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.


Regarding Emma: Photographs of American Women and Girls
Melissa Ann Pinney
With a Foreword by Ann Patchett

Light, Shadows, Movement – When I try to articulate what I love about Melissa Ann Pinney’s beautifully made photographs, I find myself mumbling half-remembered Art History terms: the light and shadows of Italian Renaissance painters, the religious and non-religious/formal and informal settings; the compositional tension and instability of the great Mannerists; above all else, the movement.  These “stills” are alive! And by stopping life at these particular moments, Pinney allows us to see the world through her gifted eyes, and to feel each moment, deeply.


Michael Harvey

A Step Up – I’m a big fan of Michael Harvey’s mysteries – “The Fifth Floor,” “The Chicago Way,” “The Governor’s Wife,” and others – in which private eye Michael Kelly solves murders and other crimes in the Windy City. Harvey knows how to pen a page-turner, and he certainly knows Chicago. Turns out, he knows Boston, too, which shouldn’t come as a surprise given he grew up in Brighton and graduated from Boston Latin. He’s penned another riveting page-turner here, the story of two men forced to revisit their past as boyhood friends and accomplices in a murder.


March 18, 2017

The Virginity of Famous Men
Christine Sneed

Old Friends – Reading the fourth book of a much-admired writer is like meeting a dear chum for a relaxed, happy dinner in a charming bistro overlooking a calm, beautiful bay. You know it’ll be good. Plus, you know something of what to expect while, at the same time, you’re eager to discover what’s new.

“The Virginity of Famous Men” is Christine Sneed’s fourth book, her second collection after her debut, “Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry,” and two novels, “Little Known Facts” and “Paris, He Said.”

As I began reading these new stories, I found myself looking forward to Sneed’s signatures: her titles, which almost always evoke a different emotion from me after reading the story than before; her agility at conveying human relationships and the shifting dynamics in fraught conversations; her sometimes-gentle, sometimes-biting humor; her skillfulness at depicting just the right level of social clumsiness in awkward situations; and her talent in condensing time, action and feeling into powerful paragraphs. In fact, Christine Sneed accomplishes more in a paragraph than many writers achieve in an entire story.

From her story, “The First Wife:”
“After seven months of bickering, I got much more than four million in cash and the Laurel Canyon house. As soon as we both signed the papers, we didn’t speak again for two and a half years, not until our paths overlapped at a fundraiser for an AIDS research foundation that his second wife had insisted he attend with her. He married her a year after leaving me, and this time he insisted on a prenuptial agreement. Five months later, they were parents.”

And another:
“I wanted him to come home and tell me to my face that he was leaving me for another woman. As you can see, I wanted to make it difficult for him.”

And from “The Functionary:”
“The last utterance was code for annihilation, as so many of the underground room’s phrases were: ‘address all contingencies,’ ‘overcome obstacles,’ ‘confront a foreign presence,” and, in a few of the more specialized cases, ‘meet and greet.’ As Marcus soon realized, the underground room was a morgue, with the world’s dead hidden in words rather than on rolling metal planks concealed behind a stainless-steel wall.”

Here was a fun surprise: Sneed even gets more out of an abbreviation than most writers! Observe her use of N.B., meaning nota bene: “N.B. No one who marries someone famous knows precisely what will happen to their self-esteem.”

In this new collection, I found Sneed’s playing with form – an invitation in “The Couplehood Jubilee,” and entire story in “The New, All-True CV” – to be delightful. And I was reminded that when she writes about Hollywood, Christine Sneed gets the movie titles just right. The Color of Exile is “a film that eventually ended up on some of the worst-films-of-the-year lists.” And the sequel to Two Things You Should Know? Two More Things You Should Know. Perfection.

I also was reminded how she gets Paris just right – or, at least, the Paris I romanticize. From the book’s title story, “Rain was falling for the fifth day in a row, the sky layered with baggy, newsprint-gray clouds, birds silent and chasten in their nests. Water poured or dripped from every awning and overhang onto the heads of sullen passersby.”

Christine Sneed’s explorations of the lives of the famous, the not-famous, the young and the aging, is always illuminating. What a terrific book.


Each Year An Anthem
James Goertel

A Letter to a Poet – Dear James: I've said this before and I must say it again: You are gifted.

Robert and I are here in Key West – this place where the ghosts of so many great words and sentences shine as brightly as this tropic sun; this place where several Gods – Tennessee, Capote, Vidal, and Hemingway, of course; Hemingway, above all others, as always – still live in spirit. And this is a fine place, perhaps the best place, to read your poems. Written on Lake Erie; read on the Straits of Florida, in these joyous, salty waters between the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. Makes perfect sense:

"we are poised to fall into Lake Erie,
sweeping along its length
until we tumble over Niagara Falls –
our spirits rising with the mists
from the rocks at its base,
our bodies continuing on without our names
to the seaway of St. Lawrence
and beyond to our shared fate,
three mute souls adrift
in the cold reaches of the Atlantic -"

Your poems to Henry take my breath away. Such tenderness. You'll recognize this from another God, Raymond Carver: "'Tenderness.' That's certainly another word we don't hear much these days ... "

And this:
"You will grow to know the fight anthems of my youth."

And this:
"He sleeps, keeping his dreams, as always to himself/
and though he cannot remember my name or the last time he ate, I cannot discount his memories and my own/
sense of failure for having not kept them for him."

And these:
"a war of 'roses are red,' violence, and blues –"

"And it is only now I remember that my father and mother/
only ever/
sang in church."

"I am writing to you with smoke from a chimney,"

"My wife's floral robe hangs/
from the bedroom door/
asking What now?" (And the italics – yes!)

"Remember, my son,/
it's not what you paint,/
but what you leave off the canvas that matters most."

"For forty-five years I built the barricades
between myself and love."

Wow. Beautifully turned phrases and profound statements. True poetry. Plus, that story about Kunitz and Penn Warren is delicious. My God, you've got to tell it to me in person someday. And thank you for introducing me to Sergei Yesenin and Harrison's book. A real, big blind spot for me; I'll look tonight at the bookstore for a copy.

And then: "West of Rome," "Poems My Father Gave Me," " Crows on the Snow," "Two Rachels," "Of Interest," "A Strange Boat," "I Am the Cosmos," and "Ghosts, Come Gather (Sing Your Grey Songs)."

It's unfair to only cite these. On another day, I might choose others. But, today, these are the words that lift me, that stir my heart. And for that, I am so ever grateful. Thank you.



