Irish March

The start of my annual Irish March was slightly delayed - at the end of February, I had the sudden urge to read Nick Hornby's young adult novel, Slam. (I shouldn't have been so impulsive. The book wasn't very good.) But now with that finished, I can move on to my usual Irish literature. I'm giving another chance to Brendan Behan's Borstal Boy, which I didn't really connect with last March and gave up on only partway through, which is something I rarely do. After that, I will re-read J.M. Synge's The Aran Islands, which I first read and loved in 2015. I didn't get around to buying any new Irish books for this year's reading, partly because we're on a mission to declutter our house, and I already have plenty of unread books around here.

March 10, 2021 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

J is for Just

Inspired by Stuck in a Book, I am continuing this occasional series, in which I will discuss favorite authors, alphabetically. The latest is Ward Just.

How many books do I have by Just?
Four: An Unfinished Season, Forgetfulness, The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert and Other Stories, and The Weather in Berlin.

How many of these have I read?
Three: The first three listed above, plus Echo House, which I read and then donated. I've had The Weather in Berlin for at least ten years but still haven't gotten around to it.

How did I start reading Just?
Not really sure. It might have been from my friend "Golden Rule Jones" (a pseudonym) who used to write a Chicago-focused litblog of that same name back in the Noughts. Just had Chicago roots, so it's probable that GRJ recommended An Unfinished Season (2004), which was well-received in its day, including being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

General impressions...
An Unfinished Season is a wonderful coming-of-age story (probably modeled on Just's own teenaged years) which is set in Chicago and the wealthy North Shore of the late 1940s, where the middle-class protagonist nervously moves among the rich and overprivileged. The book was a departure from much of Just's other fiction which was highly political in focus, which likely stemmed from Just's early years as a well-regarded Vietnam War correspondent and his strong familiarity with the professional and social circles of Washington, D.C. Forgetfulness (2006) is very political, but also personal - set in the post-9/11 days of terrorist fear, it explores a retired CIA agent's struggle to come to grips with the shocking murder of his wife. A very powerful book when I first read it, although I wonder how well its timely-at-the-time subject has aged, fifteen years later.

If you've never read Just, you should start with...
An Unfinished Season. 

If I had to get rid of one Just book, it would be...
Echo House, which I did get rid of; although it was a National Book Award finalist in 1997, I didn't really connect with it.

Other "I" candidates:
Sarah Orne Jewett, James Joyce.

February 21, 2021 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

I is for Ishiguro

Inspired by Stuck in a Book, I am continuing this occasional series, in which I will discuss favorite authors, alphabetically. The latest is Kazuo Ishiguro.

How many books do I have by Ishiguro?
Three: The Remains of the Day, A Pale View of Hills and When We Were Orphans.

How many of these have I read?
Two: The Remains of the Day and a Pale View of Hills. In addition to Orphans, I also want to read Never Let Me Go and The Buried Giant.

How did I start reading Ishiguro?
I think my wife read Never Let Me Go years ago, and though I still haven't read that book, it probably implanted Ishiguro's name in my mind. The Remains of the Day is his most acclaimed book, so it was inevitable that I would finally get around to reading it.

General impressions...
The Remains of the Day is absolutely wonderful, a quietly heartbreaking story of a staid English butler who is living through the end of the centuries-old era of the great manor houses, and struggling to transition from the only world he's ever known. It was also made into a highly acclaimed film (starring Anthony Hopkins as the butler) which I really want to see.

If you've never read Ishiguro, you should start with...
The Remains of the Day, absolutely.

If I had to get rid of one Ishiguro book, it would be...
Probably, Hills. The book was good, but seemed a bit slight and not very memorable, and I won't be reading it again. It also doesn't seem fair to get rid of Orphans before I've ever read it, and I'll certainly keep Remains around to read it again.

Other "I" candidates:
None. Seriously, none. Based on my Goodreads shelf (642 books read), I've only read one other "I" author, and I remember nothing about that single book. (No, I haven’t ever read John Irving.)

January 14, 2021 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Books given, books received

My annual Santa list.

Courtney Cerruti: Make Art Where You Are
Courtney Cerruti: One Color a Day Sketchbook
Charles Cross: Heavier Than Heaven
Stockholm Noir
Isabel Wilkerson: The Warmth of Other Suns
Johanna Fridriksdottir: Valkyrie
Honey Meconi: Hildegard of Bingen
Donald A. Norman: The Design of Everyday Things
Laurent Pernot: Before the Ivy
Kurt Vonnegut: The Last Interview
Edna O’Brien: Country Girls
Carl Sandburg: Chicago Poems
Carl Sandburg: Cornhuskers
David Rhodes: Driftless
Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Last Interview
Jenny Odell: How to Do Nothing
Rockwell Kent: Wilderness
Daniel Woodrell: Winter’s Bone
Dmitry Samarov: Music To My Eyes
Alex Kotlowitz: An American Summer

Mark Costello: Middle Murphy
Joe Meno: The Boy Detective Fails

(Actually, I didn’t receive any books this year. Those two were gifts to myself. I’ve wanted both for a while, so I added them to my shopping cart while ordering gifts for family from University of Illinois Press and Akashic Books.)

January 3, 2021 in Books, Family | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...who was always more taken up with the text than the sentiment...”

Washington Irving’s “The Christmas Dinner” is set in an ancient English manor house. A young college man has just finished reciting a Christmas carol to the dinner guests.

The parson, however, whose mind was not haunted by such associations, and who was always more taken up with the text than the sentiment, objected to the Oxonian’s version of the carol, which, he affirmed, was different that sung at college. He went on, with the dry perseverance of a commentator, to give the college reading, accompanied by sundry annotations; addressing himself at first to the company at large; but finding their attention gradually diverted to other talk and other objects, he lowered his tone as his number of auditors diminished, until he concluded his remarks in an under voice to a fat-headed old gentleman next him, who was silently engaged in the discussion of a huge plateful of turkey.

Such a wonderful scene. I can just picture the stuffy parson bloviating (probably with jowls flapping) to the guests, who listen politely at first but gradually drift off into more pleasant conversations until the parson, now subdued, finally shuts up.

December 25, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Good Reading 2020

As always, these are the best books that I read in 2020, but weren't necessarily published in 2020. (Actually, none of them were published in 2020. I'm a chronic late adopter.) A very good but strange year of reading.

1. Lorraine Hansberry: A Raisin in the Sun
2. Alex Kotlowitz: An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago
3. David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas
4. Hamlin Garland: Main-Travelled Roads
5. Caryl Phillips: Crossing the River
6. David Rhodes: Driftless
7. John Edgar Wideman: Brothers and Keepers
8. Ursula K. Le Guin: Orsinian Tales
9. Eduardo Galeano: Soccer in Sun and Shadow
10. Chester Himes: If He Hollers Let Him Go

Honorable Mention: Charles W. Chesnutt: The House Behind the Cedars; Ralph Ellison: Shadow and Act; John McGahern: By the Lake; Stuart Dybek: Paper Lantern: Love Stories

Re-Readings: Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man; Richard Wright: 12 Million Black Voices; James Baldwin: Go Tell It on the Mountain; Matt Bell: The Collectors; Ben Katchor: Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer; Tarjei Vesaas: The Ice Palace; Hjalmar Soderberg: Doctor Glas

You might think, in this year of social distancing, I would have been an even more voracious reader than usual, but that wasn't the case. I actually read fewer books than any year since at least 2013. Part of that was from reading books that were longer than my norm (including Cloud Atlas, Invisible Man and Driftless), but also working from home for most of the year and losing my two hours on the train every day. Being on the train for that long means a lot of downtime with limited activities, while being at home for those extra hours gave me more things to occupy my time.

