Fiction Review: “Grant Park” by Leonard Pitts, Jr.

Chicago Publishers, Fiction No Comments »


“Grant Park,” the third novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. centers around Malcolm Toussaint, a black newspaper columnist who has consciously decided to torpedo his career by sneaking a vehement screed into the newspaper on the day of the 2008 presidential election, announcing his exasperation with white America. Read the rest of this entry »

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

Book Reviews, Fiction, History No Comments »

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: “Money Well Spent?: The Truth Behind the Trillion-Dollar Stimulus, the Biggest Economic Recovery Plan in History” by Michael Grabell

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The ink of President Barack Obama’s pen was barely dry on the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act before the $787 billion stimulus package was already a political football. For many Democrats and economists like Paul Krugman, it was too little and nearly too late, but it was too much for Republicans who wanted to put the brakes on “big-government” spending, and who ever since have habitually inserted the words “job-killing” before any Democratic spending initiative. Thus the battle lines remain drawn.

Given the excessive rhetoric surrounding most discussions of the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the plan that was supposed to restore the American economy and plummeting employment, ProPublica reporter Michael Grabell’s evaluation in “Money Well Spent?” is as accessible and even-handed as we’re likely to see. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Culture of Opportunity: Obama’s Chicago by Rebecca Janowitz

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“Culture of Opportunity: Obama’s Chicago: The People, Politics, and Ideas of Hyde Park” could have been written without that middle phrase, a nod to the man that, as author Rebecca Janowitz points out, ninety-seven percent of Hyde Park residents voted for in 2008. But Janowitz decides to frame her narrative of a neighborhood she argues is exceptional and unique around Barack Obama, giving her history a plot arc and relevancy that makes her accessible to Obama fans at large.

Dedicated researchers willing to dig through dusty back issues of “Hyde Park Herald,” or even residents of the neighborhood with more than a passing interest in the area’s history and a couple years under their belt will find there’s not much new information, but that’s not Janowitz’s fault. As her title indicates, she’s interested in a different audience. She wants to share what’s instinctual to Hyde Parkers with the rest of the world: Barack Obama is, in part, a product of a community built on diversity and intellectualism, and the belief that these qualities are strengths, not weaknesses. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

The Future of Words: How Barack Obama’s Presidency Will Change Literature in America

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By John Freeman

Presidents and novelists are storytellers both, but it is a rare day in America when their narratives collide. It nearly happened in 1963, the year Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy hired (at the recommendation of William Styron) 37-year-old novelist Richard Yates as a speechwriter. The hard-drinking, chain-smoking author of “Revolutionary Road” did well in his first weeks, so well he was given a shot at drafting JFK’s first major civil rights speech.

Yates’ words may not be read verbatim, he was warned, but the President would use some. The night Kennedy was to deliver the speech, Yates tuned in to watch with friends. As Blake Bailey’s biography describes, “It was clear each line struck him with a fresh disappointment. At one point he suddenly came alive—‘There! I wrote that!’—but it was a false alarm, and when it was over Yates seemed embarrassed.”

For the past eight years, with George W. Bush at the podium, America’s novelists and poets and historians have at least been spared such false alarms. These were not their words. But they have experienced Yates’ embarrassment. Bush’s super-narrative of the US as a vengeful, all-powerful nation beyond treaties or conventions recycled the old tropes of a nation founded on frontier “justice,” and unleashed them upon the world. Backed by a multi-billion dollar publicity campaign, the so-called war on terror was like the worst kind of bestseller. It received endless newspaper coverage; its syntax was absorbed into speech; it marched across the globe like a Dan Brown novel in translation.

But will Obama’s election have some impact on literary culture? The bare-bone facts bode well. Obama does not just respect language: he is an accomplished writer. His two memoirs are remarkable for their craft and complexity. More importantly, Obama’s story—the biracial son of an immigrant raised partly in Indonesia, educated at Harvard, proposing social reform—will, briefly, but triumphantly, become the nation’s own. He could radically return the country’s narrative back to possibility and promise, and away from punishment and division.

“I’ve been thinking daily about the significance of an Obama presidency,” says Charles Johnson, author of the National Book Award-winning novel, “The Middle Passage.” “He will be the most powerful black person in human history.” He adds: “I think American writers… will want to join so many in the world as they celebrate a Camelot moment for the early twenty-first century, and pray he will succeed at addressing the staggering economic and international dilemmas he will inherit.”

If literary culture can be said to include the stories people tell one another about America, this blurring of private and public narratives—and the hullabaloo over this election—is not a new thing. “It is difficult to describe the place political concerns occupy in the life of an American,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1840. “To have a hand in the government of society, and to talk about it, is the most important business, and so to speak, the only pleasure an American knows.”

This has been doubly so since the Bush administration, often at the expense of fiction. Since the 2000 election, the fastest-growing areas of book sales have been politics and current affairs, tome after tome dissecting, praising, debunking and chronicling the Bush administration. Our political culture nearly became our literary culture.

Novelists from Paul Auster to Philip Roth and John Updike have hewed ever closer to the zeitgeist to capture a nation adrift. “The Plot Against America” brought Roth back onto bestseller lists, as did “Terrorist” for Updike. For many other novelists, especially those who have climbed into the cockpit of op-ed pieces and blog postings, breaking away from this watchful resistance to life under Bush will be a relief. “Many of us have expended a lot of energy on resisting Bush and his policies,” said Jane Smiley, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Ten Days in the Hills,” “and it has been exhausting, at least for me.”

