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My end-of-year reading (Toni Morrison, H.L. Mencken) has been so strong that my annual Good Reading list won't appear until this weekend. I pretty much know where Morrison will end up, but it still remains to be seen about Mencken, who is making an unexpected late rush into my top ten. So, patience is requested from the one or two of you who actually care about this annual event.

December 30, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Poe and Paris

The new Paris editor of the (New York-based) Paris Review, Antonin Baudry, draws a parallel between the Paris terrorist attacks and Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", in which the atrocities were, in Poe's words...
something excessively outré—something altogether irreconcilable with our common notions of human action, even when we suppose the actors the most depraved of men.
Also interesting is the observation that not even Poe could imagine his horrific murders being committed by a human being. So unlike today.

December 29, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"In our society there are two paths to success: One is to be good at computers and the other is to be a sociopath." - Jaron Lanier

December 27, 2015 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)


"When Barack Obama does hipster things in public, it's amazing to see how a politician at his level of importance manages to "get the joke" so profoundly. When Hillary Clinton does hipster things in public, it's like watching that suburban mom who's embarrassing the hell out of her teenage daughters." - Jason Pettus

December 25, 2015 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Every outward expression of sorrow was shown."

The Guardian republishes its lovely eulogy to Washington Irving, which the paper first ran on this date in 1859. I might continue my public domain reading with some Irving this year. Other than "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow", I don't think I've ever read him.

December 24, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (4)

"...unfit her for eighty percent of the useful work of the world..."

In Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, Corinthians Dead - college-educated but 42 years old and still living with her well-off parents - longs for the independence of a career.
She considered going to the state teachers' school to take the required courses, even went to the administration building to register. But the sight of those torpedo breasts under fuzzy blue sweaters, the absolute nakedness of those young faces, drove her out of the building and off the campus like a leaf before a hailstorm. Which was too bad, because she had no real skills. Bryn Mawr had done what a four-year dose of liberal education was designed to do: unfit her for eighty percent of the useful work of the world. First, by training her for leisure time, enrichments, and domestic mindlessness. Second, by a clear implication that she was too good for such work.
Interesting take from an author with a B.A. in English from Howard University.

December 21, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Gapers Block going, going...

Andrew Huff is putting Gapers Block on hiatus, and the site might be going away for good. Sad, but understandable. Everything runs its course, especially in the Internet era, and it's clear that Andrew no longer has the passion that he once had to run the site. Andrew will always have my sincere gratitude, as he published my first major piece of writing, the non-fiction "Captions Without Photos" (for which he also did essential editing, to correct major flaws that a newbie like me couldn't recognize), and also the short story "The Fixer", which is still one of my favorites.

My hat's off to you, Andrew, and I wish you all the best in wherever life takes you next.

December 21, 2015 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

A year (okay, almost a year) of public domain reading

One of my reading goals for 2015 was to read one public domain book per month on my second-generation Kindle. (I'm not a big fan of ebooks, but they're the best way to read old, obscure works that are difficult and/or prohibitively expensive to find in physical form. Project Gutenberg is the best place to find public domain books, and Amazon also has a huge library of free public domain books - if you're using a Kindle, Amazon is also the easiest downloading option.)

In short, I fell short of my goal, reading only nine books and giving up in October. The quality of the books was very uneven, and the low points were low enough to discourage me from continuing on. Also hindering me was taking up guitar in September - most of my public domain reading was done in 15-20 minutes right before going to bed, but once I started guitar, that pre-bed time was devoted to practicing instead.

By far the year's standout was J.M. Synge's The Aran Islands. Synge was an Irish playwright who also wrote several books of his immersion in regional cultures, and this book is his account of his time in the remote Arans, off the west coast of Ireland. Synge writes lyrically and touchingly of the Aran people, who were first driven to the desolate islands during the time of Cromwell, where they struggled to scratch out an existence. Even during the time of Synge's visits, more than a hundred years ago, the unique culture of the islands was already slowly yielding to modernity, and it's safe to say that virtually everything he described (other than the rocky terrain, bitter winds and icy sheets of rain) has since vanished. The book is a vibrant relic of a lost culture.

