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"The rebels wanted to storm the Bastille of the imagination since they did not have the numbers or the arms to storm the real one."

As I wind down another Irish March, how fitting it is to read these reflections on the Easter Rising (which happened 100 years ago next month) by Irish writers Colm Toibin, Anne Enright, Roddy Doyle and others. Doyle's novel A Star Called Henry captures the doomed rebellion quite well, and is very much worth your time.

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


"Sometimes God hands you a novel. You'd better write it." - Jim Harrison

And sometimes you never get around to reading a prolific, well-regarded author while he's still around.

March 27, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“I am always full of apprehension and nerves.”

I was pleasantly surprised to read this profile of Edna O'Brien in the NYT this afternoon. I happen to be reading and enjoying her novel Wild Decembers right now, and for some reason I was under the impression that she passed away a few years ago. But not only is she still with us, but also still writing - her latest novel, The Little Red Chairs, has its U.S. release this week. Wild Decembers is the first book of hers that I've read, and I'm looking forward to reading many more - and with a writer I enjoy, there's always a special feeling knowing that they're out there, with unwritten books still in their imaginations, waiting to be written.

March 27, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


“Men of my generation have had Spain in our hearts. It was there that they learned...that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit and that there are times when courage is not rewarded.” - Albert Camus

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


“If I die...don’t let Bob sing.” - Paul Westerberg

March 23, 2016 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)


"Most of us are heathens in the innermost recesses of our hearts." - H.P. Lovecraft

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


"In contemporary novels, older people are almost always props whose significance is only the degree to which their existence affects younger characters." - Kevin Guilfoile

Kevin's thoughts dovetail neatly with my thoughts about Anne Enright's The Green Road, which I just finished yesterday. I wanted far more Rosaleen Madigan, and far less of her kids.

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

"A Different Darkness at Noon"

New York Review of Books has the fascinating backstory on Arthur Koestler's great anti-totalitarian novel Darkness at Noon. The original manuscript (written in German) was lost during World War II; presciently, Koestler saw the need for an English translation, which was undertaken by his girlfriend Daphne Hardy while Koestler was still writing the original. Years later, with the German original having been lost, Koestler translated the book back into German from Hardy's English translation, which up until now has been the source document for translations into 30-plus other languages. As the writer of the article, Michael Scammell, notes, Darkness at Noon is a rare example of a work of literature known only in translation.

And now, remarkably, the original German manuscript has been found. Scammell has read the original and claims that Hardy's English translation is a fairly poor representation of the original (Hardy was apparently less than fully fluent in German) with the original being far superior. The funny thing is that I noticed hardly any shortcomings in the standard English translation that I read and loved - which makes me marvel at how the book could have been possibly have been so much stronger, as Scammell claims. ("...it is a tribute to the quality of Darkness at Noon that it has had such a strong impact on readers despite this [translation] handicap," Scammell writes.)

The original manuscript will soon be published in German, and I'm eager to someday read a new, more accomplished English translation.

March 16, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

John Lee Hooker, Alone


This week's vinyl digitization is Alone, an out-of-print 1970 compilation of John Lee Hooker sides originally recorded between 1948 and 1951. The sound is heavily rhythmic, stripped-down and raw - most of the songs are just Hooker, with his voice accompanied only by his guitar for melody and his stomping foot for percussion. And with a unique recording method, as explained in this Wikipedia entry for Hooker's first hit, "Boogie Chillen'":

To make the sound fuller, a microphone was set up in a pallet that was placed under Hooker's foot. According to Besman's account, a primitive echo-chamber effect was created by feeding Hooker's foot-stomp rhythm into a speaker in a toilet bowl, which in turn was miked and returned to a speaker in the studio in front of Hooker's guitar, thus giving it a "big" or more ambient sound.

Everything here is so good, and the sound so consistent, that it's hard to single out just one song, so I'll give the nod to "Boogie Chillen' #2", the followup to his first hit. It's a great tune, and also an example of Hooker's relentless drive to record and sell songs (his motto was "You pay, I play"), which lead him to cut dizzying number of recordings, many under pseudonyms (my favorite of which is "Birmingham Sam and his Magic Guitar").

