Chicago Girl is the title of my new book and indeed I am a Chicago girl. I’ve lived here most of my life, with occasional and sometimes lengthy forays to Missouri, Colorado, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio and Kentucky. But I’ve been back to my home base for 35 years and I’m not going anywhere.
My new book of essays is part memoir but mostly a series of reviews and observations on theater, music,film, books, writing, politics, technology and a bunch of other subjects that I obsess about.
The cover is a view that may be familiar to you if you’re a Chicagoan. I took it from the Chess Pavilion at North Avenue Beach, looking south toward Navy Pier.
Many of the essays are adapted from reviews and articles I’ve written over the last eight years. But there are anomalies, like a timeline of my life in technology, starting with my acquisition of a certain special fountain pen at the age of 12. And there’s a long poem titled “City Lady Blues” about why I never wanted to move to the suburbs, despite the temptations offered by a certain gentleman. “Can’t you see I’m a city lady? Don’t wanna be a country girl.” I performed that poem one evening with my son Steve playing background blues on his tenor sax. And the oldest essay in the book is “The Story of Max: The World’s Greatest Cat,” written in 1987.
The ironic aspect of my book’s publication now is that the pandemic enabled me to finish it. In normal times, I would be seeing and reviewing three or four plays a week, but that activity was shut down along with most of the rest of our lives. So I decided to focus on finally finishing the book of essays I had fiddled with for a few years. I wrote about that in “Poem for a Pandemic: A Nightmare and a Blessing” in April..
If you’re interested in learning more about my book, both the personal stories and the arts commentary, check it out here and on the publisher’s website. Right now, you’ll find the print version but the e-book will be available soon.
My latest article for Third Coast Review is an essay about racial injustice and our racist history themes appearing in compelling ways in pop culture. I recommend some TV drama series, films and books for your consideration. And I take time to focus on one book—Eddie S. Glaude Jr.’s Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. In addition to describing how Baldwin’s writing and political attitudes changed through his experiences in the civil rights and Black Power eras, Glaude defines The Lie that encompasses our racist attitudes. So read on and I hope you’ll find something that sounds intriguing as well as some you’ve already loved or hated.
We’re living in a strange period of horror shows in politics, health and racial injustice. You never know what type of abomination you’ll find when you turn on your phone, computer or tv set or open a newspaper. Another black man killed by white cops? Another protester attacked or a Black Lives Matter protest broken up by white nationalists? Another 1000 souls dead from Covid-19? Another clueless tweet from the White House?
Historians a century from now may decide that this part of the 21st century was a political horror show. So it only makes sense that the real world of racial injustice and our racist history is bleeding over into pop culture. We can now partake of film, video, books and music where these historical themes are blended with horror and heroic stories.
We applaud the attention finally being paid to Black artists and authors, given the decades where their work and talent was ignored. For instance, of the 1,034 films currently in the Criterion Collection, only nine titles are directed by Black filmmakers. A reader who comments on my 3CR essay points out that there are more films in that collection that feature Black writers, performers and themes.
This essay explores works that can educate and entertain us about the Black experience in racist America and how white people can become allies and change agents. Yes, Nikki Haley, we are a racist country.
Have we missed any of your favorites in these genres? Let us know in the comments.
Television and Films
“Lovecraft Country,” TV drama series and book. Currently running on HBO is the 10-part series adapted from the 2016 novel by Matt Ruff, developed from the book by Misha Green. The story follows Atticus Freeman, a young military veteran, in 1950s Jim Crow America. Atticus, his friend Letitia, and his Uncle George make a road trip to find Atticus’ missing father and track down a family secret. (The trip also enables George to do research for the next issue of his Safe Negro Travel Guide.) The trio encounters racial terrorism in so-called sundown counties as well as monsters lifted from the pages of a Lovecraft story. Much of the series and novel take place in Chicago—no less racist than the northeast or Jim Crow South, but we love seeing films that portray Chicago.
Jonathan Majors (The Last Black Man in San Francisco) and Jurnee Smollett (Birds of Prey) are terrific as Atticus and Letitia and Michael K. Williams (“The Wire” and “Boardwalk Empire”) is a pleasant surprise as Atticus’ stubborn dad, Montrose.
There are lots of history, literary and horror references in Lovecraft Country, named for the noted horror fiction author H.P.. Lovecraft (known for his racist and homophobic attitudes as well as the creator of the Cthulhu Mythos.) Atticus and George are great readers and Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) is an expert on the horror genre. The 1921 Tulsa massacre plays a part in a later chapter of Ruff’s novel, so we assume it will appear in the film series. Episode 4 of “Lovecraft Country” runs Sunday, September 6, on HBO and you can find earlier eps on demand.
“Watchmen,” a superhero HBO series that ran in late 2019, is available from some on-demand and streaming services. “Watchmen” was adapted by Damon Lindelof as a sort of sequel to the 1986 Watchmen DC comic book series created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. (A 2009 film was adapted from the same comic book series.)
The series focuses on contemporary racist violence in Tulsa and the first episode begins with the 1921 massacre of the “Black Wall Street” district on Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa. In 2016, a white supremacist group, the Seventh Kavalry, wages a violent war against the police and minorities. Because of the murder of 40 police officer in their homes in 2016, the police force now hide their identities, including wearing face coverings or yellow balaclavas.
The cast includes Regina King as a police detective known as Sister Night, Don Johnson as police chief Judd Crawford (a man whose closet hides secrets), plus Jean Smart, Tim Blake Nelson, and Louis Gossett Jr.
There’s also a Watchmen Role-Playing Game.
The Black Lives Matter Collection on Netflix has compiled an array of anti-racist and Black artists and topics. The collection of narrative films, documentaries and TV series includes many important films about Black lives. These are some of my favorites in this category.
