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Happy Halloween!


Nothing says "creepy Halloween art" quite like Arthur Rackham's fantastic wraparound cover illustration for Poe's Tales of Mystery & Imagination, which I'm enjoying this week. Boo!

October 31, 2013 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"There's a bit of magic in everything, and then some loss to even things out." - Lou Reed

October 29, 2013 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Poe in October

This Halloween week, I'm tempting fate and reading an Edgar Allan Poe story every night, right before bed. (Tempting fate, because when I first read "The Premature Burial" back in college, also right before bed, it freaked me out so much I was awake half the night.) Last night, it was "The Tell-Tale Heart".
It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture - a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees - very gradually - I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.
A warped motive indeed, and yet just a few sentences later the narrator denies he's a madman. This story is so tightly wound, so visceral in its mania, that it's probably my favorite Poe story ever. It's relatively short for a Poe story, with only a minimum of the florid Victorian wordiness that Poe often succumbed to. The conciseness of the prose illustrates the narrator's madness so vividly - more words would have dampened the impact.

"The Tell-Tale Heart" was also the first Poe story I ever encountered. My wonderful fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Murphy, read it aloud to our enraptured class. I don't know many other teachers who would do likewise for a bunch of overstimulated fourth-graders, but he never underestimated us. He even read Shakespeare to us, at length, and Beowulf. He was one of the very best teachers I ever had.

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


"But we can’t cut ourselves off from writing about—which is another name for being intensely curious about—other people because it’s hard. And we can’t let gender or race or anything else get in the way of the work we have to do—as human beings—imagining the lives of other human beings. How could we? Sure, we’ll fail. That’s the whole point. But worse not to try. It would mean more disconnection than actually exists" - Peter Orner

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


"Crimes can be redeemed, but nothing saves you from mediocrity."
- Juan Villoro

October 27, 2013 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Ben Tanzer, Orphans

As always, I'm never objective about any of my great friend Ben Tanzer's books, so please take this review with as many grains of salt as you wish.

What struck me most about Orphans is that while so much here is familar - the narrative voice that is totally Ben's, along with most of his usual preoccuptions, including marriage, fatherhood, belonging, loss, work, love, sex, rock and roll, physical release and, yes, chemical stimulants - he has translated that voice and those preoccupations into a futuristic dystopia. That familiar voice is somehow comforting even as it describes a dying world of societal and economic collapse, environmental degradation and brutal class divisions. In this dystopia, Ben's usual preoccupations are dramatically amped up, transformed from a state of simple existential angst to the very survival of his protagonist. The stakes here are so much higher than his realist fiction, and the outcome much more emphatic.

The Orphans dystopia is vivid and menacing. Society is run by a single omnipotent Corporation, which exploits workers until they are no longer useful, after which they are cast aside. An elite social class lives in luxury while the vast multitudes hustle and scrape to survive. Black helicopters patrol the skies, dispersing and even killing anyone who dares to congregate on the streets. Hordes of the unemployed, still wearing their business suits, wander about, desperately imploring the fortunate employed for work. The inner city, while still maintaining a veneer of normalcy, is increasingly threatened by an ever-encroaching wilderness. And the dwindling middle class, represented by the protagonist Norrin Radd, is tolerated by the Corporation while their skills are still needed; in Norrin's case, his powers of persuasion are vital in selling real estate on the rapidly colonizing Mars to the elites who are increasingly desperate to escape Earth before society completely collapses.

As fascinating as the setting is, though, all of it is backdrop to the story of Norrin, his relationship with his wife and young son, and especially the quandry he faces in balancing his family life with his career. Does he do whatever the Corporation demands of him, including months-long business trips to Mars, to provide for his family, or does he try to somehow make a living at home and spend as much time with his family as he can? While he thinks (or merely hopes) that he has that choice, over time he comes to realize that yielding to the Corporation is all he can do in order to survive.

An important aspect of this career-versus-family struggle is the Terrax, one of most interesting elements of the narrative. In his past books, Ben's male protagonists often compare themselves to an impossible ideal of what they believe a man, husband or father should be, inevitably falling far short of their expectations. When this ideal is just imagined and intangible, falling short of it is something these men can live with; they may not be satisfied with themselves, but they can still get by. But in Orphans, falling short of this masculine ideal results in something much more tangible and dramatic, because of the Terrax.

