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.


December 29, 2014

Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography
Richard Rodriguez

Journeys“After September 11, it became easier, apparently it became necessary, for many of my friends to volunteer, without any equivocation of agnosticism, that they are atheists. It was not clear to me whether they had been atheists all along or if the violence of September 11 tipped Pascal’s scales for them.” Seattle. A pleasant Thursday evening in late March. The roomy downstairs space at Elliott Bay Book Company, which is a cathedral of American bookstores.  Richard Rodriguez – essayist, journalist, PBS NewsHour contributor – stands on a brightly lit platform, conversing with a crowd of readers seated in folding chairs before him. He speaks casually and respectfully and with great humor about the people and the stories featured in his newest book. In his remarks, Rodriguez offers more questions than answers. He shares multiple reflections rather than glib quips. For me, seated in the audience, the experience was profound – and rare: Here was a thoughtful author with something meaningful to say. Afterward, I purchased three copies of this book, one to read and two to give as gifts. In this collection of interwoven essays, Rodriguez travels from Jerusalem to Las Vegas, from L.A. to London. He delves into the “desert religions” – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – and, without preaching, explores the role of spirituality in our lives and in our deaths. Some stories brought me to tears. Others made me laugh. Most filled me with a silent wonder, as if I was standing in the middle of a nighttime desert myself, reaching on tiptoes with outstretched hands toward a darkened sky filled with ten thousand brightly lit stars, asking, Why? Why is there something and not just nothing? Why is there anything at all?


But Enough About You
Christopher Buckley

LOL – Christopher, you had me with the title. And a quick, inside-the-bookstore skim of the preface – the preface, mind you; not exactly the heart or the marrow of the book – had me cackling. I especially enjoyed your remembrances of Christopher Hitchens, JFK, Jr., and your father’s old sparring partner, Gore Vidal, plus your telling looks at the writing of Kurt Vonnegut, Rad Bradbury and Solzhenitsyn. And that doesn’t even begin to mine all of the subjects featured in these 90 or so essays. Dazzling. There are few greater pleasures for a reader than to find oneself mesmerized by the words of an author who writes with confidence, wit and insight. Merci!


Chicago Memories
Mike Michaelson and MK Czerwiec

My Kind of Town – A charming little book celebrating the Windy City (and printed in China, like all good souvenirs). Michaelson intersperses his brief, sanitized descriptions of the City on the Lake with recipes served up by nearly two dozen of our town’s top eateries. Czerwiec’s illustrations of various landmarks (Lincoln Park Conservatory, the Marshall Field’s clock, the Bean, and so on) provide splashes of color throughout.


December 28, 2014

Exit: The Endings that Set Us Free
Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot

Connecting the Dots – Harvard professor and MacArthur prize-winning sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot notes that leave-takings are the norm in U.S. society, observes that our culture routinely neglects the “rituals and purposes of exit,” and suggests that people need to “learn not just the art of beginning anew but also the grit and grace of good exits.” She divides her book into several chapters: “Home,” “Voice,” “Freedom,” “Wounds,” “Yearning,” “Grace” and concludes with “Rites and Rituals.” Along the way, she shares insights from various scholars and artists, including, psychologists Erik Erikson and Carol Gilligan, economist Albert Hirschman, historian and activist W.E.B DuBois, and writers Jean-Paul Sartre and Joan Didion. Mostly, her book focuses on the stories of real people who are confronting a variety of transitions, from relationships that are ending to careers that are changing to death. Lawrence-Lightfoot is a master at connecting the dots – listening to what is being said and how what’s said is being expressed, reflecting upon those stories, synthesizing those tales with insights drawn from other smart thinkers, and summarizing lessons to be learned. That doesn’t mean the reader leaves this book with a tidy to-do list of instructions; rather, Lawrence-Lightfoot exits her book by stimulating us to ponder the many transitions in our own lives and to plot our own best departures.


