October 29, 2023

Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Media Empire and the Redstone Family Legacy

James B. Stewart and Rachel Abrams

Bedrooms/Boardrooms/Bedlam – Which is more revolting? The tawdry, tempestuous tale of billionaire Sumner Redstone, his many lovers, and their fight over his vast fortune? Or the corporate malfeasance of overpaid, entitled male business leaders and their lack of ethics and disregard for sexual crimes? It’s all here in this recap of the Redstone family saga, the downfall of Les Moonves, and the squabbles to control Viacom, CBS, Paramount, and their subsidiaries. But there’s another story, too – and that is the story of Shari Redstone. Belittled and unloved by her reckless, creepy father, Shari Redstone navigates these vulgar, garish familial and professional storms – and comes out here as unexpected heroine.


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October 11, 2023

A Woman’s Battles and Transformations

Édouard Louis

 Change – In this slim volume, Édouard Louis writes movingly of his mother and her transformation from embattled Mom tending to a husband and several children in a Marine Le Pen-loving village in northern France to a woman, with a new partner, rising above her past through her new life in Paris. As always with Louis, he explores the patriarchal, class-structured society and attempts to understand the woman his mother was and is. The book was translated from French to English by Tash Aw.

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I Am A Man: Chief Standing Bear’s Journey for Justice

Joe Starita

History – This is an emotional, eye-opening story of the Ponca, and, in particular, Chief Standing Bear’s struggle over several decades to ultimately use the U.S. judicial system to establish some elemental rights for Indigenous People. Why didn’t we learn any of this in school when we were growing up? Because history has its enemies, then and now; namely, fear-driven conservatives who can’t handle the truth. Joe Starita is an acclaimed journalist who tells the story in detail.


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September 25, 2023

Churchill & Orwell: The Fight for Freedom

Thomas E. Ricks

Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat – Joe Wade and I are enjoying a 43-year, ongoing conversation about life, work, politics, food, travel, and so on. We also belong to what I call the Joe Wade Book Club, in which he reads a book of non-fiction history and then tells me all about it over lunch. Well, this most recent time, Joe actually handed me the book to read that he had just finished – and it’s superb. “Churchill & Orwell” is, in part, a dual biography of two highly influential political thinkers, skilled writers, coiners of phrases. The book also is part analysis of political strategy and World War II military strategy, part literary review, part treatise on leadership at the highest levels of government. Finally, and perhaps most important, the book is a timely warning about the continuing battle between fascism and freedom, internationally and here within the United States. And it’s all achieved with the page-turning skill of an accomplished storyteller. 


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Thirteen Months: War Memoir with Love

Mike Murray

Grace – This is a hell of a collection of stories, the sweetest and most harrowing book I have read. Mike Murray is a friend, a former U.S. Marine now living in Los Angeles. His stories, lifted from real-life experience, tell the tales of a small unit of marines deployed in Vietnamese villages on the battlelines of war. Mike’s writing conveys humanity with no ego, no self-aggrandizement, no false humility. His work echoes – or maybe its his work I now hear echoing in the works of others – with the best of his literary predecessors: the clarity of Hemingway, the humanity (there’s that word again!) of Vonnegut, the candor and menace of Remarque, and, naturally, the surreal beauty and horror of O’Brien and Heineman. None of these associations entered my mind as I read “Thirteen Months.” I was too transfixed and “locked” into the stories with their on-edge, heart-pounding times under fire, restful times under the sun, playful times with Joe and Be, Vietnamese children growing up tragically quick. “Thirteen Months” was brought to life as a printed book thanks to Mike Murray’s friend Khanh, the daughter of Sy Doan, one of Vietnam’s greatest living writers.


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House Arrest: Pandemic Diaries

Alan Bennett

Lord Whimsy – London is a great town for readers and bookstores. Daunt. Waterstones. London Review Book Shop, where I picked up this slim volume by the great Alan Bennett along with books by Edouard Louis and Diane Williams. Bennett has the power to enchant with whimsy and insight – one example: his observation after watching a televised wreath-placing ceremony during the pandemic that just one of Queen Elizabeth’s many triumphs as a nonagenarian is the ability to walk backward. Bennett notes here, too, that his task as a playwright is to move the audience to feel, “Here is somebody who knows what it is like to be me.”


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I Hear You’re Rich

Diane Williams

Everything, Everywhere – Reading Diane Williams’ short-short stories is like diving into the deep end of a warm pool when you’re not sure if you’re swimming or drowning or just thrashing wildly to get to the surface. And then: brilliance. Stories such as “To What Beautiful End?,” “Zwhip-Zwhip,” “I Hear You’re Rich,” and “Mother of Nature” rival the punch and the power of the best prose poems. 

 

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The Best of Knight at the Movies, 2004-2014: Film Criticism from a Queer Perspective

Richard Knight, Jr.

Fade In – I was a big fan of Richard Knight, Jr. long before I ever met him. I read just about every one of these reviews when they were originally published in the Windy City Times. Richard also has written for the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Reader, and New City. Revisiting his work collected here showed me to what extent Richard’s insights and perspectives on the movies (which I love) have shaped my gay sensibility. I’ve stated elsewhere that in this area, Richard has had the most effect on me since I saw Tallulah Bankhead star in “Lifeboat” when I was 12 years old. That sounds like a joke, but it’s not. Richard’s essays, interviews, and reviews – here and in such books as, “Haunted Houses, Porn Stars, and Toy Collectors: My Encounters with Remarkable People, Places and Things” – have done more to help me better understand my own queer outlook on the world than any other books. And, at the same time, Richard’s work is immensely entertaining. In fact, some of these reviews are more entertaining than the films themselves.


