January 19, 2019

The Michelin Guide – Chicago, 2019

Bon Appetite – Chicago has one three-star Michelin-rated restaurant (Alinea), three two-star establishments, 18 one-star eateries, and hundreds of yummy joints throughout the city. I’m not in the business of reviewing restaurants, but here are the neighborhood places Robert Charles and I dine at again and again. 

Our newest favorite restaurant? Frunchroom, near Six Corners in the Portage Park neighborhood. We know and love owner Matt Saccaro, but we love his restaurant because of his trout salad. (Oh, and his Kale Salad ... and his cheeseburgers ... and his milkshakes made with Zarlengo’s gelato … and we haven’t even yet tried his pizza.)

Robert and I live in Edgewater and can walk easily to Andersonville and Uptown. Our neighborhood go-tos?

·       Edgewater Beach Café – located in the historic, pink Edgewater Beach Apartments building off of Lake Shore Drive; Owner Zung Dao works the front of the house; Chef Kim, Zung’s wife, is the wizard in the kitchen.

·       Andie’s – Mediterranean. I was introduced to Andie’s years ago by my beloved friend George Savino, back when this veteran of North Clark Street was a small storefront operation.

·       First Slice – Mary Ellen Diaz’s delicious café where the “first slice” of the profits helps to feed the homeless.

·       JB Deli – how can you not love a deli tucked inside a corner pharmacy?

·       Tank Noodle – Among the endless options in Little Vietnam, Tank Noodle has withstood the test of time.

·       Mia Francesca on Bryn Mawr – somehow the food tastes even better when you sit at the bar.

·       La Boulangerie – tres delicieux!

·       Calo – when you have a taste for everything.

·       Mas Alla del Sol – excellent food and Darcy, a server, lights up the room.

·       Income Tax – the hottest of the hot new places.

·       Tweet, M. Henry and Nookies – the triple play for breakfast.

·       Hot G Dogs – to hot dogs what the Billy Goat Tavern is to cheeseburgers.

·       Broadway Cellars – the epitome of a fine neighborhood restaurant.

·       Lao Sze Chaun – part of the empire of Tony Hu, the former ‘Mayor of Chinatown’ who had a little run-in with the feds over wire fraud and money laundering. (Hey, it’s Chicago.)

·        Lickity Split – the best corner ice cream shop

Other favorite haunts:

·       Caro Mio – delicious Italian fare and the best BYOB, in Ravenswood

·       Mario’s Table – yummy Italian food in the Gold Coast, with ten thousand memories of dinning here with Eugene Burger

·       Ann Sather’s – the best breakfast in Boystown … and those cinnamon rolls!

·       Yes, in Ravenswood, and Jin Thai, in Edgewater – there is no shortage of Thai options in Chicago; these are among the best.

·       Greek Islands – the quintessential Greek-American restaurant in, where else? Greek Town.

·       Bistro Campagne and Chez Moi – If you’re looking for French bistros, you’ll do no better than Bistro Campagne in Lincoln Square and Chez Moi has become our favorite destination for a New Year’s Eve-Eve get-together with Ross and Pamela Johnson.

As much as I enjoy dinning out, there’s no comparison to a home-cooked meal. For that, I turn to the Three Wise Men: (1) Robert Charles, though he says he more enjoys baking; (2) Jim Harisiades, a friend and neighbor here in Edgewater. We call Jim’s dining room our favorite Greek restaurant, and (3) Randy Zweiban, a true chef, the former owner of Province, and, yowzah, can Randy cook.


CHICAGO VOICES: Michael Burke’s remarks at the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony for Henry Blake Fuller

Presented November 16, 2018, at the Cliff Dwellers Club

Good evening! My husband, magician Robert Charles, and I, love the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame – and we’re proud, “card-carrying” members of the Cliff Dwellers Club. So, it’s a thrill for us to participate in this Hall of Fame induction ceremony for Henry Blake Fuller, which, fittingly, is being celebrated here at the club that bears the name of Fuller’s most popular novel.

I would like thank Don Evans for this opportunity. And I’d like to also thank Bill Getzoff, who years ago wrote about Fuller in the Cliff Dwellers Club newsletter. That was my first introduction to Fuller – so thank you, Bill, for opening my eyes.

I also want to thank Eve Moran, and Don, Victor and Michelle and everyone here at the Cliff Dwellers for making us all feel so welcomed and at home. As you always do.

And, mostly, I want to thank you – “The People,” as Carl Sandburg would sing. Thanks for joining us this evening.

I’m going to read two brief samples – small excerpts from the openings of “Bertram Cope’s Year” and “The Cliff-Dwellers.”

“Bertram Cope’s Year” was published in 1919, just about 100 years ago. It’s become known as the first homosexual novel – so I’m only going to read the dirty parts! Actually, it’s all quite understated and subtle.

In “Bertram Cope’s Year,” the town of Churchton sounds suspiciously like Evanston and the unnamed University seems a lot like Northwestern.

Bertram Cope is an attractive, young English instructor, spending a year on his thesis and advanced degree. Cope becomes the object of desire of an older woman – who we’ll meet in this reading – two older men and three young women. Put another way, Bertram Cope’s dance card was full.

Fuller is a fascinating storyteller – funny, formal, informal; his stories often narrated directly to the reader, which was not uncommon back then or even today.

“Bertram Cope’s Year” has 31 chapters, each titled something like:

1. Cope at a College Tea
2. Cope Makes a Sunday Afternoon Call
3. Cope Is "Entertained"

And so on … So, here’s a portion from Chapter 1: Cope at a College Tea:

What is a man's best age? Peter Ibbetson, entering dreamland with complete freedom to choose, chose twenty-eight, and kept there. But twenty-eight, for our present purpose, has a drawback: a man of that age, if endowed with ordinary gifts and responsive to ordinary opportunities is undeniably a “man.”

Whereas, what we require here is something just a little short of that. Wanted, in fact, a young male who shall seem fully adult to those who are younger still and who may even appear the accomplished flower of virility to an idealizing maid or so, yet who shall elicit from the middle-aged the kindly indulgence due a boy.

Perhaps you will say that even a man of twenty-eight may seem only a boy to a man of seventy. However, no septuagenarian is to figure in these pages. Our “elders” will be but in the middle forties and the earlier fifties and we must find for them an age which may evoke their friendly interest and, yet, be likely to call forth, besides that, their sympathy and their longing admiration and, later, their tolerance, their patience, and even their forgiveness.

I think, then, that Bertram Cope, when he began to intrigue the little group which dwelt among the quadruple avenues of elms that led to the campus in Churchton, was but about twenty-four – certainly not a day more than twenty-five. If twenty-eight is the ideal age, the best is all the better for being just a little ahead. Of course, Cope was not an undergraduate, a species upon which many of the Churchtonians languidly refused to bestow their regard.

