“To oppose vulgarity is inevitably to be vulgar.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, from The Left Hand of Darkness:

To oppose something is to maintain it. 

They say here "all roads lead to Mishnory." To be sure, if you turn your back on Mishnory and walk away from it, you are still on the Mishnory road. To oppose vulgarity is inevitably to be vulgar. You must go somewhere else; you must have another goal; then you walk a different road. 

Yegey in the Hall of the Thirty-Three today: "I unalterably oppose this blockade of grain-exports to Karhide, and the spirit of competition which motivates it." Right off, but he will not get off the Mishnory road going that way. He must offer an alternative. Orgoreyn and Karhide both must stop following the road they're on, in either direction; they must go somewhere else, and break the circle.

Reading this passage, I couldn't help thinking of the 2016 presidential election, and what I think was Hillary Clinton's greatest flaw: she talked endlessly about how terrible Donald Trump was, and how utterly she opposed him and his worldview, but not nearly enough about what she stood for. By opposing Trump, in Le Guin's conception, Hillary maintained him — legitimized him. Message to Democratic politicians, in 2020 and beyond: don't tell me what you're against; tell me what you're for.

December 14, 2018 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)


“The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.” - Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

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


“The average magazine editor’s conception of good verse is verse that will fill out a page. No editor is looking for long poetry. He wants something light and convenient. Consequently, a Milton might be living in Chicago today and be unable to find an outlet for his verse… In other words, the modern English speaking world says ‘Shut up!’ to its poets, a condition so unnatural, so destructive to new inspiration, that I believe it can be only temporary and absurd.” - Harriet Monroe

I admire and agree with her opinion, while also admitting that, as much as I love the city and its writers, there obviously weren’t any unpublushed John Miltons in Chicago in 1911.

November 19, 2018 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...of a boy who died at nineteen..."

Joan Didion, on visiting the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in 1966:

I would go up there quite a bit. If I walked to the rim of the crater I could see the city, look down over Waikiki and the harbor and the jammed arterials, but up there it was quiet, and high enough into the rain forest so that a soft mist falls most of the day. One afternoon a couple came and left three plumeria leis on the grave of a California boy who had been killed, at nineteen, in 1945. The leis were already wilting by the time the woman finally placed them on the grave, because for a long time she only stood there and twisted them in her hands. On the whole I am able to take a very long view of death, but I think a great deal about what there is to remember, twenty-one years later, of a boy who died at nineteen. I saw no one else there but the men who cut the grass and the men who dig new graves, for they are bringing in bodies now from Vietnam. The graves filled last week and the week before that and even last month do not yet have stones, only plastic identification cards, streaked by the mist and splattered with mud. The earth is raw and trampled in that part of the crater, but the grass grows fast, up there in the rain cloud.

(From "Letter from Paradise, 21° 19' N., 157° 52' W.", in Slouching Towards Bethlehem.)

November 12, 2018 in Books, Current Affairs, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

“A nowhere place that was easy to loathe.”

Guy Gunaratne, on the suburban London of his youth:

Neasden was never pretty – an unremarkable concrete outcrop between a dual carriageway and the North Circular. Somewhere on the way to Ikea. It’s the sort of place new immigrants land before moving to Kilburn, Cricklewood or Wembley. As a teenager, these neighbouring areas seemed far more compelling. Wembley had a Burger King. Cricklewood had a High Road and once, Doris Lessing. Kilburn had, for a time, Zadie Smith. What did Neasden have? It had a roundabout with a museum. A Tesco Express and a Tennessee Fried Chicken.

So many of these weekly Guardian pieces (all of which I love) tell of idyllic rural upbringings, with lonely moors, rushing streams and bucolic farmland, that reading this account of bland suburbia is actually quite refreshing. After all, more of us are from places like this than from the country.

And the funny thing is that, despite Gunaratne’s youthful envy, I would guess that people who grew up in Wembley, Cricklewood and Kilburn were probably just as disparaging about their own hometowns. They might have even envied Neasden for its Tennessee Fried Chicken. 

November 11, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Even more Gorey


This is quite wonderful - especially the cat episode. The Wickeys did a great job of capturing Gorey's drawing style.

Back in the mid-'90s, a student filmmaker named Christopher Seufert began to cast around for projects. A native of Cape Cod, Seufert kept hearing about Gorey, who lived a few miles away in the town of Yarmouth. After reading up on his work, Seufert arranged a meeting, gained Gorey’s trust, and began work on a film. Then, Gorey died.

