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"How To Ease That Hangover"

This timeless Mike Royko advice is undoubtedly arriving too late to help you with your evening drinking and socializing decisions, but at least it might ease your morning (and afternoon) regrets.

December 31, 2014 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

Good Reading 2014

2014 was an extremely good year of reading for me, one of the best I've ever had. One telling sign of this excellence is how many very good-to-great books were relegated to Honorable Mention, simply due to not being quite as good as the Top Ten. It was also a very productive year of reading, as I finished 43 books. As always, these are books I read in 2014, not necessarily ones that were published this year. Without further ado:

1. Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides (Review)
2. Joseph Mitchell, Old Mr. Flood (Review)
3. Ben Tanzer, Lost in Space: A Father's Journey There and Back Again (Review)
4. Daniel Woodrell, Winter's Bone (Review)
5. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (Review)
6. Kent Haruf, Benediction (Review)
7. Kate Chopin, The Awakening (Review)
8. James Fearnley, Here Comes Everybody: The Story of the Pogues (Review)
9. Markus Zusak, The Book Thief (Review)
10. Budd Schulberg, The Harder They Fall (Review)

Honorable Mention: Joseph G. Peterson, Beautiful Piece (Review); Dmitry Samarov, Where To? A Hack Memoir (Review); Carl Sandburg, Chicago Poems (Review); Kazuo Ishiguro, A Pale View of Hills (Review); Leonard Michaels, The Men's Club (Review); William Trevor, The Boarding-House (Review)

Re-Readings: Jan Fridegård, I, Lars Hård; Peter Guralnick, Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians; Stuart Dybek, The Coast of Chicago: Stories; Knut Hamsun, In Wonderland

+ It’s been fascinating to watch my great friend, Ben Tanzer, slowly inching his way up my year-end lists. His first two books came in at #10 in 2007 and Honorable Mention in 2008, and from there he progressed to #8 in 2010, #6 in 2011, #8 in 2012 (the slightest of hiccups), #5 in 2013 and now #3 this year with Lost in Space, his best book yet. This clearly shows how wonderfully he’s developing and maturing as a writer.
+ I absolutely adored Old Mr. Flood, and am eager to read more of Mitchell’s work. But for now I’m holding off on simply buying his compendium Up in the Old Hotel, and instead seeking out the individual volumes, all of which I believe are out of print. I like the hunting aspect of the book-buying process.
+ The passing of Kent Haruf was the most tragic one of the year for me, although it’s fitting that it was quiet and understated. I didn’t even know he had been battling cancer until after he died, which now makes me wonder how much he based the dying protagonist of Benediction, Dad Lewis, on himself. Haruf had been my favorite living writer, and a big influence on my own writing; I’m still collecting my thoughts on his life and work for what will likely be a long tribute essay.
+ James Fearnley’s Pogues memoir might be the best book I’ve ever read by a musician, although that honor may be challenged by John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van, which I just got for Christmas and am very eager to read.
+ Although my daughter Maddie is now 14, I continue to read to her every night before bed. I think The Book Thief is probably the first of our bedtime books to reach any of my year-end lists, and certainly the first that is considered “young adult.” Great book, and a great film too.
+ A quick nod to my newfound good friend Joe Peterson, and his debut novel from several years back, Beautiful Piece. I suspect he will make the same steady progress on these lists as Ben Tanzer has; actually, he might make a giant leap, as I will be reading his latest, Gideon’s Confession, early in 2015. I'll undoubtedly be doubling back to read his intervening books later.

2013 List
2012 List
2011 List
2010 List
2009 List
2008 List
2007 List
2006 List
2005 List
2004 List
2003 List
2002 List

December 31, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Books given, books received

Books given and received this Christmas.

Justin Martin: Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America's First Bohemians
Dmitry Samarov: Where To? A Hack Memoir
Zora Neale Hurston: Their Eyes Were Watching God
Renee Rosen: What the Lady Wants
Daniel Okrent: Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day
Jane Gardam: Old Filth
Pico Iyer: The Art of Stillness
Jeffrey Eugenides: The Virgin Suicides
Ben Tanzer: Orphans
Vikram Chandra: Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty
B.J. Best: But the Princess Is In Another Castle

Tim Federle: Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist
John Darnielle: Wolf in White Van
B.J. Best: But Our Princess Is In Another Castle

(Best's book was my gift to Julie, but also a gift to myself. It's also interesting to note that I've read less than half of the books that I gave. But knowing the receipients, I just had a hunch they would like their books, even though I'm only familiar with the books second-hand.)

December 28, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

What I'm writing

The first of my two 2014 writing projects has been completed. It's called Fifty Sketches; I hesitate to say "stories", since only three or four are full drafts right now, and probably ten more will never even make it that far, with the remainder being in various stages of becoming genuine stories. I wrote one for each week of the year, excluding the first and last weeks which I took as a breather. I wish I could say that I finished each two-plus-page piece within its weekly timeframe, but the truth is that I regularly fell a week or two behind, and had to scramble to get back on schedule.

