“...a checkered canvas...”

A few weeks ago, I attended the 2019 induction ceremony for the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, which honored Frank Marshall Davis, Salima Rivera and Sam Greenlee. A fine evening. I really like Davis’ “Chicago’s Congo”, and especially this passage:

Across the street from the Ebenezer Baptist Church,
      women with cast-iron faces peddle love
In the flat above William’s Funeral Home
      six couples sway to the St. Louis Blues
Two doors away from the South Side Bank
      three penny-brown men scorch their guts with four bit
      whiskey
Dr. Jackson buys a Lincoln
His neighbor buys second hand, shoes
      —the artist who paints this town must
      use a checkered canvas ...

I hear echoes there of Nelson Algren's description of Chicago as being Janus-like and two-faced. Algren and Davis were contemporaries (born four years apart) and both were involved in the Federal Writers Project, so I assume they knew each other.

November 11, 2019 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

Remembrance Day

Wilfred Owen, from “The Send-Off”:

Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.

I am fortunate to never have had any loved ones (nor, as far as I know, any recent ancestors) killed in war. But I respect those who have made the sacrifice, and those left behind.

November 11, 2019 in Books, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sinister vs. Dexterous

Merriam-Webster has an interesting piece on how left and right came to represent evil and good. The origins, not surprisingly, are Biblical.

The Book of Matthew describes how God will divide nations on the Day of Judgment, “as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats; and he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left,” with those on the right sent to the kingdom of Heaven and those on the left “cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.” Left-handed people comprise only 10 percent of the population, and the preference for the left hand demonstrated by the popular minority was attributed to demonic possession, leading to accusations of witchcraft.

By coincidence, I happened to read the M-W piece shortly after reading Benjamin Franklin’s witty essay, “A Petition of the Left Hand”, which was narrated by, yes, a left hand.

My dad was a proud lefthander (but not a political lefty - quite conservative), the only one in the family. I think he wished that one of his kids was lefthanded but, at the same time, I think he liked being unique.

November 6, 2019 in Books, History | Permalink | Comments (1)

Hostel of the Dead

The house that inspired James Joyce’s “The Dead” will be redeveloped as a 54-room hostel.

In the 1890s the writer’s maternal great-aunts ran a music school at the four-storey house, 15 Usher’s Island, and hosted Christmas parties that Joyce used as the scene for the story, a meditation on love, loss and identity.

Evergreen themes, it turns out, because last week city authorities announced a plan to turn the House of the Dead into a 54-room hostel, prompting an outcry that property deals were trashing culture and zombifying Ireland’s capital to make way for foreign tourists, students and tech workers.

What the hand-wringers conveniently ignore is that the house is in a derelict part of Dublin, and has been available for purchase by the city or Joyce-loving nonprofits for the past two years, but instead was allowed to languish and deteriorate.

I’m less concerned about the loss of Dublin’s “cultural heritage” than the fact that gentrification is rapidly making the city (and countless other cities around the world) unaffordable for artists to live in and create their art. The fact that the next James Joyce might never have the means or the spare time (away from the inevitable day job) to create the next masterpiece is the real tragedy here.

Cultural future is far more important than cultural heritage. 

November 3, 2019 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (2)

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“I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain.” - James Baldwin

October 20, 2019 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

“The Lighthouse”

Fascinating...an unfinished story fragment by Edgar Allan Poe, from 1849:

Besides, I wish to be alone . . . . . . It is strange that I never observed, until this moment, how dreary a sound that word has — “alone” ! I could half fancy there was some peculiarity in the echo of these cylindrical walls — but oh, no! — this is all nonsense.

Poe could have gone so many different ways with this: a powerful storm overwhelming the island (note the comment about how high the sea runs there) and flooding out the cellar; the lighthouse crumbling, being built only on chalk; a man who at first cherishes solitude slowly descending into madness from his isolation; even Neptune the dog meeting an unfortunate end.

October 19, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...his father didn’t believe in touching the savings."

Mike Royko’s favorite everyman, his fictional boyhood pal Slats Grobnik, was a true creature of the the city. An actual news story about suburban Arlington Heights' banning the playing of sidewalk hopscotch lead to the column “Sidewalk Slats”, which includes this gem of a passage:

The best place for a child to play and learn is on a sidewalk. It is his natural environment. If you take a child into the woods, he can fall out of a tree and break a leg and ruin the weekend.

