"Whatever the circumstances, whatever his condition, he has dug into all subjects and followed only one law, his own: Never be boring."

The Daily Beast reprints John Schulian's great 1985 profile of Chicago columnist Mike Royko, a long read that is very much worth your time. If the piece intrigues you, I can recommend several of Royko's books to you. To me, Royko's daily columns are still among the finest literature that Chicago has ever produced.

(Via Marie Carnes.)

January 19, 2015 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

The making of a writer

In the autumn 2014 issue of Granta, Kent Haruf writes a bittersweet essay on his beginnings as a writer. Bittersweet, given that this was probably one of the last things he wrote before his untimely death in November. In writing about his life, Haruf is every bit as self-effacing, reserved and gentle as his fiction.

January 18, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fram

"But one age cannot be another and you make due with what's available when you come along, as Oscar often reminded himself. He was lucky to be where he was, exploring the Arctic with a pension plus health insurance."

An excerpt from Steve Himmer's new novel, Fram, which I'm really looking forward to reading.

January 17, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Quote

"A blessed companion is a book - a book that, fitly chosen, is a lifelong friend." - Douglas William Jerrold

I can think of three books that fit this lofty description: Knut Hamsun's Hunger, Nelson Algren's The Man With the Golden Arm, and Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt.

January 16, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...they were yearning, not for salvation, but for grub."

I really like this passage from Jack London's The People of the Abyss, in which he describes seeking a meal at a Salvation Army mission...
All told, there must have been nearly seven hundred of us who sat down—not to meat or bread, but to speech, song, and prayer. From all of which I am convinced that Tantalus suffers in many guises this side of the infernal regions. The adjutant made the prayer, but I did not take note of it, being too engrossed with the massed picture of misery before me. But the speech ran something like this: “You will feast in Paradise. No matter how you starve and suffer here, you will feast in Paradise, that is, if you will follow the directions.” And so forth and so forth. A clever bit of propaganda, I took it, but rendered of no avail for two reasons. First, the men who received it were unimaginative and materialistic, unaware of the existence of any Unseen, and too inured to hell on earth to be frightened by hell to come. And second, weary and exhausted from the night’s sleeplessness and hardship, suffering from the long wait upon their feet, and faint from hunger, they were yearning, not for salvation, but for grub. The “soul-snatchers” (as these men call all religious propagandists), should study the physiological basis of psychology a little, if they wish to make their efforts more effective.
...especially since I hear its echoes in Nelson Algren's Chicago: City on the Make, which was written nearly fifty years later. Here, Algren describes the legendary, corrupt-yet-benevolent Chicago alderman Hinky Dink Kenna:
Like the city that bred him, he had a heavenly harpist on his bedpost as well as a hustler’s imp stoking the furnace: when hard times came he fed and sheltered more hungry and homeless men than all the Gold Coast archangels put together. And felt frankly outraged when the archangels accused him of trading free lunches for votes at his Workingman’s Exchange.

He’d paid fifty cents in gold cash for every vote he’d bought, he let the archangels know — but what about the missions that were buying blackened souls in exchange for blacker coffee and the easy promise of a heavenly throne? Why was it less noble to pay cash here and now? Let the Gold Coast archangels answer him that.

Those same pious Gold Coasters who took the Righteous Horrors at the nightly carnival put on by the First Ward cribs — while secretly pocketing rents off those same terrible cribs.

Yet in standardizing the price of the vote The Hink did more to keep the city running that bitter winter than did all the balmy summers of Moody’s evangelism. Not even to mention Lucy Page Gaston’s command that the Chicago Cubs stop smoking cigarettes immediately.

Who came out the truer Christian in a hassle like that?

January 13, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

"This street is the very last."

In The People of the Abyss, Jack London describes returning to his comparatively comfortable lodgings on one of the last "good" streets of the East End of London, after his first exploration of the squalor of the surrounding neighborhood.
...I could not quite take in all of my own room at once. The immensity of it was awe-inspiring. Could this be the room I had rented for six shillings a week? Impossible! But my landlady, knocking at the door to learn if I were comfortable, dispelled my doubts.

“Oh yes, sir,” she said, in reply to a question. “This street is the very last. All the other streets were like this eight or ten years ago, and all the people were very respectable. But the others have driven our kind out. Those in this street are the only ones left. It’s shocking, sir!”

And then she explained the process of saturation, by which the rental value of a neighbourhood went up, while its tone went down.

“You see, sir, our kind are not used to crowding in the way the others do. We need more room. The others, the foreigners and lower-class people, can get five and six families into this house, where we only get one. So they can pay more rent for the house than we can afford. It is shocking, sir; and just to think, only a few years ago all this neighbourhood was just as nice as it could be.”