Berkshire Hathaway, Inc. 2016 Annual Report
Warren E. Buffett

Will Write for Money – The great investor’s annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders is a must-read for those eager to learn more about the conglomerate as well as Buffett-style value investing. The letter, too, should be required reading for any writer tackling a complex, jargon-filled subject. Mr. Buffett, with an editing assist from a true pro – former Fortune journalist Carol Loomis – explains multi-faceted, multi-billion dollar businesses by providing: succinct descriptions of the business of each business; helpful, high-level context about the industry in general; folksy humor; an abundant sense of joy and optimism; and a generous-but-not-overwhelming use of statistics and real-life stories to describe trends and long-view comparisons. Mr. Buffett also cites his mistakes as company chairman and assumes responsibility for any misjudgments. The mistakes are few. The lessons derived? Priceless.


February 5, 2017

Meanwhile there are Letters:
The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross MacDonald
Edited by Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan

The Slow, Easy Feeling – I fell in love with each of these writers before I knew they themselves loved one another. Ross MacDonald’s detective novels (especially “The Moving Target,” “The Goodbye Look” and “The Blue Hammer”) are not merely entertaining; they catapult genre-fiction into the realm of literature. Eudora Welty’s stories (most notably, for me, “Where Is the Voice Coming From,” “Powerhouse” and the classic “Why I Live at the P.O.”) expertly demonstrate what Welty means when she emphasizes the power of feeling in literature. These and her other stories also exemplify that – as she states in her excellent, “One Writer’s Beginnings” – “human life is fiction’s only theme.”

Welty and MacDonald lived far apart, with Welty in Jackson, Mississippi, and MacDonald in Santa Barbara, California. But they forged an intimate communion through their correspondence. They swapped musings about literary friends and colleagues, writing and not writing, joys and sorrows with family and friends, bird-watching and dog-walking and the Pacific Ocean, and a mutual love of the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. (Interesting: Welty, who ultimately would publish two impressive collections of photographs never mentioned photography in a dozen years’ worth of letters to her beloved friend, MacDonald.) In the end, they also wrote about a tragedy unfolding in real time: MacDonald’s heartbreaking mental decline, which left me crying and aching. When was the last time a collection of letters made you cry? Made you ache?

I took my time reading this exhaustive collection compiled by Welty’s and MacDonald’s biographers for two reasons: first, because there is no greater joy than “slow reading,” especially when you find a book so deliciously rich in language and true emotion that you automatically slow down to relish every word; and, second, because I found this book when I needed it the most – at a time when U.S. public discourse is coarse, crass and caustic, these gentle letters between two humane, humble and truly great people illuminate the power of intelligence, easy friendship, and grace.


COMMENTARY: Shadowy Reflections – Three Striking Similarities Between Othello and Iago

Even devoted fans of William Shakespeare’s Othello the Moor of Venice have acknowledged their difficulty in fully believing Iago’s sudden control over Othello. They have asked, to postulate in the proper pentameter, “How could this man deceive the great Othello?” The answer is clearly understood when we compare the two men, exploring three striking similarities between their characters: how they speak, how they act, and how they view themselves. Upon such an examination, the wicked Iago is revealed as a shadowy reflection of the tragic Moor – a reflection the Moor too readily embraces.

Othello and Iago are cunningly articulate and both take advantage of their way with words to get what they want. To win Desdemona’s heart, Othello relates the story of his life. He succeeds: “She thanked me;/ And bade me, if I had a friend that love her,/ I should but teach him how to tell my story,/ And that would woo her.” Iago’s way with words is less poetic and far more devious, but just as effective – as demonstrated when he plants the seeds of jealously toward Cassio in Othello’s mind:

Iago: Ha! I like not that.
Othello: What doust thou say?
Iago: Nothing, my lord; or if – I know not what.
Othello: Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?
Iago: Cassio, my lord? No, sure, I cannot think it, that he would steal away so guilty-like, seeing you coming.”

With few words and much suggestion, Iago has succeeded, as well.

In their actions, the Moor and his ensign share a common resoluteness. Othello’s reputation as a great and tireless warrior is noted early in the play when he is summoned to save Cyprus. The Duke makes it clear that Othello would be their greatest leader in battle. He notes there is “a substitute of the most allowed sufficiency,” but he insists on Othello’s command. Othello, of course, is triumphant. Iago is equally victorious and just as resolute, and even ruthless, on the battleground of his own schemes. Observe how he lures Roderigo into trying to kill Cassio, caring not which of the two ends up dead. “Now whether he kill Cassio,/ Or Cassio him, or each do kill the other,/ Every way makes my gain.” Clearly, Othello and Iago are men who get what they want, through words or by deeds.

In addition to these traits, the two share a jealous nature, a disposition shaped by the fact that both men view themselves as victims. Practically from the very moment Othello takes the stage, he stands accused. Brabantio alleges that Othello has stolen and corrupted Desdemona with “spells and medicines bought of mountebanks.” The charge is false; but the victimization of Othello is real. For his part, Iago feels victimized by Cassio: “He, in good time, must his lieutenant be,/ And I – God bless the mark! – his Moorship’s ancient.” Iago also feels victimized by his wife, as Emilia reveals when she speaks of her husband’s ungrounded jealously: “Some such squire he was/ That turned your wit the seamy side without/ And made you to suspect me with the Moor.” The difference, of course, is that Iago is never really victimized, though he believes this is true.

This is a difference the Moor does not see. To Othello, Iago is a kindred spirit, a familiar reflection that is easily and safely embraced, a friend who speaks, acts, and feels as Othello himself. To us, the differences within the similarities are apparent. Othello uses his words to win love while Iago’s words seek darker rewards. Othello’s resolute spirit defends Cyprus while Iago relentlessly pursues personal gains. Othello, even when he changes from being the accused to being the accuser, remains a victim. Iago portrays himself as a victim, but, in the end, his motivation is disclosed as little more than petty greed.

Until the end, however, Othello is blind to that greed. Simply, and tragically, this is why he so swiftly succumbs to Iago’s villainy: when Othello looks at Iago, he sees himself; when Othello listens to Iago, he hears himself; when Othello trusts Iago, he trusts himself. Near the play’s conclusion, Othello finally gains this insight, and he stabs Iago, perhaps to wound himself. He recognizes Iago as a reflection – a shadowy, twisted reflection of the man he, Othello, was – and a shocking, troubling reflection of the man he, Othello, has become.

“O fool ! fool ! fool !” Othello vainly cries, for he now knows the sorry truth: ‘Twas poor Othello who fooled himself.

Play cited: William Shakespeare’s Othello the Moor of Venice, edited by Gerald Eades Bentley.


