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Wheatyard at Largehearted Boy

Book Notes is a long-running series at Largehearted Boy in which writers discuss music's role in their books, either as part of the narrative or as a soundtrack to the writing process. Given my passion for both literature and music, and being a big fan of the blog, today I'm totally stoked by the appearance there of my piece on the music in Wheatyard, specifically R.E.M, Morrissey, fIREHOSE, the Feelies and Guided by Voices. Before I started writing the piece, I thought music was only incidental to the narrative, but the more I thought about it, the musical references really reflect the main characters' personalities and subtly but meaningfully impact the plot. Many thanks to David Gutowski for accepting and running this piece.

May 31, 2013 in Music, Wheatyard | Permalink | Comments (0)

Afternoon coffee


View from inside of Cafecito, Wells Street, Chicago.

May 31, 2013 in Chicago Observations, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Short Story Month

Partly by accident, I ended up observing Short Story Month this year. During the first few days of May, after I finished Hair Lit Vol. 1 and started Patrick Michael Finn's From the Darkness Right Under Our Feet, somewhere online I read about it being Short Story Month. Realizing that, indeed, I had read nothing but short stories during May to that point, I decided to stick with stories for the rest of the month. Although those first two books were recent acquisitions, this month gave me the opportunity to finally dust off several older books that had been sitting on my shelf for quite a while: Knut Hamsun's Tales of Love & Loss, Matt Bell and Josh Maday's Dancing on Fly Ash, and Jonathan Messinger's Hiding Out.

Hamsun is known almost exclusively as a novelist, which makes his early stories in Tales of Love & Loss an unexpected treat, as the young writer is witnessed exploring a variety of styles. Many of the stories also echo his classic early novels such as Hunger, Pan and Mysteries, while several others seem like sketches for much bigger stories that Hamsun never got around to writing. Bell and Maday's book is a self-published compilation of microfiction pieces (less than 100 words each) that originally appeared at their blog of the same name, where I first discovered and befriended both writers. And the debut collection from Messinger, a local literary entrepreneur (co-founder and editor of Featherproof Books, former books editor at Time Out Chicago and creator/host of the beloved Dollar Store reading series) is an entertaining series of tales of male adolescents and teenagers, along with adults who never quite grew up.

My reading habits are pretty disorganized and I rarely get involved with these big group things (I've never even done One Book, One Chicago), so doing Short Story Month was a rewarding experience, even if it was accidental.

May 30, 2013 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)



Joe Smith points to two of John Steinbeck's journal books: Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters and Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath. (Both of which I browsed heavily at a local cut-rate book store several years ago, without ever buying.) This weekend, now that the Wheatyard hubbub has begun to subside, I plan to finally start writing a new book, a novella which for now will have the working title Junk. (Not a reference to drugs, but to garbage.) I'm fascinated by the idea of writing a journal that records the progress of writing a novel, but it also occurs to me that such a project is largely the realm of fulltime writers like Steinbeck who have plenty of time on their hands. My spare time being limited, any time spent working on the journal is time taken away from the novel. And I'm already a slow writer as it is, so it looks like a comprehensive companion volume to Junk won't be happening.

May 29, 2013 in Books, Fiction | Permalink | Comments (1)


Years ago, while on a meandering drive through my native McHenry County, I came across a old steel bridge that spanned a railroad. (If you've read Wheatyard, this bridge partly inspired the creek scene from early in the book.) This was near Harvard, a town which once billed itself as "the milk capital of the world." Spray-painted on the bridge supports, amongst many other names and messages, was one that has stuck with me: "Milk City Madman."

That name still makes me smile, and I can't help wondering what that guy is like now, and how much "madness" he has retained. My guess is that he's now thick around the middle from too many weekend afternoons on the couch with sixpacks of Bud Light, and has four kids, a roof that needs repairs and, in the back of the garage, a snowmobile that hasn't been ridden in fifteen years. Just a hunch.