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A Subversive’s Guide to Improvisation: Moving Beyond “Yes, and”

David Razowsky

Keeping it Real – I met David Razowsky back in college, at Northern Illinois University in the cornfields of middle-of-the-road, 1980s America. Dave was a fiery kid, a profoundly talented photojournalist working at the student-run newspaper, The Northern Star. I worked there, too, as a reporter and editor. After school, I lost touch with Dave – or David L as we called him at that time. A few years later, we heard he was appearing in a Second City show, which a group of us then saw and loved. I’ve on-and-off followed his career from afar, more closely in recent years since reconnecting via social media. This past March, we met in-person over breakfast at the LA Farmers Market and, in June, we met again very briefly following his terrific performance at Bughouse Theater in Chicago’s Lakeview/North Center neighborhood. If anything, David is even more a fiery kid – mixed now with the wisdom of passing years. His book, “A Subversive’s Guide to Improvisation,” is a must-read. The book recaps the highs and lows of Dave’s “improvised journey” as an actor; describes his approach to acting, teaching, and coaching, complete with exercises; and features some funny and heart-warming scrapbook pieces.


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AROUND TOWN: “The Meaning of This Moment” – Remarks at the Swearing-in Ceremony for Judge Edward J. Underhill

In June 2023, I was honored to participate in Ed Underhill’s investiture. My remarks at the event, which was held in the ceremonial chambers of the Illinois Supreme Court:

May it please the court …

Justice Cunningham. Justice Neville. Justice Overstreet. Commissioner Garcia. Other esteemed guests. Friends … Liam … Ed ….

This moment is filled with meaning.

A dream come true. A momentous occasion for someone who has made a lasting impact on each of our lives. A commemoration of an institution designed to deliver justice. A promise. A celebration.

Joining us in this ceremony today – in addition to the many friends and colleagues who are physically present – are the spirits of those who shaped Ed into the person he is and the Judge he is about to become.

Ed’s Mother, Betty. To grow up Irish American on Chicago’s South Side in St. Bede’s Parish is to love and respect your Mother. Betty is here in spirit.

Ed’s Father, Hugo. To grow up Irish-American on Chicago’s South Side is to fear – er, I mean, love and respect your Father. Hugo is here in spirit … And it might be fair to say Hugo is even a bit surprised the kid has done so well!

Ed’s Stepmother, Bernice. Ed’s Brother, Dennis. Ed’s Sister, Mary Beth. And countless more family and friends. They are all here ….

Ed was youngest among his five siblings. 

He grew up at a time – and in a community here in Chicago – where the word “public” meant something powerful.

Ed grew up playing in public parks. He swam at public beaches. He read books from the public library. He rode public transportation. He went to public schools – public elementary school, Adlai Stevenson Grammar School; a public high school, Bogan; and then a public university, Northern Illinois University. 

Ed grew up experiencing – and believing in – the Public Good.

Ed was the first in his family to go to and graduate from college. And it was at Northern where I met Ed. He became my best friend. He’s the best friend of many of us here, which says a lot … It was at Northern, in that public educational institution, where Ed also began to think more seriously and deeply about public service – what it means to live in a community, to be a good neighbor, to build a more just society.

And it was at NIU where Ed also commenced what has become his lifelong study of one of the truly great public servants, Abraham Lincoln.

Ed worked his way through college as a newspaper reporter. And after earning his bachelor’s degree, he enrolled in the NIU College of Law. He graduated with his JD in 1984, and, shortly after, joined one of Chicago’s top commercial law firms, Masuda Funai.

At Masuda Funai, Ed gained more than 38 years of trial experience. (… Later, at Petterino’s, I’ll share the Top 10 Reasons Why Ed is Really Leaving Masuda Funai.) 

He’s been the lead trial counsel in countless jury trials and bench trials – a fierce champion committed to making the strongest possible case for his clients. He’s been a member of the Federal Trial Bar since 1987. He is admitted to practice law in the Seventh Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals, and in the United States Supreme Court.

Over the years, Ed served as a hearing officer for the Judicial Evaluation Committee of the Chicago Bar Association, which means he’s been one of the people who actually screens other people who are running for Judge. He developed an Alternative Dispute Resolution practice and became a court-certified mediator for the Circuit Court of Cook County. For a number of years, Ed mentored West Side high school students from Austin High School in mock trial competitions.

Ed also has served as past president of the NIU College of Law Alumni Board. And throughout his career, he’s written and published scholarly articles on the law, and received many awards – I am particularly proud, and I know Ed is, too, of his efforts to protect First Amendment student-press rights at NIU and elsewhere.

Ed has lived in Bucktown for the past 20 years. Ed and Liam married in 2014. (Judge Flood presided. Always acknowledge the Judge!) August 31 will be Ed and Liam’s 9th wedding anniversary, and they’ve been together even longer than that.

And that reminds me that this moment today carries additional meaning. Another sort of promise. 

June is Pride month for the LGBTQ community – and for those who love us. It’s not to be taken lightly that Ed’s swearing in occurs in June. Just as it’s not to be taken lightly that gains in Justice – for the LGBTQ community … for any of us – are not eternally guaranteed and ensured forever. Democracy demands much from We, The People – and vigilance is just one such demand.

And so, today marks the beginning of a new chapter in Ed Underhill’s life. A chapter that demands an even deeper commitment to Justice. What will that take? Legal knowledge and expertise, yes. Integrity, yes. Compassion, yes. And grace, too.

So, this chapter in your life, Ed, is filled with meaning and immense, new responsibilities in which your decisions will affect the lives of thousands – as well as the fundamental building blocks of society: law and order, opportunity and equity, and fairness.

I know I speak for every one of us when I say, Congratulations, Ed. We’re proud of you.

