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Books Given, Books Received

Books continue to dominate my Christmas gift giving. Here’s what I gave this year, plus a handful of fine books that I got in return.

Lee Bey: Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago's South Side
Natalie Y. Moore: The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation
Benjamin Sells: The Tunnel Under the Lake: The Engineering Marvel That Saved Chicago
Bryan Smith: The Breakaway: The Inside Story of the Wirtz Family Business and the Chicago Blackhawks
Edna O’Brien: Girl
Ursula LeGuin: The Last Interview and Other Conversations
Justin Kern (editor): The Milwaukee Anthology
Tim Hennessy (editor): Milwaukee Noir
Anu Partanen: The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life
Tarjei Vesaas: The Ice Palace
Jay Ryan: 100 Posters/134 Squirrels
Miriam Toews: Women Talking
Gillian G. Gaar: Nirvana's In Utero

Alex Kotlowitz: An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago
Amy Bizzarri: 111 Places in Chicago That You Must Not Miss
Lisa Beard: Abandoned Illinois: The Secrets Behind the Spaces

December 31, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Good Reading 2019

As always, this best-of is from the books I read in 2019, not ones that were necessarily published in 2019 - though Hemon's book did come out this year.

1. Aleksandar Hemon: My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You
2. Ronald Reng: A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke
3. Kim Cooper: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
4. Mike Royko: I May Be Wrong, But I Doubt It
5. William Trevor: Reading Turgenev
6. David Masciotra: Barack Obama: Invisible Man
7. Joseph G. Peterson: Gunmetal Blue
8. Richard Russo: Empire Falls
9. Carl Sandburg: Cornhuskers
10. Patrick Michael Finn: A Martyr for Suzy Kosasovich

Honorable Mention: Jane Gardam: Old Filth; Giano Cromley: What We Build Upon the Ruins; Jeff Sypeck: The Beallsville Calendar; Lou Reed: The Last Interview and Other Conversations

Re-Readings: Knut Hamsun: Under the Autumn Star; Vilhelm Moberg: The Emigrants; Ander Monson: Other Electricities; Nelson Algren: The Man With the Golden Arm; George Ade: Artie: A Story of the Streets and Town; Marjane Satrapi: The Complete Persepolis



- Other than the top 14, it wasn’t quite a sterling year of reading, largely due to my Summer of Classics, with Moberg's Emigrants saga being such a letdown and the last two books of the saga being abandoned, and replaced only by two good-but-not-great Hamsun novellas.

- The top 3 were very strong, with Hemon at his very best, Reng movingly telling the story of a tragic German goalkeeper, and Cooper writing one of the best 33 1/3 Series books I've read so far, about Neutral Milk Hotel's brilliant, idiosyncratic album. And Royko was quite good too, especially his pieces about race in the aftermath of the MLK assassination.

- It was somewhat bittersweet to read I May Be Wrong, But I Doubt It, which is the last book of Royko's that I've read that was published during his lifetime. I'll never again read, for the first time, a book that was published according to his wishes (or mostly according to his wishes), and not just the product of some publisher rehashing previously published or substandard pieces.

- Another good year for writer-friends (Masciotra, Peterson, Finn, Cromley, Sypeck). I hope to someday write the greatest Joliet novel ever, but until then that honorific belongs to Patrick Finn.

- I attended more literary events this year than ever before: Joe Peterson's launch party for 99 Bottles (which will undoubtedly make my 2020 list) at the Green Mill, Hemon's launch of My Parents..., a panel discussion at City Lit Books about the Illinois chapter of the Federal Writers Project, a discussion by Stuart Dybek and Dominic Pacyga about Polish Chicago, the annual Chicago Literary Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and a reading by Chris L. Terry at Columbia College.

- Lots of re-readings this year, including The Man With the Golden Arm (the fifth or sixth time I've read that great book), and my first (and certainly not my last) return to Monson's weird, tragic and starkly beautiful Other Electricities, which will certainly go down in history as the best book ever written about Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

2018 List
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 30, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright

My serialized story "All Is Bright" was completed on Christmas Eve. My deepest thanks to anyone who read it, whether the entire story or just a few installments. For ease of reading, I have compiled the individual installments into chronological order, so the entire story is now available in a single post.