I Am Not Your Negro, a stunning work of documentary storytelling by Raoul Peck, based on texts by James Baldwin and documentary footage of his life.
Just Mercy, the biodrama about Bryan Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan), an idealistic young Harvard Law graduate who goes to Alabama to fight for poor people.
Director Ava DuVernay’s 13th, another powerful documentary, explores the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1865, which abolished slavery and ended involuntary servitude. DuVernay demonstrates how slavery has been continued despite the 13th through lynchings, Jim Crow laws and practices, disenfranchisement, police brutality and mass incarceration.
And Spike Lee’s 2020 film Da 5 Bloods about four aging Vietnam vets who return to Vietnam to find the remains of their fallen leader (Chadwick Boseman) as well as a treasure they buried there. The cast features Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors as his son, Clarke Peters and Norm Lewis. As our review says, Marvin Gaye’s music is the primary emotional thread of the film’s soundtrack, primarily songs from his landmark 1971 album What’s Going On.
Books on anti-racism and white privilege have been topping best-seller lists—especially titles that might help white people understand racism and the meaning of white privilege. Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist says you either are racist or antiracist and thus trying to dismantle our racist history—there’s nothing in between, he says. His book has been on the New York Times combined print and e-book best-seller list for 15 weeks; it’s currently #5 in non-fiction there and #7 on Amazon.com.
Other books that top those lists are Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Number 2 on that NYT list is Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste about the social stratification based on inclusion and exclusion in our society. I’m eager to read Caste; Wilkerson’s 2010 book, The Warmth of Other Suns, is a masterpiece history of the Great Migration of Blacks from the South’s Jim Crow society to the North, where they found other forms of discrimination.
Eddie S. Glaude Jr.’s 2020 book, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, is another important book on racial attitudes. He studies Baldwin’s writings, speeches and interviews from the early part of his career where he was a strong supporter of the 1960s civil rights movement until his attitudes changed. Baldwin was devastated and disillusioned about peaceful protest after the murders of his friends Martin, Medgar and Malcolm (Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers and Malcolm X) and the rise of the Black Power movement, which he supported. Baldwin spent much of his writing career living in Paris and Istanbul but apparently felt at home nowhere—certainly not in his native racist United States.
The thread throughout Glaude’s book is The Lie (my caps) on which all of American society is based. The Lie has three parts:
- The debasement of black people: They are characterized as inferior, less human than white people, stereotyped as lazy, dishonest, sexually promiscuous, and always seeking government handouts.
- Lies about American history: America is fundamentally good and innocent. Its bad deeds (slavery, genocide, internment camps, lynching, redlining, etc., etc.) were mistakes and have been corrected. (Add to that list food insecurity and our current “discovery” that Black and brown communities suffer and die more from COVID-19.)
- Changing events to fit the story whenever America’s innocence is threatened: America is a divinely sanctioned nation, a beacon of light and moral force in the world. Just one example is “the lost cause” story of the post-Confederacy.
The Lie is the mechanism that allows us to avoid facing the truth about unjust treatment of Black people. Baldwin said it started with the founders refusing to recognize a slave as a man. You can find many examples of The Lie in political speeches and writings today, especially from the right but also from the left.
There are many excellent novels in the enlighten-me-about-Black-life category. We have to include the source book for Lovecraft Country here and one additional novel.
Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country is a dark fantasy novel told episodically. As you read one exciting chapter after another, you realize that you are reading the raw material of a drama series. Each chapter focuses on one adventure or one character, even though they are intertwined. (There’s the chapter about Letitia’s new house in a neighborhood where she’s not welcome and another chapter where her sister Ruby turns into a woman named Hillary. At the end…but never mind. Read the book yourself.) This is Ruff’s sixth novel. The Readers Guide on Ruff’s website has background on some of the topics addressed in the book and drama series.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, a 2016 book about Cora, a slave in Georgia who determines to leave the plantation and travels via the underground railroad (an actual railroad with stations underground) to various states and situations, each one more awful than the last. Her story is central to the book but is embellished by the stories of other slaves and some magical realism. The book won the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Amazon Studios is adapting the book into a limited edition series directed by Barry Jenkin
Going Back in History
Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son, about Bigger Thomas, a young Black man who lives with his family in a tiny apartment in Chicago’s Black Belt. He’s hired to work for a rich white family and accidentally commits a terrible crime. His story is legendary and the book broke through into pop culture as a Book of the Month Club selection in 1940. It was later a film and recently adapted as a brilliantly conceived play by Nambi E. Kelley, which premiered at Court Theatre in 2014.
Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, Invisible Man, is a tragic and poetic book that’s hard to characterize; it’s almost Kafka-like in its opacity. The narrator, never named, moves to Harlem from the South but the story is about Black identity, Black nationalism, Marxism and the racial ideas of Booker T. Washington. Invisible Man won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1953. In 2012, Court Theatre also staged its world premiere adaptation by Oren Jacoby and Christopher McElroen.
And finally, listen to “Strange Fruit” (a disturbingly graphic protest song by Abel Meeropol) performed memorably by Nina Simone and in this video, by Billie Holiday.
Since there’s very little theater to review these days–occasionally a virtual reading or video replay–so I’ve been doing some book reviews. This book, a history of robots and automation, was particularly interesting as the author blends in aspects of how robots have appeared in popular culture over the centuries–dancing or playing chess and as characters in books, film and theater. The book traces how automatons led to automation, cybernetics and artificial intelligence in industry and weaves in examples of robots in culture.
Here’s my review of The American Robot: A Cultural History from University of Chicago Press. The author, Dustin A. Abnet, teaches American studies at Cal State Fullerton.
The book’s cover image shows a boy demonstrating Ideal Toy Company’s Robert the Robot, a popular remote-controlled toy in 1959.
This essay was previously published at Third Coast Review.
