“I think that the chill wind that blows from English publishers, with their black suits and thin umbrellas, and their habit of beginning every sentence with ‘We are afraid,’ has nipped off more promising buds than it has strengthened.” - Cyril Connolly

December 10, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


“Those special days are not measured in minutes nor hours but in chapters completed and sentences perfected. They don’t even feel like days, they are periods I spend in a magical place, unbound by the rules of a temporal universe.” - Ayobami Adebayo

I like this commentary, other than the idea of “sentences perfected.” Perfect sentences rarely exist. They are polished, yes, but almost never perfected.

December 9, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...the perishable possibility...”

"4. Early September anywhere in the city, when the sunlight angle has changed and everything and everyone appears kinder, all the edges softened; the torments of the hot summer are over, the cold torments of the winter have not begun, and people bask in the perishable possibility of a gentle city." - Aleksandar Hemon, "Reasons Why I Do Not Wish to Leave Chicago: An Incomplete, Random List" (from Rust Belt Chicago: An Anthology)

December 4, 2017 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)


“Hilarity and drink are connected in a profoundly human, peculiarly intimate way.” - Kingsley Amis 

November 24, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...the splendor of the square window...”

Francesca Falk Miller, from her 1948 novel The Sands: The Story of Chicago's Front Yard:

Her own room was at the top of the house facing the street. It was the nursery during her babyhood, but had later become a schoolroom with the tiny alcove over the stairs for her bed. Tom had the hall bedroom at her back, and there was a dark bathroom between, where often Sulie would see the shine of a roach as it scurried to a hiding place under the tin tub. There was no window to this bathroom, but a square skylight showed blue sky and white clouds on clear days, and the stars on dark nights. Sulie who was never afraid of the dark, hated to light the wall-lamp and so shut off the splendor of the square window on the heavens above the tin tub and the roaches.

“Chicago’s Front Yard” is a misnomer, as the Sands (a desolate, nearly lawless stretch of squatter-inhabited lakefront during the mid-19th Century, long before beach property became fashionable) would have been better described as either Chicago’s back alley or its dumping ground. 

November 20, 2017 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)


“Prettiness is only clothes I am a truer lover than that. I love it naked. There is beauty to me even in its ugliness … for its vices are often nobler than its virtues, and nearly always closer to a revelation.” - Eugene O’Neill

November 19, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...a mask for himself..."

"He had declined to stay in Norwood and live out his life as Pee Wee Gould, the town fool. If he had to play the fool, he would do it on a larger stage, before a friendlier audience. He had come to Greenwich Village and had found a mask for himself, and he had put it on and kept it on. The Eccentric Author of a Great, Mysterious, Unpublished Book - that was his mask. And, hiding behind it, he had created a character a good deal more complicated, it seemed to me, than most of the characters created by the novelists and playwrights of his time." - Joseph Mitchell, Joe Gould's Secret

November 17, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...the farther away you get from the literary traffic...”

Nelson Algren, interviewed in 1955 for The Paris Review by Alston Anderson and Terry Southern:

Interviewers: Do you have a feeling of camaraderie, or solidarity, with any contemporary writers? 

Algren: No, I couldn't say so. I don't know many writers. 

Interviewers: How do you avoid it? 

Algren: Well, I dunno, but I do have the feeling that other writers can't help you with writing. I've gone to writers' conferences and writers' sessions and writers' clinics, and the more I see of them, the more I'm sure it's the wrong direction. It isn't the place where you learn to write. I've always felt strong that a writer shouldn't be engaged with other writers, or with people who make books, or even with people who read them. I think the farther away you get from the literary traffic, the closer you are to sources. I mean, a writer doesn't really live, he observes.

November 11, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"We live in a clownish time. We live in a clownish world. When you have a guy like Reagan, who may be the funniest guy in the world except for the fact that people take him seriously, how can anybody be serious unless he clowns as well? Very much like Lear's fool who can say the truth in his own way, Nelson is the clown who deep deep down is very serious in his comments about our world, and his reflections about our time. He teaches us about failures, and it's the failures that turn out to be more exciting than the successes. He's the funniest man around and can therefore be the most serious."
- Studs Terkel, in his 1985 afterword to Nelson Algren's The Neon Wilderness

November 10, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...nothin’ but blind baggage on a silk manifest...”

