Books on the nightstand

It's All a Game: The History of Board Games from Monopoly to Settlers of Catan (St. Martin's: 2017)

     When an opponent's king is under attack in chess and cannot escape to safety, the victorious player announces "checkmate!"
     Now that's an odd word, "checkmate." What is being checked? Who is mating?
     Nobody. "Checkmate" is a transliteration—a foreign phrase spelled out in English letters—of the Arabic shah-mat, or "the king is dead," a relic of the game's ancient Persian origins, hidden in plain sight.
     If you find that interesting, I have a book for you: It's All a Game: The History of Board Games from Monopoly to Settlers of Catan by British writer Tristan Donovan (St. Martin's: $26.99). I noticed its attractive cover in the New Books section at the Northbrook Public Library a few weeks ago and took it home, where it came in handy after I was laid low with a bad cold over the past few days. There's nothing quite so comforting as an engaging book to distract yourself from your ailments.
     I've always loved games, from when I was cutting my teeth on Candyland—that lovely block of Neapolitan ice cream!—all the way through the usual suspects: Trouble, Mousetrap, Monopoly, Risk, Clue, chess, checkers—to more esoteric games, like 3M bookshelf games Breakthru and Twixt. One of my best friends gave me a wooden game as a wedding present—Cathedral—and its been on our coffee table for 27 years. I play Scrabble daily on Facebook, and have six or seven games going at a time. When my wife and I were discussing what we wanted to do when the boys were home from college over Thanksgiving, I said, "I wouldn't mind getting in a game of Settlers of Catan."
     Games are little frames to live in; they add significance, companionship, fun and satisfaction to life, an activity that I might not be able to win at, generally, but I sure can win at Scrabble. So I'm a soft target for this book, and Donovan delivers.

     He takes his time, starting with the games discovered in Egyptian tombs before diving into chess, a Siberia that some writers get lost in, but giving us just enough and no more, making all sorts of connections I'd never seen suggested, such as the queen becoming a powerful piece around the time that queens in England and Spain were exerting unprecedented power.
Staunton knight
        He answers questions I never thought to ask, like where the designs for the classic Staunton chess set came from: "The knight continued the neoclassical theme by echoing the straining horse that pulls the chariot of the moon goddess Selene in the Elgin Marbles, which had been removed from the Parthenon in Greece and placed in the British Museum in 1816."
     The book doesn't neglect recent history, as with the almost-too-detailed description of how Prince Alexis Obolensky revived backgammon as a game of the jet set in the 1960s and 1970s. I remember we all trotted off to college with slim backgammon briefcases in the last 1970s; but I never realized we did so because we had been indoctrinated by a Russian nobleman.  
Elgin Marbles

     Not that It's All a Game merely digs up entertaining minutia about games. Donovan uses each particular game to shed light on the historical contexts surrounding it. Before we're allowed to play Risk, we get a history of war games, from the German Kriegsspiel to the unexpected role that Japanese war-gaming played in the success of their attack on Pearl Harbor.
     The Game of Life becomes a disquisition on middle class ambition. Those who can't attain Millionaire Acres end up in a tiny house, "destitute and disgraced" and "reduced to living on Social Security." Monopoly began as The Landlord's Game, Illinois-born activist Elizabeth Magie's effort to publicize the dangers of monopoly capitalism and promote a land value tax. Players were supposed to be horrified that only one player got all the money while the rest went broke.
     They weren't. The game morphed as players made homemade sets, many in the economics departments of schools, until the early 1930s when Charles Darrow—who contrary to received wisdom did not invent the game at all—copied a set from a friend, got an artist to improve the graphics, and sold it to Parker Brothers.

       Donovan doesn't quite come out and say it, but The Landlord's Game languished while Monopoly became wildly popular for the same reason regular folk today shrug off programs that would help them while coddling the rich whose ranks they dream of joining.
     "If Monopoly seemed like a celebration of dog-eat-dog capitalism, that's because that is really what people wanted it to be," writes Donovan. 

      I was pleased that Donovan's research agrees with mine, for my Chicago book, that Dowst Manufacturing, makers of charm bracelet figures and Cracker Jack prizes, was tapped for the original game tokens. He doesn't mention it, but the tokens were originally freebies given away to children by laundries; the flat iron in Monopoly came form a token designed for the Flat Iron Laundry on Halsted Street. 
     There's quite a bit of Chicago in the book, such as the sad tale of Marvin Glass and Associates, the toy company created by Glass, a brilliant but troubled man.
      The book isn't perfect. He winds up the story of each game with their experiments in brand extension—Star Wars Risk and such—which strike traditionalists as money-grubbing and wrong, but doesn't get into the emotional heft that each game carries, the cool, wood-tiled purity of Scrabble, the time-frittering, something-to-do-while-you-drink-beer quality to backgammon. Games are tactile, or should be. My Clue set has an actual lead pipe: real lead, soft, you could bend it.
     Lost in all the history is something of the joy of games, the memory of being with your pals and waking up with a Risk army pressed into your cheek (I became acquainted with the game in the early 1970s and looked long and hard for an old set: I didn't want the new plastic pieces; I wanted the old, wooden pieces. It mattered).
     The history of Scrabble is outlined, and the compiling of Scrabble dictionaries, but its strange, almost compulsive allure is hardly hinted at. People love this stuff; Donovan seems to only find it fascinating.
     Not to complain. It's All a Game is indeed fascinating, and worthwhile. I'm still racing toward the end, so can't give the book a full summation. To me, games are like breakfast cereals, one of those products interwoven with childhood, melding nostalgia and delight. Donovan gives the world of games the serious historical treatment it deserves, while offering up whimsical tidbits, like how Marvin Glass and Associates gave the world both wind-up chattering teeth and fake vomit. Or how, in 1949, when Parker Brothers brought out Clue, it refused to advertise the product in magazines because they were worried about being publicly associated with a game based on murder. 

