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"When bankers get together for dinner, they discuss Art. When artists get together for dinner, they discuss Money." - Oscar Wilde

(I don't know what sort of boho bankers Wilde hung out with, but the next Art discussion heard at my bank will be the first.)

April 25, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

"We see our own efforts, dreams and imperfections in these honest or shady lawyers, these scammers and fixers struggling to keep from going under, seeking love and approval in obviously the wrong places."

Francine Prose on Better Call Saul, which is probably the best show on TV right now. It's almost as good as Breaking Bad, which I think is the best show ever.

April 24, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...luxuriating in six feet of clearance..."


This is my unexpectedly large haul from this weekend’s Joliet Public Library book sale: a Margaret Atwood essay collection, a John McPhee themed essay collection about freight handlers, Eudora Welty’s 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and an anthology of Irish stories that I plan to read for next year’s Irish March.

I’m particularly interested in McPhee's Uncommon Carriers, and specifically “Tight-Assed River”, his piece about his excursion on an Illinois River barge (over a thousand feet long, and longer than the Queen Mary luxury liner) and its towboat, the Billy Joe Boling. Here is part of his description of the pilot’s navigation through the narrow support piers of a railroad bridge in Pekin:

Fifty feet from the bridge, and his head corner on the port side is lined up so that is should miss the nearest pier by six feet. He is steering the Queen Mary up an undersized river and he is luxuriating in six feet of clearance. Meanwhile - back here a fifth of a mile - the dry riverbank is ten feet behind the stern rail. The stern is so close to the bank you could almost jump off without getting your feet wet.

The entire passage is quietly thrilling, especially while the pilot and McPhee listen to one of the mates (standing on the front end of the barge, a "fifth of a mile" away) over a walkie-talkie, calling out the steadily narrowing distance between the barge and the pier. Later, after the bridge has been safely cleared, the pilot matter-of-factly explains that he steers the barge as closely to one pier as he can, knowing that by the time the entire thousand feet of barge has passed, the river current will shift the barge almost all the way to the other side. The towboat only clears the opposite pier by a few feet.

Last night, even though I’m already in the middle of two other books, I couldn’t resist diving into “Tight-Assed River.” I’ve wanted to read the piece for years, ever since I first conceived a short story about a river deckhand who is also a mostly absentee husband and father. The story was inspired by James McMurtry’s lovely “Song for a Deck Hand’s Daughter”, but with the song being told from the daughter’s perspective and offering no details of a deckhand’s work life, I realized I would have to turn elsewhere for background. I knew McPhee’s barge piece was out there, and it’s been in my mind ever since, even though the short story is long behind me and likely will never be finished. But at least I’m finally reading “Tight-Assed River”, and really enjoying it.

April 24, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (0)


"My Grandfather Frazee had spoken rather contemptuously of poets in my self-important infant presence. He said they were clever men, and we liked to memorize long passages from their works, and it was eminently desirable that we should do so. But almost all of them had a screw loose somewhere." - Vachel Lindsay

April 23, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...the barrier between the living and the dead is dissolved..."

In Aharon Appelfeld's Laish, the titular protagonist is a fifteen-year-old orphan traveling with a ragtag group of Jewish pilgrims through eastern Europe, bound (or so they hope) for the Holy Land.
I love the evening prayers. During them, more so than during any of the other prayers, I sense the presence of my parents, who were cut off from me. For days on end I may not think of them or recall them, but sometimes during the evening prayers they rise from the dead and are pulled toward me, and the barrier between the living and the dead is dissolved. Not that this miracle occurs every evening. On the contrary; at times during the evening prayers a bitter mood descends upon me. It darkens my eyes, and I feel my orphanhood all the more keenly; it is as if my life is not rooted in the world and I want to disappear...

April 19, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Death and taxes*

In honor of Tax Day (which, for some reason, is April 18 this year), Robin Bates posts a poem by Edward Guest, which includes this stanza:

But when I reflect on the city I love,
With its sewers below and its pavements above,
And its schools and its parks where children may play
I can see what I get for the money I pay.
And I say to myself: “Little joy would we know
If we kept all our money and spent it alone.”

Or, as Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, more concisely though less poetically, "Taxes are what we pay for civilized society."

(*It's often said that the only two sure things are death and taxes. During this endless presidential campaign, I would suggest a third sure thing: political acrimony.)

April 17, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Randolph Street, then and now (and still sort of then)


Since I started working in Chicago's West Loop and walking around the neighborhood, I was long puzzled by this stretch of Randolph Street (looking west from Desplaines), and why it was extra wide, with the buildings set far back from the main part of the street. The buildings are so far back that there is an extra service lane on each side of the street, which allows rare-for-Chicago diagonal parking. (You can see one service lane on the right side of this photo.)

