening to Smith until after his death, the shocking suddenness of which dove me back into the one song of his I owned, "Rose Parade", from an old CMJ Music Monthly sampler disc. I had never listened closely to the song before that, but after revisiting its near-perfect combination of melodicism, gritty street-level lyrics and pensive sadness, I was hooked.

After that I dabbled in a few free mp3s at the Paste magazine site, then bought either/or (with the proceeds of a check from, fittingly enough, a class-action lawsuit against the major record labels for price fixing), then got a burned copy of XO from a friend at my previous job, and finally received the posthumous collection From a Basement on the Hill and the utterly excellent Figure 8 as gifts. (I still haven't picked up the first two albums or the from-the-vaults collection New Moon, and I'm not sure if I ever will. The four albums that I own are so richly fulfilling that I don't feel much need to be a completist.)

For several years now I've had my eye on Matthew LeMay's XO, his short study of that album from Continuum's endlessly fascinating 33 1/3 series. I've never seen the book in person, but have had it on both my Powell's and Amazon wishlists, hoping someone would gift it to me. (I'm impossible to shop for, so when anyone asks I just point them to my wishlists.) But no luck there. So this afternoon, being a beautiful day in the city, I took a stroll over to Reckless Records on Madison to browse the short shelf of 33 1/3 books they stock. I didn't remember seeing XO during my previous visit, but this time, there it was. After paging through, it looked really good, and so I parted with some of my mad money (a small fund reserved for just such a small occasion) and bought it. The combination couldn't be more perfect: Reckless (whose Lakeview store I used to haunt for endless hours during my first city stint), literature and Elliott Smith. I almost couldn't not buy the book.

XO is probably my favorite Elliott Smith album. For me it perfectly bridges the gap between the indie-troubador strumming of either/or and the glorious power-pop of Figure 8, and beautifully encapsulates Smith's formidable artistic talent. I'm really looking forward to reading LeMay's book, preferably with the album playing on my iPod. And possibly a handkerchief to cry into.

May 29, 2012 in Books, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Just this side of awesome.


Stanley Kubrick's marked-up copy of Stephen King's The Shining, filled with the director's notes and comments. How fascinating it would be to read through this, not just for King's original but for Kubrick's reactions, which undoubtedly influenced his making of the film version.

(Via Condalmo).

May 28, 2012 in Books, Film | Permalink | Comments (1)

"That door of the library was the door into me..."

Spitalfields Life is always a pleasure for me to read, but even more so today with its profile of Bernard Kops, the playwright and poet. Kops seems to have had some harrowing stretches in his life, but he's come out on the other side, alive and well, with his wife of fifty-eight years still at his side. I really like his poem "Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East" which celebrates the redemptive and transformative power of public libraries and literature. Here are the closing lines:

Welcome young poet, in here you are free
to follow your star to where you should be.

That door of the library was the door into me

And Lorca and Shelley said “Come to the feast.”
Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East.

A poet who isn't afraid of rhyme and meter. I like that.

May 28, 2012 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


At The L Magazine, Tobias Carroll's list of top (but unlikely) candidates for the deluxe reissue treatment is topped by one of my old favorites, Seam:

Hey, with Bitch Magnet, Temporary Residence has already reissued one of Sooyoung Park’s bands’ bodies of work. And Seam are a fantastically underrated band — over the course of three albums for Touch & Go, they did the anguished loud/quiet/loud thing better than almost anyone. But there’s also a host of music from them that’s now out of print: from their debut album Headsparks to their final single "Sukiyaki," also featuring a fine cover of David Bowie’s "Heroes."

The Problem With Me and Are You Driving Me Crazy? are both excellent, and highly recommended.

May 25, 2012 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The harvest days are at hand."

From "Mr. Peasley and His Vivid Impressions of Foreign Parts", a piece from George Ade's witty fictional travelogue In Pastures New:

This morning we are basking in the crystal sunlight of Naples - the blue bay, with the crescent outline on one side, the white walls of the mounting city on the other, Vesuvius looming in the distance behind a hazy curtain, and tourists crowding the landscape in the immediate foreground.

Three big steamers are lying at anchor within the breakwater - one from Genoa, one from Marseilles, and one from New York - and all heavily laden with Americans, some sixty of whom will be our fellow-passengers to Alexandria. The hotels are overflowing with Yankee pilgrims, and every Neapolitan who has imitation coral and celluloid tortoise shell for sale is wearing an expectant smile.