Never forget this moment – and the promise you make here in this Court. 

The people of Cook County are lucky to have a public servant like you.

We love you.


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How to Decorate: A Guide to Creating Comfortable, Stylish Living Spaces

The Best of Martha Stewart Living

Taste – You know what I love about Martha Stewart’s approach to decorating? She creates spaces that are “inviting, warm, and useful.” So many designed and decorated homes always look and feel un-lived in. Stewart’s always look and feel cozy. Of course, that’s all a matter of taste … and to a large extent, as Stewart herself acknowledges, money.


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Deep Focus

Robert N. Georgalas

Page-Turning Fun – Nick Borelengio is a fixer who in the summer of 1951 is hired to bodyguard screen siren Anita Holland while her new movie is being filmed in New York City. Hollywood meets New York, and sparks fly. An entertaining read, which also lovingly depicts New York life as a new era begins.


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Dear Papa: The Letters of Patrick and Ernest Hemingway

Edited by Brendan Hemingway and Stephen Adams

The True Gen – I have an inexhaustible appetite for all things Hemingway and loved devouring this collection which illuminates Hemingway’s life as a father. Ernest and Patrick, the middle of his three children, shared many passions, from football to boxing to Big Game hunting. Once you set aside the larger-than-life persona, you see Hemingway as complex, as flawed, as any other human. In this intimate exchange of letters we are treated to a tender, loving Papa you seldom find elsewhere.


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Saul Bellow: Letters

Edited by Benjamin Taylor

Unexpected – In reading this collection I was surprised mostly by Bellow’s sense of humor. For some reason – perhaps the Nobel Prize? or his connection to the solemn grayness that, for me, is the University of Chicago? – I expected Bellow’s letters to be serious and self-important, with wit, yes, but devoid of even the hint of silliness. Surprise. All of that likely is because I haven’t read Bellow’s novels; I know the stories about Bellow, but I don’t know Bellow’s stories. So – onto the novels. 


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101 Things I Learned in Architecture School

Matthew Frederick

Transferable Knowledge – To live in Chicago is to live among architectural treasures. Our town’s buildings offer history and lessons and beauty in every neighborhood and, downtown, on every block. So, it’s easy to develop strong tastes about architecture here without ever having studied architecture. Matthew Frederick’s book helped me understand a bit more deeply the “how” and “why” of architecture – how architectural decisions lead to certain feelings, why some architectural choices appeal to me more than others. Frederick’s easy-to-digest book also offers helpful lessons for writers, proving that much knowledge is transferable from one artistic discipline to another. For example, Louis Sullivan’s quote, “A proper building grows naturally, logically, and poetically out of all its conditions,” applies equally to writing poems, stories, and plays. “All design endeavors express the zeitgeist.” Indeed. And Frederick’s thoughts on the three levels of knowing – simplicity, complexity, informed simplicity – are especially useful for a minimalist writer to consider. So, this book could alternatively be titled, “101 Things Architecture Teaches Us About Writing.”


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Starstruck: How I Magically Transformed Chicago into Hollywood for More Than Fifty Years

Michael Kutza

My Kind of Tinseltown – Michael Kutza founded the Chicago International Film Fest in 1964 and, as they say, the rest is history. Here’s Michael’s memoir of his 50-plus years running the festival, rubbing elbows with stars from Sophia Loren to Spike Lee. The book includes ample photos and dishy stories.


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 AROUND TOWN: Literary High Life

Stories are how we make sense of life — and our town has a rich literary past, present and future.

Chicago Literary Hall of Fame celebrates it all. Robert Charles and I were thrilled to participate in the organization’s February 2023 party, “The House on Margarita Street.” Hosted by Rita Dragonette at her Streeterville home, the evening featured acclaimed bartender Ryan Prindle, who generously answered questions, offered tips, and shared some cocktail history as he concocted and served three refreshing beverages.

The drinks were inspired by the stories of literary giants Luis Alberto Urrea, Fanny Butcher, and Ernest Hemingway. Donald G. Evans, founder of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, got us organized. Kathy Wolter Mondelli and Ryan’s wife, Liz, helped with a couple of the brief literary readings. Michelle E. Moore, accompanied by her usual arm candy, Mark Weissburg, offered some impromptu reflections on Fanny Butcher’s contributions to the world of literature. Robert Charles capped the night with a few magical treats.

“The House on Margarita Street” was our first in-person party after two virtual cocktail parties, “Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder” in 2021 and “The Martini Chronicles” in 2022. 

What’s up next? Stay tuned.

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January 15, 2023

Last Summer on State Street
Toya Wolfe

1999 – Here is a gripping, powerful story that takes place in a long, hot summer at the end of the 20th century, a time when the Robert Taylor Homes on Chicago’s South Side are being torn down and “Fe Fe” Stevens is growing up. A time when Fe Fe and her friends, Precious and Stacia, are jumping rope, navigating their young lives in and around 4950 South State Street, and trying to befriend a stranger named Tonya. A time when Fe Fe’s Mother desperately strives to protect Fe Fe and her older brother, Meechie. 

The novel, deeply rooted in reality, is a real page-turner.

