“Their names were the same, that was all.”

In Val Mulkerns' Very Like a Whale, 27-year-old Ben Ryan returns to his native Dublin after several years away, on the Continent.

In the week he'd been home he had met some of the old crowd around the pubs and he was meeting another fellow this afternoon in town. The trouble was that they were not the old crowd any more. Their names were the same, that was all. When they used to dump their crash helmets under his bed in the hospital and spend hours hanging around Dandelion Green with him on Saturdays and Sundays they were all heads. They wanted to get out of the rat race, as he did, and they talked for hours about going all together to a Greek island to live by mending fishermen's nets or picking peaches, shelling almonds, making hippy jewellery (there was one guy who was going to teach the rest). The plan was to sleep on the beaches in summer and make enough money to rent a little flat-roofed island house in winter where they could smoke their pot and play their Rolling Stones and screw their women until spring came. Nobody wanted to join a bank or take a Master's Degree or get into the Civil Service. Nobody wanted to teach. Nobody wanted a house in Celbridge and a mortgage and a car and a wife and three kids.

And of course, that's exactly what the old crowd ended up with. All except Ben, who is still wandering. Good book so far. 

April 19, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Opening Lines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 18, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (4)

Brennan to Mulkerns

Well, that Val Mulkerns book, Very Like A Whale, finally arrived (on the first attempt, interlibrary loan sent me a poetry anthology which included Ogden Nash’s poem of the same name, but had no other connection to Mulkerns), right after I finished Maeve Brennan’s The Springs Of Affection. So my Irish March will now become (no pun intended) Irish Spring. 

April 15, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“A borrowed impression of home.“

In The Guardian, Ross Raisin remembers his rural upbringing in Yorkshire, and charmingly, the country-surrogate plot of land he discovered near Heathrow Airport. About Yorkshire:

Enclosed by its tumbled drystone walls, I would build fires, or sledge, or sit alone watching for movements in the grass. From the top of the field I scanned the horizon for distant towns, forests, and the ghostly green land that as a child I believed was a faraway continent; then, later, Riddlesden Golf Club. That field was the base from which I understood and felt the world, beneath my arse and through my fingertips.

I really enjoy this series, “Made in...” that The Guardian runs every weekend. It’s always interesting to hear people, especially writers, talk about the place they come from and how it shaped who they are today. 

April 15, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


“A cheese scone and a cup of coffee and I’m completely at peace. Give me a tearoom anywhere. So many things that we do in our life you have to do. Pretty much must do, must do, must do. But you can just decide to be in your tearoom, or not. They are spaces outside time.” - Rose Tremain 

April 8, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Paradise lost

Jessie Greengrass, remembering her adolescence in north Dartmoor, England:

When it rained, as it often did, coming in sheets or as a fine, penetrating mist that soaked you as soon as you left home, the water from the bath taps ran brown with peat. At the edges of the roads deep gutters became temporary streams, and up on the hills the ponies, huddled in the lee of the tors, stood with their heads low and their hindquarters facing the wind. And this remains my most enduring image of home: coming down off the moor in the rain towards a town lit up against an early dark, the drift of chimney smoke and the promise of shelter.

April 7, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


“Fiction has to come up from below. It has to be generated out of what is not necessarily the consequence of surface events. I talked to myself about this when I was trying to write my early short stories and even my first novel. It was a long conversation." - William Kennedy

April 3, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...in her solitude she followed herself about the house all day..."

In Maeve Brennan's "An Attack of Hunger", Rose Derdon is quietly despondent over the "loss" of John, her beloved only child, who has left the family home to join the priesthood, leaving her with nothing to do all day but keep house for her bland and indifferent husband, Hubert.

Now with John gone, there was no one for Mrs. Derdon to exchange glances with. There was no one for her to look at, except Hubert, and Hubert could turn into a raving lunatic, frothing and cursing, and there would be no one to see him except herself. There was no one to look at her, and she felt that she had become invisible, and at the same time she felt that in her solitude she followed herself about the house all day, up and down stairs, and she could hardly bear to look in the mirror, because the face she saw there was not the one that was sympathetic to her but her own face, her own strong defenseless face, the face of one whose courage has long ago been petrified into mere endurance in the anguish of truly helpless self-pity. There was no hope for her. That is what she said to herself.

