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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Chicago: Classic Photographs
Edited by Richard Cahan and Michael Williams

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

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February 23, 2018


And These are the Good Times
Patricia Ann McNair

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

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

Hemingway’s Brain
Andrew Farah

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

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

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

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January 6, 2018

Dubliners
James Joyce

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

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COMMENTARY: Art, Commerce and the American Way of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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December 29, 2017

Logical Family: A Memoir
Armistead Maupin

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

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Seven Brief Lessons on Physics
Carlo Rovelli

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

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A People’s History of Chicago
Kevin Coval

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

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My Generation: Collected Nonfiction
William Styron

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

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December 5, 2017

COMMENTARY: Continuing Education in 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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September 2, 2017


The Rain in Portugal
Billy Collins


I Found Eugene Burger Living in Nine Billy Collins’ Poems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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August 31, 2017

Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal
Jay Parini

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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April 29, 2017

COMMENTARY: The Ultimate Selfie

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

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

Do these thoughts comfort you? Or, challenge you?

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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Brighton
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.

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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.

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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.

Mike

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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