February 3, 2017

Across the River and into the Trees
Ernest Hemingway

A Man, His Sentences – And here it is. Venice. Harry’s Bar. Duck hunting. The enchanting, young, beautiful Renata. The haunted old Colonel. And here Hemingway is, too: the Gran Maestro, spinning a tight, autobiographically inspired tale of two World Wars, lost love, and a soldier’s ruminations. And here they are, too – the Hemingway sentences: choppy, loopy, surprising, funny, bold, baffling; how much of this, one wonders, is signature style and how much is the dark aftereffect of dual concussions plus a lifetime of booze and battles? The words and phrases and scenes echo off one another, time folds and expands with layered memories, along the way Paris is remembered as a “moveable feast,” great myths are inspired. And it all mixes together perfectly, neatly, like a Campari bitters and Gordon’s Gin poured by Papa himself.


POSTSCRIPT: The Company We Keep

I have surrounded myself with magicians, early education champions and writers. The magicians make the impossible possible. The early educators make the possible real. And the writers help all of us make sense of the stunning implausibility of our very existence.


COMMENTARY: Taming the Proud – The Essential Difference Between Odysseus and Aeneas

The basic difference between Odysseus in The Odyssey and Aeneas in The Aeneid is best exemplified by the two heroes’ experiences in the land of the Cyclops. Here we see that Odysseus is primarily motivated by selfish concerns while Aeneas is more altruistically dedicated to saving a society – to healing old wounds, forming new bonds and preserving a race that ultimately will found Rome.

Odysseus and Aeneas have very different adventures in the land of the Cyclops. Odysseus’ adventure is a direct confrontation with Polyphemus, in which his life is repeatedly threatened. More important, his adventure – that is, the threat to his life – is initiated and prolonged by his own selfish curiosity. Safe on a neighboring island, Odysseus and his men are resting comfortably and eating well. However, Odysseus’ inquisitiveness soon gets the better of him as he decides to sail to the land of the Cyclops merely “to find out what kind of men are over there, and whether they are brutal and lawless savages or hospitable and god-fearing people/.”

Once on the island, Odysseus again acts out of selfish desire, compromising the well-being of his men. He has “an instant foreboding” of danger and his men plead with him to immediately return to their ship with a stolen herd. Instead, Odysseus decides to wait in the Cyclops’ cave and goes about making himself at home. In time, Polyphemus returns and the trouble begins as Odysseus’ men are randomly slaughtered and devoured.

Even after his narrow escape from the cave and all of its evil, Odysseus continues to succumb to selfish impulses that needlessly threaten his crew’s safety. As he sails away, Odysseus verbally taunts the blinded Polyphemus despite continued pleas from his crew for his silence. “I was for giving the Cyclops some more of my talk, though from all parts of the ship my men’s voices were raised in gentle remonstrate,” Odysseus says. “But all this went for nothing with me,” he adds. “My spirit was up, and in my rage I called to him once more.” In turn, Polyphemus storms the ship with a barrage of boulders.

Aeneas, on the other hand, never faces such an assault. In fact, he never really confronts Polyphemus. His adventure in the land of the Cyclops is an encounter with Achaemenides, in which Aeneas’ life is never in any imminent jeopardy. At the same time, it should be noted that Aeneas, unlike Odysseus, does nothing to provoke danger.

In the land of the Cyclops, Aeneas and his men come across Achaemenides, “a Greek – one who was sent to Troy with Argive arms,” an enemy who Odysseus himself had left behind. Instead of killing this one-time opponent, Aeneas and the other Trojans spare his life. In a similar situation, Odysseus might have acted to annihilate his enemy; in this episode, Aeneas acts to assimilate his foe.

After Achaemenides’ life is spared, this process of assimilation progresses at a startlingly rapid pace. One of Aeneas’ men, his father in fact, “does not wait long to offer (Achaemenides) his hand.” Then, when the Cyclopes appear, Aeneas and his men rush to their ship, bringing Achaemenides with them. Aeneas notes: “The suppliant, who merited as much, is taken on shipboard.”

The assimilation of Achaemenides under Aeneas’ leadership is soon complete as the Greek becomes a fellow crew member, a trusted navigator. Aeneas says: “These were the coasts that Achaemenides, the comrade of the unfortunate Ulysses, showed us as he retraced his former wanderings.” Once a foe, Achaemenides is now very much a friend.

Interestingly, Odysseus and Aeneas both came to the land of the Cyclops as a matter of happenstance. “Some god must have guided us through the murky night, for it was impossible to see ahead,” Odysseus says. Aeneas states: “But then the sun set, the wind has left our weary crew; not knowing where we go, we drift upon the beaches of the Cyclops.” In effect, Odysseus and Aeneas begin their adventures on the same ground. They’re both victims of circumstance. That they react so differently to that circumstance is most telling.

While Odysseus’ undertaking is marked by selfishness and confrontation, Aeneas’ adventure is notable for selflessness and communion. Odysseus’ weaknesses lead to the brutal slayings of several of his crew. Aeneas’ strengths ensure a safe escape and point to a much larger idea learned from both epics: For there to be progress, selfish concerns must be discarded and compromise must be sought. Odysseus is, perhaps, too proud to fully realize this notion. Aeneas, however, is clearly aware of this concept as it will later be prophesied when the Sibyl tells him, “Roman, these will be your arts: to teach the ways of peace to those you conquer, to spare defeated peoples, tame the proud.”

This taming of the proud – indeed, this taming of the “self” – is an ability Aeneas possesses and Odysseus lacks. Ultimately, it is this capacity to tame the “self” that constitutes the essential difference between these two great heroes.

Books cited: Homer, The Odyssey, translated by E.V. Rieu; Virgil, The Aeneid, translated by Allen Mandelbaum.


COMMENTARY: Real People – Finding Someone to Root for in ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’

While there is no single, central hero in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, there are at least three complex characters who deserve our empathy.

Maggie is not perfect. She schemes and screams, but, in the end, we see she is at least honest about selfishness, truly affectionate toward Big Daddy and wholly devoted to loving Brick. In one speech, Maggie addresses her selfishness by speaking frankly about looks and money: “You can be young without money but you can’t be old without it. You’ve got to be old with money because to be old without it is just too awful, you’ve got to be one or the other, either young or with money, you can’t be old and without it. – That’s the truth, Brick …” She’s certainly not hiding the fact that she wants the inheritance. Maggie also is openly and genuinely drawn toward Big Daddy. Her affection is shown briefly, but tellingly, when Maggie urges Brick to sign a birthday card for Big Daddy.

Brick: I didn’t get him a present.
Margaret: I got one for you.
Brick: All right. You write the card, then.
Margaret: And have him know you didn’t remember his birthday?
Brick: I didn’t remember his birthday.
Margaret: You don’t have to prove you didn’t!

She truly cares about Big Daddy – and about Brick, too. Early in the play, Maggie teases about leaving Brick, but the tease is only strategy. She’s devoted to her husband, as she makes clear when she closes the play: “Oh, you weak, beautiful people who give up with such grace. What you need is someone to take hold of you – gently, with love, and hand your life back to you, like something gold you let go of – and I can! I’m determined to do it – and nothing’s more determined than a cat on a tin roof – is there? Is there, Baby?”

