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"She probably knew, but she didn't want to know."

Studs Terkel's American Dreams: Lost and Found includes a terrific section on Ken Jackson, a reformed ex-felon who was once a well-heeled, big-spending teenage thief:
I'd come home, I'd give my mother five hundred or five thousand, and tell her I won it in a dice game. She thought I was the luckiest dice player in the world. She probably knew, but she didn't want to know. I was the head of the household, yeah. We went to Coney Island one time and spent fifteen thousand bucks in a day. We paid for everybody on the Cyclone for the whole day. Everybody who was on seemed to be havin' a good time, so we said whoever wants to stay, stay, and we paid. We went all over Coney Island payin'. We were tryin' to get everybody in on the party, total strangers. We spent it all. We had to steal bicycles to get home.
The stuff of novels, yet very real. I'm getting this vivid mental image of Mrs. Jackson at home, pocketing a handful of cash given to her by her beloved boy Ken, grateful for the household-saving windfall but not wanting to know just where it came from.

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

End of an era

Sad: Mark Shale closes last 3 stores.
Baskin worked for his father's men's clothing shop in Streator, Ill., but longed to branch out on his own. After finding a 600-square-foot space in Joliet, Baskin opened up shop in August 1929, right before the Great Depression.

Early on, he didn't have much inventory, but placed boxes underneath the clothing on display so customers would think he had more than he did. When he ran out of merchandise every few weeks or so, he'd jump on a train to Chicago to stock up.
Mark Shale merchandise was really top-notch. Shortly after college, I bought a bunch of Shale-brand Oxford cloth dress shirts at the old company outlet on Elston Avenue - and they lasted for twenty years before finally wearing out. Sad to see them go, though I suppose 83 (mostly) good years is an impressive run for any business establishment.

December 31, 2012 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)


What it is: Merriam-Webster Word of the Day
What to do about it: "How To Ease That Hangover"

You're welcome. Happy New Year.

December 31, 2012 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Plenty of photographs, but no record of the sound of his voice."

In the NYT, Verlyn Klinkenborg writes a thoughtful piece on the scarcity of recorded voices, particularly those of our loved ones.
I remember the regret I felt after my mom died, years ago, that we had no recording of her voice on tape. And yet when my dad died in 2008 — same thing. Plenty of photographs, but no record of the sound of his voice. I’m glad to have the photos, but I miss the immediacy of those voices, the way that even a recorded voice captures the movement of time and the resonance of the body with extraordinary intimacy.
One of my most cherished mementos is a cassette recording of my dad and I singing a karaoke duet of "New York, New York" at a family gathering during the 1990s. The singing is comical, of course, but what I love most is hearing his handful of spoken words and especially his laughter. Whenever I hear those words and laughter, I see his face, once again beaming and full of life.

December 30, 2012 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

"At the Pub with Tony Hall"

(Photograph copyright © Libby Hall)

Spitalfields Life shares a terrific collection of 1960s pub photographs from London's East End, by the late Tony Hall. I love the look of quiet mirth on the face of that lady above as she sips her ale.

December 28, 2012 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...their finest moments while sitting..."

Mike Royko, on just one of the reasons that sitting is superior to running:
The greatest minds in the history of civilization have had their finest moments while sitting. You name one great piece of music written while running, one great book, one great anything. While running, you don't have time to think because you are breathing so hard and worrying about some mugger tripping you and wondering if that pain in your chest is something serious or just gas.
That said, I fully intend to spend less time on the couch in the coming year.

December 28, 2012 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Haters gotta hate.

The Spectator asks its writers which "great books" they truly hated. Lined up for critical flogging: For Whom the Bell Tolls, Remembrance of Things Past, A Dance to the Music of Time, On the Road, Jane Austen (in general), Don Quixote, The Good Soldier, David Copperfield, Moby-Dick, D.H. Lawrence (in general), Quisling: A Study in Treason, Crime and Punishment (yes!), The Alexandria Quartet, Ulysses, Remembrance of Things Past (again!), David Copperfield (again!), Wuthering Heights, and The Portrait of a Lady.

