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Clive Murphy

A few years ago, Spitalfields Life ran a nice piece on oral historian Clive Murphy, who sounds like the East End version of Studs Terkel - although while Terkel's books were told by a vast chorus of voices, each of Murphy's books portrays a single individual. I found the Murphy profile after this week's post on the writer's Brick Lane apartment which, I'm afraid to admit, has unsettling overtones of an episode of Hoarders. I wouldn't mind picking up a few of his books, most of all for the writing, of course, but also to ease the dangerous clutter.

September 30, 2012 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Reading in Public: London, 1910


I'm adding this image to my long-neglected Reading In Public index, even though these people aren't reading. But they undoubtedly began to read shortly after this image was taken, maybe even while walking home. I love the controlled chaos of this scene, as the customers are literally walking on the books that they're about to buy - and even the proprietor can't resist perusing one of his own books. The photograph (of the Caledonian Road market, in 1910) is part of a wonderful post at Spitalfields Life which presents a collection of old photos of London street markets.

September 28, 2012 in Reading in Public | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The Literary Art of W. Mitt Romney"

At Harper's, Kevin Baker reimagines several of Mitt Romney's dubious utterances as great literature.
Let us go then, you and I,
While the clouds are stretched across the sky,
Like my campaign etherised upon a table.
But unforunately Baker mostly just leaves it at that. I'd love to see someone (Calvin Trillin, perhaps?) rewrite all of Prufrock with Romney allusions. Though maybe that writer should wait at least until tomorrow - today is Eliot's birthday, so for now that sort of poetic desecration might be particularly disrespectful.

September 27, 2012 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (2)

Peter Orner

Peter Orner has a vivid new story, "Foley's Pond", in the latest Paris Review.
"Look, it’s not like it’s your fault," Stu said. "I mean how could you have known she knew how to slide under the fence?"
Nate looked up from his shoes.
"I taught her."
What could anybody say to that? Stu took a stab. He’d always been decent like that.
"Well, it’s not like you told her to do it when you weren’t looking."
"I didn’t?"
Stu didn’t say anything after that. Nobody else did, either.
Orner hits you with tragedy right away, then describes its sad aftermath. Unfortunately, there's only an excerpt available at that link, but if you're not inclined to buy your own copy, the story is only a few pages long and makes for a quick but very worthwhile read at your local newsstand. (Which is what I did, yesterday afternoon.) Orner has quickly become a favorite of mine - earlier this year I greatly enjoyed his debut collection, Esther Stories, particularly the novella Fall River Marriage. His latest, Love and Shame and Love, is near the top of my to-read list. And, even more significantly, on my very exclusive to-buy list.

September 27, 2012 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Randolph Street



Here's a fine 1956 image of Randolph Street, looking east toward State Street. My dad worked literally right here, on the north side of Randolph (in the Oriental Theater building, just beyond the left edge of this image), though not until a few years later. Most of the buildings shown here are now gone, including all of that great neon signage on the right which was demolished as part of the infamous Block 37 renewal project. I particularly admire that Swift Quality Foods sign, and its depiction of a cheerful pig, cow and chicken who seem utterly delighted to become your next meal.

September 26, 2012 in Chicago Observations, History, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)


"Chicago is a deeply religious town with a moral facade which thinly disguises a desire to wallow, more often than not, in sinful activities. It vacillates between loving sin for the money it brings and hating it for the morning after." - Norman Mark, from Mayors, Madams and Madmen

September 24, 2012 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

Don the Beachcomber


Love this image from Don the Beachcomber, an old tiki bar in Chicago. I can practically taste the navy grog, which is really saying something since I've never even had one. And after checking out this 1941 menu, I have a sudden urge for an order of shrimp chow dun and a planter's rum punch. And note how many of the cocktails say "Limit of 2" - I'm guessing those packed quite a wallop.

September 23, 2012 in Chicago Observations, History | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunrise, Washington Street


The silhouetted figure at the lower left is a homeless man who was waiting to cross Eastern Avenue, likely headed, as are many at that time of morning, to the Morningstar Mission a few blocks away.

September 19, 2012 in Joliet, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

David Simon

"That Mitt Romney, with his too-clever-by-half 13 percent tax rate — and no, you can’t see his returns, but trust him, he never slipped to single digits — feels equipped to sneer en masse at the millions of fellow citizens who support his opponent as being entitled, greedy tax derelicts, that he believes the vote of every American has to necessarily be rooted in the crudest and most basic self-interest — well, this ugly moment reveals more about the man than we have thus far known."

Well said.

September 18, 2012 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Turtle Wax



Oh my, this is marvelous: the former Turtle Wax headquarters, at the three-way intersection of Madison, Ashland and Ogden on the Near West Side. The company is still around and locally owned, but sadly, the charming building is long gone. No word on the current whereabouts of the turtle.