Hubert would never rave, froth or curse, but it almost seems like Rose would enjoy his presence more if he did, just once in a while. The story is from Brennan’s collection The Springs of Affection, which I’m only halfway through. Irish March has overflown into April.

April 3, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)



Happy belated birthday to my (deeply flawed) hero, Nelson Algren, who was born on March 28, 1909. 

March 29, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Slight detour in my Irish March...

I ordered that Val Mulkerns book from interlibrary loan more than a week ago, but it hasn’t even been shipped yet. So I stopped off at Open Books on Friday afternoon and happened to find a used copy of The Springs of Affection by Maeve Brennan, whom I’ve never read. (I only first leaned about her from this series of tributes to Irish women writers in The Irish Times.)

Brennan was an Irish-American writer who wrote for more than twenty years for The New Yorker, where her editor was William Maxwell. He was a big fan of Brennan’s work, and since he always had excellent literary taste, his word is good enough for me. The book collects Dublin stories from throughout her career. I read the first two this morning, both of which were good - and based on Maxwell’s introduction, the stories should get even better later on. 

I’ll still read the Mulkerns book, whenever it finally arrives. 

March 25, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...all still and beautiful in the moonlight...”

Mary Costello, from Academy Street:

And then, when Tess is ten, there is a real wedding in the house. It is summer again, after a long winter when animals died in the fields and snow fell in May, and Oliver came home. There is something about each day now that she holds dear. Oliver's return for one thing, and something she noticed on those winter nights when she would kneel on her bed and melt a peephole on the frozen windowpane and view everything under snow - the lawn and the trees, the walls and barns and outhouses - all still and beautiful in the moonlight: the feeling that she has grown older and stronger, and safer, and the world has survived and become a little lovelier.

I love the idyllic image of Tess looking out into the winter night, even as I shudder in realization of frost being on the inside of the window, and how cold that house must have been. Her family isn't stricken with poverty - they seem to live a solid existence, as farmers in rural Ireland - so I guess the coldness must have been more emblematic of the different living standards of the 1940s, when this scene is set.

March 19, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Val Mulkerns

The Irish writer Val Mulkerns has passed away, at age 93. She seems to be little-known here, but much beloved in Ireland, if these tributes from the likes of Anne Enright, Sebastian Barry, Colm Tóibín and others are any indication. She had a unique career: two early novels and a tenure at the esteemed literary review The Bell, then a twenty-plus-year hiatus to raise a family, and then a return to writing with several well-regarded story collections and two more novels.

I discovered Mulkerns during last year's Irish March, from her story "The World Outside" which appeared in the collection 44 Irish Short Stories. I haven't found any of her books in stores or my public library, but I did manage to order her final novel, Very Like A Whale, via interlibrary loan. I'm not sure how soon it will arrive - it wasn't even in my library's immediate library system, but from the WorldCat system, so who knows how far away it's coming from. I might have to extend Irish March a few weeks into April.

March 16, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


Virginia Woolf, on Ring Lardner

...Mr. Lardner has talents of a remarkable order. With extraordinary ease and aptitude, with the quickest strokes, the surest touch, the sharpest insight, he lets Jack Keefe the baseball player cut out his own outline, fill in his own depths, until the figure of the foolish, boastful, innocent athlete lives before us. As he babbles out his mind on paper there rise up friends, sweethearts, the scenery, town, and country—all surround him and make him up in his completeness...

I’m about due for another reading of You Know Me Al. Incidentally, I read The Real Dope (which included the story featured at the above link) a few years ago, and really didn’t care for it. The Jack Keefe baseball stories are great, the war stories not. 

March 7, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...each different face bright and burning as sparks of fire...”

