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September 30, 2015 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The deader the language, the more alive is the ghost."

Isaac Bashevis Singer, on writing in Yiddish:
"People ask me often: Why do you write in a dying language? And I want to explain it in a few words. Firstly, I like to write ghost stories, and nothing fits a ghost story better than a dying language. The deader the language, the more alive is the ghost. Ghosts love Yiddish, and, as far as I know, they all speak it.

Secondly, I not only believe in ghosts but also in resurrection. I am sure that millions of Yiddish-speaking corpses will rise from their graves one day, and their first question will be: Is there any new book in Yiddish to read? For them Yiddish will not be dead."
Right now I'm reading Singer's 1963 story collection The Spinoza of Market Street, and really enjoying it. His portrayals of the long-vanished Jewish communities of eastern Europe are simply lovely - richly drawn, compassionate and witty.

September 30, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (4)


"When some political or ecclesiastical pamphlet, or novel, or poem is making a great commotion, you should remember that he who writes for fools always finds a large public."
- Schopenhauer

Apparently I already believed this. It would certainly explain why the critical darlings Then We Came to the End and A Visit From the Goon Squad have been sitting on my shelf, unread, for years. And why, after I finally read The Devil in the White City after ten years on the shelf, I wished I hadn't wasted my time.

September 27, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


“To trust people is a luxury in which only the wealthy can indulge; the poor cannot afford it.” ― E.M. Forster, Howards End

September 26, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Reading in Public: Joliet, 2015


It's been a year and a half since I last posted to my Reading in Public series, and have never posted one of my own photographs there, so I am doubly pleased to now share this image that I captured this morning. This was taken at Union Station in Joliet, on the new Rock Island District platform. I love how focused this gentleman was on his book, so much so that not even the gorgeous sunrise could distract him.

September 24, 2015 in Reading in Public | Permalink | Comments (2)


"No sweet deluge will come to wash your worries away." - Graeme Downes, "Stay Gone"

September 24, 2015 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)


"We all have our time machines, don't we. Those that take us back are memories...And those that carry us forward, are dreams." - H.G. Wells (born on this day in 1866)

September 21, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...asking us if we knew their names..."

In Matt Bell's story "The Receiving Tower", a group of men, under the iron command of a seemingly maniacal captain, operate a communication tower in the frozen wilderness. With little to occupy their time, each slowly loses his memory (growing "dim") and, with it, the desire to escape and return to a home they are progressively forgetting (and which might no longer exist).
As I remember it — which is not well — young Kerr was the first to grow dim. We’d find him high in the tower’s listening room, swearing at the computers, locking up console after console by failing to enter his password correctly. At night, he wandered the barracks, holding a framed portrait of his son and daughter, asking us if we knew their names, if we remembered how old they were. This is when one of us would remove the photograph from its frame so that he could read the fading scrawl on the back, the inked lines he eventually wore off by tracing them over and over with his fingers, after which there was no proof with which to quiet his queries.

Later, after he had gotten much worse, we’d find him on the roof, half frozen, sleeping beneath the receiving dish, his arms wrapped partway around its thick stem, his mind faded, his body lean and starved and frostbitten.

None of us realized he was missing until we found his body, trapped in the ice just inside the compound’s gate. What pain he must have felt after he threw himself from atop the tower, after he tried to crawl forward on crushed bones, heading in the direction of a coast he must have known he would never live to see.
Great story, one which I could imagine being expanded to book length. The story is collected in How They Were Found, which I just started reading and have enjoyed so far. This month has unexpectedly morphed into Short Story September - this is the third collection I've read this month (the others are by Ben Tanzer and Joe Peterson) and Isaac Bashevis Singer's The Spinoza of Market Street might be next.

September 21, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"The grenade is a simple reminder that sometimes one needs to lob a grenade into a poem to get a reader’s attention." - Ernest Hilbert

September 16, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Ben Tanzer, After the Flood

As always, Ben Tanzer is a great friend of mine, so this review is by no means objective. And as always, Ben has crafted excellent fiction here. After the Flood is clearly the best of his Two Rivers story collections (all three are compiled in the single-volume The New York Stories, which I plan to read in full sometime next year), with this latest one being unified by not only locale but also by a catastrophic flood which devastates the town and forever changes the lives of nearly every character; the flood gives the collection a haunting, overarching theme as well as tightness and cohesion.