"They come, and they go," said these prosperous and comfortable burghers; "and, after all, they're more or less alike, and more or less unrewarding."

Besides, the Bigger Town with all its rich resources and all its varied opportunities lay but an hour away. Churchton lived much of its real life beyond its own limits, and the student who came to be entertained socially within them was the exception indeed.

No, Bertram Cope was not an undergraduate. He was an instructor; and he was working along in a leisurely way to a degree. He expected to be an M.A., or even a Ph.D. Possibly a Litt.D. might be within the gift of later years. But, anyhow, nothing was finer than "writing" except lecturing about it.

"Why haven't we known you before?" Medora T. Phillips asked him at a small reception. Mrs. Phillips spoke out loudly and boldly and held his hand as long as she liked. No – not “as long as she liked,” but longer than most women would have felt at liberty to do.

And besides speaking loudly and boldly, she looked loudly and boldly and she employed a determined smile which seemed to say, "I'm old enough to do as I please." Her brusque informality was expected to carry itself off and much else besides. "Of course, I simply can't be half so intrepid as I seem!" it said.

“Known me?" returned Cope, promptly enough. "Why, you haven't known me because I haven't been here to be known."

He spoke in a ringing, resonant voice, returning her unabashed pressure with a hearty good will and blazing down upon her through his clear blue eyes with a high degree of self-possession, even of insouciance. And he explained with a liberal exhibition of perfect teeth that for the two years following his graduation he had been teaching literature at a small college in Wisconsin and that he had lately come back to Alma Mater for another bout.

"I'm after that degree," he concluded.

… And Cope’s year unfolds from there.

Because the Cliff Dwellers Club is 22 stories up in the air, it seems fitting to read a portion from Fuller’s novel, “The Cliff-Dwellers,” as well.

“The Cliff-Dwellers” was published in 1893, about 15 or 16 years before “Bertram Cope’s Year.” This would’ve been about 22 years into the rebuilding after the Great Chicago Fire. It opens with some beautiful, language describing the canyons of skyscrapers and downtown buildings of Chicago – then and now. And then it zooms in on a skyscraper called The Clifton, which is where most of the action takes place … I’ll pick it up there and read just a page or two.

From the beer-hall in its basement to the barber-shop just under its roof, the Clifton stands full eighteen stories tall. Its hundreds of windows glitter with multitudinous letterings in gold and in silver, and on summer afternoons its awnings flutter score on score in the tepid breezes that sometimes come up from Indiana.

Four ladder-like constructions which rise skyward, stage by stage, promote the agility of the clambering hordes that swarm within it, and ten elevators – devices unknown to the real, aboriginal inhabitants – ameliorate the daily cliff-climbing for the frail of physique and the pressed for time.

The tribe inhabiting the Clifton is large and rather heterogeneous. All told, it numbers about four thousand souls. It includes bankers, capitalists, lawyers, promoters, brokers in bonds, stocks, pork, oil, mortgages, real-estate people and railroad people and insurance people (life, fire, marine, and accident), a host of principals, agents, middlemen, clerks, cashiers, stenographers, and errand-boys as well as the necessary force of engineers, janitors, scrub-women, and elevator-hands.

All these thousands gather daily around their own great camp-fire. This fire heats the four big boilers under the pavement of the court which lies just behind, and it sends aloft a vast plume of smoke to mingle with those of other like communities that are settled round about.

These same thousands may also gather in installments at their tribal feast, for the Clifton has its own lunch-counter just off one corner of the grand court, as well as a restaurant several floors higher up. The members of the tribe may also smoke the “pipe of peace” among themselves whenever so minded, for the Clifton has its own cigar-stand just within the principal entrance. Newspapers and periodicals, too, are sold at the same place. The warriors may also communicate their messages, hostile or friendly, to chiefs more or less remote for there is a telegraph office in the corridor and a squad of messenger boys in wait close by.

In a word, The Clifton aims to be complete within itself, and it will be unnecessary for us to go afield either far or frequently during the present simple succession of brief episodes … in the lives of the Cliff-dwellers.


COMMENTARY: Continuing Education in 2018

“Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence.”
― Abigail Adams, in a May 8, 1780 letter to her son, John Quincy Adams

I’ve been lucky to hear and learn from many smart thinkers in 2018. Among the most thought-provoking:

The Friends of Master Magician Eugene Burger: The life lessons taught by the late Eugene Burger were celebrated by numerous friends, including my husband, Robert Charles, at various events hosted by the Magic Castle in Los Angeles, Magic Circle in London and three venues in Chicago. (January, April, May 31-June1)

Gen. John E. Heyten: The General overseeing US Strategic Command spoke about our country’s peacekeeping role around the globe at a dinner in Omaha celebrating the newly commissioned USS Omaha. (February)

Writer Alex Kotlowitz (pictured above): At a dinner and discussion hosted by the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, a group of us engaged in a lively conversation about writing and Kotlowtiz’s modern classic, “There Are No Children Here.” The evening was held at the beautiful Harry S. Adams home, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, in Oak Park. (February)

Three Scholars: Robert and I love the One-Day University programs. Hosted at the Thorne Auditorium at Northwestern University’s downtown campus, we heard UCLA Egyptologist Kara Cooney speak on the fall of the great empires (Egyptian, Greek, Roman) and discuss what that portends for the United States of America; Rutgers’ Louis Masur on the Hamilton-Jefferson rivalry; and American University’s Leonard Steinhorn on how the 1960s have shaped U.S. politics today. (March)

Magic Circle President Scott Penrose: A charming magician and smart teacher from England, Penrose lectured on “Making Your Magic More Magical,” at Magic, Inc. in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood. (April)

Pediatrician and Children’s Champion Nadine Burke-Harris, MD, Ounce luncheon at Chicago Hilton (April)

Investors Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders Meeting, Century Link Convention Center, Omaha (May)

Teacher Laura Nunn at Chicago Foundation for Education fundraiser at Fig & Olive (June)

Henry Bienen interview of Joyce Carol Oates, Jones Prep, Printers Row Lit Fest (June)

Hahrie Han, from University of California Santa Barbara, on attributes of successful social movements at Policy Exchange (June)

Liesl Olson, Chicago Literary Hall of Fame book club at private home in Ravenswood Manor, to discuss “Chicago Renaissance: Literature and Art in the Midwest Metropolis” (June)

Playwright James McGrath and Nancy Sindelar conversation about Ernest Hemingway and “Pamplona,” American Writers Museum (July)

Author Scott Turow, at a Chicago Literary Hall of Fame dinner in the old Dawson House in Evanston, discussing “Presumed Innocent,” literature and corruption in ‘da great city of Chicago (August)

Early childhood guru and Yale faculty member Walter Gilliam, PhD, at University Club breakfast hosted by Ounce of Prevention and Boeing Company, to present on preschool expulsion and implicit bias (September)