Nobody liked sidewalks more than I did, except Slats Grobnik. To this day, if he walks on grass for more than five minutes, his feet blister. His attitude towards lawns and gardens is summed up when he looks sick and says: “Worms live in that stuff.”

When the rest of us would go to Humboldt Park, Slats would shake his head and stay behind, saying: “Anything that can hide behind a fireplug is small enough for me to handle, but how do I know what kind of creep is in the bushes?” He feared being kidnapped and held for ransom because he knew his father didn’t believe in touching the savings.

When we built a tree house, Slats wouldn’t come up. He said, “If people was meant to live in trees, the squirrels would slip some nuts to the city building-inspector.”

Collected in I May Be Wrong, But I Doubt It! (1968).

October 17, 2019 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

You might think...

...that my local Barnes & Noble would have a table devoted to this year’s National Book Award nominees. You would be incorrect. Or at least have copies individually available on the shelves. You would be incorrect, at least regarding the title that I was specifically looking for, Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans. I’m also not confident that the coming weeks will see the appearance at B&N of anything by Olga Tozarczuk or Peter Handke, the recently announced 2018-19 Nobel Prize in Literature winners. 

If James Daunt is going to save B&N, he’d better hurry. 

October 13, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

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“We’re not writing machines (unless you’re a journalist, and mad props if you are, seriously), and I for one do not write every day. Maybe it’s wishful thinking or part delusion, but I subscribe to the notion that observing, thinking, reading, pacing, and revising—or osmotic writing as I like to call it—are integral parts of the process.” - Su Hwang

October 10, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...there was a here that belonged to us..."

One last excerpt from In My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You. Hemon describes returning to his family’s apartment in Sarajevo as a child, after being away on holiday.

In the hallway of our building, which would always be cool because it never saw the sun, I’d inhale the smells of our neighbors’ lives: their cooking, their sweat, whatever was used to wash the hallway stairs. At the top of the third-floor staircase leading to our home there would be a stain cascading down the stairs, a consequence of my dropping a bottle of milk when I was five or six. Nearly fifty years later, the stain is still there. I see it every time I return to Sarajevo and stay in the apartment my sister and I grew up in. And when we’d enter the apartment, everything would be exactly as we had left it, except for the pungent scent of our absence. Without us there, there was no life: no one cooked, no one went to the bathroom, no one washed hands, no one made coffee, no one turned on the lights, no one lived there, and all the windows and doors to the balconies were closed, so that only walls, carpets, furniture, and old magazines and newspapers stacked on the radio or the coffee table exuded existence. I loved that emptiness, because, each and every time, we’d refill it with ourselves. Before we returned there would be nothing, and then, within a moment, there would be everything, because we were there, and there was a here that belonged to us, that was us.

That final line is especially touching. Though his family eventually regrouped in Canada and the United States, it seems like they never really got over what they lost when Yugoslavia collapsed into ethnic war. “That was us”: that was our lives, that was who we were, that was everything we’ll never quite get back.

October 4, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

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“All my jokes are Indianapolis. All my attitudes are Indianapolis. My adenoids are Indianapolis. If I ever severed myself from Indianapolis, I would be out of business. What people like about me is Indianapolis.” - Kurt Vonnegut

Interesting that Vonnegut felt this way, because after he left his hometown as a young man, he never really returned, other than short visits. 

September 29, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Do not start a fight a fight unless you can destroy an opponent..."

In My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You, Aleksandar Hemon describes a street fight from his childhood in Sarajevo between the young thug Dule and the unfortunate bully from the next block:

The brutality was exhilarating, the exactness of the violence awesome, the exquisite skill inspiring, the release of the tension so pleasing, the victory so sweet. None of us in the little raja could ever simply walk up to another kid and annihilate him without hesitation or mercy; watching Dule do it, we learned that to win a fight you have to be willing to destroy your opponent totally, that you must never consider his body, worry about his pain. Do not start a fight unless you can destroy an opponent; do not start a war unless you’re willing to commit genocide. But I was not - am not - willing to destroy others; it is arguably my greatest shortcoming. From my high position, despite everything, I felt sorry for the kid.

My Parents... is an excellent but strange book. I’m accumulating my thoughts on it and hope to write more later.

September 28, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Le Vrai Chic Littérère

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This is wonderful.

Ideally seeking to make literature more accessible to folks both geographically and financially, Megel-Nuber realized that his business’ overall appeal also depended on the look of his venue. So, he set out to open his second-hand bookstore in a tiny house. “I needed a place that makes people want to enter,” he says.

I think I might have discovered my post-retirement stay-busy occupation.

