The New Black: Scoop Jackson is still searching for the post-racial promised land

Book Reviews, Chicago Authors, News Etc., Nonfiction 1 Comment »

Illustration: Ray Noland/CRO

For white Americans, consciousness of race has tended to arrive without quite so much freight — as a discovery that there are distinctions, sure, but that white is the norm, the default mode for humanity.”
—James Bennett, editor, The Atlantic

The best story written once Barack Obama became president appeared in the January/February 2009 special “State of The Union” issue of The Atlantic. The same issue from where the words above originated. The cover of that issue said it all: “The End Of White America?”

What made it the best wasn’t necessarily what Hua Hsu wrote (although he did ink a helluva piece), but it was the actuality that he brought to the forefront—the true fear white America was privately having behind what was happening right in front of them. It was the anxiety that existed inside of America that had been covertly floating around everyone’s head prior to, during and after the campaign that was responsible for putting Obama in the one place no one ever thought an “articulate” (VP Joe Biden’s word), “light-skinned African-American with no Negro dialect” (Sen. Harry Reid’s words) would ever be.

Once that Pandora’s “black” box was opened, it was just a matter of time before everyone jumped in to write about the state the country was in concerning race now that there was a black man in the White (man’s) House. Or to just use “race” as the backdrop to tell their stories.

A literary epidemic. “We Ain’t What We Used To Be: The Black Freedom Struggle From Emancipation To Obama,” by Stephen Tuck. “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age of Colorblindness,” by Michelle Alexander. “I’m Down: A Memoir,” by Mishna Wolff. “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race In The Age of Obama,” by Gwen Ifill. “Between Barack and A Hard Place: Racism and White Denial In The Age of Obama,” by Tim Wise. “What Obama Means… for Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Future,” by Jabari Asim. Just to name several.

Now, two more books have entered the cipher. “Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion and Redemption” (Bantam), by Jerald Walker, and “Post Black: How A New Generation Is Redefining African-American Identity” (Lawrence Hill), by Ytasha Womack, both use race as the centerpiece to tell much bigger stories about their personal lives (and beliefs) and the existence of race in this country. Read the rest of this entry »

411: Power of Nine

Readings No Comments »

On November 5 Hyde Park’s 57th Street Books hosts a reading of literary and design journal Ninth Letter, a collaborative effort between Urbana-Champaign’s MFA Creative Writing Program and The School of Art & Design. Contributors include Seth Fried, whose work has appeared in McSweeney’s, and Chris Wiberg, previous assistant editor, who will each read their not-yet-published work appearing in the most recent issue of the award-winning journal. “I love to do live readings,” Wiberg says. “Writing can be such an isolated activity, so it’s a breath of fresh air to stand in a room and actually perform and connect with people.” “Attending a live reading is like viewing a play, almost,” says Jodee Stanley, editor of Ninth Letter. “It’s more of a community experience, unlike the solitary act of reading.”

Book Partying: With author tours waning, we get a read on the state of literary events in Chicago

Bookstores, Chicago Authors, Lit Events, News Etc. 3 Comments »

By Tom Lynchtable

Early Sunday evening and Logan Square’s hipster hotspot The Whistler is sprinkled with patrons, some sipping the bar’s unique summertime cocktails, others just a PBR, please. The Orange Alert Reading Series takes place here roughly every third Sunday of the month and tonight’s lineup consists of “How to Hold a Woman” author Billy Lombardo, plus Andrew Farkas, Tim Hall and West Virginian Scott McClanahan. Founder and emcee Jason Behrends takes to the stage and thanks the modest crowd for coming. “I know it’s hard to come out to a bar at six on a Sunday,” he admits into the microphone. A handful of uninterested drinkers respectfully head out to the patio as to not disrupt the reading with their conversation. For the next hour, the only sounds you can hear are the author’s expressive voices and the air conditioner kicking on and off. Even the bartenders mix the drinks quietly.

“I’m definitely optimistic about the landscape in general,” Behrends says of the current place of literary events in Chicago, a day later over the phone. Behrends began his Orange Alert venture in 2006 with a Web site, orangealert.net, featuring interviews with writers, musicians and artists, then launched Orange Alert Press in March of 2008. The reading series began last November. “There are a lot of reading series in town,” he says, “but even though there are ten or twelve that I know of, I felt that there still could be one more.” Read the rest of this entry »

