"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)


"I expect some of the substance of these volumes has remained somewhere in my mind, corrupted by haphazard associations I cannot trace and misunderstandings that occurred at the time of reading. Yet I will not count the hours spent with them as lost." - Fred Chappell

June 7, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


“Read, every day, something no one else is reading. Think, every day, something no one else is thinking. Do, every day, something no one else would be silly enough to do. It is bad for the mind to continually be part of unanimity.” - Christopher Morley

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

Summer of Classics, a/k/a Summer of Melville

This year I'm devoting my annual Summer of Classics to Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. Though I've long been put off by the novel's bulk and legendary digressions, it really can't be any more daunting than reading the complete Studs Lonigan trilogy last summer. Though I'm a notoriously slow reader, I can't imagine the novel will consume a full three months, so I expect to fill out any remainder of the summer with Benito Cereno, yet another re-reading of Bartleby the Scrivener and/or several of Melville's public domain works that I've found on Project Gutenberg. I'm finishing up another novel right now, but will commence once that's done and after I've procured a decent used copy of Moby.

June 2, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (3)

Hear, hear!

Why we need a biography of Kent Haruf.
But no is an interesting story, one that doesn’t get told often enough. Writers’ lives are filled with failure and rejection, and not just because editors are blind to their genius. For every Great Gatsby that gets tossed back on the slush pile, there are thousands of manuscripts rejected because they simply aren’t that good. And when a writer faces that rejection, not just once, but for decades, and finds the combination of humility and confidence to keep working on his craft, keep believing he was meant to be a writer - that’s a story we all could learn something from.
I'm eagerly (and wistfully) looking forward to Haruf's final novel, Our Souls at Night - but not until it's out in paperback. I have all of his novels in paperback (ever since I found Plainsong on the book swap shelf at a Starbucks), and it wouldn't seem right reading this one in anything but.

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

Herman Wouk

Very cool: Herman Wouk to publish first memoir aged 100. What a radical concept in this excessively confessional age: a writer who thoroughly experiences and writes about the world before finally turning the focus on himself. Quite a contrast to the rash of youngish serial memoirists out there.

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


“There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.” - William Zinsser

May 15, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (3)

"...noise or wine or sex or gluttony..."

In Black Like Me (1960), the white writer John Howard Griffin disguises himself as an African-American in order to experience, firsthand, that other side of society. After starting in New Orleans, he moves on to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, which is simmering with imminent racial unrest after a white jury refused to indict members of a mob suspected of lynching Mack Charles Parker. Here, he reflects on African-Americans' seeming ability to remain joyous in the face of injustice and deprivation.
The music consumed in its blatant rhythm all other rhythms, even that of the heartbeat. I wondered how all of this would look to the casual observer, or to the whites in their homes. "The n***ers are whooping it up over on Mobile Street tonight," they might say. "They're happy." Or, as one scholar put it, "Despite their lowly status, they are capable of living jubilantly." Would they see the immense melancholy that hung over the quarter, so oppressive that men had to dull their sensibilities in noise or wine or sex or gluttony in order to escape it? The laughter had to be gross or it would turn to sobs, and to sob would be to realize, and to realize would be to despair. So the noise poured forth like a jazzed-up fugue, louder and louder, to cover the whisper in every man's soul, "You are black. You are condemned." That is what the white man mistook for "jubilant living" and called "whooping it up." This is how the white man can say, "They live like dogs," never realizing why they must, to save themselves, shout, get drunk, shake the hip, pour pleasures into bellies deprived of happiness. Otherwise, the sounds of the quarter would lose order and rhythm and become wails.
Or, as the old blues lyric goes, "I'm laughing just to keep from crying." Powerful book, one that I'm really enjoying.

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

"I like that devilish thing in children."

William Trevor, from a 1989 interview with The Paris Review:
My skill in art and English made me impatient, and I found those subjects rather dreary to teach as a result. “Why are the art room walls covered with pictures of such ugly women?” a headmaster asked me once. “And why have some of them got those horrible cigarette butts hanging out of their nostrils?” I explained that I had asked the children to paint the ugliest woman they could think of. Unfortunately, almost all of them had looked no further than the headmaster’s wife. I like that devilish thing in children.
Trevor (one of my favorite writers) must have been a marvelous teacher, though at least one headmaster's wife would surely disagree.

