By Amy Friedman
“After a few months in Chicago, Florence Kelley’s soft-voiced but electric style of public speaking, as well as her magnetic personality and her demonstrated commitment, made her prominent among the advocates for the cause whose day had come.” While Leigh Buchanan Bienen here describes her book’s subject, the factory inspector, reformer, attorney, writer and mother who fought for the rights of workers and children in 1890s Chicago, these words could have just as easily been written about the author herself. As an attorney and champion of just causes, Bienen fought tirelessly to abolish the death penalty, first in New Jersey and then in Illinois. She also served as Director of the Chicago Historical Homicide Project that transcribed handwritten documents into online records, making data available to the public on more than 14,000 homicides in Chicago between 1870 and 1939. Bienen is a prolific writer and a senior lecturer at Northwestern University School of Law, among many other accomplishments. Reading her latest book, it’s easy to see why Florence Kelley, a fellow Cornell graduate, attorney and advocate for the underdog, became Bienen’s focus.
The book unfolds through a unique format that weaves together three distinct narratives: Kelley’s private struggles as a single mother of three living in Jane Addams’ Hull-House and her public accomplishments as a factory inspector pushing for legal protections for workers in the late nineteenth century; Bienen’s personal account of life as the wife of Henry Bienen, fifteenth president of Northwestern University, as well as her professional efforts to end the death penalty; and the changing modern political landscape that in so many ways mirrors the struggles and events of Kelley’s world. Read the rest of this entry »
Amanda Palmer’s “The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help” is not about crowdfunding. Her TED talk covers that just fine. It is a love story about art, audience and the business of both, starring two men (a mentor and a husband), and one woman, Palmer herself. The indie cabaret pianist is not everyone’s darling. The internet routinely critiques Palmer’s privilege, patriotism, ableism, feminism. One person’s read of her as genuine and sassy is another’s self-absorbed and tone-deaf.
Palmer wrote a portrait of an artist in real time, an artist flailing in front of us, and when an artist flails, we can either point and laugh or we can learn something. Palmer’s book is a segmented essay of varying brilliance, covering an intensely rough year where her best friend and mentor Anthony is diagnosed with cancer and she deeply questions her marriage to Neil Gaiman because of his emotional distance and lack of dancing ability. Read the rest of this entry »
Jonathan Eig/Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux
By Toni Nealie
When you’ve had reliable contraception all your life, it’s easy to take it for granted. Now that politicians and religious groups are contesting women’s access to reproductive health care, “The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution” is timely. Jonathan Eig has written a compelling, frustrating and enraging account of activist Margaret Sanger, scientist Gregory Pincus, heiress Katharine McCormick, and Catholic gynecologist John Rock, and their race to discover a miracle pill. The group wanted to stop women dying from dangerous contraceptives, abortion, childbirth and exhaustion. They aimed to help couples plan their families and enjoy sex.
Eig, a former reporter and the best-selling author of “Luckiest Man,” “Opening Day” and “Get Capone,” was captivated by the individuals and the important story behind the pill. Crusader Margaret Sanger believed sex was good and that women should have more of it, but it needed to be separated from procreation. That’s where her lifelong quest began. Sanger and her supporters had to invent and test a workable hormone formula, raise money, build alliances and work their way around repressive laws banning information about birth control. Read the rest of this entry »
“Made in Cuba, assembled in Spain, imported to the USA” is how Richard Blanco describes himself in addition to being the fifth inaugural poet of the United States, and therefore, “the youngest, first Latino, first immigrant, and first gay writer to hold the honor.” After delivering three prizewinning poetry collections, he is now the author of the funny, humble and moving memoir, “The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood.”
Told through seven chapters, each focusing on a specific memory—a strategy that allows one to navigate very briskly through time—“The Prince of Los Cocuyos” is sheer delight. The setting is Westchester, a Miami suburb, during the 1970s and 1980s, and the Blanco household is a vibrant one, filled with rambunctious personalities: a father, an older brother and a grandfather; a brutally thrifty and domineering Abuela (a bookie for Cuban mafiosos) who is often at odds with a kinder, but no less fierce, version of herself—the author’s mother. These two women run the household, frequently sparring over housework, money and childrearing. Our little Riqui, in particular, is cause for concern. Abuela is determined to make “un hombre” out of him by driving his artistic spontaneity underground. She disapproves of his taste for architecture, confiscates art and coloring books, shames his affection for animals and keeps a constant watch for any signs of his burgeoning queerness: “(…) it’s better to be it but not act like it, than to not be it and yet act like it. By being it she meant being gay—un maricón.” Abuela means well, of course. Years of a hardscrabble existence as a Cuban exile have thickened her love but nevertheless, she causes great harm to her grandson’s psyche. Through the years, this relationship moves in and out of love and hate but there’s no denying that they need each other. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: John Freeman
By John Freeman
Newspapers may be dying, our publishing industry is at war with Amazon, but a bright spot remains in U.S. letters: the literary essay. In the past decade, writers known for other books and other work have begun working in the form that gave birth to the New Yorker.
These new essayists—from John Jeremiah Sullivan to Elif Batuman, Aleksandar Hemon and Daniel Alarcon—don’t come from the same boys club as the writers of the last heyday of the essay. They are unglossy, smart, deeply stylish and, with her debut collection of essays, “The Empathy Exams,” Leslie Jamison proves she will probably write her way into their company.
Jamison is hardly an underdog. She grew up in Los Angeles, the daughter of a prominent economist, niece to the psychotherapist Kay Redfield Jamison. She attended Harvard and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is currently studying for a Ph.D. at Yale. Her debut novel, “The Gin Closet,” the tale of three generations of women and their tortured family history, received high praise when it appeared in 2010.