Now, some 17 years later, Seufert’s documentary, tentatively titled “Gorey,” is close to completion. The animation seen here — animation that, like the rest of the series, is the work of son and father team Benjamin and Jim Wickey — was created from audio recordings of Gorey. These particular audio bits didn’t fit in Seufert’s film but we found them too delightful to just ignore.

I'm really looking forward to Seufert's documentary.

November 7, 2018 in Books, Film | Permalink | Comments (0)

Ben Hecht and Paul Dailing

Henry Justin Smith, on Ben Hecht, in the preface to A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago:

It was clear that he had sat up nights with those stories. He thumbed them over as though he hated to let them go. They were the first fruits of his Big Idea — the idea that just under the edge of the news as commonly understood, the news often flatly and unimaginatively told, lay life; that in this urban life there dwelt the stuff of literature, not hidden in remote places, either, but walking the downtown streets, peering from the windows of sky scrapers, sunning itself in parks and boulevards. He was going to be its interpreter.

Of course, that's hyperbole - nobody could ever be the interpreter of an entire city, especially one as vast and complex as Chicago. But Hecht did succeed in his inevitably narrowed focus - the book is wonderful.

I'm reminded of this quote from the penultimate post in Paul Dailing's blog 1,001 Chicago Afternoons, which chronicles (in 1,001 posts from April 2012 through last Friday) his encounters in seemingly every corner of the city, and hundreds of points in between. Dailing was heavily inspired by Hecht's premise, and in some sense took it further than Hecht (who gave up Chicago and journalism after only a few years, leaving for the bright lights of New York and Hollywood) ever did. I won't pretend that I intently read even a fraction of Dailing's posts - that's a ton of content, even spread over six and a half years - but those that I did read were never less than worthwhile. I'm tempted to read all the way through the blog, start to finish, or wait for what would be even better - the entire blog compiled into a single book.

November 5, 2018 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

”...nothing he could see, maybe only make-believe...”

So she took a paper napkin off the bar,
spit on it, and told him to hold still
while she carefully lifted his glasses,
leaving him half blind, and wiped
something off just above his left
cheekbone. "There," she said, handing
him back his glasses, "I got it," and even
with his glasses on, what she showed
him was nothing he could see, maybe
only make-believe. He thought, "Better
get out of here before it's too late," but
suspected too late was what he wanted.

- Philip Levine, from "Of Love and Other Disasters", collected in News of the World.

Interesting to note that The New Yorker published a slightly different version of this poem, which changed a handful of words here and there, most notably that "suspected" in the final line, for which the magazine version substituted "knew." The change of just one word leads to significantly different meanings. I prefer "suspected" - it suggests the man doesn't know exactly what he wants, but realizes that his worst impulses will probably lead him somewhere or with someone he shouldn't. And he's going there anyway.

Incidentally, while Barnes and Noble's selection usually leaves much to be desired, during a visit this weekend to the Bolingbrook store I was quite pleased to find and browse through both this Levine book and William Carlos Williams' Paterson.

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


“Literature is news that stays news.” - Ezra Pound

To answer Coe’s question: no. Fiction isn’t journalism. Fiction is about the long view, as he mentions. If a fiction writer succeeds in being timely and up-to-the-minute, many if not all of the references will be hopelessly dated by the time the book comes out, unless one happens to write about someone who ultimately turns out to be timeless, like Churchill or FDR. In just a few years, I doubt many people will remember or care who Nigel Farage or Michael Gove were. 

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



In honor of Halloween, Cooper Hewitt features The Gorey Alphabet, by the delightfully macabre Edward Gorey. I’m a huge fan of Gorey. 

October 31, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Opening Lines

“Obedient to the social law that makes the moot guest the early bird at a tea party, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Lockman were the first to arrive in Utopia.”
- Mary McCarthy, The Oasis

“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.)

October 5, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (5)


“I only know that I will never again trust my life, my future, to the whims of men, in companies or out. Never again will their judgment have anything to do with what I think I can do. That was the wonderful liberation of being divorced and having children. I did not mind failure, ever, but I minded thinking that someone male knew better.” - Toni Morrison

October 4, 2018 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Rebecca Solnit, on breaking the silence.

