October 23, 2021

Maurice
E.M. Forster

About Time – Written in 1914, about 17 years after Oscar Wilde was released from prison, “Maurice” is “Dedicated to a Happier Year.” The book would not be published for another 57 years, in 1971, following Forster’s death the year before. From the time it was written, it would take 100 years of fierce struggle to make marriage equality law in Illinois, 101 years to make marriage equality law throughout the United States, and nearly a century, too, to make marriage equality law in Forster’s England. The love story, which Forster insisted end happily for two of three main, male characters, was written after “A Room with a View” and “Howard’s End” so Forster was in his prime as a storyteller. The Norton edition I read also includes a “Terminal Note,” written by Forster in 1960. In it, Forster observes “the change (in public attitude) from ignorance and terror to familiarity and contempt” when it comes to homosexuality. What would he say today?

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CHICAGO VOICES: The Studs Terkel Archive

The Studs Terkel Archive features more than 2,000 interviews Studs conducted over 45 years on WFMT radio with the 20th Century’s most interesting people. I spent part of the afternoon earlier today listening to conversations between Studs and John Cheever, John Gregory Dunne, and Scottie Fitzgerald. This is a treasure trove.



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Tender is the Night
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Lyrical Tragedy – A story of marriage and madness and rich Americans abroad, “Tender is the Night” features Fitzgerald’s signature poetic prose – and a story with plot, plot, plot, sweeping across romantic locales: Cap d’Antibes, Paris, Switzerland, Rome. The novel is not without its problems – including its racist and homophobic passages. Plus, as Fitzgerald himself later acknowledged in correspondence, the third part of the novel could’ve, would’ve, benefited from another rewrite to shape this tragedy most lyrically.

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July 29, 2021

Make Me Rain: Poems & Prose
Nikki Giovanni
 
Some Call it Love – Uplifting. Provocative. On fire. In the stars. You never quite know what to expect from a Nikki Giovanni poem, but at least one thing is sure: Her work is always illuminating.


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Jorge Luis Borges: The Last Interview and Other Conversations
Richard Burgin, Daniel Bourne, Stephen Cape, Charles Silver, Gloria López Lecube
 
The Sage – I’ve finally realized what I love about Jorge Luis Borges is what I love about good magicians: They kindle your sense of wonder. As an example, here’s Borges, in conversation with Richard Burgin: “I wrote some quite short pieces. I’ve written two sonnets, not too good ones, and then a poem about a friend who had promised us a picture. He did. He’s a well-known Argentine painter, Larco, and then I thought of the picture he had promised us, promised my wife and me – I met him in the street – and then I thought that in a sense he had given us a picture because he had intended to do so, and so the picture was in some mystic way or other with us, except that the picture was perhaps a richer picture because it was a picture that kept growing and changing with time and we could imagine it in many different ways, and then in the end I thanked him for that increasing, shifting picture, saying that, of course, he wouldn’t find any place on the four walls of a room, but still he’d be with us.”

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Chicago and the Making of American Modernism:
Cather, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald in Conflict
Michelle E. Moore

The Chicago Way – A thoughtful, scholarly buffet of history, literary biography and insightful criticism exploring four great writers’ connections to and conflicts with Chicago and American Modernism. Detailed, well-researched and colorfully told, this is a must-read for any Chicago writer and all who love literature.

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Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance
Edgar Villanueva

Healing – Edgar Villanueva’s professional and personal journey is a sharp critique of U.S. philanthropy. He writes of wealthy and powerful white men: “Far too often, they were searching for answers with their right hand to problems that they created or contributed to with their left.” Villanueva also outlines “seven steps to healing”— Grieve; Apologize; Listen; Relate; Represent; Invest; Repair.


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POSTSCRIPT: One good book leads to another

You know a book is good when it leads you, by the hand, to another book – or two, or three. You know the feeling: You become so emotionally invested in a book that you become excited about its author, and that leads you to more of the author’s other books and writing.

A similar sensation occurs when books reference other books and stories.

Michelle E. Moore’s “Chicago and the Making of American Modernism” led me back to “May Day,” an early and masterful F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, as well as “Tender is the Night,” which I hadn’t before read.

Borges has led me to Cervantes.

Similarly, Edgar Villanueva’s “Decolonizing Wealth” is leading me to two other works. The first is Kenneth Jones and Temo Okun’s, “Dismantling Racism.” In a passage about cultural norms and standards, Villanueva references Jones and Okun, and identifies several characteristics of white supremacy cultures. The second is Terrance Keenan’s “The Promise at Hand.” Terry, who passed away in 2009, was a longtime staffer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and a major supporter of the Beethoven Project on Chicago’s South Side, which was the forerunner to the now coast-to-coast Educare Learning Network. “The Promise at Hand,” according to Villanueva, describes the great moral purpose of philanthropy and Terry’s thinking on philanthropic humility.

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You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey
Amber Ruffin & Lacey Lamar
 
Painfully funny – This is not “satire.” This is not “topical humor.” This is the truth, in its pitiful glory and racist horror, of Lacey Lamar and Amber Ruffin’s day-to-day encounters with White America. “You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey” is one of the most unique books I’ve read: laugh out-loud funny in one sentence and utterly heartbreaking in the next; poignant in the next and infuriating in what follows. What do you call it when you gasp and laugh and shake your head at the same time?

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Turning Pro:
Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work

Steven Pressfield

Gifts – A book given as a gift is another way of saying, “I love you.” My friend Bryce Kuhlman sent me “Turning Pro,” a slim volume of Steven Pressfield’s pithy, practical, welcomed advice about what it takes to achieve your bliss. To have such friends; how lucky am I?

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April 25, 2021

Green Hills of Africa

Ernest Hemingway

Fiction/Non-Fiction – I love Hemingway’s fiction yet find his non-fiction ponderous and tiresome. Conversely, I relish Joan Didion’s non-fiction and Gore Vidal’s essays, but have never been entranced by their fiction. Some bakers can cook and some cooks can bake, but have you noticed how seldom it is you meet someone who purports to be both? Different skills, different techniques are required by each discipline to excel. And yet, writers and readers commonly think of writing as writing – it’s all just words and sentences, after all; it’s all just eggs and butter. While writing fiction and non-fiction does require some interchangeable talent, there’s something else, too, that’s necessary: a convertible approach to storytelling.

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Let Me Tell You What I Mean
Joan Didion

Exactly – These 12 essays, published over 32 years, have not appeared in any previous Didion collection – and there are some real gems here. Brief takes from 1968 (how newspapers inform and don’t inform their readers, a glaring look at twelve-step programs, a picture-perfect profile of picture-perfect Nancy Reagan, then First Lady of California) lead to slightly longer essays from the 1970s on writing, which lead to reflections on Tony Richardson, Ernest Hemingway and Martha Stewart from the 1990s and 2000. For several decades now, no writer has prized or presented exactitude as intensely as Joan Didion.