I didn't expect this to become a Black Lives Matter year of reading, but after the killing of George Floyd and the resulting protests, I decided to devote my Summer of Reading to read nothing but Black literature, and as the summer was ending I decided to keep the reading going for the rest of the year. And as a result I read a lot of great stuff that I might never have discovered otherwise, most notably A Raisin in the Sun (which is surely one of the greatest works of American theater) and the authors John Edgar Wideman and Caryl Phillips, both of whom I'm now eager to explore further.

More re-readings than usual this year, due to a combination of Black Literature, comfort reading, and the unique situation of the last two books on that list. My daughter is a student at the University of Illinois (my alma mater), and took the same Scandinavian literature course last spring that I took there in the mid-1980s. Two of the books on her syllabus were Doctor Glas (which I first read in that class) and The Ice Palace (we actually read Vesaas' The Birds, but I picked up The Ice Palace a few years later), so I re-read both books at roughly the same time she was studying them in class, which was a pretty cool father-daughter bonding experience.

December 23, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

H is for Haruf

Inspired by Stuck in a Book, I am continuing this occasional series, in which I will discuss favorite authors, alphabetically. The latest is Kent Haruf.

How many books do I have by Haruf?
Six, all of them the novels: The Tie That Binds, Where You Once Belonged, Plainsong, Eventide, Benediction and Our Souls at Night. (Haruf wrote only one other book: the essay-and-photograph collaboration West of Last Chance, with photographer Peter T. Brown.)

How many of these have I read?
All of them, once so far. But I intend to read all of them again, in order, for a second or even third time.

How did I start reading Haruf?
I had read glowing reviews of Haruf's fiction, and thought his small-town stories would be right up my alley. Our local Starbucks used to have a lending bookshelf where you could leave a book, and take a new one in return. One day, while waiting for my espresso, I glanced at the shelf (I find it utterly impossible to resist browsing any bookshelf), I saw a copy of Plainsong, read the first few paragraphs, liked what I saw, and took the book. (I don't think I donated a book that day, but I'm sure I did so on my next visit, to square things up.) I absolutely loved Plainsong, and steadily acquired the rest of his novels over the next few years, concluding with Our Souls At Night, which was published in 2015, a year after his death at the too-soon age of 71. I was so moved by the story and message of Our Souls at Night that I gave the book to every member of my family as Christmas gifts a few years ago.

General impressions...
Haruf is one of my absolute favorite writers. All of his novels are set in the high plains of eastern Colorado (where Haruf grew up), in the fictional small town of Holt, and each marvelously evokes Holt and its simple, everyday people. The two strongest books (Plainsong and Eventide) interweave multiple storylines among characters who lead very different lives but are still interconnected and reliant on each other, as it would be in any small town; the other four books are more tightly focused on a few key characters. Also, when I read Plainsong in 2008, I was pleasantly surprised to realize that the book had unconsciously influenced my debut novel, Wheatyard.

If you've never read Haruf, you should start with...
Plainsong, which I'm sure will have you hungering for the other five novels. Eventide is sort of a sequel to Plainsong, so you'll probably want to read that second.

If I had to get rid of one Haruf book, it would be...
Absolutely none of them, although Where You Once Belonged is probably the least strong of the six, though still very good reading.

Other "H" candidates:
Knut Hamsun, Nick Hornby. Aleksandar Hemon. Hamsun, Hornby and Hemon are also beloved favorites of mine, and each could have easily been featured here. My list of H writers is exceptionally strong.

December 12, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...always visible but a million miles away..."

"I wonder if the irony of a river beside the prison is intentional. The river was brown the last time I saw it, mud-brown and sluggish in its broad channel. Nothing pretty about it, a working river, a place to dump things, to empty sewers. The Ohio's thick and filthy, stinking of coal, chemicals, offal, bitter with rust from the flaking hulls of iron-ore barges inching grayly to and from the steel mills. But viewed from barred windows, from tiered cages, the river must call to the prisoners' hearts, a natural symbol of flight and freedom. The river is a path, a gateway to the West, the frontier. Somewhere it meets the sea. Is it somebody's cruel joke, an architect's way of giving the knife a final twist, hanging this sign outside the walls, this river always visible but a million miles away beyond the spiked steel fence guarding its banks?"

- John Edgar Wideman, Brothers and Keepers

December 10, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

G is for Guralnick

Inspired by Stuck in a Book, I am continuing this occasional series, in which I will discuss favorite authors, alphabetically. The latest is Peter Guralnick.

How many books do I have by Guralnick?
Two: Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians, and Feel Like Going Home: Portraits in Blues and Rock 'n' Roll.

How many of these have I read?
Both books, several times each. The books have been on my shelf for so long (on shelves in at least eight different residences, for more than thirty years) that the spines have faded in the sun from a vivid yellow to a dull beige.

How did I start reading Guralnick?
I was heavily into the blues during my early twenties, and though I had never heard of Guralnick before reading Lost Highway, I must have discovered the book and writer in the music section of a used book store, most likely The Used Bookstore, a wonderful place in the basement of the Campus YMCA in Champaign, Illinois, where I spent countless hours during my undergrad and grad school years. (My copy of Lost Highway has a price stamp from Follett's, the textbook chain, but I don't remember that store selling used books. It was probably bought there new, then later sold to The Used Bookstore.) Having loved Lost Highway from the start, Feel Like Going Home entered my library a few years later.

General impressions...
Though I've only read two of his books, Guralnick is my favorite music writer - probably because he's more of a biographer than a critic. Criticism usually leaves me cold (my one attempt at reading Greil Marcus sure did), especially when I'm oblivious to the critic's learned but arcane references, and also when I realize that criticism is just somebody else's opinion. Guralnick writes with such warmth and love for his subjects (often from first-hand conversations) that I can't help becoming completely absorbed in his narratives of the musicians' lives. (Even the country singers - and I'm not really into country.) Other Guralnick books on my to-read list are his latest, Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music and Writing, as well as Sweet Soul Music, Searching for Robert Johnson and his only novel, Nighthawk Blues. (He's probably best known for his massive, two-volume bio of Elvis Presley, and while Elvis interests me, I would expect that my interest would wear thin long before finishing the 1,300+ pages.)

If you've never read Guralnick, you should start with...
Lost Highway, which would be a serious candidate for my single desert island book.

If I had to get rid of one Guralnick book, it would be...
I guess it would be Feel Like Going Home, but only because it has slightly less of an emotional tug on me than Lost Highway. But I don't expect to ever get rid of either one.

Other "G" candidates:
Hamlin Garland, Kirby Gann, Kevin Guilfoile, Edward Gorey.

November 26, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

F is for Fridegård

Inspired by Stuck in a Book, I am continuing this occasional series, in which I will discuss favorite authors, alphabetically. The latest is Jan Fridegård.

How many books do I have by Fridegård?
Two, or maybe three: two editions of Land of Wooden Gods (both in English translation and in its Swedish original, published as Trägudars land (1940)), and I, Lars Hård (1935). Whether it's two or three depends on if you consider an original-language book and its translation to be a single book, or two distinct books.

How many of these have I read?
Two: Trägudars land (in Swedish), and I, Lars Hård (in English). I bought Land of Wooden Gods last year, and it's very high on my to-read list.

