“With Light Steam: A Personal Journey through the Russian Baths,” by Bryon MacWilliams, captures the fractured identity of contemporary Russia with high fidelity in a way that is at once tender and clear-eyed. This book is introspective American travel writing at its best. A genre-defying mosaic of memoir, historical research and a reflection on time and place, “With Light Steam” is easily in a league with “Travels in Siberia,” by Ian Frazier for spectacular American travel writing on Russia.
MacWilliams takes the reader on an insightful, but never belabored tour of the history of Russian baths, which play a major role in the nation’s history if for no other reason than that many major events of Russian history occurred in these steamy rooms (e.g. in an act that initiated the early Russian state as an independent power, its matriarch, Princess Olga, burned to death an entire delegation of Drevlians—a rival tribe—in a banya to revenge her husband’s death). Read the rest of this entry »
“Chicago Portraits” has a simple but noble mission: to celebrate Chicago while highlighting the hard work of Chicago Tribune newsroom photographers, whose names often go unnoticed. While the digital age has cataloged images for all to enjoy, it has also opened doors to intellectual property theft, making it easy for one to print or distribute images and rob photographers, both famous and not so famous, of royalties. Furthermore, technical innovations like tablets, the smartphone, camera apps and social media have allowed too many users to fancy themselves as talented, knowledgeable photographers. This line of thinking hurts the public every bit as much as the professional lensman or woman with a lifetime of craftsmanship: the public expects less of the art itself while legions of trained and talented artists suffer in oblivion. This handsome coffee-table volume offers a chance to momentarily reverse this hateful trend and take in photographs with the proper printing (and credit) their authors deserve. Read the rest of this entry »
Chicago-born piano wizard Herbie Hancock aptly opens his autobiography by recalling a Stockholm concert when he played the wrong chord with the Miles Davis Quartet: “Miles pauses for a fraction of a second, and then he plays some notes that somehow, miraculously, make my chord sound right… And then Miles just took off from there, unleashing a solo that took the song in a new direction. The crowd went absolutely crazy.” That night, Davis (who famously said, “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.”) ultimately offered the young Hancock a musical direction for life: integrating the “wrong” chord into the performance matters more than playing the “right” chord. Perhaps Davis reiterated the advice when he warned Hancock against playing “butter notes,” or to just “play nothin’” when not knowing what to play. Jazz isn’t unlike theater, or life itself: silence is powerful, and listening is everything. Jazz is no place for safety; copying anyone, or reproducing last night’s performance, is deadly. Read the rest of this entry »
Chicago photographer Art Shay—the same man who photographed royalty, presidents, sports figures and historical moments like the 1968 Democratic Convention—now presents us with a collection of photographs featuring his “beloved wife and model,” and owner of Titles, Inc. for more than thirty years, the sprightly Florence Shay.
One of the very first photographs in “My Florence: A 70-Year Love Story,” is from the Shays’ 1944 honeymoon, in which a twenty-two-year-old Art in U.S. Air Force uniform looks upon his beaming bride with enormous adoration in his eyes, clearly enamored. He looks grateful to be in such close proximity to someone so beautiful and full of life. The photographs in Shay’s latest collection portray his late wife’s brimming effervescence in that same spirit of reverence and love. Read the rest of this entry »
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 1930. 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 »