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"When we had reached the last step of this glorious ladder, it was difficult to get down again without stumbling."

Lord Byron describes a bout of pre-Halloween overindulgence and its aftermath, in 1815.
Kinnaird and I had to conduct Sheridan down a damned corkscrew staircase, which had certainly been constructed before the discovery of fermented liquors, and to which no legs, however crooked, could possibly accommodate themselves.
Actually, I doubt that Halloween parties were a thing back then. Most likely this binge had nothing to do with any seasonal occasion. Cold and rainy here today - I doubt we'll have any trick or treaters.

October 31, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)


"Son, never trust a man who doesn’t drink." - James Crumley

October 31, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Giddy was indebted to the dictionary for the privilege of keeping his lady."

In The Song of the Lark, railroad man Ray Kennedy is busy making his caboose presentable for a visit from his prospective fiancee and potential mother-in-law.
It was properly the brakeman's business to keep the car clean, but when Ray got back to the depot, Giddy was nowhere to be found. Muttering that all his brakemen seemed to consider him "easy," Ray went down to his car alone. He built a fire in the stove and put water on to heat while he got into his overalls and jumper. Then he set to work with a scrubbing-brush and plenty of soap and "cleaner." He scrubbed the floor and seats, blacked the stove, put clean sheets on the bunks, and then began to demolish Giddy's picture gallery. Ray found that his brakemen were likely to have what he termed "a taste for the nude in art," and Giddy was no exception. Ray took down half a dozen girls in tights and ballet skirts,—premiums for cigarette coupons,—and some racy calendars advertising saloons and sporting clubs, which had cost Giddy both time and trouble; he even removed Giddy's particular pet, a naked girl lying on a couch with her knee carelessly poised in the air. Underneath the picture was printed the title, "The Odalisque." Giddy was under the happy delusion that this title meant something wicked,—there was a wicked look about the consonants,—but Ray, of course, had looked it up, and Giddy was indebted to the dictionary for the privilege of keeping his lady. If "odalisque" had been what Ray called an objectionable word, he would have thrown the picture out in the first place. Ray even took down a picture of Mrs. Langtry in evening dress, because it was entitled the "Jersey Lily," and because there was a small head of Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, in one corner. Albert Edward's conduct was a popular subject of discussion among railroad men in those days, and as Ray pulled the tacks out of this lithograph he felt more indignant with the English than ever. He deposited all these pictures under the mattress of Giddy's bunk, and stood admiring his clean car in the lamplight; the walls now exhibited only a wheatfield, advertising agricultural implements, a map of Colorado, and some pictures of race-horses and hunting-dogs.
This book is somewhat sluggish in pace and I'm not enjoying it as much as the more concise O Pioneers!, but occasional passages like these keep me reading. Cather packs so much into that paragraph - Ray's fastidiousness, Giddy's bawdy taste in art, the humorous misunderstanding over "odalisque", the Irish animosity toward the English - and presents it delightfully well.

October 26, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Fading Ad: Quality Food Products


A soon-to-be fading ad: Quality Food Products, a food wholesaler ("We sell produce, canned goods, dairy, frozen. No fresh meats.") at 172 N. Peoria St.; this ad is actually right around the corner, on another building in the company's complex, at 918 W. Randolph St. I really like the little chef face inside the Q. The company is still in business, but may soon be moving - the Tribune ran an interesting piece (source of that quotation above) on one of the co-owners earlier this year, in which he voices his regret of how much the neighborhood has changed, even though that change would make him very wealthy when the property is finally sold.

October 20, 2015 in Chicago Observations, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...no confidence in his administration of worldly affairs..."

