Book Review: The Old-Time Saloon

Originally published in 1931, this edition is a delightful facsimile reprint by the University of Chicago Press. Also included are an enlightening introduction and helpful end-notes by Bill Savage.

The author, George Ade, is an under-appreciated Chicago reporter, humorist, and playwright. He was especially known for his ability to reflect the vernacular of the commoners in his work, which is very much in evidence in this book. True to his journalistic background, the subtitle of this book is “Not Wet — Not Dry, Just History,” by which Ade means that it is neither pro-alcohol (“wet”) nor anti-alcohol (“dry”). And throughout the book, which focuses on the saloon culture that was lost due to Prohibition, he sticks to his promise. It’s descriptive, factual, and fascinating, but presented without judgement.

gordon meyer with book

Without judgement, but with full appreciation and a definite mourning for what was lost. Since this was written during Prohibition, with no foreknowledge of its eventual repeal, the book is an interesting snapshot in time. And even though the country eventually broke free of its delusion and corrected the mistake, the corner saloon never returned in the same way.

There’s much here to like, and most of it is best read or retold over a drink, but here are a couple of things that stood out to me:

  • Ade describes a culture of saloon singing, much of it fueled by the popular Delaney Song Books. Some of my best college memories involve the drinking songs of my fraternity (Ade was a Greek, too) so this really spoke to me. Alas, today, one can’t break into a rousing group sing-a-long, unless you’re in a karaoke bar, I suppose.
  • Regarding the proliferation of tied houses in Chicago, the breweries were not very selective with whom they partnered. Many of their conscripted proprietors had to resort to underage peddling and other nefarious activities to stay afloat, thus fueling the anti-saloon movement that doomed their existence.
  • Closing saloons led to more drinking at home, which primarily consisted of cocktails (hard liquor) and not beer. A textbook unintended consequence.
  • The separation of “wet” and “dry” proponents was largely an urban vs rural divide. Echoing the political problems we still suffer with today.
  • Although I had read about this before, Ade provides some new (to me) detail about Mickey Finn, the bartender on South State Street, who originated the knockout drops that allowed ladies to rob paramours while they were unconscious.
  • The term “scofflaw” is a Prohibition coinage, referring to people who drank despite the Volstead Act and its enforcers.

I bought my copy at Quimby’s, but you can, of course, find it at the Amazon too.


I do not accept advertising, but the Amazon want you to know that some links may contain affiliate codes that dangle the promise of earning me a few pennies towards running this site (at no additional expense to you). Humbly, Gordon Meyer

Book Review: Grave Tidings

This book by Paul Berra is subtitled “An Anthology of Famous Last Words.” It’s a British book, so American readers might quibble with some definitions of “famous,” but I found all the quotes interesting, enlightening, or entertaining, even when I had no idea who the speaker was. (Fortunately, Berra includes a brief discussion of each person and their circumstances, so you won’t feel completely ignorant.)

gordon meyer with book

I loved Barra’s opening paragraph in the Introduction:

In the midst of life, we are in death. Or, to paraphrase Jesus on the poor, the dead are always with us. They people our thoughts and memorials; they accumulate like dust behind locked doors and perch soberly atop bookshelves and mantelpieces.

For the record, that Jesus guy he mentions isn’t one of the people I’d never heard of. Also, I love the use of “people our thoughts,” which reminds me of Neil Tobin’s analysis of an artifact at the Winchester Mystery House.

Also in the Introduction, Berra refers to Robert Shea, and a personal patron saint of mine, Robert Anton Wilson, as “beat generation” writers. I suppose that is chronologically true, but it’s not a description that I’ve encountered before. I will ponder it carefully.