In Eudora Welty's Delta Wedding, Ellen Fairchild navigates the outdoor darkness at her daughter's wedding reception in the Mississippi Delta, circa 1923:

Ellen strolled under the trees, with Battle somewhere near, looking among the dancers for her daughters. The lanterns did not so much shine on the dancers as light up the mistletoe in the trees. She peered ahead with a kind of vertigo. It was the year - wasn't it every year? - when they all looked alike, all dancers alike smooth and shorn, all faces painted to look like one another. It was too the season of changeless weather, of the changeless world, in a land without hill or valley. How could she ever know anything of her own daughters, how find them, like this? Then in a turn of her little daughter India's skirt as she ran partnerless through the crowd - so late! - as if a bar of light had broken a glass into a rainbow she saw the dancers become the McLeoud bridesmaid, Mary Lamar Mackey (freed from her piano and whirling the widest of all), become Robbie, and her own daughter Shelley, each different face bright and burning as sparks of fire to her now, more different and further apart than the stars.

That's seven characters mentioned in one paragraph, but only a fraction of the sprawling Fairchild clan, plus their plantation workers and townspeople. The sheer quantity of characters is both a strength and weakness in the book. If I recall correctly, Ellen and Battle have nine children, but I can't even name them all.

February 28, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


“A person who does not believe in tomorrow does not repaint his house.” - Henning Mankell, writing about Angola in The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup (2006)

February 23, 2018 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)


“Language lives longer than people and therefore its permanence is vital. It moves us from one generation to the next; it’s immortal. Writing isn’t elitist: it’s the deepest thing we have. It’s as essential as breathing. It brings other paradoxes to us through language.” - Edna O'Brien

This year's Irish March will be devoted to the fiction of Irish women writers. O'Brien's The Little Red Chairs is up first. I really enjoyed her Wild Decembers a few years ago.

February 22, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


“His writings writhed and ached with twists and turns and tergiversations, inept words, fanciful repetitions, far-fetched verbosity and long Latin-based words.” - Muriel Spark, describing her character, the fictional writer Hector Bartlett, in her novel A Far Cry from Kensington

I really need to finally read Spark.

February 20, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


“There is a taint of death, a flavor of mortality in lies.” - Joseph Conrad 

February 17, 2018 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)


“Though I am sure you would enjoy a visit as much as I did, I think that, in the long run, the Scandinavian sanity would be too much for you, as it is for me. The truth is, we are both only really happy living among lunatics.” - W.H. Auden 

February 16, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


“Mr. Hemingway’s style, this prose stripped to its firm young bones, is far more effective, far more moving, in the short story than in the novel. He is, to me, the greatest living writer of short stories; he is, also to me, not the greatest living novelist.” - Dorothy Parker

February 5, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“…building chicken coops, or possibly, bungalows…


This is pretty cool: when George Ade, the wildly popular Chicago-based humorist of the late 19th Century, left that city to return to his native Indiana, he built Hazelden Farm along the banks of the Iroquois River, near the village of Brook. The farm included a top-notch golf course. Today, the course still exists, as Hazelden Country Club, as does his house, which is maintained by Newton County as an event facility. Also, adjacent to the property is the George Ade Memorial Health Care Center. And I never realized, until just now, that Ross-Ade Stadium at Purdue University (his alma mater) is co-named in his honor – certainly a very rare distinction for an American writer.

No less of an authority than William Dean Howells was once convinced of Ade's great potential as a fiction writer. From Donald L. Miller's City of the Century:

For a time, Howells believed George Ade might be the one to produce the "great American novel," but Ade squandered his promise by going after the money. In 1900 he left the Record, where he made sixty dollars a week, and began writing fables in slang for a syndicate "wizard," earning over a thousand dollars a week as his "share of the conspiracy." He became further sidetracked when he began writing successful dramatic comedies for the Broadway stage. "The show shops had me hooked," he wrote, "and the syndicate wouldn't let go of me, and between the two I was constantly incited and urged to do the most dreadful things to the English language."

Poignantly, in his later years he reflected on the literary success of his fellow Hoosier, Theodore Dreiser, while downplaying his own material success:

"While some of us have been building chicken coops, or possibly, bungalows, Mr. Dreiser has been creating skyscrapers."