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Making Movies
Sidney Lumet

Action! – This book on the motion picture director’s craft doubles as an excellent book on the fiction writer’s craft. Among the questions raised and lessons loved:

  • On “style” – Lumet argues form follows function, in movies as in architecture (Louis Sullivan’s great axiom). Surely the same holds true for crafting fiction?
  • Lumet says one of his first steps as a director is to truly understand the scriptwriter’s intention. Do you have an intention before you begin writing, or do you discover what you want to say as you conjure people and their stories?
  • During rehearsals of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” Ralph Richardson asked a simple question. Lumet spent 45 minutes answering. Sir Richardson then paused a moment and sonorously said, “I see what you mean, dear boy: a little more cello, a little less flute.”
  • Motion pictures are made by a series of still images filmed and viewed at 24 frames per second. So far, I’ve heard this math three times in the past month – described in “The Fablemans,” “Empire of Light,” and here.
  • To depict a sense of a room “closing in” on the jurors in “12 Angry Men,” Lumet filmed the start of the movie with a normal range camera lens (28mm to 40mm), then shifted to 50mm, 75mm, and 100mm lenses over the course of the picture. In addition, he shifted from shooting above eye level to shooting at eye level to shooting below eye level as the movie progressed. The final shot, an exterior showing the jurors leaving the courthouse, was made with a wide-angle lens and the camera was moved to the highest above-eye-level position. Writers don’t use cameras and lenses, but we do use point of view and sentence rhythm to manipulate our scenes. Among our tools: first-person narration, second-person, third-person omniscient, third-person limited, third-person objective; and word choice, grammar, and syntax (simple, compound, complex, compound-complex sentences).
  • Sometimes a director works around the limitations of the technology of his craft. For example, in filming the prolonged monologues in “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Network,” Lumet had to use two cameras and numerous takes because he had to reload cameras with fresh film during takes as the monologues unfolded. How has moving from oral storytelling to paper and pen to typewriters to computers affected fiction writing? How have the technological and digital changes in publishing affected storytelling?
  • It’s in the “cutting” room that a director really crafts the film’s “tempo,” seeing how all of the edits work in relation to each other. It’s in the cutting room, too, that the viewer gets closer to a subject, or farther away, or inside. All of these decisions should serve the story you’re telling. Seems to me that “cutting room” is a useful term for fiction writers, too, and a helpful way to approach editing.
  • Film is a highly collaborative art. Fiction writing is less so, a largely individual effort though healthy partnerships with copyeditors, editors and publishers are essential. Both rely on feedback from first audiences and first readers.


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The Big Sleep
Raymond Chandler

Fatal Flaws? – In a 2014 conversation sponsored by the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, Joyce Carol Oates spoke on a panel discussing Saul Bellow with Benjamin Taylor and Peter Orner. During questions-and-answers with the audience, Oates was asked how she reconciled Bellow’s and other male writers’ misogyny with her admiration for their writing. “Oh, well,” Oates replied, “if you’re a woman, and a writer and a reader, if you reject all of the misogynist writers, you’re going to have two or three little people here [to read.]” The same holds true for homophobic, anti-Semitic, and racist work. To read these works doesn’t mean we condone these attitudes (even though the writing often historically has been celebrated). Rather, we read these works in context, an “impure” practice, I realize, that for many on the Left is a deal-breaker. However, I believe many of these offending works in classic literature are still well-worth reading and studying, especially when a reflection or discussion afterward can spotlight and wrestle with the book’s flaws. I hadn’t read “The Big Sleep” in close to 40 years and the book is now 84 years old. I had forgotten the novel’s homophobia, which jumped off the page for me like hard slaps in the face. Did these passages offend me now? Yes. Did they turn me off? Nearly. If Chandler were alive today (he died in 1959, about four months before I was born), would he be as homophobic? Possibly, but not likely. Was Chandler a talented writer? Certainly. Should he be read today? Absolutely. Does the homophobia make “The Big Sleep” a “bad” book? No. Should the homophobia in “The Big Sleep” be discussed? That could only help. Like any discussion about any piece of literature, a constructive conversation about the work’s strengths and weaknesses will further illuminate our understanding of the world around us. Not all flaws are fatal even though the prejudice behind such flaws is untenable.

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Save the Cat!
The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need
Blake Snyder

Fade In – An entertaining, practical guide to screenwriting complete with tools, tips, and some lovely jargon new to me: “Save the cat,” “The Pope in the pool,” “Keep the press out,” and more.

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Women
Photographs by Annie Leibovitz
Essay by Susan Sontag

Metaphor – After studying this collection of 247 portraits by Annie Leibovitz and reading this essay by Susan Sontag, I began wondering whether all women are performance artists. Emerging from societal expectations and existing within the soul-crushing realities of a culture structured against them while still reaching and expanding beyond the confines of communal norms – each woman is a performance artist, and it must be exhausting. The show never ends.

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November 27, 2022

The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations
Toni Morrison

Wisdom – To read Toni Morrison is to swim in the fierce tides of her intellect and total command of language. A few excerpts:

“Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination … A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.”

 

 “Do we really mean that the world is the poorer because too few appreciate the finer things? Suppose we did live in a world in which people chatted about Descartes and Kant and Lichtenstein in McDonald’s. Suppose Twelfth Night was on the best-seller list. Would we be happy? Or would we decide that since everybody appreciates it, maybe it wasn’t any good?”

 

 “Literature refuses and disrupts passive or controlled consumption of the spectacle designed to nationalize identity in order to sell us products. Literature allows us – no, demands of us – the experience of ourselves as multidimensional persons.”


 From Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize lecture: “Oppressive language does more than represent violence, it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge, it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity-driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law without ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek – it must be rejected, altered, and exposed.”

 

From Toni Morrison’s eulogy for James Baldwin: “I never heard a single command from you, yet the demands you made on me, the challenges you issued to me were nevertheless unmistakable if unenforced: that I work and think at the top of my form; that I stand on moral ground but know that ground must be shored up by mercy; that ‘the world is before [me] and [I] need not to take it or leave it as it was when [I ]came in.’”

