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"The Afternoon Party"


I'm very pleased to announce the publication of my piece "The Afternoon Party" in the debut issue of Goreyesque, an online journal devoted to new works inspired by the artist and writer Edward Gorey. My piece was inspired by Gorey's delightfully macabre "Thoughtful Alphabet" stories (26 words each, A to Z), and was really fun to write. My only regret is that Gorey isn't alive to illustrate my story; I can totally visualize the drunken socialite and the hapless guests flittering around her, but totally lack the necessary drawing skills to bring the story more vividly to life.

February 28, 2014 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (2)


"What greater cumulative toll the small irritations of life take than its major woes; if instead of the thousand perennial gnats a man could pay in one good snakebite."
- Peter De Vries

February 27, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...dressed for a walk in the country..."

I've just started to wade into William Maxwell's short story compendium, All the Days and Nights. I really admire this incisive yet almost offhand description, from "Over By the River", of the apartment building doormen of Manhattan's posh Upper West Side.

Doormen smoking a pipe and dressed for a walk in the country came to work after a long subway ride and disappeared into the service entrances. When they reappeared, by way of the front elevator, they had put on with their uniforms a false amiability and were prepared for eight solid hours to make conversation about the weather.

In just two sentences Maxwell presents two solid visual images (doormen in their informal and formal selves), the sacrifice they endure and implied economic disparity between themselves and their employer (long subway ride), and the false, empty drudgery of their jobs (chatting with tenants about the weather). Well done.

February 26, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Reading in Public: Chicago, 1964


It's been a long time since I updated my "Reading in Public" series (almost a year and a half now) so when this wonderful photograph came up on Calumet 421, I just had to add it. The photo was taken by Jay King on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, in 1964. Not only is this gentleman reading in public, but he's so engrossed by the book that not even walking can distract him; based on the posture of the couple behind him, it appears that he's standing on a corner, probably waiting for the walk light. I certainly hope he looked both ways before returning to his reading. And I wish I could tell which book this was.

February 24, 2014 in Books, Chicago Observations, Reading in Public | Permalink | Comments (0)


"The man does not remember the hand that struck him, the darkness that frightened him, as a child; nevertheless, the hand and darkness remain with him, indivisible from himself forever, part of the passion that drives him wherever he thinks to take flight."
- James Baldwin, "Many Thousands Gone"

February 24, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...a raging demon, slashing with his pen..."

In Black Boy, Richard Wright recounts how astounded he was, at seventeen years old, to first read H.L. Mencken.

I was jarred and shocked by the style, the clear, clean, sweeping sentences. Why did he write like that? I pictured the man as a raging demon, slashing with his pen, consumed with hate, denouncing everything American, extolling everything European or German, laughing at the weaknesses of people, mocking God, authority. What was this? I stood up, trying to realize what reality lay behind the meaning of the words...Yes, this man was fighting, fighting with words. He was using words as a weapon, using them as one would use a club. Could words be weapons? Well, yes, for here they were. Then, maybe, perhaps, I could use them for a weapon? No. It frightened me. I read on and what amazed me was not what he said, but how on earth anybody had the courage to say it.

Wright was able to read Mencken’s books only by stealth, as the Memphis public library of the 1920s didn’t check out books to black people. But reading Mencken’s literary criticism stokes a sudden passion in Wright to read the fiction of the previously unknown authors cited by Mencken, Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser in particular, and so he manages to check out more books from the library. He tears through the books and develops, if not quite empathy, then an awareness that struggle and inequality are not confined to African-Americans, and that progress and equality could be fought for with the weapon of words.

It had been my accidental reading of fiction and literary criticism that had evoked in me vague glimpses of life’s possibilities. Of course, I had never seen or met the men who wrote the books I read, and the kind of world in which they lived was as alien to me as the moon. But what enabled me to overcome my chronic distrust was that these books - written by men like Dreiser, Masters, Mencken, Anderson and Lewis - seemed defensively critical of the straitened American environment. These writers seemed to feel that America could be shaped nearer to the hearts of those who lived in it. And it was out of these novels and stories and articles, out of the emotional impact of imaginative constructions of heroic or tragic deeds, that I felt touching my face a tinge of warmth from an unseen light; and in my leaving I was groping toward that invisible light, always trying to keep my face so set and turned that I would not lose the hope of its faint promise, using it as my justification for action.

It’s interesting to note that the fiction writers revered by the young Wright were all Midwesterners, covering a broad swath from Minnesota to Ohio, while Wright dreams of leaving the racist repression of the South for the (relative) freedom and opportunity of the North, specifically Chicago. Although most of the characters of those novels were white, Wright seemed inspired by the lives they lived in the North, even though those lives themselves were often limited and inhibited. To Wright, even the constrained lives of Carrie Meeber and the common folk of Winesburg must have seemed preferable to what he faced in the South, and prodded him toward Chicago and its greater possibilities.

