August 22, 2019


Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights
David Margolick
Foreword by Hilton Als

Blood at the Root – David Margolick has written a concise, compelling anatomy of a song and its impact – this dirge, this hymn, this anthem that is needed even more today when a blatant Republican racist occupies the White House. Billie Holiday first sang “Strange Fruit” about 16 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama to a white man. For the next 20 years, the song and its most famous singer became forever intertwined, both retaining their punch to this day.

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The Pat Hobby Stories
F. Scott Fitzgerald

My Old Pals – My dear friend and fellow writer Ed Underhill gave me this book earlier this year. After reading these stories, I wrote back to Ed; here’s an excerpt:

“How is it that over my 60 years Pat and I have not yet met? I love him.

Pat is so scheming — and, really, who among us isn’t? In one way or another? Who isn’t relying upon too many of the old tricks to get by at this point? And who isn’t tiptoeing around in one form or other, whether it’s a stealthy sneak out of a room or a loud, over-confident march into a room?

Fitzgerald is so damned talented — hits the bullseye more than any other writer. And always offers lessons in vocabulary; for me:

Surcease
Athwart
Sinecure
Palpitant
Ukase
Plainting

Metafiction was created in the 1970s to describe some of the writers working in the 1960s. Scholars later applied the term going all the way back — to Chaucer, others. But these Pat Hobby stories are metafiction, too: the desperate writer writing about a desperate writer, and the back-story Arnold Gingrich provides only further spotlights the depth of the desperation and the meta aspects of the whole enterprise.

You once keenly observed that no man in his forties should read Fitzgerald on a summer afternoon ... was that it? No. It was phrased better than that ... Well, this isn’t as poignant, but I now think these Pat Hobby stories are the best stories to read while boozing on a summer afternoon. Man, they make you thirsty!

Last, but not least: Every time I read how Pat was “forty-nine years old,” it rang like a death knell. No doubt Fitzgerald’s intent. But now that I’ve finished the book, I can’t help but think, Ah, to be forty-nine again.”

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AROUND TOWN: “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” “How to Hold a Woman,” and the Rate of Reveal

Chicago is a terrific city for stories, readers and writers. Earlier this summer, Sheila Sachs and I had the pleasure of participating in a Sunday dinner party benefiting the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, hosted by Ed Underhill and Liam Nolan at their stylish new digs in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. The guest of honor was the multi-talented Audrey Niffenegger, author of “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” a wondrous, romantic novel featuring the sweep of the great epics combined with fresh ingenuity. The Hall of Fame’s Donald G. Evans interviewed Audrey and led the guests in an evocative conversation. Dinner before (a delicious pasta and salmon supper) was prepared by another talented Chicago writer, Billy Lombardo, author of “How to Hold a Woman.” Afterward, some of us gathered on the rooftop deck for drinks and continued conversation as the sun set. In part, we spoke about a point Audrey shared earlier in the evening regarding the craft of writing: the fact that how writers regulate the rate of revealing information to their readers can make or break a story’s credibility. Both “The Time Traveler’s Wife” and “How to Hold a Woman” are excellent examples of the good that comes when writers have their hands firmly on the throttle.

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Kindest Regards: New and Selected Poems
Ted Kooser

Heartland – This book is a fine introduction to the two-time U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer-Prize winning writer who was born in Iowa and has long lived in Nebraska. You can hear the prairie breeze singing through his words. From “Pearl” –

I called out, “Pearl,
it’s Ted. It’s Vera’s boy,” and my voice broke,
for it came to me, nearly sixty, I was still
my mother’s boy, that boy for the rest of my life.

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May 18, 2019


I’m Not Here to Give a Speech
Gabriel García Márquez

Gabo Speaks – In these 21 speeches, the Nobel Prize winner lyrically addresses numerous subjects, from cinema to literature to Latin America and politics to friendship and love. His whimsical voice is unmistakable, his profound insight so dearly missed from commenting on our world today. And still, his words continue to live, and his commentary remains accurate. “As I have tried to show in some of my books – if not in all of them – I trust more in these absurdities of reality than in theoretical dreams that most of the time serve only to muzzle a bad conscience,” Márquez says in 2003 remarks recorded for the 200th anniversary of the University of Antioquia in Colombia. He adds later, “I would dare to believe that the dream of Don Miguel de Cervantes is now at the right point for us to glimpse the dawn of a calmer time, that the evil that overwhelms us will last much less time than the good, and that on our boundless creativity alone depends knowing now which of the many roads are the right ones, in order to experience them in the peace of the living and enjoy them by right and for ever more. Amen.”