I'm starting to think that Proust and Dickens are two of the most polarizing writers of all time.

December 27, 2012 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

First lines, 2012

As another year winds down, it's time to get self-indulgent again, and post the first line from the first blog post of each month of 2012.

January: I've written poetry from email spam in the past, piecing together one line each from various random spams I've received.
February: A small East Coast press, which I greatly admire, has apparently declined Wheatyard without even telling me.
March: Yesterday I wrote my twenty-fifth and final letter of the Month of Letters project.
April: Oh wow, oh wow.
May: Proust may have had his madeleines, but Ralph Ellison had his yams.
June: Another bad jobs report today - only 69,000 jobs created in May.
July: The Chicago architecture blog designslinger has a nice feature today on the Chicago Daily News Building, where I worked for five years for my previous employer.
August: This is one of the sharpest observations that I've ever encountered about American politics.
September: 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.
October: Apparently I'm a writer again.
November: The top photo is a 1929 image of the fountain on the plaza at the Chicago Daily News Building.
December: Jeff Sypeck passes along the story of a curious used bookstore find...

Found poetry, Wheatyard rejection, writing letters, vintage signage, Ellison's yams, economics, architecture, politics, literature as serialized podcasts, another GalleyCat remix project, architecture, serendiptious find at the used bookstore. Interesting to note that: only seven of the twelve are literature-related (further reason to continue not thinking of this as a litblog); two of the twelve involved the Chicago Daily News Building (which is hardly an obsession of mine); and only one was a manuscript rejection (most of those must have come mid-month).

December 27, 2012 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Grendel as Grinch"

'Tis the season for a marvelously inspired mashup.
The two joined in battle, throwing benches and chairs.
Amidst all the chaos — the fiend was caught unawares.

The monster was fierce but suffered great harm,
When Beowulf grabbed him and ripped off his arm.

The pain tore though Grendel, it hurt like none other,
So he turned tail and ran back home to his mother.

The Danes gave a cheer, the ale started to flow,
"Hail Beowulf, a most righteous bro."
(Via Boing Boing.)

December 26, 2012 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...he winds up with a hangover and a screaming wife..."

In "Mr. Grobnik and the Three-Martini Lunch" (collected in Sez Who? Sez Me), Mike Royko rails against corporations getting tax deductions for executive lunches, when regular working stiffs get no federal handout at all for the snorts that get them through the workday.
People do business all the time without buying each other martinis. I have holes in my roof, so a roofer recently came around to look at it and quote a price. He didn't take out a pint and offer me a swig. I he had, I don't think he would have been able to deduct that swig from his taxes.

So why do we have this tradition of corporations feeling that the federal government should assume part of the cost of their executives getting loaded at noon or while they are weaving down Rush Street during a convention? If an ordinary sot wanders into a topless joint and buys some young thing a quart of champagne, he winds up with a hangover and a screaming wife. The conventioneer winds up with a tax break.

Besides, most of them aren't drinking those three martinis to close a big deal or make a sale. They have them in order to calm their nerves so they can go back and face a harrowing afternoon of protecting their backs from other executives. Or to steady their hand for a try at someone else's back.
Terrific piece. My only surprise is that Royko didn't append that first paragraph with something like, "And I certainly wouldn't have let him go tottering around up on my roof without calling my insurance man first."

December 26, 2012 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

"A Christmas Carol, 1978"

In 1978, Mike Royko updated Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol to late-1970s Chicago. The hilarious result, "A Christmas Carol, 1978" was published in the Chicago Sun-Times on December 24, 1978 and was later collected in Sez Who? Sez Me, my favorite Royko compilation book. Here is my sonorous (but, I hope, not soporific) reading of this holiday classic.

Download "Royko Christmas Carol 1978"

 Merry Christmas, everybody!