Most of the sketches were written early on weekend mornings, before my family woke up and the house was nice and quiet, though during a few of those catch-up periods I got up at 4:30 a.m. on weekdays to get some writing done before I started to get ready to go to work. The good thing about writing all of these raw sketches one after the other, without going back to edit, is that I now have a nice pile of material to work with. The bad thing is that it's a pile of material: far from finished, and with me lacking a good grasp of exactly what I have. Even after reading through the list of titles, I realize that there are at least ten sketches that I remember nothing about.

One of my writing goals for 2015 is to read through this material thoroughly, several times, to see which sketches have the most potential to become legitimate stories. And then begin the arduous process of building, cutting and polishing the raw material into something worthwhile.

The other writing goal is to finally get back to work on my "trio" of novellas. I've written about 15,000 words of the first ("Junker", which I set aside early this year) and the details of the other two are slowly coming to me. We'll see how all of that goes, but given my typically slow writing pace, it could be quite some time until this concept comes to fruition.

December 23, 2014 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (3)

"With two bathrooms, Capa is a charming, intelligent, good-tempered companion."

In A Russian Journal, John Steinbeck recounts his 1947 travels through Soviet Russia. Here's a wonderful anecdote of his about his collaborator, the great photojournalist Robert Capa:

It was here that I discovered an unpleasant quality in Capa's nature, and I think it only right to set it down in case some young woman should ever listen to any suggestion of matrimony from him. He is a bathroom hog, and a very curious one. His method is as follows: He rises early from his bed and disappears into the bathroom and draws a tub of water. He then lies in that tub of water and reads until he becomes sleepy, whereupon he goes to sleep. This may go on for two or three hours in the morning, and it can be readily seen that the bathroom is immobilized for any more serious purposes while he is in there. I offer this information about Capa as a public service. With two bathrooms, Capa is a charming, intelligent, good-tempered companion. With one bathroom, he is a-------.

Interesting book, but I've been having trouble getting fully immersed in it - due to external influences, not the book itself. I might have to set it aside and come back to it later.

December 21, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Lee Sandlin

Lee Sandlin, writer and raconteur, has passed away much too soon, at just 58.

When I got my first iPhone and was still extremely cautious of not overusing my data plan, I would download articles, turn off the 3G network, and read them offline. The one I remember best is Sandlin's "The American Scheme", which seemed rambling and endless but somehow kept me reading. That's a true testament to Sandlin's gift as a writer. I don't remember whether or not I ever finished reading the piece, but I suppose that doesn't matter. It was something I needed at the time, and I thank him for that.

Sandlin's Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild is on my to-read list. I actually gave the book as a Christmas gift to a family member a few years ago, despite not having read it yet. He sounds like he was a fascinating man.

December 16, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"I can only do what I feel."

In his memoir A Daughter of the Middle Border, Hamlin Garland describes a conversation with his friend Henry Blake Fuller, the Chicago novelist.
One day as we were digging potatoes he gave me a lecture on my duty as a Wisconsin novelist. "You should do for this country what Thomas Hardy has done for Wessex," he said. "You have made a good start in Main-Traveled Roads, and Rose of Dutcher's Coolly, but you should do more with it. It is a noble background."

"Why not doing something with it yourself?" I retorted. "You are almost as much a part of Wisconsin as I am. My keener interests are now in the Mountain West - a larger field. There's no use saying 'Make more of this material!' I can only do what I feel. Just now I am full of Montana."

Fuller was being generous to his friend - even at his artistic peak, Garland never came close to Hardy - and time has not been kind to Garland. If he is remembered today at all, it is for his Wisconsin memoirs and the fiction that Fuller cited, and not for the Western works he thought so highly of. Maybe if he had kept writing about Wisconsin, and hadn't implicitly dismissed the Midwest as a "lesser field", he would be better-read today. I can't help wondering if the fading-away of his Western fiction is due to him writing about a subject and place that he really didn't know that well, from the standpoint of only an enthusiastic tourist and not as a native.

December 15, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...they limped through life on the bad-mend bones for year upon year..."

In Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone, teenaged heroine Ree Dolly imagines her forebears.

With her eyes closed she could call them near, see those olden Dolly kin who had so many bones that broke, broke and mended, broke and mended wrong, so they limped through life on the bad-mend bones for year upon year until falling dead in a single evening from something that sounded wet in the lungs. The men came to mind as mostly idle between nights of running wild or time in the pen, coooking moon and gathering around the spout, with ears chewed, fingers chopped, arms shot away, and no apologies grunted ever. The women came to mind bigger, closer, with their lonely eyes and homely yellow teeth, mouths clamped against smiles, working in the hot fields from can to can't, hands tattered rough as dry cobs, lips cracked all winter, a white dress for marrying, a black dress for burying, and Ree nodded yup. Yup.

Great book. One of the best I've read this year.

December 14, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)


"I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have." - Raymond Chandler

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


“When things get too much for me, I put a wildflower book and a couple of sandwiches in my pockets and go down to the South Shore of Staten Island and wander around awhile in one of the old cemeteries there.” - Joseph Mitchell

I can relate; I do the same every workday with a forest preserve parking lot, a book and my brown bag lunch. Mitchell is certainly a kindred spirit. His Old Mr. Flood was one of my favorite books read in 2014, in what has been a very good year of reading for me. So good, in fact, that I might delay publishing my annual list until early January, to ensure that I don't snub any worthy book that I might finish this month.

December 5, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)