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Red Harvest
Dashiell Hammett

Hardboiled Literature – Another fine example of why Dashiell Hammett is considered a great writer and a cut above a “mere” detective story writer. Sure, this 1929 novel features a lot of pulp. “I gathered she was strictly pay-as-you-enter.” “A bullet kissed a hole in the door-frame close to my noddle.” “The room smelled of laudanum.” “At forty I could get along on gin as a substitute for sleep, but not comfortably.” But then, about three-quarters of the way deep into the story and after nearly 20 murders plus twice as many double-crosses, the hard-drinking, tough-living Continental Op confesses he’s on his own journey into the heart of darkness. If the Continental Op isn’t free from bloodlust and corruption, who is? This scene is followed by a masterfully rendered dream sequence in which the Op wanders streets in towns across America, and the whole book is elevated into the realm of literature.

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Here is New York
E.B. White

Time and Place – You’re remembering how much you love New York and how much you admire E.B. White and how perhaps you’ve already read this long, loving essay published in 1949, originally in Holiday magazine, and then the jolt strikes: the broad ethnic generalizations typical of the exalted writers of the time, still far too typical today, the whitest of white privileges cloaked even in the wardrobe of “progressive” argument. There is no one writer who can sing the song of any time or place because there is no one song to be sung.

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April 21, 2019


The Great Believers
Rebecca Makkai

And So, We Beat On – I’ve tried for weeks to craft a profound statement about this excellent novel; but the story is so electrifying, the writing so exhilarating, that all I can muster is: Read. This. Book. “The Great Believers” is the most absorbing novel I’ve read in a long time. Couldn’t put it down. Cried a thousand tears. And laughed, too. Still, now, I’m out of breath, and my mind, my heart, is overwhelmed with the lives of these people I’ve come to know. I feel this, so truly: Yes, I know them. If you’re looking to read a captivating story or learning how to write a captivating story, “The Great Believers” is a must-read, must-study.

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See What Can Be Done:
Essays, Criticism, and Commentary
Lorrie Moore

A Writer on Writers and Writing – This 407-page essay collection by acclaimed fiction writer Lorrie Moore covers numerous subjects adeptly and artistically; the book sings particularly to me when Moore turns her keen eye, skilled sense of the telling detail, and mighty ability to wield words onto the work of fellow writers. When she notes: “Writing is both the excursion into and the excursion out of one’s life. That is the queasy paradox of the artistic life.” When she praises the craft of Anne Beattie – Beattie’s endings, Beattie’s dialogue. When Moore wonders about Dawn Powell’s influence: “So current and alive is Powell’s epistolary voice, even in the earliest letters, that one is tempted to suggest that what we now think of as the contemporary American voice – in journalism and the arts – is none other than hers: ironic, triumphant, mocking, and game; the voice of a smart, chipper, small-town Ohio girl newly settled in New York just after the First World War.”  When Moore criticizes Nancy Milford for applauding Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Ballad of the Harp-Weaver,” calling it mawkish and folksy; Moore obviously never experienced Eugene Burger’s performance of the poem! When Moore observes, “That many young people are already writing their memoirs is no longer a funny thing to say but an actual cultural condition.” And, ultimately – perfectly – when Moore relates a story about John Cheever, told by a painter at Yaddo. “She was sitting next to Cheever discussing upstate New York, and told him, ‘Last year, I went to Cohoes to buy shoes with Hortense.’ ‘Oh, what a wonderful sentence!’ he exclaimed. I went to Cohoes to buy shoes with Hortense! At which point the painter thanked her lucky stars that she wasn’t a writer, since she had no idea what was remotely lovely about that sentence.”