Brick is no longer the true-blue hero he was in his high school football days. Yet, we empathize with him: first, for obvious, physical reasons; then, for more subtle, emotional reasons. When we meet Brick, he is hobbling on a plastered leg and introduced in flattering lighting: “He stands there in the bathroom doorway drying his hair with a towel and hanging into the towel rack because one ankle is broken, plastered and bound … the fading, still warm, light from the gallery treats him gently.” Our first impression is quite favorable, and sets Brick up as an underdog character; only later do we learn his demons. He drinks. He sulks. He’s clearly troubled.

Brick: This click that I get in my head that makes me peaceful. I got to drink till I get it. It’s just a mechanical thing, something like a – like a – like a –
Big Daddy: Like a –
Brick: Switch clicking off in my head, turning the hot light off and the cool night on … all of a sudden there’s – peace!

Brick is struggling to fund true peace and his struggle elicits our support.

At times, Brick’s struggle also elicits Big Daddy’s anger. Despite his temper, though, Big Daddy evokes our empathy as well. First, there are obvious reasons: Big Daddy is dying and, what’s more, we know it before Big Daddy knows.

Margaret: … It’s malignant and it’s terminal.
Brick: Does Big Daddy know it?
Margret: Hell, do they ever know it? Nobody says, “You’re dying.” You have to fool them. They have to fool themselves.

We come to care more for Big Daddy as his concern for Brick becomes more clear. His manner remains harsh, and arguably too severe, but Williams makes us feel the sincerity of his effort.

Big Daddy: You hung up?
Brick: Hung up. Jesus! Well –
Big Daddy: Anyhow now! – we have tracked down the lie with which you’re disgusted and which you are drinking to kill your disgust with, Brick. You been passing the buck …

To dismiss “Cat” for lacking likable characters is to overlook the genius – and one underlying theme – of the play. Williams has said he wrote about “life.” In life, of course, people are complex and often contradictory, with good people occasionally doing bad things, and vice versa. The genius of “Cat” is that Williams’ characters simply (or, perhaps, not-so-simply) are real people with real lives. In “Cat,” we root for characters not because they’re so likable but because they’re so real.

Play cited: Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.


December 28, 2016

Photographs by Melissa Ann Pinney
Introduction and edited by Ann Patchett

Duets – The human heart cries out to be paired. Ancient Egyptians imagined contrasting Gods to explain existence. Chinese thinkers developed the concept of yin and yang. “Adam and Eve” make appearances in Christian, Judaic, Islamic, and Gnostic narratives. As award-winning photographer Melissa Ann Pinney notes in her preface, “I’ve always been interested in watching people together. I wonder what their story is, who they are to each other.” In addition to 90 of Pinney’s excellent photographs, this book features an introduction by Ann Patchett as well as 10 essays by Billy Collins, Edwidge Danticat, Allan Gurganus, Jane Hamilton, Elizabeth Gilbert, Barbara Kingsolver, Elizabeth McCracken, Maile Meloy, Susan Orlean and Richard Russo. My advice? By two copies of this book – and gift one to a beloved friend or random passerby.


Edith Wharton

Boo – Every good writer should write a ghost story, a dog story, and a Christmas story. “Afterward” is a bit of a twofer: a ghost story in which a key part of the plot takes place around Christmastime. Wharton tells an engaging story and demonstrates why, in just under 12,000 words, she is a master. Her flashback structure at the book’s beginning echoes the book’s title and theme; plus, her clever, strategic repetition of the word, “Afterward,” creates a most haunting effect.


AN APPRECIATION: Talks, Lectures and Conversations in 2016

Let us now salute more than a dozen major-league hitters I was lucky enough to listen to and learn from in 2016. I do so love a thought-provoking lecture, talk or conversation. These folks knocked it out of the park:


Dr. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, a Harvard powerhouse, on the legacy and lessons of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She provided the keynote in January at the annual MLK tribute sponsored by United Planning Organization in Washington, DC.

Hanke Gratteau, a veteran of Chicago journalism who now works as the Director of the Cook County Sheriff's Justice Institute. Hanke's frank and clear talk, at an annual event commemorating the legacy of the great Clarence Darrow, provided an eye-opening look at how Cook County Jail is really America's largest mental health facility.

Master magician Eugene Burger lectured in Milwaukee following a performance at "Two Brothers, One Mind." Eugene's teachings on magic are really lessons for living a good life.

Dr. Sedhill Mullainatham recapped his co-authored book, "Scarcity," at the Ounce of Prevention's annual luncheon. Someday, I would like to ask him about a key question missing from his book and his talk: Why is there poverty in the United States of America?

Every year at the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders Meeting, legendary investors Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger spend nearly six hours answering unscripted, open-mic questions posed by 40,000 shareholders in the auditorium, a panel of financial experts, and people asking questions through a trio of journalists. The experience offers many insights into the value of making long-term commitments, the value of worrying about your reputation, and the value of seeking value itself.

Dr. Walter Gilliam, from the Yale Child Study Center, spoke at the national Educare network meeting in Atlanta. He provided a riveting -- and revolting -- examination of how U.S. preschoolers are being expelled at an alarming rate: more than three times the rate for children in K-12 grades.

At an event sponsored by Thresholds, Sharon D. Rise described her jaw-dropping journey from the streets of Chicago to her work now as a housing advocate. The mesh between mental health, poverty and racism is the tragically great unaddressed issue of our time, in Chicago and across America.

Malala Yousafzai offered the year's most inspiring remarks because her story is so compelling and her character is so true. Malala spoke to over a thousand people at the Girls, Inc. luncheon in Omaha.

Dr. Howard Stevenson, from Penn, outlined methods for developing and practicing a new basic skill needed in the 21st century: "racial literacy." His powerful presentation was made to several hundred early childhood advocates from across the country who were participating in the Alliance for Early Success meeting in Scottsdale.

Artist Vicky Tesmer offered an engaging, thoroughly entertaining retrospective of her career on a beautiful September evening at the Cliff Dwellers Club here in Chicago.

Three excellent writers -- Christine Sneed, Lori Ostlund and Anne Raeff -- shared an insightful conversation about the similarities and differences of writing short stories and novels. The event was hosted by Women and Children First, one of Chicago's great bookstores.

Speaking at the Erikson Institute annual luncheon, New York Times columnist David Brooks -- the liberals' favorite conservative -- provided a subdued but moving post-election rumination on how early life experiences shape who we become as adults and how we become as a society.

Max Maven -- master mentalist, seasoned performer and total mensch -- rounded out my year with a lecture at Magic., Inc., in Chicago's Ravenswood neighborhood. The fact is I could listen to Max read the phone book and find it utterly fascinating.


