Ian McEwan: Saturday
Masterfully written novel of one man's day from one of our greatest living writers.
Stephen Elliott: Happy Baby
Inventive and oddly uplifting novel about a man’s quietly harrowing journey through the state juvenile system and a self-abusive adulthood.
Pär Lagerkvist: The Eternal Smile
Three long, epic stories about religious faith and the meaning of human life. The first and last, “The Eternal Smile” and “The Executioner” are less successful due to being more allegories than plot- and character-driven stories. But the middle story, “Guest of Reality,” is a lovely short story meditation on faith and death, told from the viewpoint of the young boy Anders. [Excerpt]
John McNally: The Book of Ralph
Highly entertaining novel about growing up and its often ugly aftermath.
Nelson Algren: The Man With the Golden Arm
Simply one of the greatest American novels ever. An unequivocal must-read. [Excerpt]
David Bezmozgis: Natasha and Other Stories
Fine collection of stories from this debut author, about Russian Jewish immigrants in Toronto finding their way to a new life.
Mike Royko: Slats Grobnik and Some Other Friends
Alex Kotlowitz: There Are No Children Here
Every bit as good as advertised. Absolutely essential reading.
Excellent character-driven novel of a young man coming of age in 1950s Chicago. [Excerpt]
James T. Farrell: Studs Lonigan: A Trilogy (Young Lonigan)
First volume of Farrell's classic work of realism, a gritty tale of Chicago's working-class Irish in the early 20th Century.
Nice literary fiction in which Chabon imagines the final case of Sherlock Holmes' career. Literary--not just genre--fiction.
Impeccably crafted collection of short stories by the Irish master. [Excerpt]
Quiet, gently-written collection of stories from the late author.
Crisp, fast-moving collection of stories from the acclaimed novelist.
Wright's impassioned essay on the African-American experience, first published in 1941. Accompanied by stellar FSA photographs from the era. [Excerpt]
Algren's classic book-length essay is both a loving tribute to, and a scathing attack on, his adopted hometown, "this most two-faced of American cities." [Excerpt]
Brilliantly funny, and often quite moving, novel which incisively narrates the unformed hopes, fears and misconceptions of the commitment-fearing male animal. [Excerpt]
Paul Krugman: The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century
Excellent collection of columns from the New York Times writer and Princeton professor. In clear and lucid prose, Krugman relentlessly eviscerates the misguided economic and social policies of the Bush Administration.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Brilliant, autobiographically-based fiction which recounts the waking hours in a single day of a prisoner of the Russian Gulag.
Alex Kotlowitz: Never a City So Real: A Walk in Chicago
Marvelous series of profiles of everyday, yet extraordinary, Chicagoans.
Anthony P. Hatch: Tinder Box: The Iroquois Theatre Disaster 1903
Riveting account of the horrific fire at Chicago's Iroquois Theatre, which senselessly claimed roughly 600 lives.
Strong but often-dizzying series of intertwining narratives about a multitude of Jewish oddballs in 19th century New York City and Buffalo. Another sharp graphic novel from one of the very best.
A fine series of character sketches on mid-level players in Washington D.C.: diplomats, journalists, intelligence analysts and, yes, a Congressman who once loved Flaubert but has now sold his ideals.
Nice old (1946) collection of Lardner's novellas, short stories and miscellanea, including his signature piece "You Know Me Al." Great humor with sharp insights into the human condition. (Out of print.)
Warm, lovingly written collection of stories about immigrants in Chicago's Ukrainian Village neighborhood in the late 1960s.
Fascinating novel of 17th Century Iceland and its struggles under Danish rule. Caveat: saga-like in style, and thus somewhat of a slow read.
After all these years, still the greatest novel I've ever read.
Golding's classic story of adolescent survivalists and the dark side of human nature. [Excerpt]
Brief, crisply-written novel of the doomed marriage of biblical tyrant Herod and the self-sacrificing Mariamne. [Excerpt]
Very fine comic novel, from the author of Catch-22, in which an aging author struggles to come up with one last, great novel.