The book has about 200 examples of last words, and as there were many that I enjoyed, these are but a few examples:

  • “That was the best ice-cream soda I ever tasted”, said by Lou Costello before dropping dead, and “I just wish I had time for one more bowl of chili,” said by Kit Carson. Succumbing with food on the mind seems like something I’m likely to do, too.
  • “Why should I talk to you? I’ve just been talking to your boss,” said Wilson Mizner to the priest who visited his deathbed.
  • “Hurrah for Anarchy! This is the happiest moment of my life!” declared a neighbor of mine, George Engel, just before being unjustly hanged until dead. (Guests on my Bizarre Wicker Park tour learn all about this.)
  • “Don’t worry, it’s not loaded” were the last words of Terry Kath, a founding member of the band Chicago, which he uttered before shooting himself during a game of Russian Roulette.
  • Ambrose Bierce, author of The Devil’s Dictionary, said, “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination” before doing just that. His whereabouts were never discovered and his death presumed.
  • “Only one man ever understood me, and he didn’t understand me” is the perfect dialectical riddle, appropriately uttered by Georg Hegel.

I bought my copy of Grave Tidings at Quimby’s in Chicago, but you can also, of course, find it in the Amazon.


I do not accept advertising, but the Amazon want you to know that some links may contain affiliate codes that dangle the promise of earning me a few pennies towards running this site (at no additional expense to you). Humbly, Gordon Meyer

Book Review: Cows on Ice and Owls in the Bog

I love aphorisms and similes, so I was happy as a pig in shit to get this book. Subtitled “The Weird and Wonderful World of Scandinavian Sayings” it promised three of my favorite things under one cover. (For the record, those are: weird, Scandinavia, and sayings.)

The book is finely produced with the kind of subtle wit and attention to minimalist detail that you expect from two Scandinavians with names like Katarina Montnémery and Nastia Sleptsova. (Huh?)


gordon meyer holding the book

The sayings are fun, and the authors include a wonderful illustration and a paragraph or two of elucidation that eliminates any head-scratching moments. Most are not innately understood by American ears, so I probably won’t be slipping any into daily use. (You’re welcome.) But the cultural insights are fascinating, and at a higher level, demonstrate the universality of the human condition. A couple of examples:

  • Have a shit in the blue cupboard. Blue paint was expensive, so only the finest possessions were kept in cupboards painted blue. The saying refers to someone doing something foolish. (Swedish)
  • Even small pots have ears. This is how Swedish adults alert each other that children are within earshot, so discussions should be tempered accordingly. This reminds me of an expression from my upbringing: “Little pictures have big ears.”
  • Talk straight from the liver. A Norwegian expression meaning to speak frankly and freely, dating back to an age when the liver was thought to be the center of emotion and feeling.
  • With one’s mittens straight. A Finnish expression suggesting that one is not working hard, or contributing as much as they could, as their mittens are not showing any sign of wear.
  • Crossing the river to get water. In Norway, this means you are attempting to solve a problem in a convoluted way when there is a more obvious and easier solution.

I got my copy at the famous “goats on the roof” place in Sister Bay, Wisconsin. (Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant and Butik) But you’ll, of course, find it at the Amazon too.


I do not accept advertising, but the Amazon want you to know that some links may contain affiliate codes that dangle the promise of earning me a few pennies towards running this site (at no additional expense to you). Humbly, Gordon Meyer

Book Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

I’ve been hearing about this book for decades. I think the first reference I came across was when I was reading the book club (remember those?) edition of Stephen King’s Danse Macabre. I’ve encountered other references to Shirley Jackson’s work, too — sometimes in discussions about The Twilight Zone — but I’ve never taken the time to seek her novels.

And I still haven’t. I only read this one because it was left at my feet. That is, last October, someone put it in our Little Free Library. It was adorned with an enticing Post-It Note:

jackson book cover

I took this as a sign from a god and added the donated book to the pile of unread books that threatens to overtake my office. A couple of weeks ago, I opened to the first page, and by the end of the second sentence I was hooked:

”My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both of my hands are about the same length, but I have to be content with what I had.”

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is one of the most eerie, compelling, and beautifully written stories I have read. I wish I had done so sooner. As soon as I finished it (no spoilers, but the ending is perfect) I immediately wanted to read it all over again so I could study and admire its construction.