How did I start reading Fridegård?
I took four semesters of Swedish language and two Scandinavian literature classes at the University of Illinois during the mid 1980s from Dr. Rochelle Wright (who has translated some of Fridegård's work, although neither of these two translations, both of which were by Robert Bjork). We read Trägudars land during my fourth semester of Swedish, probably as a test for how much of the language we had learned during the previous three semesters. And it was pretty slow going; though my verbal Swedish was fairly decent at the time (I often told people that I was capable of having a reasonably intelligent conversation with a four-year-old Swedish child), my written Swedish was less so. At least half of my reading time was spent consulting my Swedish-to-English dictionary. And I read I, Lars Hård at roughly the same time, in a Scandinavian literature class that also covered Knut Hamsun, Tarjei Vesaas, Par Lagerkvist and many others. It was my favorite college class ever; and in a nice twist, my daughter took the same course at U of I last year, although with a mostly different syllabus and a different professor, as Dr. Wright retired several years ago.

General impressions...
Trägudars land, set in the Viking Age with a thrall (a white slave) as protagonist, was a fascinating and exciting story, which came across even through the haze of my limited grasp of the Swedish language. Thirty-five years later, I'm excited to read the English translation, to see what I've forgotten or what I completely missed the first time. I, Lars Hård is also really good—an earthy, sometimes funny proletarian novel that rails against the Swedish statare system, which once bound laborers to aristocratic estates. The novel is the first in a trilogy; the final two installments, Jacob's Ladder and Mercy, are collected in a single volume that is on my hunting list.

If you've never read Fridegård, you should start with...
I can't vouch yet for the translated Land of Wooden Gods, so I'll recommend I, Lars Hård.

If I had to get rid of one Fridegård book, it would be...
In a pinch, I would unload Trägudars land, since I will definitely never attempt to read it again. But I like the novelty of owning the only two books I've ever read in a foreign language (the other is one of Tove Jansson's Moomin books, also from that Swedish class).

Other "F" candidates:
James T. Farrell, Patrick Michael Finn. (But, alas, neither Fitzgerald nor Faulkner. I've read one novel of each author, both of which left me completely cold.)

November 11, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

E is for Ellison

Inspired by Stuck in a Book, I am continuing this occasional series, in which I will discuss favorite authors, alphabetically. The latest is Ralph Ellison.

How many books do I have by Ellison?
Two: his masterpiece, the novel Invisible Man, and his essay collection Shadow and Act. I also once owned his second, posthumously-published but nowhere-near-completed novel, Juneteenth, but found it so unsatisfying that I got rid of it.

How many of these have I read?
Of the Ellison that I currently own, I've only read Invisible Man. I've also read Juneteenth (see above) and his story collection Flying Home and Other Stories (checked out from the library). I bought Shadow and Act only recently, and will read it by the end of this year.

How did I start reading Ellison?
I think I first read Ellison's short story "The King of the Bingo Game" in a literature class during college. Or maybe I didn't read it in that class, but it was in the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction that was the textbook for the class, and I read the story sometime afterward. It's a truly great story that I re-read recently. I might even record a reading of it for the blog. Fortunately, that story eventually lead me to Invisible Man.

General impressions...
Invisible Man is simply brilliant, and one of the greatest works of American literature. Besides the impeccable prose, vivid scenes (oh, the Battle Royale! the Golden Day!), exciting plot and deep philosophical ideas, the novel gains much of its power from its timeless relevance. Although Ellison writes about the 1940s, its events could still happen today; in fact, the narrator's eulogy for Brother Tod Clifton could have easily been used this year to honor George Floyd or Jacob Blake. I've read the book five or six times since acquiring it during the late 1980s; it's a long, densely-written book that demands a slow, careful reading. But the brilliance of Invisible Man made Juneteenth utterly disappointing for me. Ellison spent something like forty years writing and re-writing the latter, and obviously never quite got it the way he wanted it. The thousand-plus page manuscript he left behind at his death must have been an unruly mess (the unedited manuscript has also been published, as Three Days Before the Shooting), which his literary executor had only minimal success at stitching together into an only occasionally coherent novel.

If you've never read Ellison, you should start with...
Invisible Man. Obviously.

If I had to get rid of one Ellison book, it would be...
Actually, I already did - Juneteenth.

Other "E" candidates:
Andrew Ervin, Jeffrey Eugenides.

September 28, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“Terrified as the mindless are terrified.”

A previously unknown interview of James Baldwin, in which he relates a Black voter registration drive in Selma, Alabama, in 1963.

They sounded like parrots. It was the only phrase they ever used: “Move along—you’re blocking the sidewalk.” And also, I must say, when I finally looked into their faces, they were terrified. With their guns and their helmets. And terrified in a very strange way. Terrified as the mindless are terrified. Because the only way they could react to any pressure was a rock or bullet or gun. They don’t have any other defenses at all! This is the police force the Southern oligarchy has used and created to protect their interests.

Terrified, because the officers, and the white establishment of the American South, knew their position was illegitimate and could not be morally defended.

September 27, 2020 in Books, Current Affairs, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

D is for Dybek

Inspired by Stuck In a Book, I am continuing this occasional series, in which I will discuss favorite authors, alphabetically. The latest is Stuart Dybek.

How many books do I have by Dybek?
Four, all of them short story collections: The Coast of Chicago, Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, I Sailed with Magellan, and Paper Lantern: Love Stories. 

How many of these have I read?
All of them. The only Dybek books I haven't read (none of which I own) are the story collection Ecstatic Cahoots, and the poetry collections Streets in Their Own Ink and Brass Knuckles.

How did I start reading Dybek?
Being a Chicagoan, I've always heard a lot of praise for Dybek, starting back in the 1990s. I was browsing the shelves at a Barbara's Bookstore somewhere in the city during the early 1990s and came across The Coast of Chicago, bought it, and was grabbed right away by "Mozart in Winter", a sadly beautiful story about the brief bond that develops between a young boy and his emotionally distant grandfather as they listen together to a neighbor in the next apartment who is practicing Mozart sonatas on the piano.

General impressions...
Dybek's stories are wistful and warm-hearted, even as he's describing the gritty Southwest Side neighborhood where he grew up. I was lucky enough to meet Dybek at a talk he did last year at the Cliff Dwellers Club with historian Dominic Pacyga, on the subject of Polish Chicago. I brought my hardcover copy of The Coast of Chicago for him to sign, and only just beforehand discovered that it was a first edition - so now, without intentionally setting out to do so, I now own a signed first edition of Dybek's best book. And as much as I love Dybek's stories, I wish he'd try his hand at a novel. When I first read I Sailed with Magellan, I remember thinking that I'd love to read an entire novel built around Lefty, the trumpet-playing uncle of Dybek's fictional alter ego, Perry Katzek. I don't think I mentioned this to Dybek when I met him; I actually hope I didn't. Too many short story writers, even great ones like Dybek, already have to endure the "So, when are you going to write a novel?" question, without me piling on.

If you've never read Dybek, you should start with...
The Coast of Chicago, and "Mozart in Winter" in particular.

If I had to get rid of one Dybek book, it would be...
I don't really want to get rid of any of them, but if pressed, I guess I would let Childhood and Other Neighborhoods go. Though I enjoyed the book, I really don't remember much about it. The Coast of Chicago and I Sailed With Magellan are very vivid in my mind, and just seem more essential to me.

Other "D" candidates:
Roald Dahl, Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle.

September 15, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Summer of Classics...and beyond...

This year's Summer of Classics - classic Black American literature, mostly fiction - has morphed into a most-of-the-year project.

