The Last Frontier: On Ben Tarnoff’s “The Bohemians”

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thebohemiansBy June Sawyers

When Mark Twain arrived during the waning days of the Gold Rush, San Francisco may have been a frontier city on the rough edge of American life, but it was also fast becoming a literary town with a strong bohemian flavor.

For Twain, it was love at first sight: the Missourian was smitten by the city as soon as he set eyes on it. He loved its rowdy atmosphere, its unpredictability, the feeling that anything could happen here. Twain (still using his given name Samuel Clemens) arrived in San Francisco in 1863, while the Civil War was still raging. Although only twenty-seven, he had already lived a life full of adventure, from piloting steamboats on the mighty Mississippi to wandering through Missouri with Confederate guerrillas.

Twain is one of the four Bohemians in this compelling group portrait by writer Ben Tarnoff. Twain is the best known member by far, but the true leader of the faction, the true literary spokesman of bohemian San Francisco, was Bret Harte, a shy, soft-spoken dandy originally from Albany, New York. The other Bohemians were two now largely obscure figures, author and editor Charles Warren Stoddard and poet Ina Coolbrith. Read the rest of this entry »

City Time Capsule: “Chicago by Day and Night” is a Lively Guide to 1890s Chicago

Book Reviews, Chicago Authors, Chicago Publishers, Guidebooks, History, Nonfiction No Comments »

chicago_by_day_and_night

Chicago welcomed the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition almost twenty years after the Great Fire, inviting thousands to flood the Second City. “Chicago by Day and Night: the Pleasure Seeker’s Guide to the Paris of America” was created to assist this influx of newcomers. With 300 pages and sixty-nine illustrations, the guide acted as a primer for exposition visitors and residents alike, detailing what one might need to know, from lodging accommodations to entertainment venues and revues, places of worship, gambling and vices, shopping centers, dining establishments and more.

The guide was recently revived by Northwestern University English Department lecturer Bill Savage and local writer and reenactment specialist Paul Durica. Savage was introduced to the text by a colleague at the Northwestern University Press where it was under consideration for reprinting. Savage enlisted Durica for his specialized knowledge on this Chicago time period.

The pair proceeded to do some digging. Due to its age, the guide was available in the public domain and a candidate for  republishing. To track down the guide’s author, they searched Library of Congress records to no avail. All that was listed was a name penciled in on the cover page, Harold Richard Vynne, a journalist and writer. “The publisher’s records no longer exist,” says Durica. “We have little information on how the book was put together.” The two reviewed the original text, making very few changes in order to preserve its style and tone. They wrote an introduction that explains the relevance of the text and their work. Any edits were “for the sake of clarity,” says Durica. “Alternate spellings of the same word, sometimes within the same chapter, have been retained. Everything else is original, including all of the photographs and illustrations.” Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus and Giroux” By Boris Kachka

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RECOMMENDED hothouse

Book publishing ain’t what it used to be.

In another era, before mergers and takeovers, before Kindles and e-books, publishing was known as the gentlemen’s profession. It was an industry where the staff took care of its most precious cargo—the authors. Perhaps no other New York publishing house better represents this world than Farrar, Straus and Giroux, among the most influential publishers of the modern era.

At its heart, though, “Hothouse” is the tale of two very different men. Boris Kachka, a regular contributor to New York magazine and other publications, tells the story of the august house through the perspective of two of its founders: Roger Straus and Robert Giroux. Both men were opposites. Straus, of German-Jewish heritage, was a paradoxical combination of charm and vulgarity. He was also a born entertainer—a showman with a preference for ascots, camel-hair coats and Mercedes convertibles. Giroux, on the other hand, was reserved and taciturn, a stoic presence who kept his feelings to himself except for the occasional outburst. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan

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RECOMMENDED zealot_cover

Atop the nonfiction bestseller list is not a celebrity drug or divorce memoir, but a biography of Jesus Christ written by Californian Reza Aslan. “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” portrays Jesus as an angry Jewish revolutionary. Attacked by Fox News and hyped by Random House, the book makes an old argument with the new hook that the author is a youngish “nominal Muslim” of Iranian descent with a University of California doctorate in the sociology of religion and an Iowa Writers’ Workshop MFA in fiction. The result is a well-researched page-turner placing Jesus in a corrupt Middle East, where the specific Jewish dynamics, the author claims, have been blurred by centuries of Christian hagiography.

