“Terrified as the mindless are terrified.”

A previously unknown interview of James Baldwin, in which he relates a Black voter registration drive in Selma, Alabama, in 1963.

They sounded like parrots. It was the only phrase they ever used: “Move along—you’re blocking the sidewalk.” And also, I must say, when I finally looked into their faces, they were terrified. With their guns and their helmets. And terrified in a very strange way. Terrified as the mindless are terrified. Because the only way they could react to any pressure was a rock or bullet or gun. They don’t have any other defenses at all! This is the police force the Southern oligarchy has used and created to protect their interests.

Terrified, because the officers, and the white establishment of the American South, knew their position was illegitimate and could not be morally defended.

September 27, 2020 in Books, Current Affairs, History | Permalink | Comments (0)

D is for Dybek

Inspired by Stuck In a Book, I am continuing this occasional series, in which I will discuss favorite authors, alphabetically. The latest is Stuart Dybek.

How many books do I have by Dybek?
Four, all of them short story collections: The Coast of Chicago, Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, I Sailed with Magellan, and Paper Lantern: Love Stories. 

How many of these have I read?
All of them. The only Dybek books I haven't read (none of which I own) are the story collection Ecstatic Cahoots, and the poetry collections Streets in Their Own Ink and Brass Knuckles.

How did I start reading Dybek?
Being a Chicagoan, I've always heard a lot of praise for Dybek, starting back in the 1990s. I was browsing the shelves at a Barbara's Bookstore somewhere in the city during the early 1990s and came across The Coast of Chicago, bought it, and was grabbed right away by "Mozart in Winter", a sadly beautiful story about the brief bond that develops between a young boy and his emotionally distant grandfather as they listen together to a neighbor in the next apartment who is practicing Mozart sonatas on the piano.

General impressions...
Dybek's stories are wistful and warm-hearted, even as he's describing the gritty Southwest Side neighborhood where he grew up. I was lucky enough to meet Dybek at a talk he did last year at the Cliff Dwellers Club with historian Dominic Pacyga, on the subject of Polish Chicago. I brought my hardcover copy of The Coast of Chicago for him to sign, and only just beforehand discovered that it was a first edition - so now, without intentionally setting out to do so, I now own a signed first edition of Dybek's best book. And as much as I love Dybek's stories, I wish he'd try his hand at a novel. When I first read I Sailed with Magellan, I remember thinking that I'd love to read an entire novel built around Lefty, the trumpet-playing uncle of Dybek's fictional alter ego, Perry Katzek. I don't think I mentioned this to Dybek when I met him; I actually hope I didn't. Too many short story writers, even great ones like Dybek, already have to endure the "So, when are you going to write a novel?" question, without me piling on.

If you've never read Dybek, you should start with...
The Coast of Chicago, and "Mozart in Winter" in particular.

If I had to get rid of one Dybek book, it would be...
I don't really want to get rid of any of them, but if pressed, I guess I would let Childhood and Other Neighborhoods go. Though I enjoyed the book, I really don't remember much about it. The Coast of Chicago and I Sailed With Magellan are very vivid in my mind, and just seem more essential to me.

Other "D" candidates:
Roald Dahl, Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle.

September 15, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Summer of Classics...and beyond...

This year's Summer of Classics - classic Black American literature, mostly fiction - has morphed into a most-of-the-year project.

I didn't really have a plan for this summer's reading, but after George Floyd's killing in Minneapolis in May, I was drawn to Richard Wright's Eight Men: Short Stories, which I've had on my shelf for several years without ever getting around to it. Part of my hesitation was due to my second reading of Native Son, which had left me pretty underwhelmed. Ultimately, I found Eight Men to be an uneven collection (both gems and duds), but it turned out to be the inspiration for my summer - and beyond - of reading.

Next it was re-readings of James Baldwin's debut novel, Go Tell It On the Mountain, and Wright's book-length essay 12 Million Black Voices. Both good reads, though admittedly a stopgap to hold me over until a shipment of new books could arrive from Open Books: Passing by Nella Larsen, If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester Himes, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, and The Wedding by Dorothy West. Quick thoughts on each:

Passing: Seemed like more of a sociological study than fiction. Interesting ideas, but I don't think it worked as a novel.