Belleville Park Pages (Late June 2014 edition)
Published by James Bird and Will Cox

The Necessity of Art – We live largely unsettled lives in a world filled with much uncertainty, which exists in a vast, mostly unknown universe. That sparks the fires of fear, which lead to things like religion, the suburbs, fast food, and the nauseating bleating that passes for political discourse in the United States of America. Entertainment is designed to quell such fundamental fear, to comfort us by confirming what we know. Art, on the other hand, is intended to confuse us by complicating our understanding of life – and by raising questions that are difficult to answer. Artists, then, are revolutionaries – and that explains why you often must look for artists in the small presses rather than in more commercial venues. My husband, the magician Robert Charles, and I met Will Cox at the door of Shakespeare & Company this past autumn. Robert and I were enjoying our honeymoon in Paris. Will was overseeing crowd control by limiting the number of visitors who could enter the great bookstore at one time. (Imagine that! Crowd control for a bookstore! But, then again, Shakespeare & Company is a sort of literary nightclub.) Will and his mates produce Belleville Park Pages to showcase “fresh writing by contemporary writers.” They’ve featured 177 authors from 22 countries across six continents. Their work is well-worth reading – and well-worth supporting if you have a few bucks to share.


On Writing: Ursula Le Guin's speech at the National Book Awards

Brief, brave remarks from a thoughtful, insightful writer.


November 5, 2014

On Writing: Tom Montgomery-Fate interviews Michael Burke

 A big thank you to Tom Montgomery-Fate, a great writer and teacher, for this opportunity. Filmed a while ago. Tom's interview with me begins at about 28 minutes, after I read two of my short stories, "Eulogy" and "Things That Matter." Both are included in my collection, "What You Don't Know About Men."


April 28, 2014

Beautiful Fools
R. Clifton Spargo

The Two Hotel Francforts
David Leavitt

Heart of Darkness
Joseph Conrad

What is Art? – Years ago, I threw in the towel on finishing the reading of a book just for the sake of finishing. Too many books. Too little time. Along the way, I learned that abandoning a book doesn’t mean the author has failed or the book is poorly written; in fact, setting aside a book might say more about me as a reader – in general, but, specifically, too, at this time, with this particular story – than it does about the writer or the work. The act of reading stories is a two-way street and it’s on this street, once an introduction is made and a warm rapport is established, that art sometimes flourishes. In other words, I believe art is an act, not an object. Art is not the written word or the song performed or the painting on a canvas. Art is the exchange, the human experience created when one person connects emotionally, physically and intellectually with an artist’s creation. So the fact that I am setting aside Spargo and Leavitt’s novels doesn’t disturb me and should not be seen as a judgment about their novels. Sometimes it takes a while for an artistic connection to ignite, let alone to be forged. It wasn’t until I read Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” for the fourth time, over a number of passing years, that the story and I clicked, and I was finally able to hear so much of what Conrad had been saying all of this time. (After all, Conrad’s words hadn’t changed; but, over the passing decades, I had.) So perhaps I will once again meet “Beautiful Fools” and “The Two Hotel Francforts” on the street named Art – and, perhaps then, we will become friends.


The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 2, 1923-1925
Edited by Sandra Spainer, Albert J. DeFazio III & Robert W. Trogdon

Keep, Don’t Keep – Only two years of correspondence. Roughly 460 pages of published reading. This exhaustive documentation of the young Hemingway coming to life, as a man and as an artist in Paris, is an important contribution to literature (and perhaps shows just how hungry the marketplace remains for all things Papa). But reading this encyclopedic volume of correspondence also gives you a far deeper appreciation for the hard work previous editors have done in editing (and narrowing down) the correspondence of Hemingway and other writers over the past several decades. Of course, the purpose in this book is not to leave anything out – and it’s not until you begin to fully experience the scholastic heft of this task that you begin to fully appreciate the surgical (and, sometimes, brutal) choices other editors have made in culling through thousands of letters. Here’s the irony: During these very early years in the 1920s, Hemingway was writing “Out of Season” and the other stories of “In Our Time” in which he honed the practice that would become the hallmark of his highly influential style: knowing what to leave out to make the story stronger.