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The Paris Review

A Singular Voice – Allan Gurganus is one of America’s great storytellers, a spinner of tales small and large. His Art of Fiction interview in this issue (No. 236) of The Paris Review is packed with wisdom and sound advice.

“People were telling stories eons before they ever figured how to write them down. Some novelists derive major inspiration from Gutenberg’s typography itself. Others, like me, still go to the well of tale-told narrative. We believe that human conversation shapes itself toward legend.”

“One rule of Southern etiquette runs, Silence must never all at dinner … The same thirty stories were offered over and over, with slight variations. The goal, I guess, was to add some one detail that would forever after be repeated by our kin.”

“You wake up slowly to your God-given subject. It arrives with practice.”

“Religion is too important to let just churches have the franchise. They’ve botched their own central ethic – absolution, forgiveness.”

“Early on, I sensed that – in every art – the ultimate shared subject is human consciousness itself. The more comic-tragic notes you can wrest into a single active page, the better. I would later suggest to my students that they put something funny on every page and something beautiful on every other.”

On the differences between Grace Paley’s classroom and John Cheever’s classroom: “If Grace’s class resembled the heated Talmudic arguments of a communist cell, John’s was sort of an educational cocktail party. He was as funny, lively, and irreverent as a much younger man. His conversation was jumbled with famous intimates. When he said Saul, he meant Bellow, when he said Walker, he meant Evans. He would say, “It’s certainly possible to start a story, ‘It was one of those Sundays when people woke saying, “I drank too much last night.” Now, students, ‘It was one of those Sundays when ….’”

“Tennessee Williams swore he’d never created a character to whom he was not sexually attracted. I always urged my students to let their characters have erotic existences on the page. We put the poor things through such tortures, why not let them score a few Fridays and Saturdays per annum?”

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February 13, 2021

Bad Monkey
Carl Hiaasen

Monkey See, Monkey Do — Robert Charles and I have been lucky enough these past several years to take a winter getaway in Key West. The glimmering Gulf Stream. The sunshine and rum. The fine restaurants on this little, walkable island. The Hemingway House. The comforts of the Casa Marina. The Conch Republic vibe: “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can put off until the day after tomorrow." The pandemic kept us from visiting in 2020. Same this winter. So I did the next best thing — read “Bad Monkey.” The action takes place in the Keys, Miami and the Bahamas. Nobody packs more into a story — more laughs, more twists, more turns, more Truth — than Carl Hiaasen.

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February 6, 2021


March – Books One, Two and Three
John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell
 
Good Trouble – “The first step? Learn the history of racism in America.” That sound advice was offered by Dr. Iheoma Iruka to my early childhood colleagues and I in January 2020. Dr. Iruka is a Research Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Early Childhood Health and Racial Equity Program at the FPG Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina. “You can’t be an activist if you don’t know your history.” That was historian John D’Emilio, author of “Queer Legacies,” speaking with Owen Keehnen during an online interview hosted last fall by Unabridged Books and Gerber/Hart Library & Archives. I couldn’t help but recall both pieces of advice as I read all three volumes of “March.” With the death last July of U.S. Representative John Lewis, all of the main speakers at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Dr. King offered the world his visionary dream, have perished. This trilogy of graphic novels tells Rep. Lewis’ story, from his Alabama childhood during the 1940s through the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March and the passage of the Voting Rights Act. His story of non-violent perseverance in the face of day-to-day, month-after-month, year-after year ferocious discrimination, police brutality, voter intimidation, assaults, arrests, bombings, assassinations, and other terrorism is eye-opening, heartbreaking, enraging, and inspiring. The authors and illustrators bookend Rep. Lewis’ story with the events of January 20, 2009: the inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States of America. As the election of the subsequent President showed and as the events of 2020 and January 2021 have made all-too-clear, the story told here does not include a neat, happy ending. The old and even ancient resentments and hatreds are still very much alive throughout America today. The struggle to widen the circles of freedom and equality continue. What will happen next? I will refrain from making any predictions, but I know history can be a guide. And John Lewis’ story – with his calm-but-incandescent advice to “Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and redeem the soul of America” – is more pertinent now than ever.

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Even If
Kevin Nance
 
A Book of Uncommon Prayer – This is an impeccable collection of photographs and haiku created by Kevin Nance from his 2020 exhibit at the University of Kentucky Albert B. Chandler Hospital’s Chapel Gallery. Arriving in the midst of this most agitated age, “Even If” offers meditations I didn’t know I needed – just the right words, just the right images to settle my mind, warm my heart, lift my soul.

 

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The Song of Lunch
Christopher Reid

What He Said – Writing in the Guardian in 2009, Alan Hollinghurst said it best: “After reading Reid you start to wonder why fiction-writers bother with all the padding and padding about of prose.” I first experienced this long poem as a BBC film featuring Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson, a small masterpiece from this talented pair who perform Christopher Reid’s sharp, poignant poem depicting former lovers (and lovers of words) reunited over lunch in an Italian restaurant in London’s Soho neighborhood. You can read the book (or watch the film) in multiple ways: as a really good story that pulls you well into the man and woman’s life together and inner lives apart; as an instructive study in the power of point of view; and as a master class in vocabulary, word choice and pacing. I also experience a deeply personal reaction to “The Song of Lunch,” feeling it reveals me to myself in a way no writing does other than James Joyce’s “The Dead,” divulging my innermost thoughts, anxieties, and embarrassing sources of pride. In fact, two days before reading “The Song of Lunch,” I re-read “The Dead” in honor of the Epiphany – and I am now exhausted by the toll of so many personal epiphanies.

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The Fear of Everything
John McNally
 
Illusions, Delusions and Love – In these nine short stories, John McNally creates realistic tales spiced with mystical, transcendental elements: a magician makes a schoolgirl disappear – and she really does disappear; a sinister, silver-tongued lawyer offers a devilish bargain in a Bagel Xpress; a 36-year-old is jolted when he finds out who is answering his telephone calls; a pre-teen grows up fast under the peculiar tutelage of a mesmerizing old timer; a former banker shakes up his life with a three-way that’s, well, complicated. Everyone is lost, in one way or another, and their stories echo with a wounded loneliness. “The Fear of Everything” is an engrossing, entertaining, enlightening read.