The Terrax is an essential cog in the book's society, a jack-of-all-trades robot that does most of the dirty work, with the Corporation finding them to be more reliable than human employees for mundane tasks. Some Terraxes are even programmed to be substitutes for interplanetary workers like Norrin, whose bodies and personalities are replicated in a Terrax, which serves as a surrogate husband and father in the worker's family while he's away. The Corporation has found that this makes the family happier during the worker's absence, which in turn creates a more focused and productive worker. But while this may be good for Norrin's family, it's not good for him personally, as he's already full of insecurities and doubts about how good a family man he is, again measuring himself against an impossible ideal. Norrin grimly sees his Terrax as the perfect version of himself, one he can never measure up to. In the Terrax he has a very real rival, though a rival more in his own mind than to his family, who clearly recognize the differences between Norrin and his Terrax, and prefer the real thing. The presence of his Terrax, along with his insecurities and the Corporation's increasingly unreasonable demands, ultimately drives Norrin to make a critical, fateful decision. Which, in retrospect, is probably the only choice he could have made.

Orphans is both familiar and yet unprecedented in the context of Ben's earlier work, a thought-provoking meditation on the struggle between family and career, all of it told through a brisk, often thrilling story. Very well done.

October 25, 2013 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Stearns Quarry


It's pretty astounding that this 400-foot-deep hole once existed in the middle of a busy city neighborhood on the Southwest Side. If you look at the lower edge of the quarry in this photo, you can see there were houses right across the street. The quarry still exists (though, I assume, at much shallower depths) and has been redeveloped into Palmisano Park.

October 24, 2013 in Chicago Observations, History | Permalink | Comments (1)

"...when the possibility of endless fear and confusion is still muted and tamped down..."

From Ben Tanzer's forthcoming novel, Orphans:
"You will soon be asleep," the voice continues, making love to me and wrapping me in warmth and joy.

Sedatives are wonderful, but this is about more than sleep, it's also about nourishment and replenishment, and drugs alone can't guarantee that, hence the voice.

The voice is female, the voice of the lover, the wife, the object of desire, affection and need, and ultimately the mother, everyone's mother who ever lived. The first voice you hear upon entering the world, a time when everything is possible, when love is pure, and when the possibility of endless fear and confusion is still muted and tamped down, because at that moment, and at this moment, it doesn't have to be that way.

"Close your eyes. Think good things, happy things," the voice says.
I'm halfway through my second reading of the book, and mentally formulating a formal review. Very good read. Plenty to think about.

October 18, 2013 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Clearly, there's no accounting for taste.

Of the 74 books that I've rated five stars on Goodreads, 35 have an average user rating of four or lower; interesting to note how widely my opinion often varies from the average reader. Below are the 35 books, with the average rating in parentheses.

Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels (3.50)
Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project (3.55)
Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt (3.59)
Art Spiegelman, In the Shadow of No Towers (3.65)
Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (3.67)
William Trevor, The Story of Lucy Gault (3.68)
Sinclair Lewis, Main Street (3.71)
John Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer (3.71)
James Meek, The People's act of Love (3.72)
Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis (3.72)
Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses (3.76)
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (3.79)
Ian McEwan, Atonement (3.81)
Stephen Elliott, Happy Baby (3.82)
Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener (3.84)
William Trevor, A Bit on the Side (3.84)
Par Lagerkvist, Barabbas (3.84)
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (3.85)
James Joyce, Dubliners (3.86)
Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild (3.86)
Jack London, To Build a Fire (3.89)
Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (3.91)
Kent Haruf, Plainsong (3.91)
Knut Hamsun, Pan (3.92)
O.E. Rolvaag, Giants in the Earth (3.92)
Cormac McCarthy, The Road (3.93)
Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm (3.93)
W.P. Kinsella, Shoeless Joe (3.94)
Nick Hornby, High Fidelity (3.94)
Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (3.96)
William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow (3.97)
Hjalmar Soderberg, Doctor Glas (3.97)
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (3.98)
George Selden, The Cricket in Times Square (3.99)
J.F. Powers, Morte D'Urban (3.99)

October 17, 2013 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Boy's gotta have it.


Yes. And not just because I list "Bartleby & Company" as my employer on Facebook. I'd love to bring this to staff meetings, and when the boss asks for volunteers, I'll say nothing as I raise the mug meaningfully to my lips.

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

Fading Ad: Chicago Reader


In a twist on the usual fading ad photos here, this ad is of fairly recent vintage. This building is the former longtime home of the Chicago Reader alternative newsweekly, at 11 E. Illinois Street, and the nicely understated ad consists of just the paper's distinctive backwards-R logo. Last year the paper moved its operations to the headquarters of its new sister company, the Chicago Sun-Times, a few blocks further west. Sadly, the ad probably won't survive long enough to achieve "fading" status; the building was sold for a hefty $5 million this summer, and the new owner will certainly be painting over the ad soon.

October 15, 2013 | Permalink | Comments (0)




Interesting find from our public library book sale: a 1960 collection of Thoreau's insights on nature and mankind. Having Thoreau distilled into a more digestible form (I liked Walden but thought it dragged and meandered too much) is nice enough, but I also really like the format. Though short in length (for which a publisher might have simply just settled for paperback), it's a compact hardcover with lovely illustrations opening each section. It's not particularly valuable (I've seen online prices starting at five bucks) but still a welcomed addition to my collection.