May 29, 2013 in Personal, Wheatyard | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...strains seraphic swells..."

Another clunker from The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse, this time from "The Feminiad" by John Duncombe (1729-86):
But hark! what Nymph, in Frome's embroidered vale,
With strains seraphic swells the vernal gale?
With what sweet sounds the bordering forest rings?
For sportive Echo catches, as she sings,
Each falling accent, studious to prolong
The warbled note of Rowe's ecstatic song?
This passage finally made me realize why I often struggle to read and comprehend the poems in this book: the awkward forcing of the verb to the end of the line ("...the bordering forest rings") to create a rhyme; the inverted noun/adjective ("strains seraphic") to create meter; the arcane references (Frome, Rowe) that might have been familiar to 18th Century readers but require an encyclopedia today. The poems just seem artificial, contrived and forced. Which, I guess, is why they're included in this book.

The editors are surprisingly kind to Duncombe, refraining from their usual snide remarks. Then again, what they mention most prominently is not his poetry at all, but the appearance of his likeness in a sketch by Joseph Constantine Stadler of Samuel Richardson reading one of his manuscripts to a gathering of listeners, as if that was the most prominent accomplishment of Duncombe's life. Maybe the lack of any comment on Duncombe's poetry is, in itself, a stealthy form of insult.

May 26, 2013 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Ideas are just ideas until you sit down and write..."

My great friend Ben Tanzer writes a wonderful review of Wheatyard at The Nervous Breakdown. Gracias, mi amigo.

May 24, 2013 in Books, Wheatyard | Permalink | Comments (0)

Strolling on Canal Street


I love this 1953 view of Canal Street, looking north from Fulton Street. I'm intrigued by the presence of the woman and child - back then the area was almost entirely industrial sites and railyards, and not exactly the ideal place for a stroll. All I can think of is that with the Chicago & North Western railroad station having been a few blocks from that corner, maybe the two had a layover between trains and the woman wanted the kid to burn off some nervous energy before getting on their next train.

Here is the current view from almost the exact same vantage point. The tall building in the old photo (North American Cold Storage) is just visible as a sliver at the left of the right-hand condo tower - the cold storage building itself was converted to condos during the 1990s. The industrial building on the west side of the street in the old photo is now Cassidy Tire, which is marked by red signage.

May 23, 2013 in Chicago Observations, History, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Reading Hornby on my honeymoon

Coudal Partners' Field Tested Books is a great series of essays in which readers discuss books they've read while on vacation, and how the books and locales impacted each other. The series just posted my essay which reflects on the experience of reading Nick Hornby's High Fidelity while on my honeymoon in Alaska, thirteen years ago. Many thanks to Steve Delahoyde for running my piece.

May 23, 2013 in Books, Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

I just started reading ________, because:

Matt Bell and Josh Maday, Dancing on Fly Ash: One Hundred Word Stories: Though I've already read many of these stories when they first appeared online, it's nice to have them in one place and read them all at once. (5/22/13) 

Knut Hamsun, Tales of Love & Loss: Hamsun is one of my favorite novelists, but I've never read any of his short stories, which he only wrote very early in his career. (5/10/13) 

Patrick Michael Finn, From the Darkness Right Under Our Feet: Despite its rich history, Joliet is almost totally unrepresented in fiction. This Joliet-based story collection might change that. (5/3/13) 

Various Writers, Hair Lit Vol. One: With so many writer friends contributing here, it would have been impossible not to read this. (4/26/13) 

Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping: Everybody calls this a modern classic, so I'm finally finding out for myself whether that's true. (4/15/13) 

Anton Chekhov, The Duel: I'm a sucker for Melville House's gorgeous novella series, and I've decided it isn't fair to judge the Russian Masters solely on my tepid response to Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment last summer. (4/5/13) 

Hans Keilson, Comedy in a Minor Key: I've heard really great things about this novella, and seeing that it's a short European dark comedy, I figured it was right up my alley - even though I might be unfairly conflating it with Bohumil Hrabal's Too Loud a Solitude, one of my favorite reads of the past few years.(4/1/13) 

