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William Butler Yeats

As I wind down Irish March, I just started William Butler Yeats' poetry collection The Wind Among the Reeds. Here's an unusually sunny and upbeat selection:

When I play on my fiddle in Dooney,
Folk dance like a wave of the sea;
My cousin is priest in Kilvarnet,
My brother in Moharabuiee.

I passed my brother and cousin:
They read in their books of prayer;
I read in my book of songs
I bought at the Sligo fair.

When we come at the end of time,
To Peter sitting in state,
He will smile on the three old spirits,
But call me first through the gate;

For the good are always the merry,
Save by an evil chance,
And the merry love the fiddle
And the merry love to dance:

And when the folk there spy me,
They will all come up to me,
With 'Here is the fiddler of Dooney!'
And dance like a wave of the sea.

This poem, however, is much more typical of the collection:

O, curlew, cry no more in the air,
Or only to the waters in the West;
Because your crying brings to my mind
Passion-dimmed eyes and long heavy hair
That was shaken out over my breast:
There is enough evil in the crying of wind.

Lost love seems to have been one of Yeats' obsessions, and usually involving a woman with rich, flowing hair.

March 29, 2013 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Life is hard by the yard, son. But you don’t have to do it by the yard. By the inch it’s a cinch."

(Photo by Art Shay.)

My hero Nelson Algren was born on this date, in 1909. (That photo above is one of my favorites of his, as he holds the typed manuscript of Chicago: City on the Make in his Wabansia Avenue apartment.) He's my hero despite his many failures, both personal and artistic; it's that imperfection that makes him so gritty and real to me, giving me the feeling that I knew the man even though he died long before I ever discovered his writing.

March 28, 2013 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tom Boerwinkle


Sad: former Bulls center Tom Boerwinkle has passed away, at age 67.
"He was a great teammate with a heart of gold," Love said. "And I always tell people: Half of my baskets came from him. He's one of the best-passing big men of all-time."
Boerwinkle was a mainstay of the Bulls when I first became a fan, anchoring the middle for one of the greatest lineups to never win an NBA title: Boerwinkle, Bob Love, Chet Walker, Jerry Sloan and Norm Van Lier.

March 28, 2013 in Chicago Observations, Sports | Permalink | Comments (0)

"And I started thinking again."

This is pretty wonderful: a teenager's letter to Cory Doctorow, thanking him for his book Little Brother and how it changed his life.
After (and during) the reading of Little Brother the haze had lifted and was replaced by an energetic excitement that jumpstarted my brain to life. My neurons hummed like lawnmowers. A refreshing feeling of urgency and eagerness surged through me-- a feeling I’d not experienced since being eight years old on Christmas. And I started thinking again.
When you're writing, it's easy to feel isolated and that your work - while personally rewarding - doesn't matter much to anyone else. It must be an incredible feeling to have someone tell you otherwise, like this kid did.

March 27, 2013 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Excerpt from Wheatyard

This week's Wheatyard excerpt, from chapter six.
He paused and fished a piece of Bazooka bubble gum from the depths of his coat pocket. Opening the wrapper, he unpeeled the comic inside, reading it with a thoughtful look as he popped the gum into his mouth and began to chew. He grinned to himself, some idea clearly having occurred to him, and carefully tucked the comic back into his pocket. I immediately wondered if some future story of his would include Bazooka Joe as a character.
Publication date is five weeks from today. Still doesn't quite seem real.

March 26, 2013 in Wheatyard | Permalink | Comments (0)

Welcome to glamorous Westmont

Julie and I recently noticed an interesting phenomenon while driving through the western suburbs: the long stretch of luxury car dealers on Ogden Avenue in what is mostly a middle class area - primarily Westmont and to a lesser extent Clarendon Hills and Downers Grove. Most of the high-end makes are represented: Bentley, Lamborghini, Porshe, Mercedes, BMW, Infiniti. Our guess is that the rich people of Oak Brook, Hinsdale and Burr Ridge refuse to allow something as tawdry as a car dealership within their village limits, thus forcing dealers to set up shop in the next town over, where they rub elbows with considerably more prosaic neighbors. Thus, Bentley of Downers Grove is directly across the street from this underwhelming site, and the palatial Lamborghini Chicago (actually in Westmont) is next door to a strip mall with a nail salon, yoga studio and wheelchair dealer.

March 25, 2013 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

Forgotten bookmark


I've enjoyed the blog Forgotten Bookmarks for several years now, and was pleased to recently discover a forgotten bookmark on my own. The slip of paper shown above was found in a 1988 reissue of J.P. Donleavy's The Ginger Man by Atlantic Monthly Press, and came from the desk of the publisher's publicity director, Laurence Hughes. Presumably this was a review copy of the book, and the informational slip was sent along with the book to the reviewer.