It’s the year of the big virus. We’ve had two weeks of #StayTheFHome or sheltering in place, depending on where you live. And in some states, you’re not doing that. You’re going about your regular daily business, going to parties, bars and beaches and getting infected or infecting others.
But enough with the happy talk. Let’s talk about death—or at least, about plagues. Three books about plagues are on my mind now. I just finished Rebecca Makkai’s novel The Great Believers, an intense story about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Chicago in the 1980s, blended with some of the same characters’ lives 30 years later. Right now, I’m in the middle of a 17th century plague story, Daniel DeFoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, about one man’s experiences during the bubonic plague in London in 1665. And coincidentally (as if preparing for this) I recently reread Albert Camus’ The Plague, about a plague in 1940s Algeria. Little did I know how relevant that plague would be, both in disease form and as a political allegory.
The Great Believers is a totally engrossing novel with beautifully drawn characters—like Yale Tishman, a fundraiser for an art museum, and Fiona Marcus, sister of Yale’s best friend, Nico, the first in their circle to die from HIV/AIDS. Yale is a vividly drawn character and we follow his life as he breaks up with his partner Charlie, who was unfaithful and contracted HIV/AIDS. Yale is tested and finds out he’s ok, so he continues his work, which focuses on acquiring the art collection of an elderly woman (Fiona’s Aunt Nora) who was a model and muse in 1920s Paris. He also carefully continues his social life in the lively 1980s gay community in Chicago. So his career flourishes as the carnage of AIDS grows around him. Ultimately, he’s not careful enough.
The chapters about Yale in 1980s Chicago alternate with chapters focusing on Fiona in 2015. She’s in Paris, trying to reconnect with her daughter, who left home for a cult and then moved to Paris with her boyfriend. We first met Fiona as the teenager who tried to take care of “her boys”—Nico, Yale and their friends. She’s now a middle-aged woman. Her friend in Paris is Richard Campo, a photographer who recorded Chicago gay life in the 1980s whose work is now being celebrated with an exhibit at the Pompidou.
In one of my favorite passages, Fiona arrives in Paris, which reminds her not only of Aunt Nora but also of Yale. “Fiona builds that tie when she thinks in the present: ‘that a French café would have Wi-Fi seemed wrong. In her mind, Paris was always 1920. It was always Aunt Nora’s Paris, all tragic love and tubercular artists.’ She also thinks about Nico who died in the 1980s: ‘The other fantasy was the one where Nico walked beside her everywhere, wondering what the hell things were. He was Rip Van Winkle, and it was her job to explain the modern world, explaining things like ‘a firewall for your cloud,’ while she imagined him saying to her, ‘You’re living in the future.’”
The Great Believers will keep you involved in the lives of its characters—and if you’re a Chicagoan, you’ll love the references to people and places from three decades ago. It’s the sort of book that you will be sorry to finish, ev en if the ending is bitter sweet.
If I was writing a full review, I’d give it four stars. The book won many awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2019. Rebecca Makkai lives in Chicago and Vermont. Her other works are the novels The Hundred-Year House and The Borrower, and the short story collection Music for Wartime.
The Great Believers is available from your favorite bookseller.
Daniel DeFoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, written by a citizen who continued all the while in London, has always been referred to as a novel, but it reads as a documentary-style recounting of events around the bubonic plague in 1665 London. DeFoe, who was five years old at the time of the Great Plague, published the book in 1722. The style is not journalistic, as the author writes as an observer and sometimes as a participant, but he writes what purports to be an eyewitness account. The book most likely was based on the journals of his uncle, who lived in London at the time.
The plague arrived in England from Holland between September and November 1664. The anonymous writer is an upper class person, with a wife, children and servants. His brother tries to persuade him to go to the country to escape the plague, as many wealthy people did. But he determined to stay in London.
The disease began in a distant neighborhood and as cases began to increase, it moved throughout London. It was incredibly contagious and many houses were filled with sick families, with crosses on the door to warn of illness. People died, screaming, in the streets. As the deaths mounted in 1665, the city, unable to deal with all the corpses, dug a great pit to burn or bury the bodies.
Throughout the book, the author comments on the behavior of his fellow citizens, their uses of fortune-tellers and astrologers to know their fate, their visits to all sorts of doctors and healers who assured protections from or cures for the plague. Once the fever reached a peak, he reports many crimes and thefts from homes of sick people by looters and by nurses and other caretakers. They would enter the home of the dying and dead, strip the bodies of clothes and steal household goods and valuables.
The observer points out that the infection generally comes in to the houses of citizens through their servants, who they send up and down the street to obtain food and other household needs. He says that at one point he began trying to list the deaths of all officials (but not “the inferiors”) in September but found it impossible for “a private man to come at a certainty in the particulars.” But “when the violent rage of the distemper of September came upon us, it drove us out of all measures.” By the end of the plague, 100,000 souls were swept away, the author says, “yet I alive!”
A Journal of the Plague Year has no compelling characters or contemporary drama; in fact, it’s somewhat dry. But it is interesting to read for the observer/author’s views on the behavior of citizens, both healthy and infirm, and the development and progress of the plague.
Daniel DeFoe wrote novels including Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders and several hundred other works. The book is available as a free e-book from various booksellers and on public domain sites like Project Gutenberg.
The drama in Albert Camus’ 1947 novel, The Plague, starts with the rats. First a dead rat on the staircase at Dr. Rieux’s office, then a second one that evening outside his apartment. The rat “moved uncertainly … then moved forward again toward the doctor, halted, then spun round with a little squeal and fell on its side. Its mouth was slightly open and blood was spurting from it.” Then there were a few dead rats, then a dozen, then a column down the street, then a pile of dead bleeding rodents. For some reason, most people in the town thought little of this.