From "A Short History of Silence," in The Mother of All Questions

Speech, words, voice sometimes change things in themselves when they bring about inclusion, recognition, the rehumanization that undoes dehumanization. Sometimes they are the only preconditions to changing rules, laws, regimes to bring about justice and liberty. Sometimes just being able to speak, to be heard, to be believed are crucial parts of membership in a family, a community, a society. Sometimes our voices break those things apart; sometimes those things are prisons. And then when words break through unspeakability, what was tolerated by society sometimes becomes intolerable. Those not impacted can fail to see or feel the impact of segregation or police brutality or domestic violence: stories bring home the trouble and make it unavoidable.

Solnit also has stirring words of praise for Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, in The Guardian. "What was tolerated by society sometimes becomes intolerable." We can hope.

October 2, 2018 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

“…the country breathed a timeless life…”

The opening paragraphs of Isak Dinesen's short story "Sorrow-Acre" (from Winter's Tales):

The low, undulating Danish landscape was silent and serene, mysteriously wide-awake, in the hour before sunrise. There was not a cloud in the pale sky, not a shadow along the dim, pearly fields, hills and woods. The mist was lifting from the valleys and hollows, the air was cool, the grass and the foliage dripping wet with the morning dew. Unwatched by the eyes of man, and undisturbed by his activity, the country breathed a timeless life, to which language was inadequate.

All the same a human race had lived on this land for a thousand years, had been formed by it soil and weathers, and had marked it with its thoughts, so that now no one could tell where the existence of the one ceased and that of the other began. The thin grey line of a road, winding across the plain and up and down hills, was the fixed materialization of human longing, and of the human notion that it were better to in one place than another.

Lovely beginning, but unfortunately Dinesen goes on like this for more than two pages, taking forever to narrow the focus and actually start telling the story. And I'm not expecting the story itself to move much more quickly than this.

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


“Religion, teachers, women, drugs, the road, fame, money… nothing gets me high and offers relief from the suffering like blackening pages, writing.” - Leonard Cohen

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


"There’s a very particular charm and friendliness that permeates the entire region: I find myself saying 'Excuse me' when someone bumps into me, and I think that’s emblematic of the Midwestern experience. The flip side: that outward friendliness remains, even when the inward thoughts are not so friendly, resulting in a weird, tense, passive aggression, where you’ll tell someone 'We really need to hang out sometime,' even though you’d be happy never seeing them again, except you know you’ll see them in the same grocery store every week for the rest of your natural, God-given lives." - John LaPine

September 26, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

“...a poise between subjectivity and objectivity.”

Nuala O'Faolain, writing in Are You Somebody?: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman, about teaching at University College Dublin in the early 1960s:

I was a contented product of the old system. And I was too young to respect students so young. They were right to complain that they had no more input into the way things were done than they'd had at secondary school. But they weren't very different, themselves, to my eyes, from secondary school pupils. I had a messianic belief in the capacity of the academic study of English literature to change a person utterly. But all but a few of the students thought "doing English" was grinding out essays on the three stages of Wordsworth's relationship with nature or the role of the Fool in King Lear. I knew myself that "doing English" was easy on one level. But I wanted my students to do something hard, to learn to hold on to the self while going out of the self to enter into the literature that someone else had made - to find a poise between subjectivity and objectivity.

September 24, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“God forgive me!”

This is certainly a strange entry in Samuel Pepys' diary for September 12, 1665, which happens to have been exactly three hundred years prior to my date of birth. Though I'm glad to see that Pepys mentions Sir John Minnes, whose circumstances I pondered ("What happened to Sir Minnes?") and further explored ("The Decline and Likely Fall of Sir Minnes") a blog-lifetime ago. Apparently I gave up the quest on October 14, 2009, never quite having learned of his fate.

September 13, 2018 in Books, History | Permalink | Comments (0)


It looks like we can add John Steinbeck to the “Great Writer/Horrible Human Being” list. 

September 11, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)


“She put her head above the parapet I suspect in a thousand conversations when it was perilous to do so. She was one of those writers who wanted to take Ireland by the scruff of the neck and demand maturity of it, a maturity we are even now still just inching towards. I think of that generation as sometimes harsh and even half-ruined by existentialism and a sort of national despair. It must have been a horror to find yourself an intellectual in that Ireland. Yet she was an exception to that. She was the least despairing person.” - Sebastian Barry, on Val Mulkerns

September 11, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...everything seemed strangely to stand up vertically...”