Very fine Chicago-based literary journal, with contributions by Joe Meno, Leelila Strogov and others, plus an interview with Glen David Gold.
Kafka's classic story collection, including the landmark title story, the calmly harrowing "In The Penal Colony", the painful "The Hunger Artist" and others.
One of the most thought-provoking books I've ever read. It will challenge your assumptions and make you re-think your beliefs about America's past. Not revisionist history, but unvarnished, unapologetic truth. [Excerpt] [Excerpt] [Excerpt] [Excerpt]
Azar Nafisi: Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
Interesting memoir of life in Tehran after the Islamic Revolution, and the oppression of women and artists alike (of which the author is both). The book speaks eloquently of the battle between art and ideology.
Katchor's second Knipl collection. The extended series which closes the book, "The Beauty Supply District", is particularly good, though one should read the series in one sitting to catch all the interconnections.
Very fine social history of coal which studies its monumental impact on the development of human civilization and its terrifying impact on the environment and the future of our planet. [Excerpt]
Barbara Ehrenreich: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America
An outstanding, eye-opener of an expose'. Ehrenreich stealthily takes a series of low-paying jobs (Wal-Mart salesperson, waitress, cleaning woman, nursing home aide)--the only kind of job our economy is consistently good at creating--to see if she can survive. In short, she barely does, even working with the strong advantage of not having a family to support at the time. A must-read for anyone who still believes America is the land of opportunity.
Roy Emerson Stryker: In This Proud Land: America, 1935-1943, As Seen in the FSA Photographs
Excellent collection of Farm Security Administration photographs, hand-selected by Stryker, the photo program's director and godfather. All of America's greatest documentary photographers of the era--Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, John Vachon--are amply represented here, vividly illustrating a bleak and mostly forgotten decade. Sadly, this book, published in 1973, is now out of print.
Very fine story collection from one of the masters of the craft.
Very fine memoir of Stuart Brent, the legendary Chicago bookseller. Though Brent achieved his greatest financial success at his later Michigan Avenue store, Stuart Brent: Books and Music, I get the strong impression that he left his heart at The Seven Stairs, his original ramshackle store on Rush Street. At the farewell party for The Seven Stairs, Brent notes the obvious unease of his literary friends, an unease which he clearly felt himself:
"Ben Kartman was grim, Reuel Denny seemed bewildered, and above all, the old gang: Algren, Conroy, Parrish, Terkel, Motley, Herman Kogan...they were being charming and decent enough, but something was out of kilter. I had never seen them more affable, but it wasn't quite right--being affable really wasn't their line."
This novel surprised me. I had never heard of it before, having only come across it in a three-novel compilation that I picked up for three dollars in a used bookstore in Boston. About halfway through, it was starting to seem like the protagonist's murders were rather gratuitous, not unlike those which soured me on Thompson's revered The Killer Inside Me. But then the ending hits, and suddenly the book is not what it had seemed. Clifton Brown is indeed a nothing man, not really existing as his own self but instead living through manipulating and tormenting others. He thinks he's winning the game, but as it turns out he's been losing all along. And the local sheriff will see to it that he continues to do so, denying him the grand exit he desires.
Warm personal memoir, as Studs turns the interviewing table around 180 degrees. A priceless anecdote:
Nothing terrible happened to Hanson, other than a crying jag one Saturday afternoon. He had had a few. What was the trouble? I asked him.
"My father died."
There were soft, fumbled, solicitous murmurs and silence. My mother, passing by, reached in under the rolltop desk and withdrew a pint. She uncorked it, set it down by the Swede and patted his shoulder.
"When did this happen?" I asked.
"Thirty years ago," he blubbered.
My mother, without missing a beat, corked the bottle and replaced it in the rolltop desk.