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

"...I was your little skylark, your doll..."

This past Friday marked the anniversary of the world premiere of Henrik Ibsen's proto-feminist landmark A Doll's House, in Copenhagen in 1879. As Barnes & Noble notes:
Those happy with the challenges Ibsen was making to conventional thinking and stagecraft applauded wildly - the list included Shaw and the suffragettes in England, and a young James Joyce - while those who thought his plays "written by a vulgar and evil mind" joined the Anti-Ibsen League and lobbied to have him banned.
Writers these days are mostly thought of as entertainers - how remarkable that at one time they could be seen as such a threat to society that they could prompt an "Anti-Ibsen League." (That search term returns only 75 results in Google, however, so I'm not sure there was ever a formal movement, at least not under that name.) I studied Ibsen during college, in a Scandinavian studies class devoted entirely to Ibsen's major works. I've been meaning to re-read his plays ever since, but for some reason have never plunged back in. Maybe I'll take that up during next year's Summer of Classics, despite the fact that after several underwhelming summers during the past few years I had forever sworn off 19th Century literature.

Our professor in that class (Rochelle Wright) passed along a wonderful Ibsen-related anecdote that I've always loved: Ibsen's chief rival in Scandinavian drama, the Swede August Strindberg, once tried to crash the Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo, without an invitation. When the security guard refused to let him in, Strindberg fumed, "But don't you know who I am? I'm the greatest playwright in Scandinavia!" To which the surprised guard replied, "Oh, I'm very sorry. I didn't recognize you, Mr. Ibsen - please, come right in!"

December 23, 2012 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

A forgotten bookmark of my very own


I'm a big fan of the blog Forgotten Bookmarks, in which bookseller Michael Popek shares ephemera found inside used books he has purchased for his store. That photo above is my own forgotten bookmark - that is, a bookmark I once used but had long forgotten. Inside my old copy of Knut Hamsun's Victoria, I was pleasantly surprised to find this ticket stub for a Blackhawks-Winnipeg Jets game I attended on November 11, 1990. (There's a moderately amusing anecdote about that game halfway down this lengthy blog post from two years ago.) The ticket stub is even more archaic in that Chicago Stadium (home of the Hawks for 65 years) was demolished in 1995, and the Jets abandoned Winnipeg to become the Phoenix Coyotes in 1996. (In a nice twist, the new owners of the Atlanta Thrashers moved that team to Winnipeg last year, and renamed them the Jets. To fully restore the franchise, the Jets now just need to again steal the Hawks' best player.)

December 23, 2012 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Varney the Vampire: A Literary Remix


I'm pleased to announce the publication of Varney the Vampire: A Literary Remix, a group project organized by GalleyCat. Here's the publisher's description:
"A crew of dedicated GalleyCat readers remixed a single page from Varney the Vampire-a bestselling vampire novel from the 19th Century filled with enough star-crossed romance, vampire action and purple prose to inspire another Twilight trilogy."
The ebook is free for downloading at Smashwords. My remix page is near the very beginning, under the heading "Varney X-Files by Peter Anderson." It should come as no surprise that my family has been re-watching the entire series run of The X-Files over the past year or so, and we're currently partway through Season Five. I had a lot of fun writing this homage to that great show.

December 21, 2012 in Books, Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

Beginning of the end

Herald News Office to Close as Sun-Times Targets 'Inefficiencies'

When it's no longer efficient to report local news from its source - the Joliet area - it no longer makes sense to keep the newspaper going as a discrete publication. Start saying your goodbyes to the Herald-News.

December 21, 2012 in Current Affairs, Joliet | Permalink | Comments (2)



This is one of several water-intake cribs on Lake Michigan, from which Chicago and many suburbs get their drinking water. The cribs were built three miles from shore, primarily to adequately dilute the pollution spewing from the Chicago River, which was an open sewer for decades. The water was (and still is) pumped to shore via underground tunnels.