December 28, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)


“He just signed those cashier’s checks smooth as glass and went down and got the enchiladas the Mexican cook had left him.” - Ted Binion

Bergstrom’s story sounds like it might have come straight from the fertile imagination of Tom Waits.

December 27, 2019 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (24)

Novak locks the front door and checks his watch—a few minutes until midnight—then moves back to the doorway of the storeroom, where he flips off the light switch. The dining area falls dark, as does the kitchen, but from the weak light of the storeroom he can see that he left his coffee cup on the counter where he stood talking to the salesman.

Installment twenty four (the finale) of "All Is Bright."

December 25, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (23)

The door closes behind George with a rush of cold air, and they watch him shuffle past the front window, moving much more casually than one would expect on such a frigid night. Maybe he really does like the fresh air, Larry thinks.

Installment twenty three of "All Is Bright."

December 24, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

Ward Just

Ward Just has passed away, at age 84. I hadn’t realized he was such an esteemed war correspondent during the Vietnam War.

“Perhaps no reporter working for a major daily paper wrote as well from Vietnam or with as much subtlety and grace as he did,” fellow Vietnam correspondent David Halberstam wrote in his book “The Powers That Be.” “His were stories of men at war, and they were wonderful, in the best sense timeless.”

His fiction has been hit or miss for me, but I loved his coming-of-age novel An Unfinished Season. He was a Chicago-area native, having grown up in Waukegan and Lake Forest.

December 23, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (22)

George’s offer to watch the diner while Novak was away—so politely refused, and then not even needed after the cop offered to deliver the phone order—were nearly his last words of the evening. He has been left alone with his thoughts, which at first dwelled on how to get back into St. Luke’s without being caught.

Installment twenty two of "All Is Bright."

December 23, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (21)

Other than the streetlights, the fluorescent light beaming out from the storefront is the only illumination on the block or, from what Larry had seen during his drive, the entire downtown. Although the sight is inviting, he remains in the car for several minutes, waiting, thinking.

Installment twenty one of "All Is Bright."

December 22, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (20)

As the young cop leaves, Maggie is relieved. Not that she wouldn’t have helped, even gladly; she could have easily stayed at the diner for another twenty minutes while Dave Novak was away. It was the sort of thing that local business owners do for each other—little gestures when someone else needs help, small moments when they look out for each other.

Installment twenty of "All Is Bright."

December 20, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (19)

He can’t quite comprehend what he’s seeing. He’s only been on the job for four hours, so he isn’t tired enough to be hallucinating, but outside the front window there appears to be a police officer holding what looks like a bag of food, and gesturing toward him as if the bag is his.

Installment nineteen of "All Is Bright."

December 20, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (18)

Larry is again behind the wheel but has no idea where or how long he’s been driving. He is no longer drunk, or at least not as drunk as when he first came home. The fight with Michelle—the one-sided onslaught—sobered him, as did the gripping blast of cold air that hit him as he stepped outside.

Installment eighteen of "All Is Bright."

December 18, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (17)

Jim Brock has worked at the courthouse for two years, for American Eagle Security. This is his first job with the company, and also his first in government. Previously he worked in warehouses—night shift, like this job—for three other security firms. He came to American Eagle looking for something more than warehouse work.

Installment seventeen of "All Is Bright."

December 17, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (16)

Officer Pearson sips her coffee and checks her watch, seeing that the time is 9:50. Her coffee feels—if not tastes—good. Nothing against the diner, just that she still hasn’t quite acquired a taste for coffee. She ordered it more than anything for its heat.

Installment sixteen of "All Is Bright."

December 16, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (15)

Within just a few moments, even before the front door opened, Maggie already regretted her promise. Though she promised to look after the diner while Novak was out, she felt a sudden urge to be home, under an afghan on the couch, with the Christmas tree lit up and holiday records on the console stereo, like she and Frank used to do.

Installment fifteen of "All Is Bright."

December 15, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (14)

The room has gone silent. Maggie and George are finishing their meals, and Novak, with nothing to do for another five minutes until he begins filling the phone order, is busying himself around the kitchen, or puttering as Lorraine Novak used to say.

Installment fourteen of "All Is Bright."

December 15, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (13)

Novak came home but never left, the one-year leave of absence stretching to two years and then three as his father worsened, increasingly confined to the house and his oxygen tank.

Installment thirteen of "All Is Bright."