"The scenery of Norway, amongst which she had made her first experience of the passion, contributed to the overpowering impression of it. The country was at its loveliest, the sky was blue, the bird-cherry flowered everywhere and filled the air with sweet and bitter fragrance, and the nights were so light that you could see to read at midnight. Jensine, in a crinoline and with an alpenstock, climbed many steep paths on her husband's arm - or alone, for she was strong and light-footed - she stood upon the summits, her clothes blown about her, and wondered and wondered. She had lived in Denmark, and a year in a pension in Lübeck, and her idea of the earth was that it must spread out horizontally, flat or undulating, before her feet. But in these mountains, everything seemed strangely to stand up vertically, like some great animal that rises on its hind legs - and you know not whether it is to play, or to crush you. She was higher than she had ever been, and the air went to her head like wine. Also wherever she looked there was running water, rushing from the sky-high mountains into the lakes, in silver rivulets or in roaring falls, rainbow-adorned - it was as if Nature itself was weeping, or laughing, aloud." - Isak Dinesen, from "The Pearls"

I first read this collection (Winter's Tales) during college in a Scandinavian literature class, but it didn't make much of an impression then, and I sold off the book sometime afterward. But after reading about the unabashed reverence of William Maxwell and Eudora Welty for Dinesen (especially Maxwell), I decided to give the book another try. I'm realizing now that it probably wasn't the sort of fiction I was into during my twenties, but this time around I'm enjoying it quite a bit. And that's only partly due to the change of scenery - to my Scandinavian homeland - after spending my summer in Welty's Mississippi.

As an aside, the protagonist has such a lovely name: Jensine, which is presumably the feminine form of Jens. I don’t remember ever seeing that name before.

September 4, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

”...she felt the world tremble...”

In "The Wanderers", the final story in Eudora Welty's The Golden Apples, the elderly Miss Katie Rainey is in her dying days.

Bleaching down by the roadside was a chair, an old chair she sold things from once, under the borrowed shade of the chinaberry across the road; but she didn't seem to want to sit down any more, or to be quite that near the trafficking. Clear up where she was, she felt the world tremble; day and night the loggers went by, to and from Morgan's Woods. That wore her out too. While she lived, she was going to wait - and she did wait, standing up - until Virgie her daughter, past forty now and too dressed up, came home to milk Bossy and Juliette the way she should. Virgie worked for the very people that were out depleting the woods, Mr. Nesbitt's company.

Plenty of interesting touches here: the woods, no longer an affordable luxury to the gentry of town, are being logged for timber; Katie, despite being a widow and mother of two, is always referred to as Miss Katie, not Mrs. Rainey; her daughter Virgie, immediately after coming home every night from her office job, has to milk (“too dressed up” and, as is mentioned later, still in her high heels) the two cows that remain from the herd that was once the Raineys' livelihood. Virgie, already "past forty" herself, is being courted by an even older man, yet can't make any commitment to him while Miss Katie is still alive, with Virgie's familial obligation to her mother still overriding any other considerations. Social propriety and tradition is still important to the people of Morgana, even as the world trembles and changes around them.

My Summer of Welty is winding down. After The Golden Apples, I'll read the handful of stories in Thirteen Stories that weren't in the earlier collections that I've read this summer. Her story collections aren't fully discrete, separate entities: there's a fair amount of overlap, with some stories appearing in more than one book. 

August 21, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


“Some weeks a writer’s brainwork yields about as much profit as a one-row strawberry patch in robin country.” - Pearl Swiggum

August 18, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


“A boy becomes a man when he discovers there are ways to make a mark in life other than burning his tire tread into the highway.” - Pearl Swiggum

August 12, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


“You may burn my books and the books of the best minds in Europe, but the ideas those books contain have passed through millions of channels and will go on.” - Helen Keller

August 7, 2018 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)


“I have to listen to music while I write, and usually I play just one song at a time. I repeat it all day, often for weeks on end. Months, even. There’s one song that I replayed up to 30,000 times during the ten years I was writing The Incendiaries. I love that song and its powers; I can’t tell you its name, lest it stop helping me. By obsessively replaying a single song at a time, I can, if I’m lucky, set the pitch. It gives me a place to start. The ritual of it, the repetition, lulls and quiets my anxious, everyday self. The ego goes silent, which lets my writing self emerge, and begin to sing. Even now, months after I last edited The Incendiaries, to play the song I can’t name is to be pulled back toward my novel, into my made-up town of Noxhurst. The still, quiet voice. That’s what I used to listen for, back when I was deeply religious: the still, quiet voice of God. I’ve lost that kind of faith, but I do believe in fiction’s voice, and in spending the rest of my life, or so I hope, listening for it.” R.O. Kwon 