If this sort of thing actually interests you, here's my first forgotten bookmark find. Though that first one was originally planted in the book by me. It's much more fun to find the ones from strangers - I'm still hoping to find something as grand as the ones Michael Popek shares at Forgotten Bookmarks.

March 25, 2013 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

What I'm writing

I haven't done one of these updates in a long time, what with all the flurry of activity around Wheatyard. But I've been making slow progress on my story collection Where the Marshland Came to Flower. The hand edits of the fourth draft are now done, and I'm gradually typing them up. (Maddie and I have been sharing my Macbook ever since her HP laptop crapped out, and since she needs that for school during the week, I've only been able to type up edits on weekends.) I have six stories updated so far, most of which involved just changing stray words here and there. But the next story, "Regular" (set in the Morgan Park neighborhood), will take a lot longer to update. After getting some great feedback from Ben Tanzer, I junked the entire first half of the story and rewrote it from scratch. The junked scene was previously way too obvious and blunt in delivering its message, and while the setting remains the same (an Irish corner bar on the southwest side of Chicago), the dialogue and action has been completely rewritten, and is now (I think) much more subtle and natural.

This fourth draft is about a month away from being finished, after which I might send it out to one more reader. Meanwhile, I'm starting to scout out potential publishers. I just hope getting Wheatyard in print will open up more doors, and Marshland won't be as difficult a sell as the novella was. I'd rather be writing than selling, and I'm already mentally sketching out my next book (actually, "books").

March 25, 2013 in Fiction, Marshland | Permalink | Comments (0)

From stable to chop house to coffee house


This is fantastic: Asado Coffee is opening a coffee roaster and cafe in the Pickwick Stable, a wonderfully obscure and out-of-the-way building that survived the Great Chicago Fire. The building is at the end of a gated alley on Jackson just west of Wabash, and is completely enclosed by the surrounding buildings. (It's the darkened square at the center of this satellite image.) It's also tiny - each of the three floors is only 19' square, which means the entire building is only 1,083 square feet. I first heard about the building last year and have been fascinated by it ever since. I can't wait to have coffee there, likely on a regular basis.

(Via Gapers Block.)

March 21, 2013 in Chicago Observations, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

"I’ve written a book," you say. "Now how do I get published?"

I wrote a lengthy column, "'I’ve written a book,' you say. 'Now how do I get published?'", over at Contrary which relates the publishing odyssey of Wheatyard and offers some advice to aspiring writers. Actually, when you consider that's my first column there since August, I guess the column isn't that long after all, at least on a per-month basis.

March 20, 2013 in Books, Wheatyard | Permalink | Comments (0)

Having a catch


Love this 1953 photograph by Gordon Parks, especially how it echoes (unconsciously?) Henri Cartier-Bresson's classic "Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare". (Based on how all the boys are bunched together, I can't help wondering if they're playing a game of 500.) Parks was quite the Renaissance Man: FSA photographer, poet, composer and, of course, director of Shaft.

March 19, 2013 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

De Quincey, the scholarly addict

Very interesting piece here at Lapham's by Colin Dickey about English writer Thomas De Quincey, best known for Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. I first became aware of De Quincey via Jane Addams' Twenty Years at Hull-House, and have been meaning to read Confessions ever since. I already have it downloaded on my phone but haven't yet dived in; I'm now thinking instead that if I want to do a serious reading of the book I should pick up a decent used copy from somewhere.

March 19, 2013 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Excerpt from Wheatyard

Teaser from chapter five of Wheatyard...
Mullen's Tap was a bar and, as I saw from a glance at the digital clock on the microwave, it was only 10:15 in the morning. My reluctance to accept such an offer from Wheatyard was fully justified. But his tone was amiable, carefree, as if he had already forgotten my brazen empathy with readership- and profit-obsessed editors a few days before. Maybe I was being given the chance to reconnect, to study him further.
Publication date (April 30) is now just six weeks away! I should be getting my first look at the cover art either this week or next. When I do, then all of this will finally start to feel real.

March 19, 2013 in Wheatyard | Permalink | Comments (0)

So cool.


A 1930s tile facade for a long-gone hamburger stand, revealed during renovation of a former Mexican restaurant. I'll have a burger. Oh, hell, I've got ten cents - give me two.

March 19, 2013 in Chicago Observations, History | Permalink | Comments (2)

The Distressed Poet...or Reader...or...


I love this painting by Hogarth, called "The Distressed Poet." I can totally sympathize with the poet's frustration over his concentration being destroyed by chatter. I felt the same way on my train, when either writing or reading, before Metra blessedly instituted their Quiet Cars which I've religiously ridden in ever since.