Adjusted for inflation, his $1,000 per week in 1900 is equivalent to $1.4 million per year today. For that kind of cash, I would bet that even Dreiser would have been tempted to forsake serious fiction.

February 5, 2018 in Books, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...various winding, enchanted-looking initials...”

Eudora Welty, from One Writer's Beginnings:

My love for the alphabet, which endures, grew out of reciting it but, before that, out of seeing the letters on the page. In my own story books, before I could read them for myself, I fell in love with various winding, enchanted-looking initials drawn by Walter Crane at the heads of fairy tales. In "Once upon a time," an "O" had a rabbit running it as a treadmill, his feet upon flowers. When the day came, years later, for me to see the Book of Kells, all the wizardry of letter, intial, and word swept over me a thousand times over, and the illumination, the gold, seemed a part of the word's beauty and holiness that had been there from the start.

The book is a collection of three lectures which Welty gave at Harvard University in 1983. I'm enjoying it quite a bit - I love the gentle sweetness of her voice, which is even more prominent in memoir than in her fiction. I'm reading the book as a warmup for my next Welty novel, Delta Wedding. I'm intent on completing my reading of her five novels by the end of next year; after Delta Wedding, there are just two more: The Robber Bridegroom and Losing Battles. The latter figured prominently in What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell, which I read and loved last year.

February 1, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...this cruelty too will end...”

I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquillity will return again.

Anne Frank wrote these optimistic words less than three weeks before she and her family were discovered and taken away by the Nazis, after more than two years in hiding. I finally read The Diary of a Young Girl after my seventeen-year-old daughter Maddie repeatedly took me to task for never having read it. I’m very glad she did. Simply unforgettable.

January 30, 2018 in Books, History | Permalink | Comments (0)


“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.” - Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness is next on my list. 

January 27, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


“What is reading but silent conversation?” - Walter Savage Landor

January 25, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...really really bad words...”

Nick Hornby, writing (in 2006) about English footballer Wayne Rooney:

In a game against Arsenal last season, Rooney was estimated to have told the referee to fuck off more than twenty times in sixty seconds. As “foul and abusive language” is supposed to be a yellow-card offense, one can only presume that there are some really really bad words, words worse than the f-word and the c-word, that footballers know and we don’t.

January 15, 2018 in Books, Sports | Permalink | Comments (0)


“Honesty is the best policy. I know. I’ve tried it both ways.” - Richard W. Sears, founder of Sears, Roebuck and Company (quoted in City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America, by Donald L. Miller)

January 14, 2018 in Books, Chicago Observations, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

”...carrying their fate over their shoulder like a sling bag...”

Jean-Paul Sartre, on France during the Nazi occupation:

Everybody was going about their day like sleepwalkers, carrying their fate over their shoulder like a sling bag, toothbrush and soap in one’s pocket, just in case of an arrest. We all lived in transit, between two round-­ups, two hostage-­takings, and two misunderstandings.

Good to see that the French publisher Gallimard is reconsidering its earlier decision to publish Celine’s pre-WWII anti-Semitic rants. There’s already too much racism in our “modern” world. Despite the publisher’s claims of the tracts’ literary merit, I’ve read elsewhere that the writing, beyond being morally abhorrent, isn’t even particularly good. 

January 12, 2018 in Books, History | Permalink | Comments (0)


“A fluent stream of words awakens suspicion within me. I prefer stuttering for in stuttering I hear the friction and the disquiet, the effort to purge impurities from the words, the desire to offer something from inside you. Smooth, fluent sentences leave me with a feeling of uncleanness, of order that hides emptiness.” - Aharon Appelfeld

January 9, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...the soberest and the most clear-headed..."

Frederick Law Olmsted, writing about the aftermath of the Chicago Fire, in the November 9, 1871 edition of The Nation:

For a time men were unreasonably cheerful and hopeful; now, this stage appears to have passed. In its place there is sternness; but so narrow is the division between this and another mood, that in the midst of a sentence a change of quality in the voice occurs, and you see that eyes have moistened. I had partly expected to find a feverish, reckless spirit, and among the less disciplined classes an unusual current toward turbulence, lawlessness and artificial jollity, such as held in San Francisco for a long time after there - such as often seizes seamen after a wreck. On the contrary, Chicago is the soberest and the most clear-headed city I ever saw. I have observed but two men the worse for liquor; I have not once been asked for an alms, nor have I heard a hand-organ. The clearing of the wreck goes ahead in a driving but steady, well-ordered way.