If you read the more studious reviews of the book—of which there are many in the 59 years since its publication—you’ll find heaps of praise and appreciation, but generally very little detail about the story itself. (Still, don’t read them, spoilers suck.) The reason for all their editorial vagueness, including my own, is that trying to convey the atmosphere and feeling that Jackson has created is like describing smoke. You have to experience it for yourself.

Here are some excerpts that stood out for me:

  • “I decided that I would choose three powerful words, words of strong protection, and so long as these great words were never spoken aloud no change would come. I wrote the first word — melody — in the apricot jam on my toast with the handle of a spoon and then put the toast in my mouth and ate it very quickly. I was one-third safe.”
  • “I thought of using digitalis as my third magic word, but it was too easy for someone to say, and at last I decided on Pegasus. I took a glass from the cabinet, and said the word very distinctly into the glass, then filed it with water and drank.”
  • “Since Charles had my occupation for Tuesday morning I had nothing to do. I wondered about going down to the creek, but I had no reason to suppose that the creek would even be there, since I never visited it on Tuesday mornings; …”

If you’re not lucky enough to receive a copy by divine intervention, you can, of course, buy one at Amazon.


I do not accept advertising, but the Amazon want you to know that some links may contain affiliate codes that dangle the promise of earning me a few pennies towards running this site (at no additional expense to you). Humbly, Gordon Meyer

Book Review: The Lake Michigan Mothman

Having grown up in the land of the Bear Lake Monster, Skin Walkers, and Bigfoot, I simply can’t deny that, for me, there’s no lore like cryptid lore. So for that reason alone, this book by Tobias Wayland was a no-brainer addition to my library. When you add that it’s centered in my hometown — even in my neighborhood, — and that the legend is part of my annual “Dark Tales of Bucktown” tour, it’s surprising that I haven’t read it multiple times already.

Gordon Meyer with mothman book

Did I enjoy the book? Duh. Do I wish it were better organized and written? Yeah, I do. Don’t get me wrong; the book is unique and useful because it compiles so many creature sightings into one volume. And almost all of them are first-person accounts as written by the witnesses. Unfortunately, this is also where the books desperately needs an editor and unifying perspective. It’s great these witnesses came forth with what they saw, but most of them are not going to win any essay contests (or even get a passing grade in English 101.) It takes a more tolerant reader than I am to read more than a few pages of this book at one sitting.

The only other beef I have is the book’s title. It should be called “The Chicago Bat.” I understand that “Lake Michigan” is more inclusive, accurate, and commercial, so I’ll accept that. But “Mothman” is, in my opinion, just wrong. Let West Virginia keep the Mothman to themselves. (They have so little to boast about, after all.) And while I understand that referring to the creature in this way is easy shorthand, it’s also misleading. The only significant similarity between the Chicago creature and the West Virginia creature is that they are winged humanoids. (OK, I can hear some of my fundamentalist friends thinking — “Um, both are also imaginary.” But I’ve moved beyond that.) Furthermore, as it becomes clear from the reports in the book, almost every witness describes it as being similar to a bat. So for these reasons, and more, I will continue to use the name “Chicago Bat” instead. (But not, for certain, “Batman.”)

Now, I should acknowledge that if it weren’t for the Milwaukee-based Singular Fortean Society, much of this creature’s story would be lost. Through their website, and now this book, they are the leading source of timely and interesting reports of all kinds of unusual occurrences. Bravo, and gratitude, for their work.

Here are a handful of tidbits that stood out for me, but like all good stories, there are more if you dig in and follow the trails embedded within.