Wow. As much as I love music, I don’t think there’s even one song that I would want to hear 30,000 times, especially not while I’m trying to focus on writing. This author’s powers of concentration must be far superior to mine. Even with a favorite song, after only about nine or ten listenings I’d be itching to cue up something else. 

July 30, 2018 in Books, Music | Permalink | Comments (1)


Anna Burns, on being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize:

“Speaking short-term, I heard that within a day sales of Milkman went up. In monetary terms that’s an impact. Publishers will definitely like that sort of thing and might then be accommodating if I should go to them a wee bit later with some sketchy, hare-brained plan of possible further work and say, ‘How about you give me money to write this?’”

July 26, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“Gods do not answer letters.”

Color film footage has surfaced of Ted Williams’ final game, which was immortalized in John Updike’s “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu”, which includes one of my favorite passages in all of literature:

Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs—hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn’t tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted “We want Ted” for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.”

Check out the footage - Williams did run out that home run exactly the way that Updike described. I can almost see the (metaphorical) storm. 

July 23, 2018 in Books, Sports | Permalink | Comments (0)

“Everything blooming bows down in the rain…“

I quite like this poem, "Heavy Summer Rain", by Jane Kenyon, especially the way she mingles the observational with the personal. Her observations remind me of the bowing hydrangeas and (albeit not blooming - that was in spring) lilac bushes in my yard. And how rain collects on the leaves of trees, only to be dislodged by the wind later, after the rains have passed - a phenomenon I like to call "tree rain."

July 23, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


“I am desperately hard up and owe about £20.” - William Butler Yeats

Echoes of the obscure Scottish poet, Ewan MacTeagle:


July 10, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Acquisitions: Ann Arbor, July 2018

For me, reading a book is paramount, but almost as interesting to me are the circumstances surrounding the acquisition of the book itself. Below is the first in an occasional series about my book acquisition adventures.

Julie, Maddie and I spent the weekend in Ann Arbor, doing a college visit to the University of Michigan. After a few hours of touring the campus, we turned our attention to downtown Ann Arbor, which is full of restaurants and interesting shops. In the Kerrytown neighborhood, we spent a long time in Hollander's, where Julie was hunting for bookbinding paper. Bookbinding (inevitably) interests me, though I've never done it myself, so instead of the vast inventory of papers I found myself enthralled by the largest store display of Edward Gorey works that I've ever seen. Gorey has fascinated me ever since first seeing the opening credits of Mystery! on PBS back in the 1980s, and I've picked up a few of his things in the past. I was quite pleased to find his Thoughful Alphabets: The Just Dessert and The Deadly Blotter, in a beautiful little edition from Pomegranate. Gorey's alphabets were 26-word stories, with each word beginning with one letter of the alphabet (with a bit of fudging over x; instead of abusing the limited supply of words like xylophone and x-ray, he used words like expect and explain instead). A few years ago I actually wrote my own thoughful alphabet story, "The Afternoon Party", which was published in the online journal Goreyesque. The Pomegranate edition has what are apparently the only two of his thoughtful alphabet stories that he also illustrated himself (the others just had clip art), which clinched it for me. I just had to buy it, and did.

Then, after dinner and drinks, we made our way to the excellent Literati Bookstore, which was only two blocks from our hotel. I've been reading Michelle Dean's Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion, which included a chapter about Mary McCarthy, whose name I had heard of but knew nothing else about. She wrote a couple of big fiction books in the 1940s and 1950s (The Company She Keeps and The Group) before turning mostly to nonfiction; The Oasis is her lesser-known novella that was published between those two books, a satire that lampoons idealistic intellectuals, with many of the characters being barely-disguised members of her own social circle. That wicked premise would have been more than enough to lure me in, but even better is that Literati had the edition that was put out by Melville House, one of my favorite publishers; combine that with a beautiful summer night and a couple of good whiskies still buzzing through my brain, and the purchase was made. It will be one of the first books I read after my Summer of Welty ends.