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The Sons of Maxwell Perkins
Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and Their Editor
Edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli with Judith S. Baughman
 
Correspondence – Reading “The Sons of Maxwell Perkins” is like eavesdropping on multiple conversations over numerous years with four pillars in modernist American writing. There’s some “talk” about writing, but lots more chatter about each other – and money. I’ve read some of the previously published epistolary exchanges between the great editor Max Perkins and his larger-than-life literary clients; but, there is plenty to enjoy and learn from this volume of collected, corresponding letters – and it becomes a bit of a study in early-to-mid 20th century male friendship and competitiveness. These days, so many readers (and rightly so) have had their fill of privileged male friendship and competitiveness, so this book will not be everyone’s cup of tea. What I find particularly fascinating? The final letters. Thomas Wolfe died at age 37 and his final letter to Perkins features Wolfe’s typical wordy, loopy sentences yet again proclaiming his passionate kinship with his father-figure editor. Wolfe: Always so needy. F. Scott Fitzgerald died at 44 and his final letter to Perkins speaks enthusiastically, optimistically about Fitzgerald’s progress on “The Last Tycoon,” mentions Hemingway and Wolfe, and includes a postscript: “How much will you sell the plates of ‘This Side of Paradise’ for? I think it has a chance for a new life.” Fitzgerald: A boat against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past, always. Perkins’ final letter to Hemingway is a personal note expressing warm concern for Hemingway’s son, Patrick, who had been dangerously ill in Cuba. It’s fascinating to see the chameleon editor write more like Papa in his letters to Hemingway: “I am mighty sorry about it. I know how horrifying such things are, but in my case they have been brief. I could not have taken it for the length of time you have. But you are always good that way. There is no sense in my saying all this, but it is impossible not to say something. It has been mighty rough, and I do greatly hope the situation is now better.” Maxwell Perkins died in 1947 at age 62. Hemingway would continue writing and publishing – and win the Nobel Prize – until his 1961 suicide at age 61.

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December 27, 2020

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
Isabel Wilkerson

Eye-Opener – “If people were given the choice between democracy and whiteness, how many would choose whiteness?” That’s historian Taylor Branch, in conversation with Isabel Wilkerson in November 2018. Now, after the 2020 U.S. Presidential election, we know: about 74 million, if not more. If you want to better understand what’s happening today in the United States of America, read this book. If you think our country is grappling with a race problem or a class problem, think again: As Wilkerson eloquently argues, we’re struggling with a caste problem, for as Wilkerson notes, “Class doesn’t protect you from Caste.” Wilkerson outlines the “eight pillars of caste,” along the way offering eye-opening comparisons to India’s caste system and the Nazi’s approach to creating anti-Semitic legislation. (To learn how to most effectively write laws against the Jews, the Nazis studied how Americans wrote laws against Black people.) How do we overcome something as engrained as caste? First, reveal the real American history with an eye on race, class and caste. Second, recognize there is personal, interpersonal, institutional, and systemic work to be done. Third, attack caste at the roots by beginning to dismantle the structural rules, procedures, regulations, laws, bureaucracies, ways of doing business and ways of living our lives that power caste in automatic, intentionally invisible ways. Reading “Caste” is a good place to start.

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Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side
Lee Bey

Place Matters – I think of Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste” as the most important book of the year. “Southern Exposure” hits closer to home with different aims but no less powerful insights. Chicago’s South Side is roughly the size of Philadelphia and, as Lee Bey notes, there are treasures here – history itself – that must be preserved. Bey, a former Chicago Sun-Times architecture critic, has photographed the treasures presented here and penned a moving essay that is part love letter, part call-to-action. For me, this book ranks among other Chicago classics – Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” Nelson Algren’s “Chicago: City on the Make,” Mike Royko’s “Boss,” Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago Poems,” Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” Alex Kotlowitz’s “There Are No Children Here,” Gwendolyn Brooks’ poems, and others – in defining the city so many of us love so dearly. “Southern Exposure” also deserves a special place on the desk of the Mayor and every CEO in this town.

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All That Remains
Robert N. Georgalas

With the Help of Our Friends – There is a double pleasure in reading a novel written by a friend, especially a novel you first read in manuscript and particularly when your friend is, word for word, your favorite writer. Haunted by his past in New York, Grayson Conway tries to lose himself in Chicago. With the help of the beautiful, enigmatic Zerlina Kingschild Taylor, Conway finds his way to a new life in this yarn that is equal parts love story, thriller and psychological tale.

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AROUND TOWN: “Love, Life and Death in the Age of Coronavirus,” the Georgalas-Burke Letters

Robert N. Georgalas and I have been friends since 1993 when we met in the graduate fiction writing program at Columbia College Chicago. We now live 8.1 miles apart. Bob and his wife, Joanne Pepe, live downtown, off Millennium Park in a neighborhood newly dubbed Lakeshore East while my husband, Robert Charles, and I live on the city’s north side in Edgewater. The four of us are close friends.

Before the pandemic, our lives were filled with conversations over lunches and dinners at Miller’s Pub and Greek Islands as well as the occasional mid-afternoon coffee at the Starbuck’s on the ground level of the Palmer House Hotel. Now, due to the pandemic, our lives are bound together with a lively correspondence between Bob and me.

Since the COVID lockdowns and home-exiles began in March 2020, Bob and I have exchanged more than 50 letters. Typed, double-spaced, sent via email as attached Word documents, the letters have informed, illuminated, and deepened our 27-year friendship in surprising ways. The epistles have covered many of the same topics our face-to-face conversations did pre-pandemic; but the letters also elicited more details and nuances than conversations permit. Putting words to paper allowed for us a more thoughtful exchange and revealed an even deeper intimacy.

Thumbing through them now, tens of thousands of words across several hundreds of pages, I’m struck by the topics we’ve discussed: worries about ill family and friends; childhood memories, good and bad; recollections of influential teachers and mentors; jokes; discussions about whether all art is political; reflections on capitalism and the pandemic’s economic carnage; rants about criminal, conservative politicians; observations on the struggles for equity and cancel culture; intriguing obsessions with American Westerns, Formula One racing films, and author cameos in films of their books. Our letters also feature winding thoughts on hundreds of books, movies and pieces of music as well as asides on everything from French literary scandals to a recent Space X launch. On paper, we traveled from Key West to Manhattan, from Paris to San Francisco, from ancient Greece to Chaucer’s England. Of course, our letters also contain talk of the coronavirus – sharing first-hand accounts from friends in Tuscany and Manhattan, both hit hard early on; the dreaded witnessing of rising infection and mortality rates across the United States; the preventable yet politically inevitable sweep of the killer virus into rural America; the welcome arrival of vaccines. In the letters, Bob and I have been candid, too, about our own struggles with fatigue and depression.

So, is this correspondence a personal silver lining in this global pandemic? I wouldn’t go that far because I wouldn’t want to give the pandemic and its Trumpian mismanagement any credit for anything good. Instead, I cherish the letters as a testament to resilience – and a celebration of an old, nearly lost way of deepening friendship, understanding one’s self and seeing the world around us.