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Ernest Hemingway on Writing
Edited by Larry W. Phillips

More Advice from a Working Writer – I picked up this book in the gift shop of the Hemingway House in Key West and was surprised to read so much sound advice packed into such a slender volume. From a 1959 letter to L.H. Brague Jr.: “I love to write. But it has never gotten any easier to do and you can’t expect it to if you keep trying for something better than you can do.” From a 1934 letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald: “That is what we are supposed to do when we are at our best – make it all up – but make it up so truly that later it will happen that way.” From Death in the Afternoon: “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters.” From a 1925 letter to Fitzgerald, discussing the importance of subject matter: “Love is also a good subject as you might be said to have discovered. Other major subjects are the money from which we riches and poores. Also avarice. Gentlemen the boy lecturer is tired. A dull subject I should say would be impotence. Murder is a good one so get a swell murder into yr. next book and sit back.”

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AROUND TOWN: Anna Deveare Smith

The supremely talented actor Anna Deveare Smith wowed the standing-room only crowd at the Chicago Hilton ballroom during the April 10 luncheon benefiting early childhood powerhouse Ounce of Prevention. In part, Smith channeled Stephanie Williams, an “emotional support teacher” who worked with an 11-year-old boy who, in a rage, uprooted a tree. Smith also performs the calm, chilling words of social justice activist Bryan Stephenson, a founder of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama. The museum honors more than 4,000 African Americans lynched in the United States. The luncheon also featured remarks by Jamal Poindexter, an Educare Chicago graduate who is now 19 years old, and a trailer for a new documentary, “Tomorrow’s Hope,” which tells the stories of three Educare Chicago graduates (including Jamal) and features reflections from three of my formative teachers in the early childhood field: Portia Kennel, Brenda Eiland-Williford and Jackie Robinson.

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Scrapbooks: An American History
Jessica Helfand

Personal Histories – What is this ChicagoWriter blog but a scrapbook of sorts? A personal history, filled with reflections on the books I read. Helfand’s book takes a big-picture look at dozens of personal histories, from many walks of life, and creates an endlessly fascinating tapestry that cannot be digested in one reading. Too many images, too many words. My friend Oz presented this book to me as a gift some time ago, and it’s a book I find I keep returning to finding some new secret with each read. The gift that keeps on giving, indeed. Thanks, Oz!

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Ernest Hemingway: Artifacts from a Life
Edited by Michael Katakis, with a foreword by Patrick Hemingway and an afterword by Sean Hemingway

No Stone Left Unturned – I’ve written before about the “Hemingway Industry,” the seemingly endless effort to mine and perpetuate the legacy of America’s most influential writer. The industry exists because of consumers like me – I eat up this stuff – so I’m not complaining. And this time around, the “stuff” is good, from the Hemingway Collection at the John F. Kennedy Library. Dig in.

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April 20, 2019


Winners Take All:
The Elite Charade of Changing the World
Anand Giridharadas

The Poor Get Poorer – Journalist Anand Giridharadas uses effective, evocative reporting and well-told, real-life stories to make a compelling case that “generosity is not a substitute for justice.” While U.S. philanthropy might produce marginal change, the vast majority fails to fundamentally shift power and systemically create conditions in our capitalistic society that would make such generous philanthropy unnecessary in the first place. Economic inequality is worsening dramatically while digital progress further fragments the social bonds that hold society together and growing diversity stokes fear in half the population. Americans talk – often yell – at one another about gender and race, but little conversation occurs around class. Until we reckon with “capital supremacy” – woven together with male supremacy and white supremacy – we will not get to the root of solving poverty. In the meantime, philanthropy should look toward solutions – and “we’re drowning in solutions,” Giridharadas noted in a recent conversation about the book, so he means systemic solutions – that are public, democratic, institutional and universal.