As people begin getting sick, Dr. Rieux treats the first victims, soothes their fevers and lances the pus from their “buboes” or abscesses. (The source for the term bubonic plague.) He works long days, making house calls on his patients. Dr. Rieux’s wife, who has been sick for a year, has gone to a sanitorium. The doctor is at first reluctant to call the fever a plague, but eventually decides that it is.
A meeting is called at the Prefect’s office, with a few doctors and bureaucrats attending. They discuss the situation and what to call it, Dr. Rieux points out that he has had a laboratory analyze the pus of the “buboes” in his patients and found it to be a slightly modified version of the plague bacillus. Most of those present want to avoid use of the word plague; the doctor says he doesn’t care what it’s called, as long as something is done to prevent its spread. They decide they must close the gates of the town and impose quarantine.
And thus exile begins for those within. Exile from loved ones who are away and can‘t come home. Exile from loved ones who die. Exile for travelers who are stuck in the town and can’t get home to their loved ones and familiar haunts.
Despite the quarantine, some citizens dress up to go to elegant restaurants to dine and drink the night away—being ready to flee when another diner shows signs of sickness. (That might remind you of our fellow citizens, who wouldn’t stay away from bars until they were closed, and then flocked to lakefront trails and parks, until they too were officially closed.)
The plague arrived in Oran abruptly in April of 194X, came to a peak quickly (at its height, 500 people a week died), then slowly dragged on for months until finally ending the following February, “slinking back to the obscure lair from which it had stealthily emerged.” Then “at last, at daybreak on a fine February morning, the ceremonial opening of the gates took place.”
Like the DeFoe book, Camus’ Plague is told by a “narrator,” who occasionally identifies himself as such. However, there are many sympathetically drawn characters with whom Dr. Rieux interacts as he goes about his days. Dr. Castel, who works to make a serum to cure the plague; Grand, a clerk for the city government; Cottard, who tries to commit suicide; Jean Tarrou, a newcomer to Oran; and Dr. Rieux’s mother, who comes to stay with him after his wife leaves for the sanitorium.
Given his political activism and the time in which Camus wrote The Plague, one can be sure that the contagion he wrote about has philosophical or ideological implications. The fictional plague arrived in the town of Oran, Algeria, in early spring and finally departed less than a year later. Of course, it took much longer for the 1940s breed of fascism to spread across Europe, from Germany to Spain and Italy, and finally to slink away. And it always lurks on the outskirts of societies, threatening to rise again.
Camus, a French Algerian, was a member of the French Resistance. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 and died three years later in a car accident.
The Plague is available from many booksellers as a print or ebook.
Three novels about plagues. Clearly, Rebecca Makkai’s book is the most engrossing and readable. It’s a great piece of storytelling and character development. Albert Camus writes a more somber novel but it is compelling as he draws us along through the course of the plague. I recommend DeFoe’s book as well, for its 17th century view of the crisis we live with today. Also it’s short (my Kindle version is 183 pages) but has no chapter or section breaks, which I find annoying.
Not enough books about plagues? See this New York Times article, “Your Quarantine Reader.”
Last week, I posted my opinion about Lincoln Yards on Third Coast Review. With all the discussion and controversy about parks, soccer stadiums and TIF money, I wanted to focus on the element that’s being taken for granted. The design of Lincoln Yards is centered with a mass of high rise buildings. The area is surrounded by traditional Chicago low-rise neighborhoods and this seems like thumbing your nose at Chicago’s history and traditions. Yes, we have a wall of highrises along the lakefront and in the loop, but they do not belong in our neighborhoods. There have already been too many intrusions of this type. Here’s what I wrote.
We don’t have to look far for a definition of a neighborhood. Jane Jacobs, the famous architecture writer who faced down Robert Moses’ efforts to demolish part of Greenwich Village to build a highway, wrote about it. She stressed the importance of mixed uses, short blocks that added corners, sidewalks and parks, population density, and both old and new buildings. Her 1961 book, The Life and Death of Great American Cities, is considered one of the most influential works in the history of town planning.
The plans so far for Lincoln Yards, one of the most important planned developments in Chicago’s history, meet none of the Jacobs definition. We had a victory last week when Alderman Brian Hopkins (2nd Ward) vetoed the part of the Sterling Bay plan that was to include a 20,000-seat soccer stadium and a massive Live Nation entertainment district. But the worst aspects of the 70-acre plan remain: The presence of 20 highrise towers ranging from 400 to 650 feet. That means roughly 40 to 60 stories. The buildings, planned for commercial and residential use, could house 24,000 workers and 5,000 residential units, and would loom incongruously over the surrounding low-rise neighborhoods of Lincoln Park and Bucktown/Wicker Park.
Lincoln Yards is located along the north branch of the Chicago River in a former industrial district; it’s the former home of Finkl Steel. It’s bounded by the Kennedy Expressway to the west, Webster Avenue to the north, Clybourn Avenue to the east and North Avenue on the south. If you’re a music lover, you will recognize immediately that the site of our beloved Hideout is within those boundaries.
As the risk to the survival of the Hideout and the damage to other music venues became clear in November, Chicago’s independent music venues organized to fight the Lincoln Yards plan. They asked the city to take time to consider all aspects of the plan, including use of TIF money, rather than rushing it through so that Mayor Emanuel can consider it part of his “legacy.”
When Alderman Hopkins was seeking input, I completed his survey and included this as my response to the single open-ended question: “The high rise residential plan is totally unacceptable. This will not be a Chicago neighborhood. Residential buildings should be two-, three- and four-story max. Also the Live Nation entertainment venue is far too large. It would be much better to encourage local venues and local art/music groups to create small, storefront spaces typical of Chicago neighborhoods.”
