Quote

“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)

Quote

“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)

Verse

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.

GIVEN:
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

RECEIVED:
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

 

Thoughts:

- 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)

Quote

“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)

Quote

“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)

Quote

“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)

Quote

“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
      whiskey
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)

Quote

“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”

Fascinating...an 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)

You might think...

...that my local Barnes & Noble would have a table devoted to this year’s National Book Award nominees. You would be incorrect. Or at least have copies individually available on the shelves. You would be incorrect, at least regarding the title that I was specifically looking for, Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans. I’m also not confident that the coming weeks will see the appearance at B&N of anything by Olga Tozarczuk or Peter Handke, the recently announced 2018-19 Nobel Prize in Literature winners. 

If James Daunt is going to save B&N, he’d better hurry. 

October 13, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Quote

“We’re not writing machines (unless you’re a journalist, and mad props if you are, seriously), and I for one do not write every day. Maybe it’s wishful thinking or part delusion, but I subscribe to the notion that observing, thinking, reading, pacing, and revising—or osmotic writing as I like to call it—are integral parts of the process.” - Su Hwang

October 10, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...there was a here that belonged to us..."

One last excerpt from In My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You. Hemon describes returning to his family’s apartment in Sarajevo as a child, after being away on holiday.

In the hallway of our building, which would always be cool because it never saw the sun, I’d inhale the smells of our neighbors’ lives: their cooking, their sweat, whatever was used to wash the hallway stairs. At the top of the third-floor staircase leading to our home there would be a stain cascading down the stairs, a consequence of my dropping a bottle of milk when I was five or six. Nearly fifty years later, the stain is still there. I see it every time I return to Sarajevo and stay in the apartment my sister and I grew up in. And when we’d enter the apartment, everything would be exactly as we had left it, except for the pungent scent of our absence. Without us there, there was no life: no one cooked, no one went to the bathroom, no one washed hands, no one made coffee, no one turned on the lights, no one lived there, and all the windows and doors to the balconies were closed, so that only walls, carpets, furniture, and old magazines and newspapers stacked on the radio or the coffee table exuded existence. I loved that emptiness, because, each and every time, we’d refill it with ourselves. Before we returned there would be nothing, and then, within a moment, there would be everything, because we were there, and there was a here that belonged to us, that was us.

That final line is especially touching. Though his family eventually regrouped in Canada and the United States, it seems like they never really got over what they lost when Yugoslavia collapsed into ethnic war. “That was us”: that was our lives, that was who we were, that was everything we’ll never quite get back.

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

Quote

“All my jokes are Indianapolis. All my attitudes are Indianapolis. My adenoids are Indianapolis. If I ever severed myself from Indianapolis, I would be out of business. What people like about me is Indianapolis.” - Kurt Vonnegut

Interesting that Vonnegut felt this way, because after he left his hometown as a young man, he never really returned, other than short visits. 

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

"Do not start a fight a fight unless you can destroy an opponent..."

In My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You, Aleksandar Hemon describes a street fight from his childhood in Sarajevo between the young thug Dule and the unfortunate bully from the next block:

The brutality was exhilarating, the exactness of the violence awesome, the exquisite skill inspiring, the release of the tension so pleasing, the victory so sweet. None of us in the little raja could ever simply walk up to another kid and annihilate him without hesitation or mercy; watching Dule do it, we learned that to win a fight you have to be willing to destroy your opponent totally, that you must never consider his body, worry about his pain. Do not start a fight unless you can destroy an opponent; do not start a war unless you’re willing to commit genocide. But I was not - am not - willing to destroy others; it is arguably my greatest shortcoming. From my high position, despite everything, I felt sorry for the kid.

My Parents... is an excellent but strange book. I’m accumulating my thoughts on it and hope to write more later.

September 28, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Le Vrai Chic Littérère

CC4D21C9-5CD2-4C75-ACA1-79B6968DA2A0

This is wonderful.

Ideally seeking to make literature more accessible to folks both geographically and financially, Megel-Nuber realized that his business’ overall appeal also depended on the look of his venue. So, he set out to open his second-hand bookstore in a tiny house. “I needed a place that makes people want to enter,” he says.

I think I might have discovered my post-retirement stay-busy occupation.

September 22, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

H.G. Wells

Wells was born on this date in 1866. Reading seven of his novels was a fascinating experience during my Summer of Reading in 2017. 