The jack-rabbit horses attached to the ramshackle little victorias lean wearily in their shafts, for these are busy days. The harvest days are at hand. The Americans have come.

Ade is probably my favorite humorist. I never tire of reading his work.

May 24, 2012 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Chris Mars and drummer jokes

Replacements drummer (and later solo musician, now visual artist) Chris Mars is, somewhat perversely, an avid collector of "drummer jokes." His Bar/None bio includes some of them, including this favorite of mine:

Q: What is the last thing a drummer ever says to his band?
A: "Hey guys...how 'bout we try one of my songs?

His solo debut, Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, will always have a special place in my heart.

May 23, 2012 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Algren at Riccardo's


As if I wasn't already enough of a sucker for the vintage photos posted at Calumet 412, now here's one by the great Art Shay of my literary hero, Nelson Algren, enjoying cocktails and conversation at Riccardo's in 1955 with actress Janice Kingslow. Beautiful. Riccardo's was renowned for its murals depicting the seven "lively arts", which can be seen here on the back wall behind the bar.

May 23, 2012 in Books, Chicago Observations, History, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Unhappy midcentury hipsters


This Flickr set of midcentury home brochures has compelled me to add this Unhappy Hipsters-inspired caption to the above image:

Lillian paused to reflect on whether her protagonist - the immaculately dressed but relentlessly bored Lil - would finally start preparing the roast for that evening's dinner with Bill and his boss, or just drink the afternoon away.

Possibly more to come.

May 22, 2012 | Permalink | Comments (2)

Stumbling over the Mats in downtown Joliet

Last Friday, while driving home from the train station, I was stopped in traffic waiting for a river drawbridge to reopen. It was a warm day and I had the window rolled down, as did the twentysomething guy in the next car. He was cranking his stereo, rocking out to a song that I had never heard, though the band sounded vaguely familiar. The singer reminded me of Paul Westerberg of the Replacements, but the song rocked harder and more raggedy than any of his solo work that I'm familiar with. I finally turned off my radio, trying to hear the song more clearly. The only words I could discern was the phrase "temptation eyes", which was repeated enough times to be, I hoped, its title.

So when I got home I googled "temptation eyes", with the top results being the 60s folk-rock band The Grass Roots, who apparently did the original. But I figured the raucous version I heard couldn't have been by that band, so I then scrolled down further in the results and found that the song had, indeed, been covered by the Replacements. It was a previously unreleased outtake from the Let It Be era, and was recently released as a bonus track on the reissued edition of that great album, which to my mind was the Replacements' best. Over the weekend I streamed the song several times on Grooveshark, and love it. Since I already own the original album, I'll probably download just the bonus tracks soon.

This discovery pleased me on two levels: one, to stumble on unknown songs from the heyday of one of my old favorite bands; and two, the fact that there's actually a young guy out there (probably not unlike myself at that same age) who rocks out to Mats outakes that are almost thirty years old. So there's still hope for today's youth. Thank you, Cass Street Bridge.

May 21, 2012 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)



I absolutely love this 1960 photo from the Tip-Top-Tap, at the Allerton Hotel on Michigan Avenue. For years I admired the bar's brilliant sign atop the hotel, and always wanted to take my dad there for a drink. Sadly, I learned a few years ago that the Tip-Top-Tap had been gone for decades. And my dad is no longer with us, either. Still, it's nice to imagine settling in at one of those tables with him over cocktails (for him, most likely a "dry VO Manhattan on the rocks, with olives and a twist") and savoring that magnificent view.

May 21, 2012 in Chicago Observations, History, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

"I’m interested in what it means to be a good person. Good people do stupid things, and stupid people do good things."

Here's a well-done profile of Alan Heathcock, whose debut collection Volt I read and really enjoyed last year.

“Finding my voice as a writer coincided with having a family and feeling different things for the first time,” Heathcock says. “My preoccupations as a human being changed through loving my wife and kids and being worried about them.”

I can relate. I didn't start writing until after I had a family. Before that I just wasn't ready, and though I still go through phases of cynicism, I think my writing is much more positive and hopeful from starting later.

