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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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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