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November 23, 2022

 

Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty
Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe

How the Mighty Have Fallen – Aubrey McClendon and Chesapeake. Richard Fuld and Lehman. Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. Sam Bankman-Fried and FTX. Elon Musk and Twitter? For me, the rise-and-fall stories of U.S. business leaders makes for fascinating reading perhaps because in the Triumphant Age of Capitalism no one comes closer to the tragic Kings and Queens Shakespeare wrote about in so many plays than the celebrated CEO. Greed. Revenge. Hubris. Shakespeare would’ve loved reading the news pages of today’s Wall Street Journal. “Vanderbilt” tells the story of an early “commercial king” in US history and the subsequent squandering of a once-great fortune by succeeding generations, which, as is so often the case, fail to truly succeed.

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Haunted Houses, Porn Stars & Toy Collectors: My Encounters with Remarkable Places, People and Things
Richard Knight, Jr.

Rollercoaster – This rollicking collection of non-fiction by Richard Knight, Jr.– articles and interviews originally published in the Chicago Tribune, the Reader, NewCity, and elsewhere – captures a time, place and slice of life (what is sometimes called, “counterculture”) that makes for a rollercoaster ride of laughter and tears. The time is the 1990s and early 2000s. The place is Chicago. And the lives include a cross-section of people: gay Square dancers, shopping mall pianists, Drag Queens, strippers, ambulance drivers, S&M masters, and more. Along the way, Richard pioneers a style of writing, the “eyewitness chronicle,” which provides a minute-by-minute account of what’s happening to place you solidly in the moment. A must-read.

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There Are Places in the World Where Rules are Less Important than Kindness: And Other Thoughts on Physics, Philosophy, and the World
Carlo Rovelli

Making Sense of it All – One of the great teachers I’ve had is Carlo Rovelli, the Italian theoretical physicist who has a lucrative side hustle writing international bestsellers showcasing his wondering, wandering essays. While I’ve never studied in his classroom or even heard him lecture, I have thoroughly enjoyed devouring Rovelli’s reflections on Einstein, Darwin and Marie Curie, and Lucretius, Dante and Churchill – and everyone in-between. Rovelli is particularly insightful when it comes to turning points, or “scientific revolutions,” when new knowledge or new mysteries cause us to abandon old theories. His enthusiasm and utter joy for exploring such disruptions is infectious. He’s also at the top of his game when wrestling with a great paradox, for example: Bruno de Finetti’s thoughts on uncertainty and reliability. Many of these essays were written for newspapers. All were written for lay audiences, non-scientists like me. Each carries a powerful life lesson.

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AROUND TOWN: Lewis Black and Kurt Vonnegut

Robert Charles, Joe Wade, Jeff Osman (aka Oz), and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves on a late-October evening at the Cliff Dwellers chatting with comedian/truth-teller Lewis Black, who also serves as the Board chair of the new Vonnegut Museum and Library in Indianapolis. Black, interviewed later that evening by free speech advocate Sophie Maurer, was funny, fiery and moving. (I asked Lewis before the program if he’d like a refreshing beverage. “No,” he replied, “Not before. Otherwise, the anger is real.”) To prepare for the evening, Joe Wade and I read “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,” an early Vonnegut offering and one of his best.

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Time for Socialism: Dispatches from a World on Fire, 2016-2021
Thomas Piketty

It’s Not Just the Economy, Stupid – French economist Thomas Piketty is one of the world’s leading authorities on inequality and globalism. Hyper-capitalism and staggering inequality have led him, over the past 30 years, to think beyond capitalism to “a new form of socialism, participative and decentralized, federal and democratic, ecological, multiracial, and feminist.” In this collection of newspaper columns, published mostly in Le Monde between 2016-2021, Piketty examines debt and debt cancellation, taxation, growth, productivity, inflation, wealth, and property. But he examines them through the lens of history and politics, which means he’s examining economic systems shaped largely by colonialism, racism, patriarchy, and climate denial – to use a single word, reality. All of these forces are inextricably linked. They must be acknowledged – and addressed – to do anything about economic inequality.

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AROUND TOWN: Legacy Project’s Work – Help Kids Grow Up Feeling Safe, Loved and Accepted for All of Who They Are

 It’s difficult to convey just how important this is. But, thanks to the support of so many friends, Legacy Project has been able to create prototypes of the educational curriculum materials that schools, in Illinois and across the country, will be able to use to help students learn about LGBTQ+ history. At a time when Republicans are vilifying LGBTQ+ people – at a time when LGBTQ+ people are literally under attack – it’s essential that this history, our history, is preserved and promoted and understood rather than ignored, suppressed, or erased.

 The artwork in the new materials is by David Lee Csicsko. Design and product development is by Mercedes Santos and Theresa Volpe.

 So, with the greatest love and eternal gratitude, Robert Charles and I offer thanks again to the people who made this stage of the work possible: Shannon Hunt-Scott, Christopher Chantson, Bela Mote, Randall Albers, Sonya Anderson, Robin Tuthill, Phil Dabney, Lorry Luscri, Susy Schultz, Dennis Spaeth, Sharyl Holtzman, John Tschoe, Thom Clark, Sheila Black Haennicke, Randy Richardson, Mary Nell Murphy, Mary Ann Dewan, Sharyl Fortin, Mark Weissburg, Bill Hale, Gail Gabler, Elizabeth Ward, Susan Strong-Dowd, Nancy Shier, Michelle E. Moore, David Razowsky, Nancy Kilcoyne Maruyama, Teppi Dachman Jacobsen, Robin LeForge, Andy Wade, Julia Borcherts, Tracye Fortin, Anita Victorn, and Behnam Riahi. You are amazing!