December 13, 2016

True Compass: A Memoir
Edward M. Kennedy

The Lion Roars – If you ever wanted to enjoy a cold beer with U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy while he regales you with a few dozen tales from his larger-than-life life, yank a Sam Adams from the ice pail and read this book. Partly lifted from an oral history project and edited by Ron Powers, this memoir sails along in Teddy’s voice, charting a chatty course through the well-known and lesser-known waters of his long journey. What emerges is the autobiographical portrait of a human (and, therefore, flawed) optimist with a boundless appetite for living and an outsized share of profound grief. What emerges, too, is an engaging portrait of America in the 20th and very early 21st centuries. The country experienced dramatic ups-and-downs, successes and reversals, during Ted Kennedy’s life, as did the Senator from Massachusetts himself.



November 11, 2016 – Let us now celebrate my beloved Grandmother, Myrtle M. Burke, born 111 years ago today.

I remember Myrtle smiling widely as she recalled the celebrations and confetti on her 13th birthday – the day World War One (the Great War, the War to End All Wars) ended. This portrait is from her first wedding, when Myrtle Kell married Robert MacGregor, who would tragically lose his life in a car crash. Myrtle somehow kept slugging away, working (for the phone company) and living through personal grief and the Great Depression. In the late 1930s, Myrtle was introduced by a co-worker, my Aunt Geraldine, to my Grandfather, Joe Burke, a young widower himself. They married in 1940 and faced life, with its wars – World War Two, Korea – together. I only know my Grandpa Joe through stories; he died in 1963, which would leave Myrtle again on her own for another 29 years.

As I grew up, Grandma Myrtle and Aunt Gerry became two lighthouses in my life – beacons, living on their own in separate apartments, cooking feasts for family at Thanksgiving and other holidays, hosting card games and cocktails for their lady friends, ushering my Brother, my Cousins and me to live theater shows and movies. In fact, I wouldn’t have experienced live theater as a child without Grandma and Aunt Gerry.

I grew especially close to Myrtle in her final years, when my Dad was driving trucks cross-country and I was helping Grandma manage surgeries and caregivers. I was alone with her the late night when she died, just shy of her 87th birthday.

Myrtle dramatically changed the course of my life. With an unexpected, small inheritance from her, I left a job I loved to travel, move back into Chicago and study creative writing in the graduate program at Columbia College. I blew through the money in a year; someone wiser would’ve made it stretch, invested it. Instead, I lived a year when I said “Yes!” to everything, which is a major investment itself.

I have Myrtle to thank for that freedom.

And when I ran through the money and went back to work, I met Robert Charles. That dramatically changed the course of my life, as well.

I am forever grateful to this fine woman. Happy birthday, Grandma!


November 29, 2016

Bright, Precious Days
Jay McInerney

The Time of Our Lives – “Once again it was the holiday season, that ceaseless cocktail party between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, when the city dressed itself in Christmas colors and flaunted its commercial soul, when the compulsive acquisitiveness of the citizenry, directed outward into ritual gift giving, was transmuted into a virtue and moderation into a vice.” This is not the most important sentence in Jay McInerney’s new, thoroughly engrossing, highly entertaining novel. But it’s a sentence I relish because it features many of the things I love about McInerney’s writing: it’s a beautifully (and carefully) crafted phrase; it’s about Manhattan; it’s about money; it’s about a particular slice of American life I’ve yearned for, striven for, come to know and grown weary of chasing. Plus, it comes wrapped in this gorgeous, tasteful package surrounded by thousands of similar such sentences, edited invisibly by Gary Fisketjon and sheathed in a clever, wistful jacket designed by Chip Kidd. What’s not to love? McInerney is a confident writer – perhaps that comes when your debut book (“Bright Lights, Big City”) becomes part of the cultural conversation, perhaps that comes when you’re publishing your eighth or ninth novel. In “Bright, Precious Days,” McInerney revisits Corrine and Russell Calloway, central figures from two previous books and a short story. McInerney tells another chapter of their marriage here – in dramatic, heart-tugging and laugh out-loud funny passages complete with surprising page-turners and keen social satire. He’s telling a larger story, too – a story of New York and a life of books and the battered American dream. That’s no small ambition and “Bright, Precious Days” is no small achievement.


The Algonquin Round Table: A Historical Guide
Kevin C. Fitzpatrick

“You might as well live” – I finished reading this book, a Who’s-Who What’s-What Guide to the famous and infamous literary rat pack of the 1920s and 1930s, tucked in a cozy room at the Algonquin Hotel. I wasn’t checked into suite 1005, where, I learned, Marc Connelly wrote the banquet scene from To the Ladies. Nor was I huddled in suite 908, where Lerner and Lowe composed much of My Fair Lady. One hopes I wasn’t in the room where James Thurber died, where, in the words of The New Yorker, “He died sad and gassy and alone, in the Algonquin Hotel, after too much coleslaw and beer.” Ouch. But that snakebite is what made the Round Tablers – Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Franklin P. Adams, George S. Kaufman and the others – the Vicious Circle.


Connecting to Change the World
Peter Pastrik, Madeleine Taylor, John Cleveland

“Only connect” – We are living in revolutionary times with major shifts underway in an ever more interlocked global economy, sweeping technological change, brutal political restructuring, rising secularism, and undulating social movements. “Connecting to Change the World” helps you navigate these increasingly rough seas by charting a course forward in which networks, and networks of networks, play a greater role (though not the only role) in how people can live, work and succeed more meaningfully together. In 1910, E.M.Forster published a masterwork of fiction, Howard’s End. The book begins with what appears to be a simple, two-word epigraph: “Only connect.” Forster then devotes about 100,000 words to telling the story of people in the early 20th century who are trying (and, for some, not trying) to empathize, sympathize and understand people different from themselves. “Connecting to Change the World” provides a road map for how we just might get there in the 21st Century.


July 25, 2016

F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Short Autobiography
Edited by James L.W. West III

Life and the Writing Life – F. Scott Fitzgerald is among the great American stylists, in writing if not in life, though in his younger and more vulnerable years he personified the confident vitality and breezy radiance of the Jazz Age.  As West points out, “He wanted to make money and to be taken seriously – a difficult combination for any author to pull off.” Fitzgerald twice proposed publishing a collection of personal essays; his editor, the famed Maxwell Perkins, declined. In this collection, I find the early essays don’t offer much some 90 years later – but Fitzgerald’s later essays are timeless, weighted with valuable insights from a life being lived in less-sunnier days. “Later essays” is perhaps a misleading phrase in the life of an artist who died at 44. But Fitzgerald’s essays from 1926 and on include: “How to Waste Material – A Note on My Generation,” “One Hundred False Starts,” “Author’s House,” “Afternoon of an Author,” and “My Generation.” These essays – published after Fitzgerald’s first three novels, “This Side of Paradise,” “The Beautiful and Damned,” and “The Great Gatsby” – constitute a master class for any author.