  • There have been more than a hundred sightings of the Chicago Bat since 2017, but Wayland’s research convincingly extends the timeline back to 1957. The latest sighting, as I write this, was less than a month ago, in the Loop.
  • The book’s subtitle is “High Strangeness in the Midwest.” I love this turn of phrase.
  • Regarding the controversial, if not downright wacky aspects of these types of stories, Wayland writes: “…(all this) is a hard pill to swallow for scientific materialists, but my job as an investigator isn’t to make mainstream scientist types feel better; my job is to follow the trail wherever leads, even if that’s right into the gaping maw of the impossible.”
  • One possible rational explanation for the sightings is that large migratory birds not normally seen in the midwest are being driven to the Lake Michigan area by climate changes. How’s that for an unforeseen consequence of global warming!

I bought my copy from Amazon, but you can also buy a signed copy directly from the publisher. Either way, you’ll enjoy the tales, and if you’re a local — keep your eyes peeled!


I do not accept advertising, but the Amazon want you to know that some links may contain affiliate codes that dangle the promise of earning me a few pennies towards running this site (at no additional expense to you). Humbly, Gordon Meyer

Book Review: You Are Alice in Wonderland’s Mum!

I love non-linear fiction. If you’re not familiar with this genre, these are stories where the reader directs the narrative by making decisions about the order in which events happen, or even if they occur at all.

A mundane but illustrative example would be a story about a salesman where the reader decides which apartment doors are knocked up first: After describing the options, the reader is offered a choice: “To knock on the door for Apartment 2B, turn to page 42. For Apartment 3, turn to page 69.” (Note to self: good idea for a story!)


gordon meyer with book

You Are Alice in Wonderland’s Mum! is a such a story, and of the many I’ve read, it’s by far the most elegantly constructed. (The author, and illustrator, is Sherwin Tjia.) The plot is clever: the infamous Alice has disappeared into Wonderland, but her mother has no idea about that, and wanders around London looking for her. You make decisions about where and how she searches for young Alice. With thirteen different possible endings to the story, what you do has a definite impact on the resolution. I loved every minute of it, and found the first ending so satisfying I hesitated to give it another read-thru with different choices. (But doing so is rewarding as it reveals the artful interweaving of different scenarios.)

Tjia has written three other books in this genre, but sadly, they are all out of print. Shockingly, used copies seem to be going for $30-$140 dollars on the secondary market. If you come across one at a price you can afford, snatch it up.

And now, a decision for you to make. If you’d like to try a brief online non-linear story that I wrote, about a trip to Las Vegas, click this link: The Silver Ingot


I do not accept advertising, but the Amazon want you to know that some links may contain affiliate codes that dangle the promise of earning me a few pennies towards running this site (at no additional expense to you). Humbly, Gordon Meyer

Book Review: The Influencing Machine

The Influencing Machine by Brooke Gladstone

Realistically, what can I add about a NY Times Bestseller that’s written by a beloved NPR host? The book is critically acclaimed across the board, and it came out a few years ago, so there are plenty of reviews already published.

gordon meyer with book

Still with me? Thank you. Once up a time, I was studying broadcast communications, so I had a few media studies classes in college. And, as a sociologist, I was exposed to popular culture research, and I became very familiar with books like The Hidden Persuaders, and of course, the works of Marshall McLuhan. To my way of thinking, this book is in the same general orbit.

If you’re a fan of Scott McCloud, you’ll be tickled pink that this book is a triumph of non-fiction sequential art. I have deep admiration for what Gladstone and illustrator Josh Neufeld have accomplished in this regard. The writing, pacing, artwork and,—well, everything—is perfect. For that reason alone it should be required reading for technical writers and instructional designers in every field.

This is a revised edition of the book with an afterword for the Trumpian world in which we all now suffer. Some of what the book decries is now even worse than when it was originally published, and some of the hopefulness it expresses now seems naive. Adding the new material at the end was a smart move, as it’s impossible to read the book without feeling nostalgic for the pre-Trump and pre-FacebookNation era.