April 27, 2014

Writers e-Handbook: The How, Why and Where Journal for Emerging Writers of all Genres
Jotham Burrello
One-of-a-Kind – I am honored to be mentioned in Jotham Burrello's new "Writer's e-Handbook: The How, Why, and Where Journal for Emerging Writers of all Genres." In the preface, Jotham recounts one of my favorite stories about something inspirational my Dad asked me years ago regarding the great James Baldwin. But this one-of-a-kind guide offers a lot more than that anecdote; it features interviews and advice (in print and via video) with more than two dozen top-notch writers (including Audrey Niffenegger, Jane Hamilton and Joe Meno) plus how-to sections on finding agents and publishers as well as a useful appendix featuring sample cover letters, book contracts and much more. Writers e-Handbook is a must-have for any writer you know.  Writers e-Handbook is available via Amazon.


Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris
Edmund White
Au revoir – Edmund White continues his breezy, chatty memoirs recalling his life in the 1980s in the City of Lights. An earlier memoir, Sketches from Memory, featured more American-in-Paris charm; but, this longer book is more of a whirlwind, covering more ground, dropping more names, describing White’s social and artistic life (Sketches offered a more intimate domestic portrayal), and featuring numerous entertaining anecdotes of a life lived abroad. A few, unrelated excerpts:

I amazed and pleased everyone by saying a few words in French at the beginning of the meal. But as I drank more and more white wine, I acquired a fatal confidence and soon was stringing together long chains of French words and tossing them like bouquets at the worried-looking experts. Finally, Simone said, unsmiling, “You know, you’re not making any sense. No one can understand a word.” When I think of that moment now, late at night, forty years later, I still cringe.

At another grand dinner, given by Diane von Furstenberg to launch a new perfume, I was seated next to France’s then most famous model, Inès de la Fressange. I asked her what she did.
As a novelist, I was intrigued by the economics of painting. Whereas serious novelists, even celebrated ones, could barely survive, the top painters were very rich. It was all because a painting was a unique object whereas a book was a multiple.


Now Americans didn’t like feeling intimidated by a superior culture but enjoyed dipping randomly into Czech or Hungarian cuisine, folklore, or even politics in a lightly condescending, neocolonial way before running back to their enclaves in bookstores and reading their copies of English-language newspapers and attending concerts by American or British music acts. That’s probably why so many young Americans scorned France and believe the French were rude or snooty; they weren’t used to dealing with their equals or their more intellectually and artistically refined counterparts in other languages.

He never heard me speak English except once in London, in a roomy, old-fashioned taxi when I shouted directions to the Cockney driver. Brice told me that whereas I had a charming little accent in French, in English I sounded like a rustic braying for more “white wine.” He thought every American was shouting “white wine” all the time.


One winter day Raymond Carver, wearing a leather jacket, and I had our picture taken in front of the Academy, knowing that we would never get any closer during his stay.


Speak Italian: The Fine Art of the Gesture
Bruno Munari
Perfetto – We are living in an age when texting, Tweeting and all sorts of technology are tilting written communication back toward a form of hieroglyphics, in which pictograms trump words. And with scientists now studying whether an increased use of digital devices leads to a shrinking vocabulary, it’s a good time to bone-up on an ancient but powerful communication tool: the gesture. Movement conveys meaning and sometimes a hundred words are better summarized with the thrust of a finger or the flick of a wrist. Visiting Harvard earlier this year, our friend from Firenze, Alessandro Bigazzi, purchased this slim book for Robert and me. (Gifts are sweet gestures themselves.) We have a long way to go before we’re close to mastering the art of the gesture, but this handy guide is a fun place to start.