Fascinating blue-collar, working-class poetry which beautifully invokes a crushing industrial landscape and the endless struggle of its denizens to carve out decent, human lives within it.
An outstanding novel about two peripatetic friends trying to travel the world and unburden themselves of a hefty amount of ill-gotten cash ("ill-gotten" to them, at least), with only marginal success. The plot moves quickly but is surprisingly complex and inventive structurally. A major fiction debut.
A monumental novel, this is the relentlessly bleak story of a simple Lithuanian immigrant and his family who live at the mercy of Chicago's stockyards around the turn of the 20th Century. While this book's legacy is the ultimate passage of Pure Food and Drug Act and the Beef Inspection Act (two crucial statutes which were the government's first attempt to control the previous unregulated meatpacking industry), Sinclair's main intention was to promote Socialism and call for the end to wage slavery. In fact, the oppressive labor situation portrayed in the book was far more disturbing to me than the description of unsanitary working conditions which dominated the public's attention. Sinclair was sadly aware of this, later writing "I aimed at the public's heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach."
This outstanding, sprawling novel has epic qualities, and yet Dos Passos consciously avoids the Big Statement. Instead, dozens of simple, unrelated New York City lives form, intertwine and pull apart again, most of them ending up as unresolved as life itself. To cite just two, Ellen Oglethorpe helplessly finds herself as a social butterfly, flitting from engagement to engagement while never making a permanent connection, alighting only temporarily on the life of Jimmy Herf, a frustrated journalist already ancient at 30. The novel beautifully captures a bygone era of Gotham's history.
Travis Hugh Culley: The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power
A remarkable short story collection, made even more remarkable by the fact that Hemon emigrated to the U.S. from Bosnia in 1992 and has only been writing in English since 1995. His lack of preconceived English-language notions actually bolsters his writing, enabling him to come up with highly imaginative and descriptive, albeit unconventional, phrases (such as "a molasses of bees"). The wonderful 78-page novella, "Blind Josef Pronek and Dead Souls" is a fine prelude to his excellent debut novel, Nowhere Man.
Kristina Borjesson (editor): Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press
Excellent novel told from the perspective of a soldier/killer for the fledgling Irish Republic. Riveting, passionate and ultimately hopeful, even after Henry Smart is betrayed by the revolutionary leaders who come to consider him expendable. The book is an interesting interpretation on what political freedom and independence really mean.
Concise, well-organized collection of Atget's lovely documentary photographs of the commercial structures and public gardens of Paris and its environs, from the early 20th Century. Baldwin's accompanying text does an excellent job of describing both the historical context of the photo subjects and Atget's compositional techniques.
Thoroughly enjoyable, and surprisingly non-dated, compilation of Trillin's current-event poetry, originally published in The Nation between 1990 and 1993. Trillin's barbs repeatedly hit home, at both Republicans and Democrats alike, though the first Bush Administration bears the brunt due to the time frame involved. Don't worry, though--there were enough shenanigans going on during Clinton's first year to give Trillin plenty to impolitely comment upon.
Heller's anti-war masterpiece is riveting, horrifying, appalling and wickedly funny. And suddenly more relevant than ever.
This followup to Hamsun's monumental Hunger is clearly the lesser of the two novels, and at first I was quite put off by the over-the-top romantic bliss in which Lieutenant Glahn wallowed. But as his relationship with Edvarda rapidly deteriorated, the book got funnier and more involving. Watching the societally helpless Glahn trying to navigate polite society was frequently uproarious, and I even began to see parallels between Glahn and the unnamed narrator of Hunger. Sometimes it even seemed that the two could be one and the same person.
This 1934 "socialist feminist" novel is a brilliant satire of both the arrogant detachment of the upper class ("Don't speak to me of bravery among your lower classes. I know nothing to compare with Emily Fancher's courage in coming here tonight," says a society matron of the wife of a tycoon who has the "courage" to appear at a society ball just after her husband is sent to prison for embezzlement) and the complete impotence of leftist intellectuals ("Our meetings are masterpieces of postponement, our ideologies brilliant rationalizations to prevent our ever taking action.") which had me repeatedly laughing out loud. But ultimately, the book is the sad and poignant story of a young intellectual couple who are so wrapped up in idealism and abstract ideas that they are afraid to simply live life.