May 20, 2012 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

File Under: Solution in Search of a Problem


Mobylives passes along this head-scratcher of an app: Shelflook, which rotates an image of a bookshelf 90 degrees, so the spines can be read horizontally. I guess cancer and poverty have been cured, and our innovators can now move on to more minor concerns.

May 20, 2012 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"He wanted to say that literature was above politics."

Sharp passage from James Joyce's The Dead:

It was true that he wrote a literary column every Wednesday in The Daily Express, for which he was paid fifteen shillings. But that did not make him a West Briton surely. The books he received for review were almost more welcome than the paltry cheque. He loved to feel the covers and turn over the pages of newly printed books. Nearly every day when his teaching in the college was ended he used to wander down the quays to the second-hand booksellers, to Hickey's on Bachelor's Walk, to Webb's or Massey's on Aston's Quay, or to O'Clohissey's in the by-street. He did not know how to meet her charge. He wanted to say that literature was above politics. But they were friends of many years' standing and their careers had been parallel, first at the University and then as teachers: he could not risk a grandiose phrase with her. He continued blinking his eyes and trying to smile and murmured lamely that he saw nothing political in writing reviews of books.
Though I've already read the story, in Dubliners, a few years ago I found (at Goodwill, of all places) a lovely standalone edition of the story from Melville House's Art of the Novella series, and thought it was finally time for another look. Terrific reading so far.

May 18, 2012 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

I just finished re-reading Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, for what I believe is my fourth time, and it was just as marvelous as ever. Any attempt by me to review or evaluate the book here would never do it justice; it's one of those perfect yet indescribable works of art that simply has to be experienced rather than explained. As always I found it to be chaotic, propulsive, contemplative, visceral, devastating. I don't even understand all of its meaning - including just what Ellison meant by "invisibility" - but that's one of the things that I love about it. I'll gladly be puzzling over this book for the rest of my life.

May 18, 2012 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Mother died today"? Or "Maman died today"? Or...

There's a fascinating piece here by The New Yorker's Ryan Bloom over the French-to-English translation of the first line of Camus' The Stranger. As Bloom notes, a single word can color one's reading of an entire novel. Speaking of which, though I haven't decided on novels to read for this year's Summer of Classics, I'm definitely going much more modern to escape the 19th Century slogs of past years, and The Stranger is on my short list.

May 16, 2012 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

And even in that distant future, Cub fans will still be waiting for next year


Screenshot from the new J.J. Abrams series Revolution. As they hike down the former Clark Street, these three probably don't even realize they just passed the hallowed former site of Yum Yum Donuts.

(Via Calumet 412.)

May 16, 2012 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

"'Curiosity never killed this cat' — that's what I'd like as my epitaph."


Happy 100th, Studs Terkel. We miss you.

May 16, 2012 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...you feel you have to rescue these things..."

My, this is certainly sobering:

"When your life is half over, I think you have to see the face of death in order to start writing seriously. There are people who see the end quickly, like Rimbaud. When you start seeing it, you feel you have to rescue these things. Death is the great Maecenas, Death is the great angel of writing. You must write because you are not going to live any more."
—Carlos Fuentes

Fuentes just passed away, at age 83. Based on his prolific output, I'd say he rescued plenty.

May 15, 2012 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...each pigeon diving wildly as though blackjacked by the sound..."

From Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man:

And somewhere between the dull roar of traffic and the subway vibrating underground I heard rapid explosions and saw each pigeon diving wildly as though blackjacked by the sound, and the cop sitting up straight now, and rising to his knees looking steadily at Clifton, and the pigeons plummeting swiftly into the trees, and Clifton still facing the cop and suddenly crumpling.

He fell forward on his knees, like a man saying his prayers just as a heavy-set man in a hat with a turned-down brim stepped from around the newsstand and yelled a protest. I couldn't move. The sun seemed to scream an inch above my head. A few men were starting into the street. The cop was standing now and looking down at Clifton, as though surprised, the gun in his hand.

What fantastic, fantastic writing - I'm in awe of Ellison when I read passages like this. There's so much I love - the blurred, fast-paced action which still pauses, ever so briefly, to reflect on the pigeons in flight; the uncertainty in the first paragraph of what happened to Clifton and the abrupt explanation ("the gun in his hand") in the second paragraph; the exquisite control as the long, rushing sentences suddenly yield to short sentences; the suggestion in just three words ("as though surprised") that the cop acted more out of subconscious impulse than intentional malice. I think every fiction writer should read and study this great book.