March 2, 2014

Studs Terkel’s Chicago
Studs Terkel

His Kind of Town – I grew up hearing Studs Terkel’s voice on my Dad’s clock-radio, tuned to WFMT-FM. I listened to hours of conversations Studs had with singers and songwriters and authors. I came to know that laugh of his and felt I came to know him, too. This was back in the 1960s, when I was just a little kid, fascinated by that gravelly voice – fascinated by these conversations, such adult conversations over the airwaves.

It was years later (decades, really) before I ever met the man. I met Studs through the Community Media Workshop, a feisty organization here in Chicago that helps other nonprofits tell their stories more effectively. Each year, the Workshop honors three or four reporters with Studs Terkel Awards. When he was alive, Studs participated each and every year, posing with anyone who wanted a photograph (and all 200 of us did). In every photo, Studs always – always – pointed with his thumb or forefinger at whoever else was in the picture with him (above you'll see Alton Miller, Studs and yours truly). Studs also ended every awards ceremony with a fiery stem-winder.

My most vivid memory of Studs occurred about a decade ago on a warm Spring evening when the Community Media Workshop had hosted the Studs Terkel Awards ceremony at the Arts Club in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood. The speeches were finished, dinner plates from the buffet and dessert table were cleared, and the Curtis Black Jazz Trio was wrapping up. Studs was about 90 years old. Cane in hand, Studs charged toward one of the bar tables and ordered cognac. The bartender politely informed Studs there was no cognac available. Studs, near-deaf, leaned closer and growled again in a louder voice: “A nightcap. Some cognac!” When the bartender shouted his reply, Studs’ red face lit with glee. “What’dya mean you don’t have cognac?” he roared. “For Christ’s sake, this is the Arts Club!”

Studs died in 2008. I, along with so many others, miss Chicago’s favorite raconteur, America’s favorite rabble rouser. Through 17 books, Studs Terkel made the ordinary extraordinary by enabling us to hear the uncommon voices of common men and women. “Studs Terkel’s Chicago” is his love letter to the Windy City. Reading this book, I couldn’t help but once again feel bedazzled by that voice, his voice:

“It is still the arena of those who dream of the City of Man and those who envision a City of Things. The battle appears to be forever joined. The armies, ignorant and enlightened, clash by day as well as night. Chicago is America’s dream, writ large. And flamboyantly.

It has – as they used to whisper of the town’s fast woman – a reputation.”


October 29, 2013

Giving Kids a Fair Chance:
A Strategy that Works
James J. Heckman

Dollars and Sense -- The book opens with an essay by Dr. Heckman (a Nobel laureate in economics from that hot-bed of liberalism, the University of Chicago) stating the economic case for investing in the first five years of life as the first five years of learning. Eleven other scholars follow, attempting to either refute or reaffirm Heckman's claims. You can tell the conservatives from the liberals merely by their book titles. For example, Charles Murray's is "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010" while Mike Rose's is "Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education." (While one may not be wise to judge a book by its cover, one often can judge an academic's bias by his book title.) The most delicious part of this book is the final essay, in which Heckman responds to his critics and supporters, commanding the scene as an intellectual D'Artagnan fencing masterfully in a swordplay of ideas. He skewers each opponent. They don't just hand out those Nobels for nothing!


How Children Succeed:
Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character
Paul Tough

Growing Up Well -- A young child's social and emotional development is at least equally as important as the child's intellectual and cognitive development. As a society, the United States of America has a long way to go before this scientific fact is reflected in public policies and embedded within cultural norms for how we treat and what we expect from new families. Paul Tough delves into this subject with great enthusiasm, a keen eye, and a gift for telling stories. He notes, for example, that when 16-year-old James Heckman received his Social Security card in the mail, the first thing this future Nobel Prize-winning economist did was to take his Social Security number and resolve it into primes. The guy loves math! Tough's book also features an eye-opening reminder for me: Angela Duckworth, a professor at Penn, has examined the difference between motivation and volition. Basically, a person can "want" something to change, but do they "chose" to make the change occur? Do they have a plan, a path, to actually achieve the desired change? Volition is what changes a life -- and the world.