And yet it did not prepare readers for “The Empathy Exams.” Written over a period of many years, the book examines how pain both defines and defies us, and meditates on its role in empathy. The title essay recalls a period that Jamison spent as a medical actor, faking ailments in scenarios meant to test doctors of their diagnostic skills and their ability to demonstrate empathy. “Empathy isn’t just listening,” Jamison writes, “it’s asking the questions that need to be listened to.” Read the rest of this entry »
We’re all going to die, apparently. I’ve known enough of death to assiduously avoid thinking about it until it’s too close to ignore. The other week I visited a friend in hospice. He spent his last days holding court and watching herons stalk frogs in the wetlands beyond the windows. His room seemed more like a hotel than a hospital, with floor-to-ceiling glass and plush lounge chairs. A few weeks earlier he’d had a cough checked, now he was dying—or at least, now he knew he was. There would be no heroic efforts to prolong his life, just medication to enhance its quality. He talked about what he valued. He felt at peace. The next week, he was too tired for visits, so we talked by phone. Then he slipped into death. It was timely to pick up “Being Mortal” by physician writer Atul Gawande a few days later.
We all know the quip about the certainty of death or taxes, but still they creep up and catch us unawares. We don’t consider our life’s end thoroughly enough, asserts Gawande. He writes to “lift the veil” on the whole ghastly institutionalized business of illness, aging and dying, in order to refocus on what he believes to be most important—sustaining meaning in life. He wants us to have an urgent conversation about issues of autonomy and maintaining the integrity of one’s life, so we don’t lose ourselves at the end. Read the rest of this entry »
I wish I’d had a taxi driver like Dmitry Samarov when I immigrated to Chicago. Our driver got lost on the way from O’Hare Airport, pulled over on a dark, midnight road by the Des Plaines River so we could check our map, then crashed through roadwork and over a bunch of orange traffic cones. Samarov seems a more careful driver, a meticulous observer of people and a sharp storyteller.
“Where To? A Hack Memoir” is a series of linked vignettes that are wry, hilarious and sometimes melancholic. Samarov, the immigrant “progeny of Soviet intelligentsia and an art school graduate,” describes the cab driver as a passing presence who sees the ugly, the beautiful and the inexplicable. Cab drivers are frequently immigrants, former professionals, now “forced back down to the bottom rung of the societal ladder.” They contend with a gritty city and ruthless cops. The bureaucracy is a time-sucking revenue collector, its authority figures despotic. Passengers are lovelorn, snowbound, disabled, drunk, sweet, amusing, obnoxious and sometimes famous. We glimpse it all. Read the rest of this entry »
Disclaimer: I’m not a fan of fighting. My teen son was a wrestler and endured his share of cauliflower ear, knee injuries, concussion and all-or-nothing coaches. My husband made a documentary about head injuries in sport, so I tend to be squeamish and protective of the human body. I therefore approached “Thrown” with caution.
It’s a layered, complex work about MMA fighters, their ambitions, obsessions and myth-making. Out of sweaty training basements and small-town fighting cages in the Midwest, we meet fighters Erik and Sean. Why do they fight? We are asked to weigh their world of “ecstatic experience” against the alternative offered by the healthy-minded, with their pre-natal yoga and gluten-free diets, “their dull if long lives of quietist self-preserving conformism.” By the end of the book, I’m in with the fighters. Read the rest of this entry »
By Amy Beth Danzer
It was this year’s AWP Conference in Seattle when I first came in contact with the tour de force that is Roxane Gay. After an evening of readings, publishing-house parties and general carousing, a crew of us found ourselves in the lobby of one of the main hotels hosting the conference, where the likes of Tobias Wolff or Richard Bausch could be spotted waiting for an elevator. As we made our way toward the hotel bar, my friend Adrienne stopped and gasped, “Oh my god, that’s Roxane Gay! I love her.” There she was in unassuming jeans and t-shirt, the ubiquitous culture critic who Flavorwire declared one of 25 Women Poised to Lead the Culture in 2014, Roxane Gay. I knew about her, but was not yet intimate with her work. Adrienne on the other hand was a confirmed admirer and devoted follower. As soon as an opportunity arose, she jumped at the chance to discuss with Gay the very important matter of Juan Pablo Galavis, the then-new Bachelor, and his romantic interests, Ferrell and Crawley. Though not a fan of the show myself, I was thoroughly entertained by the conversation and thoroughly impressed by Gay, who was clearly an intellectual, informed and sophisticated, yet still able to speak vox populi—a combination I dig in people, especially in writers. I needed more of a fix, which was all too easy to satisfy; she and her work are everywhere. Read the rest of this entry »
By Liz Baudler
Megan Stielstra’s writing career is forever changing. She tells me this as we sit on couches in the office space for her new nine-to-five job, and it looks like a sushi bar, all square lines and pale stripes of wood and white blocks. The walls are whiteboards and she can’t wait to take a marker to them.
Stielstra’s writing career has never been about the best-selling novel she hoped to write. It took shape as she scrubbed floors in Florence and read a lot. When she went to Columbia College, she walked out of her first class feeling like she had smoked everything there was to smoke, so high was she from the excitement of writing.
The writing career detoured when a trusted professor asked her if she’d ever thought about teaching. Yet she can’t stand in front of a classroom without writing, or else she’d violate some incredible trust with her students. It still amazes her that they trust her with first drafts: she would balk at handing over hers like that. Read the rest of this entry »