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


Radical publisher Richard Carlile was once brought to trial in England on charges of blasphemy and seditious libel for publishing Thomas Paine's writings, which were banned by the authorities. His response?
At his trial Carlile argued that the jury could only judge whether Paine’s work was seditious and blasphemous if they heard it for themselves, and splendidly read out the whole of Paine’s The Age of Reason, an attack on institutionalised religion and church corruption. This was a sneaky ploy to get the book into the public domain: verbatim trial proceedings could legally be published. It later sold 10,000 two-penny copies.
Despite its official suppression, The Age of Reason became one of history's seminal texts. Thank goodness for rational, forward-thinking people like Carlile.

May 5, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)


"I believe the most interesting human beings, so far as talk is concerned, are anthropologists, farmers, prostitutes, psychiatrists, and an occasional bartender. The best talk is artless, the talk of people trying to reassure or comfort themselves, women in the sun grouped around baby carriages, talking about their weeks in the hospital or the way meat has gone up, or men in saloons, talking to combat the loneliness everyone feels.” - Joseph Mitchell

April 30, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Forgotten bookmark

image from http://www.boogaj.com/.a/6a00d83451ce9f69e201bb081f3d46970d-pi

Business envelope from Chicago magazine, postmarked January 9, 1979, which probably once contained a subscription renewal notice. Found inside A Petrakis Reader by Harry Mark Petrakis (Doubleday, 1978).

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

"...throw it to hell and gone..."

Harry Mark Petrakis' "The Passing of the Ice" tells the story of Mike, one of the last icemen who once delivered big blocks of ice to businesses and homes every day before the trade finally ended with the rise of commercial refrigeration. Mike's world is slowly vanishing, which he grimly acknowledges.
"Sometimes," Mike said, and there was a fierce edge to his voice, "I want to drag out that ice and cut it down and throw it as far as I can, throw it to hell and gone. I want to empty the big house once of every last block and scatter every last damn chunk over the hill. Make the fat man sit up. Make everyone understand that after forty years an iceman don't just lay down his pick and tongs with a goddam whimper."
Mike's vow is poigantly echoed in the final scene of the story, which I won't spoil here. I've always been fascinated by industries that are in their dying days, and have long been aware that Petrakis wrote a novel about Chicago icemen, Twilight of the Ice, which was published in 2003. After reading this story (first published in 1962) and a summary of the novel, it's clear that Petrakis expanded the kernel of the story into the later novel, which I'm now very eager to read. Now if I can just readily find it.

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

Greatest ever Chicago book?

Chicago Reader names the winner of The Greatest Ever Chicago Book Tournament, which is...um, a book which focuses on three individuals, only one of which has anything to do with Chicago. And as much as I loved the runner-up, Studs Terkel's Working, I've never thought of it having a particular focus on Chicago. Apparently I greatly differ with the judges on what, exactly, a Chicago book is. Of the books in the tournament, my top two choices would have been Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and Nelson Algren's Chicago: City on the Make; and only recently have I realized, and been baffled by, the tournament's complete omission of Alex Kotlowitz's There Are No Children Here, which just might be the greatest Chicago book of all.

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

"Tonight and all the other nights."

In Harry Mark Petrakis' story "End of Winter", Wally - married, with two kids and third on the way - has been cheating on his wife, Della. And, as anyone who has watched Mad Men or any other domestic drama of the past forty years will not be surprised to hear, he finally gets caught.
"There was no meeting tonight," she said. "Lawrence called for you. And then I thought of all the other meetings late at night that you have attended the last few months. All the other things that suddenly fall into place. Then I knew it was a girl."

Her face was naked and her flesh tight across her cheeks.

"Yes," I said. "Tonight and all the other nights. Yes, there is a girl."

She must have expected me to say that, but still her face loosened as if the bone beneath the skin had suddenly broken. I was sorry I had not lied, that for a little while I had not indulged all the heated denials.

"Do you want a divorce?" she asked.

"Del," I said. "It was just a girl. I don't want a divorce. It didn't mean that much to me."