Patrick O'Brian: The Aubrey/Maturin novels

     Boars are conservative.    
     "Deeply conservative," in fact, according to Patrick O'Brian. "Devoted to the beaten track."
     Aren't we all?  Most of us anyway. Humans as well as tusked swine.
     That perceptive observation comes near the beginning of The Nutmeg of Consolation, the 14th book of what are known as O'Brian's "Aubrey/Maturin novels," historical fiction of British naval life set 200 years ago, at the time of the Napoleonic wars.
    And yes, I've read the previous 13. Or at least listened to them on audiobooks, which is approximately the same thing.
    "Aubrey" is Captain Jack Aubrey, tall and blond, dashing, if perpetually overweight and florid, as human a hero as ever raised a cutlass. "Maturin" is his "particular friend," naval physician, natural philosopher, Irish nationalist and, let's not forget, highly effective secret agent, despite a tendency to tumble off ships and into dungeons.
     It shouldn't work. Just setting down the details above sounds trite, as if I'm describing some musty maritime cliche. But I have not only read the previous baker's dozen books, but done so almost daily, one after another, over the past six months, and as someone with a highly evolved reflex to reject fiction for being predictable, hackneyed, cliched, or just not good enough, O'Brian's books are none of these.
      The bit about the boar is an illustration why. Whatever is going on in the books, whether boars are being hunted by Maturin, shipwrecked with 156 crew mates on a deserted South China sea island, or battles being fought yardarm-to-yardarm, sails raised, legs amputated or pudding cooked, it is done so with a wealth of well-researched detail and veracity that sings off the page. I've literally never heard a false note.
     The characters are real. His pig killed, Maturin absent-mindedly wipes his hand on his white jacket, immediately fearing for the reaction of the gloriously-named servant Preserved Killick, "an awkward, slab-sided creature," a maestro of the muttered complaint, with his own distinctive way of speaking and a habit of beginning sentences with "Which."
    "Which there ain't no stern galley, sir, now we've been degraded to a sixth grade," Killick cries "with malignant triumph" in The Ionian Mission. "Stern galleries is for our betters, and I must toil and moil away in the dark."
     Yet somehow Killick, with his fetish for cleanliness and rank, is endearing, both to the readers and to his supposedly superior officers. Maturin is terrified that in gutting the boar he soiled his jacket, creating more work for the over-burdened Killick. Maturin tries to sort it out in his own mind as he heads toward his inevitable dressing down.
    "It wasn't even Killick was his servant with a servant's right," he thinks, dreading his encounter.
     "A servant's right" could support a book on it's own, and one of the series' many joys are the lesser, able-bodied seamen characters, their brief exchanges and rituals, superstitions and philosophies. Yet never does it become routine. A lesser writer, penning his 13th book, would have had Killick upbraid the doctor his characteristic "high, shrill, penetrating voice." But Killick doesn't. He looks at the doctor's mirthless light blue eyes, his general disorder from his boar hunt, and uncomplainingly goes about his business, for a change.
    O'Brian knows that human beings are not clockwork. They might have qualities, but they also diverge from them, and one of the truest things about the books are how his characters don't always behave as they're usually do. Aubrey, devoted to his Sophie, still finds himself fathering a child out of wedlock and almost two. Maturin, the man of science, nevertheless becomes an addict of laudanum, a form of opium, and his mental gymnastics rationalizing and hiding his slavery rings completely true. Diana Villiers, Maturin's love interest, is sometimes free-spirited and careless, sometimes devoted.
     Those characteristics that do endure start to develop a power. About the fifth time Aubrey describes Lord Nelson once asking him to be so kind as to pass the salt, the vignette takes on a deeper meaning, one it hadn't possessed before, speaking to the desperate way we cling to our brushes with fame.
     At some point I need to express my gratitude to my older son Ross. I had seen the movie version, "Master and Commander," with Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey, and loved it extremely—like the books, it really is a disquisition in leadership. Maybe a decade ago, Ross gave me the novel as a birthday present, but I never got around to reading it until now, really just to stop him from holding that up as a lapse in paternal devotion. It took a few pages to gel, but once it did, I was hooked. Reading O'Brian has embroidered the mundane routine considerably. 
     I don't believe you should recommend a work of art while spoiling it, so I won't give away the surprises, except to say the best moment in the first 13 books comes in The Reverse of the Medal when Aubrey finds himself convicted of stock manipulation—he can be a dunce when it comes to his landward finances—and sentenced to an hour of humiliation in the pillory.  Tears in my eyes.
     The action ranges from Boston to Australia, from Sweden to the Cape of Good Hope, from Antarctica to the equator. There are schemes and traitors, alehouse whores and wheezing admirals. The exchange of letters, the constant consumption of alcohol, the crude medicine, the closeness to the natural world. Some books end in epic battles, others quietly. There is never a sense of repetition, and little crude coincidence—one almost-too-timely rescue, the in-the-nick-of-time arrival of a Polynesian outrigger in The Far Side of the World when Aubrey and Maturin were literally paddling together in the trackless ocean. Then again, it wouldn't do to have Aubrey and Maturin drown in Book 10, would it?
     I won't belabor the point. I've listened to most of the books on tape—a fine alternative to thought, to brooding on the ominous news of the day. I finally joined Audible to do it, since the library didn't carry the full 20 books—O'Brian, an enigmatic figure, died writing the 21st.  I can recommend them wholeheartedly to anyone, particularly during our own difficult days, when men of heroism and backbone, and a bit of escapism are not only welcome, but necessary. 

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day (Faber & Faber: 1989)

      The state of the country being what it is, it seems increasingly essential to have a good book nearby to lose myself in as need be, or at least to look forward to losing myself in, a respite from the daily stirring of the pot that our president finds useful to keep the public distracted from what he has already done.
     A good friend recommended Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, The Remains of the Day, and I hurried to the library to pick it up.
     The story is a week in the life of Stevens, the aging veteran butler at Darlington Hall, as he drives to Cornwall to meet the manor's long-ago housekeeper, Miss Kenton, now married, though perhaps not happily. It's after World War II, and much has changed—his longtime employer, Lord Darlington, died three years earlier, and was recently replaced by an upstart American businessman, Mr. Farraday. He motors along in his boss's elegant Ford, musing on the past, various revered butlers he has known, his father's decline. 
     The central joy of the book is the tone, the voice, Mr. Stevens always restrained observations on the nature of "dignity," his failed attempts to engage in banter with his new boss.
   Passing a signpost for Murssden, the home of Giffen and Company, makers of "dark candles of polish," a technical innovation "which came to push the polishing of silver to the position of central importance it still by and large maintains today," Stevens sets off on several pages on the importance of well-buffed silver, the highlight being:
    "I recall also watching Mr George Bernard Shaw, the renowned playwright, at dinner one evening, examining closely the dessert spoon before him, holding it up to the light and comparing its surface to that of a nearby platter, quite oblivious to the company around him."
     Either you get that or you don't. The book is one slow reveal, and the less said, the better. The ending also offers up a steaming dollop of philosophy that I know I'll value as the darkness gathers. Or try to anyway.  
    Though the peril of escaping from the daily headlines in a book is that the news follows you there. I don't think I'm revealing too much to say as The Remains of the Day clicks along like a hall clock, Lord Darlington's politics don't hold up well. In the mid-1930s, Lord Darlington comes under the sway of British fascists, leading to this:
     "I've been doing a great deal of thinking, Stevens. A great deal of thinking. And I've reached my conclusion. We cannot have Jews on the staff here at Darlington Hall."
     "It's for the good of this house, Stevens. In the interests of the guests we have staying here. I've looked into this carefully, Stevens, and I'm letting you know my conclusion.
     "Very well, sir."
     "Tell me, Stevens, we have a few on the staff at the moment, don't we? Jews, I mean."
     "I believe two of the present staff members would fall into that category, sir."
     His lordship paused for a moment, staring out of this window.
     "Of course, you'l have to let them go."
     "I beg your pardon, sir?"
     "It's regrettable, Stevens, but we have no choice. There's the safety and well-being of my guests to consider. Let me assure you, I've looked into this matter and thought it through thoroughly. It's in all our best interests."
     That word—"safety"—just glowed on the page. Sound familiar? Though now we'd say "security" and the parties that our best interests demand be kept at a distance are now Muslims. But the logic, or rather, the illogic, is exactly the same.  

