"I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I'll go to it laughing." - Herman Melville

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

Structured Reading: Willa Cather

After I finish Isaac Bashevis Singer, next week I'm going to start a highly specialized version of Structured Reading: Willa Cather's "Prairie Trilogy" of novels, O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark and My Antonia. I've always heard great things about Cather but have never read any of her work. If nothing else, at least the first book in the trilogy might become the first book I've ever read with an exclamation point in the title.

Reading a trilogy is admittedly less creative than I've been in past Structured Reading efforts, which required more thoughtful curation on my part: the Depression, great American satirists, old-school Jewish writers and African-American classics.

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

"The deader the language, the more alive is the ghost."

Isaac Bashevis Singer, on writing in Yiddish:
"People ask me often: Why do you write in a dying language? And I want to explain it in a few words. Firstly, I like to write ghost stories, and nothing fits a ghost story better than a dying language. The deader the language, the more alive is the ghost. Ghosts love Yiddish, and, as far as I know, they all speak it.

Secondly, I not only believe in ghosts but also in resurrection. I am sure that millions of Yiddish-speaking corpses will rise from their graves one day, and their first question will be: Is there any new book in Yiddish to read? For them Yiddish will not be dead."
Right now I'm reading Singer's 1963 story collection The Spinoza of Market Street, and really enjoying it. His portrayals of the long-vanished Jewish communities of eastern Europe are simply lovely - richly drawn, compassionate and witty.

September 30, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)


"When some political or ecclesiastical pamphlet, or novel, or poem is making a great commotion, you should remember that he who writes for fools always finds a large public."
- Schopenhauer

Apparently I already believed this. It would certainly explain why the critical darlings Then We Came to the End and A Visit From the Goon Squad have been sitting on my shelf, unread, for years. And why, after I finally read The Devil in the White City after ten years on the shelf, I wished I hadn't wasted my time.

September 27, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


“To trust people is a luxury in which only the wealthy can indulge; the poor cannot afford it.” ― E.M. Forster, Howards End

September 26, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"We all have our time machines, don't we. Those that take us back are memories...And those that carry us forward, are dreams." - H.G. Wells (born on this day in 1866)

September 21, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...asking us if we knew their names..."

In Matt Bell's story "The Receiving Tower", a group of men, under the iron command of a seemingly maniacal captain, operate a communication tower in the frozen wilderness. With little to occupy their time, each slowly loses his memory (growing "dim") and, with it, the desire to escape and return to a home they are progressively forgetting (and which might no longer exist).
As I remember it — which is not well — young Kerr was the first to grow dim. We’d find him high in the tower’s listening room, swearing at the computers, locking up console after console by failing to enter his password correctly. At night, he wandered the barracks, holding a framed portrait of his son and daughter, asking us if we knew their names, if we remembered how old they were. This is when one of us would remove the photograph from its frame so that he could read the fading scrawl on the back, the inked lines he eventually wore off by tracing them over and over with his fingers, after which there was no proof with which to quiet his queries.

Later, after he had gotten much worse, we’d find him on the roof, half frozen, sleeping beneath the receiving dish, his arms wrapped partway around its thick stem, his mind faded, his body lean and starved and frostbitten.

None of us realized he was missing until we found his body, trapped in the ice just inside the compound’s gate. What pain he must have felt after he threw himself from atop the tower, after he tried to crawl forward on crushed bones, heading in the direction of a coast he must have known he would never live to see.
Great story, one which I could imagine being expanded to book length. The story is collected in How They Were Found, which I just started reading and have enjoyed so far. This month has unexpectedly morphed into Short Story September - this is the third collection I've read this month (the others are by Ben Tanzer and Joe Peterson) and Isaac Bashevis Singer's The Spinoza of Market Street might be next.

September 21, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"The grenade is a simple reminder that sometimes one needs to lob a grenade into a poem to get a reader’s attention." - Ernest Hilbert

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

Ben Tanzer, After the Flood

As always, Ben Tanzer is a great friend of mine, so this review is by no means objective. And as always, Ben has crafted excellent fiction here. After the Flood is clearly the best of his Two Rivers story collections (all three are compiled in the single-volume The New York Stories, which I plan to read in full sometime next year), with this latest one being unified by not only locale but also by a catastrophic flood which devastates the town and forever changes the lives of nearly every character; the flood gives the collection a haunting, overarching theme as well as tightness and cohesion.