Sharp sketch of a marriage, from Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark:
She had profound respect for her husband's erudition and eloquence. She sat under his preaching with deep humility, and was as much taken in by his stiff shirt and white neckties as if she had not ironed them herself by lamplight the night before they appeared correct and spotless in the pulpit. But for all this, she had no confidence in his administration of worldly affairs. She looked to him for morning prayers and grace at table; she expected him to name the babies and to supply whatever parental sentiment there was in the house, to remember birthdays and anniversaries, to point the children to moral and patriotic ideals. It was her work to keep their bodies, their clothes, and their conduct in some sort of order, and this she accomplished with a success that was a source of wonder to her neighbors.
I quite like that phrase "sat under his preaching" - Mrs. Kronborg deeply respects her husband, but only within his limited realm. He is a man of great words but, apparently, little common sense. I can picture her sitting in the pew, head bowed as Reverend Kronborg's lofty words flurry the air above her, but his domination all but ends at the church door. Back home, she is in charge.

October 19, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


I'm very pleased to announce the publication of my short story "Siren", in the latest edition of CCLaP Weekender. It's noir, replete with a femme fatale, a smoky bar and a burglary caper, but with a few twists added to keep it fresh. My sincere thanks to Jason Pettus, Behn Reza and everyone else at CCLaP.

I wrote the story over the entire course of 2014, one section per month, in longhand on postcards which I sent to my good friend Joe Peterson. (Extra big thanks to Joe for his enthusiastic reading of the story as it progressed - without his support, I probably never would have finished the story.) The process was very improvisational - each month when I sat down to write a new card, I really didn't have a strong idea where the story was going. I just had a mental image of the bar and the two characters that stayed in my head, and I just let the story go where it wanted. The finished version of the story varies very little from the longhand original.

At first I had hoped to publish the story in serial form, with twelve installments corresponding to each of the original twelve postcards. That (besides knowing Jason for quite a few years) is what drew me to CCLaP Weekender in the first place - its weekly publication schedule seemed to make it the most likely venue for serialization. But after discussions with Behn, it turns out that the individual postcards/sections were too short (around 300 words) for the magazine's layout, so we agreed to publish the story as a single piece. CCLaP Weekender is always beautifully designed, and this issue is no exception - I'm thrilled with how it turned out, and especially with the unexpected addition of the photograph of a mysterious redhead who could easily pass for my protagonist.

October 16, 2015 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)


This morning, I learned a new word from O Pioneers!: ducking.
"Now for a ducking, my girl," he said to the mare, gathering up the reins.

As they emerged from the shed, a stream of water, running off the thatch, struck the mare on the neck. She tossed her head indignantly, then struck out bravely on the soft ground, slipping back again and again as she climbed the hill to the main road.
Ivar the farmhand is steering his horse and wagon out of the barn, and into a downpour. Though the most common verb usage of "duck" means to dodge, avoid or evade, Webster's also notes "to thrust under water" or "to plunge under the surface of water" as definitions. Ivar is clearly referring to an imminent drenching, akin to those latter definitions.

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

"It sends good dreams."

Charming passage from O Pioneers!:
Old Mrs. Lee had been afraid that family misunderstandings might deprive her of her yearly visit to Alexandra. But on the first day of December Alexandra telephoned Annie that to-morrow she would send Ivar over for her mother, and the next day the old lady arrived with her bundles. For twelve years Mrs. Lee had always entered Alexandra's sitting-room with the same exclamation, "Now we be yust-a like old times!" She enjoyed the liberty Alexandra gave her, and hearing her own language about her all day long. Here she could wear her nightcap and sleep with all her windows shut, listen to Ivar reading the Bible, and here she could run about among the stables in a pair of Emil's old boots. Though she was bent almost double, she was as spry as a gopher. Her face was as brown as if it had been varnished, and as full of wrinkles as a washerwoman's hands. She had three jolly old teeth left in the front of her mouth, and when she grinned she looked very knowing, as if when you found out how to take it, life wasn't half bad. While she and Alexandra patched and pieced and quilted, she talked incessantly about stories she read in a Swedish family paper, telling the plots in great detail; or about her life on a dairy farm in Gottland when she was a girl. Sometimes she forgot which were the printed stories and which were the real stories, it all seemed so far away. She loved to take a little brandy, with hot water and sugar, before she went to bed, and Alexandra always had it ready for her. "It sends good dreams," she would say with a twinkle in her eye.
Mrs. Lee is a Swedish farm woman (she apparently married a non-Swede, hence the Anglo-Saxon name) who is Alexandra's brother's mother-in-law. Alexandra lost her mother when she was quite young, and Mrs. Lee is somewhat of a surrogate for her. Unforunately, this chapter seems to be Mrs. Lee's only appearance in the book - I would have liked to read much more about her.