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December 26, 2020

The End of Eddy
Édouard Louis

A Dynamic Debut – No one does shame and humiliation like the French. “The End of Eddy” is a powerful debut novel, a gripping read that tells the story of Eddy’s growing up gay and effeminate in a Marine Le Pen-loving village in northern France. Moreover, it is the story of a patriarchal, class-structured society in which workers stuck on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder get stepped on and stepped over. The power struggles – political, economic, sexual – are vividly drawn and felt. The book reads more like a personal essay than a novel – a trait not new to social realism. In fact, I often have marveled how the best non-fiction reads like fiction and how the best fiction reads like non-fiction. “The End of Eddy” is translated by Michael Lucey, who also translated “Returning to Reims,” by Didier Eribon. Louis dedicates “The End of Eddy” to Eribon and has spoken about the impact “Returning to Reims” had on helping him shape and write his own story.

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Everywhere You Don’t Belong
Gabriel Bump

One-Two Punch – This striking first novel tells one story in two parts. The first, set in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood, pulsates. We meet Claude McKay Love as a kid who is growing up fast. The writing dazzles and the years fly by as Claude encounters more people who shape the course of his life, for good and for bad. The novel’s second half is set in Missouri, on a college campus in a rural part of the Show Me state where the pace of Claude’s life (as well as the pace of the book’s storytelling) slows – until our hero is reunited with the love of his young life as well as an old, deadly ghost or two from South Shore.

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POSTSCRIPT: A Conversation with the Future

Which three authors, living or dead, would I invite to a dinner party? I’d prefer a conversation with the future, so I’d invite young writers publishing today: Édouard Louis, Gabriel Bump, and Eric Cervini. I would ask them to share their thoughts on the power of autobiographical writing, the essential role that knowing history plays, how economics and politics shapes literature as well as life, and how storytelling might change in the years to come. I also would ask Louis about his friends Juliet Binoche and Catherine Deneuve. You cannot have a good dinner party without a little diva worship.

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Apropos of Nothing
Woody Allen

All or Nothing at All – In even the least successful Woody Allen film – given he’s now written or directed about 50 movies, his work can be plotted on a bell curve – there’s always something to admire: memorable lines, memorable shots, remarkable performances, delicious music, fascinating sets (I always find myself studying the apartments and homes in Allen’s movies). Over the years, I also have relished Allen’s essays, going back to his collections “Without Feathers” and “Side Effects.” So, it is no surprise I thoroughly enjoyed his autobiography. In the book, Allen recaps his childhood and describes his journey from joke writer to stand-up comic to moviemaker. He doesn’t shy away from his falling out with Mia Farrow or the unfounded allegations. He also notes his financial feuding with his one-time friend and producer, Jean Doumanian. For me, though, the most compelling parts of the book come when he’s writing about his movies. For a person who has made some true cinema classics (“Annie Hall,” “Manhattan,” “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Midnight in Paris,” and so on), Allen considers himself to be more like a carpenter than a visionary architect. “The fun of making a movie is making the movie, the creative act,” he writes. “The plaudits mean zilch. Even with the highest praise, you still get arthritis and shingles.”

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Here We Are
My Friendship with Phillip Roth
Benjamin Taylor

Are We to Be Spared Nothing? – I got off on the wrong foot with Phillip Roth; namely, “The Breast,” his least successful book in more ways than one. Roth’s friend Benjamin Taylor’s judgment on that particular work? It “is lousy any way you look at it.” Taylor’s sweet memoir brings the great author to life in an intimate way. “There was no dramatic arc to our life together,” Taylor writes. “It was not like a marriage, still less like a love affair. It was as plotless as friendship ought to be. We spent thousands of hours in each other’s company. He was fully half my life. I cannot hope for another such friend.” Taylor recalls their meals and conversations together in New York and in the country as well as Roth’s many medical emergencies. On one such trip to New York-Presbyterian, Roth is in pain and the two men enter the back of a city taxi whose driver is “aggressively flatulent” and blasting Rush Limbaugh over the radio. “Phillip turns to me, his face a study. ‘Are we to be spared nothing?’ he asks.” Such laughter in the midst of agony – sparked by the perfect phrase – is how I now think of Phillip Roth. And I so look forward to diving, at last, into the deep end of his other works.

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Paper Cuts: My Life in Chicago’s Volatile LGBTQ Press
Rick Karlin

Scoop – Rick Karlin began working at Gay Life in 1978 and continued writing for gay newspapers and magazines in Chicago, through his move to Florida in 2012, until 2016. This page-turner is equal parts personal memoir, history of one big, bruising battlefield in Chicago’s scrappy newspaper wars, and welcomed time capsule interspersed with a Who’s-Who of brief biographies of various leaders active during those nearly 40 years who were inducted into the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame.

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The Paris Review (Nos. 230, 232, 233) and other magazines

Writing and Reading – My favorite magazines these days, in no particular order:

The Paris Review – the classic literary magazine; the place where stories, poems, interviews and artwork come together to host the perfect salon. A bracing little poem, “The Mercy,” from Joyce Carol Oates. A magical tale by Rebecca Makkai. “A Story for Your Daughters, A Story for Your Sons.” An interview with Alice McDermott in which she reveals how she approaches class reading lists when she teaches the short novel, dividing the list into three loose categories:

  • A Day in the Life – for example, Bellow’s “Seize the Day,” Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway,” Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”
  • An Inciting Incident – for example, Marquez’s “Chronicle of a Death Foretold,” Wharton’s “Ethan Frome”
  • A Life – for example, McCuller’s “The Member of the Wedding,” Mona Simpson’s “Off Keck Road.”

 The New Yorker – issue after issue, America’s best-written, best-edited magazine.

 Sport Literate – my longtime favorite among what used to be called the “little magazines,” these essays and poems and throwback photos always make me feel like I’m coming home.

 The London Review of Books – Always good to get the perspective from those across the pond.

 Esquire – mostly for old time’s sake and because my pal Gordon Meyer advised me to take a second look after I had let my subscription lapse for a couple of years. I’m glad to be back.

 The Gay & Lesbian Review – I have only just subscribed. Call me a tardy gay. Eavesdropping on conversations among Edmund White, Andrew Holleran and Felice Picano, and essays on Gore Vidal and Marcel Proust await.

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April 19, 2020


A Scattering and Anniversary: Poems
Christopher Reid

Into that Good Night – Long before he grew deathly ill, our friend and great teacher Eugene Burger spoke often with Robert Charles and me about the need “to make friends with death.” One way I’ve been doing that is through reading. These Christopher Reid poems were penned as his wife, Lucinda Gane, was dying of cancer at the age of 55, and in the wake of her death as Reid found himself swimming through rivers of grief. The poems reveal a sparkling portrait of Lucinda Gane while celebrating what it means to love even in the darkest times. For anyone who has nursed a loved one in their final weeks and days, these powerful poems will ring especially true and clear. This book, then, joins Christopher Hitchens’ “Mortality” and Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” in guiding me on this strange journey to meet my final friend. (Let’s hope it’s a long journey, indeed!)