September 21, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"A perfect homeland is never available..."

Aleksandar Hemon's family are ethnic Ukrainians who at one point migrated to Vucijak, Bosnia, then to Sarajevo and, after the civil war, to Canada. Here, in a chapter titled "Homeland" from My Parents: An Introduction, he muses on his father's form of nostalgia:

Wherever he went around the world, including Canada, he spent much of his head time being in Vucijak, talking about it, comparing everything to the standards once established there; he never mythologized Sarajevo, where he lived for most of his adult life, to a comparable extent. Yet at no point in his life did he ever consider or even mention the possibility of returning to Vucijak, where after my grandparents' deaths he even inherited some land. The whole nostalgic operation is contingent precisely on his absence from Vucijak since his childhood. A perfect homeland is never available; otherwise the ideal might run into an indelible and ugly reality. Nationalists resolve this tension by way of exclusionary reshaping and violence; they strive to make the actual country fit their fantasies, for which genocide is often required. My father just tells stories with a lot of nostalgic embellishments.

If only the white nationalists currently running the United States and several major European countries had a similarly harmless means of making their countries great again...

September 16, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...ominously close...”

“People had been asking me to write a sequel for a long time, and I always said no, because I thought they meant the continuation of the story of Offred which I couldn't do. But then I thought, what if somebody else were telling the story? And what if it were 15 or 16 years later? And it was also time, because for a while we thought we were moving away from The Handmaid's Tale. And then we turned around and started going back toward it, ominously close in many parts of the world.” - Margaret Atwood

September 9, 2019 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

“Without water, it’s not even a moat. Yet it persists.”

I like this short story, “Everywhere She Went”, by Ethel Rohan. Her novel, The Weight of Him, didn’t work for me at all, but maybe short fiction is her strength instead. 

September 2, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Richard Booth

It was during his buying trips to the US in the 1960s and 70s that his vision for an independent, localised economy really took shape. He saw in America’s faceless shopping malls a taste of what was to come and was determined to battle against it. Secondhand books, in this sense, represented one-in-the-eye for corporate capitalism.

A bookseller who transformed a town. Can any other bookseller truly make the same claim?

August 28, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

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

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

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

David Berman

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then you can keep your mackerel."

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

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

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

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

"Same as yesterday."

"Then you can keep your mackerel."

And Gunhild makes for home.

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

And Gunhild buys her fish...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Chicago was a swamp hole and a blowhole...”

In The Emigrants, the aspiring settlers have hired "Long" Landberg as interpreter and guide. He will take them as far as Chicago, for which he is not quite a booster.

Landberg said that he intended to leave Chicago as soon as he had performed his duties there. This town was the only place in North America he detested. But it was the gateway to the West, which all travelers must pass through, although most thanked the Lord they could journey farther. Chicago was a swamp hole and a blowhole, built on the low shores of a lake and a river. One the one side was the lake and on the other side the prairie, with no protection against the winds, which blew so intensely that eyebrows and hair were pulled off people's heads. The town had only three decent streets: Chicago Avenue, Kinzie and Clark Streets. Yard-high stumps still stood in the other streets, and almost all the surrounding country was desolate wasteland where cows grazed. The houses were newly built, yet gray, dirty, and unpainted, for the hurricanes blew the paint off the walls. And the whole town stank from the mud and ooze of the swampy shores. Pools of water abounded, filled with crawling snakes and lizards and other horrible creatures. Thirty thousand people lived in Chicago, and of these, several thousand earned their living as runners, robbing immigrants passing through. Grazing was fine in Chicago, and cattle lived well in that town. But honest people, non-runners, could ill endure an extended visit in the place. Landberg thought Chicago would within twenty years become entirely depopulated and obliterated from the face of the earth.

Wow. That's quite the rant. I was hoping for more, but was disappointed when Moberg fast-forwarded past their stopover in Chicago, going straight from their Great Lakes steamboat to the inland waterways. Though Moberg wrote this a hundred years after its mid-1800s time frame, I still would have liked to read his detailed descriptions of the fledgling city.

July 12, 2019 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

”...the dark covering of antiquity...”