My dad used to tell me than when he was a kid, the lake would freeze solid all the way to the cribs in winter, and it was possible to walk across the ice to the cribs. Though I didn't totally believe him - it sounded like a tall tale a father would be fond of telling - now I have visual proof. (Which is not to imply that my dad was a kid in 1875, when this photo was taken.) Forgive me for doubting you, Dad.

December 20, 2012 in Chicago Observations, History, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Reading at the end of the world

It just occurred to me that if the Mayan prophecy does come to pass on Friday [1], the world will end as I'm reading Studs Terkel and Knut Hamsun. Which is not a bad way to go.

[1] I'm not counting on it.

December 19, 2012 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Good Reading 2012

Interesting year in reading. Summer of Classics was a complete washout, but my reading was easily redeemed by two modern classics (The Remains of the Day and Lucky Jim), two typically strong novels from my very favorites (William Trevor and Kent Haruf), four good-to-great small press titles, Peter Orner's intriguing debut, and the pleasant surprise that Sinclair Lewis was a strong short-story writer, too. And I re-read more books this year than I had in many years, with only one dud.

1. Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day (Review)
2. Tom Williams, The Mimic's Own Voice (Review)
3. Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (Review)
4. William Trevor, Felicia's Journey (Review)
5. Joe Meno, Office Girl (Review)
6. Kent Haruf, Where You Once Belonged (Review)
7. Michael Czyzniejewski, Chicago Stories: 40 Dramatic Fictions (Review)
8. Ben Tanzer, My Father's House (Review)
9. Peter Orner, Esther Stories (Review)
10. Sinclair Lewis, Go East, Young Man (Review)

Honorable Mention: Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull-House (Review); Various Writers, Great Tales of City Dwellers (Review); Carl S. Smith, Chicago and the American Literary Imagination, 1880-1920 (Review)

Re-Reading: Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man; Tarjei Vesaas, The Ice Palace; James Joyce, The Dead; Knut Hamsun, Victoria; Jack London, White Fang; Richard Wright, Native Son

2011 List
2010 List
2009 List
2008 List
2007 List
2006 List
2005 List
2004 List
2003 List
2002 List

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

Indiana Jones and the Dead Letter Office

Mystery: Indiana Jones Mystery Package.

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

Milwaukee & Racine

Milwaukee racine

Charmingly shabby image of the corner of Milwaukee and Racine, 1958. I'm pretty sure those two toughs are up to no good. Here's a current view of that same intersection, which has been utterly condo'd beyond all recognition.

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

Spike, in sunlight


December 16, 2012 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

"I can't imagine any writer coming up with something that's pure character."

As I've mentioned many times, the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle is one of my favorite songwriters. To me, his songs are narratives that truly qualify as literature - it just happens to be literature in 3-minute segments that is set to music. (Of course, he's also a published author.) Here he talks to Willamette Week about creating characters in his songs.
Any character that you come up with is equal parts yourself or people you know, for the most part. Characters are in a large part yourself as you imagine yourself in lived situations. I can't imagine any writer coming up with something that's pure character. I think that's the most interesting thing about writers of science fiction. They're dreaming up people that are not human at all. But I think when you write, you end up talking about yourself and other people you know no matter how hard you try not to.
Though I shy away from fiction that is explicitly autobiographical, I also realize that most protagonists in fiction are based at least partly on the writer, and that only rarely is fiction purely fictional.

December 16, 2012 in Books, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...fiery nemesis of the impersonal, the imperial, the commercial, the cacophonous..."

Jeff Sypeck on the "applied medievalism" of Ralph Adams Cram.
Cram may decry utopians from Plato to H.G. Wells, but his Walled Town is itself the trite utopia of an architectural sketch: happy, faceless people strolling through pristine shopping malls or public squares, doing only what their designer envisions, never misusing, abusing, or defacing their earnest surroundings, freed by architects alone from the ugliness of human nature.
Indeed, I've had the impulse for a Walled Town of my own. There's a fifty-acre farm a few miles from here that is completely surrounded by subdivisions and commercial buildings. It's for sale, and would undoubtedly already be another subdivision had the real estate market not collapsed. If I somehow won Powerball - the selling price is a steep $3 million - I would quit my job, buy the property and become an organic farmer. (Never mind that I know nothing about farming - with a big Powerball jackpot under my belt, I could afford a protracted learning curve.) So I can sort of see where Cram was coming from, as comical as his ideas might sound today.