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



A random alley doorway in the West Loop neighborhood of Chicago. During my afternoon walks I often like to stroll down the alleys, behind the storefronts and old factories. While the street side of buildings may have been cleaned up and polished, the alley doors are often an afterthought, left untouched and weather-worn. I'm slowly collecting photographs like this, and might someday run a series here.

October 11, 2015 in Chicago Observations, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...germs, chaos, dissipation, laughter, unanswerable questions..."

Luc Sante, from The Other Paris:
The past, whatever its drawbacks, was wild. By contrast, the present is farmed. The exigencies of money and the proclivities of bureaucrats — as terrified of anomalies as of germs, chaos, dissipation, laughter, unanswerable questions — have conspired to create the conditions for stasis, to sanitize the city to the point where there will be no surprises, no hazards, no spontaneous outbreaks, no weeds.
Though Sante writes about Paris, he could easily be describing Chicago or any other gentrifying city.

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

"He knew the end too well to wish to begin again."

I admire this moving passage from the early pages of O Pioneers! by Willa Cather. John Bergson is slowly dying, at home in the arid high plains of Nebraska, where he has carved out only a meager existence for his wife and four children, particularly for his beloved daughter Alexandra.
The winter twilight was fading. The sick man heard his wife strike a match in the kitchen, and the light of a lamp glimmered through the cracks of the door. It seemed like a light shining far away. He turned painfully in his bed and looked at his white hands, with all the work gone out of them. He was ready to give up, he felt. He did not know how it had come about, but he was quite willing to go deep under his fields and rest, where the plow could not find him. He was tired of making mistakes. He was content to leave the tangle to other hands; he thought of his Alexandra's strong ones.

"Dotter," he called feebly, "Dotter!" He heard her quick step and saw her tall figure appear in the doorway, with the light of the lamp behind her. He felt her youth and strength, how easily she moved and stooped and lifted. But he would not have had it again if he could, not he! He knew the end too well to wish to begin again. He knew where it all went to, what it all became.
It's striking to read Bergson's wish to be buried, not in a traditional cemetery, but deep beneath the fields he has fought for so long to cultivate. As if admitting that the land had ultimately defeated him.

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

Thrifty Dovers


I have a mild but growing addiction to Dover Thrift Editions. There's just so much to like: the classic literature, the compact, uniform size (they look great lined up on a shelf), the bargain price. I have four or five of them right now and am always looking for more at used book stores. These Dovers are so thrifty, in fact, that the epigraph in O Pioneers! appears on the title page - there's no separate epigraph page. In fact, this copy does not have a single blank page. Even Wheatyard - an economical and not exactly lush edition - had several blank pages.

October 7, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"O’Connor wrote with complete confidence that there was a higher power, that the Catholic God was going to sort out whatever messes we humans had made. This allowed her to be a little more brutal in her stories. I don’t have that confidence, and so I have to figure out how people can, on their own, redeem themselves." - Bonnie Jo Campbell

One of the highlights of my writing career was being a fellow contributor with Campbell to the anthology On the Clock: Contemporary Short Stories of Work, which was published by Bottom Dog Press in 2010. Her novel Once Upon a River has been on my radar for a while now.

October 7, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I'll go to it laughing." - Herman Melville

October 4, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Structured Reading: Willa Cather

After I finish Isaac Bashevis Singer, next week I'm going to start a highly specialized version of Structured Reading: Willa Cather's "Prairie Trilogy" of novels, O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark and My Antonia. I've always heard great things about Cather but have never read any of her work. If nothing else, at least the first book in the trilogy might become the first book I've ever read with an exclamation point in the title.

Reading a trilogy is admittedly less creative than I've been in past Structured Reading efforts, which required more thoughtful curation on my part: the Depression, great American satirists, old-school Jewish writers and African-American classics.

October 2, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)