James Boswell: Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (Viking: 1936)   

      We beat up ourselves for whipping out phones and text messaging each other, posting Facebook updates and sending Snapchats. But in truth, the desire to keep in touch with our friends and loved ones, as much as possible, is neither regrettable or new.  
    On Thursday, Oct. 7, 1773, Scottish lawyer James Boswell  watched a dreadful storm lash rain against the windows of the house he was staying at on a remote island in Western Scotland and felt cut off.
     "We were in a strange state of abstraction from the world," he wrote.  "We could neither hear from our friends, nor write to them. It gave me much uneasiness to think of the anxiety my dear wife must suffer."
     And Boswell was with the man he most admired in life, Samuel Johnson, the great English author and dictionary compiler, taking a long-anticipated trip to Boswell's home nation, visiting its western islands, the Hebrides.
    While they were warmly received wherever they went—Johnson at the time was among the most famous men of letters in the English-speaking world—It felt like both the outer rung of the civilization, and at times its lowest rung as well. At one point they peer into a poor hut, smoky and filthy, where the simple family sleeps all in one bed.
    "Et hoc secundum sententiam philosopherum est esse beatus,"  Johnson murmurs to Boswell. "And that, according to the opinion of philosophers, is happiness," no doubt a dig at Boswell's idol, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and his lauding of simple country virtues.
    Boswell would meet Rousseau. And Voltaire. And David Hume. And King George III. He thrilled to be in the presence of greatness, so much his adoration was almost charming. And Johnson, who once said "The road to hell is paved with good intentions," is the avatar of pithiness and reason. They're great guys to hang around with.
    Johnson remarks on the value of being attacked in print, as opposed to being ignored.
     "A man who tells me my play is very bad, is less my enemy than he who lets it die in silence," he tells Boswell. "A man whose business it is to be talked of, is much helped by being attacked."
     Words to remember.     
     Having read Boswell's Life of Johnson and found it perhaps the best biography I've ever read, I long anticipated Hebrides as a kind of looser encore, and it is exactly that, although Johnson does sometimes fade away, nearly lost amidst the lairds and lochs and crumbling castles that are being reported upon by Boswell. It nearly shocked me when Boswell paused to address it, as if he had read my mind.
     "He asked me today how we were so little together," Boswell notes, on Sept. 19, 1773. "I told him my Journal took up so much time. But at the same time, it is curious that although I will run from one end of London to another to have an hour with him, I should omit to seize any spare time to be in his company when I am in the house with him. But my Journal is really a task of much time and labor, and Mr. Johnson forbids me to contract it."
   The book is still a box of candy for any Johnson fan, and I've been reading it with much joy and happiness.  I happened upon a 1936 Viking Press imprint (in Evanston's delightful Amaranth Books on Davis Street) that reproduces the original manuscript, whole, and includes much tart personal observations that are cut out of the book as published at the time: his arguments with Johnson, his nightmares about his child's face, eaten by worms, and his tendency to start each morning with a dram of Scottish whiskey, until Johnson, a teetotaler, berates him. "For shame!" 
     They have an exchange that would be current this week, with the conservative Boswell taking up the popular Republican cry, and Johnson providing the draft of common sense.
    "But is there not reason to fear the common people may be oppressed?" Boswell asks. 
    "No sir," Johnson answers. "Our great fear is from want of power in government. Such a storm of vulgar force has broken in."
    "It has only roared," parries Boswell.
    "Sir, it has roared till the judges in Westminster Hall have been afraid to pronounce sentence in opposition to the popular cry.  You are frightened by what is no longer dangerous, like Presbyterians by Popery." There are many people nowadays, Johnson observes, quoting a popular work, who "would cry "Fire! Fire!' in Noah's Flood." 
    Such people are still with us, unfortunately, though the likes of Boswell and Johnson are not. But they can still be found alive and well and talking lustily in his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides. Plus a lot about Scotland. They even observe a game of golf, circa 1773.

Amanda Palmer: The Art of Asking (Grand Central: 2014) 