Blair Kamin, the Tribune architecture critic, has done an excellent job of describing and criticizing the Sterling Bay plan and its support by almost-lame-duck Mayor Emanuel. Kamin begins one article this way:
“A great urban place is more than a motley collection of tall buildings and open spaces. It has lively streets, pulsing gathering spots and buildings that talk to one another rather than sing the architectural equivalent of a shrill solo.
“Daley Plaza, with its enigmatic Picasso sculpture and powerful county courts high-rise, is a great urban place. So is the North Side’s Armitage Avenue, lined with delightful Victorian storefronts.”
A neighborhood is a place where you can walk around at any time and see many other people walking, shopping, pushing strollers or riding bikes. There are places to stop for a coffee or a sandwich, to linger with your laptop, and benches where you can sit and people watch or read a book. There are bars where you can have a beer with a buddy or listen to music, which blares out to the street at night. And please let there be bookstores. As Jane Jacobs said, a neighborhood is for foot people, not car people.
That’s what Lincoln Yards should be. It should settle in a neighborly way amongst the surrounding neighborhoods and enable traffic back and forth across fungible neighborhood lines. It should not be, as it is set out now, a self-contained skyscraper community insulated from the rest of the city. Sterling Bay and architecture planning firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill should not be trying to foist this nightmare on Chicago. They should all be reading, or rereading, Jane Jacobs’ book.
For an excellent overview and critique of the Lincoln Yards plan, I recommend these articles by Kamin.
And of course, Jane Jacobs’ book.
A second book, which I highly recommend, is The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Robert Caro’s biography describes how the unelected official built an empire and lived as an emperor under six New York governors and 11 NYC mayors, until his reputation was finally destroyed. It’s a great read.
It’s 1952 and a debut novel by a 23-year-old writer is published by Delacorte Press. Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Player Piano about a near-future society is categorized as science fiction and doesn’t get much attention.
I first read Player Piano many years ago. Probably some time soon after college, when I was devouring his other books, such as Cat’s Cradle; God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; Sirens of Titan and Slaughterhouse Five. I read Player Piano then too, but my copy disappeared in one of my moves.
Recently my son Andrew mentioned that Player Piano has parallels to today’s society, made up of an elite, educated upper class and an underemployed lower class. I decided it was time to take another look at Vonnegut. I am amazed by how striking the parallels are to today’s society. And how prescient Vonnegut was, as a young writer/publicist working for General Electric in Schenectady, New York. He recreates that milieu in Player Piano as Ilium, home of the Ilium Works, “where machines hummed and whirred and clicked, and made parts for baby carriages and bottle caps, motorcycles and refrigerators, television sets and tricycles….”
The time is after the third world war, which was followed by riots, and a government clampdown on saboteurs. The machines developed in the wartime miracle now control every aspect of life and no humans are needed to operate them.
The hero of Player Piano is Dr. Paul Proteus, a brilliant engineer and head of Ilium Works. He’s mostly happy with his life as an engineer and manager and hopes for a promotion to run the Pittsburgh Works. So does his wife Anita. They’re part of the executive/engineer class who live a privileged life with high incomes and lavish homes and possessions.
The others? Since people are no longer needed to operate or control the machines, they are given the choice of serving in the Army or working for the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps—the so-called Reeks and Wrecks, who fix bridges and fill potholes. The government provides everyone with an adequate income for home, food, clothing, healthcare, education—everything a family needs to survive. Perhaps you think people are happy to have all their needs provided without doing any real work? But no, people are depressed and desperate to do real meaningful work.
As one writer said about Player Piano, “The rotten core buried under a façade of shining machines is that this society has made humanity superfluous, sucked all meaning out of the world, and replaced humanist values with a machine ethic predicated upon a new holy trinity: ‘Efficiency, Economy, and Quality.’” Sound familiar?
Even human relations are mechanized, Vonnegut thinks. Paul talks about his wife being skilled at “the mechanics of marriage.” On their phone calls, Anita ends by telling Paul she loves him and he robotically replies, “I love you, Anita.”
Paul occasionally visits a certain bar in Homestead, the area where the Reeks and Wrecks live. He becomes aware of their unhappiness as he talks to workers who have ideas and skills they’d like to contribute, even though they’re unwanted.
Nevertheless, he loves the music of his machines. “The lathe groups, the tenors…. the welders, the baritones…. the punch presses, the basses.” He has nagging doubts about his life, which he tries not to acknowledge, until some dramatic events take place at the executive retreat on an island called The Meadows. It’s the kind of event you’d expect it to be: lots of team sports, structured camaraderie, controlled drinking and tight scheduling, announced by the omnipresent loudspeaker. Paul’s future life changes as a result and he ends up joining the revolution concocted by the underground Ghost Shirt Society, a group of radicals who want to destroy key machinery and restore dignity to human work.
There’s a second thread to Player Piano. A representative of the U.S. Department of State is escorting two foreign visitors around to various American cities. The Shah of Bratpuhr and his translator express an outsider’s skepticism of the wonders of American society. It’s Vonnegut’s technique, which he uses in other books, of showing a skewed perspective on our lives.
Player Piano isn’t a diatribe against technology. It’s a critique of corporatized society, of adopting technological change without any thought for social or political change. We can have machines control everything without any human operators, so let’s just do that.
Vonnegut’s writing is a mix of satire and black humor, social and political critique. He’s hard to categorize, which probably didn’t help his reputation among critics who find it more convenient to pigeonhole artists and writers. He’s more likely to be recognized for his literary genius since his death in 2007 gave critics a reason to fully explore his life and oeuvre.
So I highly recommend a reading or rereading of Player Piano for a break from your daily news and political blather. If you’re thinking well, this sounds interesting, but I don’t like sci-fi. Player Piano isn’t sci-fi. There are no aliens with weird-shaped heads, no humans with amorphous sexual abilities, no strange worlds defined by frost and desert. This is the U.S., populated by people like you and me. Furthermore, it’s a readable 340 pages, not a doorstop tome. You can buy it here or here or borrow it from your public library.