The one word I would use to describe this collection is "desolation" - not just the flood and its aftermath, but the characters themselves, who were already pretty desolate to begin with, before the flood makes things even worse. Ben's characters have moved beyond young adulthood and toward middle age, where they find themselves in a sort of sluggish stasis - they've acquired marriages and kids and houses and careers but then just sort of stopped, unsure what to do next with their lives. So they drink to excess and even oblivion, lust after friends' spouses and sit around impassively as the flood waters steadily rise, threatening to sweep them away.

After the Flood is a dark portrait of a small town where, for its inhabitants, time has mostly stood still.

September 15, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"There are so many instances in history where Europe, and other countries too, shut their doors to refugees, somehow hoping that they would die or vanish. The saddest thing is that the tragedy of people having to risk their lives, and losing their lives crossing the sea or half of Europe, is seen as a desire to steal from us what we have, this wonderful privilege of living in a democracy and having a stable life. And that we must protect it from them, and the only danger for us is their coming—it’s another variation of the zombie fantasy." - Aleksandar Hemon

September 14, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Watching and Waiting"

I've quickly immersed myself in my great friend Ben Tanzer's latest story collection, After the Flood. (It's actually part of an omnibus called The New York Stories, which includes After the Flood and two earlier collections, Repetition Patterns and So Different Now. I've already read the first two, so for now I'm just reading Flood. I plan to read the whole thing, beginning to end, sometime next year.) The book is very good, and probably even better than the first two - the stories in all three are linked by the common locale (a fictionalized version of Ben's hometown of Binghamton, New York), but the latest is even tighter as it also revolves around the devastating storm and subsequent flooding that hit the town in 2011.

All of the stories so far have been strong, but I particularly like "Watching and Waiting" (first published at 3Elements Review, starting on page 11 here), which tells of a lonely, passive woman who has a man drift in and out of her life (arriving as a landscaper and, after a presumably quick marriage, departing with the flood), leaving her "like some sea captain's wife, healing, looking, and waiting for something to happen" and contemplating the rest of her days. I don't usually like second-person narration, but Ben uses it extremely well here. The story and book are well worth your time and, as Ben likes to say, just might change your life.

September 14, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"The truth is life is full of joy and full of great sorrow, but you can't have one without the other." - Andre Dubus III

September 11, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Asbury's crime fiction

At The New Yorker, Jon Michaud looks at the two long-forgotten (and very different) crime novels written by Herbert Asbury, The Devil of Pei-Ling and The Tick of the Clock.
The two styles also evoke the opposing influences of Asbury’s youth—the fear of hell and damnation that shaped the lives of his ancestors, and his own commitment to rationalism, which eventually led him to refute such rhetoric. His upbringing may have made him particularly well suited to inhabit both sorts of fictional worlds.
Asbury is best known for his non-fiction, particularly The Gangs of New York (which later became the basis for the 2002 Martin Scorcese film of the same name). Nearly ten years ago I enjoyed his similar volume The Gangs of Chicago; that book was originally called (with likely sarcasm) Gem of the Prairie but the title was changed at its latest reissue, probably as a ploy to profit from the Scorcese connection. But if that was the publisher's intention, it appears to have mostly failed.

September 11, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"Give me a decent bottle of poison, and I’ll construct the perfect crime." - Agatha Christie

September 9, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...not even a second helping all the way round..."

William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows tells the story of eight-year-old Peter “Bunny” Morison and his family, in a small town in Illinois during the waning years of World War I. Knowing what I already did about Maxwell’s life (the novel is highly autobiographical) and the book itself, I nearly rolled my eyes at the first scene that involved the entire Morison family, with Maxwell being almost embarrassingly heavy-handed with his foreshadowing. (Mr. Morison’s out-loud reading of a newspaper article is an almost perfect example of Chekhov’s “gun in the first act” principle.)

But soon after, Maxwell redeems himself with his lovely description of the family’s Sunday dinner. Here, Bunny is listening as Mr. Morison (a dyed-in-the-wool Republican) is ranting about President Woodrow Wilson.
Bunny twisted in his chair uncomfortably. He remembered something that he had meant to tell his mother. About Arthur Cook. When his father held forth in this way, the quiet which belonged to the dining-room seemed to have escaped to the other parts of the house. He thought of the upstairs bedrooms and how still they must be. His mother was eating her salad quite calmly, in spite of President Wilson. When she put her fork down, he might lean toward her and--but it was not easy to describe things. Especially things that had happened. For him, to think of things was to see them--schoolyard, bare trees, gravel and walks, furnace-rooms, the eaves along the south end of the building. Where among so many things should he begin?