     There is a phenomenon I call "The Curator Effect" in recognition of the impact a knowledgeable guide has on your appreciation of any work of art. 
     I coined it after Madeleine Grynsztejn, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, walked me through an exhibit of installations by Icelandic artist Elander Olaafsen. 
     As much as I admired the black basalt wall affixed with delicate beige Icelandic moss, as pleasurable as it was, under Madeleine's gentle guidance, to hold the fragile tufts to my nose and inhale deeply, I had the sneaking suspicion that much of the artist's value would have eluded me had she not been there, illuminating  and explaining it.
     Okay, I would have totally loved the big industrial fan on a chain, raging about over our heads like an angry, tethered beast. But otherwise most of the Olaafsen show would have flown past me. 
    So, as a critic writing for a newspaper audience, how much do I have to factor her tour in when suggesting that readers go to the show? They wouldn't have Grynsztejn at their elbow. 
     A puzzlement. I suppose the solution is to plow through creative offerings cold, without any kind of expert instruction. But then I'd miss all the nuances that are there, waiting to be discovered.  Part of the job is to understand what you're seeing, and for that you often need help.
     Thus, when considering the memoir, The Art of Giving, by singer and performance artist Amanda Palmer, I have to consider that, when I opened the book, I'd already been listening to her songs fairly steadily—particularly "Judy Blume," which I just love—and had listened to her Ted talk on giving, twice, and gone to hear her address the HOW convention in Chicago, where I was delighted to hear her play "Ukulele Anthem" live, and, under her spell, bought the book, then shyly gone up and had her sign it. All preparation for writing an appreciation of Palmer.
    So the question is: am I well-versed in my subject? Or am I just a fan?
    Then again, who else is going to buy a book like that? I can't picture someone in a bookstore noticing it and thinking: Oh! Here's a book by a singer I never heard of. I think I'll buy it. It was made a best seller by her small but determined army of devotees.
    Still, fandom only goes so far. I love Tom Waits, have probably 30 albums, saw him perform too, and tossed away Lowside of the Road with a shrug after a few pages.
    Not so with The Art of Giving, which begins in medias res, with Palmer doing what she does best, asking for stuff.
    "WHO'S GOT A TAMPON? I JUST GOT MY PERIOD" she announces "loudly to nobody in particular" in ladies rooms from San Francisco to Sydney and, invariably the female hygiene product, or Kleenex, or pen, or wad of cash, is dutifully forked over to her.
     If you suspect that such a personality might grate, I had that fear too. But Palmer's honesty is such that you're right there with her, while she manifests herself. Like so many young people, she wants to be an artist, and, again like the vast majority, is not bristling with obvious talent beyond an ability to paint herself white, dress in a bridal gown and stand on a box in Harvard Square. 
    So she does that.
    I'm a candor junkie; I squint and search for evasion, for spin. But Palmer eluded all the little traps I kept setting for her. I knew she had gone to Wellesley College, the kind of privileged enclave that could prove fatal to edgy artists. Does she mention it? Yes she does. She marries Neil Gaiman, a vastly popular, rich and successful fantasy novelist who's 15 years older than she. Does Palmer recognize the pitfalls and contradictions of that? More, their romance provides much of the narrative arc of the book, as she sorts through her conflicted feelings. Her well-honed ability to be what we call in Yiddish a schnorrer suddenly seizing up when it comes to letting her husband bail her out financially. 
    Her relation of her early years standing on a box, a character she calls "The Bride," is a tour d'force, and, I'll warn you, you'll never sneer at street performers with the same easy disdain after you've read Palmer's experience. She does for busking what George Orwell does for washing dishes in Down and Out in Paris and London. 
    The insecurity, the ambition, her insights are spot on. Slowly she matures, realizing she doesn't have to snag everybody walking by.
     Feeling gratitude was a skill I honed on the street, and dragged along with me into the music industry. I never aimed to please everyone who walked by, or everyone listening to the radio. All I needed was ... some people. Enough people. Enough to make it worth coming back the next day, enough to make rent and put food on the table. And enough so I could keep making art.
    Palmer's a good writer, who can pack a lot into a succinct phrase ("Hate is fear," also sounds like Orwell, or at least one of his famed totalitarian edicts turned inside out and made true). What sold the book for me was that, during all her promotion of just asking people for the stuff you want, she pauses to share examples where it didn't work. Palmer urges  her followers to support a talented musician's fundraising campaign, and is met by a yawn, and she realizes that while her fans will respond for pleas to help her, Amanda Fucking Palmer, directly, that isn't a generosity she can necessarily tap at will for the benefit of others. 
     Reading that, the Roehm Junior High School debater within me nodded and thought: Contrary evidence supports your case. Because providing it shows you're coming from a place of truth, not hype, and gives weight to your conclusions. That's subtle, something zealots never realize, which is why they undercut themselves, because they only marshal facts that support them, and come off as dishonest.
     Amanda Palmer comes from a place of truth. You might not always like her truth; there is a wounded, broken doll vulnerability, a youthful frisson that might feel out-of-place in a woman in her late 30s. But I imagine that quality will evolve into something else when she becomes a mother in September. She's a very interesting person to hang out with, and  I savored her book, cover to cover. 
     To get back to my original question, I don't think you need to be a fan of her music to get something out of The Art of Asking. Her book made me think of ... and this is a connection I doubt has been made before ... Howard Stern and his two memoirs, which I read, researching an article for Esquire. I  had seldom heard Stern's show, outside a few snatches, no pun intended, caught in New York cabs, and based on what I knew of him, didn't want to hear more. But I found his books tremendously vivid and honest and quite creative in their design and execution, not to mention very funny. They didn't make me want to start listening, but I kept them and would recommend them. 
     In the same vein, I think a person could pick up The Art of Asking never having heard Palmer sing a note, and get a lot from it. But thankfully, there is no need for that. Download a dozen songs—"Bigger on the Inside" is also powerful—and listen to them as you read the book. Discovering Amanda Palmer enriched my cultural landscape this year, like noticing a small purple star, just above the tree line. Slightly abashed not to have noticed it before, but certainly glad to have it there now. 

Phineas Finn,  by Anthony Trollope (Everyman, 1997)

