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"Bring me only beautiful useless things."

Here's another dose of Carl Sandburg, from the "War Poems (1914-1915)" section of Chicago Poems:


[They picked him up in the grass where he had lain two
days in the rain with a piece of shrapnel in his lungs.]

Come to me only with playthings now...
A picture of a singing woman with blue eyes
Standing at a fence of hollyhocks, poppies and sunflowers...
Or an old man I remember sitting with children telling stories
Of days that never happened anywhere in the world...

No more iron cold and real to handle,
Shaped for a drive straight ahead.
Bring me only beautiful useless things.
Only old home things touched at sunset in the quiet...
And at the window one day in summer
Yellow of the new crock of butter
Stood against the red of new climbing roses...
And the world was all playthings.

May 30, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"I’m a deeply flawed human who is constantly trying to evolve and make my way through life."

My writer friend Ryan Bradley has a thoughtful interview up at Fictonaut.
People wouldn’t still be reading books if they didn’t enjoy them. And like it or not that base enjoyment isn’t a product of some deep analysis or high-minded relationship with humanity and the universe. No, it’s much more primal. Enjoying something that has “artistic merit” doesn’t make it any less a form of entertainment, it just means you’re attracted to different aesthetics than the people you think have “low-brow” tastes. We’re all seeking entertainment.
Sounds like he struggles with the same highs and lows about the worth of his writing that I do.

May 29, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...throw their laughter into toil."

I'm finally diving headlong into Carl Sandburg's Chicago Poems (1916), which I've owned for about ten years but have only dabbled in until now. I love his lean but muscular "Subway":
Down between the walls of shadow
Where the iron laws insist,
    The hunger voices mock.

The worn wayfaring men
With the hunched and humble shoulders,
    Throw their laughter into toil.
I can already sense some short fiction (or at least the weekly exercises I've been doing this year) arising from Sandburg's poetry, and from this poem in particular. Terrific stuff.

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


"Literature is not the same thing as publishing. Publishing is ever-nostalgic for a mythic golden age, one that existed before the so-called death of print, the Amazon factor, the rise of self-publishing, and the supposed decline of reading. Literature, as it is read and written, is indifferent." - Chris Fischbach

May 23, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Summer of Classics: Studs Lonigan

Reading Nelson Algren's personal remembrances of his South Side Chicago childhood (in Who Lost an American?) this morning has helped me decide on this year's Summer of Classics reading: James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy. The books are generally considered to be among the best Chicago fiction ever written, and though I've owned the Library of America three-in-one edition for about ten years (a self-requested Christmas gift), I've only read the first volume, Young Lonigan. I really enjoyed that book, though I remember few of the details now, so I'm going to start over and read the entire trilogy. As a proud Chicagoan and literature fiend, I'm somewhat embarrassed to have not read all of Lonigan yet.

Though you might think that reading just 1000+ pages over an entire summer is a rather unambitious goal for me, pretty soon I'm going to have drive to the suburbs for work every day, and will lose my prime reading time on the train. So a thousand pages might be even more than I'll accomplish. If I manage to finish Lonigan before the end of August, I'll close out the summer with George Ade's Artie, another once-acclaimed but now mostly-forgotten Chicago novel.

May 21, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Fading Ad: Schmitz & Gretencort


I strongly prefer to find fading ads on my own, finding much more pleasure in unexpected discovery than taking the shortcut of an Internet search. But yesterday, for some reason, I happened to google "ghost sign" (the more common term for fading ads) and "Joliet" and came across a Flickr photo of an ad in Rockdale, a tiny factory town that is almost completely surrounded by Joliet. I was surprised, as I had hunted in Rockdale in the past but hadn't found anything; apparently I must have always driven west down Moen Avenue, and thus missed seeing this west-facing ad.

Last night, after picking Maddie up from her guitar lesson, we swung down to Rockdale and found the ad, and that's my photograph above. Though the ad is in poor condition and hard to read, my knowledge of local history helped me immediately recognize the name "Schmitz & Gretencort", an old department store in downtown Joliet. (Here's an earlier blog post I did about the store.) There's additional wording above the name, the only clear part of which reads "The Boys." Oddly enough, the white van in the photo also appears in the exact same location in the Flickr photo. Possibly belongs to the owner, though, sadly, more likely a regular.

May 16, 2014 in History, Joliet, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

E.J. Brach



The photo at the top is an early home of E.J. Brach & Sons, on the northeast corner of LaSalle and Illinois, circa 1909. After seeing this online and, on a whim, doing a Google Street View of the address, I was delighted to see that the building is still standing. I took the lower photo today during my afternoon walk. Most of Chicago's once-thriving candy industry is now gone, so sadly this building now only houses nothing more unique than yet another Jimmy John's outpost, plus whatever happens to be upstairs.

May 15, 2014 in Chicago Observations, History, Photography | Permalink | Comments (1)

I've been published by Akashic!

...well, sort of. Their top blurb for Aaron Petrovich's The Session is taken from my review of the book, which appeared in the Chicago Reader in 2007. Good book, by the way - well worth your time.

May 15, 2014 in Books, Fiction | Permalink | Comments (1)

"...each drop of rain is a drop of regret..."

Like most of Nelson Algren's nonfiction, Who Lost an American? is almost compulsively quotable. Here's some untitled verse from the piece "Paris: They're Hiding the Ham on the Pinball King, or Some Came Stumbling":

I saw the girl with the black coiffure
Against a wall of the Rue Tiquetonne
Turning a parasol under her arm
And how the grass between the stone
Grows a brighter green on the Rue Tiquetonne,
For she stood less tall than the piled crates
When the clocks of St. Denis cried each to each -

A light rain (she told me)
Brings men to a room
A hard one keeps them home.
She did not say each drop of rain
Is a drop of regret on the Rue Tiquetonne.
For, buyer of peaches or buyer of flesh
You pay up your money and spit out the pit.