And now, it’s time to reread Vonnegut’s acknowledged masterpiece, Slaughterhouse Five.
The first time I heard of Brian Doyle or his book, Chicago: A Novel, was when I read a review on my own website, Third Coast Review. I have read a lot of Chicago history and lore, and my first thought was, how did I not know about this book? I bought a copy right away.
I fell in love with the book from the first page.
“On the last day of summer, in the year I graduated from college, I moved to Chicago, that middle knuckle in our national fist, and rented a small apartment on the north side of the city, on the lake. I wanted to be as near the lake as possible, because Lake Michigan is no lake at all, but a tremendous inland sea, and something about its vast blue sheen, and tumultuous weathers … appealed to me greatly.”
wasI’ve been reading the book in small sips, before I go to sleep at night. The reason is, it’s only 300 pages and I don’t want it to be over. When I started writing this essay, I had only 20 pages left to read and I was sad.
Chicago: A Novel is really more the memoir of an unnamed protagonist’s year-plus spent living and working in Chicago in about 1979-80. (It’s Doyle’s history and his story.) For the most part it’s a realistic story of the characters (especially the residents in his apartment building and the dudes from the Latin Kings and the Latin Eagles he plays basketball with on a nearby school playground) and places, such as Comiskey Park (he and his neighbors were Sox fans despite living a few blocks from Wrigley), blues and jazz clubs and places to buy empanadas and gyros. Near the end, there’s the story of John the Mailman, a student of dragonflies.
It’s the story of a guy just out of college with his first real job, working for a Catholic magazine at a Loop office. We travel with him on his bus rides to work on the Sound Asleep Bus and on his long walks exploring the city or dribbling his shiny old basketball along the lakefront. What keeps it from being a real memoir and makes it novelistic is the addition of bits of magical realism. The most important is Edward, an amazing dog of an indeterminate breed, who collects stamps and speeches by Abraham Lincoln. Then there’s the detective who—when the opening day trip to Comiskey has to be canceled because of an illness—tells the entire game, play by play, picking up the action from some radio waves in the air unheard by anyone else.
Doyle’s book is well written and full of Chicagoness. He places major and minor places in their exact places on the city map like the way “Broadway bends between Roscoe and Aldine streets” and a wonderful gyro shop over on Washtenaw. It’s hard to believe it was written by a guy who lived here less than two years.
When I was about midway through the book, I learned that Doyle, who now lives in Portland and is editor of Portland magazine at the University of Portland and a widely published author, is now suffering from brain cancer. He had surgery for what he called “a big. honkin’ brain tumor” last November and also has been undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. There’s a Doyle family GoFundMe page to help with his expenses.
Chicago: A Novel is a love letter to the city I love. I marked so many quotable passages in the book. Here’s one of my favorites.
“Sometimes, even now, years later and far away, on steel-gray days when the wind whips and I am near large waters, I feel a bolt of what I can only call Chicagoness, and I remember, I remember … what? A certain Chicago of the mind, I suppose. And sometimes then I sit by a fire, and I remember aloud…. about the way buildings crowded the streets and the sidewalks were narrow and buckled in the oldest parts of the city, and how stores and shops leaned in eagerly toward the street…. And the swirl of snow along the lake, eddying and whirling and composing drifts deep enough to hide a horse. … And the bone-chilling cold, and shuffle of boots leery and weary of ice…. And the smell of sausages and kielbasa and onions and beer at games and carnivals and festivals and street fairs…. Perhaps this is true of every city, but it was certainly true of mine then, that what the world saw … was not at all the real city, and was only the gloss and sheen of a rough grace that was the actual bone and music of the place.”
Susannah Pratt, who wrote the review I mentioned, observes, “Doyle’s book is a balm. While not shying away from Chicago’s ruthless side, the book is also a reminder of the real people and food and stories and music and resilience that continue to exist here. Those of us living here know these things; what a relief to read it coming from somewhere outside.”
I finished the book last night. I didn’t want to finish it because I knew the ending—when the protagonist drove south along the lake, “past the ragged glories of the South Side … over the Calumet River and onto the interstate highway and over the Illinois border into Indiana”—would make me cry. And it did.
w/ HT to @anamariecox on 11/18/16
It’s been six weeks since I’ve written a post for Nancy Bishop’s Journal. 2016 has been the year that sucked in so many ways. I probably would not consider it this dismal were it not for the coup d’état we called an election. We now have the prospect of a leader for four years who is a racist, misogynist, uncurious and uninformed buffoon or “an unformed pliable piece of clay,” as Frank Bruni called him in the New York Times. I am firmly in the “Not My President” camp.
This dreadful year started with the death of David Bowie and brought the loss of so many talented artists and musicians. The death of Leonard Cohen last month was one more cruel blow.
But at least there are these few good things about this rotten year.
The Cubs. I’ve been a Cubs fan since my father taught me how to keep a scorecard when I was 12. He and my late sister were dedicated Cubs fans. I wish they could have been here to enjoy 2016 with us.
Third Coast Review. I’m grateful for all the great contributions from so many writers and editors for our new arts and culture website, launched January 8. Our previous website, Gapers Block, went on hiatus as of January 1. We scrambled to get a new website started so we could continue to write about Chicago arts and culture and now we’re almost at our one-year anniversary. So my thanks to Emma, Kim, Sarah, Miriam and Jeanne for helping us get started and to Zach, Julian, Steve, Marielle, Justin, Stephanie, Colin, Brent, Andrea, Elif, Chris, Louis, James, Karin, and all the other writers who helped us plug the hole left by GB.