Excellent Cold War thriller about mind control, global intrigue and political aspirants who are dramatically, and terrifyingly, different from what they profess to be. This classic is unfortunately and inexplicably out of print.
H.E.F. Donohue and Nelson Algren: Conversations with Nelson Algren
A fascinating transcript of conversations, circa 1962-64, with my literary hero. Algren discusses his life, his books, the literary establishment and the world at large with his usual combination of humor, swagger and keen insight. I actually found myself arguing with him over his stated justification for no longer writing novels.
In this graphic novel, Katchor brilliantly creates an alternate-univerise New York City, delicately straddling the line between used-to-be and never-was. Knipl isn't the protagonist as much as a leitmotif, weaving in and out of these narratives in his nocturnal sojourns, not appearing on every page but never more than a block or two away. Odd, yet amiable.
Studs Terkel: Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith
In the twilight of his own life, the great Studs Terkel takes on his most ambitious project yet: talking to a broad cross-section of people on their feelings about death and the possibility of an afterlife. While some sections are harrowing or depressing, the majority of this great book is a joyous celebration of life.
This is the worst novel I've read in quite some time--an unsatisfying mishmash of suspense thriller and a satire on the literary life, including most of the worst cliches of both. At one point, the narrative reads "The situation might have seemed absurd, like something out of a Restoration farce..." which is an unintentionally apt description of the book as a whole. The book became progressively difficult to read, but I was intent on finishing it, just for the lessons learned that I could apply to my own writing. DON'T make your plot hopelessly contrived. DO make your setting as realistic as possible. DO make your protagonist at least slightly likeable.
Jack Conroy and Curt Johnson (editors): Writers in Revolt: The Anvil Anthology
The Anvil was a proletarian literary journal of the 1930's and early 1940's. This anthology cuts a broad cross-section across its numerous contributors, and yet is remarkably coherent in theme. Again and again, these short stories deal with common people scuffling their way through the Depression and its immediate aftermath. Heavy-handed at times, as is to be expected with this genre, but always compassionate. I bought this primarily for Nelson Algren's pieces, but like any good anthology, it introduced me to several other writers whom I knew nothing about (Martin Savela, H.H. Lewis, and Joseph Kalar, just to name three) that I now want to explore further.
Reading a "classic" for the first time is usually a disappointment, as the result often falls far short of the buildup. But The Grapes of Wrath was everything I hoped it would be, and far more. An absolutely monumental work of fiction -- an unforgettable epic about the human spirit, unconditional generosity and the pursuit of dreams.
This brief novel really packs a wallop, conveying more meaning and emotion than most books four times its length. Two parallel stories about a woman living two parallel worlds: one as a liberal 60's idealist working in the belly of the beast as a Wall Street speechwriter, and the other as a wife struggling with a beloved husband stricken with Alzheimer's. The novel rarely has the two worlds intersect, which is how the protagonist wanted her life ordered. She hates everything about Wall Street, but she still finds solace there, in that the job gives her something to focus on, something other than the husband who is inexorably slipping away.
James Agee and Walker Evans: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Robert Reid and Larry Viskochil (editors): Chicago and Downstate: Illinois as Seen by the Farm Security Administration Photographers, 1936-1943
Jonathon Raban: Passage to Juneau: A Sea and its Meanings
Raban takes a solo sailboat journey from Seattle to Juneau through the Inside Passage, and nothing happens. Yes, he encounters occasional rough seas and meets oddball characters in port, but his journey consists mostly of his ponderous, self-absorbed musings and a brazen showing-off of his obscure literary knowledge. His retelling of Captain Vancouver's 18th Century explorations of the same area is infinitely more interesting than his modern-day narrative of cruising this well-travelled route.