Then, a few weeks ago, the wonderful photoblog Calumet 412 solved the mystery: 


The city's old West Market Hall once stood right in the middle of Randolph Street, at the exact spot where the cars are lined up in the center of my photo. With this important structure being sited there, the adjacent lots on each side of Randolph had to be set back to allow room for traffic to flow around the building. All of which now makes perfect sense to me.

In the old illustration, Desplaines Street is the horizontal street abutted by West Market Hall; the next street up (west) is Union Avenue, most of which was removed for construction of the Kennedy Expressway, and the next street west is Halsted Street. (My office is now located at the upper left corner of the illustration, on what appeared to have then been a small homestead.) Interestingly, although Randolph west of Halsted appears to have originally been a street of normal width, it now has the same service drives as the stretch between Desplaines and Halsted. The street must have been widened and those drives added after the time of this illustration, to accommodate the wholesale food market that later developed along Randolph. Though a lot of wholesalers still operate there, the area is rapidly redeveloping and the old companies are slowing being priced out the neighborhood.

April 16, 2016 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)


"If you can't annoy somebody, there is little point in writing." - Kingsley Amis

April 16, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"I was never capable of writing. Writing is a miracle. A meaningful sentence, a meaningful chapter is a miracle. It was so when I began, and it is so now." - Aharon Appelfeld

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


"Hollywood is where people go to both lose and find themselves. In that respect it's like college for subliterates." - Nathan Rabin

I was pleased to recently find a used copy of the 2008 collection Field-Tested Books at a local book store. Coudal Partners actually published a field-tested book essay of my own (about reading Nick Hornby's High Fidelity while on my honeymoon) online, but only after the book came out. My only regret is that they haven't published a second collection, which might have included my piece.

April 11, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

"...a lure to cheerfulness..."

In Harry Mark Petrakis' Twilight of the Ice, recovering alcoholic Rafer Martin will soon start work as a dispatcher at a Chicago ice house. But first, he has to once again adjust to life after rehab.
He came out dry and shaken, not certain he'd been cured of his longing for a drink and afraid that he might falter once again. He'd been through these programs several times in the past and knew each lapse brought him closer to the legion of lost drunks. These men huddled in doorways or in alleys, clutching pints of wine the way a mother holds her child. What provided him a little hope was that once before, after a sobriety program, he'd remained dry for almost three months.

Those first days after sobering were always the hardest. Every package liquor store was a lure to cheerfulness, every bar a threshold to euphoria.
I'm enjoying the book so far, though I'm not as enthralled as I was with A Petrakis Reader, which I read last year (and which also includes the short story that was the genesis for this novel). When Petrakis focuses on specific scenes and dialogue, he's marvelous, but many of his expository passages (not including the one above, which I really like) seem stiff in comparison.

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


"The summer came and went quickly which is the nature of summer for people who are not children, those lucky ones to whom clocks are of no consequence but who drift along on the true emotional content of time." - Jim Harrison, The Summer He Didn't Die

So much wisdom there. I remember those summers of my childhood that never seemed to end, a feeling that I'll soon experience again, albeit secondhand, as Maddie finishes her first year of high school. Previously, while she was home-schooled, summer was somewhat informal, but now it will surely be a more discreet period of time for her.

As I mentioned earlier, I intend to finally get around to reading Harrison. Fortunately for me, as I've discovered this week, he's well-represented at both the library and the book store.

April 3, 2016 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

“Germany is the only country that apologized.”

Melville House's Dennis Johnson writes a fine remembrance of Nobel laureate Imre Kertész, who passed away recently at age 93. Interesting that the author returned in his waning years to his native Hungary, despite the country's collaboration in the Holocaust, and also came to develop a respect for Germany and its official contrition for its past. I suspect that ethnic displacement is a theme of Kertész's work, along with, of course, the Holocaust itself. I've never read Kertész but am pleased to see that Melville has published four of his books, including two titles in its Art of the Novella series, of which I'm a big fan. I've added The Pathseeker to my list.

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

"...it is a harder belief to make articulate..."

Near the end of his 1961 biography of Carl Sandburg, Harry Golden gets at the essence of what made the poet so distinctive:

Sandburg has roamed America listening to people talk, watching them work, hoping they made the money they had to make or got the bushel yield per acre they had to get, or the shorter workday they agitated for. His instincts are with the people. He believes they have an infinite capacity for good.

Not only is this a hard belief for many people to hold, but if they do, it is a harder belief to make articulate. There are politicians who swear to it, ministers who preach it, orators who shout it over the gossiping audience, and television personalities who praise it. But none of them are able to say it as simply as Carl Sandburg said it: "The people, yes."

That last phrase is a reference to The People, Yes, Sandburg's book-length poetic ode to the American people. The book is tempting me, but I'm just as daunted by its 300 pages of free verse possibly becoming overly repetitive and monotonous. After all, I only got through a hundred pages of Leaves of Grass before the repetition drove me away. The one saving grace would be Sandburg talking about other people, rather than Whitman mostly talking about himself.

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