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


“Good as it is to inherit a library, it is better to collect one.” - Augustine Birrell

July 7, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)


“It is indeed impossible to view a series of bearded portraits, however indifferently executed, without feeling that they possess dignity, gravity, freedom, vigour, and completeness; while in looking on a row of razored faces, however illustrious the originals, or skillful the artists, a sense of artificial conventional bareness is experienced.” - Thomas S. Gowing

Hear, hear!

July 6, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

“Walk on air against your better judgement.”

That line above is the epitaph in the gravestone of Seamus Heaney, which he wrote himself. Heaney’s family is compiling 100 of his poems into a new collection, most of them for their greatness, but others for what they meant personally to the family. (“The first 70 or 75 almost self-selected, they agree, and it was in the final 25 the choices became more significant.”) He memorably wrote poems for his grandchildren, including the last poem he ever wrote, “In Time”:

Chris: “Mum says she saw him watching the Proms, and his fingers.” He taps on the side of his armchair. “She says she could sometimes tell: he’d be tapping the fingers, which would be metre, rhythm, working out the line, the syllables. She’d look and say, ‘Ah, there’s something going on under the bonnet.’ ”

Such lovely remembrances from them of him, as a father and poet. He sounds like he was a special man.

June 30, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


“Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect on art.” - Susan Sontag 

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

“...these people never knew where the very roads they lived on went to...”

In Eudora Welty's "Death of a Traveling Salesman" (from A Curtain of Green), the protagonist R.J. Bowman is lost in the boonies of Mississippi.

He had made the Beulah trip before. But he had never seen this hill or this petering-out path before - or that cloud, he thought slyly, looking up and then down quickly - any more than he had seen this day before. Why did he not admit he was simply lost and had been for miles? ... He was not in the habit of asking the way of strangers, and these people never knew where the very roads they lived on went to; but then he had not even been close enough to anyone to call out. People standing in the fields now and then, or on top of the haystacks, had been too far away, looking like leaning sticks or weeds, turning a little at the solitary rattle of his car across their countryside, watching the pale sobering winter dust where it clunked out behind like big squashes down the road. The stares of those distant people had followed him solidly like a wall, impenetrable, behind which they turned back after he had passed.

With my given name, I have an issue with the term "petering-out", but otherwise I admire this passage. Welty telegraphs Bowman's fate with that title, but the means of his demise wasn't what I expected. I guess this is one way (of many) that she diverged from Flannery O'Connor.

June 26, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...the quicksand that stirred your footprint and kissed your heel...”

From "Moon Lake", by Eudora Welty:

Luminous of course but hidden from them, Moon Lake streamed out in the night. By moonlight sometimes it seemed to run like a river. Beyond the cry of the frogs there were the sounds of a boat moored somewhere, of its vague, clumsy reaching at the shore, those sounds that are recognized as being made by something sightless. When did the boats have eyes - once? Nothing watched that their little part of the lake stayed roped off and protected; was it there now, the rope stretched frail-like between posts that swayed in mud? That rope was to mark how far the girls could swim. Beyond lay the deep part, some bottomless parts, said Moody. Here and there was the quicksand that stirred your footprint and kissed your heel. All snakes, harmless and harmful, were freely playing now; they put a trailing, moony division between weed and weed - bright, turning, bright and turning.

There are plenty of long, luxurious passages like this in The Golden Apples (1949), in contrast to the more succinct narration of the stories in A Curtain of Green (1941), her debut. Due to a weird inconvenience of the interlibrary loan system*, I'm currently reading both books - or, more accurately, I've set aside the former (which I own) to read as much of the latter as I can before I have to return it to the library. I'm noticing significant differences in style between the two books, although they appeared only eight years apart.

(*Really, Bellwood Public Library? I can only have the book for ten days, with no renewals? Why? Do you really have that much patron demand for Eudora Welty story collections?)