Two books by writers I've long admired were everything and every bit as good as I expected: Jack London's The People of the Abyss and H.L. Mencken's Damn! (a Book of Calumny). London is typically angry and eloquent in telling of the poor people of London's East End (and the unjust social structures that kept them that way), while Mencken is characteristically acerbic and witty as he skewers numerous deserving targets of his day.

On the flip side, as a longtime fan of the humorists Ring Lardner and George Ade, I was greatly disappointed by Lardner's The Real Dope and Ade's Fables in Slang. Lardner returns to the character Jack Keefe, the semi-literate ballplayer made famous in the excellent You Know Me Al, as Keefe reluctantly leaves the big leagues to fight in World War I. Separated from the baseball context which Lardner knew so well, Keefe's character becomes thinly-drawn, unfunny and generally unpleasant to be around. Ade's fables, though mildly amusing at first, are ethereal and ultimately forgettable. I've already forgotten pretty much all of them, after just a few months.

Also pleasantly humorous but forgettable (but not suffering from disappointment of being by a writer I admired, as with Lardner and Ade) are Eugene Field's The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac (I consider myself a bibliomaniac, and thus enjoyed spending time with a kindred spirit), and George Lorimer's Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son, which suffers greatly from endless repetition. Lorimer wrote these pieces as a newspaper columnist, and clearly on a deadline, to their long-term detriment. Despite its stellar reputation, Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater was a dud - if you're going to use that title, your book had better be the harrowing travails of an addict. Instead, it's wordy and digressive and slow to ever get to the point - assuming it ever got to the point. I wouldn't know, since I gave up halfway through. And the less said about John Richardson's racist and badly-written Hardscrabble; or, the fall of Chicago. a tale of Indian warfare, the better (I won't even bother linking to it).

De Quincey was the final straw - after reading this and several duds just before it, I gave up. I'm a sucker for old books and will undoubtedly read from the public domain regularly in the future (and probably on a Kindle), but I doubt it will ever be another rigid, year-long project like this one.

December 20, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

"...not even to grow old..."

Gilbert Seldes, on writers and commercial success.

Perhaps the most disastrous effect of popularity on a writer is that he is encouraged to stick to the form, or formula, which first caught the public fancy. He is rather like a star in the movies who cannot break out of an established character for fear of "losing her audience." The writer in such a case is asked not to grow; not even to grow old. But the only way to stop growth is to die; and some writers do this, while they continue to write.

Seldes writes this in the introduction to The Portable Ring Lardner, a 1946 collection which he also edited and which I've read several times, each time with genuine pleasure. Lardner was one of America's great satirists, but is mostly remembered today (if remembered at all) only for You Know Me Al. Seldes did an excellent job of curating the collection with Lardner's best work, which must have been quite a task - Seldes, while a great admirer of Lardner's work, readily admitted that the writer was over-published in book form, especially his journalistic pieces. He even draws a parallel to Twain: "The long run usually hardest on writers who work for the next issue; and both Twain and Lardner are improved by severe culling."

I had forgotten about Seldes until this morning, when I happened to read about the passing of his son, the longtime literary agent Timothy Seldes. The name Gilbert Seldes struck me, and I racked my memory to remember where I knew him from. The list of works on his Wikipedia page finally reminded me about the Lardner collection, which I plucked from the shelf and enjoyed reading Seldes' introductory essay again. Another reading of the book itself can't be too far ahead.

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


"We are part animal. Humanity is an aspiration, not a fact of everyday life." - William McIlvanney

December 13, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"War against a foreign country only happens when the moneyed classes think they are going to profit from it." - George Orwell

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

Leaving home

Patrick Wensink, on small towns.
What surprised me was that I realized my motivation to explore small town America was from guilt. Here I was, pontificating on why little towns and villages fail and it became clear that people like me are just as much to blame as factory work going overseas. Pretty much everyone I graduated with that went to college moved away.
Wensink and I are fellow contributors to the Daddy Cool anthology that came out a few years ago, and last year at a Ben Tanzer book release party I heard Wensink read a hilarious piece about his brief stint as a KFC taste-tester (I believe it was called "Optional Hushpuppies") that really grabbed me. Remembering that piece, and now seeing his thoughts on small towns - a favorite subject of mine - has me wanting to read his latest book, Fake Fruit Factory. Sounds hilarious.