I was heavily into blues from my freshman year in college through the first few years after graduation, and Hooker was my blues god. I was no completist of his work (given his prodigious output, that would have bankrupted me) and had only about a half dozen of his albums, but I listened to them obsessively, especially Alone. Like most of my blues vinyl, right after I bought this I made a cassette copy for listening in order to preserve the LP in pristine condition. My car doesn't even have a cassette player, so other than digging out my old Walkman and burning through batteries, I've had no good way to listen to my blues albums on the go, which is where I do most of my listening these days. I'm hoping this will revive my interest in John Lee Hooker, and the blues in general.

March 13, 2016 in Music | Permalink | Comments (1)

Turk's Head, City Bicycle School, Singer

image from http://www.boogaj.com/.a/6a00d83451ce9f69e201bb08c73029970d-pi

There's so much to love in this 1883 photograph from Aldgate, London: the quaint, gritty buildings (now long gone), the moody fog, the blur of passing traffic, the barrels being delivered by a team of horses. And looking even closer, the signage for Turk's Head Imperial Wine & Spirit Warehouse and the City Bicycle School at Chequer Yard...

image from http://www.boogaj.com/.a/6a00d83451ce9f69e201b8d1acd201970c-pi

...and this fantastic ad for Singer's Sewing Machines...

image from http://www.boogaj.com/.a/6a00d83451ce9f69e201bb08c7315f970d-pi

That's just perfect, how the name is curved into a big S.

March 11, 2016 in History | Permalink | Comments (0)


"The historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like." - E.L. Doctorow

March 8, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"They deserved no better."

I really like this passage from The Green Road, by Anne Enright:
Rosaleen was living in the wrong house, with the wrong colours on the walls, and no telling any more what the right colour might be, even though she had chosen them herself and liked them and lived with them for years. And where could you put yourself: if you could not feel at home in your own home? If the world turned into a series of lines and shapes, with nothing in the pattern to remind you what it was for.

It was time. She would doze in the chair by the range, tonight, she would not lie down. And in the morning she would walk down the town, over the bridge to the auctioneer's. She could get a price for it, apparently; the days when people were put off by the heating bills were gone. The auctioneer was a McGrath - of course - a brother of Dessie, who married her daughter. He had to wet his lips each time she passed; his mouth went dry at the sight of her. Well he could have it. Let the McGraths pick over the carcass of the Considines, they could have Ardeevin and the site at Boolavaun, she would move in with Constance, and die in her own time.

They had all left her. They deserved no better.

The gutters falling into the flowerbeds, the dripping taps, the shut-up room that she had abandoned, over the years. The pity of it - an old woman chased into a corner by her own house.
Rosaleen (Considine) Madigan is an old widow whose adult children (the "they" of that third paragraph) have scattered, leaving her alone in the family house (Ardeevin) which for her no longer feels like home. The children will undoubtedly feel betrayed by her decision, and at my current point in the book she has just begun to summon them to one final Christmas at the old homestead. My guess is that the reunion will be less than amiable.

March 8, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Gear Daddies, Let's Go Scare Al


This week's vinyl digitization is Let's Go Scare Al, the 1988 debut album from the Gear Daddies, a country rock quartet from Austin, Minnesota (hometown of Spam). The album is all about small-town life, largely from the perspective of a narrator who has moved away and is looking back at the limited lives that remain there: the drunks, the no-longer-teenaged metalheads, the lonely housewives who somehow find happiness and contentment. (Anyone who is creeped out by clowns are advised to avoid perusing the album cover, especially the closeup photo on the back. I think that's frontman Martin Zellar in the circus getup.) Though I normally single out one song in these weekly posts, this week I'm going with two favorites: "She's Happy" and "Heavy Metal Boyz".

