“The demise of newspapers, I think, is scary for any democracy. Because I think newspapers have been totally under appreciated for what they have done to keep the government in check. To prevent corruption, to keep people honest. That’s what scares me the most, is I’m not sure who provides that check. And you have to have it. History has shown you have to have that balance if you want to maintain a democracy. And we’re about to lose it.” - Mark Brown

August 21, 2019 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)


“I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this.” - John Steinbeck

The Grapes of Wrath turned 80 earlier this year. One of the greatest American novels, I think.

August 18, 2019 in Books, History | Permalink | Comments (1)

David Berman

My ski vest has buttons
like convenience store mirrors
and they help me see
that everything
in this room right now
is a part of me
oh yeah, is a part of me
- David Berman

Last week saw the sad passing of musician and poet David Berman, who took his own life at age 52. He battled mental illness and substance abuse for much of his life, and apparently it finally became too much for him. Tributes continue to pour in for him from both the music and literary communities. It's clear that he and his art were greatly loved.

The only Silver Jews album I own is American Water (1998), which is widely considered the band's masterpiece. I'll admit that had never heard of Berman or his band before this album, and was only drawn in by the involvement of Stephen Malkmus of Pavement, who was Berman's musical partner off and on for years. But the otherwise bold Malkmus mostly kept to the background - singing backup vocals (with only the occasional lead) and playing lead guitar - and conceding the spotlight to his longtime friend Berman. Instead of being a Pavement side project (as it was often characterized back then), the focus was on Berman's rough-hewn voice and wonderful lyrics. The lyrics above (from "We Are Real") are just one small example of his gift - every song is full of similar brilliance.

That album once meant enough to me to inspire a short story, "Alleys Are the Footnotes of the Avenues", which I wrote way back in 2008. The title is a line from Berman's "Smith & Jones Forever", and the story flowed directly from the preceding line, "They see the things they need through the windows of a hatchback." This slight nod is the best tribute I can make to Berman and his artistic influence.  

Yesterday I dug out and recharged my old iPod, and listened to American Water for the first time in years. The album is every bit as great as I remembered. Check it out if you can. 

August 13, 2019 in Books, Fiction, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

“Then you can keep your mackerel."

The narrator of Knut Hamsun's Under the Autumn Star muses about his elderly landlady, Gunhild.

...And here and there among the hills stand stubborn flowers that refuse to die, although in truth their time is up.

But then old Gunhild's time is up; and does she die? She behaves for all the world as if death was no concern of hers. When the fishermen are messing about on the beach, tarring their traps or painting their boats, old Gunhild goes up to them with lackluster eyes and the shrewdest of business minds.

"How much is the mackerel today?" she asks.

"Same as yesterday."

"Then you can keep your mackerel."

And Gunhild makes for home.

But the fishermen know full well that Gunhild is not one to play-act at going: she has been known to walk all the way up to her cottage without one backward glance. As so "Hi there!" they call after her: let's make it seven mackerels to the half dozen today, for an old customer, that is.

And Gunhild buys her fish...

Ah, that inimitable, early-career Hamsun voice. I also like the translators' (Oliver and Gunnvorr Stallybrass) choice of "lackluster eyes", where most people would simply call such lifeless eyes "dull." Lacking luster is the same as being dull, of course, but lackluster is a much more vivid word.

By the way, I've given up on (or indefinitely postponed) the last two books of Wilhelm Moberg's Emigrants saga. The second book really did nothing for me, and I have no enthusiasm to read any further right now. So for the rest of my Summer of Classics, I'll stick to Scandinavian (albeit moving from Swedish to Norwegian) with Hamsun's two related novellas, Under the Autumn Star and A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings, which are collected in a single volume. I've already gotten far more enjoyment out of the first few chapters of Hamsun than I did from Moberg's entire two tomes.

August 7, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


“Oh, give me again the rover’s life—the joy, the thrill, the whirl! Let me feel thee again, old sea! let me leap into thy saddle once more. I am sick of these terra firma toils and cares; sick of the dust and reek of towns. Let me hear the clatter of hailstones on icebergs, and not the dull tramp of these plodders, plodding their dull way from their cradles to their graves.” - Herman Melville (whose bicentenary occurred a few days ago)

August 4, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...a light-hearted preliminary.”

English writer Sid Chaplin, in 1960:

There is – or was – a language of caps. Pulled square to the ears it indicated that you were off to chapel or a leek show; tilted to the back of your head that you were on your way to the pub, a dance, or off courting – the real rake wore it sidewise to show off his parting.

Peak over nose was for relaxation in the sun, or for use as a visor when the pigeons homed in straight from the west before sunset. Late home after a convivial evening you opened the door and threw in your cap as a light-hearted preliminary.

I had never heard of Chaplin until this morning, but now I’m intrigued by his working-class novels set in the mid-century English Northeast. His books are probably hard to find here, I would guess. 

August 4, 2019 | Permalink | Comments (0)

”Wind and Sun”

“Wind and Sun”

Yesterday is a wind gone down,
A sun dropped in the west.

Today is rising winds,
Brightening skies and warming air.

Yesterday is past, frozen, set.
Decisions made and actions done
That cannot be brought back.
Decisions cannot be unmade,
What was done ever remains done,
The past never erased.

Today is possibility,
A time to act, make things happen
Not the fixed yesterday
Nor the uncertain tomorrow.
What is determined this moment
Will change all days to come.

Wind and sun have fallen,
Wind and sun will rise again.


(The first two lines are by Carl Sandburg, from “Prairie.” The rest is my attempt at a poetic response.)

August 2, 2019 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)


“The historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like,” - E.L. Doctorow

I’m starting to think Wilhelm Moberg was more historian than novelist. I’m moderately enjoying his Emigrants saga, but Rolvaag did the Scandinavian-immigrants-on-the-Great-Plains thing so much better. I’m debating whether or not to skip the last two Emigrants books. 

July 30, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fading Ad: M.J. Meagher & Co.


This is actually two ads for the same store: the newer one reads M.J. Meagher & Co. Family Shoe Store, and the older one reads M.J. Meagher Hats & Shoes. (In the older ad, “Meagher” slants upward, from left to right.) Found on Main Street, Frankfort, Kentucky. 

July 23, 2019 in History, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)


“But most people who want to change conditions do like it here: they love it here. They love it so much that they cannot stand to see it suffer from its imperfections, and want it to live up to its ideals. It is the people who placidly accept the corruptions and perversions and inequities in our society who do not love America; they love their status, security and special privilege." - Sydney J. Harris

July 23, 2019 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)