« December 2015 | Main | February 2016 »

The Blasters, Hard Line


My big Christmas gift this year was a Pyle turntable-receiver combo unit, the biggest attraction of which is its USB output. Like most music lovers who came of age up to around the mid 1980s - just before CDs got huge - I have a big stack of vinyl LPs that I haven't listened to in years. My stack (two boxes worth) ended up in the attic when my stereo system was finally stored away. Now, with my new setup, I can finally resuscitate my vinyl collection, and bring it into the digital age by ripping tunes to MP3.

After some practice runs with 7" singles (I have a lot of those, too - many more than I had remembered), yesterday I successfully tackled my first album, the Blasters' final release, Hard Line. Though critics back in the day had issues with the album, seeing it as a somewhat desperate stab at radio airplay, I think it's the strongest album of their too-brief career. (The brothers Phil and Dave Alvin, the creative soul of the band, parted ways during the late 1980s.) Sure, there's a John Mellencamp tune on there (having a Mellencamp connection back in 1985 was seen as commercial move) and the sound is heavier than their earlier albums. But the Mellencamp tune fits in fairly well, though it's clearly inferior to Dave Alvin's songs, and the heavier-ness really works for me. Their early albums sounded almost brittle at times, all trebly and thin. But Hard Line really rocks, and I'm enjoying listening to it again.

You might ask why, if I've always liked the album, why I never bought a digital copy. First, it was out of print for several decades, and never made it onto CD while I was still an avid fan of the band. (In 1985, CDs were still new enough that new releases still came out only in LP and cassette, and didn't necessarily come out in CD.) It looks like it finally came out on a small label in 2010, and on iTunes only recently. A lot of the Hard Line songs have been available in digital Blasters anthologies for a while, but I generally avoid anthologies, preferring to hear the songs in their original album context. And I'm, shall we say...frugal. I've only replaced a handful of my LPs with their digital versions, so I've always hesitated to spend extra money for a digital copy of something that I technically already own (even though it's stashed away in the attic). So making my own digital version was affordable and fun, and kept me busy for a few hours on a winter afternoon.

I plan to digitize an album every weekend for the next several months. Looking forward to it.

January 31, 2016 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

"You never knew what books would come in the door..."

Robert Archambeau shares his fond memories of Ron Ellingsen, co-owner of Chicago's old Aspidistra Bookshop, who recently passed away.
The Aspidistra is a plant, but not just any plant: it’s a plant you can abuse or ignore, but not kill.  You can put your cigarette butts out in its soil and it will keep growing.  You can put it in a coat closet for a month with no light and no water and it’ll laugh the experience off.  For Ron, it was an apt symbol not just for his bookshop, but for literary culture as a whole.
I passed the store many times - they always had sale shelves outside on the sidewalk - but never stopped in. And every time Robert reminisces about it on his blog, I really wish I had. Sounds like it was a unique place.

January 30, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"Better a cruel truth than a comfortable delusion." - Edward Abbey

January 29, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"My loins trembled as the scent of toupee adhesive and spray tan swept through my nasal cavity."

I think I just found the next book to read. Dubious literary merit aside, it will certainly be more entertaining than Marilynne Robinson.

January 26, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...in the bloodpot of human hearts..."

Like father, like son.
I suppose
Old Man Trump knows
Just how much
Racial Hate
he stirred up
In the bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed
That color line
Here at his
Eighteen hundred family project...
- Woody Guthrie

January 25, 2016 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Big Rock Candy Mountain"

No, it's not the famous folk song of the same name. Instead it's the immortal pairing of Beat Happening's Calvin Johnson and Built To Spill's Doug Martsch. And I'm posting this simply because it's Friday, and we all need a goofy groove.

January 22, 2016 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)


"My imagination functions much better when I don't have to speak to people." - Patricia Highsmith

Preach it, sister.

January 21, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Good Friday and Easter Sunday

At Belt Magazine, Mark Athitakis interviews author and Joliet native Patrick Michael Finn.
They definitely have a side of Good Friday. I think at that time I was writing them, I just had such a young, angry doomsday view of the world. What I’m trying to write now, I certainly want a lot more Easter Sunday in it. I want to have more of the joy in it.
I enjoyed Finn's story collection From the Darkness Right Under Our Feet and still need to hunt down his novella, A Martyr for Suzy Kosasovitch - both books are set in Joliet, a genuine rarity. From the interview, however, it seems like his next book will instead be set in the Southwest, where he has lived since high school. Though that change will be Joliet's loss, it will better reflect the happier person he is now, and his fiction will undoubtedly be stronger for it.

