By Naomi Huffman
I’ll likely always remember Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg’s memoir “You Were Never in Chicago” as the book that made me fall back in love with this city. Steinberg’s nostalgic telling of his steady transformation to becoming a Chicagoan, which began when he moved to Evanston from rural Ohio to study at Northwestern as an undergrad in 1978, reminded me very much of my own coming-to-the-city story. Steinberg describes emerging from the subway downtown for the first time: “climbing those stairs, the rainy city a square of gray light that opened up to buildings and cars and people.” And a few paragraphs later: “In the beginning, you just soak it all in.” Indeed.
Last month, when the New York Times published Rachel Shteir’s takedown of three recently published books about our city that included Steinberg’s “You Were Never in Chicago” (and also “The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream,” by Thomas Dyja and “Golden: How Rod Blagojevich Talked Himself Out of the Governor’s Office and Into Prison,” by Jeff Coen and John Chase), the response was vehement. Carol Marin of WMAQ Channel 5 news, Rex Huppke of the Tribune and even Mayor Rahm Emanuel all replied in defense of the city, and with a few zingers to throw back at Shteir. Read the rest of this entry »
One of the many awful aftershocks of a violent incident like the Boston Marathon bombings is the tendency of public figures to say terrible things while trying to make sense of what happened and why. Among the unproductive statements made recently, unfortunately by quite a few well-meaning people, is an idea that “there’s no explanation for what happened.” Sure, I will grant that there’s no justification. But “there’s no explanation” indicates that we just don’t want to understand. This is an understandable, but regrettable, impulse. It is an impulse closely related to the constitutive element of hatred: the refusal to understand. When we refuse to understand, we turn the object of our misunderstanding into a potential object of hatred. We must recognize that there are explanations. They may be illegitimate, awful and evil but there are explanations.
In “American Honor Killings: Desire and Rage Among Men,” David McConnell presents a thoughtful and well researched, if uneven, alternative to the silence impulse. He writes about violence perpetrated by men against men who are either gay or perceived to be gay—mostly what could be referred to as “hate crimes” (a label McConnell discards: “admitting ‘hate crimes’ looks like criminalizing motive, and that looks like criminalizing thought”). Instead, “I settled on the exotic-sounding words ‘honor killings’ in the book title, because, incredibly, that’s what these crimes resemble.” It’s a good observation. The murders he describes are all revenge killings for perceived violations of normative, heterosexual masculinity. Like other murders we call honor killings, the motivations for these murders clearly fall on the dark end of a spectrum of human values. They are twisted understandings of honor and pride, but their relation to what we, the normal, would call honor and pride, are what make them both repulsive and fascinating. Read the rest of this entry »
By John Wilmes
‘The business of literature is blowing shit up.’
David Shields quotes the phrase from an essay by publishing entrepreneur Richard Nash, and it seems almost the summation of what’s brought us together for the afternoon. It explains the animal that’s operated on subconscious levels for both of us, as long as we’ve taken the task of writing, and writing well, all too seriously. And that much of literature seems to have lost a want to explode—that all the most-sold novels of recent years seem content to accept the nostalgia of the form’s tradition, and to deny the challenge to cut to metaphysical bone and efface the self—is what drives Shields’ last few books. “How Literature Saved My Life,” his latest, is no exception. Read the rest of this entry »
By Liz Baudler
Chicagoan Anne Elizabeth Moore has just released “New Girl Law,” a book about her experiences working with Cambodian college girls attempting to rewrite the Chbap Srey, the Cambodian female code of conduct. A teacher at SAIC and author of “Cambodian Grrrl,” Moore guided the project and followed its return to Cambodia, and recently discussed her work’s impact with me.
In “New Girl Law,” the process of the girls rewriting the Chbap Srey seemed quite organic. Did that surprise you?
It did. I think what’s sort of remarkable about that first batch of work that these young women did was that I was like, “You guys should know how to do this,” and because of who I was and how I was brought into the situation and the conditions under which that project was established, they did it. From there, there’s a whole bunch of things that could happen. People can be like, “This is a really stupid process and it doesn’t work for me at all and I hate it and you’re an American and you don’t understand what we’re doing at all.” Or, a community, a group of people can be like, “Actually, that’s worked for us and we want to do this with it.” And that’s kind of what happened in “New Girl Law.” They came up with this project that we then implemented despite my potential inability to meet the demands that would come with that, but then they did lead this process of pretty amazing work, rethinking the gender policy on which their nation was founded. Like, who does that when you’re twenty? Read the rest of this entry »
Acclaimed science writer Mary Roach fell in love with human anatomy in her fifth-grade science class when Mrs. Claflin introduced her to a “headless, limbless modeled plastic-torso,” and got her hands on model organs that “fit together like puzzle pieces, tidy as wares in a butcher’s glass case.” This introduction, along with the findings from a 1968 study on humans’ intolerance to bacteria-ridden food and an evident personal curiosity for the scientific taboo help lead to “Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal,” Roach’s latest book.
Roach’s witty and conversational voice allows “Gulp” to read like a novel rather than a science book. Instead of being taught about our digestive system we are told about it. And, for anyone who’s ever flunked an exam on the periodic table or failed to locate the pancreas of a dissected frog, there’s a huge difference. Read the rest of this entry »
“After Hiroshima, after the death of Roosevelt, and after the [House Un-American Activities Committee] investigations, only then did one begin to see the complete unreality of the American dream.”