September 22, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

H.G. Wells

Wells was born on this date in 1866. Reading seven of his novels was a fascinating experience during my Summer of Reading in 2017. 

September 21, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"A perfect homeland is never available..."

Aleksandar Hemon's family are ethnic Ukrainians who at one point migrated to Vucijak, Bosnia, then to Sarajevo and, after the civil war, to Canada. Here, in a chapter titled "Homeland" from My Parents: An Introduction, he muses on his father's form of nostalgia:

Wherever he went around the world, including Canada, he spent much of his head time being in Vucijak, talking about it, comparing everything to the standards once established there; he never mythologized Sarajevo, where he lived for most of his adult life, to a comparable extent. Yet at no point in his life did he ever consider or even mention the possibility of returning to Vucijak, where after my grandparents' deaths he even inherited some land. The whole nostalgic operation is contingent precisely on his absence from Vucijak since his childhood. A perfect homeland is never available; otherwise the ideal might run into an indelible and ugly reality. Nationalists resolve this tension by way of exclusionary reshaping and violence; they strive to make the actual country fit their fantasies, for which genocide is often required. My father just tells stories with a lot of nostalgic embellishments.

If only the white nationalists currently running the United States and several major European countries had a similarly harmless means of making their countries great again...

September 16, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...ominously close...”

“People had been asking me to write a sequel for a long time, and I always said no, because I thought they meant the continuation of the story of Offred which I couldn't do. But then I thought, what if somebody else were telling the story? And what if it were 15 or 16 years later? And it was also time, because for a while we thought we were moving away from The Handmaid's Tale. And then we turned around and started going back toward it, ominously close in many parts of the world.” - Margaret Atwood

September 9, 2019 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

“Without water, it’s not even a moat. Yet it persists.”

I like this short story, “Everywhere She Went”, by Ethel Rohan. Her novel, The Weight of Him, didn’t work for me at all, but maybe short fiction is her strength instead. 

September 2, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Richard Booth

It was during his buying trips to the US in the 1960s and 70s that his vision for an independent, localised economy really took shape. He saw in America’s faceless shopping malls a taste of what was to come and was determined to battle against it. Secondhand books, in this sense, represented one-in-the-eye for corporate capitalism.

A bookseller who transformed a town. Can any other bookseller truly make the same claim?

August 28, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

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“I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this.” - John Steinbeck

The Grapes of Wrath turned 80 earlier this year. One of the greatest American novels, I think.

August 18, 2019 in Books, History | Permalink | Comments (1)

David Berman

My ski vest has buttons
like convenience store mirrors
and they help me see
that everything
in this room right now
is a part of me
oh yeah, is a part of me
- David Berman

Last week saw the sad passing of musician and poet David Berman, who took his own life at age 52. He battled mental illness and substance abuse for much of his life, and apparently it finally became too much for him. Tributes continue to pour in for him from both the music and literary communities. It's clear that he and his art were greatly loved.

The only Silver Jews album I own is American Water (1998), which is widely considered the band's masterpiece. I'll admit that had never heard of Berman or his band before this album, and was only drawn in by the involvement of Stephen Malkmus of Pavement, who was Berman's musical partner off and on for years. But the otherwise bold Malkmus mostly kept to the background - singing backup vocals (with only the occasional lead) and playing lead guitar - and conceding the spotlight to his longtime friend Berman. Instead of being a Pavement side project (as it was often characterized back then), the focus was on Berman's rough-hewn voice and wonderful lyrics. The lyrics above (from "We Are Real") are just one small example of his gift - every song is full of similar brilliance.

That album once meant enough to me to inspire a short story, "Alleys Are the Footnotes of the Avenues", which I wrote way back in 2008. The title is a line from Berman's "Smith & Jones Forever", and the story flowed directly from the preceding line, "They see the things they need through the windows of a hatchback." This slight nod is the best tribute I can make to Berman and his artistic influence.  

Yesterday I dug out and recharged my old iPod, and listened to American Water for the first time in years. The album is every bit as great as I remembered. Check it out if you can. 

August 13, 2019 in Books, Fiction, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

“Then you can keep your mackerel."

The narrator of Knut Hamsun's Under the Autumn Star muses about his elderly landlady, Gunhild.

...And here and there among the hills stand stubborn flowers that refuse to die, although in truth their time is up.

But then old Gunhild's time is up; and does she die? She behaves for all the world as if death was no concern of hers. When the fishermen are messing about on the beach, tarring their traps or painting their boats, old Gunhild goes up to them with lackluster eyes and the shrewdest of business minds.

