Literary Chicago: Colson Whitehead - "The Underground Railroad"

 It's been awhile:
"It was late, but a bone expert from Chicago had presented that night and they might still be carousing in the local saloons."

"Many of the farm's leaders were out of town. Valentine himself was in Chicago meeting with the banks, his two sons in tow now that they were old enough to help with the farm's accounts."

"A prominent abolitionist stopped for a day en route to Chicago and stayed for a week."

"A little boy blew the whistle and the shucking began in a frenzy. This year's prize was a large silver mirror Valentine had picked up in Chicago."

"They put up a library next to the smokehouse. The room smelled pleasantly of smoke when Cora sat down in one of the big chairs with Valentine's books. Royal said it was the biggest collection of negro literature this side of Chicago."

"Cora spent most of the day in her bedroom with the latest almanac Royal had given her. He'd picked it up in Chicago." 
The stakes of the plot are much more grave than anything I want to pontificate about on why Chicago is mentioned so many times, even if only in passing, particularly given our city's complex racial history and the context of the novel.

The city is portrayed in a mostly positive light, as these references describe Chicago as a city with bone experts and books (the city is educated),  with banks (it is wealthy), it has mirrors (it has material goods), and people go there (it is a destination).


Literary Chicago: Ploughshares Winter 2016-17

As in past editions of Ploughshares, Chicago makes quite a few appearances in the most recent edition, although in subtle ways this time (by the way, you should support them; their one of my favorite journals). 

Beth Ann Fennelly recalls her time living abroad in "When Dusk Fell an Hour Earlier."
When I left Silesia, on the Czech-Polish border, I never imagined it would take me so long to return. But after I flew home to Chicago, then loaded up the car and drov 55 South to Fayetteville, Arkansas, I entered a graduate program in creative writing.

After I returned to Chicago in '94, my Czech year grew very distant very quickly.

"Don't you remember your nickname?" one asked.
"Yes," I sighed. I still hated it. "Američanka."
They laughed. "Oh yes, that's right." They laughed again. It was funny to them. "But don't you know your other nickname?"
I shook my head slowly.
"Ah. We called you 'Sunny Chicago.'"
Sunny Chicago? We were speaking English, but I felt lost. They'd had this adorable nickname for me? Sunny Chicago? Really?
While this is a work of non-fiction that doesn't really take place in Chicago, it does show the place our city has for those in between, on the move, a passing through point, whether it's between Silesia or Arkansas.

Daniel Lawless describes the monkey house at Lincoln Park Zoo in The Dean Has No Comment. You should just...just read that one for yourself. 

Chicago doesn't enter into the actual poems by these next two authors, but I feel it is necessary to point them out, being written by two of the most distinguished writers in this city. Enjoy.

Stuart Dybek - Moderation

Christina Pugh - The Social Fabric


Literary Chicago: Ernest Hemingway - "The Snows of Kilimanjaro And Other Stories"

Sigh. Some things never change.
"Listen," the detective said. "This isn't Chicago. You're not a gangster. You don't have to act like a moving picture. It's all right to tell who shot you. Anybody would tell who shot them. That's all right to do. Suppose you don't tell who he is and he shoots somebody else. Suppose he shoots a woman or a child. You can't let him get away with that. You tell him," he said to Mr. Frazer. "I don't trust that damn interpreter."

"I am very reliable," the interpreter said. Cayetano looked at Mr. Frazer.

"Listen, amigo," said Mr. Frazer. "The policieman says that we are not in Chicago but in Hailey, Montana. You are not a bandit and this has nothing to do with the cinema."

"I believe him," said Cayetano softly. "Ya lo creo."
 - from The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio

"What's he going to do?"
"They'll kill him."
"I guess they will."
"He must have got mixed up in something in Chicago."
"I guess so," said Nick.