How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One
Stanley Fish



July 7, 2013

Tales of the City
Armistead Maupin
Model Behavior
Jay McInerney
Gone Girl
Gillian Flynn

O tempora! O mores! -- I've been boning up on U.S. history by reading U.S. fiction. School books are sanitized of diverse perspectives and devoid of alternate analyses. Journalism is polluted with corporate bias and partisan slant. Our country's populace is roughly divided between those holding fast (and furious) to their own set of comforting factoids and those mesmerized into complacency by televised fare (see: the History Channel's latest features on ancient astronauts and doomsday fantasies ... This is history?) In a society such as ours, one dominated and diminished by ludicrous religious myths, it's best to turn to fiction if you're seeking any truth. Am I suggesting we look to made-up stories to counter the insidious propaganda of Big Religion? Yes. Fight fire with fire, I say. "Tales of the City" is set in San Francisco in the mid-1970s. Armistead Maupin's tantalizing melodrama celebrates Free Love, pot, the City by the Bay, and introduces us to my new favorite philosopher, Anna Madrigal. As Anna tells newcomer Mary Ann Singleton, "Dear ... I have no objection to anything." Has any single line in literature ever more succinctly summarized an entire era? Jay McInerney made his reputation with a debut novel that provided a telling take on the 1980s, "Bright Lights, Big City." In "Model Behavior," McInerney skewers a central part of 1990s life -- the time at the dawning of the widespread use of the internet but just before ubiquitous cell phones and text messages. (Characters in this novel send faxes, leave voice messages on tape machines and -- raise your hand if you're old enough to remember this -- mail letters.) McInerney masterfully depicts the moment in our time when empty-headed celebrities from Hollywood and fashion began to fully take their seats as the new Gods in the Pantheon of the Phonies. Thanks, in part, to the technological advances of the Digital Age, the enthroned have only grown more entrenched. Gillian Flynn's page-turning thriller, "Gone Girl," echoes with the paranoia, fear and suspicion leading to and through the nation's most recent economic collapse. "Gone Girl" reminds us, especially in a time of growing panic, the rational is often deemed irrational while irrational behavior is frequently rewarded -- and often triumphs. God bless America.


June 13, 2013

COMMENTARY: Equality in the Land of Lincoln

Opportunities come and go. Ours just went.

Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington – plus Washington DC and three Native American tribes (Coquille, Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians and Suquamish) – are in the vanguard of embracing marriage equality. But not Illinois.

With our state’s long, pathetic history of political leadership that is either incompetent or corrupt (and, often, both), this failure should come as no surprise. Yet, with a “supermajority” of Democrats holding elected office, overwhelming support in public opinion polls, and elected representatives spouting more Abraham Lincoln quotes than Doris Kearns Goodwin, many of us felt our time had come.

In fact, our time had come. But Democratic leaders in the Illinois House allowed the poisonous power of silent bigotry to win the day May 31 when they chose not to even call the marriage equality bill for a vote. In short: opportunity knocked and Democrats failed to answer the call.

The few Illinois Republicans who stuck their necks out for marriage equality must feel like they have been left twisting in the wind. And they have. I suppose many young voters, too, now feel more turned off by politics than ever. The same holds true for voters of any age who cannot believe that equality even requires debate in a civil society in the second decade of the 21st Century.

I know Illinois, one day, will have marriage equality – but it won’t be due to anything any Illinois politician does. The time for them to be effective, to demonstrate true “leadership,” has now just passed. To have been among the first states would have been historic and worthy of quoting Lincoln. To be among the dribble of other states that eventually, someday, in time, embrace equality merely adds another embarrassing chapter to our state’s history rich with political embarrassments.