"How much is the mackerel today?" she asks.

"Same as yesterday."

"Then you can keep your mackerel."

And Gunhild makes for home.

But the fishermen know full well that Gunhild is not one to play-act at going: she has been known to walk all the way up to her cottage without one backward glance. As so "Hi there!" they call after her: let's make it seven mackerels to the half dozen today, for an old customer, that is.

And Gunhild buys her fish...

Ah, that inimitable, early-career Hamsun voice. I also like the translators' (Oliver and Gunnvorr Stallybrass) choice of "lackluster eyes", where most people would simply call such lifeless eyes "dull." Lacking luster is the same as being dull, of course, but lackluster is a much more vivid word.

By the way, I've given up on (or indefinitely postponed) the last two books of Wilhelm Moberg's Emigrants saga. The second book really did nothing for me, and I have no enthusiasm to read any further right now. So for the rest of my Summer of Classics, I'll stick to Scandinavian (albeit moving from Swedish to Norwegian) with Hamsun's two related novellas, Under the Autumn Star and A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings, which are collected in a single volume. I've already gotten far more enjoyment out of the first few chapters of Hamsun than I did from Moberg's entire two tomes.

August 7, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

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“Oh, give me again the rover’s life—the joy, the thrill, the whirl! Let me feel thee again, old sea! let me leap into thy saddle once more. I am sick of these terra firma toils and cares; sick of the dust and reek of towns. Let me hear the clatter of hailstones on icebergs, and not the dull tramp of these plodders, plodding their dull way from their cradles to their graves.” - Herman Melville (whose bicentenary occurred a few days ago)

August 4, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

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

I’m starting to think Wilhelm Moberg was more historian than novelist. I’m moderately enjoying his Emigrants saga, but Rolvaag did the Scandinavian-immigrants-on-the-Great-Plains thing so much better. I’m debating whether or not to skip the last two Emigrants books. 

July 30, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“Chicago was a swamp hole and a blowhole...”

In The Emigrants, the aspiring settlers have hired "Long" Landberg as interpreter and guide. He will take them as far as Chicago, for which he is not quite a booster.

Landberg said that he intended to leave Chicago as soon as he had performed his duties there. This town was the only place in North America he detested. But it was the gateway to the West, which all travelers must pass through, although most thanked the Lord they could journey farther. Chicago was a swamp hole and a blowhole, built on the low shores of a lake and a river. One the one side was the lake and on the other side the prairie, with no protection against the winds, which blew so intensely that eyebrows and hair were pulled off people's heads. The town had only three decent streets: Chicago Avenue, Kinzie and Clark Streets. Yard-high stumps still stood in the other streets, and almost all the surrounding country was desolate wasteland where cows grazed. The houses were newly built, yet gray, dirty, and unpainted, for the hurricanes blew the paint off the walls. And the whole town stank from the mud and ooze of the swampy shores. Pools of water abounded, filled with crawling snakes and lizards and other horrible creatures. Thirty thousand people lived in Chicago, and of these, several thousand earned their living as runners, robbing immigrants passing through. Grazing was fine in Chicago, and cattle lived well in that town. But honest people, non-runners, could ill endure an extended visit in the place. Landberg thought Chicago would within twenty years become entirely depopulated and obliterated from the face of the earth.

Wow. That's quite the rant. I was hoping for more, but was disappointed when Moberg fast-forwarded past their stopover in Chicago, going straight from their Great Lakes steamboat to the inland waterways. Though Moberg wrote this a hundred years after its mid-1800s time frame, I still would have liked to read his detailed descriptions of the fledgling city.

July 12, 2019 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

”...the dark covering of antiquity...”

In what I intend to become an annual tradition, I'm reading Thomas Paine's Common Sense around the 4th of July holiday. Paine abhorred monarchy, but might have abhorred hereditary succession even more:

To the evil of monarchy we have added that of hereditary succession; and as the first is a degradation and lessening of ourselves, so the second, claimed as a matter of right, is an insult and an imposition on posterity.

...