Master magician Jeff McBride “Super Session” at Magic, Inc. (September)

Professors Austin Sarat (Amherst College, discussing four trials that changed America), Carol Berkin (Baruch College, on what the founding fathers were really like) and Craig Wright, (Yale University, on what makes Mozart great) at One-Day University, Sheraton Hotel (September)

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, “The Search for Life in the Universe,” Chicago Theatre (October)

Child welfare advocate Ashley Rhodes-Courter telling her story at the Changemakers Luncheon benefiting Nebraska Children and Families Foundation. Jessie Rasmussen also received the Grace Abbott Award at the same luncheon. (October)

Historian Ron Chernow interviewed by Bruce Dold about “Grant” and “Hamilton,” Symphony Center, Chicago Humanities Festival (October)

A full evening’s conversation with Max Maven at the Magic Castle (November)

Activist and organizer Saru Jayarman on harnessing grassroots power for young children, Alliance for Early Success Partner Summit, Denver (November)

GOP pollster and messaging guru Frank Luntz on 21 words and phrases that have the greatest impact with policymakers and parents, Alliance for Early Success Partner Summit, Denver (November)

Donna Brazile and Symone Sanders encouraging girls and young women to grow strong, smart and bold, Girls Inc. Luncheon in Omaha (December)


August 10, 2018

Vintage Hughes
Langston Hughes

In the Sun – Is it possible that Langston Hughes’ voice is more necessary, more powerful today than ever before? Yes.

“I, too, sing America.” Indeed.

“Let America be America again.” Please. Writes Langston:

Words like Freedom
There are words like Freedom
Sweet and wonderful to say.
Of my heartstrings freedom sings
All day everyday.

There are words like Liberty
That almost make me cry.
If you had known what I know
You would know why.

All equally true in these toxic, deplorable times of hypocritical Republican/phony-Christian protectors of Trump as when these words were penned. Langston Hughes, dead since 1967, is the Poet Laureate of our times.

Folks, I’m telling you,
birthing is hard
and dying is mean –
so get yourself
a little loving
in between.


The Dangerous Summer
Ernest Hemingway
With an Introduction by James A. Michener

Indultado – In his introduction, which turns out to be the story of James A. Michener with an occasional reference to a guy named Hemingway, Michener translates the bullfighting term “indultado” as “forgiven.” He explains: “On occasions so rare that most aficionados, including me, have never witnessed one, a bull will prove so heroic that the public refuses to let it be killed.” I feel similarly about this book. Authors should be judged by their best work, not their lesser attempts and failures. Michael Jordan is an unparalleled basketball giant; we don’t criticize him for losing around 300 games; rather, we celebrate him for winning about 800 games. Papa was a wounded bull when he penned this work. It doesn’t diminish any of his masterful short stories, “The Old Man and the Sea,” “The Sun Also Rises,” or “A Farewell to Arms.”


84 Charing Cross Road

Helene Hanff
Adapted for the Stage by James Roose-Evans

Civility – I once wrote a story that intentionally lacked conflict. Titled, “The Wedding,” the story describes Richard and Brendan’s big, happy, outdoor wedding at a beautiful home along the shore of Lake Michigan. The story was part experiment, part political statement. Can a compelling story be told without conflict? Does Love truly conquer all? “The Wedding” was written and published before marriage equality was the law of the land (as it is now, for the time being, at least; one must never drop one’s guard when it comes to dealing with the fascists in the Republican Party, including those unenlightened henchmen who sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.) Whether “The Wedding” succeeds is not for me to judge. (Writers are often least capable of judging their own work.) But “84 Charing Cross Road,” published in 1983 after its premiere in 1982 and long before my humble experiment, proves a conflict-free story can be entrancing even without a spark of conflict. Based on their true story, the play tells the tale of New Yorker Helene Hanff and the 20-year correspondence she exchanged post-World War II with the booksellers at London’s Marks & Co. The play worked 30-plus years ago perhaps for the same reason the play works today: There is so much conflict in our daily lives, off the page and outside the theater – Trump is a volcanic, spewing, bigoted blowhard with the world’s most effective megaphone, substance-free punditry fills our airwaves and digital screens – that the joy of being transported to a civil place (a loving wedding, literary letter-swapping among intelligent people) can transfix the reader and viewer. Civility is a cousin to Love, and Loves does, indeed, conquer all. Even fascism.


July 7, 2018

COMMENTARY: Elaine Chao and Me

Tuesday evening. Flying from Omaha back home to Chicago on United. Who sits in my row but Elaine Chao -- Trump's Secretary of Transportation and Mitch McConnell's wife.

I'm at the window. She's on the aisle. The middle seat between us is vacant. She busies herself on her laptop, on her phone and by flipping through stacks of photocopied news clips about polling and politics.

We're on a relatively short flight. I wait until the plane begins our descent into O'Hare and then I lean toward her, tap the newspaper story shown here and say, "I just have to say, this is despicable. You are part of a heartless Administration."

She snaps. And I mean snaps. "Why are you talking to me about this? I have nothing to do with this. I'm on a private visit." (I don't know what she meant by "private visit." She had been in Omaha on official business, doing a photo-op at the Omaha Chamber of Commerce. Perhaps Chao's first impulse, like her boss and so many others, is to lie.)

I add, "You and your husband should be ashamed of yourselves."

She stiffens. "Don't talk to me!" Her two flunkies seated in the row ahead of us turn their heads; one, a young woman, says, "Ma'am?"

I lean back into my seat. Chao snaps once more: "Call or write the President. Or write your newspaper."

I say nothing else.

Once the plane lands and is rolling toward the terminal, Chao leans toward me, smiles in a phony-reassuring way. It's time for "Take Two" -- she's had a chance to think what her "appropriate" response should've been!

"It's a difficult problem," she tells me, her voice dripping with false sincerity, "and we're doing what we can to solve it."

I say nothing and turn away.

… I wish I had been more eloquent or said more. But I made my point so maybe no more words were necessary. Chao certainly revealed her true self.


Death in the Afternoon
Ernest Hemingway

Bull Hockey -- More about bullfighting than you'll care to know. Too much bullshit about courage. One or maybe two reflections about writing hit the bull's eye. Gide, Wilde and Whitman easily dodge Papa's limp-wristed attempt to wound them with literary banderillas. After you bulldoze through the narrative, photo gallery and glossary, you're left feeling bullwhipped. Olé!


AROUND TOWN: Ravenswood Books

Jim Mall is one of Chicago's great booksellers and Ravenswood Books is a packed, well-organized treasure trove. The shop is on Montrose, just a few doors west of Damen. Fun to spend some good time Thursday afternoon book-hunting with Robert Charles. I purchased three books on this excursion: a collection of Langston Hughes poems, "84 Charing Cross Road," and "Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society and an Early Cry for Civil Rights."


