411: The Legends of Chicago Lit

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In a way, all art is site-specific. And a writer’s site, whether it be hometown, adopted home, or holiday retreat, speaks loudly, however subtly expressed, in his works. Tonight, Chicago will honor its literary masters as the Chicago Writers Association inducts its inaugural class to the city’s own Literary Hall of Fame.

“When you tell people about a literary event, most think it will be like watching the book channel,” says Donald Evans, the Hall’s executive producer and Chicago author. “That’s the blessing and the curse of being a writer. How many people would recognize Stephen King walking down Michigan Avenue?”

The 2010 inductees—Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorraine Hansberry, Studs Terkel and Richard Wright—will be represented by dozens of their family members, who will accept their writer relatives’ posthumous awards, at tonight’s event at Northeastern Illinois University.

After establishing the Hall of Fame in the spring of 2009, board members assembled a nominating committee that seeded through decades of Chicago-related literature to settle on twenty-seven candidates. A separate selection committee whittled the list down to six. Read the rest of this entry »

The Bomb Dropper: Kevin Coval’s unlikely journey from popular suburban jock to iconoclastic def poet

Author Profiles, Chicago Authors, Poetry 2 Comments »

Photo: Colleeen Durkin/colleendurkin.com

By Michael Volpe

When Kevin Coval and I attended Glenbrook North in the early 1990s, two cars were exceedingly popular among students: the Chevy Blazer SUV and the Toyota Celica. In fact, a license plate on one of those shiny red Celicas back then summed up life at high school in Northbrook pretty well: “THNKUDAD.” Though alumni of Glenbrook North include late filmmaker John Hughes, former Cub Scott Sanderson and former WFLD reporter Lilia Chacon, most graduates wind up in a boardroom or courtroom or on a trading floor.

Nobody expected Kevin Coval to end up on stage, especially as a hip-hop artist. After all, hip-hop was born and bred in the inner city, where violence, poverty and misery created a tempestuous story line for many of its most successful artists. The closest thing to violence in Northbrook usually happened on the straightaway from that infamous scene in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” when Matthew Broderick, pretending to be his girlfriend Sloane’s dad, picks her up in his friend Cameron’s dad’s car. At GBN, as the natives call it, all the light poles are on the right side of the street except one. As the straightaway turns into a curve, though, there’s one pole on the left. Those slick Blazers and Celicas that got going too fast on the straightaway used to crash into the pole as they cruised around the curve, back when it was on the right side of the street. If things really got crazy in Northbrook, teenagers might find a fake ID, get some beer, and head to Gilson Beach to cause havoc. Not exactly thug life. In Northbrook, there aren’t many drive-bys—only drive-thrus. Coval says he was first inspired by hip-hop in the early 1980s. I like to think there was some inspiration from the Business Administration class we all had to take to graduate from GBN. After all, that’s where we learned the value of cornering a niche. Being a white Jewish kid from the uber-wealthy North Shore of Chicago obsessed with hip-hop is a niche of one.
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Lit 50: Who really books in Chicago 2010

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Illustration: Pamela Wishbow

A strange and unpleasant wind blows through the literary land. Our obsession with technocultural toys, whether iPhones, iPads or Kindles, makes the foundation of thought almost since thought was recorded, that is ink on paper, seem increasingly destined to be twittered into obsolescence. And it’s not just mere media frenzy, either. Massive upheaval among major publishers these last few years has left some of Chicago’s finest writers stranded in a strange land: that is, the work is finished, but no one is around to put it out. Who knows, maybe in two years when this version of Lit 50 returns, some, if not all, of our authors will be publishing mostly, if not entirely, in the digital realm. If that’s the case, let’s enjoy an old-fashioned book or two while we can. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: Last Words of the Executed

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RECOMMENDED

Bartlett’s quotations, this is not. Neither is it an exhaustive data set, a polemic on capital punishment or a true crime thriller. In his forward to the text, Studs Terkel likens it to poetry; the book jacket calls it a “moving testament from the darkest corners of society.” What Robert K. Elder’s “Last Words of the Executed” is, for sure, is fascinating. True to its title, the book is a collection of final statements by death row prisoners. After each quotation, Elder, a former staff writer for the Chicago Tribune, presents a lean brief of the crime, along with any essential details of the trial and the ultimate execution. He’s committed to neutrality here—just the facts, ma’am—to avoid “rubbernecking,” and successfully keeps the spotlight on the last words of the convicted without erring into self-righteous coyness.

First subdivided by method of execution (noose, firing squad, electric chair, gas chamber and lethal injection), and then sequenced chronologically, the anecdotes span from colonial America to the present, covering cases made famous by history textbooks and Hollywood, and cases long faded from collective memory. Taken together, writes Elder, “this is the history of capital punishment in America told from the gallows, the chair, and the gurney.” It is, but it’s an impressionistic history. The book isn’t set up for us to draw definitive conclusions about the way the death penalty functions, now or then, and indeed Elder is less interested in argument than in the evidence itself. Read the rest of this entry »

Fall Forward Literature: Granta’s Chicago Issue, Richard Powers and more

Chicago Authors, Comics/Graphic Novels/Cartoonists, Fiction, News Etc., Nonfiction 1 Comment »

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Granta, the literary magazine founded by Cambridge University students in 1889, has a long and storied history of publishing political material as well as the work of several writers. It was relaunched in 1979 as a platform for new writers, and reworked again in 2007 with new editor Jason Cowley. Alex Clark, the magazine’s first female editor, took over for Cowley after he left, and when Smith stepped down, the magazine’s American editor, John Freeman, a frequent Newcity contributor, took her position.