Lit 50: Who really books in Chicago 2009

Bookstores, Chicago Authors, Lit 50, News Etc. 17 Comments »

dsc_2664cIs it wrong to feel optimistic? You couldn’t be blamed if you didn’t. Yet while the country’s economy crumbles around us and less and less funds are available for the producers of the printed word, those in the literary world are finding new and inventive ways to stay afloat. We will not go down without a fight, and progress, of course, is key. So is awareness—in order to get the word out more efficiently (and, likely, to untether itself from the uncertain future of the paper form), Printers Row Book Fair changed its name from “Book Fair” to “Lit Fest” to have a title that better fully represents the weekend’s events, in time for its twenty-fifth anniversary edition. As is our custom, we time our annual Lit 50 list to the weekend’s events; this year’s list of local behind-the-scenes literati—no straight-up authors or poets this time—covers a large spectrum of Chicago’s world of words. As with past years we sought out those behind the smaller presses as well as the monumental figures. Some new names have emerged and many staples appear again, but all tirelessly labor to bring this ancient art to the community at large. Read the rest of this entry »

Reading Preview: Greg Kot/57th Street Books

Chicago Authors, Nonfiction, Readings No Comments »

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Honestly, do you really need to hear once more that the music industry is, uh, changing? That much you already know. What you might not know is exactly how artists developed new ways to funnel their music to the public, how fans themselves became mouth-to-mouth (or file to file) distributors and live music has become even more essential in the marketplace. In essence, how boomboxes and CD players gave way to laptops and the Internet. Chicago Tribune music critic and co-host of “Sound Opinions” Greg Kot chronicles this progression in his new book, “Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music,” which hits shelves this week. To achieve a greater understanding of where exactly the music business is at the present-plus, with all probability, where it’s headed-Kot’s analysis can work as a textbook. Now if I could just figure out how to open this .rar file…(Tom Lynch)

Greg Kot discusses “Ripped” May 27 at 57th Street Books, 1301 East 57th, (773)684-1300, at 6pm. Free.

Reading Preview: S.L. Wisenberg/57th Street Books

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Adapting her blog to full-fledged book, local author S.L. Wisenberg transforms her illness memoir into a fiercely engaging and often very, very funny account of her battle with breast cancer. The title, “The Adventures of Cancer Bitch,” should be the first clue that Wisenberg wasn’t prepared to linger in an overly sentimental region and play to readers’ fears and Lifetime-movie expectations. She claimed “Bitch,” she writes, because “Babe was too young and Vixen was already taken.” Presented in a diary format, the piece is, at its core, a 160-page staring match Wisenberg has with herself. Doctors, diagnosis, medication, chemo, surgery—sure, it’s in there. The most devastating offerings aren’t found in the cold facts that are beaten into our bodies by health magazines and prescription-pill commercials, but rather under blog entries with titles like “How Not To Tell Your Class About Your Breast Cancer.” (Wisenberg, Jewish, deftly adapts the wit of Woody Allen as well.) But, like the best of the savage memoirs, it’s doused in hope, and as readers, we share a most important reward in the end: life. (Tom Lynch)

S.L. Wisenberg discusses “Adventures of Cancer Bitch” May 6 at 57th Street Books, 1301 East 57th, (773)684-1300, at 6pm. Free.

Reading Preview: Mary Pat Kelly/57th Street Books & Women and Children First

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An epic novel that documents one family’s emigration from Ireland to the United States during the great potato famine—Chicago, in fact—Mary Pat Kelly’s enormous epic “Galway Bay” paints a picture of the nineteenth-century Irish-American experience with thrilling, if a little overwhelming, results. Let’s face it, though—there was no way this book could’ve been short. Gritty, though not as gritty as “Angela’s Ashes, ” and romantic, though not in an abysmal “Far and Away” way, Kelly weaves her plot with historical intricacies and brilliant observations that could only come from an authority on the subject. Spanning six generations, Kelly’s most impressive feat is her ability to naturally allow space for the passage of time. A former nun, Kelly’s an award-winning documentary filmmaker and former producer on “Good Morning America” and “Saturday Night Live,” plus has a PhD in Irish literature. “Galway Bay” is a meaty novel, rich with color and hope. (Tom Lynch)

Mary Pat Kelly discusses “Galway Bay” March 9 at 57th Street Books, 1301 East 57th, (773)684-1300, and March 11 at Women and Children First, 5233 North Clark, (773)769-9299, 7:30pm. Both events are free.

A New Kind of Body Farm: Mary Roach shifts from death to sex

Author Profiles, Nonfiction, Readings No Comments »

By Tom Lynch

Mary Roach’s 2003 book, “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Cadavers,” left an unexpected mark on me, a recurring creep-out I have, midday, at least once a week. “Stiff” is a sweetly ghoulish, wildly interesting study of death and decomposition, but in one chapter, the author visits a University of Tennessee “Body Farm,” where doctors study expired human bodies in different stages of disintegration in a heavily guarded outdoor field, which Roach essentially describes as a large open plain littered with, you guessed it, the dead. The imagery startles, and one could imagine the horrific smell, and Roach describes having to destroy her clothes after her visit, most memorably her shoes, after she steps in some sort of puddle. For me personally, there hasn’t been a more memorable chapter of nonfiction since.