July 6, 2018

The Little Virtues
Natalia Ginzburg
Translated by Dick Davis

Taking it Personally – Natalia Ginzburg was a 20th Century Italian writer, activist and politician. The 11 essays in this collection were written between 1944 and 1960, when Ginzburg lived, under fascist rule, in impoverished Pizzoli and, later, in dingy, post-war London neighborhoods. Natalia’s first husband, Leone Ginzburg, was a Resistance leader who had been tortured and murdered in 1944 by the fascist police, dying in the Regina Coeli prison in Rome. Rather than focus on war or politics, these particular essays explore the personal: parenthood, friendship, worn-out shoes, writing, and silence. Each is powerful in its apparent simplicity; taken together, they create a stunning portrait of one piece, at one time, of Ginzburg’s life.


Hamilton: The Revolution
Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter

Backstage Pass – Robert Charles and I saw “Hamilton” on Broadway a few weeks ago – and the show is everything everyone says it is: rousing, revolutionary, moving, brilliant. Our dear friend, the photographer Laurie Proffitt, loaned us “Hamilton: The Revolution” before we saw the show – and the book is equally thrilling. It’s a backstage pass into the making of the great musical – part songbook, part notebook, part scrapbook, complete with Miranda’s reflections and insights, which provide a master class in creating 21st Century art and entertainment.


July 1, 2018

The Birthday Party
Harold Pinter

Life, Coming to Life – Is there any place better to see a Harold Pinter play than the Harold Pinter Theatre in London’s West End? Before we headed abroad, Robert Charles and I bought tickets to a production of “The Birthday Party” starring a fierce cast that included Toby Jones, Zoë Wanamaker, and Stephen Mangan. Before we left, I also made a point of reading the play, knowing how daunting Pinter can be. After seeing the outstanding performance, I was astounded to once again find that what is impenetrable on the Pinter page comes to bright life on a Pinter stage. “Yes,” Robert reflected. “It’s called ‘acting.’ And ‘directing.’ And ‘lighting,’ and so on.” And therein lies the art of theater.


The Great Catsby
Eliza Garrett

And So We Purr On – I have an insatiable appetite for all things Fitzgerald and Hemingway so I didn’t hesitate in picking up this tiny book when I found a small stack of copies on a crowded table in Daunt Books in London. It’s everything a cat-loving Gatsby lover would hope. “My family, the Cattaways, have been well-to-do felines in the Middle West for generations.” “’You live in West Fish,’ Jordan sighed contemptuously. ‘Why, then, you must know Catsby.’ ‘Catsby?’ demanded Daisy, suddenly serious. ‘What Catsby?’” “The next time Catsby had a party, Daisy came with Tomcat.” You get the idea. This stuff is catnip.


Mary Oliver

Grace – In these particularly nauseating times, we need poetry more than ever to remind us of something perhaps more powerful than love: grace. Whether she’s writing about roses, trees, creeks, storage, humility or poetry itself I always feel Mary Oliver is really writing about grace. She’s always writing with grace. And by reading her moving, seemingly-simple-but-truly-revolutionary words, I hope to have my own sense of grace restored.


Notes from a Public Typewriter
Edited by Michael Gustafson and Oliver Uberti

That’s Not Typing, That’s Writing – This book arrived as a lovely, unexpected gift from Gordon and Gale Meyer, two of the world’s better human beings and shrewd observers of the small, everyday oddities that make life beautiful. When Michael and Hillary Gustafson opened Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, they made room for an Olivetti Lettera 32 and inserted a clean sheet of paper. “There were no prompts. No directions.” This book collects the sublime and ridiculous messages people typed; together, these insights, declarations, wisecracks and pleas demonstrate the inspiring wisdom and silliness of our fellow human beings. At least the ones who read books.


June 27, 2018

AROUND TOWN: Chicago Literary Hall of Fame

Richard Wright on Chicago:

“Perhaps more is known about it, how it runs, how it kills, how it loves, steals, helps, gives, cheats, and crushes 
than any other city in the world.”

How do you build community? One way is through relationships and learning – and the bonds are more likely to last when the experience is fun. The Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, long championed by writer Donald G. Evans, does just this by sponsoring various literary awards, walking tours, a book club, and a variety of parties across town. Robert Charles and I, along with other friends, have met dozens of new people through two of the Hall of Fame’s book club gatherings this year. The first was an evening’s conversation with Alex Kotlowtiz, discussing his now-classic “There Are No Children Here” in an Oak Park home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (the Harry S. Adams House, Wright’s last residential commission in Oak Park.) The conversation swayed from the power of storytelling to the challenges of poverty and violence to the value of resilience and resistance to the fundamental need for hope. The second event was a conversation with Liesl Olson, discussing her excellent “Chicago Renaissance: Literature and Art in the Midwest Metropolis.” The evening included rollicking stories about the writers, editors and book reviewers who shaped Chicago Modernism. Olson is a superior scholar, working now at the Newberry Library, and an enormously talented storyteller, on page and in-person. The party was hosted on a lovely summer evening in the backyard of Dave Cihla and Karen Olenski's handsome Four Square in Ravenswood Manor.


Chicago Renaissance: Literature and Art in the Midwest Metropolis

Liesl Olson

Chicago Story -- This entertaining book is full of great stories – about Harriet Monroe, Margaret Anderson, the Armory Show, Sherwood Anderson, Carl Sandburg, the Dill Pickle Club, Fanny Butcher, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Mortimer Adler, the Art Institute of Chicago, the University of Chicago, Bobsy Goodspeed, Eldzier Cortor, Richard Wright, Nelson Algren, Gwendolyn Brooks, the Cliff Dwellers Club, William Butler Yeats, and so many others who shaped Chicago Modernism. The book also explores the scholarly tales of the role of women in Modernism and the crucial role of “audience” in literary work. A page-turner I'll keep -- and use -- for years to come.


AROUND TOWN: Printers Row Lit Fest

Printers Row Lit Fest always marks the unofficial start of summer in Chicago, even with torrential rains earlier in the day. But you can’t keep the ‘Bookies’ from having fun – thousands of readers and writers still turned out to listen to smart authors like Joyce Carol Oates, to spend time with dear friends like Robert N. Georgalas, to browse the tent stalls and visit Sandmeyer’s Bookstore (a cozy, inviting independent bookstore with creaky wooden floors), and to run into the great Julia Borcherts, the hardest working woman in show business.