If He Hollers Let Him Go: A thrilling, visceral story of a young Black defense industry worker in Los Angeles during World War II. Kind of noir, kind of proletarian fiction. Himes went on to become a successful crime novelist, and you can definitely see elements of that genre in this, his debut novel.

A Raisin in the Sun: A brilliant depiction of working-class Black family life, with all of its (not quite soaring) dreams and bitter realities. Probably the first important stage play written by a Black author.

The Wedding: Dorothy West was the last survivor of the Harlem Renaissance, but despite living to the advanced age of 91, she published only two novels: The Living Is Easy (1948) and The Wedding (1995). I opted for the latter, since the description suggested it was a tighter narrative than the former, but even at that, I found the book to be a multi-generational family sprawl that was almost all backstory. Trouble is, although that backstory could have been a great buildup to the current-day climax, the conclusion was a real letdown (plot spoiler: the wedding promised by the title was never actually depicted!) and included an eye-rolling scene of melodramatic tragedy.

All four books were relatively short, and after I had finished them it was still mid-August, so I gladly dove back into Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, for the fifth or sixth time. (I first read it during my early twenties; the inside cover of my copy has the stamp of the long-defunct The Book Rack, in Fox River Grove.) I'm thoroughly enjoying the book all over again, though I must sheepishly admit that I had forgotten many of the scenes, and I honestly don't remember how it all ends - which I guess might be like reading it for the first time, all over again.

But Invisible Man is both long and densely-written, and the reading hasn't gone briskly, so now I'm well into September with another week or two needed to finish the book. So I'm going to extend my summer through the end of the year, and read nothing but Black literature for the rest of 2020. I already have another Open Books purchase lined up, with novels by Sam Selvon (The Lonely Londoners), Caryl Phillips (Across the River) and Teju Cole (Every Day Is For the Thief) plus, once again, Ralph Ellison (the essay collection Shadow and Act). Maybe work some Zora Neale Hurston in there, too. I definitely haven’t read enough of her. 

September 10, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“You mean graft?”

In Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, Walter Lee Younger wants to buy a liquor store with the money from his late father's life insurance policy.

Walter: Yeah. You see, this little liquor store we got in mind cost seventy-five thousand and we figured the initial investment on the place be 'bout thirty thousand, see. That be ten thousand each. Course, there's a couple hundred you got to pay so's you don't spend your life just waiting for them clowns to let your license get approved--

Ruth: You mean graft?

Walter (frowning impatiently): Don't call it that. See there, that just goes to show you what women understand about the world. Baby, don't nothing happen for you in this world 'less you pay somebody off!

Spoken like a true Chicago realist! Marvelous play. I'm thoroughly enjoying it. After I finish, I'll be watching the 1989 American Playhouse production from PBS, starring Danny Glover as Walter Lee and Esther Rolle as Mama Younger, which is up on YouTube.

July 27, 2020 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

C is for Costello

Inspired by Stuck In a Book, I am continuing this occasional series, in which I will discuss favorite authors, alphabetically. The latest is Mark Costello.

How many books do I have by Costello?
One: The Murphy Stories (1973). That might not sound like much, but he's only published two books, so I'm very close to being a Costello completist.

How many of these have I read?
One. His other book, Middle Murphy, is high on my list. The last time I was buying something else from University of Illinois Press, the book wasn't available, and I was afraid it had gone out of print. But I was on the UIP site again recently, I saw it there, so it's still in my future.

How did I start reading Costello?
Costello was a long-time professor at U of I, where I went for both undergrad and grad school. Though I never met him in person, I did see him give an on-campus reading of one of his stories. It's not the kind of event I was ever interested in back then, but I was taking a creative writing class at the time, and my professor Dan Curley (Costello's colleague and fellow writer) compelled our entire class to attend. (If Curley did so because he was worried about there not being a crowd for the event, he shouldn't have been; the room was packed.) Costello read a very funny story that isn't in The Murphy Stories, so I assume it must be in Middle Murphy. I must have found my copy of The Murphy Stories in a used book store, sometime this century, but don't remember where.