I didn't really have a plan for this summer's reading, but after George Floyd's killing in Minneapolis in May, I was drawn to Richard Wright's Eight Men: Short Stories, which I've had on my shelf for several years without ever getting around to it. Part of my hesitation was due to my second reading of Native Son, which had left me pretty underwhelmed. Ultimately, I found Eight Men to be an uneven collection (both gems and duds), but it turned out to be the inspiration for my summer - and beyond - of reading.

Next it was re-readings of James Baldwin's debut novel, Go Tell It On the Mountain, and Wright's book-length essay 12 Million Black Voices. Both good reads, though admittedly a stopgap to hold me over until a shipment of new books could arrive from Open Books: Passing by Nella Larsen, If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester Himes, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, and The Wedding by Dorothy West. Quick thoughts on each:

Passing: Seemed like more of a sociological study than fiction. Interesting ideas, but I don't think it worked as a novel.

If He Hollers Let Him Go: A thrilling, visceral story of a young Black defense industry worker in Los Angeles during World War II. Kind of noir, kind of proletarian fiction. Himes went on to become a successful crime novelist, and you can definitely see elements of that genre in this, his debut novel.

A Raisin in the Sun: A brilliant depiction of working-class Black family life, with all of its (not quite soaring) dreams and bitter realities. Probably the first important stage play written by a Black author.

The Wedding: Dorothy West was the last survivor of the Harlem Renaissance, but despite living to the advanced age of 91, she published only two novels: The Living Is Easy (1948) and The Wedding (1995). I opted for the latter, since the description suggested it was a tighter narrative than the former, but even at that, I found the book to be a multi-generational family sprawl that was almost all backstory. Trouble is, although that backstory could have been a great buildup to the current-day climax, the conclusion was a real letdown (plot spoiler: the wedding promised by the title was never actually depicted!) and included an eye-rolling scene of melodramatic tragedy.

All four books were relatively short, and after I had finished them it was still mid-August, so I gladly dove back into Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, for the fifth or sixth time. (I first read it during my early twenties; the inside cover of my copy has the stamp of the long-defunct The Book Rack, in Fox River Grove.) I'm thoroughly enjoying the book all over again, though I must sheepishly admit that I had forgotten many of the scenes, and I honestly don't remember how it all ends - which I guess might be like reading it for the first time, all over again.

But Invisible Man is both long and densely-written, and the reading hasn't gone briskly, so now I'm well into September with another week or two needed to finish the book. So I'm going to extend my summer through the end of the year, and read nothing but Black literature for the rest of 2020. I already have another Open Books purchase lined up, with novels by Sam Selvon (The Lonely Londoners), Caryl Phillips (Across the River) and Teju Cole (Every Day Is For the Thief) plus, once again, Ralph Ellison (the essay collection Shadow and Act). Maybe work some Zora Neale Hurston in there, too. I definitely haven’t read enough of her. 

September 10, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“You mean graft?”

In Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, Walter Lee Younger wants to buy a liquor store with the money from his late father's life insurance policy.

Walter: Yeah. You see, this little liquor store we got in mind cost seventy-five thousand and we figured the initial investment on the place be 'bout thirty thousand, see. That be ten thousand each. Course, there's a couple hundred you got to pay so's you don't spend your life just waiting for them clowns to let your license get approved--

Ruth: You mean graft?

Walter (frowning impatiently): Don't call it that. See there, that just goes to show you what women understand about the world. Baby, don't nothing happen for you in this world 'less you pay somebody off!

Spoken like a true Chicago realist! Marvelous play. I'm thoroughly enjoying it. After I finish, I'll be watching the 1989 American Playhouse production from PBS, starring Danny Glover as Walter Lee and Esther Rolle as Mama Younger, which is up on YouTube.

July 27, 2020 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

C is for Costello

Inspired by Stuck In a Book, I am continuing this occasional series, in which I will discuss favorite authors, alphabetically. The latest is Mark Costello.

How many books do I have by Costello?
One: The Murphy Stories (1973). That might not sound like much, but he's only published two books, so I'm very close to being a Costello completist.

How many of these have I read?
One. His other book, Middle Murphy, is high on my list. The last time I was buying something else from University of Illinois Press, the book wasn't available, and I was afraid it had gone out of print. But I was on the UIP site again recently, I saw it there, so it's still in my future.

How did I start reading Costello?
Costello was a long-time professor at U of I, where I went for both undergrad and grad school. Though I never met him in person, I did see him give an on-campus reading of one of his stories. It's not the kind of event I was ever interested in back then, but I was taking a creative writing class at the time, and my professor Dan Curley (Costello's colleague and fellow writer) compelled our entire class to attend. (If Curley did so because he was worried about there not being a crowd for the event, he shouldn't have been; the room was packed.) Costello read a very funny story that isn't in The Murphy Stories, so I assume it must be in Middle Murphy. I must have found my copy of The Murphy Stories in a used book store, sometime this century, but don't remember where.

General impressions...
Though I've read only the one Costello book, fewer than several other "C" authors (see below), I really felt the need to champion him here. Though highly regarded by his peers (very much a writer's writer), he seems to have fallen into deep obscurity, and unjustly so. The Murphy Stories is really good - a sharp collection of sometimes devastating stories that I suspect are at least autobiographical in origin. I wonder if these stories were things he needed to get off his chest, and having done so, the drive to write more faded for him after the second book. 

If you've never read Costello, then you should start with...
The Murphy Stories, obviously.

If I had to get rid of one Costello book, it would be...
Well, The Murphy Stories is the only one I own, and I'm certainly not getting rid of it. So the answer is "none."

Other "C" candidates:
Willa Cather, Raymond Chandler, Giano Cromley.

July 19, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

B is for Burton

Inspired by Stuck In a Book, I am continuing this occasional series, in which I will discuss favorite authors, alphabetically. The latest is Virginia Lee Burton.

How many books do I have by Burton?
Four: Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel, The Little House, Katy and the Big Snow, and Maybelle the Cable Car. I have Mike Mulligan twice: first in a single hardcover edition from my childhood, and second in Mike Mulligan and More: A Virginia Lee Burton Treasury, which collects these four books into a single volume. The latter was a gift to my daughter Maddie, from my parents.

How many of these have I read?
All of them, too many times to count. Maddie loved the Burton treasury, which was a regular staple of our bedtime reading when she was young. Burton wrote three other books that I haven't read: Choo Choo, Life Story and Calico the Wonder Horse. Maybe I'll find those last three by the time I have grandkids.

How did I start reading Burton?
Someone from my family started reading me Mike Mulligan at a very young age, and once I was able to read on my own, I kept re-reading the book. Oddly enough, despite loving that book so much, I never read (or was even aware of) any other Burton books until I started reading the treasury to Maddie. And as it turns out, I love The Little House almost as much as Mike Mulligan.

General impressions...
Mike Mulligan was my favorite book from my childhood, a warm, wistful and quietly thrilling story about a steam shovel operator and his anthropomorphized steam shovel, "Mary Anne." The themes of the four books are similar: all have an aging, anthropomorphized character (steam shovel, house, snow plow, cable car) that faces obsolescence and retirement from modern society, but who in the end proves to still have importance and something to give. It's not surprising how popular these books have been through the years; they're simple, wonderful stories for kids, and the parents and especially grandparents who read the books to kids might identify with Mary Anne, Katy and the little house as they face the retirement and twilight of their own lives.

If you've never read Burton, then you should start with...
Mike Mulligan, with The Little House right after.