Some of the parts that stood out to me include:

  • Referring to the media as a societal mirror, Gladstone writes; “And who doesn’t take guilty pleasure in the refreshing salvia spray of a commentator spouting our views?”
  • For some reasons, 50,000 is commonly used in fearful journalism. Gladstone makes a compelling case for this odd coincidence, citing several headlines that all use the figure, such as “50,000 children die from hunger every year.” From now on, when I don’t know an actual value, I’ll just say 50K.
  • Mark Twain is credited with observing that little lies for money are nothing compared to the big lies upon which society is based. (Now, Twain is credited with many things he didn’t actually say, but Gladstone cites the source. (As she does for many other references, in one of the easiest to use presentation of End Notes that I’ve encountered.)
  • The true sense of the word propaganda is “propagation of faith.”
  • “Likes” and reactions on social media trigger a cocaine-like dopamine bump. And the bump is stronger when we’re talking about ourselves. In real life, we talk about ourselves 30-40 percent of the time. On social media, it’s 80 percent!
  • Harvard’s free online test for implicit bias is interesting and worth checking out.
  • Neuroscientists have detected people make decisions about seven seconds before they become consciously aware of making them. (Conjurors, take note!)

The one bad thing I do have to say about the book is that Gladstone lost me in the final chapter when the story line fractures into a mishmash of bon mots from “visionaries” such as Marshall McLuhan, Ray Kurzweil, and even Douglas Adams. It felt like an attempt to end the book on an optimistic note, but it comes off as Twitter-style exuberance.

I bought my copy at Quimby’s Books in Chicago, but of course, it’s also available at the Amazon.


I do not accept advertising, but the Amazon want you to know that some links may contain affiliate codes that dangle the promise of earning me a few pennies towards running this site (at no additional expense to you). Humbly, Gordon Meyer

Book Review: Tono Monogatari

This is a very unusual book for me. It’s the re-telling of ancient Japanese folk tales using sequential art, and it’s published in the traditional Japanese manner so it’s read “back to front” and “right to left,” compared to other texts. (It took me about 25 pages to get used to this, by the way.)

The stories are illustrated by Shigeru Mizuki, who is apparently a Big F’in Deal in the world of Manga. (I don’t phrase it this way to dismiss him or the claim, but only to highlight the large gap in my knowledge.) The artwork is outstanding, and describing it as “stunning” seems like faint praise. Mizuki also helps bring extra life to the stories by including a few auto-biographical panels that are in reaction to the events being described, which is very charming.

gordon meyer with book

The stories of the Tono Monogatari are essentially the Grimms’ Fairy Tales, of Japan, and in fact, are similarly cataloged and varied. They were documented in 1853 by Kunio Yanagita, a cultural bureaucrat during the period when Japan was opening up to the rest of the world, and its rich and varied regional lore was being rapidly lost or willfully destroyed.

In reading these tales, I felt an immediate affinity for Yanagita, not just for the subject matter, but also for his sparse and first-person writing style. (Apparently known as bungo.)

Of the 119 tales in the book, the ones I enjoyed the most featured fairy-like beings, ghosts, shape-shifting foxes, tricksters, and giants. (The giants are described as humongous creatures who stand more than six feet tall. Who could imagine such a thing‽)

I learned a lot from this book and I greatly enjoyed it. If you’re a fan of lore, incredible ink art, and cultural surprises, I think you’ll like it too. I bought my copy at Quimby’s Books in Chicago, but of course, you can also find it in the Amazon.

I do not accept advertising, but the Amazon want you to know that some links may contain affiliate codes that dangle the promise of earning me a few pennies towards running this site (at no additional expense to you). Humbly, Gordon Meyer

Book Review: The Elements of Eloquence

It’s intimidating to write about this book for two reasons:

Firstly, after reading a book subtitled “Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase,” you might have a high expectation for my recap. If the book was so damned good, why isn’t Gordon’s writing any better?

Secondly, when I reached the end of this book, I was surprised at how many of my beloved Redi-Tags that I had used to mark passages that I want to revisit. As you can see in the photo, there was much about this book that intrigued me.

gordon meyer holding a copy of the book with page flags

So, what follows are just a few of the tidbits. But briefly, If you are a person who loves words, and you want to have a better understanding of how the English language can be honed, polished, and wielded, I think you’ll enjoy this book too.