Robert would not have had any trouble. We were playing three-deep, Robert would have said. And Arthur Cook got sick.That would have been the end of it, so far as Robert was concerned. He would have not felt obliged to explain how Arthur ran twice around the circle without tagging anybody. And how he stopped playing and said I feel funny. How he went over by the bicycle racks then, and sat down.

“At school last Friday--”

But he had spoken too loud.

“How would it be, son--”

His father let President Wilson alone for a minute and turned his entire attention to Bunny, so that he felt naked and ashamed, as if he were under a glaring light.

“--if you kept quiet until I finish what I’m saying?”

That was all. His father had not spoken unkindly. He was not sent from the table. No punishment was threatened. Nevertheless, Bunny withdrew sadly into his plate. And not even a second helping all the way round could restore his pleasure in this day.

So much is neatly captured in this single page--Bunny’s adolescent timidity and lack of confidence, his jealousy and resentment of his older brother Robert, Mr. Morison’s stern coldness. It’s rich without being excessive.

(If the publisher or copyright holder of the novel objects to my reproducing this one-page excerpt, my apologies. I will remove this immediately. But my feeling is that short excerpts like this, accompanied by my praise--I’m really enjoying the book--can’t possibly hurt your sales. If anything, it might help you sell an extra copy or two. And I’m making absolutely no money off of Maxwell’s work.)

September 6, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Everybody's a critic...

...especially cats.
My cat shit in my archives
he climbed into my Golden State Sunkist
orange box
and he shit on my poems
my original poems
saved for the university archives.

that one-eared fat black critic
he signed me off.
- Charles Bukowski

September 5, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Best Chicago Novels by Neighborhood"

At Gapers Block, Adam Morgan compiles a nice list of Chicago fiction, by neighborhood. For the record, I've read nine of these (Sinclair, Anderson, Hemon, Dybek, Dreiser, Wright, Farrell, Algren, Meno's Office Girl), and another five are already on my to-read list (Cather, Meno's The Great Perhaps, Norris, Fuller's The Cliff-Dwellers, Motley). The most obvious omission that comes to mind is Don De Grazia's American Skin, set in Lakeview; Harry Mark Petrakis certainly has to be included in there as well - probably for Greektown - though I've yet to read any of his novels.

(I've actually read a tenth book on this list, but people really need to stop referring to Larson's embellished history as fiction. So, I'm not counting it.)

September 1, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Summer of Melville has ended.

Summer of Melville was a mixed blessing. I'm glad to have finally read Melville in depth, but I'm even more glad to be finished. I ended it last night, several days early - had I enjoyed the experience more, I could have continued on until a more typical ending of summer, either August 31st or Labor Day. Other than my long-time favorite Bartleby the Scrivener, I highly doubt that I'll ever read Melville again. He's simply not my style of writer - dense, long-winded, pedantic, with flashes of brilliance that occur far too rarely to endure the dross.

Moby-Dick was everything I expected, both good and bad, and I can easily see why the novel is so divisive, and how everyone who reads it either loves it or hates it, with very little middle ground. Then Bartleby (possibly the first office-politics fiction ever written?) was as great as always, and Benito Cereno was a pleasant surprise, with its building tension and mystery overcoming what could have been just another seafaring tale. But The Confidence-Man was a bloated collection of essays masquerading as fiction, the stories in The Piazza Tales (other than Bartleby and Benito Cereno) were fairly underwhelming, and Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War was useful only as evidence that Melville should never have attempted poetry.

The above is simply a brief recap of my experience. If you want to read my Goodreads reviews for more depth, here they are:
Bartleby the Scrivener and Benito Cereno
The Confidence-Man
The Piazza Tales
Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War

With Melville behind me, I'm eagerly moving on to much more modern and concise fare, and started Bohumil Hrabal's Closely Observed Trains (or Closely Watched Trains, depending on your translator) this morning.

August 28, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


“The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last forever. Even on the most beautiful days in the whole year—days when summer is changing into Fall—the crickets spread the rumor of sadness and change.” - E.B. White, from Charlotte's Web

Lately I've noticed the return of crickets, and a definite cooler snap in the air. Fall is coming already. Bring it on.

August 25, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Far footfalls died away till none were left."

Sobering verse from Melville's Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War:
Ball's Bluff.
A Reverie.
(October, 1861.)