If I had to get rid of one Burton book, it would be...
I would never get rid of any of them. Mike Mulligan will always have a cherished place on my bookshelf, and if for some inexplicable reason Maddie ever tries to get rid of the treasury during a periodic clutter-purge, I will grab it for myself.

July 12, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

A Is For Algren

Inspired by Stuck In a Book, I am starting this occasional new series, in which I will discuss favorite authors, alphabetically. The first, appropriately, is Nelson Algren, my very favorite.

How many books do I have by Algren?
Ten: Somebody in Boots, Never Come Morning, The Neon Wilderness, The Man With the Golden Arm, Chicago: City on the Make, A Walk On the Wild Side (actually in a three-book Algren volume put out by the Quality Paperback Book Club in the 1990s), Who Lost an American?, Conversations With Nelson Algren, The Last Carousel, and Nonconformity. Plus Bettina Drew's biography, Nelson Algren: A Life On the Wild Side (I haven't read either of the biographies by Mary Wisniewski or Colin Asher.)

How many of these have I read?
All of them. The only Algren books I haven't read are Notes From a Sea Diary, The Devil's Stocking, and Entrapment (plus a few other minor posthumous volumes). I don't really regret any of my omissions. I've browsed The Devil's Stocking (his posthumously-published novelization of the Hurricane Carter case) but the prose didn't grab me at all, and I've read the title story of Entrapment without being overwhelmed enough to buy the book during the few times I've seen it in stores.

How did I start reading Algren?
I first heard about Algren from a newspaper column by Mike Royko (another of my favorites - if this series survives long enough for me to reach the letter R, he will definitely be profiled here), who exuberantly praised The Neon Wilderness. I found a first edition of The Man With the Golden Arm a few years later for the ridiculous price of $7.50 (yes, this was way back in the ancient 1980s, but even then it was a great price), read it, and was hooked. I've read Golden Arm four or five times, and several of the others multiple times. Besides the brilliance of his early books, I was also drawn in by his reputation as a great Chicago writer; I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and lived in the city for five or six years, and both of my parents grew up in the city, so Chicago has endlessly fascinated me.

General impressions...
I think Algren could have been one of the greatest writers America has ever produced, but to me he instead holds the dubious distinction of America's most squandered literary talent. The second through fifth books noted above are nothing short of brilliant: gritty yet beautiful, angry yet thoughtful, brutal yet funny; he was the first recipient of the National Book Award, in 1950, for Golden Arm. But after City On the Make, for a variety of artistic and personal reasons, his career went sharply downhill for the last thirty years of his life. His first book during the downhill, A Walk on the Wild Side (1956), is actually one of his better-known books (or at least the title is well known, thanks to Lou Reed, one of his admirers) but made little impression on me. (And I was even less impressed years later, when I read somewhere that Wild Side was basically a rewrite of his first book, Somebody In Boots - which was pretty bad - that was instigated by his publisher, looking for a big payday.) The Last Carousel had some good moments, including a couple of horseracing short stories which suggest that Algren still had a good horseracing novel in him during the late 1950s and early 1960s had he bothered to put in the work.

If you've never read Algren, then you should start with...
The Man With the Golden Arm. Followed by City On the Make, The Neon Wilderness and Never Come Morning.

If I had to get rid of one Algren book, it would be...
The three-book QPB volume, since I already own Golden Arm and The Neon Wilderness (the other books collected there), and won't ever read Wild Side again.

July 2, 2020 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...with no tingle of imminent reopening.”

Alan Hollinghurst, on driving through London for the first time since the virus lockdown:

“It was the townscape of five in the morning, but stilled further, with no tingle of imminent reopening. Walkers were scarce, and if there was traffic it was a junction or two ahead – the drive was really too easy and unimpeded: silent squares, long vistas down cross streets, slid by too quickly to be absorbed. So I stopped and parked and sat for a long moment staring at an ordinary street, shuttered shops, two locked restaurants, a lightless pub, while the little aesthetic insights and ecstasies of the lockdown experience tried to hold their own against the unignorable sadness.”

June 14, 2020 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Books that made me

(Since I highly doubt that The Guardian will ever feature me in their Books that made me series, I have borrowed their template and interviewed myself.)

The book I am currently reading
Ben Katchor’s graphic novel Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer, for what I believe is the third time. During trying times like these, I find myself turning back to old favorites like Katchor and his alter ego Knipl.

The book that changed my life
Probably Division Street: America, by Studs Terkel, the first book of his that I read (with many others following later). Terkel treated his oral history subjects with such fairness and empathy, even those that he clearly didn’t agree with. In meticulously exploring the everyday lives of his subjects, he taught me to be curious about the people around me, something that doesn’t come naturally to an introvert like myself.

The book I wish I’d written
Anything from Nelson Algren at his 1942-51 peak (never mind the rest of his lamentable career), or anything that Kent Haruf ever wrote. See below.

The book that had the greatest influence on my writing
I’m tempted to name any one of three or four books by Algren, my literary hero, but my writing has none of the dark humor or grit of his great early work. Instead I think it has to be Haruf’s Plainsong, or, really, any of his novels. The way he conjured up, over the course of those six novels, the fictional small town of Holt, Colorado and its struggling but optimistic people leaves me in envious awe. In my fiction, I find myself endlessly trying to write the story of Midwestern small towns that inevitably pale in comparison to Holt.

The book that is most underrated
I guess “underrated” can mean the same thing as “unknown”, so I’ll go with Ander Monson’s idiosyncratic and quietly devastating novel-in-stories, Other Electricities. The book got a fair amount of indie buzz when it came out in 2005, but seems somewhat invisible now, which is a shame. It’s a truly beautiful book.

The book that changed my mind
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown. I’m a proud University of Illinois alumnus who once truly revered the school’s former symbol, Chief Illiniwek (which wasn’t overtly racist, but still a simplistic stereotype). Of course I knew that Native Americans had long been exploited by white settlers hungry for land and westward expansion, but until I read Brown’s book I had no idea how severe that exploitation was (enough so that “exploitation” is too mild of a term), and how much white people like me owe Native Americans. No longer supporting Chief Illiniwek  was the very least I could do. The school stopped using Illiniwek several years ago, and I don’t miss it at all.

The last book that made me cry
The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank. My then-high schooler daughter admonished me a few years ago for not having read the book. Of course I was indirectly familiar with Anne’s life, as I suspect most literary-minded people over the age of twenty are, but for some reason I had never read it. (My high school seemed to have bypassed most of the near-standard texts that are required reading for most other high schoolers.) Even though I knew her fate beforehand, reading the book still brought this stoic to tears.

The last book that made me laugh
I don’t read many comic novels, so this goes back a few years, but I clearly remember laughing my ass off while reading Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis - especially the epic morning-after, hangover-from-hell scene. Which always makes me think of the Beat Farmers’ song “Lost Weekend” (“I wish somebody’d tell me/Just who or what I did/Why’s this ring on my finger/And who’s that screaming kid?”)

The book I couldn’t finish
I usually approach new books warily, trying to get a feel for what they’re all about, and whether I'll like them or not, so once I finally start a book it’s very rare that I fail to finish. But something about Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy just didn’t connect with me at all. I stopped reading it recently after finishing the first section, in order to move on to another book that I was eagerly anticipating, and probably won’t ever return.

The book I’m most ashamed not to have read
Nothing really comes to mind. Every year I observe my Summer of Classics, when I read nothing but classics that I somehow missed during my younger years. Sometimes the result has been earthshaking (1984, The Grapes of Wrath), but just as often the result has been “Meh.” There have been enough of the latter that I no longer worry if I haven’t read a book that everyone says is great.