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AROUND TOWN: Proust Questionnaire, Lockdown Version

As a little something to pass the time while sequestered in our homes, a handful of friends and I answered the Proust Questionnaire. Here is my response.

Which Living Person Do You Most Admire?
Malala Yousafzai

What Are Your Favorite Qualities in a Man?
I’ll leave this one to your imagination.

What Are Your Favorite Qualities in a Woman?
Intelligence, Humour (extra points if she use British spellings), Honesty.

What Do You Appreciate Most in Your Friends?
Their intelligence, humor and honesty.

What Is Your Main Fault?
I’ve become quite sluggish. (Well before the pandemic.)

What Is Your Idea of Happiness?
Sunday mornings — drinking coffee with Robert, reading the newspapers, giving Gypsie a head rub.

What Is Your Idea of Misery?
The Republican National Convention.

Who, If Not Yourself, Would You Want to Be?
Paul McCartney. What a life! What talent. And he seems to be a nice guy.

Where Would You Like to Live?
If not Chicago — London, Key West, Sonoma County, Beverly Hills ... anyone have an extra $10 million I could have?

What Is Your Greatest Fear?
Right now it’s this pandemic — afraid it will take the life of someone close to me.

Who Is Your Favorite Author?
It’s always a race between Hemingway and Fitzgerald for me. Plus, my friend Robert N. Georgalas and I have been exchanging letters during the Great-Stay-At-Home and I am relishing each and every word in Bob’s writing.

Who Is Your Favorite Musician?
Leonard Cohen.

What Is the Most Overrated Virtue?
Chastity. I mean, really: Is this even a virtue?

Which Words or Phrases Do You Most Overuse?
“Terrific” and, lately, “Fuck Trump.”

Which Talent Would You Most Like to Have?
Play jazz piano like Patricia Barber.

What Is Your Motto?
I have two — “La vida es corta, y la muerte larga” and “Take it easy — and, if it comes easy, take it twice.”

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April 16, 2020


Americans in Paris
Edited by Adam Gopnik

Dream Vacation – Tired of staying at home during the coronavirus pandemic? Visit Paris through these pages. Adam Gopnik is your perfect time-traveling tour guide through this volume of letters, stories, essays and lyrics that sprawl from Benjamin Franklin to Dianna Vreeland. My postcards from this entertaining journey:
  • I never realized until now how many exclamation points Mark Twain uses!
  • I’m always so drawn to the Modernists. Henry James and Edith Wharton work their magic but the book catches fire for me with Sherwood Anderson, Malcolm Cowley, Langston Hughes, Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald.
  • Irwin Shaw, Art Buchwald and Jack Kerouac impress as well, though, for me, their writing somehow stands in post-War technicolor shadows to those who came just before. That’s not a knock at all. It’s just that their work is so clearly informed by those just before them. James Baldwin stands apart, perhaps because Baldwin always stood apart and was at his best when standing apart.
  • Anne Morrow Lindbergh continues to delight. Though I left wondering: Why in the world did you marry a Nazi?
  • Cole Porter gets some play in the book, which is nice, but the selection (“You Don’t Know Paree”) is my singular quibble with Gopnik. Cole Porter is a Great American Writer, worthy of the Nobel as much as Bob Dylan, though I know everyone just thinks Porter writes about nothing but moonlight and champagne. “April in Paris, chestnuts in blossom, holiday tables under the trees, April in Paris, this is a feeling no one can ever reprise.”

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The Comedians:
Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy
Kliph Nesteroff

Something Appealing, Something Appalling –This book is a 357-page Genesis-telling of American humor from Frank Fay to Marc Maron. Written by Kliph Nesteroff, the history features memorable lines from Jonathan Winters – “Just tell the truth and people will laugh” – and Phyllis Diller – “There will never be enough comedy. Comedy is at a premium always.”

A gift from the talented improv performer and teacher David Razowsky, “The Comedians” summarizes American comedy history from Vaudeville to radio, from presentation houses to television, from comedy albums to podcasts. Nesteroff walks us through the venues and their performers, covering a good deal of ground along the way – the Keith Circuit, the Orpheum Circuit, the Pantages Circuit, the Loew’s Circuit, the Sheedy Time Circuit, the Chitlin’ Circuit, the Presentation Houses, the coffee houses, Las Vegas, the Playboy clubs, the comedy clubs that rose in the 1970s, the cable TV shows of the 1990s and 2000s, and the podcasts of today.

Filled with history, stories, behind-the-scenes accounts, and a bit of gossip, the book doesn’t shy from describing the Mob’s control of entertainment and how gangsters lost control to corporate executives (the real tough-guy gangsters), starting with Howard Hughes buying up multiple Vegas properties in the late 1960s.

“The Comedians” also offers numerous eye-openers, for me, at least: Hal Roach’s fondness of Mussolini; Joe E. Lewis getting butchered by thugs working for Machine Gun Jack McGurn, just down the street from where I live near our beloved Green Mill in Uptown; Lou Costello’s support of Joe McCarthy; Jack Parr’s hatred of gays; how Jackie Mason was widely disliked by his peers; and how Alan King had joined the Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery.

Of course, the book features its share of laughs and spot-on observations. One such observation from Nesteroff: In the mid-1960s you “could categorize the style of comics based on what they smoked. Dick Gregory and Bob Newhart chain-smoked cigarettes. Lenny Bruce and George Carlin smoked pot. Milton Berle, George Burns, Danny Thomas and Groucho Marx smoked cigars.”

And the wisecracks? Milton Berle on playing small towns during the Vaudeville days: “One town was so small the local hooker was a virgin.” And here’s comedy writer Walter Kempley describing a Tonight Show spinoff from the early days: “America After Dark was so bad viewers went next door to turn it off.”

The book’s best line is reserved for Frank Fay, possibly the first performer to stand in one place, speak and get laughs without wearing a costume or doing anything physical. As the book notes, Frank Fay also was a notorious anti-Semite.

So, when Frank Fay married Barbara Stanwyck, the joke went: “Who is the actor with the biggest prick in Hollywood?”

“Barbara Stanwyck.”