One noonday, at my window in the town,
  I saw a sight—saddest that eyes can see—
  Young soldiers marching lustily
      Unto the wars,
With fifes, and flags in mottoed pageantry;
    While all the porches, walks, and doors
Were rich with ladies cheering royally.

They moved like Juny morning on the wave,
  Their hearts were fresh as clover in its prime
  (It was the breezy summer time),
      Life throbbed so strong,
How should they dream that Death in a rosy clime
    Would come to thin their shining throng?
Youth feels immortal, like the gods sublime.

Weeks passed; and at my window, leaving bed,
  By night I mused, of easeful sleep bereft,
  On those brave boys (Ah War! thy theft);
      Some marching feet
Found pause at last by cliffs Potomac cleft;
    Wakeful I mused, while in the street
Far footfalls died away till none were left.

Melville's Civil War poems have been criticized for their distance from the subject; he visited the battlefront only once, in 1864. But the perspective of this poem - the narrator at home, watching cocky young men march off to war and their likely doom - is much closer to Melville's personal experience, and the poem is much richer for it.

August 24, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Summer of Melville update

Summer of Melville is now winding down. I've read Moby-Dick, Bartleby and Benito Cereno (in a single volume), The Confidence-Man and the story collection The Piazza Tales. I was underwhelmed by the last two, and strongly considered ending the summer early. But with one week left, I've decided to keep it going with one last book, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, his collection of Civil War poems. Melville dedicated himself almost exclusively to poetry during his final few decades, so after reading some of his novels, novellas and short stories, it will be interesting to read his poetry which obviously meant much to him.

I've enjoyed my Melville immersion, but I'm also looking forward to returning to fiction which is more modern and concise. I've already lined up books by Bohumil Hrabal, William Maxwell and my great friend Ben Tanzer for September.

August 23, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"A writer, or any other kind of artist, who partly or largely need not depend on pleasing the public, who in effect has his fee guaranteed whatever the quality of his product, is tempted to self-indulgence and laziness." - Kingsley Amis

August 22, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...writing articles on Why Young Men Fail, and making a success of it..."

George Horace Lorimer's Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son is a fictional series of letters from a Chicago meatpacking tycoon to his son, in which the father, "Old Gorgon" Graham, tries to impart wisdom, advice and the occasional remonstrance to his son Pierrepont. Here, he tells of repeatedly trying to set up the overeducated son of a business colleague in a suitable career:
Got him in a bank, but while he knew more about the history of banking than the president, and more about political economy than the board of directors, he couldn’t learn the difference between a fiver that the Government turned out and one that was run off on a hand press in a Halsted Street basement. Got him a job on a paper, but while he knew six different languages and all the facts about the Arctic regions, and the history of dancing from the days of Old Adam down to those of Old Nick, he couldn’t write up a satisfactory account of the Ice-Men’s Ball. Could prove that two and two made four by trigonometry and geometry, but couldn’t learn to keep books; was thick as thieves with all the high-toned poets, but couldn’t write a good, snappy, merchantable street-car ad.; knew a thousand diseases that would take a man off before he could blink, but couldn’t sell a thousand-dollar tontine policy; knew the lives of our Presidents as well as if he’d been raised with them, but couldn’t place a set of the Library of the Fathers of the Republic, though they were offered on little easy payments that made them come as easy as borrowing them from a friend. Finally I hit on what seemed to be just the right thing. I figured out that any fellow who had such a heavy stock of information on hand, ought to be able to job it out to good advantage, and so I got him a place teaching. But it seemed that he’d learned so much about the best way of teaching boys, that he told his principal right on the jump that he was doing it all wrong, and that made him sore; and he knew so much about the dead languages, which was what he was hired to teach, that he forgot he was handling live boys, and as he couldn’t tell it all to them in the regular time, he kept them after hours, and that made them sore and put Stan out of a job again. The last I heard of him he was writing articles on Why Young Men Fail, and making a success of it, because failing was the one subject on which he was practical.
Lorimer was the long-time editor of the Saturday Evening Post, and is credited with growing it from a small-circulation publication into the national cultural institution it would eventually become. Based on what I've read here so far, he was also a talented writer in his own right.

August 14, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Let us go then, you and I..."