The book I give as a gift
Where do I even start? I give books almost exclusively as Christmas gifts to my family. I like to think they appreciate the books I give them, but if they don't, being Midwestern Swedes, they’re too polite to say so. One year I gave everyone a copy of Haruf’s Our Souls at Night, his final, perfect novel. Other than that, the book I’ve probably given more than any other is Knut Hamsun’s brilliant Hunger, my favorite book.

The book I’d most like to be remembered for
I’m tempted to evoke Frank Lloyd Wright, who when once asked what he thought was his favorite work, replied, “Oh, my dear boy. Why, the next one, of course.” But with my pitiable lack of productivity, I’m not sure there will ever be a next book. So instead I’ll say Wheatyard, my debut novel. If I never publish another book, I’ll be happy with my writing career, because I’m so thoroughly proud of that one.

My earliest reading memory
A baseball card of Ken Hubbs, former infielder for the Chicago Cubs. Hubbs died in a plane crash early in his promising career, and Topps issued a special In Memoriam card in his honor. Not reading yet, I asked my older brother and sister to read me the text from the back of the card so many times that one of them finally got fed up and said, “Why don’t you read it yourself?” I went off and tried to do just that, and eventually succeeded. I was three or four years old at the time.

My comfort read
I don’t re-read the Sherlock Holmes stories nearly as much as I should, but since I first read them as a child they’ve never been far from my mind. The brilliant intellect of Holmes, the infinite patience of Watson, the foggy, grimy London streets (oh, to have been a Baker Street Irregular!), the thrilling plots, the denouement that somehow never feels over-explained. I know that Holmes will always be on my shelf waiting for me, when I need him.

May 2, 2020 in Books, Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)


“The novelist works neither to correct nor to condone, not at all to comfort, but to make what’s told alive.” - Eudora Welty

April 16, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


“If you are a creative person and you’re honest, you realise how little you know. The depth of your ignorance is something you are constantly aware of – knowledge is a bottomless pit and you keep finding new things. I’m forever coming up against a question I can’t answer. And that’s what keeps me going.” - Desmond Morris

April 11, 2020 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)


“We cast a shadow on something wherever we stand, and it is no good moving from place to place to save things; because the shadow always follows. Choose a place where you won’t do harm — yes, choose a place where you won’t do very much harm, and stand in it for all you are worth, facing the sunshine.” - E.M. Forster, A Room With a View

March 22, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Irish March

A belated start to my Irish March - the month snuck up on me (came in like a lamb?) partly due to doing much less reading on our Caribbean cruise at the end of February than I had anticipated. Starting tomorrow, I’ll be reading Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy and John McGahern’s By the Lake. It’s been a few years since I last read McGahern (I loved Amongst Women), and am eager to read him again. 

March 10, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks—which seemed to the family AGES!”

Hans Christian Andersen: diva, houseguest from hell, and unrequited bromancer of Charles Dickens. 

March 5, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"There were no bands greeting them at the stations..."

The opening paragraphs of Hamlin Garland's "The Return of a Private" (from Main-Traveled Roads):

The nearer the train drew toward La Crosse, the soberer the little group of "vets" became. On the long way from New Orleans they had beguiled tedium with jokes and friendly chaff; or with planning with elaborate detail what they were going to do now, after the war. A long journey, slowly, irregularly, yet persistently pushing northward. When they entered on Wisconsin territory they gave a cheer, and another when they reached Madison, but after that they sank into a dumb expectancy. Comrades dropped off at one or two points beyond, until there were only four or five left who were bound for La Crosse County.

Three of them were gaunt and brown, the fourth was gaunt and pale, with signs of fever and ague upon him. One had a great scar down his temple, one limped, and they all had unnaturally large, bright eyes, showing emaciation. There were no bands greeting them at the stations, no banks of gayly dressed ladies waving handkerchiefs and shouting "Bravo!" as they came in on the caboose of a freight train into the towns that had cheered and blared at them on their way to war. As they looked out or stepped upon the platform for a moment, while the train stood at the station, the loafers looked at them indifferently. Their blue coats, dusty and grimy, were too familiar now to excite notice, much less a friendly word. They were the last of the army to return, and the loafers were surfeited with such sights.

Such a contrast between the onset of war, when an excited public rallies behind the departing troops, and the aftermath, when the public has grown weary and indifferent to their return. Reading this, I couldn't help being reminded of the closing verses of Eric Bogle's "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda" ("And the band played Waltzing Matilda/As they carried us down the gangway/But nobody cheered/They just stood and stared/And they turned their faces away"), which was so brilliantly covered by the Pogues.

March 5, 2020 in Books, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...a surgeon operating on the fluid body of time."

In 1931, Walker Evans and his friend Lincoln Kirstein set out to document in photographs the Victorian architecture of Kirstein's native Boston. As related in James Mellow's Walker Evans, Kirstein admitted their process was complicated...

"...even aside from the actual sighting, clicking etc. of the camera itself. The sun had to be just right and more often than not we would have to come back to the same place two or even three times for the light to be hard and bright. I felt like a surgeon's assistant to Walker. Cleaning up neatly after him, and he a surgeon operating on the fluid body of time. Some satisfaction in exhausting a given locale of its definite formal atmosphere - so rich, exuberant, gracious and redolent of a distinguished past..."

That meticulous nature - returning several times to get the lighting just right - is one of the things that sets Evans' photographs apart, into the realm of greatness.

February 20, 2020 in Art, Books, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Now time must use him.”

In Ursula K. Le Guin's "Brothers and Sisters" (collected in The Orsinian Tales) Kostant Fabbre has been disabled by a rockslide at the quarry where he works.

Kostant Fabbre was home, and alone all day now that he was able to get across a room on crutches. How he spent these vast silent days no one considered, probably least of all himself. An active man, the strongest and most intelligent worker in the quarries, a crew foreman since he was twenty-three, he had had no practice at all at idleness, or solitude. He had always used his time to the full in work. Now time must use him. He watched it at work upon him without dismay or impatience, carefully, like an apprentice watching a master. He employed all his strength to learn his new trade, that of weakness. The silence in which he passed the days clung to him now as the limestone dust had used to cling to his skin.

Really good book. I'm enjoying it immensely.

February 11, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


“At first going to hotels seemed exciting and glamorous, but now I find it depressing and lonely. Essentially they are all pretty much the same; there are better or worse. You do your thing and you come back to your hotel. And you get up the next day and it is like you’ve never been there at all. It was interesting to see if I could make something out of that seemingly dead time.” - Eimear McBride

I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a hotel novel, but don’t have enough experience with hotels to make the setting convincing. (I’ve always been more homebody than traveler.) I think the only hotel novel I’ve read is Jim Thompson’s Wild Town.

January 26, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


The whole season has come to this:
a holding on so that the letting go
might seem to us like chance.
- Frank Ormsby

January 25, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

The poetry of football

I was struck by a quote from Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola after yesterday’s 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace. Adding some line breaks creates something almost like poetry:


We Arrive Few
Pep Guardiola

We tried to do everything
How many cross and arrive there.
We arrive few.
The spirit was there
We tried and we tried.
It was a pity at the end
To drop two points in this way
But that is football
And we have to learn
From these situations.
It was a tight game
And unfortunately
We could not win it.

January 19, 2020 in Books, Sports | Permalink | Comments (0)

”An empty L, lit by a similar glow, rattles by like massive links on the chain of a ghost.”