January 20, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was 'well timed' in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word 'Wait!' It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.' We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that 'justice too long delayed is justice denied.'" - Martin Luther King, Jr.

January 18, 2016 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

"There were hundreds of these scruffy dusty old shops with proprietors who were commonly more interested in the book they were reading behind the counter than in any customer."


At Spitalfields Life, "The Gentle Author" shares his charming story of collecting the first one hundred Penguin paperbacks.

I can't help but be reminded of my own job-hunting story, twenty-plus years ago, when I rode the train from my parents' house into Chicago for job interviews. But even at that relatively late date, the days of downtown Chicago bookstores were already long gone, and so instead of the pleasant discovery of good used books, after the interviews I had to settle for a solitary beer at a bar near the train station, while waiting for the next departure home.

January 17, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"We can beat them, just for one day."

From "Distopian Dream Girl", by Built to Spill:
My stepfather looks
Just like David Bowie
But he hates David Bowie
I think Bowie's cool
I think Lodger rules
And my stepdad's a fool
I was never a big fan of Bowie (I didn't even know Lodger is one of his albums, until I looked it up this morning), but can't help pausing this week to reflect on his greatness. And I'll always love "Rebel Rebel", "Heroes" and "Ziggy Stardust." Rest well, sir.

January 14, 2016 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)


"As frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background. We can’t afford to go down that path. It won’t deliver the economy we want, or the security we want, but most of all, it contradicts everything that makes us the envy of the world." - Barack Obama

January 13, 2016 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Lord of the Ratios"

I just rediscovered this pseudo-story - my somewhat inspired effort to reimagine my dull banker workday as an epic quest. I wrote it as a series of Facebook status updates, back in January 2011.

Lord of the Ratios

Peter Anderson...

...sets off on an epic quest, armed with nothing but his wits and willful spirit, to his destiny - a commuter train, a non descript office and a dragon's horde of credit approvals. The august and lordly loan committee awaits.

...mounts the noble steed Metra and journeys from the Golden City of Joliet, through the riverside villages Lockport and Lemont, then the forest idyll of Willow Springs and verdant glade of Summit. At last he arrives at the forbidding fortress of Chicago, breaching it by stealth through the tunnel under the old post office.

...arrives at the council chamber and meets his fellow thains, and together they address the assembly: Lord Lynculf and Prince Rynnel, High Priest Morthgar and Crown Prince Hophemil, and at the head of the immense table, King Brusstal the Valorous, kindly ruler and hero of past wars.

...and the other thanes - Cristeff, Gawain, Jolgor - humbly make their request: land for the forge, gold for the warehouseman and continued favor for the livery.

...leaves the chamber, the council having merely grunted its assent, yet he feels no sense of triumph. He settles into his quarters for the rest of the workday, knowing this less-than-epic quest will resume the next week, and every week after.

...thus concludes the Lord Of The Ratios saga.

January 12, 2016 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (1)

A few reading resolutions...

...for 2016:

+ Ten novels or story collections written by women. My record of reading women writers is sorely lacking. The next book on my list is Marilynne Robinson's Gilead; also high on my list are Carson McCullers, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Margaret Atwood, Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty.

+ One Kurt Vonnegut novel per quarter. He's Julie's favorite writer and was very prolific, but I haven't read nearly as much of his as I should - and we own pretty much every book he ever wrote, so I really have no excuse for my record so far. I'm currently reading Breakfast of Champions.

+ Following on last year's Summer of Melville, this year I'm leaning toward a Summer of Steinbeck. Again, another great writer I haven't read much of. I loved The Grapes of Wrath when I read it ten-plus years ago, and am currently dabbling in his non-fiction A Russian Journal, but that's it so far.