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


I'm not writing much these days, so National Novel Writing Month no longer interests me much. But I'm reading as much as ever, so when Austin Kleon came up with National Novel Reading Month - sharing one great novel for each day in November - I was totally up for it. So, to save you the trouble of scrolling through my Twitter feed, here are the thirty novels that I shared, along with my one- and two-sentence reviews (140-character maximum, remember!).

Knut Hamsun, Hunger: My favorite novel for the past 30 years, and most likely the rest of my life. Brilliant on so many levels.

Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm: Gritty Chicago streets and the people who can't escape them, nor escape themselves.

Kent Haruf, Plainsong: An unforgettable portrait of a small town and the intertwining lives of its people.

Bohumil Hrabal, Too Loud a Solitude: A solitary reader and his rapidly vanishing world.

Tarjei Vesaas, The Birds: A young boy doubts he has any place in the world. Mournful, heartbreaking, delicate, beautiful.

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man: A narrator who is seen only as an abstraction, when he is even seen at all.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: Devastating story of daily survival.

James T. Farrell, Young Lonigan: Portrait of the hoodlum as a young man. JTF should have stopped here, and not done a trilogy.

Sinclair Lewis, Babbitt: The only bigoted, misogynist, hypocritical buffoonish blowhard you'll ever love.

Cormac McCarthy, The Road: Father and son keep moving, but have nowhere to go.

O.E. Rølvaag, Giants In The Earth: High-flown dreams meet bitter reality, in 1870s pioneer South Dakota.

Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener: Clerk refuses work, unclear on exactly what he does prefer to do. Proto office fiction.

Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project: Lazarus rises, not from the dead, but from the fog of forgotten history.

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day: An aging butler muses on a vanishing way of life, wonders if it was all worth it.

Ian McEwan, Atonement: Small incidents escalate into enormous problems. The Dunkirk section is jaw-droppingly intense.

Matt Bell, The Collectors: Tragic, devastating portrait of two reclusive, hoarding brothers.

Tom Williams, The Mimic's Own Voice: Wonderfully inventive fictional biography of the world's greatest professional mimic.

Virginia Lee Burton, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel: A story and life lesson that will always be with me.

Nick Hornby, High Fidelity: The adult male human, and its strange habitat and baffling behavior.

Jack London, White Fang: Life amidst the threatening, merciless, deadly wilderness.

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath: The American Dream turns dark, but might, just might, brighten after all.

Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels: Humanity's foibles on vivid display, in perhaps the greatest satire ever written.

Ander Monson, Other Electricities: Lost, lonely souls reach across a harsh, endless winter, desperate to connect.

J.F. Powers, Morte d'Urban: A 1950s Catholic priest, not so much a man of faith but instead a businessman and promoter.

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God: Unforgettable portrait of a defiant woman who will not be defeated.

Daniel Woodrell, Winter's Bone: Fearless teenager fights for her family in the harsh, unforgiving Ozarks.

John Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer: A riot of characters in a riotous city during a riotous time.

Hjalmar Söderberg, Doctor Glas: Vague longing and distant empathy cause an act that ends up not as altruistic as intended.

Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides: Five tragic sisters and the boys who can't stop watching them, but only from a distance.

Upton Sinclair, The Jungle: Poor, naive immigrants are crushed by capitalism at its unrestrained worst.

December 6, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (3)

"...whoop for Genesis undefiled..."

"It is an old and bitter observation that, in armed conflicts, the peacemaker frequently gets the worst of it. The truth of the fact is being demonstrated anew in the case of the Tennessee pedagogue accused of teaching Evolution. No matter what the issue of that great moral cause, it seems to me very unlikely that either of the principal parties will be greatly shaken. The Evolutionists will go on demonstrating, believing in and teaching the mutability of living forms, and the Ku Klux theologians will continue to whoop for Genesis undefiled."
- H.L. Mencken, "The Tennessee Circus" (collected in A Religious Orgy in Tennessee)

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

Forgotten bookmark

image from http://www.boogaj.com/.a/6a00d83451ce9f69e201b7c7f4c3ba970b-pi

Post-it Note, with Julie's jottings for potential purchases at Egghead Software and ubid.com. Found inside Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (Signet, 1978).

December 3, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"The theme of displacement is very natural for me. It always comes up in my books because I have been a foreigner all my life and I don’t feel I belong anywhere. I’m an immigrant." - Isabel Allende

December 3, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)