March 29, 2018

Christopher Hitchens

Undefeated – Christopher Hitchens’ final work is poignant, laugh-out-loud-funny, provocative and not in the slightest sentimental. These essays show us Hitchens facing death and, in part, reevaluating his beliefs. Atheism? Check the box marked “Stronger Than Ever.” Justice? See previous answer. Love of wit and literature? See previous answers. Living la dolce vita? Check the box marked, “Well, about the same.” Tellingly, the only thing Hitchens truly reconsiders is the aphorism, “That which doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” Let’s re-think that one, he advises. There is a weakening that comes with death by cancer. The morning after I finished reading “Mortality,” I felt compelled, over coffee, to read aloud certain passages to my beloved husband, Robert Charles. The moment reminded me of a Christopher Buckley experience. Buckley, a Hitchens friend, once wrote about arriving at his dying Mother’s bedside, carrying a pocket copy of Ecclesiastes. “I am no longer a believer,” Buckley wrote, “but I haven’t quite reached the point of reading aloud from Christopher Hitchens’ ‘God Is Not Great’ at deathbeds of loved ones.” One could do worse than read aloud from, “Mortality,” as my time comes.


POSTSCRIPT: The Seven Cardinal Apps

Facebook > envy
Twitter> wrath
Instagram > lust
LinkedIn > greed
Open Table > gluttony
Pinterest > pride
All of the above > sloth


There Are No Children Here
Alex Kotlowitz

Again and Again – One treasure of powerful storytelling is how you get something different out of the story each time you read it. The plot doesn’t change. The characters are the same. The words aren’t altered. Yet, somehow, something new emerges from within the pages, rises, and takes hold of your mind and heart in a different way. Originally published in 1991, I’ve read “There Are No Children Here” a couple of times over the subsequent 27 years. Some moments I clearly remembered – medicine chests easily pushed out between public housing apartments, LaJoe’s Christmas visit in Chicago’s Loop, Pharoah’s spelling bee – and others hit me in the gut with the force of the new – LaJoe paying $80 per month for burial insurance for her children, the scenes of sudden gun violence. This most recent reading, too, I found myself thinking of another classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and seeing parallels of despair and hope between that great work of fiction and this great work of fact. One sign of storytelling excellence is that factual stories read like fiction and fictional work reads like they really happened.   


COMMENTARY: Life and Love in an Age of Heightened Anxiety

One big reason why we are feeling so rattled is because we are living in a time when the tectonic plates are shifting underneath American society.

Economic anxiety is aggravated by years of lagging wages, increasing wealth disparity, a bipolar stock market, an economy that appears to sprint from disastrous bubble to bubble.

Key demographic shifts are profoundly reshaping America. An aging white population sees a growing, diverse, multicultural younger generation. Rural America is shrinking. If a small town is growing, it’s likely due to immigrants. The country will be majority minority in about 25 years.

At the same time, we’re experiencing an increased lack of cultural cohesion driven by the disruptive digital revolution, a weakened and weakening mainstream media, and growing secularism.

What’s more, fear is stoked for crass political gain and corporate profit. The threat of terrorism is hyped. Gun violence is tolerated. Racism is dismissed or mocked. Immigrants and transgender people are made to feel like “others,” criminal outsiders.

All of this is happening in a society that has long-experienced the see-saw tension that comes from trying to balance the individual and the community — the iconic figures of the cowboy and the idyllic hometown have long competed for America’s central defining myth.

Underneath all of this is a widely held cynicism — the conviction that all politicians are corrupt, the media can’t be trusted, Big Money controls everything, nothing really changes, marginal progress always gets rolled back. Where does this lead but to greater feelings of isolation?

What makes this all the more complex is that the drivers of cynicism are not without their truth — and several of the drivers of other changes (demographic shifts, digital revolution, growing secularism) offer multiple important benefits as well as challenges. In other words, the bad news has some “good” in it and the good news has some “bad” in it — and that adds to the depressing confusion of our times.

So, how should an individual respond to all of this? You tell me. Personally, I’m doubling down on hope. Joy. Gratitude. Purpose. Meaning. Love.

I don’t get it right all of the time — anger overwhelms me too often. But I believe we are all in this together. We are buoyed by common cause.


Chicago: Classic Photographs
Edited by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams

Never a Lovely So Real – Chicago is a big, beautiful, brutal city that resists being summarized, sermonized or sentimentalized. The 225 photographs collected here tell us part of Chicago’s story, showing us the city we know and remember, the city we’ve read about, and the city my 88-year-old Dad talks about when his mind wanders back to the South Side’s stockyards and the West Side’s coal yard and our old two-bedroom apartment upstairs in a Northwest Side two-flat in Chicago’s Jefferson Park neighborhood. If you love Chicago, you’ll want this book. If you’re just getting to know Chicago, you’ll need this book.


February 23, 2018

And These are the Good Times
Patricia Ann McNair

Voices – In this excellent collection of personal essays, Patricia Ann McNair’s sentences appear to flow effortlessly; her voice, mesmerizing and relentless in her previous book, a story collection titled, “The Temple of Air,” takes an entirely different tone here, full of vulnerability and risk and questions. Those key ingredients make a personal essay personal – and it’s a joy to travel the world with McNair in these essays as she explores the fears, secrets and surprises associated with family, sex, love and writing.


I’d Die for You and Other Last Stories
F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by Anne Margaret Daniel

Hemingway’s Brain
Andrew Farah

Bones – Like “The Complete Poems of Ernest Hemingway” and “The Early Stories of Truman Capote,” “I’d Die for You and Other Last Stories” does not showcase an immensely talented writer at his best. You cannot judge writers by their worst work when their greater achievements continue to inspire. But, then again, that’s not the point of this sort of volume. Such literary exhumations are, at best, thoughtful efforts to advance the scholarship surrounding an artistic giant or, at worst, cheap attempts at grave-robbing. The same goes for new biographies when the existing number of published biographies outpaces the number of books the subject himself wrote. The good news is Anne Margaret Daniel appears reassuringly focused on scholarship and, in “Hemingway’s Brain,” Andrew Farah does a great service by examining how concussion, brain trauma, alcoholism, dementia and mental illness affected Papa and his writing. Farah veers off course, however, when he assigns motives to Hemingway, his wives, his children, their friends. There is a fog of friendship as equally dense as the fog of war and the fog of memory; attributing motives and intentions (and, even, reconstructing events) based on cloudy recollections of people unknown from decades past is never easy, no matter how skilled the historian. Despite my minor criticisms as well as the multiple merits of each book, I finished reading these feeling a bit like a buzzard gnawing the hard, dusty bones of two great artists. In the end, there is the writing, the writer and the bones – and here I am pecking away because the real reason people keep writing and editing these sorts of postmortems is because people like me devour them.


The Crack-Up
F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by Edmund Wilson

Perfect Phrases – Reading “I’d Die for You and Other Last Stories” sent me back yet again to “The Crack-Up” – the Fitzgerald collection edited by Edmund Wilson and published five years after Scott’s death. This time around, I was particularly drawn to Fitzgerald lamenting how the novel had ceased to be “the strongest and supplest medium for conveying thought and emotion from one human being to another.” Novels, Fitzgerald continued, had lost out to movies, “an art in which words were subordinate to images, where personality was worn down to the inevitable low gear of collaboration.” And isn’t that just the perfect phrase? “… the inevitable low gear of collaboration.” Penned by the writer who conjured so many perfect phrases.