    I don't read many novels, because they generally strike me as untrue. Whatever fantasy world is created is pallid compared with reality, the characters jerky with quirks and irrationalities, unbelievable puppets, compared to actual people, moving through un uninteresting tale.
    But occasionally a novel grabs me. 
    This was an improbably choice. Even Adam Gopnik's tribute to Anthony Trollope on his 200th birthday in the New Yorker in early May might not have prompted me to read it. I have an aversion to 19th century British novelists. I think I've read two Dickens novels, Great Expectations, in high school, and A Christmas Carol, several times, and as marvelous as those were, I was happy to leave it at that. 
    But Gopnik's 2008 essay on Samuel Johnson had set me off on a deeply satisfying journey into Johnson's vastly fascinating world, not only reading the biography he was reviewing—Samuel Johnson by Peter Martin—but tackling Boswell's epic Life of Johnson, a pure joy.
    So I figured, he didn't steer me wrong with the Great Cham of Literature; perhaps I should trust him here, too. 
     So into Phineas Finn, an 1869 novel about a young Irishman who is put up for a seat in Parliament, his world of ministers and functionaries, plus assorted characters such as Quintus Slade of the People's Banner, one of the greasier journalists  to be found in literature, approaching those in real life. There are alluring, strong women characters: Lady Laura Standish, wed to to the rigid Robert Kennedy, and the buoyant Violet Effingham.
    The romantic ... well, not a triangle, more like a pentagram, when you include Madame Max Goesler and Mary Flood Jones, his sweetheart waiting patiently back at home—did keep my interest, but I was able to march through its 650 pages mainly due to the book's political tone, which rang a most contemporary note. Here is Finn and his friend Laurence Fitzgibbon debating how a vote will fall between the Tories and the Liberals.
    "But the country gets nothing done by a Tory government," says Phineas.
    "As to that, it's six of one, half a dozen of the other," replies his Fitzgibbon. "I never knew a government yet that wanted to do anything. Give a government a real strong majority, as the Tories used to have half a century since, and as a matter of course it will do nothing. Why should it? Doing things, as you call it, is only bidding for power—for patronage and pay."
     That could be the Illinois government right now.  The cynicism of the book, 150 years old, is startlingly contemporary, such as when the hypocrisy of British leadership is painted as a good thing, at least compared to the sincerity of Americans. In Britain, rancorous Parliamentary debates end with the participants marching off arm-in-arm.
     "It is not so in the United States," writes Trollope. "There the same political enmity exists, but the political enmity produces private hatred. The leaders of parties there really mean what they say when they abuse each other, and are in earnest when they talk as though they were about to tear each other limb from limb."
Anthony Trollope
      The shabbiness of low level government is deliciously laid out by Trollope, who worked as a postal inspector in Ireland for years—some of Finn's friends express sincere condolences at the calamity of his election. But the higher levels fare little better.
     Here is  again is Fitzgibbon—who blithely reneges on a loan that Finn has signed for in an act of misplaced trust, causing Finn to be plagued by a colorfully dogged creditor—explaining the candidates for Prime Minister. 
     "There will be a choice out of three. There is the Duke, who is the most incompetent man in England; there is Monk, who is the most unfit; and there is Gresham, who is the most unpopular. I can't conceive it possible to find a worse Prime Minister than either of the three,— but the country affords no other."
     "And which would Mildmay name?" asks Phineas.
   "All of them,—one after the other, so as to make the embarrassment the greater."
    "Mildmay" points to one of the flaws in the book, Trollope's tendency toward illustrative names. There is the timid Mildmay, the radical Turnbull, the revered Duke of Omnium. Not quite Piers Plowman's wife, Dame Work-While-I-Am-Able, but uncomfortably close.  
     Still, I found myself eager to get back to the book, the mark of good fiction.  Trollope is a first rate writer, tossing off lines that should be epigrams assuming they weren't already when he used them: "But we all know how the man well spoken of may steal a horse, while he who is of evil repute may not look over a hedge." 
     Or, even better: "After all, money is an accident."
     Phineas Finn plunges readers into a world that is foreign—after Lady Laura flees her husband, the grim Mr. Kennedy threatens to go to law to drag her back—yet all-too-familiar. There's something reassuring about it. If our leaders are going to be dolts, at least we can comfort ourselves with the realization that we didn't invent the practice. The greatest recommendation I can give is that there is a second book, Phineas Redux and I am going to seek that out and dive in, just for the pleasure of hanging out with Phineas, Lady Laura, Madame Max and the rest of their diverting circle. It is summer, after all. 

Phineas Redux, by Athony Trollope (Oxford: 1983). 

     True to my word, I dove into Phineas Redux, the 1873 sequel to Phineas Finn, and am pleased to report that it is even better than the original, in the same way that Huck Finn outdistances Tom Sawyer. Faster, smarter, more satisfying.
     Then again, we are already familiar with the cast, and part of the joy is to welcome them back. Phineas has married his long-neglected Mary and retreated to Ireland, only to have his beloved die—a tad abruptly, I felt, as if Trollope realized he had made a mistake having Finn prefer her over his fancy London lady pals, and was eager to shove her off the stage and get him back to London. A dramatic possibility was lost, and he owed the poor gal better, if only out of respect.
     Finn  returns, noting that his old friends, though eager to embrace him, never bothered to communicate with him while he was away, not even when his wife died. Here Trollope, who tosses off sharp observations in waves ("A drunkard or a gambler might be weaned from his ways, but not a politician") has a profound observation about something that has always puzzled me.
     Distance in time and place, but especially in time, will diminish friendship. It is a rule of nature that it should be so, and thus the friendships which a man most fosters are those which he can best enjoy. If your friend leave you, and seek a residency in Patagonia, make a niche for him in your memory, and keep him there as warm as you may. Perchance he may return from Patagonia and the old joys may be repeated. But never think that those joys can be maintained by the assistance of ocean postage, let it be at never so cheap a rate. Phineas Finn had not thought this matter out very carefully, and now, after two years of absence, he was surprised to find that he was still had in remembrance by those who had never troubled themselves to write to him a line during his absence.
     He returns to Parliament, which he finds in the same state of cynical disfunction.  Mr. Bonteen, "a hack among hacks" suddenly rises and is "spoken of in connection with one of the highest offices of the State!" A bill to get the government out of the business of officially endorsing a particular church (does nothing change?) is brushed aside by the very liberals who should support it, because the conservatives had the gall to propose it first; "The meeting passed off with dissension, and it was agreed that the House of Commons should be called upon to reject the Church Bill simply because it was proposed from that side of the House on which the minority was sitting."
    Meanwhile the clergy, then as now, conflate their loss of stature into a general decadence:
    "It is no good any longer having any opinion upon anything," one parson said to another, as they sat together at their club with their newspapers in their hands. "Nothing frightens any one,—no infidelity, no wickedness, no revolution. All reverence is at an end."
     About halfway through the book a plot development occurs that I wouldn't dream of revealing, other than to say the story veers into something of a mystery, or at least a courtroom procedural. It made the last 300 pages snap along, and several times I thought I should break off and write something here but, frankly, couldn't tear myself away to do it.
     I will say that the end, like the dispatch of sweet Mary, was just too abrupt. After more than a thousand pages of Phineas Finn, the reader had earned a more gradual coasting to a stop. But Trollope obviously knew his stuff, and was getting better as he went along. Phineas Finn can be frustratingly oblique, a most human character—when he breaks down, it is with maddening and realistic obstinance—which is part of what makes him so fascinating. It's a shame he isn't better known to fans of literature.
Life, by Keith Richards, with James Fox (Little, Brown: 2010)