George Saunders, the New Yorker magazine’s resident satirist of the tortured logic and language of right-wing triumphalism, hopes he can go back to dreaming in fiction. “I know it’s always more satisfying for me to write a story about completely invented people, who I kind of love, than to nail something or somebody in an essay. Only sometimes, like with the recent Palin piece… it just feels like it has to be said or my head will pop off.”

Two-time Booker winner and New York resident Peter Carey points out that these activities—dreaming up a better future for the nation and creating new works of art that can stand within and outside it—proceed from similar impulses. In the nearly two decades he has lived in America, he has noticed the country becoming ever more enthralled with statistical determinism. He comments that “you turn on the news and hear, ‘No one has ever won the Presidency who didn’t win Pennsylvania.’ That was then!” The fact is, he adds: “Ideally, what you want to do as an artist is to do something that’s never been done before. And so, if this comes to pass—this thing we shall not name—it’s going to be of enormous importance.”

Dave Eggers adds: “We’re about to elect a guy who pretty much arrived thirty or forty years sooner than most people expected. So maybe we’re being catapulted forward into the future in a way that our imaginations will need to catch up with.”

One can already feel Obama’s shoulders heaving. He has a host of issues to deal with immediately. “We have never seen a time like this,” Amy Tan writes, “an African-American president, republics crossing partisan borders like refugees, rampant racial hatred, contagious religious hatred, economic panic spreading like the bird flu pandemic that never arrived, not to mention so many possibilities vying for first in destroying the Earth.”

Obama is going to need more than a good story. Saunders believes now might be the time to bring novelists back into the fold. “Although a few old lions like Vidal and Vonnegut and Mailer had their [very valiant] say, generally artists were treated by the Bush administration like… Sub-jester treatment, I guess you could say. This was stupid and costly, because any novelist could have imagined the invasion of Iraq and the aftermath better than Bush, et al, did.”

Yet American writers are already worried America’s biggest problems go far deeper than any one candidate can fix. The gap between the rich and the poor, for instance, is greater than it’s ever been in the nation’s history, and it has often fallen to outsiders, like Booker Prize-winner Kiran Desai, or emigrants, like Junot Díaz, to point it out in the literary culture. “The horrific violence of our current economic system, which kills more people daily than our wars,” says Díaz, who won a Pulitzer for “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” “will not change one jot under an Obama administration. Right now these elections are all about who plays the music at the party. Doesn’t change the fact that there’s a massacre going on. No US election is going to change that. And any writer worth a damn might be in the party but what he’s really listening to, bearing witness to, in small ways, in elliptical ways or flat-out head on, is the violence and terror and inhumanity that reign beyond the party’s walls.”

Obama’s promise then holds out a golden bough to writers and the nation’s literary culture—language may be respected again at the highest level; writers might be brought back into the fold; our president may actually read E.L. Doctorow! It will be safe again, as Geraldine Brooks jokingly put it, to raise one’s head at an overseas literary festival as an American. But by breaking down barriers, Obama may highlight one that remains still standing—and writers, at least some of them, feel the call to return to the center of literary culture a certain questioning of America’s capitalist project, as was done during the stock market crash of the twentieth century, when John Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis and Katherine Anne Porter were publishing. “It has been a long idealist dream that someday society life on Earth would evolve in such a way that dissident writers and intellectuals would no longer have to be dissident,” wrote Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and publisher of City Lights, which fifty years ago last year published Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” one of the biggest critiques of American capitalism. “There are similarities between Obama and John Fitzgerald Kennedy, but they do not point to any real political or social revolution. JFK was not a revolutionary, and he would not have turned into one if he had lived.

“Obama too is no revolutionary, even if Abraham Lincoln is his role model. Unbridled capitalism has recently proved to lead to economic disaster, capitalist triumphs often being achieved at the expense of the poor. This leads to the conclusion that such a predatory system is an enemy of true democracy. We might very well have a Camelot Moment if Obama is elected, and we will certainly heave a huge sigh of relief to have someone in the not-so-White House who is an honest thinker and not a rogue President. But don’t expect global corporate capitalism to be morphed into some kind of benevolent system in which the gulfs between Haves and Have-nots no longer exists. There may be a Camelot Moment, but dissidents can only hope the new President will succeed in humanizing capitalism, if not taming, and thus might a Camelot Moment become a Camelot Epoch.”

Perhaps someone can get this 89-year-old poet a shot at writing speeches come January.

411: Way with Words

Lit Events, Readings No Comments »

How do you put your love for Barack Obama into words? At artist showcase and fundraiser Writers and Cartoonists for Obama, October 15 at the Chopin Theater, see and hear just how it’s done. All mediums, from song to print to cartoon, will offer a unique political message. The reception and signed-book silent auction will be followed by brief readings from each of the attending writers, which include Sara Paretsky, Stuart Dybek and more than fifteen others. “The readings will be political in the largest sense,” says organizer Sandi Wisenberg. Following the readings, there will be the viewing of the final Obama/McCain debate. All ticket sales ($60 at the door, $50 in advance) go to Obama for America, but those under the age of 25 will only have to pay their age to enter.

Tip of the Week: Christian Lander

Humor, Readings No Comments »

The immensely popular blog Stuff White People Like, created by LA-based writer Christian Lander, was spawned from a Internet-conversation he had with a friend about “The Wire.” Only a short time later Lander’s satiric site had thousands of hits, presumably attracting the liberal white people that Lander was so cleverly, and at times hysterically, dissecting. Read the rest of this entry »