(Image via Better Living Through Beowulf.)

March 17, 2013 in Art, Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


Wow: Russian author Mikhail Shiskin has refused to be part of his country's official delegation to this year's Book Expo America.
A country where power has been seized by a corrupt, criminal regime, where the state is a pyramid of thieves, where elections have become farce, where courts serve the authorities, not the law, where there are political prisoners, where state television has become a prostitute, where packs of impostors pass insane laws that are returning everyone to the Middle Ages—such a country cannot be my Russia. I cannot and do not want to participate in an official Russian delegation representing that Russia.
Brave man, though I suspect Putin will make his life considerably less comfortable in the days ahead. While the author currently makes his home in both Zurich and Moscow, he'll probably be spending a lot more time in Switzerland soon.

March 14, 2013 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)



This week I was pleased to discover that my office building stands on the former site of the Chicago recording studio of pioneering jazz label Okeh Records, where Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five cut all of their sides. Alas, my building only dates to 1987, so Satchmo's spirit doesn't exactly stalk the halls. And I haven't been able to find a photo of the old building.

March 14, 2013 in Chicago Observations, History, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Garfield Ridge


Sometimes train delays are good things. Yesterday morning my train was stopped for several minutes on the southwest side, in the Garfield Ridge neighborhood, which gave me time to fully take in the scene outside. A dusting of snow had partially covered this vacant industrial lot, which used to be a car junkyard but was recently cleared and graded, for some unknown purpose. I couldn't decide how to best describe the scene; at first, the snow mixed with the dark soil reminded me of powdered sugar on chocolate cake, but as I gazed longer the table-flat lot ringed with wild grasses looked almost like a lake. And obviously, the cake and lake versions are impossible to reconcile. Fortunately, images often succeed where words fail, and this photograph describes the scene more vividly than I can in writing.

March 13, 2013 in Chicago Observations, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Excerpt from Wheatyard

Another Wheatyard paragraph, this time from chapter four.
All of that was moderately interesting, but I was already right in the middle of his strange little world — drinking coffee on a ninety-degree day in a trenchcoat, talking over the boisterous Kierkegaard conversation at the next table between two scruffy college lifers, the incomprehensible manuscripts and that decaying ranch house out in Tillsburg — and I wanted to know more about that, to make sense of it all. The fictionalized life of a Hardee's cashier in upstate New York seemed trivial in comparison. For me, that life was unreal, imagined, while the enigma sitting across the table from me was real, perplexingly real.
In case it slipped your mind, Wheatyard is out on April 30, from Kuboa Press.

March 12, 2013 in Wheatyard | Permalink | Comments (0)


Leeches1  Leeches2  Leeches3

I received a review copy of David Albahari's Leeches a few years ago, and after reading the jacket copy the book sounded interesting, so I put it on my shelf for future reading but then mostly forgot about it. The other day I took the book down again and finally paged through it. Check out the photos above, from three different sections of the book. Anything look strange to you? That's right - no paragraph breaks. In fact, the entire book is a single, uninterrupted, 309-page paragraph. And with no quotation marks on any of the dialogue. Why the hell would somebody write something like this? Okay, maybe you can pass off the writing as artistic self-indulgence, but why would any publisher (presumably more clear-headed and practical) publish it? I know it's hard to differentiate yourself in a very crowded market for literature, but if you create something as convoluted as this to set yourself apart, and make it so difficult to read, what's the point? Knowing the endurance required to read something like this, and respecting my fellow commuters enough to spare them from having a book flung in their direction, I definitely won't be reading this one.

March 6, 2013 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Boy's gotta have it.


What a fantastic bit of local ephemera: a tape box cover from Chicago's Universal Recording Studios, circa 1960. Music-related, vivid artwork, and a Bertrand Goldberg-designed building that still stands. What's not to love?

March 6, 2013 in Art, Chicago Observations, History, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

The lost West Fork


I never cease to be amazed by facts that I gradually discover about Chicago. The latest: there used to be a West Fork of the Chicago River on the southwest side of the city, running west from the South Branch at Damen Avenue, all the way to the city limits and beyond, finally emptying into the Des Plaines River near the towns of Lyons and Forest View. In the Rand McNally map from 1910 shown above, the West Fork is the dark curvy line above the parallel lines of the Sanitary and Ship Canal ("Drainage Canal") and the Illinois & Michigan Canal. The West Fork was basically made obsolete by the Sanitary Canal (which was fully completed in 1922), and was filled in during the late 1920s. The only obvious traces of the West Fork today are several diagonal property lines (between California Avenue and St. Louis Avenue) which once ran along the river's banks.

