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Good Reading 2018

Another interesting year of reading. Here's my list - as always, it's books that I read this year, not books that were published this year.

1. Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca
2. Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs (Review)
3. Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl (Review)
4. Pearl Swiggum, Stump Ridge Farm/Barn Came First (Review)
5. Eudora Welty, The Golden Apples (Review)
6. Rebecca Solnit, The Mother of All Questions (Review)
7. Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (Review)
8. Eudora Welty, A Curtain of Green and Other Stories
9. Katherine A. Solomonson, The Chicago Tribune Tower Competition (Review)
10. Megan Stielstra, Once I Was Cool (Review)

Honorable Mentions: Val Mulkerns, Very Like A Whale; Edna O'Brien, The Little Red Chairs; Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness; Ursula Le Guin, No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters; Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead; Maeve Brennan, The Springs of Affection; Kate Chopin, At Fault

Rereadings: Astrid Lindgren, Pippi Longstocking

+ This year was devoted to reading nothing but female writers. (With a caveat: I didn't think of the concept until mid-January, after I had read two books, one written by a male, and another edited by a male. Though the latter, an essay collection, did include numerous female writers.) Which opened my eyes to a broader range of perspectives than I would otherwise experience.
+ The other big theme was my Summer of Welty - nothing but Eudora Welty short stories - that was greatly rewarding. In fact, this entire year could have been called The Year of Welty; besides the two books listed here, I also read the story collections The Bride of the Innisfallen and Thirteen Stories, the memoir One Writer's Beginnings, and the novella Delta Wedding.
+ Rebecca was one of the creepiest books I've read in a long time, which is all the more remarkable given that it wasn't really written as horror.
+ The Country of the Pointed Firs was an unexpected delight (thank you, Paul Lamble), sort of cross between Winesburg, Ohio and J.M. Synge's The Aran Islands, but set in coastal Maine. Also delightful were the Pearl Swiggum books (they're effectively one book, but in two slim volumes); Pearl was a small-town Wisconsin newspaper columnist who wrote plainspoken, touching and funny accounts of dairy farming, marriage and everyday life. I wish I had known her.
+ The Diary of a Young Girl was heartbreaking, even though I knew Anne's fate long before reading the book.
+ I read a lot of nonfiction this year, making a conscious effort to divide my reading between fiction (daytime) and nonfiction (right before bed). Swiggum, Solnit, Didion, Stielstra, Atwood and Le Guin were all winners.
+ Only one re-reading this year: Pippi Longstocking, which I borrowed from Maddie. I probably hadn't read the book since the third grade. I went on to read the other two Pippi books, which I might have also read back then, though I don't recall for sure.
+ Goodreads Reading Challenge: goal, 36 books; result, 33 books. I thought three books per month was achievable, but no.

2017 List
2016 List
2015 List
2014 List
2013 List
2012 List
2011 List
2010 List
2009 List
2008 List
2007 List
2006 List
2005 List
2004 List
2003 List

December 29, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)


“It is the foremost American city – vital, wonderful, and always on the move. Chicago is a huge ant hill. Push it a little with your foot, and you stir up a million little creatures, each carrying a grain of sand and scurrying around.  But that’s the point: they’re moving.” - Nathaniel Owings

December 28, 2018 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)


"Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder." - Rumi

Oh, and not governing via Twitter is a good idea, too.

December 26, 2018 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Father Tolkien

This sounds delightful: Tolkien’s tales of Father Christmas, which he wrote as letters to his children.

“The number of children who keep up for me seems to be getting smaller. I expect it is because of this horrible war…” He concluded, “I shall have to say ‘goodbye,’ more or less…” but expresses a hope of returning when old friends have “grown up and have houses of their own and children.”

I’m very surprised I hadn’t heard of this until now. I might have to add this to my annual holiday reading list. 

December 24, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Oh, the music download bandits of the internet had nothing on us!"

Jonathan Lethem remembers the dB's, and a completely bygone era of music fandom.

I remember rumors of records, the difficulty of locating certain records or even confirming the existence of certain records. How we interrogated record-store clerks who displayed both taste and patience, how we excavated through zines, which themselves had to be located in the blurry column inches of a zine-guide called Factsheet Five, in order to find the names of the zines that might match our particular obsessions. Nobody younger than thirty can have any idea what it is to sense a universe of music out there beyond reach, beyond touch, or to wonder what a song sounded like for years before being allowed to hear it.

December 18, 2018 in Music | Permalink | Comments (2)

“To oppose vulgarity is inevitably to be vulgar.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, from The Left Hand of Darkness:

To oppose something is to maintain it. 

They say here "all roads lead to Mishnory." To be sure, if you turn your back on Mishnory and walk away from it, you are still on the Mishnory road. To oppose vulgarity is inevitably to be vulgar. You must go somewhere else; you must have another goal; then you walk a different road. 

Yegey in the Hall of the Thirty-Three today: "I unalterably oppose this blockade of grain-exports to Karhide, and the spirit of competition which motivates it." Right off, but he will not get off the Mishnory road going that way. He must offer an alternative. Orgoreyn and Karhide both must stop following the road they're on, in either direction; they must go somewhere else, and break the circle.