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The Embezzler
Louis Auchincloss

The Rich Get Richer – If Edith Wharton was the great chronicler of the Gilded Age, Louis Auchincloss was the great chronicler of the Establishment. This superb novel – published in 1966 and, sadly, like the rest of Auchincloss’ works, now out of print – is told in three parts from three perspectives: Guy, the embezzler; Rex, his friend and nemesis; Angelica, his wife. “I have the distinction of having become a legend in my lifetime,” Guy tells us in the beginning, “but not a very nice one.” Guy and Rex are Wall Streeters. Angelica might be the most wily of the three. “Of all our novelists,” Gore Vidal once observed, “Auchincloss is the only one who tells us how our rulers behave in their banks and their boardrooms, their law offices and their clubs … Not since Dreiser has an American writer had so much to tell us about the role of money in our lives.” Auchincloss died in 2010 at the age of 92 after writing and publishing more than 60 books. Too bad he isn’t still alive and writing today, illuminating this new Era of the One-Percenters.

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Tell Me About It:
LGBTQ Secrets, Confessions, and Life Stories
St Sukie de la Croix
Owen Keehnen

Our Stories – Writer-hisotrians St Sukie de la Croix and Owen Keehnen have created an eye-opening, funny, deeply moving collection of interviews in the mode of the great Studs Terkel. They asked people to share their real-life LGBTQ experiences. Humans share stories to make sense of the world. This is fascinating and fun reading. I have the honor of appearing in volume one. If you’d like to participate in a second volume, contact Owen and Sukie:
OwenKeehnen@yahoo.com and Sukie@ChicagoWhispers.com

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Writers and Their Cats
Alison Nastasi

The Cat’s Meow – Why do cat owners love their cats? Well, as Jean Cocteau wrote, “I love cats because I enjoy my home; and little by little, they become its visible soul.” This heartwarming book showcases photographs of 45 writers and their little lions, while also providing a brief written snapshot of each writer. Charles Bukowski writes in a letter to his friend Carl Weissner, “I don’t like love as a command, as a search. It must come to you, like a hungry cat at the door.” Colette notes, “There are no ordinary cats.” Ernest Hemingway praises felines: “A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feels, but a cat does not.”

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Setting the Table
The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business
Danny Meyer

No Reservations – The first seven years I worked were at Fulton St. Fishery & Market, a suburban Chicago restaurant that opened in 1976. On Milwaukee Avenue, in northwest Wheeling, up the street from Le Francais and Don Roth’s. Busboy, waiter, host. The money I earned paid for college; I realize now the social skills I learned have served me well throughout my career and life.

“Setting the Table” is full of tips about building those social skills and other learning from other good lessons. Danny Meyer’s ideas about hiring managers and looking for “51 percenters,” the core emotional skills each needs, and his outline of the “Yes Criteria for New Ventures” are extraordinarily valuable – and transferrable to other fields. I was most struck by how he thinks about stakeholders; the idea that someone (staff) must be tended to before the customer is revolutionary. I work in the early education field – and I’m old enough to remember all of the work done to make early education “child-centered, family-focused.” Now, when the early ed field is facing a workforce crisis (not unlike the restaurant business and so many fields), I’m rethinking how early ed really needs to become staff-focused first to truly reach a place where children and families are best served.

And for anyone who just loves restaurants, this book offers a buffet of page-turning stories. Lessons, here, too: the aesthetic components of a memorable experience around a dinner table. Made me think how the people I worked with back at Fulton St. in the ‘70s were the first people I knew who hosted real dinner parties in their apartments – candles lit on the table, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughn recordings playing softly in the background, cocktails served first in the living room before we all sat at the dining room table where we drank wine with our meals. This was not the way food was served in the house I grew up in. But it was the beginning of developing a way of treating people, not only at work in a restaurant but at home and among friends.

“Setting the Table” also honors Irving B. Harris, Danny Meyer’s grandfather. I met Mr. Harris when I worked in the 1980s at the American Academy of Pediatrics, doing public relations. I saw him in action more frequently when I went to work for a Chicago nonprofit called Ounce of Prevention in the late 1990s. Irving was a force to be reckoned with in the early childhood field, decades ahead of his time.