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Ernesto: The Untold Story of Hemingway in Revolutionary Cuba
Andrew Feldman

Papa Doble – An entertaining, educational mix of Cuban revolutionary history and Hemingway tales, this biography does a fine job spotlighting how “Papa” really used his wives and their family wealth to build his career. So much for the Self-Made He-Man. The Fitzgerald line, “Hemingway needs a new woman for each big book” was the truth. But you cannot criticize Hemingway’s productivity. Despite everything – the booze, the serial romances, the fishing, the depression, the bullfights, Big Game hunting and brain injuries – Hemingway consistently produced stories and books, including, even, the masterful “The Old Man and the Sea.” The proof is always right there on the page and, ultimately, this is why I so respect Hemingway. As a person, Hemingway was a lot to take.  As a persona, Hemingway was a man as big as his times. As a writer, Hemingway, stands almost alone. As much as I admire the poetry of Fitzgerald’s prose, the chiseled grace of Carver’s stories, the genius of Joyce’s visions, the warm richness of Wharton’s tales, it’s Hemingway who stands in the center-ring spotlight. Plus, Hemingway’s influence is inestimable. As Tobias Wolf once explained at a Chicago Humanities Festival talk years ago, “If you’re writing today you’re either trying to write like Hemingway – or trying not to write like Hemingway.”

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February 2, 2020


Life Isn’t Everything
Mike Nichols, as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends
Ash Carter and Sam Kashner

Always Say Yes – My friend Ed Underhill gave me this book as a Christmas gift. It’s so good I’ve been sending copies to friends across the country.

“Life Isn’t Everything” is an oral biography of Mike Nichols, full of lessons about craft (the craft of directing plays, which also work for the craft of writing stories, too) and some fun show-biz anecdotes. I love, too, the book’s beautiful design by Chip Kidd; he’s among the best in the business and he gives Mike Nichols the first-class treatment Nichols deserves and always wanted.

My favorite anecdotes:
  • Robert Redford, in “Barefoot in the Park,” complaining about not knowing what to do and feeling upstaged when he kissed Elizabeth Ashley on stage and she lifted her leg. “That’s easy,” Mike explained. “Lift your leg.
  • How director John Frankenheimer was the original choice for the filmed version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” But Frankenheimer wanted his name above the title. “Elizabeth Taylor was not going to have any of that.”
  • After a private, pre-release screening of “Carnal Knowledge,” how Jackie Kennedy leaned between Mike and the powerful Cardinal who could choose to condemn (or not condemn) the film. Jackie purred: “Oh, Jack would have so loved your film.”
  • Tom Stoppard questioning Nichols about why he so quickly chose one chair over another during rehearsal; what was the difference between the two chairs? “Nothing,” Nichols replied, “you just have to answer instantly. You can change your mind later.”
  • Nichols explaining to Hank Azaria on “Birdcage” that his character is partially based on Judy Garland’s dresser.
  • How everybody eats well on a Mike Nichols set.
  • Diane Sawyer’s lighting. Designed by Mike’s best lighting experts.
  • Upon their first meeting, Mike Nichols tells Tony Kushner he wants to keep the doubling of the actors in the film version of “Angels in America.” Kushner is relieved and asks why. “Because I want to see Meryl play all of these different parts.”
And, more important, the lessons:
  1. Listen. Really listen.
  2. Speak to each actor in a personal, tailored way.
  3. How scenes have to build, even in comedy.
  4. How characters, not just plots, have to have a beginning, middle and end.
  5. Ask: Why is this character in this scene? There must be a reason.
  6. Sometimes you just have to show me what you want – Orson Welles asked Mike to show him how to play a scene on “Catch 22,” Mike asked David Hare about how to play a scene on “Designated Mourner.”
  7. Relationships. It’s all about relationships. As actors. As characters. And how do you build relationships – with time and through stories. So, take time to rehearse and take time to share stories.
  8. Make it seem a little bit more as if it’s you that’s thinking these words, not the author.
  9. Casting!
  10. Scripts don’t need POV, CUT TO, etc. That’s what directors do.
  11. Somebody makes a suggestion? Try it. “Let’s see what happens.”
  12. Tony Kushner: “Failing at illusions is almost as important in theater as succeeding at it. It teaches you to look at things in a double way, and Mike understands that.”
  13. Name it. Name the moment. This is the moment they fall in love. This is the moment she sees him as a fool for the first time. This is the moment she feels her lowest…Naming maps the trajectory.
  14. Directors give actors confidence.
  15. The obligation is to telling an effective story. Everything must service the story.
  16. When in doubt, use what’s real. “What’s it really like when this happens or that is said?”
  17. What’s the event of this scene? What’s the first, second, third, fourth thing to happen?

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Keeping On Keeping On
Alan Bennett

Questions Raised – As a fan of Alan Bennett’s play, “The History Boys,” as well as the highlights of his diaries excerpted occasionally in the London Review of Books, I eagerly dove into this collection of a decade of Bennett diaries and essays. His unmistakable voice, keen observational skills and well-honed talent for turning a tale are on full display here. I finished reading the 500-plus page book asking a lot of questions. In part, I left wondering why the diary excerpts in the LRB seem to pack more of a wallop than the experience of reading the more voluminous, comprehensive presentation here? Might have something to do with "portion size." But, this minor query led me to think more deeply about the stories we tell, their size and shape. Just how do we know whether something is a short story, a novel or a novella? And how do we know when it should end? And just how do we know how long this play really should be? Some of these fundamental mechanics of writing remain a mystery to me. When I write I rely on inspiration and instinct; the idea and the story sort of speak to me. As strange as that might sound to people who don’t write, it’s something I commonly hear from people who do write. You just know. The question is: If I relied less on inspiration (to begin writing) and instinct (to know the scope of the story I’m telling), would I write more – and better? What if I approached writing more like an architect, and a carpenter?

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December 30, 2019


God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian
Kurt Vonnegut
Foreword by Neil Gaiman

Most Likely to be Shoplifted – Eight or nine years ago a clerk in the Book Cellar told me Kurt Vonnegut’s books were kept behind the counter because they’re the books most likely to be shoplifted. I hope that remains true today. I recently re-read this gem on a flight back home from San Francisco – and it so makes me want to visit the new Vonnegut museum in Indianapolis. Such vision, such talent, such clarity. A few examples:

“As I have used it here, ‘humanist’ is nothing more supernatural than a handy synonym for ‘good citizenship and common decency.’”

“I myself say that out loud at times of easy, natural bliss: ‘If this isn’t nice, what is?’ Perhaps others can also make use of that heirloom from Uncle Alex. I find it really cheers me up to keep score out loud that way.”

“I congratulated him [John Brown] on what he’d said on his way to be hanged before a gleeful, jeering throng of white folks. I quote: ‘This is a beautiful country.’ In only five words, he had somehow encapsulated the full horror of the most hideous legal atrocities committed by a civilized nation until the Holocaust.”

Quoting an imagined encounter in Heaven with Clarence Darrow: “’The presence of those cameras finally acknowledges,’ he said to me, ‘that justice systems anywhere, anytime, have never cared whether justice was achieved or not. Like Roman games, justice systems are ways for unjust governments – and there is no other sort of government – to be enormously entertaining with real lives at stake.’”