Reading this passage, I couldn't help thinking of the 2016 presidential election, and what I think was Hillary Clinton's greatest flaw: she talked endlessly about how terrible Donald Trump was, and how utterly she opposed him and his worldview, but not nearly enough about what she stood for. By opposing Trump, in Le Guin's conception, Hillary maintained him — legitimized him. Message to Democratic politicians, in 2020 and beyond: don't tell me what you're against; tell me what you're for.

December 14, 2018 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

The worst of Chicago

Given the pervasiveness of "Best of Chicago" pieces, it's refreshing to read the "Worst of Chicago" feature that The Reader ran last December. Here are some highlights, along with representative quotes.

The Chicago Authenticity Police might be worse than actual cops
“Deep-dish is just for tourists, they say. Real Chicagoans prefer thin-crust square-cut pies, delivered from a neighborhood joint that's been there so long the phone number listed on signage still starts with an obsolete alphabetical exchange abbreviation.”

Chicago’s thirst for a ‘celebrity culture’ is an embarrassment
“At best, it's awkward—with a distinct lack of self-awareness the media trumpets such people and attempts to shoehorn in ever more notables as a means of legitimizing Chicago's existence.”

The Chicago bro is coming to ruin your neighborhood
“The toxicity spikes during the the bacchanalian binge-drinking marathons of Saint Patrick's Day and TBOX (the Twelve Bars of Xmas bar crawl), when the bros are empowered to spill out from their barstools to treat Chicago as if it's their own private beer garden. Venture into Wrigleyville on those days and the streets look like a scene from the world's whitest, most dude-centric zombie movie—call it The Walking Ted.”

December 12, 2018 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

Garrick ephemera


This old matchbook gave me a laugh - check out the message on the spine. Dubious selling point, eh?

December 11, 2018 in Chicago Observations, Ephemera, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Garrick Restaurant


My dad ate lunch at the Garrick every day, for about ten or fifteen years, until he relocated his office from the Loop (in the Oriental Theatre building, just visible at the far right of this photo) out to Arlington Heights. When I worked in the Loop, some of my favorite lunch restaurants were located on the ground floor of parking garages - Haute Sausage, Cafecito, Blackwood BBQ. Those places are generally low rent, no frills, just a focus on good, affordable food. I’m pleased to realize that the Garrick was a “parking garage restaurant” too – another bond between me and my dad.

(Via Urban Remains.)

December 11, 2018 in Chicago Observations, History, Personal | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Midnight Clear"

(I wrote this story in one week. Last week, I volunteered to do a reading with Don Evans at Volumes Bookcafe, which would consist entirely of Christmas-themed readings, only to realize that I had never written even a single story that had anything to do with Christmas. So I had to scramble to write this one, and the reading went well. The story is based on "The Bells Will Ring For You", from Where the Marshland Came to Flower, but set forty-five years earlier, on Christmas Eve, 1960.)



Eddie’s eyelids were heavy as he glanced again across the living room toward his father, who slept soundly in his armchair. Martin Cullen had said he would sit for a few minutes, just to rest his eyes, but they all knew his Christmas Eve tradition of resting his eyes for a few minutes after dinner, followed soon after by deep, sonorous snoring.

“Martin, it’s time to start waking up,” Eddie’s mother called from the kitchen, where the slosh of dishwater and the rattle of plates had diminished, which meant to Eddie that dinner would soon be cleaned up and it was almost time to leave for Midnight Mass. Eddie looked at his father, who didn’t stir.

“Marty, come on. Wake up.” Her voice came louder this time, less gentle and with more of an edge. She appeared in the doorway, looked at her sleeping husband and then to Eddie, and back again.

“Maybe you shouldn’t have drank so much at Mike’s office party.”

“He didn’t drink that much, Mom,” Eddie said, still drowsy. “He was fine when I brought him home, and he didn’t drink at dinner, not even the wine.”

She shook her head and turned away, back to the kitchen.

Eddie had been sent, every Christmas Eve since he was ten years old, to fetch his father from the Christmas party at his Uncle Mike’s insurance agency on Chicago Avenue. That night, when he arrived, he saw that only a half-bottle of Canadian Club remained, with five empty bottles standing on the table behind it. Mike Cullen sold policies for Hibernian Benevolent and the big corporate carriers to neighborhood homeowners and the executives and employees of nearby factories, many of whom, along with the policemen and other merchants on the block, shuttled in and out during the afternoon, taking a drink or two and nibbling on green and red sugar cookies and mince pie that Mike’s secretary had baked. Eddie politely declined Uncle Mike’s offer of a drink, saying he had to get Dad home.

“Does your mom really think she’ll get him to Mass?” Mike said, laughing, as Martin retrieved his coat.

“Yes, she does,” Eddie replied. “She always tries.”