We heard the freight whistlin' just then and the fellas began to pick theirselves up - all exceptin' Fort. Ford has made up his mind he ain't goin' to hop nothin' but blind baggage on a silk manifest, and I couldn't convince him that there weren't no manifest due on the Soup line before November anyhow, and even that one would be goin' the other way. But all he would say was I will wait here till November then and if it is going the other way I will go the other way too. There isn't any reasoning with Luther when he is in that frame of mind, so I took two of the cans of Sterno and eighteen cents he still had in his watch pocket, and dragged him over to the side out of the way of the brakeman.

- Nelson Algren, "So Help Me" (from The Neon Wilderness)

November 10, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...only half a mile out in the woods, which were mined.”

He had turned me in once, at Camp Twenty Grand, when I was cooking up K-rations in my tent instead of remaining on duty guarding the officers' latrine in the rain. The enlisted men had developed an outrageous habit there of using it, instead of their own, during the night; although their own was a perfectly good one only half a mile out in the woods, which were mined. I'd wanted to even up on Witzel for the week of detail he'd gotten me that time, so I grabbed the rifle and shoved it under my coat, intending to drop it down the first convenient sump, but Chief had an even better idea.

- Nelson Algren, "The Heroes" (from The Neon Wilderness)

November 9, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...they would play the juke just to keep her from hearing.”

And strange walkers, out-of-step shufflers to nowhere, passed and repassed on the pavement below; beneath her bed she heard the muted laughter of the men she had known in the past months since Christy had left. All like the men the Widow had lived on: they laughed and stood closely together and nodded significantly toward the staircase leading to her room, and she knew even now they were talking about her.

She had seen them saunter to the bar in pairs and speak there in whispers, that she might not hear what they were saying about her: they would play the juke just to keep her from hearing. They were afraid to speak up because they knew in their hearts it was all lies, a lot of big lies. She would pretend to be unaware of them; but she knew, she knew all the time. Mary knew.

- Nelson Algren, "Design For Departure" (from The Neon Wilderness)

November 8, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...he knew every shadowed corner of North Clark Street...”

He had no need of any other, having sixty-five dollars. The delightful, varying ways he could distribute this sum, in all the devious city ways, crowded his mind. There was no room, in his anticipation, for anything but the city's changeful colors and the fastest means of spending sixty-five fish.

He had no friend, though he had lived in the city all his life. Yet he knew every shadowed corner of North Clark Street, every poolroom with darkened windows and a fake padlock on the door. All the curtained parlors and the right way to ring: one long and two short and ask for Marie.

- Nelson Algren, "Katz" (from The Neon Wilderness)

November 7, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...the kids pointed on me.”

He gave the detail trouble before he was twelve, when he was hauled out of a stolen truck he had crashed into a parked Pontiac on Mother Cabrini Street. He was wearing a pair of women's high-heeled pumps, no stockings, and a pair of overalls that fitted him like an awning. If it hadn't been for the pumps, he assured the detail, they'd never have gotten him: he couldn't run in them. And admitted, when pressed, that he's picked the pumps out of a Goose Island dump and stolen the overalls. That he had quit school "because the kids pointed on me." His small chin jutted, warning the officers that they'd better not point either; while his hair, which was red, hung angrily before his eyes.

- Nelson Algren, "No Man's Laughter" (from The Neon Wilderness)

November 6, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...he wasn’t much here any more at thirty-five.”

He had gone to sea at eighteen and had helped chase Sandino, one afternoon in Nicaragua, and now he wished to tell me more about Sierra La Valls. That was pretty little to grant a man, but I took sixes again and thought of him at forty. He'd only have one foot by then, if he was still around. In a way he wasn't much here any more at thirty-five. He too lay among the dead at Sierra La Valls. He'd keep on talking awhile, though, to whoever would listen, about that foggy morning at The Pimple. Then curtains. Game called, darkness.

- Nelson Algren, "Pero Venceremos" (from The Neon Wilderness)

November 3, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“They were all beat now...”