This (the purported legitimacy of succession) is supposing the present race of kings in the world to have had an honorable origin; whereas it is more than probable, that could we take off the dark covering of antiquity, and trace them to their first rise, that we should find the first of them nothing better than the principal ruffian of some restless gang, whose savage manners or pre-eminence in subtility obtained him the title of chief among plunderers; and who by increasing in power, and extending his depredations, over-awed the quiet and defenceless to purchase their safety by frequent contributions. Yet his electors could have no idea of giving hereditary right to his descendants, because such a perpetual exclusion of themselves was incompatible with the free and unrestrained principles they professed to live by. Wherefore, hereditary succession in the early ages of monarchy could not take place as a matter of claim, but as something casual or complimental; but as few or no records were extant in those days, and traditional history stuffed with fables, it was very easy, after the lapse of a few generations, to trump up some superstitious tale, conveniently timed, Mahomet like, to cram hereditary right down the throats of the vulgar.

Basically, he's saying that even if the present generation of commoners approves (or just grudgingly tolerates) the current king or queen, it's unfair to force the royal heirs on future generations. Although that king or queen may be decent, their child or grandchild might turn out to be an relentless tyrant once they take the throne.

I like Paine's "dark covering of antiquity", which hides or smoothes out the dishonorable or even criminal behaviors of one's forebears. Years ago I toyed with the concept of a story - long ago abandoned - about a grade school student writing a paper about one of her ancestors (depicted as a wholesome founding father/pillar of the community type) who, in reality and unbeknownst to the student, first got rich as a horse thief. We usually look back on our ancestors with reverence, but who knows what sort of scoundrels they might have actually been?

July 5, 2019 in Books, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

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“Time makes more converts than reason.” - Thomas Paine

July 4, 2019 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...the most extended churchyard in the world...”

In The Emigrants, Captain Christian Lorentz soberly reflects on burials at sea:

These peasants often feared death at sea, because of the final resting place - they wanted to be put in consecrated ground, and the ocean was not consecrated. But they were caught in deep superstition: the water where so many good seamen had found their graves ought to be a good enough resting place for the wretched land-rats.

Perhaps the wife Inga-Lena Andersdotter had died, too, in fear of the unconsecrated burial place of the ocean. Her forty years she had lived on solid ground, bending over the earth in her potato furrows and barley fields, poking in pens and manure piles, tramping between byre and barn. Yet she would find rest in the sea, in the most extended churchyard in the world, where nothing marked the graves. She would not be registered anywhere - she was an emigrant who failed to reach her destination, a wanderer in the world.

I've finished The Emigrants, and just started the second volume, Unto a Good Land. After a rough ten-week sea voyage, the emigrants have arrived in New York, as a way station to the Midwest. (That "wretched land-rats" term is pretty harsh, and maybe an error of translation - the opening pages of the second volume show that the Captain actually cares for his passengers, and really goes out of his way to help them.)

July 2, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

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“A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.” - G.K. Chesterton

June 28, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...we would do poetry a favor..."

During a long-ago panel discussion involving Robert Duncan, Philip Levine and an unnamed third poet, the latter bemoaned those who didn't embrace poetry, believing they lacked any sense of beauty or even a reason for being. Duncan disagreed, saying:

"Some people do not twig to poetry, they may be inspired by things others don't care for - the operas of Wagner, the novels of Proust, the ballets of Merce Cunningham, the stories of Katherine Mansfield, the philosophical writing of Schopenhauer, the paintings of Francis Bacon. Perhaps they love the beauty of design, of Tiffany vases or of machinery, V-8 engines or drop forges. I think we would do poetry a favor if we stopped trying to shove it down the throats of those for whom it has no connection or resonance. But don't forget, if absolutely nothing turns you on, stirs you body and soul, you are in trouble."

I appreciate Duncan's sentiment, and especially his inclusion of "V-8 engines or drop forges" as objects worthy of aesthetic admiration. And I respect the warning he delivered in that final sentence.

(Quoted from Levine's My Lost Poets: A Life in Poetry.)

June 10, 2019 in Art, Books | Permalink | Comments (3)

BBBB

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I made this really cool find yesterday: the 1964 Avon edition of Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy. Check out those rounded corners! I’ve never seen those before. The book was already on my list, it was priced at a ridiculously cheap $2, and it came from Open Books so the money’s going to a good cause. Buying it was an easy decision.

June 8, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Summer of Moberg

In a few days (after finishing Ward Just's Echo House, which I started last week while on vacation), I'll be starting up my annual Summer of Classics. This year I'm tackling the four volumes of Wilhelm Moberg's "Emigrants" saga: The Emigrants, Unto a Good Land, The Settlers and The Last Letter Home. I read the first volume in a Scandinavian literature class in college, and kept the book though I never really expected to re-read it; I picked up the second volume in an antique shop (a nice hardcover for only a few dollars) about ten years ago but never got around to reading it; and I'll borrow volumes three and four from my mom, who has the full set. The epic follows the lives of the Nilsson family from their departure from Sweden in the 1850 to their settling in the Minnesota Territory, and on into the 1890s. Though I don't generally prefer longer, densely written novels, I've always wanted to read this entire cycle, and can't think of any better time than Summer of Classics to do so.