William Butler Yeats, The Wind Among the Reeds: With Irish March winding down, I grabbed this collection off of Project Gutenberg, from a writer who is pretty much Ireland's all-time poet laureate. (3/29/13) 

Samuel Beckett, Endgame: I read this for Irish March, although the play isn't particularly Irish in character, and Beckett originally wrote it in French. (3/28/13) 

J.P. Donleavy, The Ginger Man: Another Irish novel for my annual Irish March. I hope the book is much better as a story than as a physical object, because my copy is a cheap-feeling 1988 reprint from Atlantic Monthly Press. (3/18/13) 

William Trevor, Cheating at Canasta : Every March I read nothing but Irish fiction, and the Irishman Trevor is one of my favorite writers, and certainly one of the finest short story writers ever. So this was a no-brainer. The only question is why I hadn't read it already. (3/7/13) 

Kurt Vonnegut, Armageddon in Retrospect: Vonnegut is Julie's favorite writer, and I greatly admire him as well. I picked this up a few years ago as a $5 remainder at B&N, and figured I should finally read it. And then dive into more of his novels. (2/27/13) 

Elizabeth Crane, You Must Be This Happy to Enter: Akashic sent me this as a review copy years ago, but though it's been near the top of my list it keeps getting nudged aside for other books. This year I've resolved to read more female authors (my track record there is pretty shameful), and Crane gets raves from many readers I greatly respect, so I'm finally diving in to this one.(2/17/13) 

Edward J. Rathke, Ash Cinema: Kuboa Press is publishing my first book, and since quality book design is very important to me, I bought this one (which sounds very interesting in itself) to see what the design looks like. And it looks great. (2/3/13) 

Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad: I've never read any Atwood, and thought it would be better to ease into her work with this short book (a retelling of the Odysseus and Penelope myth) before taking on Oryx and Crake. (1/28/13) 

Jeff Sypeck, Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles: Jeff is one of my favorite recent blogger discoveries, a medievalist who writes easily about the modern day. And this poetry project is particuarly inspired.(1/22/13) 

Ben Tanzer, This American Life: Ben is a great friend and great writer, so I'll read anything he puts out. Including his grocery list. (1/20/13)

Larry Brown, Joe: Kent Haruf called it a masterpiece, and Haruf is one of my favorite writers, so his word is more than good enough for me. (1/2/13)

May 22, 2013 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Fading Ad: Champlain Building


Walking down Wabash this afternoon, I was surprised to see this faded ad in the distance, a few blocks south on the opposite side of the street. I don't remember ever seeing it before, but I guess the El tracks block its view from most vantage points other than where I happened to be walking. The lettering is hard to make out, but I could just discern "Champlain" and "37", which I later found out was the Champlain Building, at 37 S. Wabash. Though the faded ad itself leaves much to be desired, I like the composition of this photo, particularly the contrast of the vertical columns of the buildings against the diagonals formed by the streetlights, tracks and windows.

May 21, 2013 in Chicago Observations, History, Photography | Permalink | Comments (2)

Summer of Classics

I still haven't made up my mind about this year's Summer of Classics, but right now I'm thinking about going totally old-school: The Poetic Edda, Homer's Odyssey and Dante's The Divine Comedy (or if not the whole thing, then at least Inferno). If that's the route I take, wish me even more luck than usual.

May 17, 2013 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Postage stamp story


This is so cool: an official Ireland postage stamp, with a 224-word story written by 17-year-old Eoin Moore. (Click on the above for a full-size image.) Although, strangely enough, his name doesn't appear on the stamp.

(Via GalleyCat.)

May 17, 2013 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...every last one of them some kind of villain..."