General impressions...
Though I've read only the one Costello book, fewer than several other "C" authors (see below), I really felt the need to champion him here. Though highly regarded by his peers (very much a writer's writer), he seems to have fallen into deep obscurity, and unjustly so. The Murphy Stories is really good - a sharp collection of sometimes devastating stories that I suspect are at least autobiographical in origin. I wonder if these stories were things he needed to get off his chest, and having done so, the drive to write more faded for him after the second book. 

If you've never read Costello, then you should start with...
The Murphy Stories, obviously.

If I had to get rid of one Costello book, it would be...
Well, The Murphy Stories is the only one I own, and I'm certainly not getting rid of it. So the answer is "none."

Other "C" candidates:
Willa Cather, Raymond Chandler, Giano Cromley.

July 19, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

B is for Burton

Inspired by Stuck In a Book, I am continuing this occasional series, in which I will discuss favorite authors, alphabetically. The latest is Virginia Lee Burton.

How many books do I have by Burton?
Four: Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel, The Little House, Katy and the Big Snow, and Maybelle the Cable Car. I have Mike Mulligan twice: first in a single hardcover edition from my childhood, and second in Mike Mulligan and More: A Virginia Lee Burton Treasury, which collects these four books into a single volume. The latter was a gift to my daughter Maddie, from my parents.

How many of these have I read?
All of them, too many times to count. Maddie loved the Burton treasury, which was a regular staple of our bedtime reading when she was young. Burton wrote three other books that I haven't read: Choo Choo, Life Story and Calico the Wonder Horse. Maybe I'll find those last three by the time I have grandkids.

How did I start reading Burton?
Someone from my family started reading me Mike Mulligan at a very young age, and once I was able to read on my own, I kept re-reading the book. Oddly enough, despite loving that book so much, I never read (or was even aware of) any other Burton books until I started reading the treasury to Maddie. And as it turns out, I love The Little House almost as much as Mike Mulligan.

General impressions...
Mike Mulligan was my favorite book from my childhood, a warm, wistful and quietly thrilling story about a steam shovel operator and his anthropomorphized steam shovel, "Mary Anne." The themes of the four books are similar: all have an aging, anthropomorphized character (steam shovel, house, snow plow, cable car) that faces obsolescence and retirement from modern society, but who in the end proves to still have importance and something to give. It's not surprising how popular these books have been through the years; they're simple, wonderful stories for kids, and the parents and especially grandparents who read the books to kids might identify with Mary Anne, Katy and the little house as they face the retirement and twilight of their own lives.

If you've never read Burton, then you should start with...
Mike Mulligan, with The Little House right after.

If I had to get rid of one Burton book, it would be...
I would never get rid of any of them. Mike Mulligan will always have a cherished place on my bookshelf, and if for some inexplicable reason Maddie ever tries to get rid of the treasury during a periodic clutter-purge, I will grab it for myself.

July 12, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

A Is For Algren

Inspired by Stuck In a Book, I am starting this occasional new series, in which I will discuss favorite authors, alphabetically. The first, appropriately, is Nelson Algren, my very favorite.

How many books do I have by Algren?
Ten: Somebody in Boots, Never Come Morning, The Neon Wilderness, The Man With the Golden Arm, Chicago: City on the Make, A Walk On the Wild Side (actually in a three-book Algren volume put out by the Quality Paperback Book Club in the 1990s), Who Lost an American?, Conversations With Nelson Algren, The Last Carousel, and Nonconformity. Plus Bettina Drew's biography, Nelson Algren: A Life On the Wild Side (I haven't read either of the biographies by Mary Wisniewski or Colin Asher.)

How many of these have I read?
All of them. The only Algren books I haven't read are Notes From a Sea Diary, The Devil's Stocking, and Entrapment (plus a few other minor posthumous volumes). I don't really regret any of my omissions. I've browsed The Devil's Stocking (his posthumously-published novelization of the Hurricane Carter case) but the prose didn't grab me at all, and I've read the title story of Entrapment without being overwhelmed enough to buy the book during the few times I've seen it in stores.