- from The Killers


Literary Chicago: Jack Kerouac - "The Subterraneans"

" - returning to the Red Drum for sets, to hear Bird, whom I saw distinctly digging Mardou several times also myself directly into my eye looking to search if really I was that great writer I thought myself to be as if he knew my thoughts and ambitions or remembered me from other night clubs and other coasts, other Chicagos - " 

This is the third work of Kerouac that I've read and the third that has a Chicago reference (previously: On the Road / The Dharma Bums). Although this is a peculiar inclusion in the literary Chicago encyclopedia, as it doesn't say much about Chicago itself, rather the narrator is reminiscing back to other nights, other clubs, other cities, and picks Chicago in particular to call out.

The Bird in question of course is Charlie Parker, who while he played here, isn't as assoicated with Chicago as he is with other cities, particularly New York City. And the story itself, inspired by Kerouac's nights in NYC, is fictionalized to take place in San Francisco.

I'm reminded of Sarah Ruhl's play "The Clean House" which takes place in a "metaphysical Connecticut." I think Kerouac uses this phrase in a similar vein, that maybe Bird noticed the narrator from a night club in another city, and perhaps that city was Chicago, and perhaps it was another Chicago. Is Chicago ever the same place twice or even to two different people? Consider Heraclitus.

Or maybe I'm overthinking a speed-induced ramble of one of America's great writer's lesser works. (Not to mention that cover; it wasn't enough to put one photo of the author on the cover but we need to get his good side too?)

The most interesting thing of this novella overall is the character of Mardou, inspired by Kerouac's real life girlfriend, Alene Lee, who protected her privacy. I stumbled across her biography, written by her daughter and posted in 2010. Certainly worth the read to learn more about the inspiration for one of the period's more complex and entirely underwritten characters.


Literary Chicago: Edward Albee - 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Martha:...and she wants to go to Chicago all the time, 'cause she's in love with that actor with the scar...But she gets sick and she sits down in front of her dressing table...
George: What actor? What scar?
Martha: I can't remember his name, for God's sake. What's the name of the picture? I want to know what the name of the picture is. She sits down in front of her dressing table...and she's got this peritonitis...and she tries to put her lipstick on, but she can't...and she gets it all over her face...but she decides to go to Chicago anyway, and...
George: Chicago! It's called Chicago!
Martha: Hunh? What...what is?
George: The picture...it's called Chicago...
Martha: Good grief! Don't you know anything? Chicago was a thirties musical, starring little Miss Alice Faye. Don't you know anything?

This dialogue happens in the opening scene in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It doesn't really say much about Chicago itself, although the film Martha is trying to think of is Beyond the Forest (1949). Although I guess it says something that we are introduced to two characters that express such disdain towards each other while mentioning our city.


Literary Chicago: Jeanette Winterson - "Gut Symmetries"

"When Mama and I left for Berlin, Jove was about to go to Chicago to study. He was nineteen, a dark teenage hero to a girl in old-fashioned clothes and dreaming about James Dean." (pg 126)

Like in many works of fiction, Winterson's characters go to school in Chicago. While this reference is as vague as Jhumpa Lahiri's Chicago school reference, the context implies the school to be the University of Chicago (see Tender is the Night) although Alaa Al Aswany's Chicago is primarily set in UIC. I don't think I've read any fiction that pays much attention to DePaul or Northwestern though I'm sure it's out there. Any fiction about Chicago State? My alma mater Columbia College? Northeastern? I'm curious...


2016: The Year in Reading

Five Two. Fifty-two. LII. For each week of the year, I read a book. This has been a goal of mine for the past few years and I finally achieved it.

Of course, this is an arbitrary number. Does it mean I read more than in previous years? What about the average length of books? Consider Saramago and the works of poetry I read. Do I need to count pages? Number of words? But this isn't about nit-picking. It's about setting a goal and reaching it.

I like this reading goal in that it forces me to read wildly and without precision. I can read a wider range of works when I force myself to read 52 books. Having this goal in mind means I read more short poetry works and more works of flash fiction and short story collections. I read more non-fiction this year than I've ever read before. I found that sometimes books had to resonate with how I was feeling at the time. Like Lewis's It Can't Happen Here after Trump won the election or finally reading in the Spring Tender Is the Night, which I had purchased at a book fair over five years ago. Some books I couldn't wait to start as soon as I bought them like Known and Strange Things or Speedboat (although I couldn't get into it at first, it really grew on me).