Galen Rowell: Poles Apart: Parallel Visions of the Arctic and Antarctic
A purported classic of the literary noir, this one really didn't have the bang I was expecting. Maybe the book was too long. Maybe it the two anti-climaxes occurring after the story had appeared to wrap itself up not once, but twice. Why Marlowe continued to hunt for Rusty Regan when he wasn't getting paid to do so, and had no other personal stake in the matter, isn't adequately explained by Marlowe's supposed respect to the dying General's final moments. Good, but Jim Thompson did this genre much better.
Alfred L. Brophy: Reconstructing the Dreamland: The Tulsa Riot of 1921
Robert Gordon: Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters
Kenn Harper: Give Me My Father's Body: The Life of Minik, the New York Eskimo
Carl Hiassen: Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World
Ian Frazier: The Fish's Eye: Essays About Angling and the Outdoors
Frazier is an obsessive outdoorsman, but not an elitist. He seems to prefers areas, such as the East River or a trout stream next to a tire store parking lot, in which "I don't fear that my very presence is making it less pristine."
This is a very involving account of Oscar Hartzell, a wildly successful Depression-era perpetrator of the long-established "Sir Francis Drake Estate" scam. What amazed me was not so much the scam itself (which was absolutely brilliant), but instead the god-like status that Hartzell's "investors" conferred on him. "Drakism" was practically a cult, with believers who were virtually evangelistic in nature. Another interesting thing is that while Hartzell was living the high life in England, he was fully aware he was perpetrating a fraud, but at some point (probably once he was deported to America, where he was unexpectedly adored -- not lynched -- by his followers) he started to believe in his own con. He thought the scam was real, and that once the Drake estate was settled he would become the richest, most powerful man in the world. Not surprisingly, he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and eventually died in a prison mental hospital. A really interesting story. Reading it, it's not so surprising that investors in the 90's threw good money at every Internet venture that came along. It's just something inherent in our nature.
Olov Isaksson & Soren Hallgren: Bishop Hill: A Utopia on the Prairie
A very entertaining little novel about an ordinary NYC guy who likes sitting alone in his legally-parked car and reading the newspaper. Naturally, his fellow New Yorkers, the media and the mayor's office all blow Tepper's pastime completely out of proportion: other New York citizens come to him for advice, though he doesn't really provide any; the media treats him as a front-page human interest story, bestowing iconic status; and the mayor, a wonderfully paranoid caricature of Rudolph Guiliani and his quality-of-life initiatives, condemns him as a "force of disorder" and tries, in vain, to crush him.
An uneven study of Viking explorations in North America. At times, the narrative flows smoothly, as when Wahlgren describes Norse migration from Scandinavia to the North Sea Islands and on to Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland. Later, he argues persuasively that Leif Erikson's legendary Vinland settlement was not the excavated Viking site at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, but actually at the northernmost coast of Maine. In doing so, he quite logically follows the saga-described journeys of Bjarni Herjulfsson, Leif Erikson and Thorvald Erikson into Nova Scotia and Maine. But just when he has himself all set up to discuss the colonizing voyage of Thorfinn Karlsefni, who spent three years with sixty other settlers at Leif's old Vinland site and would seem to offer the best evidence in support of the Vinland-in-Maine theory, Wahlgren drops the narrative completely and starts discussing scattered Viking archaeological finds in Greenland and Arctic Canada. He also glosses over the rather significant fact that no Viking archaeological finds have been made in Maine or Nova Scotia. This book just seems frustratingly incomplete.
An amusing memoir of everyday life in Chicago, circa 1890-1910, when many of the city's now-familiar neighborhoods still qualified as wilderness. Long out of print.
An interesting account of yet another of Kent's bold, idealistic and ill-fated adventures, this time on a sailing expedition to Greenland. Not surprisingly, a shipwreck is involved.