Tiny snickered to himself mockingly. They were all beat now, one way or another. One running a ferris wheel at corner carnivals in summer and boozing all winter, one hung up on a morphine kick, another carrying buckets at the Marigold on Monday nights, and another walking around with a load of ties, under which he concealed defective contraceptives at cut-rate prices. "Some clowns," Tiny thought of them with disdain, fingering his discolored eye. "But all a guy like me needs is a million-dollar idea."

- Nelson Algren, "Million-Dollar Brainstorm" (from The Neon Wilderness)

November 3, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“Daddy’s a-huntin’ a wild skirt is all...”

"All right, boys! Papooses now!"

"It makes them ferget their little troubles," the guard explained to the ladies.

The boys bowed their heads to their knees and murmured:
"Sleep, little Indian, safe from harm
Daddy's a-hunting the wild fawn."
"Daddy's a-huntin' a wild skirt is all," States offered under his breath. Silly Louie's hands flew to his mouth; when Louie started giggling he couldn't stop. The piano paused and the guard's earnest voice dropped discreetly; then everything stopped but the papooses' persistent murmuring. They rose heavily, one by one, and began a disordered out-of-tune clomping, toothbrushes bobbing, and went on clomping bravely, to minimize Louie's irrepressible tittering.

- Nelson Algren, "The Children" (from The Neon Wilderness)

November 2, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...ankle-deep in Kraut mutuel tickets...”

It wasn't an outfit. It was just a couple hundred oddly assorted Tennesseans, Texans and Chicagoans who wanted to go back to their respective hills, ranches, and streets. When we reached the Rhine the Germans were using hazardous fire, over our head, toward an artillery emplacement to our rear. In his haste to get those eagles, The Man had brought us forty miles ahead of our clearing station: they were looking for us to their rear. We were supposed to be ten miles behind them, to evacuate their wounded. Instead we were raising ward tents, ankle-deep in Kraut mutuel tickets, on a bombed-out race track in the woods above Dusseldorf. We put up the whole circus at night, under fire, including a tent to be used as an officers' club - and that one was up before we could erect our own squad tents.

- Nelson Algren, "That’s the Way It's Always Been" (from The Neon Wilderness)

November 2, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...the boarded windows and the broken panes...”

The hotel was down by the levee. You could see Kentucky from the front windows. Upstairs, I was told, was the bedroom in which Grant had slept before Fort Defiance. I remember the boarded windows and the broken panes by the river, and the abandoned feed stores facing the moving Ohio. Long freights passed in the woods in Kentucky. Their shadows, as any army's shadows, moved south on the moving waters. I remember their engine boilers lighting fragments, of floodtime in old December, strewn on Kentucky's shore.

- Nelson Algren, "Kingdom City to Cairo" (from The Neon Wilderness)

November 1, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...he and the baby would be out the same day.”

She would stand in the middle of the rutted road, a slight girl in a bright Sears, Roebuck printed frock, pointing proudly to her belly. He would cup his hands, the broom beneath his armpit, and call down to her that he and the baby would be out the same day. When she left he would feel so happy that he looked drunken. He would squeeze himself with both hands, wave his arms aimlessly, and would go through a little love dance, pretending the broom was his bride.

- Nelson Algren, "El Presidente de Mejico" (from The Neon Wilderness)

November 1, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...the scarred toes of the only decent shoes...”

Rocco didn't blow up. He just felt a little sick. Sicker than he had ever felt in his life. He walked away from the girl and sat on the rubbing table, studying the floor. She had sense enough not to bother him until he'd realized what the score was. Then he looked up, studying her from foot to head. His eyes didn't rest on her face: they went back to her feet. To the scarred toes of the only decent shoes; and a shadow passed over his heart. "You got good odds, honey," he told her thoughtfully. "You done just right. We made 'em sweat all night for their money." Then he looked up and grinned. A wide, white grin.

- Nelson Algren, "He Swung and He Missed" (from The Neon Wilderness)

November 1, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...never rising quite to clarity.”

Now a lamp burned in the kitchen. Men were talking there. He leaned on the gate, he listened intently: their voices came to him in a slow, curving murmuring, in a wave that broke and fell, never falling quite to silence, never rising quite to clarity. They perhaps had been plowing all day. Plowing the brown earth.

- Nelson Algren, "The Brothers' House" (from The Neon Wilderness)

October 31, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...his fingers fumbled, weak as water...”