September 17, 2012 in Chicago Observations, History, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Josh Maday, "Acrid Smell"

I love this flash fiction piece at Everyday Genius by Josh Maday, "Acrid Smell".
He’d sit on the small bench inside the door, pull off his thick, grimy boots, and shuffle to the bathroom to clean up for dinner. He washed his hands with lava but even that never got them all the way clean. Black grime lined the gutters of his fingernails and veined the troughs of his fingerprints.
So gritty and visceral, and yet lyrical. Back when I first started writing, I was greatly inspired by Dancing on Fly Ash, the microfiction blog co-written by Maday and his buddy Matt Bell which presented one of their short pieces (< 100 words) every day. I hadn't heard anything from Josh in a long time and am very glad to see he's still writing, and writing well.

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



We just got home from a week's vacation in Orlando. For the most part we relaxed at our resort, though we did go to Universal Studios for a day and made several stops at the Downtown Disney shopping area at Disney World. On vacation I always look for one small souvenir as a memento. This time nothing really grabbed me, but as we were leaving Universal and walking through Seuss Landing, I suddenly remembered something I saw hours earlier. We popped into the store where I had seen it, and walked out with the fantastic print shown above. It was affordably priced and in a standard size for easy framing, so the choice was an easy one to make.

Though I've always liked Dr. Seuss, Yertle the Turtle was one of only two Seuss books I remember owning as a child. (How the Grinch Stole Christmas was the other.) I reread the book during college, and was struck by how easily it could be read as a tale of social justice and class warfare, and it wasn't until years later that I realized how politically-charged many of the Seuss books were, which made them much more interesting to read to my young daughter than mere childrens' stories would have been. I'm looking forward to admiring the cover print on my wall every day.

September 16, 2012 in Books, Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

Hair Lit, Vol. 1


I rarely shill here on the blog, but this time I'm making an exception. Hair Lit, Vol. 1 is an indie anthology of stories based on hair metal songs of the 1980s and 1990s. I wasn't even remotely interested in hair metal back in the day, but I still really want to read this book. Hair Lit is edited by my good friend Nick Ostdick and published by Jason Behrends at Orange Alert Press, and includes stories by a bunch of top indie writers, including Nick, Ben Tanzer (yeah, him again), Ryan W. Bradley, Roxane Gay, Steve Himmer, Michael Czyzniejewski, Lindsay Hunter, Sam Weller and many others.

To fund the initial print run, Nick and Jason are running a Kickstarter campaign, which is currently over halfway to the $2,000 goal with just seven days left. There are some intriguing premiums being offered, including personal manuscript consultations from several of the contributors. I'm heading over there shortly to make my pledge, and hope you will too. Great project, great people.

September 16, 2012 | Permalink | Comments (0)


"The mind is its own place, and can create a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven." - John Milton

September 13, 2012 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)






It's interesting what you can find when you finally weed a long-neglected flower bed. This summer I've been gradually cleaning out the bed in our front yard. We're rarely in the front yard due to its proximity to the noisy four-lane street we live on, and with all the work to be done in the rest of the yard, the front is usually the last part I get around to.

To my pleasant surprise, cleaning out the weeds has uncovered a tiny pine forest. That first photo is of the granddaddy - over two feet tall, but usually completely obscured by a big stand of ornamental grass. The others are smaller (six inches or less) and were smothered by weeds. Instead of pulling up these seedlings (saplings?), I've decided to let them grow. The big one started growing last year and was able to survive the winter, so I want to see if the others survive as well.

I know that, left unchecked, all of these would eventually overwhelm the yard (I've heard that pines excrete acid into the soil to kill off other plant competitors), so if they survive until next year, I would like to replant these in some woods somewhere. Ideally they would be moved to land owned by someone I know, and where I could watch their progress over the years. But if I have to sneak these into a forest preserve, then so be it.

September 9, 2012 in Personal, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Summer of Classics

Quick one-sentence recaps of my Summer of Classics books, the less said about which, the better:

Crime and Punishment: Since fiction editors are apparently a 20th-century invention, this will most likely be the last 19th-century novel I will ever read.
Native Son: If Richard Wright really wanted to write a sociopolitcal tract, I wish he would have just done so, instead of fabricating a barely plausible fictional narrative around his opinions.

I actually ended Summer of Classics a week or two early, and since then have been greatly enjoying the more modern fare of Joe Meno and Kazuo Ishiguro.

September 7, 2012 in Books | Permalink | Comments (3)

"...the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint..."

Stevens, the butler-protagonist in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, makes the following observation of his native land as he gazes across the countryside:
We call this land of ours Great Britain, and there may be those who believe this a somewhat immodest practice. Yet I would venture that the landscape of our country alone would justify the use of this lofty adjective.

