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Summer of Melville has ended.

Summer of Melville was a mixed blessing. I'm glad to have finally read Melville in depth, but I'm even more glad to be finished. I ended it last night, several days early - had I enjoyed the experience more, I could have continued on until a more typical ending of summer, either August 31st or Labor Day. Other than my long-time favorite Bartleby the Scrivener, I highly doubt that I'll ever read Melville again. He's simply not my style of writer - dense, long-winded, pedantic, with flashes of brilliance that occur far too rarely to endure the dross.

Moby-Dick was everything I expected, both good and bad, and I can easily see why the novel is so divisive, and how everyone who reads it either loves it or hates it, with very little middle ground. Then Bartleby (possibly the first office-politics fiction ever written?) was as great as always, and Benito Cereno was a pleasant surprise, with its building tension and mystery overcoming what could have been just another seafaring tale. But The Confidence-Man was a bloated collection of essays masquerading as fiction, the stories in The Piazza Tales (other than Bartleby and Benito Cereno) were fairly underwhelming, and Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War was useful only as evidence that Melville should never have attempted poetry.

The above is simply a brief recap of my experience. If you want to read my Goodreads reviews for more depth, here they are:
Bartleby the Scrivener and Benito Cereno
The Confidence-Man
The Piazza Tales
Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War

With Melville behind me, I'm eagerly moving on to much more modern and concise fare, and started Bohumil Hrabal's Closely Observed Trains (or Closely Watched Trains, depending on your translator) this morning.

August 28, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


“The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last forever. Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year—days when summer is changing into Fall—the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change.” - E.B. White, from Charlotte's Web

Lately I've noticed the return of crickets, and a definite cooler snap in the air. Fall is coming already. Bring it on.

August 25, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Far footfalls died away till none were left."

Sobering verse from Melville's Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War:
Ball's Bluff.
A Reverie.
(October, 1861.)

One noonday, at my window in the town,
  I saw a sight—saddest that eyes can see—
  Young soldiers marching lustily
      Unto the wars,
With fifes, and flags in mottoed pageantry;
    While all the porches, walks, and doors
Were rich with ladies cheering royally.

They moved like Juny morning on the wave,
  Their hearts were fresh as clover in its prime
  (It was the breezy summer time),
      Life throbbed so strong,
How should they dream that Death in a rosy clime
    Would come to thin their shining throng?
Youth feels immortal, like the gods sublime.

Weeks passed; and at my window, leaving bed,
  By night I mused, of easeful sleep bereft,
  On those brave boys (Ah War! thy theft);
      Some marching feet
Found pause at last by cliffs Potomac cleft;
    Wakeful I mused, while in the street
Far footfalls died away till none were left.

Melville's Civil War poems have been criticized for their distance from the subject; he visited the battlefront only once, in 1864. But the perspective of this poem - the narrator at home, watching cocky young men march off to war and their likely doom - is much closer to Melville's personal experience, and the poem is much richer for it.

August 24, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Summer of Melville update

Summer of Melville is now winding down. I've read Moby-Dick, Bartleby and Benito Cereno (in a single volume), The Confidence-Man and the story collection The Piazza Tales. I was underwhelmed by the last two, and strongly considered ending the summer early. But with one week left, I've decided to keep it going with one last book, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, his collection of Civil War poems. Melville dedicated himself almost exclusively to poetry during his final few decades, so after reading some of his novels, novellas and short stories, it will be interesting to read his poetry which obviously meant much to him.

I've enjoyed my Melville immersion, but I'm also looking forward to returning to fiction which is more modern and concise. I've already lined up books by Bohumil Hrabal, William Maxwell and my great friend Ben Tanzer for September.

August 23, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Book fantasy

Do you know how there are baseball fantasy camps, in which middle-aged dreamers participate in a week or two of training to indulge their love of baseball? Well, I just found my version of fantasy camp: running a book store in Scotland.

For the sum of £150 a week, guests at The Open Book in Wigtown, Scotland’s national book town, will be expected to sell books for 40 hours a week while living in the flat above the shop. Given training in bookselling from Wigtown’s community of booksellers, they will also have the opportunity to put their “own stamp” on the store while they’re there.

I'd love to own a book store, but right now I have neither the time nor the capital to make it work. But a store in a book-loving town, which would cost just $235/week, with no equity investment required, and that I could simply walk away from at the end? Sounds perfect.