June 3, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Opening Lines

(A compendium of memorable opening lines of novels, updated occasionally as I come across new discoveries.)

“The snow is on everybody tonight—on upturned faces, reflected back in the irises of children in the window; on the hot back of your wife's neck as you know she's shoveling the snow at home; on the men chopping wood for the stove, warming themselves (as the Finnish proverb goes) twice.”
- Ander Monson, Other Electricities

“Billy Brennan overdid it again with the fast food.”
- Ethel Rohan, The Weight of Him

“When Jerome Lafirme died, his neighbors awaited the results of his sudden taking off with indolent watchfulness.”
- Kate Chopin, At Fault

“Obedient to the social law that makes the moot guest the early bird at a tea party, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Lockman were the first to arrive in Utopia.”
- Mary McCarthy, The Oasis

“It had never before been a problem which of them to visit first because they had been together every other time. Every other time he had got off the boat, hoisted up his rucksack, and walked with the straggle of travellers to where familiar faces were waiting beyond the barrier.”
- Val Mulkerns, Very Like a Whale

"I’m not here by choice."
- Giano Cromley, The Last Good Halloween

”Even standing still, finally, Ray Welter's body remained in motion and subject to inner tidal forces beyond his control."
- Andrew Ervin, Burning Down George Orwell's House

"No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water."
- H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds

"We slept in what had once been the gymnasium."
- Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale

"Marley was dead, to begin with."
- Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

"The first sound in the mornings was the clumping of the mill-girls' clogs down the cobbled street. Earlier than that, I suppose, there were factory whistles which I was never awake to hear."
- George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

"Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream."
- John Steinbeck, Cannery Row

"A nurse held the door open for them."
- Eudora Welty, The Optimist's Daughter

"The two grubby small boys with tow-colored hair who were digging among the ragweed in the front yard sat back on their heels and said, 'Hello,' when the tall bony man with straw-colored hair turned in at their gate."
- Katherine Anne Porter, Noon Wine

"Heraldic and unflagging it chugged up the mountain road, the sound, a new sound jarring in on the profoundly pensive landscape. A new sound and a new machine, its squat front the colour of baked brick, the ridges of the big wheels scummed in muck, wet muck and dry muck, leaving their maggoty trails."
- Edna O'Brien, Wild Decembers

"One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away."
- Willa Cather, O Pioneers!

"I am in Aranmor, sitting over a turf fire, listening to a murmur of Gaelic that is rising from a little public-house under my room."
- J.M. Synge, The Aran Islands

"On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide - it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese - the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope."
- Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides

"A wise man once said that next to losing its mother, there is nothing more healthy for a child than to lose its father."
- Halldór Laxness, The Fish Can Sing

"Studs Lonigan, on the verge of fifteen, and wearing his first suit of long trousers, stood in the bathroom with a Sweet Caporal pasted in his mug."
- James T. Farrell, Young Lonigan

"Dennis awoke to the sound of the old man upstairs beating his wife."
- Tim Hall, Half Empty

"Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board."
- Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

"We always fall asleep smoking one more cigarette in bed."
- Joseph G. Peterson, Beautiful Piece

"Tonight, a steady drizzle, streetlights smoldering in fog like funnels of light collecting rain."
- Stuart Dybek, The Coast of Chicago

"Beware thoughts that come in the night."
- William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways: A Journey Into America

"'There they are again,' the doctor said suddenly, and he stood up. Unexpectedly, like his words, the noise of the approaching airplane motors slipped into the silence of the death chamber."
- Hans Keilson, Comedy in a Minor Key

"Now that I'm dead I know everything."
- Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad

"In the end Jack Burdette came back to Holt after all."
- Kent Haruf, Where You Once Belonged

"It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days."
- Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

"I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."
- Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

"I'd caught a slight cold when I changed trains at Chicago; and three days in New York - three days of babes and booze while I waited to see The Man - hadn't helped it any."
- Jim Thompson, Savage Night

"Since the end of the war, I have been on this line, as they say: a long, twisted line stretching from Naples to the cold north, a line of locals, trams, taxis and carriages."
- Aharon Appelfeld, The Iron Tracks