Stuart Dybek, from "The Caller" (collected in Paper Lantern: Love Stories, 2014):

The vigil candle at St. Ann's will melt into smoke, though at this moment, after midnight, its tiny flame has the locked church to itself and in the darkness emits a numinous green light that has the stained-glass windows facing the L tracks on Leavitt glowing from the inside out. If a soul flitted mothlike, lost in a once-familiar neighborhood, the light might attract it. An empty L, lit by a similar glow, rattles by like massive links on the chain of a ghost. Blocks away the ring of a phone echoes in a musty airshaft, and all along the street graffitied pay phones, most of them out of order and all of them obsolete and scheduled to be torn out, beging ringing. And then the steeple bells of three churches toll.

Plenty of lovely touches there that convey a Catholic church and the Chicago streets outside. The kitchen in my first city apartment had a window that looked into just such a musty airshaft; the window was painted shut and I could never quite see all the way down to the bottom. I always wondered what might be found there.

January 15, 2020 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

“Yes to man as a struggler amid illusions..."

Poetry's poem of the day is an excerpt from Carl Sandburg's book-length The People, Yes, which I first learned of in Harry Lewis Golden's biography of the poet. The People, Yes is on my list despite its 300-page length (some of which is undoubtedly introduction and explanatory notes) - Sandburg is such a joy to read that even a few hundred pages of his verse will surely seem to fly past.

January 6, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

”I’ve squeezed my middle age dry...”

Tove Jansson, writing in 1997 about writer’s block:

What did I tell those kids who wrote and asked how one becomes an author? It was something like write about what you’ve lived, about what you know …

But I’ve done that. I’ve squeezed my middle age dry, and when I got seriously old, I did what I could with that, too, but then I tried to write about really young people, and that didn’t work out so well. And the kids wrote again and asked, And what do we do now, and I said write about your fears, and they did it, at once, and wanted feedback as soon as possible.

And what do I fear above all? To be a sore loser, to be second best. But this is not something one writes about.

Elsewhere in the piece, she parenthetically ponders, “I wonder how it is for other people.” To which I would respond, “For other writers, exactly the same.”

January 1, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Books Given, Books Received

Books continue to dominate my Christmas gift giving. Here’s what I gave this year, plus a handful of fine books that I got in return.

Lee Bey: Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago's South Side
Natalie Y. Moore: The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation
Benjamin Sells: The Tunnel Under the Lake: The Engineering Marvel That Saved Chicago
Bryan Smith: The Breakaway: The Inside Story of the Wirtz Family Business and the Chicago Blackhawks
Edna O’Brien: Girl
Ursula LeGuin: The Last Interview and Other Conversations
Justin Kern (editor): The Milwaukee Anthology
Tim Hennessy (editor): Milwaukee Noir
Anu Partanen: The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life
Tarjei Vesaas: The Ice Palace
Jay Ryan: 100 Posters/134 Squirrels
Miriam Toews: Women Talking
Gillian G. Gaar: Nirvana's In Utero

Alex Kotlowitz: An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago
Amy Bizzarri: 111 Places in Chicago That You Must Not Miss
Lisa Beard: Abandoned Illinois: The Secrets Behind the Spaces

December 31, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Good Reading 2019

As always, this best-of is from the books I read in 2019, not ones that were necessarily published in 2019 - though Hemon's book did come out this year.

1. Aleksandar Hemon: My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You
2. Ronald Reng: A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke
3. Kim Cooper: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
4. Mike Royko: I May Be Wrong, But I Doubt It
5. William Trevor: Reading Turgenev
6. David Masciotra: Barack Obama: Invisible Man
7. Joseph G. Peterson: Gunmetal Blue
8. Richard Russo: Empire Falls
9. Carl Sandburg: Cornhuskers
10. Patrick Michael Finn: A Martyr for Suzy Kosasovich

Honorable Mention: Jane Gardam: Old Filth; Giano Cromley: What We Build Upon the Ruins; Jeff Sypeck: The Beallsville Calendar; Lou Reed: The Last Interview and Other Conversations

Re-Readings: Knut Hamsun: Under the Autumn Star; Vilhelm Moberg: The Emigrants; Ander Monson: Other Electricities; Nelson Algren: The Man With the Golden Arm; George Ade: Artie: A Story of the Streets and Town; Marjane Satrapi: The Complete Persepolis



- Other than the top 14, it wasn’t quite a sterling year of reading, largely due to my Summer of Classics, with Moberg's Emigrants saga being such a letdown and the last two books of the saga being abandoned, and replaced only by two good-but-not-great Hamsun novellas.

- The top 3 were very strong, with Hemon at his very best, Reng movingly telling the story of a tragic German goalkeeper, and Cooper writing one of the best 33 1/3 Series books I've read so far, about Neutral Milk Hotel's brilliant, idiosyncratic album. And Royko was quite good too, especially his pieces about race in the aftermath of the MLK assassination.

- It was somewhat bittersweet to read I May Be Wrong, But I Doubt It, which is the last book of Royko's that I've read that was published during his lifetime. I'll never again read, for the first time, a book that was published according to his wishes (or mostly according to his wishes), and not just the product of some publisher rehashing previously published or substandard pieces.

- Another good year for writer-friends (Masciotra, Peterson, Finn, Cromley, Sypeck). I hope to someday write the greatest Joliet novel ever, but until then that honorific belongs to Patrick Finn.

- I attended more literary events this year than ever before: Joe Peterson's launch party for 99 Bottles (which will undoubtedly make my 2020 list) at the Green Mill, Hemon's launch of My Parents..., a panel discussion at City Lit Books about the Illinois chapter of the Federal Writers Project, a discussion by Stuart Dybek and Dominic Pacyga about Polish Chicago, the annual Chicago Literary Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and a reading by Chris L. Terry at Columbia College.

- Lots of re-readings this year, including The Man With the Golden Arm (the fifth or sixth time I've read that great book), and my first (and certainly not my last) return to Monson's weird, tragic and starkly beautiful Other Electricities, which will certainly go down in history as the best book ever written about Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

2018 List
2017 List
2016 List
2015 List
2014 List
2013 List
2012 List
2011 List
2010 List
2009 List
2008 List
2007 List
2006 List
2005 List
2004 List
2003 List

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


“He just signed those cashier’s checks smooth as glass and went down and got the enchiladas the Mexican cook had left him.” - Ted Binion

Bergstrom’s story sounds like it might have come straight from the fertile imagination of Tom Waits.

December 27, 2019 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

Ward Just

Ward Just has passed away, at age 84. I hadn’t realized he was such an esteemed war correspondent during the Vietnam War.

“Perhaps no reporter working for a major daily paper wrote as well from Vietnam or with as much subtlety and grace as he did,” fellow Vietnam correspondent David Halberstam wrote in his book “The Powers That Be.” “His were stories of men at war, and they were wonderful, in the best sense timeless.”

His fiction has been hit or miss for me, but I loved his coming-of-age novel An Unfinished Season. He was a Chicago-area native, having grown up in Waukegan and Lake Forest.

December 23, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


“The personal correspondence of writers feeds on leftover energy. There is also the element of lavishness, of enjoying the fact that they are throwing away one of their better efforts, for the chances of any given letter’s surviving is 50-50, at most. And there is the element of confidence – of the relaxed backhand stroke that can place the ball anywhere that it pleases the writer to have it go.” - William Maxwell

December 8, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...a cheering effect on the citizenry.”