The West Fork's current obscurity is somewhat strange since, as Libby Hill notes here in The Chicago River: A Natural and Unnatural History, the fork is the reason Chicago first came to exist, as it was the only waterway link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. Because of the fork, voyagers could travel almost entirely by water, with only a short overland portage required at the fork's western terminus, before continuing on to the Des Plaines, the Illinois River and ultimately the Mississippi.

March 5, 2013 in Chicago Observations, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

Excerpt from Wheatyard

Another week, another excerpt from Wheatyard.
Or maybe I was just desperate, trying to figure this guy out, and read too much into it. Maybe Marilyn and Ahab and a bloodthirsty hawk were really nothing more than Marilyn, Ahab and a bloodthirsty hawk; maybe, as the old joke went, a cigar was just a cigar. Maybe Ahab and Long John Silver were mere homages to beloved boyhood seafaring tales. Maybe Wheatyard was just toying with all of us, presenting a cast of characters so audacious that overeducated readers like me couldn't help grasping for metaphors.
As I've mentioned before, and will mention many times more, Wheatyard comes out on April 30 from Kuboa Press.

March 5, 2013 in Wheatyard | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tournament of Books, for better or worse

The Tournament of Books is back again, with three acclaimed Iraq War novels engaged in a play-in to reach the regular round of sixteen. In an inspired choice, the books are judged by Nathan Bradley, "an active-duty Army officer and writer", who obviously has unique insight into the inner workings of the military while also knowing his way around the printed page and what makes good writing.

Thing is, I wish the ToB was as inspired in its choice of contestants. For the most part, it's the same bunch of big-house books and writers that everybody in the literary fiction world has already been talking about/hyping incessantly over the past year, with the only real surprise being Chris Ware's odd graphic collection Building Stories. I haven't read any of the contestants, and have little interest in any of them other than Alice Munro's latest story collection. (My wife, however, read and loved Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, which I expect to reach the finals.) And I'm also saddened to see ToB all but jump the shark, adopting corporate behemoth Barnes & Noble as sponsor instead of beloved indie Powell's. (A full shark-jump, of course, would involve Amazon.)

Still, I know I'll avidly follow along. It's rare these days to have such an enthusiastic, communal discussion of literature, especially one that unfolds in real time, so even if the books do little for me at least I'll enjoy the proceedings.

March 4, 2013 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"I want to see Egan reach for the revolver in the worn leather case, and Conroy take the handcuffs from the glass dish."

"Hunting Human Game" is an odd little piece by Frank Norris, the author best known for the muckracking novels The Octopus, McTeague and The Pit. It tells the true story of a fugitive killer from Australia and the authorities who await his arrival by ship in San Francisco. It starts as straight third-person reportage, then introduces the writer into the story as he waits with the lawmen in rented rooms along the wharf.
I remember that the room was warm. That there were pictures of barks and brigs about the walls, that a pair of handcuffs were in a glass dish on the top of a dresser, and that, lying in a cubby hole of a desk, was Detective Egan’s revolver in a very worn case. The detectives impressed one as positively jolly.
That setting description is just marvelous - I can totally picture it in my mind - and yet, despite all that narrative buildup, the conclusion of the story is totally ambiguous. The writer isn't present at the killer's arrest and, in fact, at the end the arrest hasn't even happened yet. Instead of a first-person account of the climatic drama, Norris imagines it happening. Not quite journalism, not quite fiction. Unique.

As a side note, I've been going back and forth over what to read for my Summer of Classics. I've thought about reading modernists like Hemingway and Faulkner (both of whom I've sorely under-read), then instead I've considered going all the way back to the likes of The Odyssey and Dante's Inferno. But now, after reading this, I'm thinking about realist American fiction of the early 20th Century, specifically The Octopus (which has been on my to-read shelf for many years) and Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons. I probably won't decide for sure which direction to take until, oh, May 29th. No hurry or anything.

March 4, 2013 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)


"Of course the rough draft is always a ghastly mess bearing little relation to the finished result, but all the same it is the main part of the job." - George Orwell

March 3, 2013 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...trailing clouds of glory do we come..."

At Better Living Through Beowulf, Robin Bates writes a lovely reflection on childhood and his grandchildren, within the context of Wordsworth's "Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood."
But I also think of them differently than Wordsworth. It’s as though the poet cares more about himself than about the children he is watching. When he laments that they will grow up as he did, it is William that he mourns for.

Whereas when I am watching Esmé and Alban, I don’t see a loss but a building towards something. They are learning machines, absorbing everything around them, and I imagine what they might do with that knowledge, just as I remain excited by what their fathers are doing with their knowledge.
Those, I suspect, are some very lucky grandkids.

March 1, 2013 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)