August 23, 2015 | Permalink | Comments (0)


"A writer, or any other kind of artist, who partly or largely need not depend on pleasing the public, who in effect has his fee guaranteed whatever the quality of his product, is tempted to self-indulgence and laziness." - Kingsley Amis

August 22, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"Civilization begins with distillation." - William Faulkner

August 20, 2015 in Food and Drink | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fading Ad: Midwest Barrel Company



This ad for Midwest Barrel Company (412 N. Peoria St., Chicago) is actually two ads for the same company. In the second photo, you can see the older ad across the top of the green rectangle ("Midwest", then a picture of a barrel, then "Barrel"). Then, superimposed on the older ad, there is a newer ad, with another barrel picture at the left, and "Midwest Barrel Company" to the right in an oh-so-1970s typeface, with the last two words stacked. The "412" at the bottom of the rectangle appears to belong to the older ad; in the first photo you can see a later "412" which was added to the right of the overhead door. I love the unusual green color of this, and also the delicate brickwork near the roofline - I'm always amazed that builders used to include this sort of detail on what was an ordinary building and for a very mundane, unglamorous business.

Midwest Barrel was in business from 1963 to 2006.

August 16, 2015 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Farewell, Maurice Lenell

image from http://www.boogaj.com/.a/6a00d83451ce9f69e201b7c7bf6894970b-pi

Maurice Lenell dodged the bullet in 2008, when the brand was taken over by Consolidated Biscuit. But now Consolidated is pulling the plug.
The company, which produced about 275,000 packages of Maurice Lenell cookies annually, discontinued the line shortly after the new year, when it also took down its website offering holiday gift tins. Antiquated equipment, slow sales and recipes that included controversial trans fats all led to the decision to stop making the cookies, Jasper said.

Today, all that remains of the old-fashioned treats are what's left in stores, including The Cookie Store and More, which opened in 2010 blocks away from the shuttered factory to serve as the unofficial local outlet for the brand. The store now has a "Last Chance for Maurice Lenell" countdown sign hanging in the front window. As of Thursday, the sign said 18 days until supply runs out, said Jeff Bach, the store's owner.
This time I doubt Lenell will find another rescuer, which means those wonderful, old-fashioned cookies will be gone for good.

August 14, 2015 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...writing articles on Why Young Men Fail, and making a success of it..."

George Horace Lorimer's Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son is a fictional series of letters from a Chicago meatpacking tycoon to his son, in which the father, "Old Gorgon" Graham, tries to impart wisdom, advice and the occasional remonstrance to his son Pierrepont. Here, he tells of repeatedly trying to set up the overeducated son of a business colleague in a suitable career:
Got him in a bank, but while he knew more about the history of banking than the president, and more about political economy than the board of directors, he couldn’t learn the difference between a fiver that the Government turned out and one that was run off on a hand press in a Halsted Street basement. Got him a job on a paper, but while he knew six different languages and all the facts about the Arctic regions, and the history of dancing from the days of Old Adam down to those of Old Nick, he couldn’t write up a satisfactory account of the Ice-Men’s Ball. Could prove that two and two made four by trigonometry and geometry, but couldn’t learn to keep books; was thick as thieves with all the high-toned poets, but couldn’t write a good, snappy, merchantable street-car ad.; knew a thousand diseases that would take a man off before he could blink, but couldn’t sell a thousand-dollar tontine policy; knew the lives of our Presidents as well as if he’d been raised with them, but couldn’t place a set of the Library of the Fathers of the Republic, though they were offered on little easy payments that made them come as easy as borrowing them from a friend. Finally I hit on what seemed to be just the right thing. I figured out that any fellow who had such a heavy stock of information on hand, ought to be able to job it out to good advantage, and so I got him a place teaching. But it seemed that he’d learned so much about the best way of teaching boys, that he told his principal right on the jump that he was doing it all wrong, and that made him sore; and he knew so much about the dead languages, which was what he was hired to teach, that he forgot he was handling live boys, and as he couldn’t tell it all to them in the regular time, he kept them after hours, and that made them sore and put Stan out of a job again. The last I heard of him he was writing articles on Why Young Men Fail, and making a success of it, because failing was the one subject on which he was practical.
Lorimer was the long-time editor of the Saturday Evening Post, and is credited with growing it from a small-circulation publication into the national cultural institution it would eventually become. Based on what I've read here so far, he was also a talented writer in his own right.

August 14, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Let us go then, you and I..."

Happy (belated) 100th anniversary, Prufrock!
It teems with paradoxes: It’s a dramatic monologue that contains zero drama, a series of questions that seek no answer, the product of a consciousness that may not be conscious, the lament of a soul that comes alive only in order to die.
Julie and I often quote random lines from the poem - not as often as we quote lines from Seinfeld, but often enough for it to be a touchstone for us. My favorite lines are probably these:
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

August 11, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...to be a consistent Indian-hater involves the renunciation of ambition..."