How did I start reading Algren?
I first heard about Algren from a newspaper column by Mike Royko (another of my favorites - if this series survives long enough for me to reach the letter R, he will definitely be profiled here), who exuberantly praised The Neon Wilderness. I found a first edition of The Man With the Golden Arm a few years later for the ridiculous price of $7.50 (yes, this was way back in the ancient 1980s, but even then it was a great price), read it, and was hooked. I've read Golden Arm four or five times, and several of the others multiple times. Besides the brilliance of his early books, I was also drawn in by his reputation as a great Chicago writer; I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and lived in the city for five or six years, and both of my parents grew up in the city, so Chicago has endlessly fascinated me.

General impressions...
I think Algren could have been one of the greatest writers America has ever produced, but to me he instead holds the dubious distinction of America's most squandered literary talent. The second through fifth books noted above are nothing short of brilliant: gritty yet beautiful, angry yet thoughtful, brutal yet funny; he was the first recipient of the National Book Award, in 1950, for Golden Arm. But after City On the Make, for a variety of artistic and personal reasons, his career went sharply downhill for the last thirty years of his life. His first book during the downhill, A Walk on the Wild Side (1956), is actually one of his better-known books (or at least the title is well known, thanks to Lou Reed, one of his admirers) but made little impression on me. (And I was even less impressed years later, when I read somewhere that Wild Side was basically a rewrite of his first book, Somebody In Boots - which was pretty bad - that was instigated by his publisher, looking for a big payday.) The Last Carousel had some good moments, including a couple of horseracing short stories which suggest that Algren still had a good horseracing novel in him during the late 1950s and early 1960s had he bothered to put in the work.

If you've never read Algren, then you should start with...
The Man With the Golden Arm. Followed by City On the Make, The Neon Wilderness and Never Come Morning.

If I had to get rid of one Algren book, it would be...
The three-book QPB volume, since I already own Golden Arm and The Neon Wilderness (the other books collected there), and won't ever read Wild Side again.

July 2, 2020 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...with no tingle of imminent reopening.”

Alan Hollinghurst, on driving through London for the first time since the virus lockdown:

“It was the townscape of five in the morning, but stilled further, with no tingle of imminent reopening. Walkers were scarce, and if there was traffic it was a junction or two ahead – the drive was really too easy and unimpeded: silent squares, long vistas down cross streets, slid by too quickly to be absorbed. So I stopped and parked and sat for a long moment staring at an ordinary street, shuttered shops, two locked restaurants, a lightless pub, while the little aesthetic insights and ecstasies of the lockdown experience tried to hold their own against the unignorable sadness.”

June 14, 2020 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Books that made me

(Since I highly doubt that The Guardian will ever feature me in their Books that made me series, I have borrowed their template and interviewed myself.)

The book I am currently reading
Ben Katchor’s graphic novel Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer, for what I believe is the third time. During trying times like these, I find myself turning back to old favorites like Katchor and his alter ego Knipl.

The book that changed my life
Probably Division Street: America, by Studs Terkel, the first book of his that I read (with many others following later). Terkel treated his oral history subjects with such fairness and empathy, even those that he clearly didn’t agree with. In meticulously exploring the everyday lives of his subjects, he taught me to be curious about the people around me, something that doesn’t come naturally to an introvert like myself.

The book I wish I’d written
Anything from Nelson Algren at his 1942-51 peak (never mind the rest of his lamentable career), or anything that Kent Haruf ever wrote. See below.

The book that had the greatest influence on my writing
I’m tempted to name any one of three or four books by Algren, my literary hero, but my writing has none of the dark humor or grit of his great early work. Instead I think it has to be Haruf’s Plainsong, or, really, any of his novels. The way he conjured up, over the course of those six novels, the fictional small town of Holt, Colorado and its struggling but optimistic people leaves me in envious awe. In my fiction, I find myself endlessly trying to write the story of Midwestern small towns that inevitably pale in comparison to Holt.