That night the mild-mannered youth dreamed of the legless man. Lying on his rented bed, he heard a slow and heavy clumping, down some endless gaslit stair well. The legless man was coming. The light was on and he was sitting upright, paralyzed with an unknown terror, watching the doorknob turning slowly, hoping uselessly that it would be too high for Shorty to turn all the way. He still had time to lock it - the key was still in the lock. Moving like a man wading in a slow-motion sea, stiff with dread, it was almost too late, and saw, as the door opened slowly, that there was no one there. No one down a long and fog-lit hall. No one - he knew for sure - in the whole vast hotel. In an access of terror, his fingers fumbled, weak as water, at the key. And wakened at last with the light still burning and the key still in the lock, glinting a little from the light's reflection.

- Nelson Algren, "The Face on the Barroom Floor" (from The Neon Wilderness)

October 30, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...rubbing rawly against the cold sweat of his palm...”

He leaned far over the counter and banged the cash drawer open and saw bills piled there just for him. Tens and twenties and singles and fives rubbing rawly against the cold sweat of his palm - and then the shining dimes and quarters and halves in the last drawer over! He reached over, so far over that he was tottering, and the liquor began coming up in his throat. His lips moved as he leaned, drunk with greed. Heard a coin go tinkling along the floor, saw it was a quarter rolling toward the men's goods department, and followed it anxiously.

- Nelson Algren, "Poor Man's Pennies" (from The Neon Wilderness)

October 30, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...whose brother, right now, was doing ninety days in County.”

When I got home Sissie has already told my old man where I'd been. But the whipping was nothing at all compared to the sense of manhood attained by an afternoon in the clink. It was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to us. For days we bragged to each other about our various parts in the escapade: who was the most scared, who wasn't scared at all, and whose brother, right now, was doing ninety days in County. For us the kid whose brother was doing a stretch was as distinguished as a kid in another neighborhood whose brother was a college football star.

- Nelson Algren, "A Lot You Got to Holler" (from The Neon Wilderness)

October 27, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...everybody else had always been moaning for home.”

And what, he asked himself abruptly, did he have to go back to Memphis for anyhow? He couldn't sing, he wasn't a pug, he wouldn't shine shoes, and he couldn't boogie-woogie worth a damn. He couldn't play an instrument, he never clowned, and making up berths for the Pullman Company had the same warm appeal for him as shining shoes. He wondered whether he really wanted to go back at all. Maybe he only thought so because everybody else had always been moaning for home.

- Nelson Algren, "He Couldn't Boogie-Woogie Worth a Damn" (from The Neon Wilderness)

October 27, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“The captain didn't look like the sort who missed.”

The boy jerked toward the officer: Adamovitch was laughing openly at him. Then they were all laughing openly at him. He heard their derision, and a red rain danced one moment before his eyes; when the red rain was past, Kozak was sitting back easily, regarding him with the expression of a man who has just been swung at and missed and plans to use the provocation without undue haste. The captain didn't look like the sort who missed. His complacency for a moment was as unbearable to the boy as Adamovitch's guffaw had been. He heard his tongue going, trying to regain his lost composure by provoking them all.

- Nelson Algren, "A Bottle of Milk for Mother" (from The Neon Wilderness)

October 27, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...got dark with a roaring...”

Banty put his hand across his eyes because a light was in them. He saw a string attached to the light and stood up to pull it, to make everything dark like everything should be.

Everything got dark all right, and got dark with a roaring; the dark was a roaring in his head and he came to hearing the thunder of the Garfield Park local overhead and seeing the littered places, between the beams, where the gray cats lived. He heard the local slowing toward Damen. Saw Murphy opening a familiar door.

- Nelson Algren, "Stickman's Laughter" (from The Neon Wilderness)

October 26, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...strictly in the family tradition.”

Baby Needles was a slow-moving, slow-thinking, slow-mannered sort of devil who'd always taken his time and, until he'd met Wilma, had never wanted anything very much outside of a flop and a bowl of beer. He'd been born on a reservation, a quarter-blood Cherokee with a little Mex tossed in. He came of a long line of ne'er-do-wells and was strictly in the family tradition. He didn't know who his old man was, but it was a cinch it wasn't anybody who worked for a living. The little he knew about fighting he'd picked up around East Texas oil country, when money had been easy and opposition wasn't too tough.