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


“Optimism assumes that all will go well without our effort; pessimism assumes it’s all irredeemable; both let us stay home and do nothing. Hope for me has meant a sense that the future is unpredictable, and that we don’t actually know what will happen, but know we may be able write it ourselves.” - Rebecca Solnit

June 19, 2018 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Summer of Classics

I've developed a (fairly recent) admiration for Eudora Welty, but other than the widely-anthologized "Why I Live at the P.O.", I've never read any of her short stories, for which she is widely renowned. (I've read her novels The Optimist's Daughter, The Ponder Heart and Delta Wedding; her memoir One Writer's Beginnings; and her collected correspondence with William Maxwell.) So, for this year's Summer of Classics, I'm reading nothing but Welty's short stories. I'm starting with her 1949 collection The Golden Apples, which is entirely set in the fictional MacLain County in Mississippi. After that, I have my eye on a used copy of Thirteen Stories (1965) at Open Books, but after that I'm uncertain. I'm intentionally trying to avoid Collected Stories or her Library of America story volume - I really don't care for story omnibuses (too unwiedly, both in physical heft and wandering theme/tone), and would really prefer to read her shorter, original collections. I'll probably be relying heavily on my public library after I've finished The Golden Apples.

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

“...airships and colloids.”

Rebecca West, on H.G. Wells’ novel Marriage:

He is the old maid among novelists; even the sex obsession that lay clotted on Ann Veronica and The New Machiavelli like cold white sauce was merely old maid’s mania, the reaction towards the flesh of a mind too long absorbed in airships and colloids.

Her biting assessment was probably correct, given how utterly the book has vanished from the literary landscape, a hundred years later. Far from being offended, Wells was intrigued, and sought her out. They became lovers, and even had a child together. West’s Return of the Soldier is high on my reading list for this year, though not soon enough to join the Guardian‘s reading group. 

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


“Only in our failures are we absolutely alone. Only in the pursuit of failure can a person really be free.” - Sheila Heti

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

“The pyramids of Newark...”

To date the only Philip Roth I've ever read is Our Gang (hilarious but, I suspect, enormously different than the rest of his work), but this paragraph from American Pastoral has me thinking I should read more:

On the east side of the street, the dark old factories—Civil War factories, foundries, brassworks, heavy-industrial plants blackened from the chimneys pumping smoke for a hundred years—were windowless now, the sunlight sealed out with brick and mortar, their exits and entrances plugged with cinderblock. These were the factories where people had lost fingers and arms and got their feet crushed and their faces scalded, where children once labored in the heat and the cold, the nineteenth-century factories that churned up people and churned out goods and now were unpierceable, airtight tombs. It was Newark that was entombed there, a city that was not going to stir again. The pyramids of Newark: as huge and dark and hideously impermeable as a great dynasty’s burial edifice has every historical right to be.

Paul, I'm open to suggestions - but message me, because the comments function here is still kaput.

May 23, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


Julian Barnes, on William Trevor:

My wife, who was his long-term literary agent, told me that he liked to sit on park benches and eavesdrop on conversations; but that he never wanted to listen to a whole story, so would get up and move on as soon as he had heard the small amount he needed to trigger his further imaginings.

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


“The best you can say is that New York is held together by competing antagonisms that tend to cancel one another out.” - Tom Wolfe

May 19, 2018 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)


“All the time, I've felt that life is a wager and that I probably was getting more out of leading a bohemian existence as a writer than I would have if I didn't.” - Christopher Hitchens

May 16, 2018 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)


I love this passage from The Country of the Pointed Firs. The narrator, her landlady Mrs. Todd, and Mrs. Todd's mother, Mrs. Blackett, are riding upcountry to a family reunion, when they stop at a farm to water their horse.

We stopped, and seeing a party of pleasure-seekers in holiday attire, the thin, anxious mistress of the farmhouse came out with wistful sympathy to hear what news we might have to give. Mrs. Blackett first spied her at the half-closed door, and asked with such cheerful directness if we were trespassing that, after a few words, she went back to her kitchen and reappeared with a plateful of doughnuts.

“Entertainment for man and beast,” announced Mrs. Todd with satisfaction. “Why, we've perceived there was new doughnuts all along the road, but you're the first that has treated us.”

Our new acquaintance flushed with pleasure, but said nothing.

“They're very nice; you've had good luck with 'em,” pronounced Mrs. Todd. “Yes, we've observed there was doughnuts all the way along; if one house is frying all the rest is; 'tis so with a great many things.”

“I don't suppose likely you're goin' up to the Bowden reunion?” asked the hostess as the white horse lifted his head and we were saying good-by.

“Why, yes,” said Mrs. Blackett and Mrs. Todd and I, all together.

“I am connected with the family. Yes, I expect to be there this afternoon. I've been lookin' forward to it,” she told us eagerly.