Eddie and his father chatted amiably as they walked home, but when they came through the kitchen door Martin fell silent under Kathleen’s stern gaze. Still, the conservation at dinner was spirited -- euphoric, serious and not so serious.

Euphoric, as the family still basked in the afterglow of John Fitzgerald Kennedy -- Martin always stated his full name -- getting elected President.

“I never thought it would happen,” Martin said, eyes twinkling, his elbows on the table and his hands clasped. “A Catholic in the White House.”

“I knew it would,” Kathleen said. “But not this soon.”

Serious, as Martin told of two more families -- the Connollys and the Riordans -- from the other side of Lavergne Avenue who sold and moved out, bound for Berwyn.

And not so serious, as Martin bemoaned the season of his beloved Chicago Bears, who lost their last three games and finished with a losing record.

“Casares and Galimore weren’t that great,” Martin said.

“Yeah, and they really need a quarterback,” Eddie said. “Bratkowski isn’t the guy.”

“They should get a good Irishman. John Brodie, or that Frank Ryan kid from Los Angeles.”

Martin talked on about people from the neighborhood, stories he must have heard that afternoon at Uncle Mike’s office, though Eddie saw how he carefully avoided specifically mentioning the office, and the party he knew Kathleen disapproved of.

As dinner progressed and Martin drank only milk, Eddie saw his father’s speech clear from a mild slur to an even tone, but from there Eddie saw fatigue slowly set in. Martin had worked another twelve hour day, even though it was Christmas Eve, and then stopped by Uncle Mike’s, so Eddie knew he would soon be slumped in his armchair, snoring away.

On the couch, Eddie’s eyes had just closed again when he heard his mother’s voice, sharp and short. “Come along, Edward. Your father obviously isn’t coming.”

At the kitchen door he bundled up, with a wool watchman’s cap, two scarves, gloves and a heavy overcoat, trying to hold as much of the house’s warmth as he could. As they stepped outside, the thermometer read thirteen degrees.

Even at his mother’s slow pace, the walk to St. Albert’s would take only ten minutes, yet they still left the house at eleven p.m. She always insisted on leaving early for Midnight Mass, to get a good seat near the front. For the first few minutes they walked in silence, the only sound the snow crunching beneath Eddie’s dress shoes, now and then where a neighbor hadn’t shoveled the sidewalk.

“Your father is fading,” she said, suddenly, at which he turned toward her, while still walking.

“What do you mean?” Eddie said, his breath rising in a frozen cloud before his eyes.

“Don’t be alarmed. He’s not dying, just slowing down, getting older. And getting more distant.”

They were silent as they approached the church. When they reached the tall wooden doors, she looked above at the massive stained glass window, with clear admiration, but then shook her head.

“He didn’t go to Mass this year,” she said. “Not even once.”

The walk home seemed even colder, probably from the tiredness they both felt. They walked in silence. Eddie could think only of sinking into his bed, buried under blankets, and sleeping late no matter what gifts he might have under the tree. He wouldn’t be getting up at dawn, as he always did when he was a kid.

At home, Kathleen lingered in the kitchen while Eddie continued toward the living room. As he walked in the familiar darkness he realized that he couldn’t hear his father snoring, and a sudden fear came over him. He remembered his mother’s words about his father fading, and for a moment could only imagine the worst. In the half-light he could see his father in the armchair, silent, unmoving. Maybe...

“I’m awake,” Martin said. “How was Mass?”

“It was good...good,” Eddie said, catching his breath. “Lots of people there. Uncle Mike and Aunt Edie, the McConnells, the Flahertys. Even Frank Kelleher and his mom.”

“Father Michael’s homily?”

“Good, the usual.”

“Hmm. I’m not sure I even remember what the usual is anymore. Well, anyway, I’m glad you went. It means a lot to your mother, especially with me...”

Martin paused. Eddie saw his eyes draw inward, in reflection.

“Listen, Eddie. You’re devout, like your mother. And if that makes you happy, brings you peace, I’m all for it. Your mother is disappointed in me, I know that. For not being devout. But it doesn’t do anybody any good -- our family, Father Michael, St. Albert’s -- for me to pretend. I have to be honest.”

“You’ve always been honest, Dad. I’ll say that for you.”

“Thank you for that. Well, it’s late,” Martin said, as he lifted himself out of the armchair. “I’m going to bed. And Santa Claus has work to do.” He winked. “Merry Christmas, Eddie.”

Eddie sat alone on the couch, staring from the distance at the creche that was arranged on the fireplace mantel. The Holy Family, the shepherds, the animals, the star above all the rest that glimmered from the streetlight outside the front window. He thought about his parents, and how both of them were a part of him. His mother for his faith, his father for almost everything else. He remained until his thoughts blurred and his eyelids again grew heavy, tired but not comfortable. The chill of the room had finally become too much; the furnace was turned down for the night, and wouldn’t be up again until daylight. At last he rose stiffly and moved toward the hallway and up the stairs, barely conscious, thinking only of the warm bed that awaited him.

December 8, 2018 in Fiction, Marshland | Permalink | Comments (2)


“The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.” - Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

December 3, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)