Happy (belated) 100th anniversary, Prufrock!
It teems with paradoxes: It’s a dramatic monologue that contains zero drama, a series of questions that seek no answer, the product of a consciousness that may not be conscious, the lament of a soul that comes alive only in order to die.
Julie and I often quote random lines from the poem - not as often as we quote lines from Seinfeld, but often enough for it to be a touchstone for us. My favorite lines are probably these:
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

August 11, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...to be a consistent Indian-hater involves the renunciation of ambition..."

Melville's The Confidence-Man includes the tale of the fictional Colonel Moredock, an Illinois pioneer who - there's no nice way to say this - killed Native Americans for sport.
"'At one time the colonel was a member of the territorial council of Illinois, and at the formation of the state government, was pressed to become candidate for governor, but begged to be excused. And, though he declined to give his reasons for declining, yet by those who best knew him the cause was not wholly unsurmised. In his official capacity he might be called upon to enter into friendly treaties with Indian tribes, a thing not to be thought of. And even did no such contingecy arise, yet he felt there would be an impropriety in the Governor of Illinois stealing out now and then, during a recess of the legislative bodies, for a few days' shooting at human beings, within the limits of his paternal chief-magistracy. If the governorship offered large honors, from Moredock it demanded larger sacrifices. These were incompatibles. In short, he was not unaware that to be a consistent Indian-hater involves the renunciation of ambition, with its objects—the pomps and glories of the world; and since religion, pronouncing such things vanities, accounts it merit to renounce them, therefore, so far as this goes, Indian-hating, whatever may be thought of it in other respects, may be regarded as not wholly without the efficacy of a devout sentiment.'"
Our current governor, Bruce Rauner, may often seem heartless, but at least he's a big, cuddly teddy bear compared to the bloodthirsty Moredock.

August 10, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Murakami fans, thank your lucky stars for Dave Hilton.

Haruki Murakami remembers his a-ha moment, at a Yakult Swallows game in 1978.
The satisfying crack when the bat met the ball resounded throughout Jingu Stadium. Scattered applause rose around me. In that instant, for no reason and on no grounds whatsoever, the thought suddenly struck me: I think I can write a novel.
Though more prosaic folks might dismiss this, saying that Murakami already had the talent and passion for writing inside of him, and that it just happened to emerge at this moment, I like the idea that an ordinary, line-drive double by a journeyman American ballplayer is what started it all.

August 9, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"I love Ireland. It is my home, but you know, I sometimes feel I have been trying to leave all my life, and never made it. But I don’t know if writers ever are properly in the place where they live, they’re always in a slight state of exile." - Anne Enright

August 9, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...equality for all..."

From "The Government of Death", by avant-garde musician - and little-known poet - Sun Ra:
all governments
on earth
set up by men
are discriminating
but the government of death is a
pure government
it treats all in an equal manner
it is a startling, revealing picture
of equality for all
and in the realm of death
is nothing else but
Via Robert Archambeau, who has an interesting discussion of Sun Ra as the outsider and the dispossessed.

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

"Natur is good Queen Bess; but who's responsible for the cholera?"

Summer of Melville continues, with The Confidence-Man (1857), which takes place entirely on a Mississippi River steamboat. In this scene, a hearty backwoodsman encounters a invalid miser, who has just bought an herbal remedy from a quack "herb-doctor." ("Yarbs" are apparently "herbs" in the local dialect.)
He must have overheard some of the talk between the miser and the herb-doctor; for, just after the withdrawal of the one, he made up to the other — now at the foot of the stairs leaning against the baluster there — with the greeting above.

"Think it will cure me?" coughed the miser in echo; "why shouldn't it? The medicine is nat'ral yarbs, pure yarbs; yarbs must cure me."

"Because a thing is nat'ral, as you call it, you think it must be good. But who gave you that cough? Was it, or was it not, nature?"

"Sure, you don't think that natur, Dame Natur, will hurt a body, do you?"

"Natur is good Queen Bess; but who's responsible for the cholera?"

"But yarbs, yarbs; yarbs are good?"

"What's deadly - nightshade? Yarb, ain't it?"

"Oh, that a Christian man should speak agin natur and yarbs — ugh, ugh, ugh! — ain't sick men sent out into the country; sent out to natur and grass?"

"Aye, and poets send out the sick spirit to green pastures, like lame horses turned out unshod to the turf to renew their hoofs. A sort of yarb-doctors in their way, poets have it that for sore hearts, as for sore lungs, nature is the grand cure. But who froze to death my teamster on the prairie? And who made an idiot of Peter the Wild Boy?"
In many ways, The Confidence-Man is a more difficult read than Moby-Dick. It's sort of a picaresque, but with no protagonist and barely any plot. Instead, it's a long series of philosophical conversations between unnamed strangers, one of whom is inevitably trying to rip off the other. I hope the first two hundred pages I've read so far are some sort of slow buildup to something dramatic.