Quoting an imagined encounter in Heaven with Eugene Victor Debs: “’I thanked him for words of his, which I quote again and again in lectures: ‘As long as there is a lower class, I am in it. As long as there is a criminal element, I am of it. As long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free.’ He asked me how those words were received here on Earth in America nowadays. I said they were ridiculed. ‘People snicker and snort,’ I said. He asked what our fastest growing industry was. ‘The building of prisons,” I said.”

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Sing to It
Amy Hempel

Poetry in Prose – Amy Hempel is a mesmerizing writer. Her stories, often only a page or two in length, are foolers – you think they’re light as a feather and then you’re left feeling the density of their weight. Like the greatest poets, Hempel knows how to say the most by saying the least. And she excels at the music of writing, the creation of sentences – using vocabulary, cadence, punctuation – that create melody and rhythm. This passage, from the collection’s longest story, “Cloudland,” is just one example:

“’Happy New Year,’ people call out wherever one goes.

Sure, I’ll play along: ‘Happy New Year,’ I say back.

Had the last year ended?

What if you are someone who does not know when something is over? What if you are the last one standing when others have left the concert, the theater, the crime-addled city, the busted love affair? What if you look for a sign and a sign doesn’t come. Or a sign comes but you miss it. What if you have to make a decision on your own and it feels like a body blow, falling back on yourself.”

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December 22, 2019


AROUND TOWN: Our Year in Learning – 2019

“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

Our purpose on Earth is to love and to learn – and one of the smartest things I’ve done is to fill my life with people smarter than me. My husband. Our friends. Our co-workers. Pros who excel in their field. In 2019, Robert and I have been lucky to learn from many creative human beings – writers, artists, magicians, musicians, scholars, journalists, moguls and activists. Among the most thought-provoking:

Our year began with Rebecca Makkai (“The Great Believers”) interviewed by Ernesto Munar at Howard Brown Health. Julia Borcherts, who is at the center of Chicago literary life, first told me Rebecca’s novel was the best book she had read in a long time – and, boy, was she right.

On a summer evening, Audrey Niffenegger (“The Time Traveler’s Wife”) was interviewed by Don Evans for the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame at a house party hosted by Ed Underhill and Liam Nolan. The evening’s celebrity chef was the writer Billy Lombardo, who cooked a delicious Italian meal for everyone. And the party ended with an enlightening nightcap conversation on Ed and Liam’s rooftop deck about the role “rate of reveal” plays in storytelling.

In the fall, performance poet and Milwaukee Poet Laureate Dasha Kelly Hamilton challenged over 400 movers-and-shakers to think deeply about whether we should still be celebrating having to do anti-poverty work another 50 years from now. Hamilton was appearing at Next Door’s 50th Anniversary Gala at Northwestern Mutual Tower. The evening also featured JohnQuell Tucker, a child welfare worker who attributed his success to his parents and to starting in Next Door’s Early Head Start program when he was 3 years old.

Our autumn included Olympic Champion, Equality Champion and America’s Sweetheart Adam Rippon (“Beautiful on the Outside: A Memoir”) interviewed by Owen Keehnen for the Book Stall at the Music Box Theatre. Adam was a delight. Owen and NPR’s Terry Gross are my favorite interviewers these days; their questions are always spot on – and they actually listen to the people they’re interviewing.

Our friend, the painter and jewelry-maker G.L. Smothers, was interviewed as part of the “Abstract Does Not Distract” panel discussion at the Smart Museum in Hyde Park this past Spring. I love studying the colors and shapes in G.L.’s work.

Sometimes a dinner conversation can stimulate the most thinking. Robert and I were lucky to enjoy two long, winding dinner conversations this past year with master magician Max Maven at the Magic Castle. Max is one of the all-time great raconteurs. Plus, we relished the opportunity to twice watch Max perform for the public, in Santa Monica and here in Chicago. What’s more, Robert participated in a special, intensive four-hour workshop Max recently presented for magicians at Magic, Inc.

Jazz musician Patricia Barber is pushing the artistic envelope in inventive ways with her new album, “Higher.” Plus, Patricia is our favorite saloon singer, appearing regularly on Monday nights at the nearby Green Mill Cocktail Lounge in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. Each performance doubles as a master class for jazz aficionados.

Actor and oral historian Anna Deavere Smith knocked it out of the park this past Spring during the “It’s Good Business to Invest in Young Children” luncheon hosted by Ounce of Prevention in Chicago. During her performance, Smith channeled Stephanie Williams, an “emotional support teacher” who worked with an 11-year-old boy who, in a rage, yanked an entire tree out of the ground; and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson, who helped to open the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama. The museum honors more than 4,000 African Americans lynched in the United States.

Filmmaker Werner Herzog introducing “Meeting Gorbachev,” at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. Robert and I were joined by our favorite filmmaker, Michael Caplan. Fascinating to learn more about glasnost from a non-US perspective.

One of my favorite activities each year is One-Day University, co-sponsored here by the good people at the Chicago Tribune. The session I attended earlier this year with Nicole Gotthelf featured:
  • Brown University’s Wendy Schiller discussing, “What Would the Founding Fathers Think of America Today?”
  • Georgetown’s Sam Potolicchio discussing “The Changing Face of 2020 America.” During the Q&A, Potolicchio also became the first person I heard tout Pete Buttigieg’s longshot-but-real chances to grab the Democratic nomination for US President; and
  • Fairfield University’s Orin Grossman discussing, “Three Musical Masterpieces Every American Should Know.” By the way, the three are: Aaron Copeland’s Appalachian Spring, Duke Ellington’s Ko-Ko and Richard Rogers’ Waltzes, from Carousel. One-Day University was held at Northwestern University’s Thorne Auditorium.
Thanks to my work at Buffett Early Childhood Fund I am privileged each year to learn from the best and the brightest about issues affecting young children and their families. 2019 was a banner year:
  • University of North Carolina’s Donna Bryant and Noreen Yazejian, in a day-long conversation with my foundation colleagues in Omaha.
  • University of Nebraska’s Marjorie Kostelnik keynoted the national Educare Learning Network meeting, held this past April in Lincoln, Nebraska.
  • Early childhood guru Joan Lombardi spoke on “Communities Coming Together for Young Children.” Plus, Joan joined a panel discussion with Julia Zhu, Grace Araya and Cristina Pacione-Zayas, in May at Erikson Institute in Chicago. (As I’ve stated before, Joan has attained One Name Status in the early childhood field. Say “Joan” and people know you mean Joan Lombardi.
  • University of Nebraska’s Helen Raikes provided the keynote at the “Thriving Children, Families & Communities” conference in Kearney, Nebraska, this past fall. Over 400 people from 92 Nebraska communities. Sam Meisels from the Buffett Early Childhood Institute also provided substantive opening remarks.
  • Princeton University’s Eldar Shair spoke on “scarcity” and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha spoke on the Flint Water crisis and advocating for social justice at the Alliance for Early Success annual summit in Atlanta.
My friend and former boss Dan Pedersen is another of the all-time great raconteurs. Dan reminisced about his career in journalism in a podcast hosted by John Dechant – and what a journalistic career it ‘twas: overseeing the first Iowa poll for the DesMoines Register, working for Newsweek in LA and Houston and Atlanta, serving as Newsweek’s London Bureau Chief during Thatcher’s reign and Diana’s death, and being the only Western journalist present the night the Berlin Wall fell.