Peaches and girls both grow a light down
You don't touch either one without money down
What you don't have in money you can save in regret -
Maybe peaches are better. You can spit out the stone.

Seller of peaches or seller of flesh
Wish each other in Hell, then cheat on the weight.
The stair smells of soap and wine and old leather
That men climb to feel their deaths with pleasure -
Death costing little in such weather.

May 14, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Algren's dubious libations

I'm finally cracking open Nelson Algren's 1963 collection Who Lost An American?, which I picked up a few years ago in a first edition. In the leadoff piece, "New York: Rapietta Greensponge, Girl Counselor, Comes to My Aid", he includes a description of his preparations for a party he is hosting for New York literary society, on the eve of his departure on an overseas voyage.

If all that was needed for a successful Bon Voyage party was one clever move, I'd already made it by buying a gallon of sauterne for $2.98, putting under the soda recharger until it fizzed, and then pouring it into bottles labeled "Mumm's." Because if there was one thing I wanted my New York friends to have, it was the aura of success. I didn't wish them success itself - in fact, I longed passionately for the total ruin of them one by one - but I did want to arrange some sort of aura for them.

"How does a hack like that manage to serve champagne at all hours?" my New York friends often marvel. My Chicago friends don't bother with that. They just say, "Where'd you get that cheap wine?" and toss the remains of their drink in the sink. So much for bobsledding at Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

My next move was to snip whiskey ads of Scotsmen playing bagpipes and glue them onto old root-beer bottles, into which I poured the contents of a curious brew distilled on Amsterdam Avenue to which nobody has yet given a name, probably because it has to be got down without fooling around or it won't go down at all. Labeling these "The Best Scotch Procurable" would, I hoped, raise the fascinating issue of where one might purchase the best scotch that is unprocurable; thus providing even inarticulate guests with a topic of conversation.

Actually, although this piece is ostensibly nonfiction, I'm not sure how to accurately characterize it; though it includes caricatures of actual people (particularly Norman Mailer and James Baldwin) it is clearly fiction invented by Algren. Or I hope it's invented, at least for the sake of Mailer and Baldwin, whom Algren skewers relentlessly (and hilariously) here.

May 9, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...she could not make them loud enough..."

"The nights were always the worst, when it was darkest and quietest. She couldn't play the piano because of the neighbors, and all she had were her memories. No matter what she did, she could not make them loud enough in her mind. To fill the dark. She hated that they were so soft, pastel chalks, interrupted by car horns, intestinal distress, her own inexplicable sadness."
- Jen Michalski, May-September (collected in Could You Be With Her Now: Two Novellas)

May 6, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)


"Dreiser's great first novel, Sister Carrie, which he dared to publish thirty long years ago and which I read twenty-five years ago, came to housebound and airless America like a great free Western wind, and to our stuffy domesticity gave us the first fresh air since Mark Twain and Whitman."
- Sinclair Lewis

May 5, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Powell's reading, this Wednesday!


I'm doing a reading this Wednesday (7 p.m.) at Powell's University Village (1218 S. Halsted in Chicago, adjacent to UIC) with my good friends Ben Tanzer and Joe Peterson, along with several other writers. I'll be reading a story from my still-unpublished Chicago collection Where the Marshland Came to Flower. Come one, come all!

May 5, 2014 in Books, Fiction, Marshland | Permalink | Comments (2)


"There is indeed more significant terror of a kind in (Sinclair) Lewis's novels than in a writer like Faulkner or the hard-boiled novelists, for it is the terror imminent in the commonplace, the terror that arises out of the repression, the meanness, the hard jokes of the world Lewis had soaked into his pores."
- Alfred Kazin

May 4, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)


"I am a person before I am anything else. I never say I am a writer. I never say I am an artist...I am a person who does those things."
- Edward Gorey

May 3, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Ben Tanzer, Lost in Space: A Father's Journey There and Back Again

I'm starting to think that if fiction writers really want to leave some sort of legacy, to let future readers know their true selves, they should publish at least one work of nonfiction. With fiction, even though a writer weaves a little bit of themselves into most of their characters, the writer still sort of hides behind the characters. In other words, the reader never quite knows how much of a character echoes the writer's personality and experience, and how much is totally invented.

Since I'm incredibly fortunate to know Ben Tanzer as well as I do, when reading his fiction I can usually spot the various aspects of the narrative that reflect his real life. But for those not as fortunate, it's harder to tell what's real and what's invented. Which is why, if you want to know the real Ben Tanzer without actually meeting him, you should absolutely read his latest book, the excellent essay collection Lost in Space: A Father's Journey There and Back Again.

In this book, Ben bares his soul over the alternately wonderful and terrifying experience of parenting. Through a succession of lively, entertaining and often very funny anecdotes and commentary, he describes the exhilaration, satisfaction, frustration, anxiety and confusion of being a parent: giving your kids guidance and protection while not stifling their individuality; exposing them to the real world while sheltering them from its scarier elements; holding onto them tightly and cherishing them while being able to let them go and live their own lives. And while he revels in seeing his oldest son do his first running event (Ben is an avid, borderline-obsessive runner), or savoring something as simple as the way his kids smell, he also doesn't shy away from describing the anger that a frazzled parent inevitably confronts. Parenthood is far from a perfect experience, and Ben openly and unflinchingly shares both the good and the bad. Anyone who has raised children will find much here to empathize with and enjoy.

This is Ben's best book so far, partly because it's such a thoroughly entertaining read, but mostly because it is such a true expression of his life. Extremely well done. Highest recommendation.

May 2, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)