January 6, 2018

James Joyce

Falling faintly, faintly falling — Re-reading James Joyce’s “The Dead” in honor of The Epiphany. (Thanks to Mark Wukas for suggesting this a few years back.) Gabriel, Gretta, Miss Julia and Miss Kate, Freddy Malins, Bartell D’Arcy, Michael Furey and all of the rest are so clear, so vivid and alive, in my mind. You’re on to something quite powerful when fiction becomes imagined reality. And the story’s final line always brings tears to my eyes.


COMMENTARY: Art, Commerce and the American Way of Life

The work of Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons always leaves me feeling nothing and thinking only about money; to me, they’re not artists, they’re in the commodity trading business.

Last night, Robert and I watched a Netflix documentary — “Blurred Lines: Inside the Art World” — that makes this assertion more thoughtfully than I. In part, the film highlights the roles of the various players involved in today’s Art-Commerce Industrial Complex: artists, gallery owners, collectors, art consultants (who knew they even existed?!), auctioneers, journalists, museum operators, and so on.

The film also triggered bigger thoughts for me beyond what this all means for “art.” It left me pondering what this implies for civilization, given we’re living in a time, in a society, when celebrity trumps values (pun definitely intended), when the quest for money leads largely to red-hot greed for even more money, when the political “system” is thoroughly corrupt (thanks, again, to Big Money and the venal characters of so very many politicians), when justice even at the highest levels is crippled with fundamental dishonesty (e.g., Gorsuch), when journalism has become super sensationalized, when opportunity has lost to inequity, when religion is rife with hypocrisy, when technology is fueling major societal change.

We don’t fully understand this massive, revolutionary upheaval because we’re in the midst of it. It started to overheat decades ago; it’s unclear how much longer the waters of disruption will boil.

And still, I remain optimistic. Why? Because the confusion and fear generated by such tectonic shifts only make people more like themselves. Crooks become more crooked. Clowns become more clownish. Crackpots become nuttier. People defined and driven by fear become more fear-filled and fearful. And optimists, like me, become even more optimistic. We all double-down on what we know. It’s how humans cope.

My advice? Fasten your seatbelt. This roller-coaster still has a long way to go.


December 29, 2017

Logical Family: A Memoir
Armistead Maupin

Laugh, Cry, Wait – Armistead Maupin is the quintessential voice of Bay Area Bohemian life, with a Southerner’s well-honed talent for spinning entertaining, winsome and moving yarns. In this case, the tale is his own – and Logical Family became the book I most often recommended to others this past year. (And I still recommend it!) That’s because Maupin’s memoir is a hell of a good story. Plus, it demonstrates six pillars of powerful storytelling: (1) the necessary arch of a protagonist’s journey (in Maupin’s case, his life as a young conservative coming of age in North Carolina to closeted Naval officer in Vietnam to out, liberal artist and activist in San Francisco); (2) the value of vivid antagonists and protagonists, heroes to root for and villains to root against; (3) suspense, built by withholding identities and events, and using coincidence; (4) compelling details, which help readers “see” people and places; (5) using twists, turns, reversals and betrayals to propel the story’s action forward; and (6) variety. On this last point, Maupin is a master of the aphorism attributed to Charles Reade (and, sometimes, to Wilkie Collins): “Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait.”


Seven Brief Lessons on Physics
Carlo Rovelli

Mysteries – I have never seen the vast inner chambers of the Great Pyramids; but, I have walked through a portion of the underground, 4-mile-long Tevatron tunnel buried deep beneath Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. Accompanied by a half-dozen old and new friends, each of us took turns gazing through a small opening within a wall of cement blocks to peek at the decommissioned CDF Stand. For a long time, physicist Luciano Ristori (a friend of the magician Eugene Burger and our guide for the afternoon) oversaw the Collider Detector at Fermilab (CDF) and a team of 600 scientists from 60 universities and institutions in 13 countries that are working to unlock the mysteries of the universe, deepen our understanding of the Higgs boson (the so-called “God Particle”), and decipher the secrets of human life’s very existence. The visit was nothing less than breathtaking. In this excellent book, physicist Carlo Rovelli attempts the impossible and largely succeeds; using relatively simple language, Rovelli summarizes the General Theory of Relativity, quantum mechanics, “the architecture of the universe,” elementary particles, quantum gravity, and probability and the heat of black holes. He ends by poetically contemplating human life’s very existence. The result? As breathtaking as the underground tour Eugene arranged for Robert Charles, Dr. Jenny Pauls, Bryce Kuhlman and me in the summer of 2014. I left the tour and closed this excellent book thinking a similar thought: Why do humans tell stories? Because we don’t know our own story.


A People’s History of Chicago
Kevin Coval

The Truth – After reading this book, I found myself provoked by many of Kevin Coval’s powerful poems. “Lefties are at their happiest when they’re criticizing other lefties’ purity,” I scribbled in my journal. While that’s true, the incomplete, off-handed comment does a disservice to Coval’s work. After re-reading the book, I found myself still feeling provoked, still feeling pushed – but, also paying closer attention. Entertainment confirms what we know and comforts us. Art challenges our beliefs and confuses us. What will a third reading bring?


My Generation: Collected Nonfiction
William Styron

It Takes One to Know One – The back cover of My Generation features an Inge Morath photograph of William Styron, Ralph Ellison and Arthur Miller. The essays inside the book cover a range of topics – from war and slavery to the South and Vineyard Haven. Styron easily navigates the breadth of his subjects; he was, after all, one of America’s most decorated writers. (Though he never won a Nobel, he did take home the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the American Book Award, the Howells Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the one that really stands out: the Légion d’Honneur. It’s not every author who pockets an award established by Napoléon Bonaparte.) My favorite essays are those in which the acclaimed artist writes about other acclaimed artists he knew and admired: Ellison, Miller, Truman Capote, James Dickey, Philip Roth, Peter Matthiessen, Terry Southern, James Jones, Irwin Shaw and James Baldwin. An impressive generation, indeed.


December 5, 2017

COMMENTARY: Continuing Education in 2017

“Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence.”
Abigail Adams, in a May 8, 1780 letter to her son, John Quincy Adams
I’ve been lucky to hear and learn from many great thinkers in 2017. Among the most thought-provoking:

Magician Eugene Burger. Our dear friend and greatest teacher. January 2017 opened with a performance and lecture by Eugene at Magic, Inc., Chicago’s oldest magic shop. In June, Robert Charles, Simone Marron and I were fortunate to travel again with Eugene to see his lecture at Tannen’s Magic Shop in New York City. Among the subjects Eugene emphasized: the value of kindness, the power of story.