The Onion: Dispatches from the Tenth Circle: The Best of the Onion
Alex Kotlowitz: The Other Side of the River: Two Towns, A Death, and America's Dilemma
Ben Hecht: A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago
An excellent collection of Hecht's Chicago Daily News columns from 1921. His essays explore the gamut of Roaring Twenties Chicago, from flappers to financiers to broken laborers. Even the most hopeless of his characters still maintains a quiet dignity.
Heinz is a contemporary of Algren's (both were highly regarded by Hemingway), and this book's themes are vaguely reminiscent of Algren: a boxer pulls himself out of society's lower class, gets a title shot and loses everything on one tiny, impulsive mistake. The narrative portions of this novel are extremely well-written, but ultimately the book bogs down from unnecessary or misplaced dialogue.
After ten pages, I already had more enjoyment from this book than I did from 300 pages of Juneteenth. The Vonnegut comparisons are a stretch, though. I think Griesemer was inspired by Catch-22 more than anything else.
Not so much a novel as transcribed oratory. What little plot there is is very hard to follow, and the characters don't converse so much as they proclaim to each other. Ellison was an immense talent, and some of the passages here absolutely sing. But after reading this and Kafka's The Trial, I'm swearing off any and all posthumously-published novels. The editor admits that Ellison died without leaving specific instructions as to how the 2000-plus pages of manuscript should be put together, and the final result proves that, for the most part, the editor was only guessing.
Lealan Jones and Lloyd Newman: Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago
I'm pulling for these kids, I really am. Lealan is very driven, and he'll definitely make it. But I see Lloyd drifting, and I fear that his aimlessness will keep him forever in the ghetto that Lealan is escaping.
Definitely the most human of Thompson's novels. I actually found myself cheering on the protagonist although, Thompson being Thompson, I knew he'd come to an untimely demise.
Alan Ehrenhalt: The Lost City: Rediscovering the Virtues of Community in 1950's Chicago
As much as Ehrenhalt claims to not be waxing nostalgic for an imagined 1950's idyll, that's exactly the case here. If you read Algren's works from that decade, you get little sense of the city being a warm, embracing place. Nor from Hecht's earlier writings, either.
Jim Redd: The Illinois and Michigan Canal: A Contemporary Perspective in Essays and Photographs
As much about the Illinois River valley as the I&M Canal itself. Still, a pretty interesting read, and the photos are first-rate.
In the last fifteen years, I've read and re-read this book numerous times, and each time I've experienced it on a different level: physical starvation, religion, ambition, idealism, artistic integrity, and even humor. Easily the greatest book I've ever read.
William Least Heat-Moon: River-Horse: A Voyage Across America
Like the cross-country boat trip this book describes, getting through this book is a test of endurance. I greatly enjoyed Heat-Moon's narrative as he journeyed through towns on the Hudson, the Erie Canal and the Ohio, but things bog down quite a bit as he travels the Missouri, whose valley is so wide that few towns are adjacent and the only structures to describe are the inhumanly-scaled dams foolishly plunked down by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Amusing, but ultimately most essay material turns out to be little more than brain candy. This is no exception. I can't imagine ever re-reading this stuff.
A totally unforgettable book. A cautionary tale of misplaced, youthful idealism and its tragic consequences.
Having received Juneteenth as a Christmas present, I thought I'd re-read Invisible Man first. Nice idea, and the book is terrifically written, but I only got halfway through before giving up and delving into my ever-expanding unread pile.
This is the book that the Chicago Chamber of Commerce didn't want the world to see. Instead of pumping up the tourism and real estate industries with promotional-pamphlet blather, Algren's essay presents the real history and state of Chicago: the back alleys, the dispossessed, the swindlers dressed up in their Prarie Avenue finery, the kill-or-be-killed ethos of this cutthroat "trader's town." Seldom has indignation been so lyrical. A book which every native Chicagoan should read.