In what I intend to become an annual tradition, I'm reading Thomas Paine's Common Sense around the 4th of July holiday. Paine abhorred monarchy, but might have abhorred hereditary succession even more:

To the evil of monarchy we have added that of hereditary succession; and as the first is a degradation and lessening of ourselves, so the second, claimed as a matter of right, is an insult and an imposition on posterity.

...

This (the purported legitimacy of succession) is supposing the present race of kings in the world to have had an honorable origin; whereas it is more than probable, that could we take off the dark covering of antiquity, and trace them to their first rise, that we should find the first of them nothing better than the principal ruffian of some restless gang, whose savage manners or pre-eminence in subtility obtained him the title of chief among plunderers; and who by increasing in power, and extending his depredations, over-awed the quiet and defenceless to purchase their safety by frequent contributions. Yet his electors could have no idea of giving hereditary right to his descendants, because such a perpetual exclusion of themselves was incompatible with the free and unrestrained principles they professed to live by. Wherefore, hereditary succession in the early ages of monarchy could not take place as a matter of claim, but as something casual or complimental; but as few or no records were extant in those days, and traditional history stuffed with fables, it was very easy, after the lapse of a few generations, to trump up some superstitious tale, conveniently timed, Mahomet like, to cram hereditary right down the throats of the vulgar.

Basically, he's saying that even if the present generation of commoners approves (or just grudgingly tolerates) the current king or queen, it's unfair to force the royal heirs on future generations. Although that king or queen may be decent, their child or grandchild might turn out to be an relentless tyrant once they take the throne.

I like Paine's "dark covering of antiquity", which hides or smoothes out the dishonorable or even criminal behaviors of one's forebears. Years ago I toyed with the concept of a story - long ago abandoned - about a grade school student writing a paper about one of her ancestors (depicted as a wholesome founding father/pillar of the community type) who, in reality and unbeknownst to the student, first got rich as a horse thief. We usually look back on our ancestors with reverence, but who knows what sort of scoundrels they might have actually been?

July 5, 2019 in Books, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

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“Time makes more converts than reason.” - Thomas Paine

July 4, 2019 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...the most extended churchyard in the world...”

In The Emigrants, Captain Christian Lorentz soberly reflects on burials at sea:

These peasants often feared death at sea, because of the final resting place - they wanted to be put in consecrated ground, and the ocean was not consecrated. But they were caught in deep superstition: the water where so many good seamen had found their graves ought to be a good enough resting place for the wretched land-rats.

Perhaps the wife Inga-Lena Andersdotter had died, too, in fear of the unconsecrated burial place of the ocean. Her forty years she had lived on solid ground, bending over the earth in her potato furrows and barley fields, poking in pens and manure piles, tramping between byre and barn. Yet she would find rest in the sea, in the most extended churchyard in the world, where nothing marked the graves. She would not be registered anywhere - she was an emigrant who failed to reach her destination, a wanderer in the world.

I've finished The Emigrants, and just started the second volume, Unto a Good Land. After a rough ten-week sea voyage, the emigrants have arrived in New York, as a way station to the Midwest. (That "wretched land-rats" term is pretty harsh, and maybe an error of translation - the opening pages of the second volume show that the Captain actually cares for his passengers, and really goes out of his way to help them.)

July 2, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

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“A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.” - G.K. Chesterton

June 28, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...we would do poetry a favor..."

During a long-ago panel discussion involving Robert Duncan, Philip Levine and an unnamed third poet, the latter bemoaned those who didn't embrace poetry, believing they lacked any sense of beauty or even a reason for being. Duncan disagreed, saying:

"Some people do not twig to poetry, they may be inspired by things others don't care for - the operas of Wagner, the novels of Proust, the ballets of Merce Cunningham, the stories of Katherine Mansfield, the philosophical writing of Schopenhauer, the paintings of Francis Bacon. Perhaps they love the beauty of design, of Tiffany vases or of machinery, V-8 engines or drop forges. I think we would do poetry a favor if we stopped trying to shove it down the throats of those for whom it has no connection or resonance. But don't forget, if absolutely nothing turns you on, stirs you body and soul, you are in trouble."

I appreciate Duncan's sentiment, and especially his inclusion of "V-8 engines or drop forges" as objects worthy of aesthetic admiration. And I respect the warning he delivered in that final sentence.

(Quoted from Levine's My Lost Poets: A Life in Poetry.)

June 10, 2019 in Art, Books | Permalink | Comments (3)