Writers Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt, Robert N. Georgalas, Patricia Ann McNair, John McNally, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Alex Kotlowitz, Isabelle Allende and Luis Alberto Urrea. So many great new books released this year! Interesting to hear these authors discuss, among other topics, hope and truth. Coates noted plainly, “It’s not my job to give someone hope.”

Civil rights champions Cleve Jones, Kris Perry and Sandy Belzer Stier. Kris and Sandy also released their book, “Love on Trial,” describing their journey in successfully fighting for marriage equality in California. Plus, Robert and I were among the packed crowd at Sidetrack to hear Owen Keehnen’s smart, skillful interview with Cleve (“When We Rise”) Jones – the only time an author’s reading has turned into a tub-thumping rally … though I get the sense Cleve could order dinner off the a la carte menu and make it sound like Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day call to battle. 

Scholars Catherine Ayoub from Harvard, Patricia Kuhl from University of Washington, and Manuel Pastor from University of Southern California. Listening to America’s top scientists is always fascinating – and always reminds me of how utterly vapid U.S. politics has become. Of all the so-called professionals, politicians – especially Republican politicians – live in a world drenched in drivel and denial.

Curators Sarah Kelly Oehler and Emerson Bowyer lecturing, respectively, on the Art Institute of Chicago’s Whistler’s Mother exhibit and current Rodin exhibit. “Art is the signature of civilization,” as Beverly Sills once said. Taking the opportunity to learn from Chicago’s world-class museums is one of the many perks of living in a great city.

Mel Brooks. The creator of three of the funniest films of all time – “The Producers,” “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein” – can make me laugh just by walking onto stage. I’m still so grateful to Ed Underhill for inviting me to join him, David L. Baumgartner and Brian Boholst for a hilarious afternoon at the Chicago Theater.

Investors Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. The annual Berkshire Hathaway Shareholders Meeting in Omaha is nicknamed, “Woodstock for Capitalists.” The advice on investing is extraordinary. The common-sense wisdom is priceless.

Kathleen Carpenter. She’s one of the world’s better human beings – and a walking encyclopedia of Chicago architecture. You don’t really get to know Chicago until you study Chicago from the river and Kathleen’s river tour for the Chicago Architecture Foundation is the way to go.

Vice President Joe Biden. He dedicated the new Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center at the University of Nebraska Medical Center – and gave it the full-Biden. “If there are angels in Heaven,” he told the standing-room-only crowd at one point, “I know they’re nurses.”


September 2, 2017

The Rain in Portugal
Billy Collins

I Found Eugene Burger Living in Nine Billy Collins’ Poems

I read “The Rain in Portugal”
over the course of three sittings, three days.

I am a slow reader
and I often read Billy Collins’ poems aloud,
slowly, because hearing his masterful words
spoken aloud in my own voice
makes me feel I have something beautiful to say –

On the second day,
I found Eugene Burger living in nine Billy Collins’ poems:
“The Bard in Flight,” if you must know, “Sirens,”
“Predator,” Traffic,” “Sixteen Years Old, I Help Bring in the Hay
on My Uncle John’s Farm with Two French-Canadian Workers,”
“The Present,” “On Rhyme,” “The Five Spot, 1964,”
and “2128.”

Each poem made me gasp,
there was Eugene, our dearest, departed friend –
Eugene! Magician! “Magic’s Mystic Guru!” –

and each made me sob,
craving one more conversation with Eugene,
weeping, for myself,
weeping, too, for the unrepairable loss Robert feels,
boundless tears splattering cream-colored pages,
the slim volume trembling in my hands.

I hadn’t found Eugene in the earlier Billy Collins’ poems,
the ones I had read the day before.
And I didn’t find Eugene in the remaining poems I finished today.
And, now, he no longer seems to live in the nine poems, either,
so, I don’t now know where Eugene went –
but, you know, the man could be quite elusive.
Mischief, after all,
was his trade.


August 31, 2017

Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal
Jay Parini

La Dolce Vita – A delectable romp about a bon vivant writer who wasn’t wrong about everything. Gore Vidal became exactly who he longed to become: a financially successful celebrity (with homes, at various times, in New York, Rome, Ravello, and the Hollywood Hills); a gadfly whose provocative opinions caused some to think and others to look away (and the media to always take notice); a writer whose essays might very well outlast his novels. Over the course of his adult life, Vidal amassed a $37 million fortune jousting with The Establishment. In death, he left his fortune to the most establishment of Establishment institutions: Harvard University. A few of the feuds and snide comments that propelled his celebrity will live on in the Great, Dusty Halls of Literary Rumor and Gossip – but there are bigger Godzillas now eating up all of the TV air time. One of them, in fact, is President. That, in itself, underscores how Vidal’s writing on the callous, coarse and corrupt aspects of the “United States of Amnesia” – as well as the imperial ambitions and actions of our once-promising Republic – remain pertinent, now more than ever.


Uptown: Portrait of a Chicago Neighborhood in the Mid-1970s
Bob Rehak

A Thousand Words, Indeed – Sometimes a walk back in time is the best way to understand the present and glimpse the future. And what is every photograph – a snapshot of this one particular moment – but a walk back in time? Bob Rehak’s photographs of the boys and girls, and men and women on the sidewalks and cluttered lots of Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood from 40 years ago are stunning black-and-white portraits. The book features image after image of smiles and scowls, kids playing, gang members brandishing pistols, old women shopping, panhandlers asking for help, fathers posing happily with daughters, mothers hugging sons, friends cheering, drunks sleeping, strangers passing quietly on the street. Each could be re-created today in Uptown. Neighborhoods change; but, change comes very slowly in Uptown. Incrementally. Marginally. Around the edges. Especially for those already living on the edge. My friend Oz, who I met as the 1970s came to a close, gave me this collection of photographs as a birthday present. Oz’s heart is as empathetic as Rehak’s camera lens. I like to think, with this book, both Rehak and Oz are telling me, “Look. Remember. Know.”


The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For
David McCullough

The Sunny Side of the Street – If you’re feeling beleaguered these days as a citizen of the United States of America, here’s a remedy: Read – or, better yet, listen to David McCullough read – “The American Spirit,” a collection of speeches presented over the years by America’s most optimistic storyteller and historian. On a recent drive to and from our farm in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Robert Charles, my Dad and I listened to the recording of McCullough reading these speeches aloud. The formidable writer also is genuinely blessed with one of the Great Narrator Voices of our time. The morning after Robert, Dad and I arrived in Ironwood, I purchased the hardcover of this book at Book World, a charming, necessary, well-stocked shop in this town of roughly 5,000 inhabitants in the North Woods. Once we returned to Chicago, I visited Women & Children First in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood to buy a second hardcover; this one, a gift for the college-bound son of dear friends. (Spoiler Alert: If I’m buying you a gift, you’re likely to get this book, too!)