 Legacy Project, run by Victor Salvo and based in Chicago, uses the innovative Legacy Walk and Legacy Wall to help make this history more visible. To learn more about Legacy Project’s work, visit: https://legacyprojectchicago.org/

 

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Pentimento
Lillian Hellman

What Was There for Me Once, What Is There for Me Now – Sometime in the 1980s I fell in love with Lillian Hellman. The plays. The essays. I began reading everything I could by and about Lillian Hellman. Her work – “The Children’s Hour,” “The Little Foxes,” “Toys in the Attic,” “Scoundrel Time,” “Pentimento,” and so on. Her relationship with Dashiell Hammett. Her friendship with Dorothy Parker. Her feud with Mary McCarthy. Her bravery during the House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings. And, then, the accusations of lies and fabrications. And, finally, her last book, “Maybe,” which only raised more questions. So, it was a delight, now nearly 40 years later, to find “Pentimento” among the stacks at Ravenswood Used Books, and to dive back in. It’s all here. The boozy stories, the bawdy tales, Hammett, theater, Julia, and that ultimate survivor, a turtle on Martha’s Vineyard. Given the accusations that still haunt Hellman’s veracity, is it worthwhile to read this book today? I can answer that by recalling Hellman’s own words from the preface: “The paint has aged now and I wanted to see what was there for me once, what is there for me now.” What’s there now for me? The pleasure of Lillian Hellman’s writing – how she tells her stories.

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August 7, 2022


A Hundred Lovers
Richie Hofmann

“Ruins with Broken Bodies of Stone” – Writing about love and love-making – the pleasure, desire, passion, yearning, fear, lust, grit, tenderness – is the high-wire act of putting words on paper. Think how often you’ve seen it done poorly. Consider your own clumsy attempts to express such blurry, fleeting feelings with mere words. Richie Hofmann excels at combining the subtle with the blunt, in what is felt as well as in what is done. There are moments, observations, in these 42 poems that are delicate, fragile, when it feels like the whole book might melt into tears in your very hands. And other moments when you gasp, and hear yourself murmur, Well, yes.

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Voices in Isolation:
4 Queer Plays at a Social Distance
Owen Keehnen

Community – I love these plays and hope, someday, to see all four produced. As Owen Keehnen writes in a brief preface: “Social and personal distance is not a new theme in queer history … In an era of uncertainty, passing on our history is more important than ever.” Owen is a go-to guy for questions about LGBTQ history in Chicago, a co-founder of Legacy Project and the new AIDS Garden Chicago, an author or co-author of a dozen or more books, a bookseller at Unabridged Books. “Sirens of the Belmont Rocks,” “Pansies on Parade,” and “Presenting Wanda Lust” focus on separate facets of LGBTQ life: the Belmont Rocks were a place, other than bars, where queer community could form and thrive; a tribute to the Pansy Craze, a time in the early 1930s when drag queen performances surged in popularity in America’s biggest cities; and the story of one Chicago drag performer, Wanda Lust. Owen calls his fourth play “sidewalk theater.” “COVID Summer” recounts snippets of real-life conversations overheard from passersby in June-August 2020 by a worker who sits on a stool in a shop doorway, limiting the number of customers who enter the store at any given time. It’s a particularly fascinating piece of pandemic theater.

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Reuben Snake: Your Humble Serpent
As told to Jay C. Fikes

Whose Stories Are Told? – In reading this fascinating account of the life and times of “Indian visionary and activist” Reuben Snake, I couldn’t help but think about current Republican measures to ban books and prohibit teachers from discussing certain topics. Such hateful policies are brewed in fear, and such actions will only widen as Republicans lash out to gain and retain political power. Over the years, the white patriarchy in the United States has used more deadly means (genocide, slavery) and more hidden, structural means (discriminatory laws and biased financial lending practices) to maintain the status quo. We’re now living in a time, emboldened by Trump, when Republicans feel far more comfortable blatantly exhibiting their bloodthirst, extolling their bigotry, and squashing history and facts they find inconvenient. Now, more than ever, the voices and stories of Reuben Snake and so many others must be spotlighted and amplified.

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Midnight: Photographs and Haiku
Kevin Nance

Perfect Pairings – There are some basic rules to pairing wine with food. The wine should have a similar intensity as the food. It’s better to match wine with the sauce than with the meat. Whether you pair congruently or contrastingly, the match should elevate both. In “Midnight,” Kevin Nance serves another evocative, powerful pairing of words and images. I read and re-read this slender volume feeling a rhapsody of emotion as well as admiration for Nance’s control of harmony, striking just the right, careful balance that prevents one piece of art from dominating the other, and lifts both to flourish in tandem.

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Governance as Leadership:
Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards
Richard P. Chait, William P. Ryan, Barbara E. Taylor

Doing Good, Doing Better – I’ve served on nonprofit boards of directors for 20 years. Back in June 2002, I joined the Community Media Workshop board. I was an enthusiastic customer of the Workshop’s communications trainings and networking gatherings. Plus, my friend and former co-worker Mike Roach promised we’d have fun when he recruited me to join him on the board to help guide the organization, which was being run by Thom Clark. Mike was right. We did have fun. Nicole Gothelf was chair then and seeing her in action at my very first board meeting left me thinking, “I’ve got to up my game.” There is an art to chairing a board of volunteers let alone serving on a board of volunteers. I learned much from Nicole, Thom, Mike and so many others over the years. Under Susy Schultz, the Workshop changed its name to Public Narrative. It’s now run by Jhmira Alexander. Robert Charles and I remain staunch supporters, though I rotated off the Board in 2013. (Do I now recommend staying on a nonprofit board for 11 years? No. But did I tell you I was having fun? Yes.) Through my work at a foundation in the early childhood field, I’ve subsequently served at least one term on 12 boards for Educare schools; I’ve either boomeranged or been a long-term member on about eight of these boards overseeing high-performing early childhood centers. I also now serve on the board of the Alliance for Early Success, a 50-state strategy for improving public policies affecting young children and their families. Along the way, “Governance as Leadership” has provided essential guidance and many sound tips to help me navigate what can often be the choppy waters of nonprofit oversight. All of this adds up to countless minutes approved, audits reviewed, balance sheets analyzed, committee reports read, and strategies planned. Does that sound like fun? (For some of us, it is fun; someday I’ll tell you about the independent auditor in California who keeps a collection of his favorite Top 100 audits.) The work involves much more than that, of course, and the rewards are even richer. You see lives changed, improved. You see people learning how to use their voices. You learn to use your own. You work with talented agents of change called Executive Directors. And you become friends with strangers from a variety of walks of life who share the joys and sorrows, the advances and setbacks, of trying to make the world a better place. Serving on boards also reminds me that I need to always – always – up my game.