Marriage equality will eventually come to the Land of Lincoln as it will even to states like Mississippi and Arkansas, riding the tide of this great social change sweeping America and the world. Maybe it will happen this November. Or November next year. Or some distant November years from now.

It will happen – and Illinois political leadership will have nothing to do with it.


April 6, 2013

Here and Now: Letters, 2008-2011
Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee

Correspondence – This is just what an exchange of letters between Robert N. Georgalas and I would be like – if Bob wrote both sets. Reflective, erudite: Auster and Coetzee share their thoughts and observations on a variety of subjects, from sports to economics to friendship and beyond. Though coming from two different backgrounds and writing always with great oceans between them, these two insightful writers enjoy a true correspondence of the heart.


CHICAGO VOICES: Kevin Grandfield
Kevin Grandfield has begun to share his poetry via a YouTube channel called “poemeo.” Here is one of my all-time favorites, “It is Enough.” For those of you who are print-lovers, you’ll find this brief, beautiful poem included in the Polyphony Press anthology, “The Thing About Hope Is …”


The Last Carousel
Nelson Algren
The Man with the Golden Pen – My friend Oz picked up a paperback copy of “The Last Carousel” at Bookworks in Wrigleyville and gave it to me. Oz is a living and breathing Algren character so I’ve had the triple pleasure of relishing a gift from a dear friend, revisiting the still-edgy stories of a great Chicago writer, and contemplating just how Algren captured the truth of real life. Bookies, boxers, Hollywood producers, heroin addicts and everyday heroes – they’re all here along with some sage advice about writing: In one essay, Algren quotes a letter recently received from a college co-ed who is “on the threshold of a literary career” and seeks advice on her next move. “’Your next move, honey,’ I had to caution her,” Algren writes, “’is to take two careful steps backward, turn and run like hell. That isn’t a threshold. It’s a precipice.’”


CHICAGO VOICES: Michael Caplan’s new film about Nelson Algren
Michael Caplan and Montrose Pictures – makers of “Peoria Babylon,” “The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me” (the film version of David Drake’s captivating one-man show), “Stones from the Soil” and “A Magical Vision” – are in the homestretch of completing their newest documentary, “Algren.” Here’s a glimpse at their trailer.


January 21, 2013

APPRECIATION: "One Today," by Richard Blanco


January 20, 2013

Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry
Christine Sneed

Must Read – You know a book is good when it becomes the book you’re telling everyone to read. Winner of the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction and a Chicago Writers’ Association Book of the Year, the stories in this collection are moving, poignant, funny – and true-to-life. Sneed masterfully writes about the risk and humor of seduction as well as the role loyalty plays in love.


WRITING TIPS: The 5 Books Every Writer Needs

I once groused to the writer and actor George Savino that I possessed too many books – more books, even, than fit at the time into my many bookcases. “I know why we keep books,” George explained quietly. “It’s so we can display them as Knowledge Trophies.” Since George’s bulls-eye observation I have done a better job of giving away finished books, and while I still have a long way to go I also now pass along George’s advice when I am invited into college classes to discuss writing. “There are only five books every writer needs to keep,” I announce somewhat dramatically, but it always grabs the students’ attention. “’The Elements of Style’ by Strunk and White because it’s the best grammar and style book you’ll ever read. ‘The Art of Fiction’ by David Lodge because it’s the best book on form you’ll ever read. ‘Reading Like a Writer’ by Francine Prose because she dissects the tools every wordsmith uses to construct a story – words, sentences, paragraphs, narration, character, dialogue, details and gesture. The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide,’ by John McNally (pictured here) because he provides sound, practical, candid advice without bravado or romance on what it takes and what it means to be a working writer. And a touchstone book – a book that will remind you why in the hell you fell in love with writing. For me, “The Thin Man,” by Dashiell Hammett, does the trick. No story starts faster. No story is more tightly written.