The author of 1776, Truman, and John Adams is in fine storytelling form in these speeches and comes across as particularly chipper. Of course, no one invites Debbie Downer to deliver the university commencement speech or to be one of a very few civilians to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress. McCullough reminds us that no one ever lived in history; they lived in their present. He exhorts us to be useful, to become part of something bigger than ourselves, to sing and dance, to embrace curiosity, and to enlarge our lives through reading. He encourages graduates to keep learning as they focus more on earning.

McCullough’s tales and advice serve as a salve, especially in these revolting, chaotic political times. Consider the 12 U.S. Presidents who have served during my lifetime: Democrats have passed the torch from John Kennedy to Lyndon Johnson to Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton to Barack Obama; meanwhile, Republicans have devolved from Ike to Tricky Dick to Gerald Ford to Ronnie Reagan to Bush I to Bush II to Trump. U.S. Presidents in one party have promoted intelligence, elevated diversity, widened justice, valued a strong sense of the common good, fought for equal opportunity, fought for equal voice, and fought for an equal start in life for more Americans. And the other party? Well, the willful stupidity, racism, vulgarity, corruption, selfishness, and bullying trumpeted today from the whitest of White Houses and empowered by greedy enablers in the Republican Party is tragic – but not surprising and not new. Look at the trajectories: it’s evolution vs. devolution. Look at the math: a reckless game of GOP political division and subtraction ultimately leaves you with less. And, as David McCullough would remind us, look at history: You reap what you sow.


April 29, 2017

COMMENTARY: The Ultimate Selfie

Compliments of NASA and the robotic spacecraft Cassini-Huygens, we are treated to a most provocative photograph: Earth, seen through the rings of Saturn, spinning about 870 million miles away.

Ponder this image and listen to the thoughts that arise in your mind. Do you hear questions? Or, answers? 

Do these thoughts comfort you? Or, challenge you?

The questions that come to my mind when contemplating this photo -- and knowing that this image, in all of its magnificence, still only captures one infinitesimal speck of a vast, expanding universe -- are:  Why is there something and not just nothing? Why is there anything at all?

And these questions lead to others: Can a writer succeed where scientists, philosophers and theologians still struggle? Can a writer write well enough to help us truly make sense of our very existence?

I believe the best writers can and do. Is this a form of faith? Perhaps. 

Either way, I offer a closing wish: In the words of the old proverb, May your stories be written upon the stars -- and remembered forever.


April 18, 2017

South and West: From a Notebook
Joan Didion

The Hypnotist – In the first few years of the 1980s, I was an undergraduate student at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, majoring in political science and journalism. I threw more effort into my jobs – reporter and editor positions at the student-run newspaper, The Northern Star – than I did into my studies. That’s something I don’t especially regret, but just a bit more effort in the classroom would’ve paid off, I now see. Still, I loved working at The Star – interviewing people from all walks of life, writing daily news articles and features about their triumphs and struggles, covering the ins-and-outs of local politics, debating the newspaper’s editorial positions, banging out a few personal essays, learning the value of a good editor’s insightful questions, and adjusting the barricades around my own narrow thinking thanks to regular jousts with our older, more conservative faculty adviser, Jerry E. Thompson. The skills I honed then have served me well during the past 35 years; plus, I made many lifelong friends (the photo below shows Ed Underhill and me outside the newspaper office after our building’s sign had been vandalized).

The early 1980s were an exciting time to study and practice journalism. The aura of Woodward and Bernstein was forefront in our consciousness; in addition, student reporters just a class or two ahead of ours’ at The Star had similarly “taken down” a president, the president of the university, after he committed a hit-and-run accident. What’s more, it was a joy in those days to swim in the warm, buoyant gulf stream of New Journalism. On many paydays, we’d cash our checks, walk into town to drink too much cheap beer, and then stumble back toward campus to scour paperbacks at the Junction Bookstore. From there, we’d head to Pizza Villa or the Dill Pickle to soak up the Miller Lite, armed with books by the literary journalists: Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Gay Talese, Truman Capote, Joan Didion.

So, this was the time in my life when I became hypnotized by Joan Didion, entranced by her essays in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and “The White Album.” The spell of her writing – the persistent undercurrent of aching dread combined with a riptide of intense curiosity – nearly overwhelmed my inherent optimism. Still does. Didion’s writing also indelibly shaped my impressions of California two decades before I would set foot in that great nation-state.

Over the years, I was enticed, again and again, by her sorcery – in “Salvador,” “After Henry,” and, most recently, in her heartbreaking masterpiece, “The Year of Magical Thinking.”

Now comes “South and West,” collected impressions from her notebooks rather than formal, finished essays; but, as writer Nathaniel Rich states in his foreword, Didion’s notes “surpass in elegance and clarity the finished prose of most other writers.” Indeed. Among the gems:

Writing about her visit to Biloxi, during which a radio man introduces an act by saying, “Out in Colorado … or out somewhere in the West there … there’s a quaint little village named Taos.” Didion shares some of the audience’s conversation as the act takes the stage, then observes: “The isolation of these people from the currents of American life in 1970 was startling and bewildering to behold. All their information was fifth-hand, and mythicized in the handing down. Does it matter where Taos is, after all, if Taos is not in Mississippi?”

Didion later quotes Charles L. Sullivan, who is introduced as “lieutenant governor of the state of Mississippi and a member of the Clarksdale Baptist Church.” The politician declares: “I have come to think we are living in the era of the demonstrators – unruly, unwashed, uninformed, and sometimes un-American people – disrupting private and public life in this country.” He then goes on to complain about the media. This is Mississippi, 1970, but could easily be Trump squatting upon his Golden throne, Tweeting his latest early-morning harangue.

On corruption: “Most southerners are political realists: they understand and accept the realities of working politics in a way we never did in California. Graft as a way of life is accepted, even on the surface.”

On racism: Didion quotes a white man, who claims progressive thoughts on race relations: “And about our politics, well, George Wallace got a lot of votes in Indiana, let’s face it. I’m not saying I’m going to have a black minister come home to dinner tonight, ‘cause I’m not. But things are changing.”

After visiting Hodding Carter III and others in the Delta, Didion observes: “The time warp: the Civil War was yesterday, but 1960 is spoken of as if it were about three hundred years ago.”

In Meridian, feeling more and more like a foreigner, an outsider, Didion makes an appointment with the director of a local cosmetology school. When the writer arrives for the appointment, the door is locked. She waits, she goes downstairs to drink a Coca-Cola, but when she returns, the doors are still locked. “We had misunderstood one another, or we had not,” Didion concludes, in what might be the quintessential Didion statement.

And her last line on California: “I am easy here in a way that I am not easy in other places.”

Joan Didion has been casting spells to help us understand places and their people for nearly 50 years. Her work is not done.