October 15, 2013 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"October is the month for painted leaves. Their rich glow now flashes round the world. As fruits and leaves and the day itself acquire a bright tint just before they fall, so the year near its setting. October is its sunset sky; November the later twilight." - Henry David Thoreau

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



Love this 1907 ad, which apparently appeared in Chicago theater programs. (I wonder how many people waited until the show was over, and how many snuck out for a quick nip during intermission.) Wonderful graphics, but oh, such shoddy punctuation: the incorrect usage of "it's", and the accent mark placed above the S instead of the E in "cafés."

October 11, 2013 in Chicago Observations, Ephemera, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

"It’s just so easy to take things back..."

Lavinia Ludlow consents to TNBBC's "Would You Rather" interview. I particularly like this response.
Would you rather give up your computer or pens and paper?
Easy. Computer. I still draft everything with college rule lined paper and a mechanical accounting pencil. This makes for a nightmare when I have to transition everything to a word doc but I feel handwriting my drafts forces me to commit and worry about revisions later. It’s just so easy to take things back when they’re on a computer screen.
I'm the same way, though I use pen instead of pencil. I'm glad to realize that I use the manual process to "commit and worry about revisions later", and not just because I'm some sort of Luddite. My own Would You Rather interview should appear a few months from now.

October 10, 2013 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"There is justice, hardly poetic, in the way I find myself tied up in destiny with millions of people when what I want most is to be separated from them." - J.F. Powers, while imprisoned for refusing military induction during World War II

October 8, 2013 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fading Ad: A. Sulka & Company


Here's a different kind of fading ad. At the former Chicago branch of luxury clothier A. Sulka & Company at Madison Street and Michigan Avenue, the company name was affixed onto the building with some sort of raised script lettering. The signage must have been there for quite some time, because after it was removed, the years of weather left an outline of the lettering on the building. Nice little relic.

October 8, 2013 in Chicago Observations, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...a not exactly religious commercial practice..."

Pete Hamill, on J.F. Powers:
"He has etched curates and monsignors dueling for the favors of a bishop; old pastors outfoxing young assistants; bored bishops made uncomfortable by the zeal of young priests. His theme is almost always the conflict between the true religious spirit and a not exactly religious commercial practice, and his heroes are men - not saints or devils."
I'm halfway through Powers' Morte D'Urban, which won the National Book Award in 1963. I'm enjoying the novel quite a bit, particularly the tug between the spiritual and the worldly, which is represented by many of the priests in the book to one extreme or the other, but with both extremes combined in the form of Father Urban, the protagonist. There are occasional echoes of Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry (an inevitable comparison, given both the subject matter and setting), although I find Powers' satire to be much more subtle, wry and effective than Lewis showed with Gantry, which often seemed more like a polemic than a novel.

October 7, 2013 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"I descended into Hell and brought back cheap beer in plastic cups." - Eric Lundgren, The Facades

Indeed, that sounds like Hell to me. The book is on my to-read list, though even though the hardcover has a lovely design I'm going to wait until it comes out in paperback.

October 7, 2013 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Step high, stoop low, leave your dignity outside."


Aimee Leavitt has a terrific piece, "The migration of the hipster", in the Chicago Reader which surveys the city's primary artist/bohemian/hipster neighborhoods since the end of the 19th Century. This quote, from an unidentified University of Chicago student, is nearly perfect:
"This is no place for a beatnik, and the weather is the principal reason. If you want to lie around like a beachcomber in Chicago, contemplating your navel and grumbling about the uselessness of it all, you're out of luck. It gets cold here in the winter time, and you might have to go to work. And that would spoil everything."
And I admire Leavitt's observation that Nelson Algren, while admittedly a Wicker Park hipster of the 1940s, probably would have beat the crap out of the wimpy Wicker Park hipster/musicians of the 1990s.

October 3, 2013 in Chicago Observations, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monadnock Building


Monadnock Building, west-facing wall, taken during the late afternoon from the tight confines of Federal Street. One of my favorite buildings in the city. Somewhere in the back of my mind is a novel about the office denizens of just such a building.

October 2, 2013 in Chicago Observations, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Joel Daly, actor?

Longtime WLS-TV anchorman Joel Daly, who retired in 2005, apparently is also a pretty good stage actor. He once played Atticus Finch in a stage version of To Kill a Mockingbird, and now he's been cast as Howard Beale for a new adaptation of Network.
"I think Paddy Cheyevsky was a wonderful commentator of his time," Daly says. Yet Network "says more about what television is today than it did in 1976. With all the reality TV and all the other things that didn't exist in 1976--TV's worse."
Fitzgerald was wrong: there are indeed second acts in American lives. I'm glad to see Daly is still doing well. He was always a favorite of mine.

October 1, 2013 in Chicago Observations, Television | Permalink | Comments (0)