Anand Giridharades, author of “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,” offered some challenging perspectives on philanthropy during an interview in Omaha this past Spring. Anand’s book is a must-read.

Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger at Berkshire Hathaway Shareholders’ Meeting in Omaha. Their marathon, 6-hour Q&A with shareholders, journalists and financial experts is always an insightful, inspiring, energizing event. If you want to learn about business, learn from the best.

GOP consultant Kevin Madden and Democratic consultant Sean Sweeny discussing early childhood, the 2020 election, and the future of America during a dinner hosted by First Five Years Fund at Charlie Parker’s Steakhouse in Washington, DC. (Kevin and Sean have since moved on to other positions.)

Amara Enyia at a house party hosted by Dennis Puhr during the Chicago Mayoral election. One of my favorite rabble-rousers, Susan Strong-Dowd, invited me to attend.

Former US Representative (and Ted’s son) Patrick Kennedy, Parkland shooting survivor and activist Mei-Ling Ho-Shing, Cook County State’s Attorney Kimberly Foxx, mental health expert Linda Rosenberg, musician Travis Atkinson, social worker James Wallace and Thresholds CEO Mark Ishaug at Thresholds’ 60th Gala Dinner this past May at the Chicago Hilton.

A lunch conversation with Marie Newman, who is seeking to unseat conservative Dan Lipinski in the US Congress. A few of my other favorite rabble-rousers – Nancy Shier, Ed Underhill and Angela Hubbard – joined Robert and me in getting to know Marie this past Spring at the Cliff Dwellers Club. Thanks to Shannon Hunt-Scott for introducing us to this smart, formidable progressive champion.

Tracy Baim 35th Anniversary Tribute at Sidetrack. The place was packed with changemakers – and Tracy is a giant among them. She was interviewed by none other than Cheryl Corley.

Celebrating award winners Owen Keehnen, Lori Cannon, Paul Highfield, and Carrie Maxwell and hearing from the great Victor Salvo at the Legacy Project unGala in October at Chez Event. Plus, Liam Nolan and Ed Underhill joined Robert and me at this historic event celebrating LGBTQ history.

Thom Clark, Katy Hogan and Michael James invited Erikson Institute’s Cristina Pacione-Zayas and me to preach the early childhood gospel on their Heartland Radio Show this past November. Want to feel better about the future? Get to know Cristina.

And I closed the year by learning this past Monday (along with nearly 1,000 other guests) from powerhouse Stacey Abrams at the Girls, Inc. annual luncheon in Omaha. Want to feel better about the future? Get to know Stacey, too. And register to vote – and vote!

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November 27, 2019


I Remember Nothing and Other Reflections
Nora Ephron

Looks Easy – Nora Ephron wrote like she spoke and made it look easy, which it ain’t. Plus, she was funny. About Lillian Hellman and the movies, Thomas Friedman and Christmas traditions. About a whole lot of things, including journalism and inheritances. And dying. She was very good on dying. “What I Won’t Miss” and “What I Will Miss” are hilarious and heartbreaking.

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The History Boys
Alan Bennett

Your Story – Every emerging writer is advised to tell their story in their own voice. Solid suggestion, and here’s proof. We’ve seen this story, in one shape or another, a few times before – a classroom of students whose lives are changed by a maverick teacher. In Alan Bennett’s voice (and such a distinct voice it ‘tis), the students are British boys and the teacher is a rumpled scholar. The story follows the students’ journey as they learn how to learn while preparing for very competitive university entrance exams. The play – which celebrates history, truth and the value of art and education – is funny, erudite, moving, and quite necessary.

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The Style’s the Man:
Reflections on Proust, Fitzgerald, Wharton, Vidal and Others
Louis Auchincloss

Discoveries – I’ve searched high and low for this out-of-print book and found it the other weekend tucked away on a shelf just waiting for me at Myopic Books in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood. (The shop is a gem; widely stocked, well-organized.) I was rendezvousing at Myopic with my old friend, Ed Underhill, who decades ago first alerted me to Louis Auchincloss. Ed is a lawyer and a writer, as so was Auchincloss, who I now think of as the great chronicler of the American Establishment. With wit and other considerable skills Auchincloss provides insights in these essays into the lives and work of some of my favorite writers – F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gore Vidal, Edith Wharton, Tennessee Williams, Henry James. Auchincloss’ writing comes most alive for me, no surprise, when our interests intersect; yet, his perceptions of others – William Gaddis, Marguerite Yourcenar, Marcel Proust – are educational. (However, his defense of Ivy Compton-Burnett against criticism from Joyce Carol Oates rather proves Oates’ point.) In the midst of all of this literary glory – is there any better “inside baseball” than writers writing about other writers? – two deeply mistaken assertions about the growth of Edith Wharton’s literary reputation jump off the page. Auchincloss, writing in the 1990s, attributes Wharton’s late-20th century rise to three reasons: “first and foremost to her penetrating analysis of the mores of New York City’s financial upper class, couched in hard, glittering prose and garnished with scathing wit; secondly, to the fact that that class is now enough in the past to have become history and no longer arouses the envy and resentment of the less privileged; and finally to the force of the feminist movement, the extremists of which seek to deify women of past accomplishment.” On those second and third points, ol’ Louis is just flat wrong – and one might say, in fact I think I will say it: myopic. To claim that class somehow stopped mattering in the Clinton years is akin to saying race stopped mattering in the Obama years. Both eras offered a veneer of progress; but, the first only stoked worse economic inequality and the second only revealed deeper racism. And to criticize feminists tell us more about Auchincloss than it does feminists. What really elevated Wharton’s standing? The movies. “The Age of Innocence.” “Ethan Frome.” The style’s the man, indeed.

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August 22, 2019


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

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

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The Pat Hobby Stories
F. Scott Fitzgerald

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

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

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

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

Surcease
Athwart
Sinecure
Palpitant
Ukase
Plainting

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

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

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

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

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

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Kindest Regards: New and Selected Poems
Ted Kooser

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

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

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May 18, 2019


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

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

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Red Harvest
Dashiell Hammett

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

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