“We shall see you there. Come and sit with us if it's convenient,” said dear Mrs. Blackett, and we drove away.

“I wonder who she was before she was married?” said Mrs. Todd, who was usually unerring in matters of genealogy. “She must have been one of that remote branch that lived down beyond Thomaston. We can find out this afternoon. I expect that the families'll march together, or be sorted out some way. I'm willing to own a relation that has such proper ideas of doughnuts.”

As Mrs. Todd later notes, there's no shortage of relatives (whether close or shirt-tail) in the area. But only one that has such proper ideas of doughnuts.

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

“...the recluses are a sad kindred...”

"There is something in the fact of a hermitage that cannot fail to touch the imagination; the recluses are a sad kindred, but they are never commonplace." - Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs

Jewett's narrator refers to the sad story of Joanna Todd, who was so distraught and guilt-stricken after being abandoned by her fiancee that she hermited herself on a desolate, rocky island off the Maine coast for the rest of her life. The narrator visits the island decades after Joanna's death, hoping to get even the slightest glimpse of Joanna's former life there. Though there's little of that to be seen, I wish Jewett had continued the story for at least a few more pages.

I'm really, really enjoying the book - thanks to Paul for the recommendation. According to the promo copy, no less of an authority than Willa Cather believed that this book, The Scarlet Letter and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were "the three American works most likely to achieve permanent recognition." Clearly, history has not been as generous to Jewett as it has been to Hawthorne and Twain, possibly due to her great book not being mandatory reading in high schools anywhere, other than perhaps in the state of Maine.

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


“If one is a woman writer there are certain things one must do. First, not be too good; second, die young, what an edge Katherine Mansfield has on all of us; third, commit suicide like Virginia Woolf. To go on writing and writing well just can’t be forgiven.” - Rebecca West


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

Maeve Brennan, The Springs Of Affection

Usually I find it hard to review short story collections, which are often disjointed assemblies of unrelated stories, with no overlapping characters or settings or even themes. But The Springs of Affection in an exception, as editor William Maxwell collected stories from throughout Maeve Brennan's career which are all set in Dublin. And the stories fit into three neat groups: the first is autobiographical pieces based on Brennan's youth; the second involves the married couple Rose and Hubert Derdon; and the third involves the married couple Delia and Martin Bagot.

The autobiographical stories are amusing but fairly inconsequential, and mostly useful as a glimpse at Brennan's upbringing. The Derdon stories are substantial but almost unbearably bleak, as Rose "grieves" for her son John, not because he died but because he left the family home to join the priesthood. It's a general cliche that every traditional Irish Catholic family longs for their son to become a priest, but that's not the case with Rose; she feels abandoned by John. She spent the first two decades of her marriage being devoted entirely to doting on John, but now that he's gone she has nothing left. Nothing, not even Hubert - although they still live together, she neglected their relationship as she obsessed over John for all those years, and now they have drifted far apart and have a marriage in name only. The Derdon stories are bitter and often difficult to read.

The Bagot stories also involve an unhappy marriage and a helicoptering mother, but take place earlier in life, when the Bagot children are still young and Delia Bagot realizes that you can't live exclusively for your kids and instead you must have your own life. Not that the kids should be neglected - just that there should be a balance, especially when looking ahead to when the kids have grown up and moved on to lives of their own. Showing the family at a younger stage, and Delia's realization, makes the Bagot stories somewhat more hopeful than the Derdon stories. But the Bagots will still be challenged as a couple - Martin leads a very independent life, sleeping in a separate bedroom and keeping his own hours - but at least there's a glimmer of possibility that Delia will make a meaningful life of her own and won't look back later with the same bitterness as Rose Derdon.

What really sets the Bagot stories apart is the long concluding story, the almost-novella “The Springs of Affection", which is told from the perspective of Martin's spinster sister Min, decades later, after Martin and Delia have passed away. Delia is a veritable ray of sunshine compared to Min, who never forgave Martin for marrying Delia and breaking up (in her view) the tight circle of Martin, Min, the two other Bagot sisters and their mother. (Martin married first, followed by the two sisters, leaving Min alone with her mother, and later to herself.) We never really see what kind of life Delia had after her kids grew up, but even if she felt as bitter and abandoned as Rose Derdon, and even if she never really reconciled with Martin, she still had a far happier life than Min Bagot ever had.

April 24, 2018 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“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)