"The schoolmaster was leaving the village, and everybody seemed sorry."
- Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure

"Early November. It's nine o'clock. The titmice are banging against the window. Sometimes they fly dizzily off after the impact, other times they fall and lie struggling in the new snow until they can take off again. I don't know what they want that I have."
- Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses

"Picture the room where you will be held captive."
- Stona Fitch, Senseless

"Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk."
- Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry

"Bright, clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon...Bright, clear sky, to-day, to-morrow, and for all time to come."
- O.E. Rölvaag, Giants in the Earth

"Click! ... Here it was again. He was walking along the cliff at Hunstanton and it had come again ... Click! ..."
- Patrick Hamilton, Hangover Square

"It is 1983. In Dorset the great house at Woodcombe Park bustles with life. In Ireland the more modest Kilneagh is as quiet as a grave."
- William Trevor, Fools of Fortune

"The cell door slammed behind Rubashov."
- Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon

May 31, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (5)

”...write like a son of a bitch.”

Jim Harrison’s advice for young writers:

Just start at page one and write like a son of a bitch. Be totally familiar with the entirety of the Western literary tradition, and if you have any extra time, throw in the Eastern. Because how can you write well unless you know what passes for the best in the last three or four hundred years? And don’t neglect music. I suspect that music can contribute to it as much as anything else. Tend to keep distant from religious, political, and social obligations. And I would think that you shouldn’t give up until it’s plainly and totally impossible.

May 30, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“One swallow doesn’t make a summer.”

“I welcome it, but I also distrust it because I think it can be quite fashionable to do this. Working-class writers in the north in the late 1950s like Alan Sillitoe and John Braine became, briefly, very very fashionable. And then it suddenly became old hat and it was almost completely dropped. So one swallow doesn’t make a summer.” - Pat Barker

May 27, 2019 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

“Rank socialism was and is rampant.”

Shagpoke Whipple, former U.S. President, disgraced banker and ex-convict:

"When I left jail, it was my intention to run for office again. But I discovered to my great amazement and utter horror that my party, the Democratic Party, carried not a single plank in its platform that I could honestly endorse. Rank socialism was and is rampant. How could I, Shagpoke Whipple, ever bring myself to accept a program which promised to take from American citizens their inalienable birthright; the right to sell their labor and their children's labor without restrictions as to either price or hours?"

This passage, from Nathanael West's A Cool Million (1934), could easily have been spoken today (albeit with the vocabulary and grammar of the average fifth-grader) by a certain president who shall remain nameless.

And, wow, was West ever dark. He made Sinclair Lewis look like a giddy optimist.

May 14, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"It comes in lumps..."

In a 1952 letter, Nelson Algren reflected on his writing, and re-writing, process.

No, it didn’t pour. It comes in lumps, and each lump has to be smoothed and grained down and then, when it’s just so shining and smooth that you read it over aloud to your self and love the sound of every perfect word, you find you can’t use it, it doesn’t tie in, it’s fine in itself but it diverts the whole story. So you gulp and put it away assuring yourself you’ll make use of it another day and sometimes you do, if you remember what drawer you put it away in. Sometimes it’s like a squirrel looking for the acorns he hid the fall before last - he knows he’s somewhere in the neighborhood, and digs up the whole plot and when he finds it, it’s gone to seed in those two years.

The letter is included in an appendix to the critical edition of The Man With the Golden Arm, which I just finished reading, for the fourth or fifth time (and was as astounding as ever). The letter is reproduced as an original facsimile, with typos, x-outs and handwritten edits. The editor’s decision to include this in its original form, instead of in pristine, typeset perfection, is curious but perfectly fitting. Algren was a brilliant but deeply flawed man whose writing never shied away from portraying the imperfect and often ugly side of human nature, and this letter (which he apparently mailed as-is, instead of drafting a clean copy) neatly encapsulates his essence.

May 6, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...rocking and drinking...”

Colin Asher applies the Page 99 Test to his new Algren biography, Never a Lovely So Real. I browsed the book at City Lit the other night, and am looking forward to reading the book, though I’ll wait for the paperback. 

April 27, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

The captain has bad dreams

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The opening paragraphs of Nelson Algren’s The Man With the Golden Arm. Merely presenting the first sentence wouldn’t have been anywhere near sufficient. 