Granta’s fall issue, number 108, is Chicago-themed, and the marvelous collection features entries from Aleksandar Hemon, Alex Kotlowitz, Neil Steinberg, Richard Powers, Sandra Cisneros, Stuart Dybek and more. Don DeLillo offers a brief introductory essay to a Nelson Algren piece, and Chris Ware did the issue’s cover. A photo essay by Camilo Jose Vergara is included and provides an intermission to the text. This collection serves as a packaged insight into what Chicago means—how it feels to live here, be from here, exist within a city sometimes difficult to love yet impossible to resist. I chatted with Freeman over email to get some of his thoughts on the upcoming issue. Read the rest of this entry »

Printers Row Lit Fest: Highlights

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Dave Eggers [pictured] will be one of the first authors of the day, discussing his book “What Is the What” at the Harold Washington Library Center at 10am…Thomas O’Gorman will moderate a discussion with authors Frank Delaney, Mike Houlihan and Mary Pat Kelly at 10:30am at the Hotel Blake Burnham Room…Kim Bob, author of “Wage Theft in America” and Jon Jeter will hold a discussion moderated by Thomas Geoghegan at the University Center Lake Room…in the same location at noon C. Todd White, author of “Pre-Gay LA” and Karen Graves, author of “And They Were Wonderful Teachers” will discuss their works with Brian Bouldrey…at 1pm Newcity’s Tom Lynch will hold a discussion with Gerald Gems and Steven Riess, co-editors of “The Chicago Sports Reader,” in the Hotel Blake Burnham Room…Elizabeth Taylor will speak with Aleksandar Hemon and Joseph O’Neill at 2:30pm at the Harold Washington Library Center Read the rest of this entry »

The Ninth Man Out: As baseball begins again, Nelson Algren turns 100

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"Our Joe" by Tony Fitzpatrick

Tony Fitzpatrick, "Our Joe"

Editor’s Note: Nelson Algren was born 100 years ago this very day, on March 28, 1909

By Jeff McMahon

This is the story of the broken heart of a man, the rusty heart of a city, and how they got all tangled up as one. Like a lot of us, he learned hope and heartbreak first from a baseball team, then from bruising bouts with love, then from the city in which he lived, but unlike a lot of us, he never learned to play along, never stopped seeing the way things are contrasted against the way things ought to be, never stopped championing the nobodies nobody knows—for there, he wrote, beats Chicago’s heart. He followed his own beat straight to the place where pride will lead you every time—to poverty and exile—while describing Chicago as no one had since Carl Sandburg and as no one has again. And save for the devotion of a peculiar few, the City of Big Shoulders shrugged him off. Read the rest of this entry »

Reading Preview: Story Week 2009

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One of the city’s top literary events of the year, Columbia College’s Story Week begins on Sunday, and as usual features the best of the bunch-students and faculty-of the school, plus some high-profile outsiders, at various events scattered throughout the city. This week kicks off with the “2nd Story: Storytellers” event at Martyrs’ on Sunday night, featuring readings by CP Chang, Molly Each, Deb R. Lewis and Doug Whippo. Saturday features a Q&A with “Blue Angel” author Francine Prose at the Harold Washington Library, plus a reading at Sheffield’s Beer Garden by local crime guy Marcus Sakey. The Nelson Algren Tribute, Tuesday at the Harold Washington, features appearances by Joe Meno, Billy Lombardo, Stephanie Kuehnert, Bayo Ojikutu and J. Adams Oaks. On Wednesday at the Spertus Museum, Rick Kogan discusses Studs Terkel in a tribute to the man, with Donna Seaman, Bill Young, Alex Kotlowitz, Don De Grazia, Drew Ferguson and Ann Hemenway. And that’s just the first half of the festival. (Tom Lynch)

Story Week 2009 runs March 15-20 at various venues. Visit colum.edu/storyweek for complete details.

Printers Row Book Fair Highlights 2008

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The annual Printers Row Book Fair offers a its usual plethora of must-see readings, panel discussions and presentations, not to mention all those book for sale. Here’s a rundown of some highlights—for the full schedule visit printersrowbookfair.org.
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Lit 50: Who Really Books in Chicago 2008

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Chicago’s book world can be a quiet place. In part due to the solitary nature of the work, and in part due to the void of publishing parties that keep New York’s assorted gawkers journaling away, it’s easy to think nothing new is happening. Jeffrey Eugenides moves to town, Jeffrey Eugenides moves away, and no one seems to notice. Then, bam!, Aleksandar Hemon publishes “The Lazarus Project,” the comparisons to Nabokov resume and suddenly we’re the center of the universe again, if only for a moment.
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