December 14, 2012 in Books, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

Daddy Cool. Cool?

Daddy Cool_Cover

I'm very pleased to announce the upcoming publication of my short story "Prague, Oklahoma" in Daddy Cool: An Anthology of Writing by Fathers For & About Kids, from Artistically Declined Press. The story is one of my Farm Security Administration photograph stories (collected in my unpublished chapbook This Land Was Made For You and Me) which, thanks to its father-daughter dynamic, is my favorite of the bunch.

I humbled to be part of the stellar roster of indie writers in the anthology: J.A. Tyler, Robert Duffer, bl pawelek, Seth Berg, Matthew Salesses, Mark Brand, Nik Korpon, Nathan Holic, Caleb Ross, Corey Mesler, CL Bledsoe, John Longstocking, Jason Fisk, Robert Arellano, Barry Graham, Chad Redden, Dave Housley, Dan Coxon, Jesse Jordan, Fred Sasaki, Ryan W. Bradley, and Ben Tanzer. The publisher is running a Kickstarter campaign to defray publishing costs, with tons of cool premiums offered. ADP is doing great work, so not only will your contribution bring you some fine swag, it will also keep a worthy indie press going. Double win.

December 14, 2012 in Books, Fiction | Permalink | Comments (1)

Polo Beer


I haven't posted any Joliet ephemera here in a long time, so here you go: a Polo Beer label from Pioneer Brewing, circa 1930s or 1940s. (Here's another Pioneer label that I posted earlier.) It would have been pretty incongruous, and even comical, drinking a bottle of Polo at some gritty neighborhood tavern, because back then Joliet was about as far from the polo-and-ponies set as you could get. Even more so than today.

December 14, 2012 in Ephemera, Joliet | Permalink | Comments (0)


"It is not given to every man to take a bath of multitude. Enjoying a crowd is an art."
- Charles Baudelaire

December 10, 2012 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)



I love the design of this personal bookplate of former British politician Clement Attlee. It would have been even more aesthetically pleasing if his initials weren't curved letters, but that's the fault of Attlee's parents, not the bookplate designer.

Bookplates, of course, are just one more charming thing lost with the rush to ebooks.

December 9, 2012 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

"...making the sad room dance..."

In this passage from The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas, eleven-year-old Unn has wandered deep inside a cavern of ice which has formed beneath a waterfall in far northern Norway.
The late, cold sun retained a surprising amount of its strength. Its rays penetrated thick ice walls and corners and fissures, and broke the light into wonderful patterns and colours, making the sad room dance. The icicles hanging from the ceiling and the ones growing up from the floor, and the water drops themselves all danced together in the flood of light that broke in. And the drops shone and hardened and shone and hardened, making one drop the less each time in the little room. It would soon be filled.

A blinding flood of light. Unn had lost all ties with everything but light. The staring eye had burned up, everything was light. She thought dully that there was an awful lot of it.

That strange mixture of beauty and danger is typical of the book as a whole. I first read The Ice Palace (or Palace of Ice, as my older edition is translated) over twenty years ago, and am really enjoying reading it again. The stark, frigid beauty of the narrative is exactly as I remembered it. I re-read Vesaas' The Birds a few years ago and loved it as well, so I think I'll be digging deeper into Vesaas' work (including his poetry) in the future. He's rapidly becoming one of my favorite Scandinavian writers.