So (late in life) declared filmmaker Joseph Losey, who directed the creepy and provocative 1951 film noir, “The Prowler,” and was rewarded for his artistry with a HUAC subpoena, membership in the Hollywood blacklist and lifelong exile. His statement, according to “Nightmare Alley” author Mark Osteen, can serve as a description of film noir, the shadowy and critical genre that served as a reality check for America during the period between World War II and the Korean War.
Osteen, who teaches English at Loyola University in Maryland, notes that noir flourished at a crossroads moment for the nation, as New Deal populism and humanism clashed with nascent Cold War paranoia and reaction. In Hollywood, the conflict played out tragically, with consequences that still linger. In the media-inflamed, witch-hunt atmosphere, studio bosses refused to stand up for their top writers, directors and performers (many of whom were associated with noir), while opportunistic former colleagues (such as Ronald Reagan) proved willing to purge their own unions of left-leaning members. The best thus crashed and burned, and those who survived grew cautious. It was the real beginning of our own postmodern, post-political, post-ethical era. Read the rest of this entry »
Canadian-born writer/film critic/pop-cultural savant Michelle Orange launches “This Is Running for Your Life” with a meditation on youth and taste and nostalgia (also, Ethan Hawke’s face). She then moves on to a close reading of the Hollywood dream girl, Marilyn Monroe through manic pixie, an essay on her grandmother’s life and death, collected observations on the city of Beirut. She writes about photography, about brain-imaging, about San Diego and Hawai’i and Halifax. The result is a collection that’s original and engaging and weird and very, very smart.
Each essay is a kind of narrative patchwork, with disparate pieces assembled and artfully laid out for consideration. “War and Well-Being, 21° 19’N., 157° 52’W,” for example—arguably the centerpiece of the collection—considers the experience of being in Hawai’i, the state of modern psychiatry, shopping, World War II and the DSM-IV. The product falls somewhere between long-form journalism and collage: sprawling and brilliant and offering the illusion that only the best craftsmanship can—that you’ve crawled inside Orange’s mind, which happens to be gorgeous and funny and a marked improvement on your own. Read the rest of this entry »
By Micah McCrary
His author’s bio reads: “Dan Beachy-Quick is the author of five books of poems, most recently ‘Circle’s Apprentice.’ ‘A Whaler’s Dictionary,’ his celebrated collection of meditations on Melville’s ‘Moby-Dick,’ appeared from Milkweed Editions in 2008. Beachy-Quick teaches at Colorado State University, and lives in Fort Collins.” The Chicago-born Beachy-Quick, most recently the author of “Wonderful Investigations,” is an author willing to scrutinize his interests—both academic and aesthetic—in a way that many writers of nonfiction seem afraid to try.
Beachy-Quick spoke about his “Wonderful Investigations”—about his willingness to look deeper and closer and further into the things that make him want to read and write. Read the rest of this entry »
By Brian Hieggelke
I’ve known Michael Lenehan for more than twenty years, in that distant friendly way you know your competitors. He was the top editor of the Chicago Reader from the time we started Newcity until the company was sold in 2007. I knew very little about him—friendly competitors tend to limit their conversations to five minutes or less—other than that he had a devilish grin and the kind of dry wit that feels like it must be skewering you without you even understanding how. What I did know is that he was largely responsible for executing the Reader’s editorial vision all those years, and that he not only once published a 20,000-word story on beekeeping that epitomized what made the Reader different, he wrote it. Lenehan was an editor who was a proven writer.
Now, several years after the sale of the Reader led to his exit from what had been his life’s work, he’s published his first book, “Ramblers: Loyola Chicago 1963—The Team That Changed the Color of College Basketball,” the story of Chicago’s—of Illinois’—only national basketball champion, ever. But even more than digging up the backstory of the hardcourt’s ultimate one-hit wonder, he convincingly constructs a narrative, told with acumen and suspense—that this team, that this national championship game, marked a turning point in the sport and in the country, as we grappled with the final stages of overt racial discrimination. But expect no self-righteous soapboxes here; Lenehan lets the story tell itself by following the fates of three teams that converged in the tournament that year: the Loyola Ramblers; the would-be-dynasty-in-process Cincinnati Bearcats, who like Loyola fielded a starting lineup dominated by African-American players but attacked the game in a wholly different style; and the Mississippi State Bulldogs, a team so white that it had to sneak out of state at night in order to play in an integrated basketball game. Read the rest of this entry »
Where some of us see a liquor store, Amy Stewart sees a greenhouse. And not just any greenhouse—a “fantastical greenhouse, the world’s most exotic botanical garden, the sort of strange and overgrown conservatory we only encounter in our dreams.” Whether it’s vodka, whisky, or gin, there isn’t a bottle in the store Stewart can’t “assign a genus and a species to.” It’s true. “The Drunken Botanist” is the proof.
Starting with agave and making her way to wheat, with pitstops at barley, rice and sorghum (and corn, and potato, and, and, and…), Stewart gives us flash histories of each primary ingredient. In a section on rye, for example, we learn about the grain’s chemistry (low in gluten, high in pentosan) and the implications of that chemistry (generally needs to be mixed with wheat). We learn how it grows and where. We learn that Pliny the Elder thought it “an inferior grain,” but that George Washington distilled the stuff himself. We learn that a fungus that grows on rye may or may not be partially responsible for Salem witch trials. We also learn how to make a Manhattan.
With basics of alcohol covered, Stewart moves onto the herbs, spices, woods and fruits that make liquor interesting (and palatable). Each trivia-packed entry, Allspice through Violet, imparts a general sense of the ingredient in question: cloves enhance vanilla flavors; pine, a hit since the Neolithic period, adds a Christmasy pungency to cocktails. Read the rest of this entry »