August 4, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

"I will need at least 450 pages of sailing before I find him."

The late E.L. Doctorow, on Moby-Dick.
So let me propose that having done his first hundred or so pages of almost entirely land-based writing, Melville stopped to read what he had written. What have I got here?—the author’s question.

“This Ishmael—he is logorrheic! Whatever he writes about, he takes his time. With this Ishmael, if I have a hundred or so land-based pages, if I am to keep the proportion of the thing, and the encounter with the whale is my climax, I will need at least 450 pages of sailing before I find him. My God.”
Indeed, of all the things Ishmael could be accused of, haste is certainly not one of them.

July 31, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"To a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain."

Interesting take on compassion, from Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener"; the narrator has bent over backwards to help Bartleby, but soon realizes that his employee is probably beyond hope.
My first emotions had been those of pure melancholy and sincerest pity; but just in proportion as the forlornness of Bartleby grew and grew to my imagination, did that same melancholy merge into fear, that pity into repulsion. So true it is, and so terrible too, that up to a certain point the thought or sight of misery enlists our best affections; but, in certain special cases, beyond that point it does not. They err who would assert that invariably this is owing to the inherent selfishness of the human heart. It rather proceeds from a certain hopelessness of remedying excessive and organic ill. To a sensitive being, pity is not seldom pain. And when at last it is perceived that such pity cannot lead to effectual succor, common sense bids the soul rid of it. What I saw that morning persuaded me that the scrivener was the victim of innate and incurable disorder.
Bartleby is still one of my favorite short stories ever.

July 22, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"I think that the minute a writer knows what his style is, he’s finished. Because then you see your own limits, and you hear your own voice in your head. At that point you might as well close up shop." - E.L. Doctorow (1931-2015)

July 22, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Update on Summer of Melville

My Summer of Classics (this year, renamed "Summer of Melville") continues. I just finished Moby-Dick yesterday (in a word: "Whew!") and this morning started another re-reading of the long story "Bartleby the Scrivener"; this is the third or fourth time I've read the story, and am enjoying it as much as ever. After that, it will be the novella Benito Cereno, and then The Confidence-Man. My old blog friend Golden Rule Jones is a big Melville fan, and at a recent lunch he recommended the latter novel as a fine way to round out my summer reading.

I'm going to refrain from any extensive commentary until the summer is over, so for now I will just say that Moby-Dick was every bit as thrilling and exasperating as I expected it to be.

Moby admirers might appreciate Peter Orner's recent essay "Brief Early Morning Thoughts on Ahab" at The Rumpus, in which he reflects on whether Ahab's monomaniacal quest was simply a ploy to avoid going home.

July 21, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"If you take the life-lie away from an average person, you take away his happiness as well." - Henrik Ibsen

July 20, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"I think self-confidence is a very dangerous thing for writers. I tend to write in a fragile, edgy, doubtful sort of way, trying things out all the time, never confident that I’ve got something right." - William Trevor

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

Literary cycling

How fitting to read this list ("The 10 best books about cycling") just a few hours after my weekly Saturday morning ride. I've already added the Wells, Krabbe and Bartolini books to my list (the Beckett was already there, though I haven't looked for it aggressively, and I've read The Third Policeman but didn't care much for it). I'll never be a racer and probably not even a daily rider, but I love my weekly rides. I never go for speed, just for good exercise and enjoying the outdoors.

July 11, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)


"...the whale has no voice; unless you insult him by saying, that when he so strangely rumbles, he talks through his nose. But then again, what has the whale to say? Seldom have I known any profound being that had anything to say to this world, unless forced to stammer out something by way of getting a living. Oh! happy that the world is such an excellent listener!" - Herman Melville

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


This is interesting. Literary Hub queried nearly 50 non-American literary people on what they considered to be three quintessentially American books, which they provided along with their commentary. The most-cited writers (Faulkner, Melville, Fitzgerald, Salinger, Twain) are far from surprising, though I would have expected Hemingway to rank higher. In total, 96 books were named, of which I have only read 18:

Ragtime, To Build a Fire, Miss Lonelyhearts, The Long Goodbye, On the Road, The Road, Bartleby the Scrivener, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Day of the Locust, Moby-Dick, Little House on the Prairie, Babbitt, The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Virgin Suicides, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Scarlet Letter, The Big Sleep

And, of course, another dozen are on my shelves, waiting to be read.