      It might sounds strange to compare Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards to Lyndon B. Johnson, but let me make my case.
     Before the fact, I wouldn't have thought to touch a book like this. I was never a particular Stones fan, with Mick Jagger doing his rooster act, and Keith Richards stoically playing away. I recognize the power and pure rock-and-roll quality of the songs. Still, I don't love the Stones.
     But my wife does. She really likes them—we've gone to concerts on her behalf—and I got her the book as a birthday present when it came out.
     She raved about it, which still wouldn't have been enough.
     But Sara Bader, my co-author put a quote from Richards in our new book, a literary companion to recovery, a subject Keith Richards knows something about. Writing the endnotes, I of course looked at the book, read around the quote.
     And that was it. I was hooked.
     It reminded me—and I know this sounds like a wild comparison—of nothing so much as Robert Caro's Path to Power. Like most people, I didn't give a rat's ass about Lyndon Johnson. But Path to Power is the sort of book that you open the cover with a "Hmm, what's this?" and then next thing you know you're standing in front of the bookstore, waiting for the next volume to be published. When I talk about it, I feel like a drunkard recounting his sad story in front of a Salvation Army band. Someone handed it to me. It looked interesting. I thought I would give it a try...
    Life is like that. Richards just has such a wonderful, compelling voice (I assume his coauthor Fox had a role here) that he could be writing about literally anything and you just want to hear him talk more. About his mom and dad, Burt and Doris. About his pets—a cat named Toaster, wonderfully.
     The odd thing is, the parts you think will be most interesting—tours, fame, wealth, groupies—are the least interesting parts of Life. He makes groupies seem like concerned neighbors who bring you by some soup, check up on your welfare and, sometimes, if you're not too stoned, sleep with you.
     It's his worldview, his mentality, his love of blues (and, I'm proud to say, Chicago). Indeed, this book taught me three incredible things about Keith: that he was a proud member of the Boy Scouts. That he once moved into a suburban Australian woman's house for a week and cared for her baby while she was at work and, most of all, that he sometimes goes camping out West in a Winnebago.
     Picturing Keith Richards in that Winnebago in Oklahoma will make whatever low-budget cheeseball vacation I take next far easier to bear.
     He is also very candid about his famed drug addiction. "Most junkies become idiots," he writes.
     The book is worth reading for its keelhauling of Mick Jagger alone. It's masterful. Up to now, I would have thought the most gorgeously skewered character in all of literature was Serr Bruno, Dante's old teacher, whom he hoists out of his pool of bubbling lead, or whatever, in Inferno, just long enough for the poor guy to babble why he's in Hell—a sodomite, apparently—then Dante drops him back in, all the while cooing with such sympathy you forget that Dante is the one who created the Hell and put his old friend in it.
     Keith is so complimentary of Mick, so careful to give him credit, and strains never to tar him as the self-absorbed asshat he so obviously is. In fact, for the first few hundred pages, Richards gives Jagger various slightly amazed little nods and compliments, all the while setting up when his full infamy will be laid out later in all its operatic glory.  It's majestic, and really the plot line of the book. Mick Jagger is the White Whale we've been waiting to crest the surface, spouting vanity like plume, so Keith can reach back and drive the barbed harpoon hard into his side. Just the fact that Keith gives big half-page blocks of testimony to everyone from his kids, his wife, even Tom Waits (who tosses off a delightful phrase, the "deficit of wonder.") But never Mick, the assumption being either he was too arrogant and self-absorbed to offer commentary on another person, even his old pal, or that he's a constitutional liar and nothing he would say could have any value, or both. 
     Celebrity biographies are typically about finding fame, the moment when the Big Break happens. But that's sort of a given here. Richards has been famous so long—50 years—that its a condition of nature, like breathing.  His glory is, Richards never seems to care. No knighthood for him, but another delightful put-down when Mick goes crawling for his, in front of Prince Charles, mind you, not even the queen. 
     If I had to pinpoint a flaw, he does go on a bit about open chord tuning—perhaps musicians appreciate that, but I sure didn't.  I'm on page 532 now, almost at the end, and I just don't want the thing to be over, though when it is, I'm going to do something heretofore unimagined: download some Keith Richards songs. If listening to them is half enjoyable as reading about how they were recorded,* then they'll be enjoyable indeed.

* It wasn't.

The Thoreau You Don't Know: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant, by Robert Sullivan (Collins: 2009)

     This book is five years old — I picked it up on sale at the Boulder Bookstore last December. It's one of what I call the Really-Smart-Guy-Leads-You-Through-the-Classics genre, like Why Read Moby-Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick and How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton (I plan to write one someday called Dante is my Wingman). They're often more fun than merely re-reading the works, more like taking a good class. Half seminar, half fanzine.
        Sullivan's book certainly is, washing away the layers of piety that surround Thoreau, trying to determine whether he was indeed "a jerk" and pointing out how funny he can be (we often miss the humor of our forbears, by being ignorant of the context of their jesting, missing allusions and subtleties).
     The Vogue columnist does a great job of setting Thoreau in his milieu, nestled under Emerson's wing, and in his economic time, when "Jefferson's yeoman farmer and the artisan went from being respected citizens of young America to the outsourced workers. Crafts were dying and farms were shutting down, and young people were suddenly without their old paths to employment." Hmm, sound familiar?
     Sullivan interjects himself — there is the obligatory tramp to Walden Pond — but he is a steady companion, not the wordsmith that Thoreau was, but who is? I doggedly read this thoughtful book over the past three months, setting it aside but never being able to abandon it because Thoreau, more than almost any other American writer, has a lot to say, and we should be thankful to Sullivan for acting almost as a translator, brushing the leaves out of Thoreau's hair and cleaning him up to be appreciated by yet another generation.

American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love and Politics by Dan Savage (Dutton: $24.95)

     It might at first sound like damning by faint praise to say that Dan Savage is the Ann Landers of the 21st century. But that would only be to those who think of her as an advice-doling anachronism, and forget what a clear, courageous, smart, funny, compassionate voice of reason Landers was at a time when the mainstream culture still clung to an outmoded, incorrect and exclusionary view of what life ought to be. Savage is quite simply the most important columnist in America, his sex column only the platform by which he slays a variety of Right Wing dragons and champions the downtrodden, from bullied gay teens -- he is the originator of the "It Gets Better" program -- to frustrated long-term "vanilla" marrieds.
     I've read two of his previous books, The Kid, about adopting a son with his partner Terry, and The Commitment, about their getting married, and both were excellent—not just for the engaging stories and fresh ideas, but just as examples of smart, sharp, funny writing.  Reading him can't help but make you a better, bolder writer yourself. From time to time I remind myself — and grandmothers reading this, avert your eyes here—"If Dan Savage can write this honestly about being fucked up the ass, then perhaps I can address whatever minor suburban woe I'm worrying about sharing."
     The book offers essays on diverse subjects — past columns writ large, as it were. And while some might be a tad too insidery for the average reader — he parses the issue of bisexuality a bit too finely for those of us not bisexual, to the best of our knowledge, obviously stung by past criticisms that he wasn't sensitive enough to their particular plight — the book contains plenty of gems, such as his son coming out as straight, which, heartbreakingly, echoes some of the difficulties of teens who come out as gay, plus Savage's trademark sharp thought process that make it well-worth any reader's time.
     I should probably say—and I'm presenting this as full disclosure, but I really I'm just bragging—that at the end of the Introduction, which does have an offhand "I've gotta do this" quality I found perhaps one notch beneath the usual spot-on tone of Savage, busy now with speeches and television, he suggests that readers might also consider a trio of books, including my most recent.  That didn't influence me —I admired him long before — but shows what a stand-up guy he is. Very few writers would have the generosity of spirit to plug someone else, and Dan Savage is among the rare souls that have enormous heart but are never sentimental.