After “Stiff”’s success, Roach followed with “Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife,” an honest attempt at studying the likelihood that a soul exists (and other things), again finding the odd little corners of obsessive study in which to focus. The subject matter seemed like a natural progression, but, while charmingly written in Roach’s precise, witty style, it lacked the color of her debut, and as a result didn’t perform as well.

What could Roach tackle next? What subject would surely grab readers’ attention? Well, sex, of course.

“Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex,” finds Roach immediately declaring, in the “Foreplay,” that she’s obsessed with her research (though not particularly any specific subject), yet worried that what’s to follow will “mortify” her stepdaughters. In her new investigation, Roach dives headfirst into the study of sexual physiology, sex in a lab, as it were, and the remarkable, inquisitive doctors she finds along the way. She visits Dr. Geng-Long Hsu of Taiwan, a foremost expert on erectile dysfunction who practices his craft on “leftover” male parts he exhumes from hospitals. She finds herself at a sex-toy workshop in San Francisco, a wine-and-cheese party that also happens to display new inventions for sexual pleasure (an elderly woman indulges in some kind of chair. “That sex-machine party was just a wonderful little chunk of San Francisco nightlife,” Roach says.) Roach even has intercourse with her husband, in a lab, for the sake of coital imaging, which, as the chapter’s title implies, is a method of attempting to understand “what’s going on in there.” “You can ejaculate now,” Dr. Deng usefully informs her partner.

While there are limited pop nonfiction books about cadavers, there roughly ten billion about sex, so Roach had the challenge to make “Bonk” unlike any other.

“They all have their own unique challenges,” Roach says of her books’ subject matters, “but this was possibly the most challenging. I think I would have thought about this more [before I really started]. I would’ve called people up, sent emails. When someone studies the physiology of sexual response at a lab, either the subject’s having sex or masturbating, and either way they don’t want anyone in the room. It’s a difficult way to report, being outside of the room, being like, ‘Ok, I pretty much know what’s going on in the room.’ So that was a challenge. With ‘Stiff,’ of course, the subjects were dead, and the people were less concerned with how they felt.”

After years of jetting around the globe studying the dead, death itself and, now, sex and all of its facets, it would be safe to assume nothing shocks Roach anymore. “No, nothing does,” she says. “Nothing really did in either book. It’s a function of me being emotionally sturdy. I think that, when all these things are new to people, you assume people would respond in a certain way, be shocked or revolted, but people really underestimate their ability to walk into a room with sex machines, or a cadaver, and be like, ‘Oh, OK. I’m in a room with a cadaver. This is my reality for the next hour.’”

Her sex-researchers angle was the sharpest way to keep a sex book fresh. “It was very important,” she says, “[having] something fresh always is. Subject areas are so broad, and this was not the case where no one’s written about what I’m writing about. But the angle hasn’t been covered, pretty much no one has done a sex-researchers book. There are books by researchers themselves, but that’s different. There’s a history of sex, a lot of [books on] the evolutionary biology of the penis, the orgasm, a whole book on vaginas—lots of books relate to science and sex, but researchers haven’t been covered, other than Kinsey.”

She concurs that her books’ topics could make some people uncomfortable, but then offers that “They’re interesting topics to everyone. I guess I’m not easily made uncomfortable.” She pauses. “Sex and death. Now that you mention it, yeah… People pigeonholed me as a death writer after ‘Stiff’ and ‘Spook.’ Now they have to re-pigeonhole me. I don’t know what that pigeonhole is. I don’t want to.”

Mary Roach discusses “Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex” April 24 at 57th Street Books, 1301 East 57th, (773)684-1300, at 6pm. Free.

Academic All American: The Seminary Co-op stands alone

Bookstores No Comments »

The Seminary Co-op Bookstore sits at the bottom of a set of gray stairs, polished to sheen from years of wear, in the basement of the Chicago Theological Seminary across the street from the main quadrangles of the University of Chicago in Hyde Park. It unfolds in a series of differently shaped passageways, the ceiling crisscrossed with pipes and ducts and the concrete floor sounding with the muffled footsteps of sneaker-clad patrons. Sitting on the wooden shelves, like artifacts in the wall recesses of a catacomb, is the largest collection of academic titles in the United States. “I don’t think there’s a question [that we carry the most academic titles in the country]. We’re the largest single customer for a lot of university presses,” explains Jack Cella, the closest thing to a general manager for the consumer-owned Co-op and its sister store 57th Street Books, in another basement three blocks away from the seminary. Read the rest of this entry »