I looked at her. Here was a woman, of the finest grade of the English working-class, with numerous evidences of refinement, being slowly engulfed by that noisome and rotten tide of humanity which the powers that be are pouring eastward out of London Town. Bank, factory, hotel, and office building must go up, and the city poor folk are a nomadic breed; so they migrate eastward, wave upon wave, saturating and degrading neighbourhood by neighbourhood, driving the better class of workers before them to pioneer, on the rim of the city, or dragging them down, if not in the first generation, surely in the second and third.

It is only a question of months when Johnny Upright’s street must go. He realises it himself.

“In a couple of years,” he says, “my lease expires. My landlord is one of our kind. He has not put up the rent on any of his houses here, and this has enabled us to stay. But any day he may sell, or any day he may die, which is the same thing so far as we are concerned. The house is bought by a money breeder, who builds a sweat shop on the patch of ground at the rear where my grapevine is, adds to the house, and rents it a room to a family. There you are, and Johnny Upright’s gone!”

And truly I saw Johnny Upright, and his good wife and fair daughters, and frowzy slavey, like so many ghosts flitting eastward through the gloom, the monster city roaring at their heels.

But Johnny Upright is not alone in his flitting. Far, far out, on the fringe of the city, live the small business men, little managers, and successful clerks. They dwell in cottages and semi-detached villas, with bits of flower garden, and elbow room, and breathing space. They inflate themselves with pride, and throw out their chests when they contemplate the Abyss from which they have escaped, and they thank God that they are not as other men. And lo! down upon them comes Johnny Upright and the monster city at his heels. Tenements spring up like magic, gardens are built upon, villas are divided and subdivided into many dwellings, and the black night of London settles down in a greasy pall.
It's remarkable how well the sentiments of this passage could also describe urban white flight in America during the fifties and sixties. Though in this case, it's whites fleeing from other whites.

January 8, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

You say you want a resolution...

A few reading resolutions for 2015. I intend to read:

(1) One public domain book per month, on my hand-me-down Kindle. I'm starting with Jack London's The People of the Abyss. But I won't be reading any ebooks by contemporary authors, because it seems like ebooks are increasingly becoming a tool that Amazon and publishers use to screw over writers (falling prices, dwindling royalties); if I'm going to read those current writers, I'll read them in print so they're better compensated.

(2) More books by my pressmates at Kuboa Press, particularly Craig Wallwork and J. Bradley. I've already enjoyed Kuboa books by Mel Bosworth, Eddy Rathke and Nigel Bird, and feel like I need to do more to support the press, which has been very good to me.

(3) Several Dzanc books from the pile that was generously sent to me a few years back by Dan Wickett, including books by Matt Bell, Steven Gillis and Billy Lombardo.

(4) Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, during my annual Summer of Classics. I've always been intrigued by the book, but daunted by its bulk, so if in advance I set aside the entire summer to reading it, maybe I won't be as intimidated. Reading the book is probably just a mental hurdle, and probably won't be any more challenging than getting through the Studs Lonigan trilogy last summer; in fact, I finished that trilogy before the summer ended. If the same happens with Moby-Dick, I'll finish up the summer with shorter Melville works, including the novellas Bartleby the Scrivener (a re-reading; one of my favorites) and Benito Cereno.

(5) Forty books in total.

I also have a few writing resolutions in mind, but like in 2014, I'll just keep those to myself, and let you know at the end of the year how they turned out.

January 4, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

What I'm writing

As I mentioned earlier, I had two specific writing projects for 2014. The second project, a serialized story, was completed on December 30. I wrote the story, a pseudo-noir with the working title "Get in the Sentra", in twelve monthly installments, with each written in longhand on a postcard. I mailed each unedited installment to my writer friend Joe Peterson; knowing that Joe was eagerly awaiting the latest installment was great motivation for me to keep writing. I'm fairly pleased with the story, despite the fact that right now it's only a first draft; I'm looking forward to hearing Joe's feedback as I craft the story into finished form this year. I'm also still deciding whether to attempt to get it published as a conventional story, or to be faithful to the story's original conception and somehow get it serialized.

January 4, 2015 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

Found poetry

Many thanks
for the cigars
Hope to see you
in Springfield
some-time

Campfire with dog, August 1908

January 2, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"How To Ease That Hangover"

This timeless Mike Royko advice is undoubtedly arriving too late to help you with your evening drinking and socializing decisions, but at least it might ease your morning (and afternoon) regrets.

December 31, 2014 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)