Melville's The Confidence-Man includes the tale of the fictional Colonel Moredock, an Illinois pioneer who - there's no nice way to say this - killed Native Americans for sport.
"'At one time the colonel was a member of the territorial council of Illinois, and at the formation of the state government, was pressed to become candidate for governor, but begged to be excused. And, though he declined to give his reasons for declining, yet by those who best knew him the cause was not wholly unsurmised. In his official capacity he might be called upon to enter into friendly treaties with Indian tribes, a thing not to be thought of. And even did no such contingecy arise, yet he felt there would be an impropriety in the Governor of Illinois stealing out now and then, during a recess of the legislative bodies, for a few days' shooting at human beings, within the limits of his paternal chief-magistracy. If the governorship offered large honors, from Moredock it demanded larger sacrifices. These were incompatibles. In short, he was not unaware that to be a consistent Indian-hater involves the renunciation of ambition, with its objects—the pomps and glories of the world; and since religion, pronouncing such things vanities, accounts it merit to renounce them, therefore, so far as this goes, Indian-hating, whatever may be thought of it in other respects, may be regarded as not wholly without the efficacy of a devout sentiment.'"
Our current governor, Bruce Rauner, may often seem heartless, but at least he's a big, cuddly teddy bear compared to the bloodthirsty Moredock.

August 10, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Murakami fans, thank your lucky stars for Dave Hilton.

Haruki Murakami remembers his a-ha moment, at a Yakult Swallows game in 1978.
The satisfying crack when the bat met the ball resounded throughout Jingu Stadium. Scattered applause rose around me. In that instant, for no reason and on no grounds whatsoever, the thought suddenly struck me: I think I can write a novel.
Though more prosaic folks might dismiss this, saying that Murakami already had the talent and passion for writing inside of him, and that it just happened to emerge at this moment, I like the idea that an ordinary, line-drive double by a journeyman American ballplayer is what started it all.

August 9, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"I love Ireland. It is my home, but you know, I sometimes feel I have been trying to leave all my life, and never made it. But I don’t know if writers ever are properly in the place where they live, they’re always in a slight state of exile." - Anne Enright

August 9, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...equality for all..."

From "The Government of Death", by avant-garde musician - and little-known poet - Sun Ra:
all governments
on earth
set up by men
are discriminating
but the government of death is a
pure government
it treats all in an equal manner
it is a startling, revealing picture
of equality for all
and in the realm of death
is nothing else but
Via Robert Archambeau, who has an interesting discussion of Sun Ra as the outsider and the dispossessed.

August 8, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fading Ad: H.C. Evans & Company

image from http://www.boogaj.com/.a/6a00d83451ce9f69e201bb085e6f99970d-pi

H.C. Evans & Company (at 1528 W. Adams Street, Chicago) was once a major manufacturer of slot machines, jukeboxes, pinball machines and...crooked casino equipment. Below is a nice image of the factory from the company's 1929 catalogue (source), looking much the same as it does today.

image from http://www.boogaj.com/.a/6a00d83451ce9f69e201bb085e6fab970d-pi

August 5, 2015 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Natur is good Queen Bess; but who's responsible for the cholera?"

Summer of Melville continues, with The Confidence-Man (1857), which takes place entirely on a Mississippi River steamboat. In this scene, a hearty backwoodsman encounters a invalid miser, who has just bought an herbal remedy from a quack "herb-doctor." ("Yarbs" are apparently "herbs" in the local dialect.)
He must have overheard some of the talk between the miser and the herb-doctor; for, just after the withdrawal of the one, he made up to the other — now at the foot of the stairs leaning against the baluster there — with the greeting above.

"Think it will cure me?" coughed the miser in echo; "why shouldn't it? The medicine is nat'ral yarbs, pure yarbs; yarbs must cure me."

"Because a thing is nat'ral, as you call it, you think it must be good. But who gave you that cough? Was it, or was it not, nature?"

"Sure, you don't think that natur, Dame Natur, will hurt a body, do you?"

"Natur is good Queen Bess; but who's responsible for the cholera?"

"But yarbs, yarbs; yarbs are good?"

"What's deadly - nightshade? Yarb, ain't it?"

"Oh, that a Christian man should speak agin natur and yarbs — ugh, ugh, ugh! — ain't sick men sent out into the country; sent out to natur and grass?"

"Aye, and poets send out the sick spirit to green pastures, like lame horses turned out unshod to the turf to renew their hoofs. A sort of yarb-doctors in their way, poets have it that for sore hearts, as for sore lungs, nature is the grand cure. But who froze to death my teamster on the prairie? And who made an idiot of Peter the Wild Boy?"
In many ways, The Confidence-Man is a more difficult read than Moby-Dick. It's sort of a picaresque, but with no protagonist and barely any plot. Instead, it's a long series of philosophical conversations between unnamed strangers, one of whom is inevitably trying to rip off the other. I hope the first two hundred pages I've read so far are some sort of slow buildup to something dramatic.

August 4, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)