My two favorite Irving stories: First, Mr. Harris, the Ounce and the Chicago Public Schools partnered to create the first Educare center on the city’s south side. Educare was then just a promising idea – a way of preparing infants, toddlers and preschoolers for success in school and life. Now it’s a coast-to-coast network of two dozen Educare schools doing some of the most innovative work in the field. One summer day at the construction site of that first Educare in Chicago’s Grand Boulevard neighborhood, I found myself walking beside Mr. Harris. We didn’t have a name for the place yet, so I piped up as Mr. Young P.R. Professional. “Mr. Harris,” I said, “I can’t think of a better name than calling this the Harris Center!”

Irving was a truly towering figure, in stature as well as height, and he looked down on me with a withering look that said, “Who the hell is this kid?” I gulped.

“We’re going to call it ‘Educare,’” he explained. “Bettye Caldwell, a pediatrician in Arkansas coined the word. It combines education and care.” He was always teaching.

My second story was a few weeks after Mr. Harris turned 90. (He passed away, at 94, I believe, in 2004.) I was editing something he had written, and I telephoned to offer my suggestions. “Let me find my copy,” Mr. Harris told me on the phone, and I could hear papers rustling on his desk.

I took the moment’s opportunity. “Mr. Harris,” I asked, “do you mind if I ask you a question?”

“What is it?”

“What’s it like to be 90?”

He paused. Then, with a booming, beaming voice, he replied: “Goddamn. It’s awesome!”

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Presumed Innocent
Scott Turow

Literature – Published in 1987, this novel remains a literary page-turner – a murder mystery/courtroom drama in which the prose swoops and soars to reveal the heights and depths of the human heart. No mere paperback thriller here: “In me, some human commodity is lacking. And we can only be who we can be. I have my own history; memories; the unsolved maze of my own self, where I am so often lost. I hear Barbara’s inner clamor; I understand her need. But I can answer only with stillness and lament. Too much of me – too much! – must be preserved for the monumental task of being Rusty.”

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Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire:
101 Luminaries Ponder Love, Death, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life
Edited by Graydon Carter
Illustrated by Risko

Make that 102What is your idea of perfect happiness? A Sunday morning with Robert, Gypsie, coffee and the newspapers.

What is your greatest fear? That America has succumbed to fear.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? This constant need to do the Irish jig.

What are the traits you most deplore in others? Corruption, bigotry, stupidity.

What is your greatest extravagance? Our annual stay at the Casa Marina in Key West.

What is your favorite journey? To Omaha.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue? Courage, temperance, justice, prudence, humility, kindness, generosity, patience, integrity, honesty, gratitude, compassion, sincerity, respect, loyalty – they’re all pretty good!

On what occasion do you lie? Lie? Why, I never lie, sir.

What do you dislike most about your appearance? This striking resemblance to Brad Pitt. It’s very confusing for his fans. And mine.

Which living person do you most despise? Mitch McConnell because he makes Trump possible.

Which word or phrase do you most overuse? Terrific!

What is your greatest regret? I have several, all regarding friends I feel I’ve let down in one way or another.

What or who is the greatest love of your life? Robert Charles.

When and where were you happiest? Our wedding day. Bliss.

Which talent would you most like to have? To play piano.

What do you consider your greatest achievement? The life Robert and I have created together. Close second: the role I’ve played in helping to create and sustain the Educare Learning Network, Alliance for Early Success, and First Five Years Fund – I’m just one small cog in a very large machine. Close third: Writing and publishing, “What You Don’t Know About Men,” though I hope my best writing is still to come.

Where would you like to live? I’m a Chicagoan and Chicago feels right as a home. But, if we could, Robert and I would spend our winters in Key West or California (Beverly Hills, San Diego, Sonoma.) Does anybody have a few million dollars to throw our way?

What is the quality you most like in a man? I’ll leave that to your imagination.

What do you most value in your friends? Wits. I’ve successfully surrounded myself with people smarter than me and people who make me laugh.

Who is your favorite hero of fiction? Gatsby. (That’s your cue to reply, “Gatsby? What Gatsby?”)

What is your motto? Non sum quails eram.

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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.

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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.



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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)

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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.


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

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Felicity
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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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March 29, 2018


Mortality
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.

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POSTSCRIPT: The Seven Cardinal Apps

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

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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.   

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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.

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