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“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)