March 4, 2016

Borges at 80: Conversations
Edited by Willis Barnstone

The Master – This is one of the most profound books I’ve read. I relished every word in this series of interviews with the great writer Jorge Luis Borges. I dog-eared just about every page to remind me of something important: an insight about life, a tip on writing, a witticism that made me laugh, a reference to another book I am eager to read. The full meaning of this book is impossible for me to summarize, for it is a book I shall return to repeatedly. It is a book full of sobering (some would say depressing) reflections and, at the same time, utter joy and optimism. Here is part of an exchange from a 1976 interview between Willis Barnstone and Borges when the great, blind Argentine poet was about 77 years old:

Barnstone: In Cincinnati when an admirer said, “May you live one thousand years,” you answered, “I look forward happily to my death.” What did you mean by that?

Borges: I mean that when I’m unhappy – and that happens quite often to all of us – I find real consolation in the thought that in a few years, or maybe in a few days, I’ll be dead and then all this won’t matter. I look forward to being blotted out. But if I thought that my death was a mere illusion, that after death I would go on, then I would feel very, very unhappy. For, really, I’m sick and tired of myself. Now, of course if I go on and I have no personal memory of ever having been Borges, then in that case it won’t matter to me because I may have been hundreds of odd people before I was born, but those things won’t worry me, since I will have forgotten them. When I think of mortality, of death, I think of those things in a hopeful way, in an expectant way. I should say I am greedy for death, that I want to stop waking up every morning, finding: Well, here I am, I have to go back to Borges.

There’s a word in Spanish, I suppose you know. I wonder if it’s any longer in use. Instead of saying “to wake up,” you say recordarse, that is, to record yourself, to remember yourself. My mother used to say Que me recuerde a los ocho “I want to be recorded to myself at eight.” Every morning I get that feeling because I am more or less nonexistent. Then when I wake up, I always feel I’m being let down. Because, well, here I am. Here’s the same old stupid game going on. I have to be somebody. I have to be exactly that somebody. I have certain commitments. One of the commitments is to live through the whole day. Then I see all that routine before me, and all things naturally make me tired. Of course when you’re young, you don’t feel that way. You feel, well, I am so glad I’m back in this marvelous world. But I don’t think I ever felt that way. Even when I was young. Especially when I was young. Now I have resignation. Now I wake up and I say: I have to face another day. I let it go at that. I suppose that people feel in different ways because many people think of immortality as a kind of happiness, perhaps because they don’t realize it.

Barnstone: They don’t realize what?

Borges: The fact that going on and on would be, let’s say, awful.


Ernest Hemingway: The Last Interview and Other Conversations
Melville House Publishing

Papa, Again – I can seemingly never get enough Hemingway. Hemingway’s 1954 Paris Review interview with George Plimpton is feistier, more combative than I recall. I’ve also previously read Lloyd Lockhart’s 1958 article, “Dropping in on Hemingway,” but a 1954 Atlantic Monthly interview by Robert Manning and Robert Emmett Ginna’s 1958 Esquire interview are “new” to me. I’m struck again by Hemingway’s discipline, writing 400 to 1,000 words per day. (The writer John McNally recently noted the importance, too, of daily writing.) I didn’t recall how Hemingway had kept track of the numbers like a scout analyzing a potential baseball star. I was surprised by Hemingway’s kindness at welcoming unexpected visitors and reminded of his choices to live in hard-to-get-to places (Key West, Cuba, Ketchum). Finally, I was taken by the differences he emphasized between talking and writing. “When I talk, incidentally, it’s just talk,” Manning quotes Hemingway. “But when I write I mean it for good.”


Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How it Defines Our Lives
Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

Only Half of the Story – David Brooks is the Liberals’ Favorite Conservative. In part, that’s because he writes about human development and behavior. It’s also because he is a rare thoughtful conservative in a time when the prevailing conservative orthodoxy abandons facts, disdains science and scorns reflection. How lonely he must feel. But Brooks’ writing often leads to unpalatable conclusions, no matter how pleasantly presented, because he often leaves out half of the story. Mullainathan and Shafir do the same in “Scarcity,” a book I’ve seen warmly embraced by my progressive friends. The book does, indeed, spotlight a few interesting insights; but, in the end, it’s yet another book that focuses on poverty without ever addressing the real elephant in the room: Why is there poverty in the United States of America? (The “why” questions are so seldom asked, by the media or anyone.) Answering this would mean tackling some mighty, complex and fundamental questions about capitalism, racism, sexism and mental health. And those four doors are just never opened in America. Well, perhaps they are occasionally budged open for a fleeting peek; but the doors of capitalism, racism, sexism and mental health are always once again quickly slammed shut. So, in “Scarcity,” we’re left with an examination of only half of the story – what happens to the individual, how do an individual’s skills affect his or her life, how do an individual’s opportunities make or break his or her future, how do an individual’s ambitions shape what will come? There is no consideration of larger and equally important societal influences, roles and responsibilities. What effect do community and culture have on the individual? It’s never asked – and that’s the scarcity in “Scarcity.”


The Early Stories of Truman Capote
Foreword by Hilton Als

Training Wheels – If you are a fan of Truman Capote, and I am, you will enjoy this collection of 14 stories written when Capote was an adolescent and young man. The intricacies of his more mature works are not apparent; but, here you will find a sketch (if not a full portrait) of the artist as a young man.


February 3, 2016

Homolatte Performance

Scott Free has been showcasing queer talent in his Homolatte performance series for a long time in Chicago -- and I was thrilled to recently appear again on his stage.

I read, "The Jonquils," from my book, "What You Don't Know About Men." As an added bonus, the crowd and I were treated to an excellent performance of new songs by Scott and the singer-songwriter Anne-Marie Akin. A truly wonderful evening in the Windy City. How lucky are we to be living and working in such an artistic community?


CHICAGO VOICES: My Q&A with Christine Sneed

Here is a glimpse into my writing process, for individual stories as well as for my book, "What You Don't Know About Men." I am so grateful to one of my favorite writers, Christine Sneed, for this opportunity to reflect.

Christine Sneed blog -- Q&A with Michael Burke


November 15, 2015

Ernest Hemingway: Between Two Wars
The Morgan Library & Museum

Hemingway in Love:
His Own Story
A.E. Hotchner

A Moveable Feast – I’m a sucker for all-things Papa. A recent weekend visit to New York City wasn’t complete for me without a stop at the Morgan’s new exhibit featuring Hemingway’s manuscripts, letters, and notebooks. The gallery illustrates examples of the great writer’s creative process and literary influences. Back home in Chicago, my friend Robert N. Georgalas (a keen writer and Hemingway aficionado himself) kindly gave me A.E. Hotchner’s new memoir, in which Papa recounts his struggle of loving two women, Hadley and Pauline, at the same time. Neither the exhibit nor the memoir illuminates anything particularly new about Hemingway – and that is not a criticism. Not for a devotee like me. Both add to the mystique surrounding one of America’s great writers of the 20th century.