The sound of the album - released on a tiny independent label, Gark - is raw, plain-spoken and genuine, and still moves me after all this time. But then they moved to a major label, and their next album, while still pretty good, had an obvious studio sheen to it, and was clearly intended for commercial radio airplay. That really didn't happen, with only the hidden track "Zamboni" gaining any success - mostly in hockey arenas between periods, while the ice was being cleaned. They released one more album before breaking up in 1992. It looks like they get back together occasionally for one-off concerts but haven't released any new material since then. I once saw them in concert, at Metro in Chicago, where they were opening for (I think) the Connells. My friend Mike and I arrived a few minutes late, just as the band started their act. I can still remember climbing those last few steps into the auditorium and hearing the opening chords of "Don't Forget Me" echoing through the room, which was still only half-filled as the Connells fans had yet to fully arrive. Few in attendance had probably ever heard of the Gear Daddies, but for me (I had picked up the debut album a few months earlier) they were the better band that night.

March 6, 2016 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...this precocious, grown-up boy of 74..."

Besides being a renowned poet and historian, Carl Sandburg was an avid, if not terribly refined, guitarist. Late in life, he turned to his friend, the great classical guitarist Andres Segovia, for help. Segovia later wrote:

His fingers labor heavily on the strings and he asked for my help in disciplining them. I found that this precocious, grown-up boy of 74 deserved to be taught. There has long existed a brotherly affection between us, thus I accepted him as my pupil. Just as in the case of every prodigy child, we must watch for the efficacy of my teaching to show up in the future - if he should master all the strenuous exercises I inflicted on him.

To play the guitar will devour his three-fold energy as a historian, a poet and a singer. One cause of Schopenhauer's pessimism was the fact that he failed to learn the guitar. I am certain that Carl Sandburg will not fall into the same sad philosophy. The heart of this great poet constantly bubbles forth a generous joy of life - with or without the guitar.

Schopenhauer, failed artist - quite an interesting take. This passage is borrowed from Harry Golden's biography of Sandburg, which I found at a library sale and have been thoroughly enjoying. Segovia's affection for Sandburg was undeniably shared by Golden, whose fondness for the poet bursts out of every page.

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


"In families there are no crimes that cannot be forgiven." - Pat Conroy

As much as I love South Carolina's Lowcountry, I haven't read Conroy, who was pretty much the bard of the region. The sheer heft of his books is certainly steering me away.

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


“Despite my personal failures there must be possible a fiction which, leaving sociology and case histories to the scientists, can arrive at the truth about the human condition, here and now, with all the bright magic of the fairy tale.” - Ralph Ellison

Invisible Man has been one of my favorite books since I first read it, nearly thirty years ago. Though it's been maybe five years since my last rereading, there are just so many scenes from the book that stay with me. The book is that vivid, and vital. In a way it's sad that Ellison never finished another novel (no, Juneteenth wasn't "finished" - even in its published form it was merely a rough draft), but then again, there's something special about publishing a single, perfect novel. Even had Ellison been prolific with fiction, he probably never would have surpassed his debut.

March 5, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Fading Ad: Evergreen Plaza

image from http://www.boogaj.com/.a/6a00d83451ce9f69e201b8d1a81024970c-pi

I took a later train this morning, a local which runs through the Beverly sub-district on the South Side. When I've taken this train in the past, I've always sat on the right side, looking east. But today I sat on the left (west) side for the first time, and was pleased to discover this sign for Evergreen Plaza, which was located at 95th and Western in Evergreen Park and is generally considered to be "the first modern American mall" when it opened in 1952; the Plaza was enclosed in 1966, becoming an indoor mall which was also among the first of its kind. This appears to be a later ad for the Plaza, after it had fallen on hard times and most of its big department stores (other than Carson Pirie Scott) had closed. Left to right, it advertises Goldirox Fine Jewelry, Fiddle Stix (children's clothing), Carson's, Chain Reaction (jewelry), and Gantos (women's clothing).

Evergreen Plaza closed in 2013 and was demolished in late 2015. A new shopping center is being built in its place. Presumably without a Gantos.

March 4, 2016 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)


“If Galileo had said in verse that the world moved, the inquisition might have let him alone.” - Thomas Hardy

March 3, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)