- Nelson Algren, "Depend on Aunt Elly" (from The Neon Wilderness)

October 25, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...ain’t there no last time, ever?”

That Joe who used to come up here last spring, he was a no-good Joe for true. He was the first guy I picked up on the street my whole damned life. I told him so. I thought he'd be nice to me then.You know what he said when I told him that? "There's always a first time," he says, "for everythin'," 'n laughs.

Why ain't there no last time, then, for anythin'? I mean, ain't there no last time, ever? For the same old thing?

- Nelson Algren, "Is Your Name Joe?" (from The Neon Wilderness)

October 24, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...the springs overhead squeaking half the night...”

Thus it came about that the nights of Roman Orlov became fitful and restless, first under the front-room bed and then under the back-room bed. With the springs overhead squeaking half the night as likely as not. The nights of Roman's boyhood were thereafter passed beneath one bed or the other, with no bed of his own at all. Until, attaining his young manhood and his seventeenth year, he took at last to sleeping during the day in order to have no need for sleep at night.

And at night, as everyone knows, there is no place to go but the taverns.

- Nelson Algren, "How the Devil Came Down Division Street" (from The Neon Wilderness)

October 24, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...an unpossessed twilight land...”

Such men haunted the Captain. In sleep he saw their pale lascivious faces; watched them moving like blind men beneath the thousand-columned El, where a calamitous yellow light filtered downward all night long. In this tragic and fluorescent dream they passed and repassed him restlessly, their faces half averted, forever smiling uneasily as though sharing some secret and comforting knowledge of evil which he could never know.

They lived in an unpossessed twilight land, a neon wilderness whose shores the Captain sometimes envisaged dimly; in sleep he sought that shore forever, always drawing nearer, like a swimmer far out to sea; yet never, somehow, attaining those long, low sands. He would awaken feeling unnatural, dreading the evening and the yellow showup's glare.

- Nelson Algren, "The Captain Has Bad Dreams" (from The Neon Wilderness)

October 23, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Booth and Boynton

What a lovely confluence: Sandra Boynton's latest children's board book, Here, George!, is based on the image of one of George Booth's irascible dogs. Booth is one of my favorite cartoonists, and Maddie loved Boynton's books as a child. (And I did, too: I still say "moo, bah, la la la" now and then.) And the new book isn't some ripoff: Boynton is a huge admirer of Booth, who gave her his blessing and support. This Paris Review article includes some delightful repartee between the two, during a visit by Boynton to Booth at his New York apartment. 

October 9, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Opening Lines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 6, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (4)


"It comes at a time when the world is uncertain about its values, its leadership and its safety. I just hope that my receiving this huge honor will, even in a small way, encourage the forces for good will and peace at this time." - Kazuo Ishiguro, on winning the Nobel Prize for Literature

October 5, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...we heard once more the steam whistles of vessels that have long ceased to be..."

 In "A River Reverie" (1882), Lafcadio Hearn muses elegiacally on life along the Mississippi and other western rivers.

Wonder whether the old captain still sits there of bright afternoons, to watch the returning steamers panting with their mighty run from the Far South—or whether he has sailed away upon that other river, silent and colorless as winter's fog, to that vast and shadowy port where much ghostly freight is discharged from vessels that never return? He haunts us sometimes—even as he must have been haunted by the ghosts of dead years.

He goes on to invoke another former captain, now a literary sensation (presumably, Mark Twain), and ponders if the famous man wouldn't trade all of his success for the simple, long-ago days of his younger life. Lovely piece. 

October 1, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Summer of H.G. Wells

Finally...my very belated thoughts on my Summer of H.G. Wells. To recap, I read War of the Worlds, The Island of Dr. Moreau, In the Days of the Comet, The Time Machine, The First Men in the Moon, The Food of the Gods, and The Invisible Man.