"It means that much to me," she said.
I like what Petrakis does here with verb tenses. Della first says "it was a girl", as if hopeful the affair is in the past, or soon will be. But instead of confirming her suspicion by repeating her verbatim, Wally says "there is a girl", as if he's not quite ready to put the affair behind him. Then, after seeing her strong reaction, he downplays the significance of the affair, switching from is to was, and saying that the affair didn't mean that much to him - past tense, insisting that it's now behind him. But when she repeats him, she changes the verb to present tense. She's saying that although the affair might be over (but not necessarily over, I think - Wally seems to have enjoyed it too much for that) she will never forget or forgive his unfaithfulness. It seems highly likely their relationship will never be the same. Very subtle, and very well done.

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


"It’s a very, very grim play. Nevertheless, it’s a play that is full of extraordinary, touching scenes of real love and real devotion of Cordelia to him and him to Cordelia that don’t redeem the action on the stage, but do something to elevate the spectator or the reader in a way that I find very moving.

That’s what good literature can do. It doesn’t evade any of the terrible things in life. It faces them and faces them squarely, but puts them in a context in which they have a richer meaning than they would as simply raw, descriptive facts."
- Anthony Hecht, on King Lear

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

Bukowski, via Waits

I haven't read much Charles Bukowski (though I did include a reference to the poet in Wheatyard), but after hearing Tom Waits' beautiful reading of "Nirvana" (on the third disc of his album Orphans), I finally tracked the poem down, and really like it. Here's a taste:
And the young man watched the snow through the window.
And he wanted to stay in that café forever.
The curious feeling swam through him that everything was beautiful there.
And it would always stay beautiful there.

I can just see this entire narrative, playing out in my mind.

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


"Just you wait. I'll become famous after I'm dead about ten years." - Jim Thompson

April 7, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


It's Opening Day but I really couldn't care less, having lost my passion and almost all of my interest in baseball years ago. Which is remarkable, given how much the game consumed me until I was around thirty. Opening Day used to be almost a holiday for me - I went to five or six openers at Wrigley Field, despite it always being raw and cold there in early April. (One opener I attended was snowed out. I spent most of the afternoon in the concourse beneath the grandstand, waiting for the inevitable cancellation announcement, standing - oddly enough - elbow to elbow with film critic Gene Siskel and Chicago Bear players Gary Fencik and Brian Baschnagel. This was the pre-skybox era, when local celebrities still mingled with the riffraff.) And the regular season was an endless six months of watching every Cub game (and quite a few of the White Sox, and even the Braves on cable), scouring the box scores and calculating statistics by hand.

I can't pinpoint exactly what drove me away from the game. Certainly the obscene amount of money involved has something to with it, and the steroids, and the over-amplified, ad-infested spectacle that the teams and TV networks forced on what was once a quiet, pastoral game. And the 1994 strike, which took away the daily rituals that I thought were essential but suddenly learned I could live without.

That said, I'm still interested in the older traditions of the game as it once was. Which is why, on Friday night, I took Martin Gardner's The Annotated Casey at the Bat: A Collection of Ballads About the Mighty Casey off the shelf, and finished it last night. I've long loved Ernest Thayer's immortal comic poem, having memorized it at age eight (and recited it during a few family gatherings) and much later wrote a short story ("Mighty Casey") which was published by Zisk Magazine in 2006.

Gardner presents several of Thayer's versions of the poem, but even more interesting are several dozen parodies of the poem written by both the famous (Grantland Rice, Ray Bradbury) and the totally anonymous. Most of the parodies aren't very good - repetitive verse that copies the original meter and rhyme pattern, and offer only a slight narrative twist: Casey rebounds the next game with the winning homer, Casey emerges from the stands decades later as a 68-year-old substitute to again be the hero, Casey's wife and kids later play in baseball and softball games, striving to restore the family's honor, etc.

But there are some real gems, including Bradbury's Casey/Moby-Dick mashup and Mad magazine's 1960 version of the original, rewritten in hipster-beatnik lingo. And this stanza from "Casey at the Plate", by an unknown author, made me laugh out loud:

The pitcher threw, and Casey swung; he hit the empty air.
Another pitch and Casey made his strikes an even pair.
And then a lusty bleacher voice, a helpful thought advanced:
"Go get the guy a snowshoe! Let him have a sportin' chance!"