November 14, 2015

Ayad Akhtar

A World of Difference – “Disgraced” is a subtly written play for our very unsubtle times. Nowhere is this more clear than in the published script, when Issac, a Whitney museum curator, says during a dinner party attended by his wife, Jory, and their hosts, Amir and Emily, “I need to read the Koran.” When every other character, before and after this moment, notes the book, he or she says, “Quran.” There is a world of difference between the two – and that’s exactly the point of this superb, sharply written play. It doesn’t take long for fumbled attempts at understanding in “Disgraced” to lead to disaster. The same, sadly, is true of our world today.


August 29, 2015

Paris, He Said
Christine Sneed

Magnifique – Christine Sneed’s great subject is the human heart in conflict with itself – the ways in which women and men balance the risks and rewards of intimacy, welcome and shun the thrill and guilt of seduction, and value and diminish trust, loyalty and love. In this fascinating novel, she tells the story of two lovers – Jayne Marks, an aspiring artist from New York, and Laurent Moller, an older gallery owner who supports Jayne’s new life in Paris. Sneed is a cunning writer who exquisitely depicts moments of grace, awkwardness, and scorn. We come to know Jayne and Laurent and their personal journey together as well as their individual journeys apart. I found the writing to be truly enchanting. In fact, I felt I was reading a French novel translated into English – complete with a quite unexpected transcendent conclusion.


Go Set a Watchman
Harper Lee

Hey, Boo – I have never read a more confounding book. Some of this novel is charming, sentimental and well-written; the more notorious parts left me disappointed in both Atticus and Scout in ways I don’t believe any fictional characters have disappointed me before. Those sections also left me suspicious of the book’s provenance. None of this, for me, diminishes To Kill a Mockingbird, which I still consider a true American classic. I also find some encouragement in the fact that people have such strong opinions about this “new” old book; I had feared that books were losing their ability to elicit fierce reactions.


The Governor’s Wife
Michael Harvey

First Lady, Second City – Private Eye Michael Kelly is back and this time he’s mixed up in a case involving a corrupt Illinois Governor (sadly, the Land of Lincoln offers plenty of prototypes for this character), a powerhouse First Lady, and an assassin who’ll stop at nothing. If you’re writing in Chicago, especially, you should be reading Michael Harvey – and Sara Paretsky – whose stories involving gumshoes and criminals offer intriguing insights into life in the Windy City.


Local Souls
Allan Gurganus

Yarn – When I grow up, I want to tell stories like Allan Gurganus – with his signature dark comedy and illuminating truths. He spins these three tales with a master’s ease, using the oldest (and best) tools of the trade: surprise, suspense and reversal. He draws characters so you feel like you’ve known them forever. And he stretches the boundaries of belief in ways that remind you that life, itself, is fairly unbelievable.


April 19, 2015

The Thin Man
Dashiell Hammett

You, Again – In a 1980 interview at MIT, the great writer Jorge Luis Borges observed, “Ah, there is something far better than reading, and that is rereading, going deeper into it because you have read it, enriching it. I should advise people to read little but to reread much.” Rereading one of Dashiell Hammett’s two masterworks (“The Maltese Falcon” is the other, of course) is like spending a good, leisurely afternoon with a wise, old friend: Maybe you’ve heard these stories about these people before, but all of a sudden you’re hearing and seeing and learning something new. For me, this time, “The Thin Man” retained its breakneck pace, seductive romance, and witty banter; but also featured telling references to the economic times (just off the brink of the Great Depression), which seem stunningly current, and one of the all-time best examples of literary elision when detective Nick Charles is alone in a hotel bedroom with young, flirtatious Dorothy:

I put my arms around her. “To hell with them.”
After a while she asked: “Is Mama in love with you?”

That “After a while” covers a lot of ground in a featherweight story like “The Thin Man.” Those three words – and the dozens left out – typify exquisite craftsmanship.


Restaurant Man
Joe Bastianich

86’d – In my secret life, I am a Restaurant owner. Sometimes I own a white-tablecloth restaurant with a short but outstanding wine list, a mild-tempered genius in the kitchen, and a cheery jazz pianist playing in the cocktail lounge. Other times I dial down the fantasy knob by a couple of notches and imagine myself owning a small corner bar here in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood where Robert Charles performs magic. Whenever I mention this fantasy to friends who really own restaurants and bars, they tell me I’m crazy. “If you like not making money, having employees steal from you, breaking up fights and working every single night of your life,” they say, “you’ll love this business.” A friend in the business, Dean Rasmussen, gave me this book to read – and it’s a five-star delight. Joe Bastianich mixes frank business tips about “restaurant math” with real-life adventures in the trade with his father (the original Restaurant Man, Felice Bastianich), his mother (chef Lidia) and his business partner (chef Mario Batali). Along the way, he shares some smart advice for those who dare to dream: “One of the best things Lidia taught me is this: ‘Never makes decisions on your best day, and never make your decision on your worst day. Make all your decisions on medium days.’” 


January 10, 2015

On Television
Pierre Bourdieu

A Vast Wasteland, Says Who? – Years ago I found myself entranced by an 82-page book titled, “On Television,” written by Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist, philosopher and public intellectual. Bourdieu was the thinker perhaps best known for identifying, in 1973, the concept of “cultural capital.” This pioneering work explores how non-economic attributes (for example, where you were educated, the sorts of clothes you wear, your style of speech, etc.) affect how far you go in life and which doors open and which doors remain closed along the way. (The theory is more complicated than that, but you get the idea.)

Reading “On Television,” I dog-eared dozens of pages featuring Bourdieu’s keen observations about journalism, democracy and “free” speech. While he was writing largely about the state of affairs in France, his ideas certainly resonated with our experience watching television here in the United States. An example: “Pushed by competition for market share, television networks have greater and greater recourse to the tried and true formulas of tabloid journalism, with emphasis (when not the entire newscast) devoted to human interest stories or sports,” Bourdieu wrote.  “No matter what has happened in the world on a given day, more and more often the evening news begins with French soccer scores or another sporting event, interrupting the regular news. Or it will highlight the most anecdotal, ritualized political event (visits of foreign heads of state, the president's trips abroad, and so on), or the natural disasters, accidents, fires and the like. In short, the focus is on those things which are apt to arouse curiosity but require no analysis, especially in the political sphere.”