The one word I would use to describe this collection is "desolation" - not just the flood and its aftermath, but the characters themselves, who were already pretty desolate to begin with, before the flood makes things even worse. Ben's characters have moved beyond young adulthood and toward middle age, where they find themselves in a sort of sluggish stasis - they've acquired marriages and kids and houses and careers but then just sort of stopped, unsure what to do next with their lives. So they drink to excess and even oblivion, lust after friends' spouses and sit around impassively as the flood waters steadily rise, threatening to sweep them away.

After the Flood is a dark portrait of a small town where, for its inhabitants, time has mostly stood still.

September 15, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"There are so many instances in history where Europe, and other countries too, shut their doors to refugees, somehow hoping that they would die or vanish. The saddest thing is that the tragedy of people having to risk their lives, and losing their lives crossing the sea or half of Europe, is seen as a desire to steal from us what we have, this wonderful privilege of living in a democracy and having a stable life. And that we must protect it from them, and the only danger for us is their coming—it’s another variation of the zombie fantasy." - Aleksandar Hemon

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

"Watching and Waiting"

I've quickly immersed myself in my great friend Ben Tanzer's latest story collection, After the Flood. (It's actually part of an omnibus called The New York Stories, which includes After the Flood and two earlier collections, Repetition Patterns and So Different Now. I've already read the first two, so for now I'm just reading Flood. I plan to read the whole thing, beginning to end, sometime next year.) The book is very good, and probably even better than the first two - the stories in all three are linked by the common locale (a fictionalized version of Ben's hometown of Binghamton, New York), but the latest is even tighter as it also revolves around the devastating storm and subsequent flooding that hit the town in 2011.

All of the stories so far have been strong, but I particularly like "Watching and Waiting" (first published at 3Elements Review, starting on page 11 here), which tells of a lonely, passive woman who has a man drift in and out of her life (arriving as a landscaper and, after a presumably quick marriage, departing with the flood), leaving her "like some sea captain's wife, healing, looking, and waiting for something to happen" and contemplating the rest of her days. I don't usually like second-person narration, but Ben uses it extremely well here. The story and book are well worth your time and, as Ben likes to say, just might change your life.

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


"The truth is life is full of joy and full of great sorrow, but you can't have one without the other." - Andre Dubus III

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

Asbury's crime fiction

At The New Yorker, Jon Michaud looks at the two long-forgotten (and very different) crime novels written by Herbert Asbury, The Devil of Pei-Ling and The Tick of the Clock.
The two styles also evoke the opposing influences of Asbury’s youth—the fear of hell and damnation that shaped the lives of his ancestors, and his own commitment to rationalism, which eventually led him to refute such rhetoric. His upbringing may have made him particularly well suited to inhabit both sorts of fictional worlds.
Asbury is best known for his non-fiction, particularly The Gangs of New York (which later became the basis for the 2002 Martin Scorcese film of the same name). Nearly ten years ago I enjoyed his similar volume The Gangs of Chicago; that book was originally called (with likely sarcasm) Gem of the Prairie but the title was changed at its latest reissue, probably as a ploy to profit from the Scorcese connection. But if that was the publisher's intention, it appears to have mostly failed.

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


"Give me a decent bottle of poison, and I’ll construct the perfect crime." - Agatha Christie

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

Labor Day


"City of the big shoulders" was how the white-haired poet put it. Maybe meaning that the shoulders had to get that wide because they had so many bone-deep grudges to settle. The big dark grudge cast by the four standing in white muslin robes, hands cuffed behind, at the gallows’ head. For the hope of the eight-hour day.

The grudge between Grover Cleveland and John Peter Altgeld. The long deep grudges still borne for McCormick the Reaper, for Pullman and Pullman’s Gary. Grudges like heavy hangovers from men and women whose fathers were not yet born when the bomb was thrown, the court was rigged, and the deed was done.