A Hologram for the King, by Dave Eggers (McSweeney's: 2012) .

I adored Zeitoun, Eggers' 2009 non-fiction tale of heroism and Islam in post-Katrina, New Orleans, and while I didn't rush out to read his latest book, a novel published last year, it's been on my radar. The story of Alan Clay, a 54-year-old executive who is stranded in Saudi Arabia, waiting for King Abdullah to show up so they can present their technology to him. There's a sense of the movie "Lost in Translation," to it,  of the empty voids of business travel, the soulless encounters of men and women far from home. But it also offers a strong image of Saudi Arabia, which Eggers obviously visited, of the challenges of visiting there, with strong, interesting, non-cliched supporting characters. Though there might be some Stockholm Syndrome going on, as, in Eggers' hands, the Saudis are a generally loveable bunch. Alan Clay is very human, very real, an executive who spent the bulk of his career at Schwinn, and now is unmoored and navigating a shifting world, the book a thoughtful rumination about what went wrong economically in America.

"How could he have predicted the world losing interest in people like him?" Clay wonders. I often wonder that myself.

Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football, by Rich Cohen (FSG: $26)

Not my usual area of interest. But Cohen, a North Shore native gone Manhattan, is an excellent writer, and as a fan of his previous works—Tough Jews, The Avengers, Sweet and Low, Lake Effect and others—I wanted to check this memoir out.

What I really like about it, first, are the fascinating details. I thought I knew Chicago pretty well, but had no idea how the Chicago Bears got their name directly from the Chicago Cubs. Or that Jim McMahon had bruised his heart, literally. Or that Bears (and NFL) founder George Halas played baseball for the Yankees. The book has great capsule profiles of Bears players from their lone Super Bowl winning year (although Cohen doesn't mention my favorite bit of Super Bowl nomenclature trivia—that the Super Bowl got its name from "Super Ball," the popular mid-1960s toy orb).

Another great thing that Cohen does is show the cost of football, both to the bodies of the players and to their spirits, the incredible challenge of—and often, their failure in—forming a meaningful life after football.

The book is also part memoir, and if I have a criticism, I would have liked to see him examine a bit harder his fandom. Then again, I am not a football fan, so maybe I'm one of the rare people who need to have it explained.

The bad news is that the book won't be out until the end of October. The good news is that by then you might welcome any distraction from the Bears season unfolding in front of you.

The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer's Iliad and the Trojan War, by Caroline Alexander (Penguin: $16).

If you love the Iliad — and really, who doesn't? — you face the problem of just not having the time to re-read all 15,693 lines as much as you like. Which is why it's such a pleasure to put yourself in the hands of Alexander, a Rhodes scholar with a masterly grip on the material and a minimum of axe-grinding or academic hogwash. This is a war story that begins with the great hero, Achilles declaring how pointless the war is, then huffing off to go cry to his mother over a girl, and Alexander lovingly highlights every historical and literary nuance.

The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America, by Ernest Freeberg (The Penguin Press: $27.95).

We think that relentless technological change is a modern invention. Yet it's something humanity has been dealing with for centuries, and in some ways, our much-celebrated recent wonders are puny when compared to the advances that rocked our ancestors' lives.

Freeberg's look at how America embraced electric light in the 1880s and 1890s reminds us how what we think of as basic, ordinary technology—the light bulb—was hugely disruptive and threatening when introduced.  Particularly worthwhile is his description how towns had to figure out what to do with these new lights. At first they tried to approximate the sun, erecting enormous towers with hugely powerful lamps atop them. But that ended up lighting roofs and treetops while leaving sidewalks in shadow. "What you want," a visitor to Los Angeles explained, "is to have the lights down low, and to have them scattered at regular intervals."

So cities grudgingly moved from a few scattered towers (which were cheaper) to numerous street lights, which not only cost more, but drew the ire of homeowners and businesses, who hated intrusion of the poles. "Landowners objected when crews showed up to erect the poles in their front yards, often hacking up shade trees to clear space for the lines," Freeberg writes."The courts spent years determining property rights in these pole disputes, most granting the electric companies the right of eminent domain since their service presumably served the public good. A few Luddites became local legends by fighting back, chopping down poles in the night. One New Jersey man went to jail for trying to cut down a pole when a lineman was still on it."

The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream, by Thomas Dyja (The Penguin Press: $29.95)

Like many, my impression of Chicago in the middle of the 20th century was set in aspic by A. J. Liebling, whose Chicago: The Second City, published in 1952, cast Chicago as a dreary also-ran, plagued by spotty garbage collection and under the thumb of regressive idiots such as Col. Robert McCormick.

That somewhat unfair slur is remedied by Dyja, who presents Chicago in the 1930s through the early 1960s as a city of dynamic excitement, busily establishing what it means to be American. He does this through a range of residents, some familiar -- Nelson Algren, Gwendolyn Brooks, Mies van der Rohe (an assumed name taken "for effect." Who knew?) -- some unexpected, such as Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, a Hungarian artist whose wife provides the best moment, so far, for me in the book. 

Moholy-Nagy arrives in Chicago, and excitedly writes back to his wife Sibyl in London that he has found some powerful backers for his attempt to set up a New Bauhaus. Among his school's supporters is Marshall Field.

Sibyl is alarmed by this news.

"Why would they have to be involved with the military?" she wonders.

This book offers up rich portraits of Chicagoans you might not know much about. For instance, I was aware that Mahalia Jackson was a gospel singer. That's about it. Dyja has the reader inside her head as she cooks for her family -- it's essential reading for anyone who loves Chicago.

Dyja is in book publishing in New York. I started reading the book after hearing him speak at the Book Cellar in Lincoln Square in June. He and I will conducting a conversation in September at the Newberry Library. I'll let you know as soon as they set a date.


  1. I always thought it would have been funny to name an airport after Marshall Field, so it would be Field Field or even weirder, make him a Field Marshal & then it would have been Field Marshal Marshall Field Field.