July 5, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...obstinate survival of old beliefs never bottomed on the earth..."

In the passage below, Melville describes the aftermath of a whale killing, after the stripped carcass has been set adrift. And, of course, Melville uses that event to preface yet another metaphor.
Desecrated as the body is, a vengeful ghost survives and hovers over it to scare. Espied by some timid man-of-war or blundering discovery-vessel from afar, when the distance obscuring the swarming fowls, nevertheless still shows the white mass floating in the sun, and the white spray heaving high against it; straightway the whale's unharming corpse, with trembling fingers is set down in the log — shoals, rocks, and breakers hereabouts: beware! And for years afterwards, perhaps, ships shun the place; leaping over it as silly sheep leap over a vacuum, because their leader originally leaped there when a stick was held. There's your law of precedents; there's your utility of traditions; there's the story of your obstinate survival of old beliefs never bottomed on the earth, and now not even hovering in the air! There's orthodoxy!
It's digressive asides like this that make Moby-Dick the odd and thorny novel that it is. When Melville is as spot-on as he is in this passage, the asides are a delight; the problem for me is that there are too many of them. I've come to the conclusion that the book is one-third adventure story and two-thirds lecture. I would really prefer those proportions to be reversed.

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

"...predestined to keep sanity in men who live forgotten in these worlds of mist..."

The Aran Islands is J.M. Synge's account of his trips to the remote Arans, off of the west coast of Ireland, in 1898-1901. I admire the sudden shifts here, in both climate and mood:

A week of sweeping fogs has passed over and given me a strange sense of exile and desolation. I walk round the island nearly every day, yet I can see nothing anywhere but a mass of wet rock, a strip of surf, and then a tumult of waves.

The slaty limestone has grown black with the water that is dripping on it, and wherever I turn there is the same grey obsession twining and wreathing itself among the narrow fields, and the same wail from the wind that shrieks and whistles in the loose rubble of the walls.

At first the people do not give much attention to the wilderness that is round them, but after a few days their voices sink in the kitchen, and their endless talk of pigs and cattle falls to the whisper of men who are telling stories in a haunted house.

The rain continues; but this evening a number of young men were in the kitchen mending nets, and the bottle of poteen was drawn from its hiding-place.

One cannot think of these people drinking wine on the summit of this crumbling precipice, but their grey poteen, which brings a shock of joy to the blood, seems predestined to keep sanity in men who live forgotten in these worlds of mist.

I sat in the kitchen part of the evening to feel the gaiety that was rising, and when I came into my own room after dark, one of the sons came in every time the bottle made its round, to pour me out my share.

It has cleared, and the sun is shining with a luminous warmth that makes the whole island glisten with the splendor of a gem, and fills the sea and sky with a radiance of blue light.

I wasn't familiar with the word poteen, which Webster's defines as "whiskey illicitly distilled in Ireland." That makes sense. I'm sure that, despite its gray color, it was an inviting and essential part of everyday life that got many people through long stretches of chill and damp, until the sunshine returned at last.

June 28, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but of playing a poor hand well." - Robert Louis Stevenson

June 28, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...fit roosting-place for their homeless selves..."

In Moby-Dick, a book full of ominous premonitions, this memorable description is particularly forboding:
Close to our bows, strange forms in the water darted hither and thither before us; while thick in our rear flew the inscrutable sea-ravens. And every morning, perched on our stays, rows of these birds were seen; and spite of our hootings, for a long time obstinately clung to the hemp, as though they deemed our ship some drifting, uninhabited craft; a thing appointed to desolation, and therefore fit roosting-place for their homeless selves. And heaved and heaved, still unrestingly heaved the black sea, as if its vast tides were a conscience; and the great mundane soul were in anguish and remorse for the long sin and suffering it had bred.
The eerie crows - or were they sea-ravens? - perched all over the playground equipment in Hitchcock's The Birds immediately comes to mind.

June 26, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven." - John Milton

June 24, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"Life passes into pages if it passes into anything." - James Salter (1925-2015)

June 21, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"God keep me from ever completing anything."