I love this brief passage from Knut Hamsun's short story "Zachaeus" (collected in Tales of Love & Loss, translated by Robert Ferguson), which describes the workers on a wheat farm in the Great Plains during the late 1800s.
There are all nations, all races, young and old, immigrants from Europe and native-born American wanderers, every last one of them some kind of villain living out his derailed existence.
That strikes me as kind of a twist on "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free", but instead of Emma Lazarus' poor, innocent victims, Hamsun's immigrants are scoundrels escaping their dark pasts. The story is one of the several in the collection inspired by Hamsun's brief time in America, as a young adult and before he established himself as a writer. I wish he had written more fiction like this that showed the struggles of Norwegian emigrants, along the lines of O.E. Rolvaag. But he abandoned short fiction early on, and focused entirely on novels for the rest of his career, setting most if not all of them in Europe. The collection is particularly interesting in how much the stories echo his classic early novels Hunger, Pan and Mysteries.

May 16, 2013 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


(Photo by Erik Kwakkel)

I had no idea such places still existed: chained libraries, virtually unchanged since the Middle Ages, in which all the volumes were chained to lecterns or shelves, which provided access to the public while protecting the volumes from theft. The image above is from the chained library in Zutphen, Netherlands, one of only three left (in their original state) in Europe. More on the libraries here. So beautiful.

May 14, 2013 in Books, History | Permalink | Comments (2)



My author copies of Wheatyard arrived yesterday. The finished book looks fantastic, and I couldn't be happier. My bulk shipment should arrive later this week.

May 8, 2013 in Wheatyard | Permalink | Comments (1)

At home with the Petries



I just love these two 1963 photographs by Earl Theisen, taken on the set of The Dick Van Dyke Show. I grew up on reruns of the show, and it's fascinating to see the oh-so-familiar Petrie living room and bedroom from these unfamiliar angles. It's also wonderful to see the genuine warmth between Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore in the second photo - I think I heard somewhere that during the show's heyday, a significant portion of viewers thought the two were married in real life. That's how convincing the actors were.

(Via Shorpy.com.)

May 6, 2013 in Photography, Television | Permalink | Comments (0)

Rantoul Fisher, meet Onarga Roberts

Driving down Interstate 57 from Chicago to Champaign-Urbana, the countryside is sparsely populated, and each exit sign shows the names of two towns. The towns are usually connected by whatever highway is at the exit, but are often so far away that they can't be seen from the interstate. This invisibility gives the towns an air of mystery that always appeals to me. Years ago, it also occurred to me that the paired town names could be interpreted as being the name of a single person. After realizing this, I pondered what each of these people did for a living. Here's what I came up with:

Bradley Bourbonnais: male stripper
Monee Manhattan: female stripper
Gilman Chatsworth: trust fund baby/playboy
Rantoul Fisher: environmentalist
Onarga Roberts: NFL nose tackle

Next time you're driving through farm country on an interstate, give this a try.

May 2, 2013 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (2)

"...in floods of rancid bile o'erflows..."

Another clunker from The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse, this time from John Armstrong (1709-79):
Advice to the Stout
The languid stomach curses even the pure
Delicious fat, and all the race of oil:
For more the oily aliments relax
Its feeble tone; and with the eager lymph
(Fond to incorporate with all it meets)
Coyly they mix, and shun with slippery wiles
The woo'd embrace. The irresoluble oil,
So gentle late and blandishing, in floods
Of rancid bile o'erflows: what tumults hence,
What horrors rise, were nauseous to relate.
Choose leaner viands, ye whose jovial make
Too fast the gummy nutrient imbibes.
In their introduction, Lewis and Lee wryly opine that Armstrong (a practicing physician) "enriched our heritage of English Poetry with a relentless analysis of the workings of the human stomach." I'm grateful that he never versified his noted prose work, Synopsis of the History and Cure on Venereal Diseases.

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



Joliet has a modest maritime connection, thanks to its location on the Des Plaines River between the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and the Illinois River. Any barges traveling from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi have to pass through Joliet. Above is an Egan Marine towboat docked on a river wharf, just south of the McDonough Street bridge.

May 1, 2013 in Joliet, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)