After reading these seven novels, a few things struck me about Wells. First, these books - universally regarded as science fiction - weren't heavily scientific. In fact, he mostly glossed over the technological breakthroughs (time machine, anti-gravity matter, hypergrowth-generating food, invisibility potion) to focus heavily on their aftermath. And even when the turning point is natural instead of manmade, in In the Days of the Comet, in which a comet strikes Earth but, instead of obliterating humankind, instead makes the world a peaceful and equitable place, he barely mentions the collision and doesn't even bother to explain how the resulting gas cloud magically transforms society. He never seemed to worry about the actual science, just the impact that science could cause.

Second, he had a great (and almost comically implausible) belief in human speech, and the ability of homo sapiens to communicate with others: the animal-human hybrids of The Island of Doctor Moreau, the moon-dwelling Selenites of The First Men in the Moon, the simple-minded descendants of humans in The Time Machine. No matter how distant from humans these others are, Wells' protagonists still manage to develop a common language with the others, and can fully comprehend everything they say. And those others often have a remarkable tendency to speak like 19th Century English gentlemen.

Lastly, Wells' scientist protagonists were almost entirely incapable of foreseeing the ramifications for their inventions, whether personal (Griffin, in The Invisible Man, bafflingly decides to take his potion in the dead of winter, which means he can only evade arrest by remaining stark naked, outdoors) or societal (widespread death and destruction), and later did almost nothing to fix the havoc that their creations ultimately inflict. You can tell that Wells must have admired scientists in their singular quests, but also disdained their blind ambition and ethical deficiency.

In short, it was another good summer of reading. One or two clunkers, of course, but several books that I will gladly read again, particularly The Time Machine (I'll never forget the image of The Time Traveler on that desolate beach, at nearly the end of Earth's existence) and The Island of Dr. Moreau. I think, as a general rule of thumb, that I'd recommend Wells' shorter novels, when he focused more on action and plot, and gave himself less time for expository lecturing.

(Incidentally, after reading these books and enduring Wells' frequent bloviations about capitalism, socialism, social justice, religion, etc., I'm now less tempted to read The Wheels of Chance, which I've seen cited a few times as one of the greatest cycling novels. I'm not sure whether that means it's a great novel, period, or that there aren't very many cycling novels - I suspect the latter. I'm a cyclist myself, so I know that long rides give you plenty of time alone with your thoughts - and so, unless Wells came up with a really compelling plot, the book might not consist of much more than his protagonist being alone with his thoughts, and bloviating about capitalism, socialism, social justice, religion, etc.)

September 28, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (3)


"Most of the hotels in that neighborhood look as if they had come down in the world, and they probably have. Not the Minnetonka. That hostelry was originally conceived as a horror and has so maintained itself through the years." - Alexander King

September 24, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

"...this small cluster of aversions..."

From William Trevor's short story, "A Friendship" (from the collection After Rain):

He hadn't liked the whiff of cigarettes that greeted him when he opened the hall door, nor the sound of voices that had come from the sitting-room. He didn't like the crumpled-up Mignons Morceuax packet, the gin bottle and the vermouth bottle on his bureau, Margy's lipstained cigarette-ends, the way Margy was lolling on the floor with her shoes off. Margy didn't have to look to see if this small cluster of aversions registered in Philip's tight features. She knew it didn't; he didn't let things show.

Margy is the best friend of Philip's wife Francesca, and a regular guest (though not terribly welcomed by him) in Philip and Francesca's home. Trevor is masterful at showing Philip's distaste for Margy's careless, almost libertine lifestyle from this list of objects, and then her final affrontery: the fact that she's on the floor with her shoes off. Yes, Philip is pretty uptight.

September 14, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"You can’t actually make character without putting something of yourself in to each one, even the most larcenous and wicked, the most lecherous, the most pure. Each of them has, in his or her own way, something that you can relate to." - John Le Carré

September 8, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"An optimist thinks everything will be fine no matter what, and that justifies doing nothing," - Rebecca Solnit

August 27, 2017 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)


I think I need to read Barbara Pym.

Are the lovers “imparadised in one another’s arms, as Milton put it,” as one guest suggests? No, he corrects himself: “Encasseroled, perhaps.”