  2. Congratulations and good luck on the new venture, Neil. A swell idea. I was not surprised to note that your nightstand currently holds a copy of Thomas Dyja's book. I was at the Book Cellar that evening as well, and was just delighted in what a classic Chicago occasion it was. You, Eric Zorn, Tony Fitzpatrick and the other notables in the audience made for a more interesting Q and A than most. (BTW, I found myself siding with your position in the brief Harold Washington discussion you had with T. Fitzpatrick, FWIW...)

    But, this can't REALLY be a typical comment from a reader of yours if there isn't some kind of gripe, so here goes. Whereas I'm sure you gave the format of the blog the requisite amount of consideration, and while I appreciate the CONCEPT of the notepad background, I gotta say that I find the blue lines across some of the type as I'm reading rather annoying. From one iconoclast to another...

  3. It's too bad that eventually the Field family produced a klutz like Teddie who wanted to become a big time player in Hollywood and so forced the sales of the SunTimes to have enough money to become a VIP. No academy awards for this guy but he did get a well-deserved Razzie. This guy is so clueless that a bunch of so-called swindlers didn't have much of a problem stealing away from him his beloved Radar Pictures. When you think of all the people who were hurt and the headaches over the years at the SunTimes, one can only hope that God was a subscriber when Teddie and Murdoch finally arrive at the Pearly Gates.

  4. This is a great feature of your blog, as I'm always interested in good book recommendations, and to date you've been quite reliable ("Zeitoun", "The Fiddler in the Subway" and of course "The Inferno" among them). I'm about to start the Oliver Sacks book "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat", and looking at your list above assures me I'll be happily reading for months to come.

  5. Just discovered this part of your blog. More than a little slow for sure. Didn't get the Marshall Field "military" reference even after reading the comment about Field Marshall Marshall Field. I agree that your book recommendations are always right on the money. Especially "Zeitoun." And if I ever get "Catapult" back from my nephew, I'll see whether it's just a boy's book or if my daughter will enjoy it as much as I did.

  6. I also just discovered this portion of your site. In re Ann Landers & Dan Savage: didn't he buy her writing desk & use it to write his column? JMFendrych

  7. Good review on Keith's book. I'm a Stones fan.

  8. But I would tell Keith, where would he be without Mick?

  9. Neil, did you get to Phineas Redux yet? 3 clerks is great too, though the characters' names are truly outrageous.


    1. John --

      Yes, and it literally is sitting on my nightstand, completed and waiting for me to post here about it. Thanks for the kick in the ass. I'll get something up this week.

    2. Thanks. Must be wearisome flitting from blog to blog responding to inanities. And then you add Twitter into the mix!


  10. Neil: Can't wait to get rid of Undecimus Scott and get to Phineas Redux. Thanks to you, I seem to be trapped in a 19th century time warp. But glad of it.


    1. Purchased Trollope's entire ouvre for $2.51 for Kindle just in order to read "Redux," but the darned machine keeps starting me off on "McDermotts," and so far can't figure out how to navigate through the works. The "McDermotts" certainly strikes me as about as unsentimental as a novel could be, especially in the 19th Century.


    2. Neil:

      Having immersed myself, however briefly, in Anthony Trollope's novels, everything I see seemed to be influenced by a Trollopean bias. The travails of Lt. Gliniewicz reminds me of Phineas Finn's overwhelming agony at the thought not of being "hung," but of the world thinking him guilty of a crime worthy of such punishment. Even more apt is a comparison to Alaric Tudor in The Three Clerks, who under the influence of the truly evil Undecimus Scott (Trollope editorially calls for his hanging on a street lamp) invests money that he's entrusted with in speculating in stocks. Trollope makes us feel Alaric's anguish, embarrassment and yes the almost irresistible urge to do away with himself as his crime is slowly revealed.


    3. A Trollopean Union Station perchance:

      It is quite unnecessary to describe the Tenway Junction, as everybody knows it. From this spot, some six or seven miles distant from London, lines diverge east, west, and north, northeast, and north-west, round the metropolis in every direction, and with direct communication with every other line in and out of London. It is a marvellous place, quite unintelligible to the uninitiated, and yet daily used by thousands who only know that when they get there, they are to do what some one tells them. The space occupied by the convergent rails seems to be sufficient for a large farm. And these rails always run one into another with sloping points, and cross passages, and mysterious meandering sidings, till it seems to the thoughtful stranger to be impossible that the best trained engine should know its own line. Here and there and around there is ever a wilderness of wagons, some loaded, some empty, some smoking with close-packed oxen, and others furlongs in length black with coals, which look as though they had been stranded there by chance, and were never destined to get again into the right path of traffic. Not a minute passes without a train going here or there some rushing by without noticing: Tenway in the least, crashing through like flashes of substantial lightning, and others stopping, disgorging and taking up passengers by the hundreds. Men and women, — especially the men, for the women knowing their ignorance are generally willing to trust to the pundits of the place, — look doubtful, uneasy, and bewildered. But they all do get properly placed and unplaced, so that the spectator at last acknowledges that over all this apparent chaos there is presiding a great genius of order. From dusky morn to dark night, and indeed almost throughout the night, the air is loaded with a succession of shrieks. The theory goes that each separate shriek, — if there can be any separation where the sound is so nearly continuous, — is a separate notice to separate ears of the coming or going of a separate train. The stranger, as he speculates on these pandemoniac noises, is able to realise the idea that were they discontinued the excitement necessary for the minds of the pundits might be lowered, and that activity might be lessened, and evil results might follow. But he cannot bring himself to credit that theory of individual notices. [II, 231-33]

  11. Neil, just bought your book Out of the Wreck at the reading you gave at my public library. Plunked down $2.oo for your feature on Adoption too. Turns out I still crush on cute, smart Jewish guys: you and most recently Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic:) p.s I am a happily married woman sending you a note on the email I share with my husband Mike..just never bothered to set up my own email account after tagging on to my husband's back in 1994:) I'm your newest fan and will keep looking for you in print. Also, I admire you as a recovery hero! Stay well and keep writing.

  12. Getting very late to this, but am enjoying all entries in your blog. Was somewhat surprised -- pleasantly -- to see you enjoyed Life by Richards. It's been 8 years but I still remember this 'review' of the book by Bill Wyman (no, not THAT Bill Wyman) for Slate, which is written from Jagger's POV. Not only hilarious but is probably a truer representation of what the Stones and monster rock bands in general are like than most serious takes on the subject. (I was in a middling one 40 some years ago and can confirm.) Anyway, it's very funny.

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