This will probably be all the formal reading resolutions I have for this year - depending on the length of the Steinbeck novels I choose (I have a big collection of his short novels that I'll surely draw on heavily), these resolutions will account for around twenty books, out of my goal of forty-five total for the year. And I like to freestyle my reading choices too much to tie myself down with any more resolutions. That said, I do intend to pursue the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge, but a lot of these "resolution books" will also meet the Book Riot qualifications, so I'll only have to choose a few books specifically for the challenge.

January 11, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"My entire career, I’ve only really worked with the same subject matter. The trousers may change, but the actual words and subjects I’ve always chosen to write with are things to do with isolation, abandonment, fear and anxiety, all of the high points of one’s life." - David Bowie (1947-2016)

January 11, 2016 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fading Ad: Hild Floor Machine Company


Here is the most humble type of fading ad: the alley parking sign. This one (at 1217 W. Washington) isn't much aesthetically, though the history of the company, the Hild Floor Machine Company, is somewhat interesting. Hild - a manufacturer of commercial floor scrubbers and buffers - started business in 1927 at 1313 W. Randolph, just one block away from this sign. Then, according to this 1948 article in the Tribune, the company was to build a new headquarters and manufacturing facility a few blocks east, on the northeast corner of Halsted and Washington.

Although the article references only a 150 sq. ft. parcel, the accompanying photo suggests a sprawling structure that seems to take up the entire southern half of the block that was bounded by Halsted, Washington, Randolph and Union. The larger structure depicted in the article was apparently never built - there are pre-1948 buildings still standing on what would have been the eastern portion of the facility. My guess is that the two-story structure shown right at the corner was indeed built (there is a 1990s-vintage bank branch there now) but not the rest. Regardless, the larger structure wouldn't have survived for long anyway - the eastern half of the block, including Union Avenue, was demolished for construction of the Kennedy Expressway in the early 1960s.

The company was acquired by California-based Mytee Products in 2000, and Hild equipment is no longer manufactured in Chicago. The sign appears to be from the sixties or seventies - I assume that the company operated at 1217 W. Washington after downsizing from the Halsted & Washington facility, though I can't find any confirmation of this.

January 10, 2016 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

"It’s a book for anyone who feels they’ve ever held themselves back when something that truly mattered was within their grasp."

At The Guardian, Peter Beech shares his deep appreciation for Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, one of the finest books I've read during the past several years. In fact, though I almost exclusively give books as Christmas gifts, Ishiguro's great novel is one of the few that I've given more than once.

January 7, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

"...fairness or brotherhood or hope or happiness..."

The narrator of Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions has just finished describing the American flag and "The Star Spangled Banner", and moves on to the national motto:
The motto of Dwayne Hoover's and Kilgore Trout's nation was this, which meant in a language nobody spoke anymore, Out of Many, One: "E pluribus unum."

The undippable flag was a beauty, and the anthem and the vacant motto might not have mattered much, if it weren't for this: a lot of the citizens were so ignored and cheated and insulted that they thought they might be in the wrong country, or even on the wrong planet, that some terrible mistake had been made. It might have comforted them some if their anthem and their motto had mentioned fairness or brotherhood or hope or happiness, had somehow welcomed them to the society and its real estate.
Familiar sentiment, especially from Vonnegut. My only surprise is that he didn't discuss the country's secondary motto: "In God We Trust." He could have gotten a lot of mileage out of that one.

January 6, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Structured Reading: Willa Cather's Great Plains Trilogy

About a month ago, I finished my latest Structured Reading, with the three books of Willa Cather's "Great Plains Trilogy" (O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark and My Antonia). The reason I haven't commented until now is that I was, quite frankly, unimpressed with the books. Which puzzles me - given Cather's stellar reputation and subject matter, I thought I would love these. Which certainly isn't the case.

First off, it's strange that the books are presented under the "Great Plains Trilogy" moniker, since they really aren't a trilogy. There's no real connection between the books, with no overlapping characters or even much common geography (the second is even set in the big cities of Chicago and New York as much as in small-town Colorado); I suspect that writing a trilogy wasn't Cather's intent, with the trilogy concept instead being the creation of a publisher in search of a marketing angle.