August 25, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Knausgaard on Vesaas

 Karl Ove Knausgaard, in the NYTBR:

Who are your favorite Norwegian writers? Tarjei Vesaas has written the best Norwegian novel ever, “The Birds” — it is absolutely wonderful, the prose is so simple and so subtle, and the story is so moving that it would have been counted amongst the great classics from the last century if it had been written in one of the major languages. Knut Hamsun’s writing is magical, his sentences are glowing, he could write about anything and make it alive. Of contemporary writers, Thure Erik Lund is my definite favorite. I like Ingvild Burkey a lot too, her new book is a masterpiece, and also Steinar Opstad, Cathrine Knudsen, Kristine Naess and Jon Fosse, amongst others.

The Birds is every bit as wonderful as Knausgaard says: it's lyrical, quietly emotional and ultimately heartbreaking. One of my five favorite novels. It's a shame that the book, and Vesaas as a writer, aren't better known.

August 18, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"But where would I be without it."

Kafka, on coffee. Though I'm not quite a coffee achiever, I know exactly where I would be without it: right here, tired and cranky.

(Ha! Though I remember that commercial from long ago, I didn't recognize Kurt Vonnegut until just now.)

August 11, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...a mere squeak for the stating of formulae..."

H.G. Wells' The First Men in the Moon is a strange book. Strange, but I like it. Most of the book is about scientific discovery (two humans reach the moon, by very unique means) and fast-paced adventure (the humans desperately trying to escape the moon's inhabitants, or "Selenites"), but then Wells adds on a lengthy, anti-climatic epilogue in which the scientist Cavor describes Selenite society. Here is part of Cavor's description of the highly specialized training each inhabitant undergoes.

If, for example, a Selenite is destined to be a mathematician, his teachers and trainers set out at once to that end. They check any incipient disposition to other pursuits, they encourage his mathematical bias with a perfect psychological skill. His brain grows, or at least the mathematical faculties of his brain grow, and the rest of him only so much as is necessary to sustain this essential part of him. At last, save for rest and food, his one delight lies in the exercise and display of his faculty, his one interest in its application, his sole society with other specialists in his own line. His brain grows continually larger, at least so far as the portions engaging in mathematics are concerned; they bulge ever larger and seem to suck all life and vigour from the rest of his frame. His limbs shrivel, his heart and digestive organs diminish, his insect face is hidden under its bulging contours. His voice becomes a mere squeak for the stating of formulae; he seems deaf to all but properly enunciated problems. The faculty of laughter, save for the sudden discovery of some paradox, is lost to him; his deepest emotion is the evolution of a novel computation. And so he attains his end.

There is no mention, by the way, of how one's "destiny" is determined. Presumably, it's not at all the individual's own choice how they turn out, but some higher authority deciding what role that individual will serve. This ostensibly ideal society sounds very autocratic and joyless. Sobering.

August 8, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"I was stealing time, operating a simple maxim: make the best hours your own rather than those you sell to an employer." - James Kelman

August 5, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Farewell, Selected Works

At South Side Weekly, Malvika Jolly writes a tribute to Selected Works, the used bookstore in the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue, which closed in June. The store was a bit too far from my office for me to visit on a regular basis, but I really enjoyed the times I did get over there. (And I petted the store cat, Hodge. I've always thought that one of the nicest things about owning a bookstore would be having a store cat.) I tried to visit the store during my city day at the end of my sabbatical earlier this summer, only to learn that it had closed the prior week. I'm very sorry I missed out.

On that city day I also learned that the Books-A-Million store on Clark Street had closed. For the moment (until The Dial opens in October, in the Selected Works space), the Loop doesn't have a single book store, with the closest stores now being Sandmeyer's on Dearborn in the South Loop, Open Books on Lake Street in the West Loop and After-Words on Illinois in River North. (No, I'm not counting the Barnes & Noble in DePaul's downtown campus, which is mostly geared to textbooks, or the Barbara's outlet in the basement of Macy's.)

August 3, 2017 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (1)


"The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning." - Sam Shepard

August 1, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"You write from what you know, and one of the things you know is that you are not telling your own story, but bits of it are your own story. It’s like tessellation of a mosaic. You take a bit that happened to you and you put it beside a bit that you make up." – Bernard MacLaverty

July 31, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...airports aren’t just places for departures, but places for arrivals..."

I quite like this poem, "Sing at Unnatural Hours in the Presence of Artificial Light", by Clint Margrave.

July 29, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)