Nonfiction Review: “Slaughterhouse: Chicago’s Union Stock Yard and the World It Made” by Dominic A. Pacyga

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“Roses are red, violets are blue, the stockyards stink and so do you!” begins Dominic Pacyga’s account of Chicago’s Union Stock Yard. At the stockyard’s zenith, fifty-thousand people were employed there and in the adjacent Packingtown just south of Bridgeport. Pacyga, a historian whose Polish grandparents lived in Back of the Yards and worked in the meatpacking industry, weaves together a deft social, ethnic, business and labor history and story of the place. “The Stockyards were Chicago,” he says.

The Union Stock Yard represented modern capitalism and the industrial factory system applied to food for the first time. Companies such as Swift and Armour centralized and unified meat markets in the nation. Previously it took almost a day to butcher a steer, but Chicago’s packinghouses took only thirty-five minutes. The spectacle of killing and processing thousands of animals each day drew 50,000 tourists each year, from around the United States and around the world. Politicians included it on their campaign trails. Rudyard Kipling wrote, “They were so excessively alive, these pigs. And then they were so excessively dead, and the man in the dripping, clammy, hot passage did not seem to care.” Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “A City Called Heaven, Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music” by Robert Marovich

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a city called heavenRECOMMENDED

“A City Called Heaven, Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music,” is a thoroughly researched, dynamic account of gospel music’s history in Chicago over five decades, from the 1920s through the 1960s. Written by music historian Robert Marovich, it provides in-depth biographies of gospel music’s artists, and a riveting narrative of the two great waves of African-American migration north from the Deep South that gave birth to gospel in Chicago.

Gospel music eventually broke the lock that traditional European music had on Chicago’s black establishment churches, and Marovich, founder and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Gospel Music, and host of “Gospel Memories” on Chicago’s WLUW-FM, calls gospel music an “artistic response to the Great Migration…the gospel music community provided the catharsis and affirmation they needed to feel less like strangers in a strange land.” Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948 by Noah Berlatsky

Chicago Authors, Comics/Graphic Novels/Cartoonists, Essays, History No Comments »

wonder womanRECOMMENDED

The reason I know a smidgen about comics: I hang out with a lot of geeks. Feminist, sex-positive, queer-friendly geeks. They told me the backstory of Wonder Woman’s creator, William Marston, radical psychologist and happy polyamorist. Jill Lepore explored Marston’s home life in “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” but Chicago-based culture and comics writer Noah Berlatsky took a deep dive into the marriage of psychology and artwork that is Marston’s enduring pop culture impact.

Even comics skeptics find Wonder Woman unique and titillating. As Berlatsky rightly points out, she’s been a feminist icon for decades, and among certain circles, a kinky queer one. (Lasso of truth? Ladies-only island? Hmm…) Berlatsky illuminates how Wonder Woman—of World War II inception—nods at that era’s values yet still espoused female superiority and pacifism, slyly winked at lesbianism and even may have stood traditional rape and incest narratives on its head. He also focuses appropriately on the artist, Harry Peter, as well as Marston, and shows how even Peter’s idiosyncratic perspective and anatomy bolster the argument that the series was ahead of its time. Read the rest of this entry »

Reformer on Reformer: Leigh Buchanan Bienen Documents the Legacy of Crusader Florence Kelley

Chicago Authors, History, Memoir, Nonfiction No Comments »

Leigh Bienen 08-16-12

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 »

The Right to Control Our Bodies: Jonathan Eig discusses “The Birth of The Pill”

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Jonathan Eig/Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

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 »

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 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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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

Book Reviews, History, Nonfiction No Comments »

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

Book Reviews, History, Nonfiction No Comments »

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 »