Richard Russo, from Empire Falls (2001):

For the last several years, the Gazette had taken to running old photos of Empire Falls and its denizens during their glory days. The series was called "The Way It Was," and earlier in the summer they'd run a photo of the Empire Grill, circa 1960, with old Roger Sperry looking like he belonged on a lobster boat instead of behind a cash register, and a lunch counter full of working men extending into the background behind him, and the restaurant's grainy, shadowy booths full of customers. A sign on the back wall advertised a hamburg steak with grilled onions, mashed potatoes, a vegetable and roll for a buck and a quarter. One of the younger men pictured at the counter still came in and always sat at the same end stool, if it was available. For reasons that mystified Miles, the series apparently had a cheering effect on the citizenry. People actually seemed to enjoy recalling that on a Saturday afternoon forty years ago Empire Falls was hustling with people and cars and commerce, whereas now, of course, you could strafe it with automatic weapons and not harm a soul.

It's mostly (though not entirely) coincidental that I happen to be reading Empire Falls at the same time as I'm writing a story that's centered on a diner in the downtown of a struggling small city. I'm not consciously incorporating aspects of Russo's novel, though I suppose some of it might be seeping into my story.

December 5, 2019 in Books, Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

“It’s not the best book I’ve ever read.”

The book that changed my life
Native Son by Richard Wright. I read it when I was 20. Nobody had ever given me a book written by anyone who looked like me. Some part of me didn’t think it was legitimate to think of myself as a writer. It’s not the best book I’ve ever read. It’s not my favourite. But it’s the old saying: “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” And I saw it for the first time that this was possible.

This is Caryl Phillips, reflecting on his reading life. I had never heard of Phillips until hearing his thoughts on “the English canon” on a recent Guardian podcast. I suspect he’s under-published here in the States (thus partly excusing my ignorance) but I will certainly be on the lookout for his stuff. 

November 29, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


“I have nothing against domestic stories, I wrote plenty of them. But they are no longer enough in the world we live in. I have to try and look outside my own fence.” - Edna O’Brien

I agree...even as my latest fiction project (which should - should - launch in a few days) will stay inside my own fence - only the second story I’ve set in Joliet. 

November 27, 2019 in Books, Fiction | Permalink | Comments (2)


“The culture had already started to shift halfway through the writing of the book, and I suddenly started to think, ‘Oh, maybe this book will be received differently’, because black women are suddenly on the agenda in a way that we haven’t been before apart from a few token gestures. So perhaps this book will find its readership.” - Bernardine Evaristo, on Girl, Woman, Other

November 24, 2019 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...a checkered canvas...”

A few weeks ago, I attended the 2019 induction ceremony for the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, which honored Frank Marshall Davis, Salima Rivera and Sam Greenlee. A fine evening. I really like Davis’ “Chicago’s Congo”, and especially this passage:

Across the street from the Ebenezer Baptist Church,
      women with cast-iron faces peddle love
In the flat above William’s Funeral Home
      six couples sway to the St. Louis Blues
Two doors away from the South Side Bank
      three penny-brown men scorch their guts with four bit
Dr. Jackson buys a Lincoln
His neighbor buys second hand, shoes
      —the artist who paints this town must
      use a checkered canvas ...

I hear echoes there of Nelson Algren's description of Chicago as being Janus-like and two-faced. Algren and Davis were contemporaries (born four years apart) and both were involved in the Federal Writers Project, so I assume they knew each other.

November 11, 2019 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (2)

Remembrance Day

Wilfred Owen, from “The Send-Off”:

Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.

I am fortunate to never have had any loved ones (nor, as far as I know, any recent ancestors) killed in war. But I respect those who have made the sacrifice, and those left behind.

November 11, 2019 in Books, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sinister vs. Dexterous

Merriam-Webster has an interesting piece on how left and right came to represent evil and good. The origins, not surprisingly, are Biblical.

The Book of Matthew describes how God will divide nations on the Day of Judgment, “as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats; and he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left,” with those on the right sent to the kingdom of Heaven and those on the left “cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.” Left-handed people comprise only 10 percent of the population, and the preference for the left hand demonstrated by the popular minority was attributed to demonic possession, leading to accusations of witchcraft.

By coincidence, I happened to read the M-W piece shortly after reading Benjamin Franklin’s witty essay, “A Petition of the Left Hand”, which was narrated by, yes, a left hand.

My dad was a proud lefthander (but not a political lefty - quite conservative), the only one in the family. I think he wished that one of his kids was lefthanded but, at the same time, I think he liked being unique.

November 6, 2019 in Books, History | Permalink | Comments (1)

Hostel of the Dead

The house that inspired James Joyce’s “The Dead” will be redeveloped as a 54-room hostel.

In the 1890s the writer’s maternal great-aunts ran a music school at the four-storey house, 15 Usher’s Island, and hosted Christmas parties that Joyce used as the scene for the story, a meditation on love, loss and identity.

Evergreen themes, it turns out, because last week city authorities announced a plan to turn the House of the Dead into a 54-room hostel, prompting an outcry that property deals were trashing culture and zombifying Ireland’s capital to make way for foreign tourists, students and tech workers.

What the hand-wringers conveniently ignore is that the house is in a derelict part of Dublin, and has been available for purchase by the city or Joyce-loving nonprofits for the past two years, but instead was allowed to languish and deteriorate.

I’m less concerned about the loss of Dublin’s “cultural heritage” than the fact that gentrification is rapidly making the city (and countless other cities around the world) unaffordable for artists to live in and create their art. The fact that the next James Joyce might never have the means or the spare time (away from the inevitable day job) to create the next masterpiece is the real tragedy here.

Cultural future is far more important than cultural heritage. 

November 3, 2019 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (2)


“I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain.” - James Baldwin

October 20, 2019 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

“The Lighthouse” unfinished story fragment by Edgar Allan Poe, from 1849:

Besides, I wish to be alone . . . . . . It is strange that I never observed, until this moment, how dreary a sound that word has — “alone” ! I could half fancy there was some peculiarity in the echo of these cylindrical walls — but oh, no! — this is all nonsense.

Poe could have gone so many different ways with this: a powerful storm overwhelming the island (note the comment about how high the sea runs there) and flooding out the cellar; the lighthouse crumbling, being built only on chalk; a man who at first cherishes solitude slowly descending into madness from his isolation; even Neptune the dog meeting an unfortunate end.

October 19, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...his father didn’t believe in touching the savings."

Mike Royko’s favorite everyman, his fictional boyhood pal Slats Grobnik, was a true creature of the the city. An actual news story about suburban Arlington Heights' banning the playing of sidewalk hopscotch lead to the column “Sidewalk Slats”, which includes this gem of a passage:

The best place for a child to play and learn is on a sidewalk. It is his natural environment. If you take a child into the woods, he can fall out of a tree and break a leg and ruin the weekend.

Nobody liked sidewalks more than I did, except Slats Grobnik. To this day, if he walks on grass for more than five minutes, his feet blister. His attitude towards lawns and gardens is summed up when he looks sick and says: “Worms live in that stuff.”

When the rest of us would go to Humboldt Park, Slats would shake his head and stay behind, saying: “Anything that can hide behind a fireplug is small enough for me to handle, but how do I know what kind of creep is in the bushes?” He feared being kidnapped and held for ransom because he knew his father didn’t believe in touching the savings.

When we built a tree house, Slats wouldn’t come up. He said, “If people was meant to live in trees, the squirrels would slip some nuts to the city building-inspector.”

Collected in I May Be Wrong, But I Doubt It! (1968).

October 17, 2019 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)