December 9, 2012 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Hello, MacKinlay Kantor

This book sounds interesting: the Chicago-based novel Diversey, by MacKinlay Kantor, originally published in 1928.
Marry Javlyn, a promising young journalist from Clay City, Iowa, is enticed to Chicago by the opportunities for professional advancement that the city has to offer. Marry adjusts quickly to his new environment, establishing a liaison with Jo Ruska from across the hall; cultivating a friendship with Steve Gold, a local gangster; and playing politics to get a job in City Hall. Literally speaking, Diversey is the story of one man and the influences that the city has on his character. In a broader sense, it is the story of an entire segment of Chicago society - the segment which inhabits the streets, the Loop, the cabarets, the boardinghouses, City Hall, the elevated trains, and the newsrooms of that teeming metropolis. Kantor's first novel, Diversey has suffered the criticism commonly applied to the works of meritorious young novelists - too long, too ambitious, too tightly knit - but all critics agree that it is a well wrought story and a splendid impression of 1920s Chicago. (Book Review Digest, 1928, p. 418-9.)
Diversey is being reissued by local indie Fifth Star Press, which is focused on Chicago nonfiction and fiction. I hadn't heard of the book, author or publisher until just yesterday, but now all three are definitely on my radar.

December 7, 2012 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (2)

Chicago nightlife...

...as imagined by Ethel Spears...


...and as realized by the Minsky Brothers.


Though they were from different time periods (two or three decades apart), I would have loved to take in the show at Minsky's, followed by coffee at Spears' diner.

As a historical footnote, the Minsky ad announces a comedy act by Joe DeRita, who would later become the "Sixth Stooge", replacing Joe Besser as the third member (commonly known as "Curly Joe") of the Three Stooges, alongside Moe Howard and Larry Fine.

December 5, 2012 in Chicago Observations, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

Boy's gotta have it.


Drool. Though at a list price of $240 (plus $50 for refills), this boy won't be having it until he finally cashes in that $500 million Powerball ticket.

December 5, 2012 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...there was always that train..."

The journalist Vernon Jarrett grew up in western Kentucky. To him, freedom was represented by the railroad - that if one couldn't find "the American Dream" where they were, they could always hop a train headed somewhere else (usually north) which offered greater promise of opportunity and a better life. Jarrett is quoted at length in Studs Terkel's American Dreams: Lost and Found:
Country people used to go walking on Sunday afternoons. They go down to the depot to see who's comin' in and who's leavin'. Or just to see the train comin' in. The trains always symbolized mobility. Somebody goin' somewhere, somebody leavin'. We were always aware there was another place outside of this. Somewhere. That you could go anywhere...

In some parts of Mississippi it was a little rough because you had to sneak away. I learned from people who lived on the plantations, where you still had peonage, there was always that train. If push came to shove, you could go. If you in those little delta towns, the train was the symbol of where you could go to reclaim yourself as a man or become a woman.
As with all of Terkel's marvelous oral histories, I'm slowly working my way through American Dreams, reading just four or five pages each day and savoring every glimpse into people's private lives.

December 2, 2012 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...the words they labor to perfect..."

Jeff Sypeck passes along the story of a curious used bookstore find: a poetry collection by the Bulgarian poet Blaga Dimitrova, inscribed by the author to noted historian Daniel Boorstin. Jeff adds the following:
I don’t suppose we’ll ever know if Boorstin and Dimitrova genuinely liked each other, or if Dimitrova’s inscription represents anything but professional courtesy, but discovering it amid half a million moldering books makes clear how writers — and the words they labor to perfect — slip so readily into oblivion.
Books and writers do slip into oblivion, all too often. (That's one reason I actively seek out old books as much as I do.) But even more ephemeral, in the industry-fueled rush from print books to e-books, are intriguing snippets of connection between author and reader, such as Dimitrova's note to Boorstin. Or just between book-giver and recipient. Fifty years from now, will we still give gifts as books? And even if we do, will such personal messages be possible? These messages - just a few words jotted on a page near the front - connect readers across generations, a wonderful bridge to the past that I fear is slipping away.

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