And yet what precisely is this 'greatness'? Just where, or in what, does it lie? I am quite aware it would take a far wiser head than mine to answer such a question, but if I were forced to hazard a guess, I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart. What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it. In comparison, the sort of sights offered in such places as Africa and America, though undoubtedly very exciting, would, I am sure, strike the objective viewer as inferior on account of their unseemly demonstrativeness.
I feel the same way about the Midwest - its beauty is very subtle, but rewarding if you take the time to look for it. (Presumably Stevens' reference to America alludes to its more spectacular regions - Niagara Falls, the Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon, etc.) But Stevens' comment is, more deeply, a reflection on what makes a butler great, a topic which he muses on at length. Stevens sees a butler's finest qualities to be stoicism, dignity and unflappability in handling any domestic disturbance that occurs -just as the greatness of England is found in its calmness and restraint. No American-style boorishness and bluster for him.

September 7, 2012 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Joe Meno, Office Girl

For reasons I can't explain, I haven't read anything by Joe Meno since 2006, when I read and loved his breakthrough novel, Hairstyles of the Damned. Fortunately, Akashic Books was kind enough to send me a review copy of his latest novel, Office Girl, and I really enjoyed getting reacquainted. Office Girl is set in Chicago in 1999 and tells the story of two twenty-somethings, Odile and Jack, both art-school dropouts who are wandering aimlessly through life, working dead-end jobs and churning through hopeless relationships. Each is working on vaguely-defined artistic projects - Odile with some sort of guerrilla street theater, Jack with an audio collage of the city - which, along with one of those dead-end jobs, briefly brings them together. The tone of the book is deceptively light; though the short chapters move past swiftly, there are serious undercurrents that linger beneath, just out of sight, which neither character is strong enough to confront, opting instead to just continue to live with. Office Girl is refreshingly low-key: no grand themes, no calamities, no melodrama. Odile and Jack simply drift together and suddenly separate, like so many real relationships do. Meno gives us a glimpse into their sad and lonely lives, while still ending with a glimmer of hope that their lives will eventually get better. Nicely done.

September 4, 2012 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Ten Years of Metra, continued


Waiting for the Rock Island train to leave...on the evening ride home to Joliet, at least three-fourths of the time my train has to stop a hundred yards short of Union Station. The Heritage Corridor and Rock Island tracks intersect at the station (the building in the distance in this photo) and for some reason if a Rock Island commuter train is arriving or departing, my Heritage Corridor train is the one that has to wait. Supposedly it's for safety reasons - if something went wrong and my train overshot the station, there could be collision with the other train. Though it's never been explained why the Rock Island doesn't stop instead, and wait until my train stops safely and unloads. I've heard the Heritage Corridor line described as "the red-headed stepchild of Metra", and this arrangement is just one example of that.

September 4, 2012 | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...I will drain that glass again."

This weekend I was delighted to read this obscure Edgar Allan Poe poem, "Lines on Ale" (1848), from The Unknown Poe: An Anthology of Fugitive Writings:
"Lines on Ale"
Fill with mingled cream and amber,
I will drain that glass again.
Such hilarious visions clamber
Through the chambers of my brain -
Quaintest thoughts - queerest fancies
Come to life and fade away;
What care I how time advances?
I am drinking ale today.

By that logic, Poe should have lived the most carefree life in the history of mankind, because from what I've heard, he was drunk for most of his adulthood. Though his life was obviously anything but carefree.

(The book adds this footnote: "Thought to have been written at Washington Tavern in Lowell, Massachusetts, where it hung on the saloon wall until about 1920.")

September 3, 2012 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

A Podcast Dreadful

Chicago literary mastermind Jason Pettus has come up with a new twist on his annual fall anthology at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography. This year, it's a free 12-part serialized audiobook called CCLaP's Podcast Dreadful. Jason explains:
Entitled "CCLaP's Podcast Dreadful," the series has been designed in the fashion of an old Victorian "penny dreadful" publication, including cliffhangers at the end of each chapter and a dark, weird tone throughout. Hosted by Christopher Sullivan and featuring brand-new pieces by Kate Cullan, Jason Fisk, Kevin Haworth, Jacob Knabb, Keith McCleary and Sophia G. Starmack, John Reed, Jason Riley, Jim Ruland, Davis Schneiderman, Ben Tanzer and Karl Wolff, as well as new music by Ken Kase written specifically for this project, it is sure to be just the right ticket for a cold, scary autumn night.
The first installment should be available online at the above link sometime today, so definitely check it out. Jason also mentions that the fourth installment will be recorded in front of a live audience at Quimby's on September 21st, which will certainly be a unique experience. (I can't help imagining the studio scenes in Woody Allen's Radio Days, with the radio soap opera cast performing their latest melodrama.)

September 3, 2012 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)