As much as baseball has changed, one thing that will always stay the same is the fickleness of its fans. Cheer your heroes one minute, boo them the next.

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


"The Midwest has never thought of itself as a region nor has it been entirely sure what its boundaries are. We can’t bring to mind typical people or forms of expression held in common. And we don’t really connect with other states. An Illinois farmer would never think of Michigan as Midwest, though he knows it is. Michigan is another world, and Indiana is just a bad first draft of Illinois." - Richard Spilman

April 3, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"A child is an almost platonic reader. His imagination remains unbounded." - Eric Carle

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


"There is something fierce and starved about first ideas." - John Darnielle, Wolf in White Van

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

Art imitates life

Yesterday's Obit of the Day had a literary angle: Chester Gillette, who was executed on March 30, 1908 after a sensationalistic murder trial, was the basis for Theodore Dreiser's novel An American Tragedy. I must admit, however, that as much as I admire Dreiser, the novel is a doorstop of a book that I've never dared to try to read. I even walked away from a nearly-free copy last year at a library sale.

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

Eugene Field, fender-fisherman

The poet Eugene Field was an enthusiastic fisherman (or angler, in the parlance of his day). Er, sort of. From the chapter "The Delights of Fender-Fishing", collected in In The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac:
My bookseller once took me angling with him in a Wisconsin lake which was the property of a club of anglers to which my friend belonged. As we were to be absent several days I carried along a box of books, for I esteem appropriate reading to be a most important adjunct to an angling expedition. My bookseller had with him enough machinery to stock a whaling expedition, and I could not help wondering what my old Walton would think, could he drop down into our company with his modest equipment of hooks, flies, and gentles.
The bookseller objects when Field raises an umbrella against the hot sun, yet grudgingly tolerates it; but when Field starts to recite some angling-inspired poetry, the bookseller says enough is enough, and calls it a day. Which undoubtedly satisfied Field; he liked fishing, but not the actual catching of fish. Instead, he describes himself as a "fender-fisherman" who exults over fishing and the natural world from a distance, indoors in conversation before a roaring fire (a fender is a frame or screen in front of an open fire) or through readings of Izaak Walton, Christopher North and others. Interesting guy.

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

"My Fathers, The Baltic"

I picked up Philip Levine's News of the World at the library a few weeks ago, shortly after his death, and have slowly been paging through it. For as much as I admire his factory-and-diner poetry, it's "My Fathers, The Baltic", with its evocation of a rocky Baltic beach and remembrance of immigrant ancestors long gone, that I like best so far.

Yusel Prisckulnick,
I bless your laughter
thrown in the wind’s face,
your gall, your rages,
your abiding love
for money and all
it never bought...

Simply lovely.

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


"In time I came to feel that real editing means changing as little as possible. Various editors and proofreaders would put their oar in, and sometimes I had to change hats and protect the writer from his own agreeableness, or fear, or whatever it was that made him say yes when he ought to have said no. What you hope is that if the writer reads the story ten years after it is published he will not be aware that anybody has ever touched it. But it takes many years of experience—and love—to be able to do that." - William Maxwell

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

Irish March

Oops. I guess I'm not doing Irish March this year. It's already the 13th and I only just now remembered my annual reading exercise. Well, I did read William Trevor's The Old Boys last month, so at least that's something. If you're somehow feeling cheated, I guess you could read my recaps from 2014, 2013 (actually, a preview), 2012 or 2011.

March 13, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"The secret of the afterlife is nothing at all - or, rather, it is only one secret, compared to the infinite number of secrets having to do with this life that the dead take with them when they go." - William Maxwell

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

Everybody's a critic...

...and James Joyce wasn't even safe at home.
Nora was not fond of her husband's style of writing, and not usually content with a yawn. When she discovered that he was "on another book again," just a year after the misery of Ulysses, she asked her husband if, instead of "that chop suey you're writing," he might not try "sensible books that people can understand."
Joyce started Finnegans Wake on this day in 1923, obviously without the support of his wife. But I think I would have liked Nora. "Chop suey" is one of the most memorable bits of criticism I've ever encountered - just a notch below Poe calling someone's poem "an illimitable gilded swill trough."

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


"If you can’t annoy somebody with what you write, I think there’s little point in writing." - Kingsley Amis

March 7, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)