Bruce Springsteen’s memoir, Born to Run. A readable, memorable story of his life and music, told in his own voice and not papering over the dark places. Seeing him in concert three times this year—twice in Chicago and once in Louisville—made the year come alive.
Leonard Cohen’s new album, You Want It Darker. Speaking of dark places, this last album by the great poet and songwriter is very dark and moody and a marvelous set of farewell tracks. Similar to the way David Bowie said farewell in his final work, Blackstar, and especially in the song, “Lazarus.”
Two Jim Jarmusch films, Paterson and Gimme Danger. Many great films this year, but these two Jarmusch films are unique. Paterson (release date 12/28) is a small film about a bus driver and poet named Paterson. Not much happens but poetry and love. The city of Paterson, New Jersey, is a character in the film too, as Paterson drives his bus route around the old industrial city. Gimme Danger is Jarmusch’s documentary on Iggy Pop and the Stooges, with Iggy starring as an articulate, reflective older version of himself. While it’s not one of the best films of the year, it’s an interesting doc and shows Jarmusch’s talent and versatility.
My two favorite books of the year were Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad, which really is about a railroad, and Ian McEwan’s novella, Nutshell, told in the voice of a fetus that may turn out to be Hamlet. Through Whitehead’s book, you’ll get a visceral feeling for what slavery was like as well as some elements of history and magical realism. Nutshell is deliciously gossipy, charming and Shakespearean.
Kill Your Darlings, the live lit and improv series, cosponsored by Third Coast Review, was seven weeks of hard work and great fun. I wrote my own story for each of the seven nights of readings, based on the seven cultural categories on Third Coast Review.
The most memorable evening was when I read a poem titled “City Lady Blues,” accompanied by my son Steve on tenor sax. You can listen to the podcast. But I also loved telling my story about the Spanish Civil War in my dreams.
So much art, so little time. Some of my favorite exhibits of the year were at the Art Institute. The current exhibit of work by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy is fabulous in curation and organization and in the way it displays the curiosity and versatility of Moholy. The exhibit of Aaron Siskind’s Abstractions at the Art Institute was also memorable. Van Gogh’s Bedrooms was on the surface a modest exhibit but a brilliant way to illustrate the mind that created the bedroom paintings.
Other fine exhibits were the Strandbeests: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen at the Chicago Cultural Center and the exhibit of illustrations from Puck, the 19th century magazine of politics and humor at the Driehaus Museum.
Finally, I spent a memorable hour or two at the Art Institute following poet Stuart Dybek around the Modern Wing as he talked about art and poetry and read poems by various poets, including himself, dedicated to some of his favorite paintings.
Nights of great theater. I see 150-200 plays a year, as a reviewer and some as plain audience member. These were some of my favorites from this year, not listed in rank order. I’m going to reprise this list with commentary in a “best of 2016” post at thirdcoastreview.com. (And I did. See our Best of 2016: On Stage in Chicago.)
Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys at Raven Theatre
Haymarket: The Anarchists’ Songbook at Underscore Theater Company
Life Sucks at Lookingglass Theatre
Man in the Ring at Court Theatre
The Weir, Spinning and In a Little World of Our Own at Irish Theatre of Chicago
2666 at Goodman Theatre
The Flick at Steppenwolf Theatre
American Buffalo at Mary-Arrchie Theatre
The Hairy Ape at Oracle Productions
Huge sigh of relief. I finally finished the 800+ page biography of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. It’s the book that Lin-Manuel Miranda took on a beach vacation to Mexico. It inspired him, first of all, to write a song about our first Treasury secretary and perform it at the White House, and second, to create the Broadway extravaganza known as Hamilton: An American Musical.
In my original review of Hamilton, I predicted that Miranda would be named a MacArthur Fellow (better known as the MacArthur Genius Grant) and he was. Predicting that Hamilton will sweep the Tonys in June isn’t a very big bet.
I saw Hamilton when it opened on Broadway last September and fell madly in love with the show, with Miranda and with our ten-dollar Founding Father. Evidence of my madness?
- I’ve been listening to the cast album almost daily since it was released. I’m waiting impatiently for the script to be released.
- I’m looking forward to seeing Hamilton again, surely more than once, when it opens here in September. (At the dreadful Shubert/LaSalleBank/BankofAmerica/Private Bank Theatre.)
- I find myself hoarding $10 bills.
- I don’t want to hear about replacing A. Hamilton on the tenner. Replace that unsavory president Jackson on the $20 with a deserving female figure.
- His birthday and death date are six months apart on the 11th of January and July. They’re both in my calendar.
I have a pretty good background in American history and political science, but when I saw and thought more about Hamilton, I realized that I had been living with the Jeffersonian concept of American government. Journalism students (Mizzou J-School grad here) are educated to admire Jefferson in particular because of his views of the importance of press freedom and freedom of expression, and his role in drafting the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. I knew he owned slaves and I knew about the Sally Hemings thing, etc., but never mind. Reading the Hamilton/Federalist Party side of the story, you learn that Jefferson was a vicious opponent of Hamilton’s goals and fought for the agrarian way of life he preferred rather than the urban/mercantilist/manifacturing society that Hamilton fought for. (As an aside, Daveed Diggs is terrific as Jefferson in the Broadway cast.)
Reading Alexander Hamilton gave me a different perspective on American history and the founding decades of our country. Ron Chernow’s book, by the way, is highly readable and fascinating. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have read every last word and even devoured the 100 pages of notes. And Miranda’s hiphop operetta does not skimp on the details of Hamilton’s life, his brilliance and his foibles, and the controversies surrounding him. It is a full and complete lesson in American history, delivered with charm and infectious rhythm. The thing about hiphop that makes it work, Miranda says, is that it’s very dense, has more words per measure than most other forms of music. (Sort of Dylan and early Springsteen.)