The book that is most underrated
I guess “underrated” can mean the same thing as “unknown”, so I’ll go with Ander Monson’s idiosyncratic and quietly devastating novel-in-stories, Other Electricities. The book got a fair amount of indie buzz when it came out in 2005, but seems somewhat invisible now, which is a shame. It’s a truly beautiful book.

The book that changed my mind
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown. I’m a proud University of Illinois alumnus who once truly revered the school’s former symbol, Chief Illiniwek (which wasn’t overtly racist, but still a simplistic stereotype). Of course I knew that Native Americans had long been exploited by white settlers hungry for land and westward expansion, but until I read Brown’s book I had no idea how severe that exploitation was (enough so that “exploitation” is too mild of a term), and how much white people like me owe Native Americans. No longer supporting Chief Illiniwek  was the very least I could do. The school stopped using Illiniwek several years ago, and I don’t miss it at all.

The last book that made me cry
The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank. My then-high schooler daughter admonished me a few years ago for not having read the book. Of course I was indirectly familiar with Anne’s life, as I suspect most literary-minded people over the age of twenty are, but for some reason I had never read it. (My high school seemed to have bypassed most of the near-standard texts that are required reading for most other high schoolers.) Even though I knew her fate beforehand, reading the book still brought this stoic to tears.

The last book that made me laugh
I don’t read many comic novels, so this goes back a few years, but I clearly remember laughing my ass off while reading Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis - especially the epic morning-after, hangover-from-hell scene. Which always makes me think of the Beat Farmers’ song “Lost Weekend” (“I wish somebody’d tell me/Just who or what I did/Why’s this ring on my finger/And who’s that screaming kid?”)

The book I couldn’t finish
I usually approach new books warily, trying to get a feel for what they’re all about, and whether I'll like them or not, so once I finally start a book it’s very rare that I fail to finish. But something about Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy just didn’t connect with me at all. I stopped reading it recently after finishing the first section, in order to move on to another book that I was eagerly anticipating, and probably won’t ever return.

The book I’m most ashamed not to have read
Nothing really comes to mind. Every year I observe my Summer of Classics, when I read nothing but classics that I somehow missed during my younger years. Sometimes the result has been earthshaking (1984, The Grapes of Wrath), but just as often the result has been “Meh.” There have been enough of the latter that I no longer worry if I haven’t read a book that everyone says is great.

The book I give as a gift
Where do I even start? I give books almost exclusively as Christmas gifts to my family. I like to think they appreciate the books I give them, but if they don't, being Midwestern Swedes, they’re too polite to say so. One year I gave everyone a copy of Haruf’s Our Souls at Night, his final, perfect novel. Other than that, the book I’ve probably given more than any other is Knut Hamsun’s brilliant Hunger, my favorite book.

The book I’d most like to be remembered for
I’m tempted to evoke Frank Lloyd Wright, who when once asked what he thought was his favorite work, replied, “Oh, my dear boy. Why, the next one, of course.” But with my pitiable lack of productivity, I’m not sure there will ever be a next book. So instead I’ll say Wheatyard, my debut novel. If I never publish another book, I’ll be happy with my writing career, because I’m so thoroughly proud of that one.

My earliest reading memory
A baseball card of Ken Hubbs, former infielder for the Chicago Cubs. Hubbs died in a plane crash early in his promising career, and Topps issued a special In Memoriam card in his honor. Not reading yet, I asked my older brother and sister to read me the text from the back of the card so many times that one of them finally got fed up and said, “Why don’t you read it yourself?” I went off and tried to do just that, and eventually succeeded. I was three or four years old at the time.

My comfort read
I don’t re-read the Sherlock Holmes stories nearly as much as I should, but since I first read them as a child they’ve never been far from my mind. The brilliant intellect of Holmes, the infinite patience of Watson, the foggy, grimy London streets (oh, to have been a Baker Street Irregular!), the thrilling plots, the denouement that somehow never feels over-explained. I know that Holmes will always be on my shelf waiting for me, when I need him.

May 2, 2020 in Books, Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)


“The novelist works neither to correct nor to condone, not at all to comfort, but to make what’s told alive.” - Eudora Welty

April 16, 2020 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)