December 13, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (12)

The security desk stood just inside the main entrance of the courthouse, from which the guard could clearly see the plaza and street outside, and the long corridor that bisected the building all the way to the back exit.

Installment twelve of "All Is Bright."

December 12, 2019 | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (11)

She kept her head down, eyes to the floor, as she walked toward the back room. Looking up, she would have seen things around the bar, details that all, in one way or another, reminded her of Frank.

Installment eleven of "All Is Bright."

December 11, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (10)

He devours the double cheeseburger, lustily enjoying every bite, and contemplates having another. But first he has a taste for something else.

Installment ten of "All Is Bright."

December 10, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (9)

Officer Reggie Pearson has been driving around downtown since 3:00 in the afternoon, along the same twenty streets, past the same buildings, past the same scattered parked cars.

Installment nine of "All Is Bright."

December 9, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (8)

The fight seemed to almost sober him. Almost, for he was still very drunk, though somehow more coherent and functional than he was when he first pulled into the driveway.

Installment eight of "All Is Bright."

December 9, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)


“The personal correspondence of writers feeds on leftover energy. There is also the element of lavishness, of enjoying the fact that they are throwing away one of their better efforts, for the chances of any given letter’s surviving is 50-50, at most. And there is the element of confidence – of the relaxed backhand stroke that can place the ball anywhere that it pleases the writer to have it go.” - William Maxwell

December 8, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (7)

Novak had never imagined himself owning the Marquette Diner.

Installment seven of "All Is Bright."

December 8, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (6)

The Buick veered from the center line to the curb and back again, down the length of Chapman Street, from the outskirts of the city to the river.

Installment six of "All Is Bright."

December 6, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (5)

Novak had just filled Maggie Kiernan’s coffee mug for the first time when the front door swung open, and the inrushing wind was followed by an older man who walked in head-down, cringing as he released the door handle.

Installment five of "All Is Bright."

December 5, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...a cheering effect on the citizenry.”

Richard Russo, from Empire Falls (2001):

For the last several years, the Gazette had taken to running old photos of Empire Falls and its denizens during their glory days. The series was called "The Way It Was," and earlier in the summer they'd run a photo of the Empire Grill, circa 1960, with old Roger Sperry looking like he belonged on a lobster boat instead of behind a cash register, and a lunch counter full of working men extending into the background behind him, and the restaurant's grainy, shadowy booths full of customers. A sign on the back wall advertised a hamburg steak with grilled onions, mashed potatoes, a vegetable and roll for a buck and a quarter. One of the younger men pictured at the counter still came in and always sat at the same end stool, if it was available. For reasons that mystified Miles, the series apparently had a cheering effect on the citizenry. People actually seemed to enjoy recalling that on a Saturday afternoon forty years ago Empire Falls was hustling with people and cars and commerce, whereas now, of course, you could strafe it with automatic weapons and not harm a soul.

It's mostly (though not entirely) coincidental that I happen to be reading Empire Falls at the same time as I'm writing a story that's centered on a diner in the downtown of a struggling small city. I'm not consciously incorporating aspects of Russo's novel, though I suppose some of it might be seeping into my story.

December 5, 2019 in Books, Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (4)

George had barely reached the opposite side when the car sped past behind him, engine roaring, but with no blaring of the horn or even a yell to indicate the driver had even seen him. Over his shoulder he saw the car—a big, dark sedan, the make unknown to him—drift from side to side, over the center line and then to the right-hand curb, and back.

Installment four of "All Is Bright."

December 4, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (3)

She sliced a lime in half, then another and another. Three limes should be enough, don’t you think, Frank? If anyone still ordered gimlets at Kiernan’s Tap—and no one did, not for decades—she would simply uncap the old bottle of Rose’s Lime Juice that she kept in the cooler below the bar.

Installment three of "All Is Bright."

December 3, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

All Is Bright (2)

Three or four Christmas carols after the meager dinner—stringy turkey, dry mashed potatoes, a single teaspoon of gravy each, and too many green vegetables—would have been plenty for George.

Installment two of "All Is Bright."

December 2, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

“All Is Bright”

Dave Novak stands with his back to the grill, his hands folded behind him, gently gripping a spatula. He instinctively leans toward the warmth of the grill on this, the coldest night of the young winter...

My serialized Christmas Eve story, “All Is Bright”, is now live. First installment is here.

December 1, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)