The White Album, complete with front cover falling off, I found at the Logan Square Arts Fest, the same warm day I listened to Ryley Walker and Bill MacKay and found a reissue of the Beastie Boys first EP on on vinyl. Open Books, where I volunteer, provided many serendipitous findings as well, including Road-Side Dog and Written on the Body. Some books I special ordered, like the poetry collection by Danez Smith after I read a poem of his on Buzzfeed of all places.


Literary Chicago - Joan Didion "The White Album"

I wrote this post a few months ago. Not sure why I never uploaded it. I was planning on originally trying to find somewhere else to publish this, but I never really expanded on it in any meaningful way. I still think it's worth posting based upon the connection between the writer, the artist, this city, and my experience.

(via the Art Institute)
I recall an August afternoon in Chicago in 1973 when I took my daughter, then seven, to see what Georgie O'Keefe had done with where she had been. One of the vast O'Keefe "Sky Above Clouds" canvases floated over the back stairs in the Chicago Art Institute that day, dominating what seemed to be several stories of empty light, and my daughter looked at it once, ran to the landing, and kept on looking. "Who drew it," she whispered after a while. I told her. "I need to talk to her," she said finally.
Joan Didion wrote this in 1976 in an essay titled "Georgie O'Keefe". It was released in her collection called The White Album, chronicling the death of the sixties and the uncertainties of the seventies, covering everything from the Doors to dams to horticulture to Hawaii, Bogota to bureaucrats, to the women's movement and how an artist creates.

I've gotten into the habit of marking whenever Chicago is mentioned in fiction. This year however, I've been a bit out of character. I've read less fiction, and more non-fiction and, especially recently, poetry. I've read Didion in the past, and as I began reading this collection, I'd wondered if she would mention Chicago.

This essay was a pleasant surprise. It got me to rethink my previous notions of O'Keefe. Personally, I've never been a huge fan of her work (nothing against her personally, the works of European artists and authors have always appealed to me more). I've probably walked by these clouds dozens of times.

But last Thursday was different. I wanted to see what Didion saw and what her daughter saw in these clouds.


"Her Laugh (Killing Joke)"

'Cachinnator' was the word of the day one time on Dictionary.com so I wrote a story about it.

Perhaps it is my contrarian streak, but hearing laughter inspires in me near total mental collapse. I find the nature of cachinnators to be capricious and disconcerting. Every time a prospective chortler opens their mouth to release a guffaw or cackle, as if it were imprisoned inside them, I want to yell “Stop!” Have they no concern about the consequences of their actions or how others around them may react to their belly-laughs? No, they think not of my plight or of others like me at all.

This may be a surprise, but there are indeed many of us. We have meetings, local chapters, national conventions. There are critical inquiries into why we disdain such common practice, and defining the “what”: do we despise the laugh itself or the buffoon of the laugh's origin? Some write these notions off as futile or meaningless even if answered. They'd rather live their lives as they are, accepting the fate they've been dealt, and never be able to be one of the buffoons themselves. But I, and others like me, well, there's no hiding it: we want to laugh.



These things on my feet. It wouldn't be correct to call them shoes. Nor boots nor moccasins nor loafers nor slippers nor anything else in the social vocabulary we have to define the materials that robe our feet. Neither sock nor stocking nor hose will do either, though certainly closer to the lightness those items imply.

The problem, I believe, is that this is the first garment I own that can most accurately be defined not by the materials it is made of, the brand or designer, the size, the country of origin, the length of the laces, the proper use of, or the history of the concept of the shoe itself. These devices on my feet, which to you may seem vague in description, can only be described in adjectives and not nouns.

For simplicity, for your vocabulary, since you have never worn such a thing, I will call them “shoes.” But this soft wiry mesh is softer than the clunky thing that you are probably scrounging up in your imagination. So instead, picture: lightness. Air. Softness. The voice of your favorite female jazz vocal singer shrouding your feet in clouds. Imagine the feeling of stepping into one of Monet's lily ponds, or bathing downstream from a waterfall in a bubbly ravine. This is not just how these shoes feel, but how they look.