Bourdieu died on January 23, 2002, in Paris, at the age of 71. The Guardian newspaper called him “as important to the second half of the 20th century as Sartre had been to the generation before.” When I read the news online, I sent an email to a handful of friends noting the world had lost one of its greatest and most influential thinkers.

My friend Rosemary Tinker replied via email immediately: “At least we still have Sherwood Schwartz,” she wrote.

The name was vaguely familiar. “O.K,” I responded, “I’ll bite. Who’s Sherwood Schwartz?”

A moment passed before Rosemary replied again: “The creator of ‘Gilligan’s Island.’”


January 1, 2015

COMMENTARY: The Books that Make the Man

Robert Charles and I were lucky to begin the New Year in the company of three dear friends: Jeffrey Osman, Joe Wade and Ed Underhill. They’re friends who have inspired and shaped my thinking for more than 30 years now. (That's a photo of Oz and Joe Wade taken a few years back at Andy's Jazz Club.) At one point during our New Year’s Day lunch in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood, Oz asked us to recall an early book, painting, or piece of art that influenced the man each of us has become. The first thought that came to my mind? Listening to Studs Terkel’s radio interviews, which my Father listened to late at night on his bedroom clock radio. Oz’s good question sparked some deeper thought than he might have imagined – or expected! And so, I offer this list – a litany of two-dozen literary influences.

“The Whales Go By,” by Fred Phleger. Published in 1959, the year I was born, this is the first book I remember. My Dad would read the book to me at bedtime; having worked his regular job at the post office plus a moonlighting job tending bar, Dad would routinely fall asleep as he read the book aloud. I would then climb out of bed and ask Mom to ask Dad to move to his own bed so I could go to sleep.

“A Wrinkle in Time,” by Madeleine L’Engle. I believe it was our fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Levis, who read aloud this book to our class at Mark Twain Elementary School. (I also attended Jack London Junior High School. How lucky I was to attend public schools named for great authors.)

The Trinity: “Holy Bible: Catholic Layman’s Edition,” edited by Reverend John P. O’Connell and published with the Imprimatur of Samuel Cardinal Stritch, Archbishop of Chicago (Elaine Stritch’s Uncle, by the way); “The Making of the President 1960: A Narrative History of American Politics in Action,” by Theodore H. White; and “Union House, Union Bar: The History of the Hotel & Restaurant Employees and Bartenders International Union,” by AFL-CIO Matthew Josephson. I did not grow up in a house filled with books. In fact, aside from two sets of children’s encyclopedias and one set of “condensed” classics, I recall only three books in my parents’ home. The first is the Holy Bible, Chicago Catholic version – which, in part, reminds us that an indulgence of three years is granted if one reads Sacred Scripture with great reverence for at least 15 minutes each day. The second is “The Making of the President 1960” – Dad was a staunch Democrat in those days; these days, like so many, Dad votes Republican. I don’t recall my Mom ever voting. The third book is “Union House, Union Bar” – Dad was a union man, too. I have kept these three books, moving them from home to home as if they are precious belongings. In fact, they are precious. In so many ways, these three early books remind me who I am – or, at least, from whence I came.

“Ordinary People,” by Judith Guest. My favorite coming-of-age novel, featuring an influential life lesson: “Some things happen just because they happen.”

“To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee. Another book filled with essential life lessons. (“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.”) Plus, our study of the novel in school awakened me to the literary mysteries of structure and theme and poetic prose: “When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”

Harold Robbins novels. I discovered a stash tucked beneath my brother’s bed and read them quickly, devouring the racy sex scenes.

“The Thin Man,” by Dashiell Hammett. This sleek, masterful novel showed me – and continues to show me – how a page-turner can be a work of art.

“Done in a Day: 100 Years of Great Writing from The Chicago Daily News,” edited by Dick Griffin and Rob Warden. Journalism as literature – and done on deadline. This collection of newspaper writing underscores the power of storytelling and became a touchstone book for me as I studied and practiced journalism.

“Heart of Darkness,” by Joseph Conrad. I struggled the first two times I read this book as a school assignment. By the third time, I realized I was reading a masterpiece. By the fourth time, I realized I was reading about life.

“The Great Gatsby,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. My vote for the Great American Novel of the 20th Century. So many passages contain such enduring poetry while the tale itself neatly encapsulates the Great American Dream, for better and for worse.

“The Crack-Up,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The rise and fall of a Great American Author, with Fitzgerald himself as Gatsby.

“In Our Time,” by Ernest Hemingway. How influential was Papa? Tobias Wolff has said that if you are writing in America today you are either trying to write like Hemingway – or trying not to write like Hemingway. Authentic. Innovative. Influential.

“The Dubliners,” by James Joyce. The story, “The Dead,” overwhelmed and overwhelms me.

“Bright Lights, Big City,” by Jay McInerney. This is the book that made writing look easy – which, of course, it is not. This novel itself features some marvelous complexities.

“The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction,” edited by R.V. Cassill. The perfect place to “meet” Sherwood Anderson, James Baldwin, Shirley Jackson, D.H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, Ambrose Bierce, Jorge Luis Borges, Kate Chopin, and the three masters: Chekhov, Cheever, Carver.

“Pentimento,” by Lillian Hellman and “A Moveable Feast,” by Ernest Hemingway – a one-two punch that thoroughly romanticized for me the idea of being a writer.

“The Journals of Andre Gide – Volume One: 1889-1924.” My friend Kevin Grandfield introduced me to Gide’s writing back in grad school in the fiction writing program at Columbia College Chicago. Re-reading the dog-eared pages and underlined passages in this well-studied volume elicits a flood of memories, filled with equal amounts of nostalgia and hope. “And at your feet, on the other side of your writing-table, all Paris,” I underlined at a time when I was just beginning to navigate my way in and around Chicago, returning as an adult to my childhood roots. “I suffer absurdly from the fact that everybody does not already know what I hope someday to be, what I shall be; that people cannot foretell the work to come just from the look in my eyes.” If that’s not graduate school yearning and ambition, what is? “Giving yourself your word to do something ought to be no less sacred than giving your word to others.” If that’s not sound advice for life, what is? “It’s not enough merely to create the event most likely to reveal character; rather the character itself must necessitate the event. (See Coriolanus, Hamlet.)” If that’s not sound advice for writing, what is? And the journal’s central, lasting piece of advice: “Dare to be yourself. I must underline that in my head, too.”

“The Hours,” by Michael Cunningham. Reading this book, I began to unlock the mechanics of how novels actually work as made things.

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff?” by Edward Albee. The Great American Play of the 20th Century.

“A New Path to the Waterfall,” by Raymond Carver. These poems by the modern master of the short story are rich in clarity and tenderness.

William Faulkner’s Nobel prize acceptance speech. These brief remarks serve as an artistic North Star for anyone called to write.