April 15, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Quote

“One day, while reading in my room, I heard a shriek from the hairdressers directly across from our house. ‘The pope’s been shot!’ Soon there was a gabble of increasingly hysterical voices outside the window. I shrugged, The Fantastic Four were fighting Dragon Man. The pope and reality could wait.” - Padraig Kenny

April 14, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“Everyday People”

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I’ve been very tardy in passing this along, but Ben Tanzer and I recently had a great conversation about Where the Marshland Came To Flower, writing in general, and Chicago, and our talk can be heard on his venerated This Podcast Will Change Your Life. Enjoy.

April 1, 2019 in Books, Chicago Observations, Fiction, Marshland | Permalink | Comments (1)

“...yesterday is a wind gone down...”

The final lines from Carl Sandburg's "Prairie":

I speak of new cities and new people.
I tell you the past is a bucket of ashes.
I tell you yesterday is a wind gone down,
  a sun dropped in the west.
I tell you there is nothing in the world
  only an ocean of to-morrows,
  a sky of to-morrows.

I am a brother of the cornhuskers who say
  at sundown:
        To-morrow is a day.


I'm somewhat obsessed with the third and fourth lines ("I tell you yesterday..."), so much so that I repeat them, as a calming mantra, if I happen to wake up in the middle of the night.

The poem is the first in the collection Cornhuskers, which won him the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, in 1919.

March 28, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Badass

In Orkney, Sally Walker is one seriously devoted - and obviously badass - librarian.

Today (the causeway to Burray is) open but as I approach in my van, the sea is crashing over the barrier. I stop at one end, watch the waves and try to time my drive to cross between them. It’s exciting and frightening all at once. Halfway across, I misjudge it and a wave covers the van.

March 27, 2019 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Quote

“Fiction and lies are the opposite of each other. Lies go out of the way to distort and turn you away from the truth. But fiction is one of our ways of telling the truth.” - Ali Smith

I think I might delve into Smith’s seasonal quartet. 

March 24, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Quote

“The practice of art isn't to make a living. It's to make your soul grow.” - Kurt Vonnegut

March 22, 2019 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Pity the nation...

Lawrence Ferlinghetti turns 100 this Sunday. Here, he reads his poem "Pity the Nation":

Pity the nation that raises not its voice
Except to praise conquerers
And acclaim the bully as hero...

I regret, during my only business trip to San Francisco in 2007, not having the time to visit City Lights Bookstore. I should have found the time; I certainly could have spared an hour or two away from fellow credit risk professionals. Maybe on my next visit.

(Via Jan Herman.)

March 20, 2019 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Quote

“I don’t think I’d like it if people liked me. I’d think something had gone wrong.” - James Purdy

March 12, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"I know that you are not made of celestial ether, but he doesn't."

John Steinbeck's 1955 letter to Marilyn Monroe, requesting her autographed photo ("in a pensive girlish mood") for his lovestruck nephew. I love his tone.

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

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“We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s freedom; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.” - Gwendolyn Brooks

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

Irish March

Irish March has come around again, and I thought I'd read something contemporary this year, but my public library had no books from the recently acclaimed Anna Burns, Eimear McBride or Sally Rooney. Fortunately, as I was scanning the shelves for Rooney, I stumbled across Ethel Rohan's The Weight of Him, which crossed my radar a while back (it was published in 2017) but I had since forgotten. Ireland-born writer, Irish setting, good critical response. Works for me. I think she's even a Facebook friend (or something) of mine, but we've never corresponded. The book is 336 pages so it should take me a few weeks to read, but I'm not sure what I'll read for the remainder of the month. Maybe scrounge up something cheap at Open Books.

February 28, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (4)

“...that gift of not discovering...”

In Artie: A Story of the Streets and of the Town, George Ade writes this memorable character sketch:

Bancroft Walters is the second son of LaGrange Walters, who manufactures a superior kind of roofing and has grown moderately rich at it.

Bancroft plays the banjo, appears at amateur entertainments, goes to great many parties, and probably belongs to that indefinite class known as "society young men." He has a desk in his father's office, but it cannot be said truly that he is held down to office hours or that his salary represents the value of his actual service. He attended an eastern college for two years, and then came home for some reason, which perhaps only his fond and trusting mother could satisfactorily explain.

She knows it was the fault of the college.

Bancroft is inclined to be dapper, talkative and wonderfully full of self-assurance. Then he has that gift of not discovering that most people regard him as a very ordinary sort of person.

Bancroft is a childhood friend of the book's protagonist Artie Blanchard, but has "taken on airs" as his (inherited) social standing has grown elevated, far above that of the office clerk Artie. But Artie (and Ade) quickly cut Bancroft down to size, in devastating manner.

February 27, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)