  • The inescapable conclusion for me is that despite having spent much of my career was a writer, almost all the discussion about rhetoric, and some finer points about grammar, were new to me. Was this a part of my college English curriculum that I’ve forgotten, or is this nuts-and-bolts approach to language relegated to senior humanities courses?
  • Perhaps the answer to the above is found in this quote: “Stern people dislike rhetoric, and unfortunately, it’s usually stern people who are in charge: solemn fools who believe that truth is more important than beauty.” I was trained by stern sociologists, so I suppose that might explain the gaps in this part of my knowledge.
  • I’m an admirer of alliteration, but when it’s used too much it’s called paroemion. I wish I had known this word earlier so I could have used it in defending my work from some rather rhadamanthine reviewers.
  • Similarly, I could have also used Hyperbaton, which is the practice of putting words in an odd order. It would have helped to know then when I was trying to explain why a phrase just didn’t sing for me, particularly.
  • Am I making this book sound stuffy? The author, Mark Forsyth, uses humor and contemporary references to illustrate his points. I especially enjoyed his examples from songs by the Rolling Stones and The Beatles. (I also learned a lot about the works of Shakespeare, revealing another apparent gap in my education.)
  • Speaking of Shakespeare, for the first time in my life, I understand the mechanics of verse and pentameter. Suffice to say that chapter twenty-one was a delightful and useful surprise.
  • Not only did the Romans make willy-nilly changes to the Greek pantheon, they also freely renamed (and redefined) rhetoric, making it hard to study. The bastards!
  • I really appreciated how the author, Mark Forsyth, delightfully crafted each chapter to support the technique he’s discussing. This book would be great to read twice, so you could better appreciate its subtle and studied self-application. (However, I won’t read it again, the allure of unread books is too great to resist, and I’m running out of time to read everything I’d like to.)
  • Despite having grown up in Utah, I was unaware of the “Mormon Sex in Chains” case of 1977. (aka The Manacled Mormon) Also, thanks to trying to find info about this after a reference in the book, I discovered that Mormon p0rn is a thing.

I bought my copy of this book at the charming Unabridged Bookstore in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago. But, of course, you can also find it in the Amazon.


I do not accept advertising, but the Amazon want you to know that some links may contain affiliate codes that dangle the promise of earning me a few pennies towards running this site (at no additional expense to you). Humbly, Gordon Meyer

Book Review: A Walking Tour of the Shambles

This slim, pocket-sized volume by Neil Gaiman and Gene Wolfe is sixteenth in the Little Walks for Sightseers series, published by American Fantasy Press of Woodstock, Illinois. I have the third printing, which features a cover by the legendary Gahan Wilson.

Gordon Meyer with book

I was drawn to this book because the title led me to ass/u/me it was about The Shambles in York, England. (A magical, haunted place that I hope to visit again someday.) Imagine my surprise, tho, to discover that this book is actually about a neighborhood here in Chicago — one that I’ve never heard of, despite it being just a stone’s throw away from my own walking tour. Amazing!

As I read, I learned that I had indeed visited Chicago’s Shambles many times. Decorum, and the Fifth Amendment, prevent me from saying too much, but I can confirm that this book is even more parafactual than my Bizarre Fact Files.

There’s a lot to admire about this book; the writing is clever, smart, punny, and in several ways it reminded me of the dearly departed Douglas Adams.

As noted in my last book review, we are born with the ability to enjoy and relish our imaginations. It’s time for you to recapture that ability as an adult, and this guidebook will certainly help. And, no, I won’t give you directions to Molly Graw’s restaurant, but the grapefruit with Ginger sounds lovely; provided Ginger is working that day. Get your copy of this book at the Amazon.


I do not accept advertising, but the Amazon want you to know that some links may contain affiliate codes that dangle the promise of earning me a few pennies towards running this site (at no additional expense to you). Humbly, Gordon Meyer