Quite the contrast to Chicago's reputation, both then and now, as a den of ruthless, lawless incorrigibles. I'm puzzled, though, over the implication that the playing of a hand-organ is as immoral as drunkenness or begging. It must be some dated reference I'm just not catching.

January 7, 2018 in Books, Chicago Observations, History | Permalink | Comments (0)


"Headmasters, like bishops, suffer from an occupational disability: it is very seldom that people venture to criticize their literary style. The headmaster style is usually an uneasy mixture of semi-ecclesiastical oratory, Government Department English, and colloquialisms intended to disarm the natural hostility of schoolboys." - Robert Graves

January 4, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...an enchanted home of Caleb's furnishing..."

In Charles Dickens' The Cricket on the Hearth, the toymaker and widow Caleb Plummer lives with his blind daughter in a hovel owned by his boss, the cold and imperious toy merchant Tackleton.

I have said that Caleb and his poor Blind Daughter lived here. I should have said that Caleb lived here, and his poor Blind Daughter somewhere else — in an enchanted home of Caleb’s furnishing, where scarcity and shabbiness were not, and trouble never entered. Caleb was no sorcerer, but in the only magic art that still remains to us, the magic of devoted, deathless love, Nature had been the mistress of his study; and from her teaching, all the wonder came.

The Blind Girl never knew that ceilings were discoloured, walls blotched and bare of plaster here and there, high crevices unstopped and widening every day, beams mouldering and tending downward. The Blind Girl never knew that iron was rusting, wood rotting, paper peeling off; the size, and shape, and true proportion of the dwelling, withering away. The Blind Girl never knew that ugly shapes of delft and earthenware were on the board; that sorrow and faintheartedness were in the house; that Caleb’s scanty hairs were turning greyer and more grey, before her sightless face. The Blind Girl never knew they had a master, cold, exacting, and uninterested — never knew that Tackleton was Tackleton in short; but lived in the belief of an eccentric humourist who loved to have his jest with them, and who, while he was the Guardian Angel of their lives, disdained to hear one word of thankfulness.

And all was Caleb’s doing; all the doing of her simple father!

I was really moved by this passage, knowing as a father how much you want to shield your kids from all of the bad things in the world - although, ultimately, they will have to face that world on their own, and have to know it as it really is. Caleb finally learns this lesson.

The novella is a sweet, heartwarming story, which is widely characterized as a Christmas tale. This publisher packaged it with A Christmas Carol and The Chimes, although the latter is set at New Years and The Cricket on the Hearth is set during the end of January, and I don't believe either of the lesser-known stories even mentioned Christmas. And it's not just this publisher's marketing angle - I've seen several references elsewhere to these being Christmas stories. Maybe that's how the books have been pitched all along.

January 1, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Books given, books received

As always, I give almost nothing but books as Christmas gifts to my family (other than Julie and Maddie, for whom I use a bit more imagination). And I receive a few in return. This year, the given are my usual mix of old and new, read and unread-but-looked-interesting. The received are both intriguing - I’m especially curious to see whether Hanks can really write, or if the book is a vanity project that his publisher thought they could make a quick buck from.

C.D. Rose: The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure
Kate Chopin: The Awakening
The U.S. Supreme Court Decision on Marriage Equality
Tarjei Vesaas: The Birds
Debra A. Shattuck: Bloomer Girls: Women Baseball Pioneers
Giano Cromley: The Last Good Halloween
Knut Hamsun: Pan
Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale
Neal Bascomb: The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb
Stephen Greenblatt: The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve
Elena Passarello: Animals Strike Curious Poses
Alexander Solzhenitsyn: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Muriel Spark: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Tom Hanks: Uncommon Type: Some Stories
Joshua Hammer: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts

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


“...the quintessence of humanism is to have conversations. There is a deep connection between communication and ‘communio,’ community. Sitting together, eating together, drinking together, talking together. When people stop talking to each other, then you get into war.” - Rob Riemen

December 29, 2017 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

This is just so wrong.