Though many of the details of the three books are already slipping away, one thing that still strikes me about the books (and maybe Cather in general - I haven't read anything else by her) is how distant the narrative is from the stories and characters. In O Pioneers!, the most compelling portions of the Bergson family story (the patriarch's first breaking of the desolate, arid land, and daughter Alexandra's later assemblage of various land parcels into a veritable empire) aren't presented at all, but only referenced in summary after the fact. Instead, the story shows the Bergsons after they've become established, which is mildly interesting but not as much so as reading about their struggles would have been.

Similarly, The Song of the Lark has little conflict or tension, as Thea Kronborg makes a steady ascent from small-town preacher's daughter to big-city opera star; unfortunately, her character is such a self-centered diva that it's hard to cheer for her (unlike the appealing Alexandra Bergson, who is easy to empathize with). Cather also mostly avoids directly illustrating most of Thea's daily life, with the reader's impressions of her largely coming only second-hand, through the windy observations of the series of men who endlessly fawn over her.

My Antonia was a major disappointment, and probably my least favorite of the three books. This is partly due to expectations - I assumed that the story would revolve tightly around Antonia Shimerda's headstrong, free-spirited personality. But to me Antonia didn't even feel like a major character - she was absent for long stretches of the narrative, and the narrator seemed just as eager to describe his own life and numerous other characters as much as Antonia. And at a more basic level, my subdued response to the book is because the basic story (that of Antonia, the narrator and the others) just never seemed to amount to much.

In all three books, Cather writes beautifully, and especially about the natural world - when her characters interact with nature, the results are often quite moving. But her characters and stories just didn't do much for me. I doubt that I'll read any of her other books, and O Pioneers! is the only one I would consider re-reading.

January 5, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"Laugh at them. Be flippant. Laugh at everything, all their sacred shibboleths. Flippancy brings out the acid in their damned sweetness and light." - Noël Coward, Private Lives

January 5, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Good Reading 2015

As always, this list covers books read during 2015, regardless of publication year. I rarely stay current with new releases, and whatever books I do acquire tend to simmer on my shelf for months and even years before I finally crack them open. The envelope, please…

Top Ten:
1. Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon (review)
2. John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me (review)
3. Harry Mark Petrakis, A Petrakis Reader (review)
4. Bohumil Hrabal, Closely Watched Trains (review)
5. Ben Tanzer, After the Flood (review)
6. William Maxwell, They Came Like Swallows (review)
7. John Darnielle, Wolf in White Van (review)
8. Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Spinoza of Market Street (review)
9. Joseph G. Peterson, Gideon's Confession (review)
10. H.L. Mencken, A Religious Orgy in Tennessee (review)

Honorable mention: Pär Lagerkvist, The Sibyl; J.M. Synge, The Aran Islands; Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; Willa Cather, O Pioneers!; Tom Williams, Don't Start Me Talkin'; Jack London, The People Of The Abyss; John Williams, Stoner; Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games trilogy.

Re-readings: Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener; F. Richard Ciccone, Royko: A Life In Print

As I started to compile this list, my first thought was that it hadn't been a very good year in reading, but as I looked over the titles I realized that impression was mostly due to having devoted so much time (four or five months) to Herman Melville and Willa Cather, both of whom underwhelmed me (though I did admire O Pioneers!, and give Melville a lot of credit for the sheer audacity of Moby-Dick). I finally realized that it was indeed a very good year, which is really underscored by the high quality of books that only made honorable mention - especially Lagerkvist and Synge, whose books I enjoyed enough to give as Christmas gifts.

Toni Morrison, quite frankly, blew me away - this is the first time I've ever read her, and I'm now really looking forward to digging deeper into her work. Same for Petrakis, a longtime Chicago writer who for some reason I had never gotten around to reading. And John Howard Griffin's landmark book should be required reading in every high school in America, especially during this era of racial divisiveness.

My friends Ben Tanzer and Joe Peterson came through again, my old favorites Hrabal, Singer, Mencken and Maxwell again failed to disappoint, and John Darnielle proved himself to be every bit as great a novelist as he is a songwriter.

I read a personal record of fifty books this year (due to both diligence and favoring shorter books), and I'm aiming for forty-five this year. I don't have any specific reading projects in mind right now, other than to read many more female authors than I have in the past.

2014 List
2013 List
2012 List
2011 List
2010 List
2009 List
2008 List
2007 List
2006 List
2005 List
2004 List
2003 List
2002 List

January 1, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)