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Be Here Now
Edited by Barrie Jean Borich

Why ‘Little’ Magazines are a Big Deal – My first short story was published in the Fall/Winter 1989 issue of The Prairie Light Review, a literary journal supported by College of DuPage in Chicago’s western suburbs. The Prairie Light Review, one of the so-called “little” magazines, published “Balmy” plus three more stories and a poem in subsequent issues. My work in those days was so clearly influenced by Raymond Carver’s writing, not a bad influence to have when it comes to storytelling. My work, too, was published alongside two writers who would become dear friends, though we were strangers at the time: Robert N. Georgalas and David McGrath. I would later meet Bob in graduate school at Columbia College Chicago’s fiction writing program, and then meet David through Bob. Together, along with Joanne Pepe, Jo-Ann Ledger and Mark Wukas, we would come to form Polyphony Press, which published three volumes of stories, poems, and scripts between 1999 and 2003. So, my early publications in The Prairie Light Review meant, and mean, the world to me. First, they provided me with confidence, which every artist needs to keep going. Second, they provided me with an audience, which almost every writer desires. And third, they introduced me to the work of other impressive writers, which reminds me that talent is not rare. This past March, at the Let’s Just Write conference, sponsored by Chicago Writers Association and convened at the Allerton Hotel overlooking Michigan Avenue, I picked up a copy of Be Here Now, a “miniature” published by Slag Glass City. Slag Glass City is primarily an online non-fiction journal, supported by DePaul University. Be Here Now (Volume 4, June 2018, Number 1) features five essays and numerous photographs. I hope the excellent writers and photographers here have kept making art and keep making art. These and so many other voices help us decipher the world in which we live.

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March 25, 2022

 

AROUND TOWN: Celebrating Ana Castillo

March 24, 2022 — Such fun celebrating poet, novelist, essayist, activist, artist Ana Castillo as she was presented with the Fuller Award this evening by a Who’s Who of Chicago literati. The Chicago Literary Hall of Fame event was held at the American Writers Museum and co-sponsored by Hypertext, Guild Complex, Dominican University, DePaul University, University of Chicago, National Museum of Mexican Art, and Hilton-Asmus Contemporary. In addition to Ana Castillo, the evening featured Donald G. Evans, Mark Turcotte, Jane Hseu, Henry Godinez, Sandra Jackson-Opoku, Arica Hilton, Liza Ann Acosta, Carey Cranston, and Christine Maul Rice.

Plus, the evening’s printed program is a real keepsake featuring a wonderful interview of Ana by Christine … essays by Don, Carlos Cumpián, Janel Montellano, and Karen R. Roybal and Bernadine M. Hernández … and tributes by Angela Jackson, Norma E. Cantù, Emma Perez, Jane Hseu, Ignatius Valentine Aloysius, Michael Zapata, Marc Zimmerman, Ayendy Bonifacio, Donna Miscolta, Mary Hawley, Seminary Co-Op/57th Street Books, Marx Brewery and Vinejoy Chicago.

 ¡Bravo, Ana Castillo!

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March 16, 2022

 

Palimpsest:
A Memoir
Gore Vidal

Well-told – Jackie and Tennessee, Mailer and Capote. Old Senator Gore. Lost love, Jimmy. Upstate New York and Ravello, the Hollywood Hills and Washington, DC. The TV scripts, the Hollywood films. Having read so much by and about Gore Vidal over the years and having only now picked up the memoir of his first 39 years, many of the people, places, and stories were familiar. Still, I never mind hearing a story told again as long as the story is well-told, and Vidal certainly knew how to weave snark and insight to keep things moving on the page.

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Reprogramming the American Dream:
From Rural America to Silicon Valley – Making AI Serve Us All
Kevin Scott with Greg Shaw

Book/Workbook – I know I’m lost in a book when I’ve dog-eared more pages than not and scribbled notes on the blank pages of the final folio. The dog-ears mark provocative passages I will revisit. The notations are ruminations, questions, that come to mind while reading. I know many readers abhor such practices, likening dog-ears and marginalia to literary graffiti and other acts of defilement. To me, they’re simply signs that I am bewitched. And, as you can tell from the dog-ears and scribbles in the photos below, there’s much to be bedazzled by here. Kevin Scott grew up in rural Virginia and now works as Chief Technology Officer for Microsoft. That story in itself is one story of the Great American Dream. But Scott, who put together the book with Greg Shaw, weaves others. Tales from Gladys, Virginia, to Memphis and Oregon, from Seattle and Redmond to Wyoming, from Los Gatos to Jefferson, Iowa, and points elsewhere. He describes the promise of artificial intelligence as well as the fears AI stirs. He explores ways AI can – and is – revitalizing rural communities, and, in turn, reshaping the national ethos. He dives into the politics and ethics of AI, and suggests ways to deal with change as AI inevitably becomes an ever-larger part of our everyday lives. Do you want to visit the future? Read this book.