Black Boy is a lively and often gripping account of Wright's young life, which has given me a better understanding of the obvious rage that permeates the pages of his landmark novel Native Son. No author writes in a creative vacuum; everything they create is flavored by their past life experiences, and Wright is a clear example of that. The first installment of my latest Structured Reading effort is now complete, and I'm moving on to James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son.

February 22, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Henrici's at the Merchandise Mart


Now, that was a bar: the lounge of the Henrici's in the Merchandise Mart, which opened in 1948. (Not to be confused, however, with the Henrici's flagship location on Randolph Street.) The Merchandise Mart location was designed by James Eppenstein (the subject of this long feature at Forgotten Chicago, where I got the photo; scroll way down in the article for much more on this Henrici's), and that fantastic mural was by Frank Ruvolo. It almost makes me feel like I could slide onto a stool at that glorious curving bar and order an Old Fashioned. Sadly, all tangible vestiges of Henrici's are now long gone.

February 20, 2014 in Chicago Observations, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

The imaginary libraries of Old London



This is wonderful: British artist Adam Dant has created a series of illustrations that fancifully imagine old London as being full of arcane libraries. The illustration above is his "The Subterranean Bovine Archive," followed by a current photograph of the same street. (Note that the building on the left is identical in both the illustration and photo. The implication is that the newer buildings on the right in the photo were built on the site of the Archive.) More pairings are on display at Spitalfields Life, from Dant's new book, Bibliopolis: Imaginary Libraries in the City of London. The spirit of these illustrations, and especially the quirky names of the libraries, remind me of Ben Katchor's not-quite-New York City; "Library on a Pole" could easily have come, in more modernized form, straight from Katchor's pen.

February 19, 2014 in Art, Books, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

"This story will put your name before our readers."

Richard Wright published his first story in a black Mississippi newspaper, when he was fifteen years old. Here, in his memoir Black Boy, Wright relates the pivotal exchange between himself and the paper's editor.

   "Where's my story?" I asked.
   "It's in galleys," he said.
   "What's that?" I asked; I did not know what galleys were.
   "It's set up in type," he said. "We're publishing it."
   "How much money will I get?" I asked, excited.
   "We can't pay for manuscript," he said.
   "But you sell your papers for money," I said with logic.
   "Yes, but we're young in business," he explained.
   "But you're asking me to give you my story, but you don't give your papers away," I said.
   He laughed.
   "Look, you're just starting. This story will put your name before our readers. Now, that's something," he said.
   "But if the story is good enough to sell to your readers, then you ought to give me some of the money you get from it," I insisted.
   He laughed again and I sensed that I was amusing him.
   "I'm going to offer you something more valuable than money," he said. "I'll give you the chance to learn to write."

I like that "I said with logic." He may have been logical, but naively unrealistic. This happened in 1923, so apparently the "we're not paying you but doing you a huge favor" concept is nothing new. Presumably that editor wasn't working for free, yet he expected his writers to do so.

February 18, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

"...wan hoor o a yallicrack, boye!"

This is so cool: Shetland poet Jim Mainland's translations of poems of Les Murray, John Milton and Miroslav Holub into Shetland dialect, as well as one of his own poems. This is a portion of the Murray poem:

I wis a slester o lowin pent, lowsin
gowd an siller, cloorin een anidder,
an endin wi a rissenin, rid-tongued aze:
wan hoor o a yallicrack, boye!

Beautiful, even though I barely comprehend the words, even after speaking them aloud.

February 12, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Merchandise Mart, 1934


Love this gorgeous 1934 photograph looking east along the main branch of the Chicago River, with the Merchandise Mart on the left. The river was so placid at that moment that it almost looks like a reflecting pool, and not the open sewer it was back then.

February 10, 2014 in Chicago Observations, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...war minus the shooting."

George Orwell, on sports and nationalism.

As soon as strong feelings of rivalry are aroused, the notion of playing the game according to the rules always vanishes. People want to see one side on top and the other side humiliated, and they forget that victory gained through cheating or through the intervention of the crowd is meaningless. Even when the spectators don't intervene physically they try to influence the game by cheering their own side and "rattling" opposing players with boos and insults. Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.

I'm guessing he wasn't a big fan.

February 10, 2014 in Books, Sports | Permalink | Comments (0)


"I mistrust words, but I say the Agricultural Revolution took thousands of years; the Industrial Revolution took hundreds of years; the Information Revolution is taking only decades. If we use it, and use the brains God gave us, we may be able to pull this world together before the weapons (which foolish scientists have made possible) put an end to the human race."
- Pete Seeger (more Seeger postcards here)

February 6, 2014 in Current Affairs, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod?"

Sorry to be a pest about the Mountain Goats again, so soon, but I just came across this quietly devastating song, "Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod?"; although the song appeared on the album The Sunset Tree, this version was recorded in 2004 for a John Peel radio session. I've mentioned here before how literary John Darnielle's lyrics are. To me, this song is a tiny little novel, all in itself. Just listen to the words and I think you'll agree.

February 4, 2014 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)