(Photo: Haymarket Memorial, Desplaines Street, Chicago. Sculpture by Mary Brogger, photo by me.)

September 7, 2015 in History | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...not even a second helping all the way round..."

William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows tells the story of eight-year-old Peter “Bunny” Morison and his family, in a small town in Illinois during the waning years of World War I. Knowing what I already did about Maxwell’s life (the novel is highly autobiographical) and the book itself, I nearly rolled my eyes at the first scene that involved the entire Morison family, with Maxwell being almost embarrassingly heavy-handed with his foreshadowing. (Mr. Morison’s out-loud reading of a newspaper article is an almost perfect example of Chekhov’s “gun in the first act” principle.)

But soon after, Maxwell redeems himself with his lovely description of the family’s Sunday dinner. Here, Bunny is listening as Mr. Morison (a dyed-in-the-wool Republican) is ranting about President Woodrow Wilson.
Bunny twisted in his chair uncomfortably. He remembered something that he had meant to tell his mother. About Arthur Cook. When his father held forth in this way, the quiet which belonged to the dining-room seemed to have escaped to the other parts of the house. He thought of the upstairs bedrooms and how still they must be. His mother was eating her salad quite calmly, in spite of President Wilson. When she put her fork down, he might lean toward her and--but it was not easy to describe things. Especially things that had happened. For him, to think of things was to see them--schoolyard, bare trees, gravel and walks, furnace-rooms, the eaves along the south end of the building. Where among so many things should he begin?

Robert would not have had any trouble. We were playing three-deep, Robert would have said. And Arthur Cook got sick.That would have been the end of it, so far as Robert was concerned. He would have not felt obliged to explain how Arthur ran twice around the circle without tagging anybody. And how he stopped playing and said I feel funny. How he went over by the bicycle racks then, and sat down.

“At school last Friday--”

But he had spoken too loud.

“How would it be, son--”

His father let President Wilson alone for a minute and turned his entire attention to Bunny, so that he felt naked and ashamed, as if he were under a glaring light.

“--if you kept quiet until I finish what I’m saying?”

That was all. His father had not spoken unkindly. He was not sent from the table. No punishment was threatened. Nevertheless, Bunny withdrew sadly into his plate. And not even a second helping all the way round could restore his pleasure in this day.

So much is neatly captured in this single page--Bunny’s adolescent timidity and lack of confidence, his jealousy and resentment of his older brother Robert, Mr. Morison’s stern coldness. It’s rich without being excessive.

(If the publisher or copyright holder of the novel objects to my reproducing this one-page excerpt, my apologies. I will remove this immediately. But my feeling is that short excerpts like this, accompanied by my praise--I’m really enjoying the book--can’t possibly hurt your sales. If anything, it might help you sell an extra copy or two. And I’m making absolutely no money off of Maxwell’s work.)

September 6, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Everybody's a critic...

...especially cats.
My cat shit in my archives
he climbed into my Golden State Sunkist
orange box
and he shit on my poems
my original poems
saved for the university archives.

that one-eared fat black critic
he signed me off.
- Charles Bukowski

September 5, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here for some time and may have entered illegally." - Ronald Reagan

September 5, 2015 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Best Chicago Novels by Neighborhood"

At Gapers Block, Adam Morgan compiles a nice list of Chicago fiction, by neighborhood. For the record, I've read nine of these (Sinclair, Anderson, Hemon, Dybek, Dreiser, Wright, Farrell, Algren, Meno's Office Girl), and another five are already on my to-read list (Cather, Meno's The Great Perhaps, Norris, Fuller's The Cliff-Dwellers, Motley). The most obvious omission that comes to mind is Don De Grazia's American Skin, set in Lakeview; Harry Mark Petrakis certainly has to be included in there as well - probably for Greektown - though I've yet to read any of his novels.

(I've actually read a tenth book on this list, but people really need to stop referring to Larson's embellished history as fiction. So, I'm not counting it.)

September 1, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)