Writers, your unfinished works aren't failures. They are masterpieces, destined to be finished by future generations! From the infamous "Cetology" chapter of Moby-Dick:
But I now leave my cetological System standing thus unfinished, even as the great Cathedral of Cologne was left, with the crane still standing upon the top of the uncompleted tower. For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!
That chapter is regularly cited by readers as the most patience-trying, eye-rolling section of the book, but I actually enjoyed reading it this morning, particularly with the contrast between its weighty tone and and the giddyness of the red-clad Blackhawks fans who were crammed into my train for the downtown victory rally.

June 18, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (3)

"I can stand it; yes, I can."

Touching scene from Chapter 22 of Moby-Dick, just as the Pequod is going out to sea. Captain Peleg and Captain Bildad are the owners of the ship, and though both are in retirement, it is clear that neither has yet gotten over the lure of the sea.

It was curious and not unpleasing, how Peleg and Bildad were affected at this juncture, especially Captain Bildad. For loath to depart, yet; very loath to leave, for good, a ship bound on so long and perilous a voyage—beyond both stormy Capes; a ship in which some thousands of his hard earned dollars were invested; a ship, in which an old shipmate sailed as captain; a man almost as old as he, once more starting to encounter all the terrors of the pitiless jaw; loath to say good-bye to a thing so every way brimful of every interest to him,—poor old Bildad lingered long; paced the deck with anxious strides; ran down into the cabin to speak another farewell word there; again came on deck, and looked to windward; looked towards the wide and endless waters, only bounded by the far-off unseen Eastern Continents; looked towards the land; looked aloft; looked right and left; looked everywhere and nowhere; and at last, mechanically coiling a rope upon its pin, convulsively grasped stout Peleg by the hand, and holding up a lantern, for a moment stood gazing heroically in his face, as much as to say, "Nevertheless, friend Peleg, I can stand it; yes, I can."

I can just see the old man's face, jaw clenched but quivering, and with a tear at the corner of his eye.

June 14, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (3)

"There is no other cure for sorrow."

"Next came the son of the virgin, Dionysus, bringing the counterpart to bread, wine and the blessings of life’s flowing juices.
His blood, the blood of the grape, lightens the burden of our mortal misery.
When, after their daily toils, men drink their fill, sleep comes to them, bringing release from troubles.
There is no other cure for sorrow."
Euripides, from The Bacchae

June 12, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"Words and expressions will be forced into use, in spite of all the exertions of all the writers in the world.” - Noah Webster

June 10, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Ode on an Abandoned Shopping Mall"

Move over, Keats.
O what voices haunt these most mournful ruins!
Where chained to a kiosk rudely overturn’d
Ghostly vendors still accost to ask if they might buff your nails.
And echoing o’er the cracked tile, the clunking whine of a Weazel Ball
Caged before the Kay-Bee Toys, forever tumbling.
O Weazel Ball, tumble on! Bold weasel, never canst thou clasp thy prize!
Which begs the question...was Stonehenge or Machu Picchu merely the Dixie Square Mall of an ancient era? Will fossilized Cinnabons someday be cherished as prehistoric relics?

June 10, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...deliriums and death..."

Summer of Classics has begun, and I'm a few chapters into Moby-Dick. Here, Ishmael describes the lowly New Bedford public house called The Spouter-Inn.
Projecting from the further angle of the room stands a dark-looking den—the bar—a rude attempt at a right whale's head. Be that how it may, there stands the vast arched bone of the whale's jaw, so wide, a coach might almost drive beneath it. Within are shabby shelves, ranged round with old decanters, bottles, flasks; and in those jaws of swift destruction, like another cursed Jonah (by which name indeed they called him), bustles a little withered old man, who, for their money, dearly sells the sailors deliriums and death.

Abominable are the tumblers into which he pours his poison. Though true cylinders without—within, the villanous green goggling glasses deceitfully tapered downwards to a cheating bottom. Parallel meridians rudely pecked into the glass, surround these footpads' goblets. Fill to this mark, and your charge is but a penny; to this a penny more; and so on to the full glass—the Cape Horn measure, which you may gulp down for a shilling.
I'm enjoying the book so far, but Melville's tendency to meander is already apparent. (That first chapter, which argues at considerable length that every human being is innately drawn to the sea, was already a bit trying.) But I already know the book will be full of digressions and tangents, and since I'm giving myself the entire summer to read it, I'm just going to take it easy and slow and enjoy Melville's flights of fancy. At least he was a skilled enough writer to make the digressions entertaining to read.

June 8, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)