Drawing on the historical Jesus scholarship promoted by Catholic University’s John Meier and DePaul University’s Dominic Crossan, Aslan argues the prophet was an illiterate revolutionary with a passion for the poor and hatred of the temple priests. Overturning the money changers’ tables thus makes the “prism through which his entire ministry must be read.” In the cauldron of Judaean politics, some of Jesus’ most famous sayings have been twisted to mean the opposite of what he did. “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,” is no law-abiding codex, but rather a rousing call to buck the empire. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Nightmare Alley: Film Noir and the American Dream” by Mark Osteen

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nightmarealley“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 »

Transition Game: Longtime Reader Editor Michael Lenehan on Race, Basketball and a Changing World

Author Profiles, History, Sports No Comments »

Rouse, Vic 63 winnerBy 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 »

This Is Not For You: James VanOsdol Documents Radio’s Q101 Era

Author Profiles, Chicago Authors, History No Comments »

Much has changed in Chicago radio in the past few years, especially with longtime alternative rock station Q101. Those who grew up listening to “Chicago’s New Rock Alternative” are no doubt familiar with James VanOsdol (known as a DJ by the moniker JVO). Now he has written a book on the experience, “We Appreciate Your Enthusiasm: The Oral History of Q101.” “When news of Q101′s sale came out, I decided that I wanted to document its history,” says VanOsdol. “Not so much because I felt it was important to immortalize the station, but more so because I wanted to tell a modern radio story, which is something I don’t think has been done before.”

VanOsdol began at Q101 in November 1993 when the station was first taking a chance with switching their format to alternative rock. He stuck with them, notably as host of “Local 101,” a segment dedicated to Chicago-made music. JVO became one of their trademark DJs until he left the airwaves for good in 2011, but he couldn’t completely put it all behind him. In the book he focuses on the inner-workings of the station. “The book is mostly about the culture of a radio station, and less about the popular culture it reflected,” says VanOsdol. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln” by Stephen L. Carter

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Instead of an East Room shrouded in black lace, instead of flocks of mourners lining the railroads, instead of imperishable verse from Walt Whitman, the novelist Stephen L. Carter presents Illinois’ most mythologized resident—a man whose leathery, careworn face we are most used to etched into marble or increasingly worthless zinc—slammed with criminal charges. Abraham Lincoln survives John Wilkes Booth’s bullet only to be set upon by Congress.

In his new book, straightforwardly entitled “ The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln,” Carter takes us back to 1867 and asks whether Lincoln’s conduct during the Civil War could have, sans martyrdom, been legally assailed by the same forces that came within a single vote of constitutionally kicking his successor Andrew Johnson to the curb.

In 2002, with the launch of his first foray into fiction, “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” Stephen L. Carter quickly became known as a rare sort of man who in addition to producing reams of writing in his capacity as a Yale Law Professor and national news columnist could also be counted upon to churn out urbane legal thrillers. But he is perhaps best recognized as a chronicler of upper-middle-class black America. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Ghost Milk: Recent Adventures Among the Future Ruins of London on the Eve of the Olympics” by Iain Sinclair

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When the decision came down that Chicago would not play host to the 2016 Olympics, the city was divided between relief and regret. Four years earlier, when London was announced as the chosen city for 2012, British author Iain Sinclair cursed under his breath and started writing “Ghost Milk.”

The author of numerous works of dense Londonian psychogeography, Sinclair is known almost as much for his baroque encyclopedic prose as he is for his almost singular devotion to the prose-poetic survey of London and its environs. “Ghost Milk,” its topical affiliation signaled on the cover with the icon of a blazing torch, is one of many books on the summer Olympics but likely to be the only one to preemptively eviscerate the event’s infrastructural devastation. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Sincerity” by R. Jay Magill, Jr.

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RECOMMENDED

After Wikipedia and its endless garden of forking hyperlinked paths, through which we can create our own DIY knowledge webs, why bother reading longform nonfiction at all? The usual answer is for the narrative itself—turning a database of information into a story created by one curatorial mind. That narrative “humanizes” the world of fact, to use a word that makes me cringe, is a deep cliché about nonfiction that also happens to be true.

But more than organizing and shedding light on the world, some nonfiction can also do what Wikipedia—and TED talks, and those “short introductions”—can’t: provide a comprehensive, carefully culled archaeology, Michel Foucault’s word for historical analysis of systems of thought that consider how intellectual terms come into being, how they engage the public imagination and how they are deployed in relationship to systems of power. Read the rest of this entry »