Here are a few reasons why I’m a fangirl of A-dot-Hamilton.
- Hamilton is the avatar of the cliché known as the American dream; he rose from poverty and orphanhood to become an accomplished and powerful leader. Unlike most of the other Founding Fathers, he did not come from the moneyed, landed class.
He was born on a small island in the Caribbean, of unmarried parents, an absent father and a mother of questionable virtue. He came to the US as a teenager and made his way through college (Kings College, now Columbia University), to George Washington’s staff, to leadership on the battlefield in the Revolutionary War, and to Washington’s cabinet.
2. He produced all kinds of firsts in the early era of this country (despite opposition at every step of the way).
He was the first Secretary of the Treasury, stabilized the economy, designed our financial system, including the National Bank, the gold-based dollar, and the Mint; he established the principle that Congress had the constitutional powers to issue currency, regulate interstate commerce, tax luxury goods such as whiskey, and enact any other laws needed to support the provisions of the Constitution.
Basically, he fought for the concept and principles of the federal government. He created the Coast Guard, the Federalist Party and its newspaper, the New York Post. He used his incredible energy and persuasive abilities to work for the passage of the US Constitution, ensuring our country became a federal government, instead of a bunch of independent states. He was firm in his abolitionist views while his southern colleagues all owned slaves.
3. He was a brilliant thinker, speaker, opinionated and prolific writer, who turned out hundreds of letters, opinion pieces and essays and wrote 51 of the 85 articles in the Federalist Papers. And he was writing by hand with a quill pen and a bottle of ink, my friends. In case you think tapping a few tweets on your smartphone is work.
He often wrote political essays under pen names such as Cato, Publius and Phocion. He was probably the first blogger. (His handle today? @publiusny.)
He founded the New York Post, a Federalist newspaper, in the days when political parties specialized in publishing diatribes against the opposition in their own newspapers.
- Jefferson and Madison and their Republican party fought Hamilton and the Federalists at every step and President Adams banished him from the White House because he suspected him of conspiring with some of Adams’ cabinet officers. (He probably was.)
Chernow’s description of the bitterly fought election of 1800, by the way, is insightful to read and compare with the 2016 campaign. And they didn’t even have Twitter.
By the time Hamilton reached his late 40s, he was no longer a public persona (and he missed the limelight) but was a successful and sought-after lawyer in New York.
He had always had a tenuous relationship with Aaron Burr (who advised him, according to Miranda, to “speak less and smile more”), even though they occasionally appeared to be on friendly terms. Hamilton said negative things about Burr in private on a few occasions and these eventually brought Burr to challenge him to a duel. (An affair of honor, it was called. “Demanding satisfaction” was another way to put it.)
Hamilton, at age 49, was killed by Burr in the duel on July 11, 1804, in the dueling grounds at Weehawken, New Jersey. (The same place where Hamilton’s son Philip was killed in a duel three years earlier, upholding his father’s honor.) Burr shot directly at Hamilton and Hamilton either shot in the air or his gun went off by accident when Burr’s bullet hit Hamilton in the hip, destroying his internal organs.
“I’m not throwing away my shot,” Hamilton sings early in Act 1. “But yo, I’m just like my country / I’m young, scrappy and hungry / and I’m not throwing away my shot.” At the end, he did.
I’m not the only one who is bingeing on Hamilton. There’s new interest in historical sites such as the Grange, the Hamilton home north of Manhattan, and in the Hamilton burial site at Trinity Church in lower Manhattan.
Charlie Rose has featured members of the Hamilton crew several times, including this recent full-hour interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda filmed at his childhood home.
Finally, since March is Women’s History Month, I’ll close by noting that Hamilton’s exemplary wife, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, who stuck with him through all his battles and infidelities, lived 50 years after her husband’s death and died at age 97 in 1854. She worked for causes such as the establishment of orphanages and helped her friend Dolley Madison raise funds to construct the Washington Monument. She visited the White House and never gave up trying to salvage her husband’s reputation, which was attacked by his enemies after his death. Chernow devotes the first and last chapters of his book to Eliza Hamilton.
In 2009, Miranda performed the lead song about Hamilton at the White House. He said at the time he was working on a Hamilton “concept album.”
This will be a quick post before I leave for nine days of travel. When I return, I’ll have plenty of notes for my next essay. For now, here are a few things you won’t want to miss.
George Orwell’s 1984 at Steppenw0lf Theatre
This is a production of Steppenwolf for Young Adults, which basically means high-school-age youngsters. This is a heady play, very thought-provoking and extremely well done. As my review headline says, Steppenwolf recreates the dystopian past and strongly suggests dystopia still threatens us. My grandson James and I reviewed it and we both loved it. He has read the book and so was eager to see how it played out on stage. Here’s our review. The play is targeted at school groups so the weekend performance schedule is brief. I strongly encourage you to see it before it closes November 20.
Wim Wenders retrospective at the Gene Siskel Film Center
You can see some of the great films by this German master at the Siskel Film Center. The retrospective opened earlier this month but there are still some great films in store in the next few weeks, such as Wings of Desire (one of my favorite films of all time), Paris, Texas, and Until the End of the World. Here’s my preview of the retrospective.
The Siskel gallery is also showing a nice exhibit of film posters titled Wenders and the New German Cinema.
Stagestruck City exhibit at the Newberry Library
The Newberry has created a marvelous exhibit from its plentiful archives of Chicago theater history. The exhibit tells the story of Chicago theater from before the 1871 fire and brings it to the opening of the Goodman Theatre in the 1920s. I described the exhibit here. Fascinating and scholarly, not flashy and animated, the exhibit runs through December 31. Don’t miss the Newberry bookstore while you’re there; it’s one of our better bookstores, and deserves our appreciation in this era of the demise of real bookstores.