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 AROUND TOWN: “Writing Fiction” and Janet Burroway

You know what’s one of the great things about The Chicago Literary Hall of Fame? How it brings people together, creating a warm sense of community. You know what else? How the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame enables writers to meet, talk shop, and learn from a maven like Janet Burroway.

Here’s a snapshot from a recent Zoom conversation, a Q&A with Janet about the craft of writing fiction and non-fiction. You’ll see some of my favorite writers — and human beings — here in mid-applause: Darwyn Jones, Erin Owen, Donald G. Evans, Katie Dealy, Michael Medwick (and that’s Mike Murray on the phone.)

Janet’s book, “Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft,” is a book every writer should own. It’s the most popular text book in writing programs and I’ve been re-reading it, gaining new insights. During the Q&A, Janet spoke with authority and empathy, having done and studied – and taught – the Work for many years. I asked about writing in the Third Person point of view because so much of what I write is First Person narration. “Your control of point of view instantly informs an editor whether you are an amateur or a pro,” she observed. “Point of view,” she added, “must answer four questions: Who speaks? To whom? In what form? At what distance?” Clear, practical, welcomed advice.

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Solid Ivory: Memoirs
James Ivory
Edited by Peter Cameron

Pandemic Reading, Part One – One of my all-time favorite filmmakers. About 90 years of life, working and playing with some of the era’s most fascinating people from around the world. A memoir that’s been widely reviewed and uniformly praised. So why was reading this pastiche of memories and portraits slow-going for me? I blame the mind-numbing lethargy of this ongoing pandemic. Ivory, obviously, knows how to tell a story. As director and/or writer of “A Room with a View,” “Maurice,” “Howard’s End,” “The Remains of the Day,” and “Call Me by Your Name,” the man knows how to craft a tale. So – that magic that is conjured when a story on paper “clicks” with a reader; will it strike for me if I re-read this book two months or two years from now? I’ve noted in earlier ChicagoWriter posts my experience with Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” I struggled the first two times I read “Heart of Darkness” 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.

 

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Borges and Me:
An Encounter
Jay Parini

Pandemic Reading, Part Two – One of my all-time favorite writers: Jorge Luis Borges. One of my favorite biographers: Jay Parini. A first-person remembrance of the two meeting in an unlikely place, Scotland, and taking a life-changing road trip. How could I not eat this up? How could I not, at least, finish reading? Blame the pandemic. The toll on my powers of concentration are clear. This is a book I will set aside for now and return to when I can once again focus.

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March 13, 2022

 

Dying of Whiteness:
How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland
Jonathan M. Metzel

Not Fast Enough – Sociologist and psychiatrist Jonathan M. Metzel delves into a variety of data and conducts interviews with white people in Missouri, Tennessee, and Kansas. His findings show that self-identity trumps (to use just any ol’ word) self-interest. White men and white women consistently vote for more guns, less health care and fewer educational opportunities for them and their children – despite suffering the negative consequences each bear. Beneath it all is fear, deeply felt grievances, and racial resentment.

What to do?

Metzel conjectures that listening and dialog can lead to common ground. I’ve heard and read others who call for community building and cultivating a sense of belonging to mitigate the loneliness of white despair. Still others claim progressives have failed to shape a message that resonates; if only they could get the messaging right!

I think we’re passed the time when any of that will do much good. Let’s not forget that Trump gained 11 million more votes in 2020 than he received in 2016. Rather than rejecting his politics of hate, division and despair, 11 million more Americans voted for him. Working-class whites reflexively, suicidally, vote for Republicans whose policies only worsen smothering income inequality. You can try to “open dialog” with them, but do you really think that’ll work? And community-building? Instilling a sense of belonging? Look at the faces of the thousands hooting, hollering, for Trump and for Whiteness at Trump rallies. Look at those who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6 at Trump’s behest. They have found their community. They feel they belong. Outreach and messaging won’t work. How do you find common ground and room for compromise with white conservatives who possess a religiously fervent world view that rejects facts, lacks humility, lacks shame, embraces nutty conspiracies, and belittles educational achievement while roasting pitiful, self-pitying grievances and resentments in the furnaces of fear and racism? I don’t think it’s possible.

Their downward spiral (pardon my Schadenfreude) and the country’s looming demographic shifts (in ethnicity, race, age) give me hope for the long-term despite my short-term pessimism. Politics lags demographics so expect a decade or two of continued animosity and turmoil.

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1959:
The Year Everything Changed
Fred Kaplan

The 59ers – The book argues that 1959 is an overlooked pivotal year in US history, a year that ushered in a new era of scientific advancement and social change as well as a new war, in Vietnam. An interesting premise but I’m not unbiased. Three of my best friends and I were born in ’59. We met in college. When we get together these days, we carry on the same conversation we’ve enjoyed for the past 40 years or so. As French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr famously opined, “Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.” The more things change, the more they remain the same.

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Chicago:
A City Above All
Barry Butler

My Kind of Town – Barry Butler’s work featured in this gorgeous new volume invites us to marvel at our city’s bold architectural beauty and wondrous urban vistas. If you love Chicago, you’ll love this book. A number of other photographers also help me “see” my community and life today. I encourage you to track down their work as well, online and in print. Matt Tuteur brings us face-to-face with people on the street in his stunning black-and-white portraits snapped on the sidewalks of the Loop and Uptown. Melissa Pinney shares her mastery of shadows and light and color and composition, providing us with intimate glimpses of the lives of girls and young women. Kevin Nance offers angles and light and telling portraits of texture and color. Richard Cahan reveals our past, which reveals “us” to us. Who are your favorite photographers, and what stories are they telling?


 


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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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