I earned more money from the five tossed-off microfictions that I sold to Le Meridien Hotels in 2006 than Poe earned (even after adjusting for inflation) for “The Tell-Tale Heart”, one of the greatest short stories ever written.

December 27, 2017 in Books, Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

Good Reading 2017

Here is my latest installment of the best books I read this year. As always, it's books I read in 2017, and not necessarily books that were published in 2017.

1. Suzanne Mars (editor): What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell
2. Joseph Mitchell: Joe Gould's Secret
3. Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid's Tale
4. H.G. Wells: The Time Machine
5. Tim Krabbe: The Rider
6. Ben Tanzer: Be Cool
7. Eudora Welty: The Ponder Heart
8. H.G. Wells: The Island of Dr. Moreau
9. Fyodor Dostoevsky: The Gambler
10. Giano Cromley: The Last Good Halloween

Honorable Mention: Robert Ferguson: Enigma: The Life of Knut Hamsun; Edward McClelland: How to Speak Midwestern; Kingsley Amis: Girl, 20; Rosie Schaap: Drinking With Men: A Memoir; Martha Bayne (editor): Rust Belt Chicago: An Anthology

Re-readings: Nelson Algren: The Neon Wilderness; Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol

Thoughts: The Welty-Maxwell letters were an absolute delight - two great writers from extremely different worlds who were drawn together into a warm friendship by a shared love of literature - although maybe not of great interest to anyone who isn't already a fan of either writer...I finally read Joe Gould's Secret at the instigation of my friend Joe Peterson, who saw parallels between the book and Wheatyard, and he's right - and I totally see that too...My “Summer of H.G. Wells” was very up and down, but the two books listed above were great...Welty and Maxwell talked a lot about The Ponder Heart (which first appeared in The New Yorker, with Maxwell as editor), so it was cool to read the novel after experiencing their thoughts on its creation...Three "writers I know" books are on this year's list - Ben Tanzer, Giano Cromley, Ted McClelland - and all are quite good...When I re-read a book, I automatically disqualify it from my Top Ten, due to the built-in bias (I wouldn't re-read a book that I didn't already love) but if I had read The Neon Wilderness for the first time this year, it would have been #1 - the book is a sweet reminder of the greatness of Algren's early career, made somewhat bitter by how utterly he let himself languish for his last twenty-five years.

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


Even during the holidays, I'm not a particularly merry person - not that I'm at all glum, just that I'm not boisterous. A second or third cocktail makes me quieter, not noisier. Still, I like the sentiment of George Wither's poem "A Christmas Carol", and particularly this portion:

Hark how the roofs with laughters sound!
Anon they'll think the house goes round,
For they the cellar's depth have found,
And there they will be merry.

I'm guessing the cellar is where the merrymakers will discover the trove of hard cider or ale. I wonder if they will ever make it upstairs in time for Christmas dinner.

(Via Patrick Kurp).

December 22, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

"...ten times that amount of continuous soaking..."

In Kingsley Amis' Girl, 20, the narrator, music critic Douglas Yandell, is trying to prevent his friend, the renowned classical conductor Sir Roy Vandervane, from publicly performing his avant-garde work Elevations 9, which Yandell rightly foresees as an utter disaster. Yandell and Vandervane are meeting for drinks, just before the performance.

He seemed to me fairly drunk already. While he spoke to the waiter, I dallied with the thought of plying him with his own drink to the point at which he would be unable to leave the club, or at least mount the concert platform, then put it aside. We must take off in half an hour or less, and ten times that amount of continuous soaking would hardly have been enough to put him under any table I had ever seen in his vicinity.

Very enjoyable book - Amis is typically fine with all things alcoholic - though the dated misogyny (the book was published in 1971) can be trying at times.

December 22, 2017 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


“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)