May 13, 2012 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Aw, crap.


So much for heritage, when Elston Avenue is in such desperate need of another big-box retailer instead. Now I'll treasure those bricks I scavenged even more.

May 11, 2012 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (1)

Madame Bovary as a pie chart


Yeah, this pretty much nails it. You could also do a single-color chart with the label "100% - Emma Being a Self-Absorbed Narcissist." Hated the protagonist, hated the book.

May 11, 2012 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

I certainly never expected this.

I write like
David Foster Wallace

I Write Like by Mémoires, journal software. Analyze your writing!

This assessment was based on several paragraphs from Wheatyard. I tried a second excerpt, from the same chapter of the book, and got Wallace again. Then a third try, again from that chapter, gave me Arthur C. Clarke. The only Wallace I've ever read was one single essay, and I've never read Clarke, so it's doubtful that either writer was even a subconscious influence on me.

May 11, 2012 in Books, Wheatyard | Permalink | Comments (2)

Express and Ellison

I've been keeping a private journal to accompany the writing of my on-again, off-again novel, Express. Here's yesterday's entry, which I'm hoping marks a real turning point.

"That was all I needed, I'd made a contact, and it was as though his voice was that of them all."

That line is from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, which I'm currently re-reading. I haven't touched Express for nearly six weeks now. Leon's story just wasn't coming to me, but I also couldn't see skipping to the other protagonists while his story is still so utterly unfinished. So I want to stick with Leon, even though his story isn't going anywhere. Sometimes I just need a shove when I get stalled like this. And I might have just found that shove, from Ralph Ellison.

Ellison's quote describes his narrator taking the stage for the first time, in a packed arena, and how he overcomes the potentially overwhelming atmosphere by zeroing in on the voice of a single crowd member, making one connection out of thousands. Suddenly I can see Leon doing something similar - like Ellison's narrator, he will be intimidated by his first performance with the big band, and will cope by connecting with just one audience member. That person might be the woman he earlier saw standing by the cigarette machine, as he listened through the alley door. And she might be the girlfriend of either the bandleader or the club owner, which could add sort of a forbidden-fruit sexual tension to the situation.

It still remains to be seen whether anything ever comes of this. The story is coming to me very slowly.

May 9, 2012 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

Benson & Rixon, then and now



Chicago's Benson & Rixon Department Store, as seen in 1937 and today. What a bold, vibrant building it once was, and what a faded glory it has become. (Then again, "faded glory" accurately describes most of State Street these days.) Still, it's encouraging to see that some sort of facelift is going on, though whether that facelift includes purging McDonalds and its obtrusive signage remains unknown.

May 9, 2012 in Chicago Observations, History, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Curbside Castoffs


Third in a series of memorable curbside discards from around Joliet, this one on Eastern Avenue. If there's such thing as a prototypical castoff, this is it: the plaid couch.

May 8, 2012 in Joliet, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Lost Sullivan


This photo of the magnificent proscenium arches in the Garrick Theater is the only evidence required to successfully argue that the building should have been preserved instead of demolished. What a terrible loss.

May 3, 2012 in Chicago Observations, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...I stopped as though struck by a shot, deeply inhaling, remembering..."

Proust may have had his madeleines, but Ralph Ellison had his yams:

Then far down at the corner I saw an old man warming his hands against the side of an odd-looking wagon, from which a stove pipe reeled off a thin spiral of smoke that drifted the odor of baking yams slowly to me, bringing a stab of swift nostalgia. I stopped as though struck by a shot, deeply inhaling, remembering, my mind surging back, back. At home we'd bake them in the hot coals of the fireplace, had carried them to school for lunch; munched them secretly, squeezing the sweet pulp from the soft peel as we hid from the teacher behind the largest book, the World's Geography. Yes, and we'd loved them candied, or baked in a cobbler, deep-fat fried in a pocket of dough, or roasted with pork and glazed with the well-browned fat; had chewed them raw - yams and years ago. More yams than years ago, though the time seemed endlessly expanded, stretched thin as the spiraling smoke beyond all recall.

Searching for this text, I was pleased to see that in 2005 my blog friend Michael Leddy also excerpted a part of this same scene from Invisible Man, though that was several years before we became acquainted.

May 1, 2012 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)