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Posts Tagged ‘Chicago’

Elliptical Orbit: On Mircea Cartarescu

February 26, 2014 | by


In the summer of 2011, I spent every afternoon Google-mapping the Chicago neighborhood where I grew up. I pulled the shades down, turned the air conditioner up, and typed the intersections that define Back of the Yards—named for its proximity to the Union Stockyards—into the search box. I was in the early stage of a nervous breakdown, obsessively attempting to revivify the past, the only place where, I believed, continuity existed. Fifty-First and Loomis was my embarkation point: the intersection where our family doctor’s office was located. An unfilled prescription, from 1965, that I’d found in my deceased mother’s jewelry box provided the office’s address. My mother and I had had a contentious relationship, but that summer I fantasized about opening her grave and throwing her skeletal arms around me—“I thought even the bones would do,” to quote Plath. I used the objects from the jewelry box (grocery lists, a Revlon “Moondrops” powder compact, old Sears charge cards, blue crystal rosaries, a Coty lipstick) to reconstruct her existence, and finding that prescription was like finding the key to a long-locked door.

Going to the doctor had been a kind of family outing—every three months, to get my grandmother’s diabetes checked—and I wasn’t sure if I had dreamed those odd excursions to that tiny office. My mother would go downstairs to get my grandmother dressed: clean hairnet; heavy girdle and thick support pantyhose; rhinestone brooch; nice dress instead of a stained shift; black orthopedic shoes instead of house slippers; and dentures, from the glass on the bathroom sink. Then she’d run upstairs to get my sister and me ready, dabbing Chantilly perfume on our wrists. Read More »


The Silent Treatment

February 13, 2014 | by

On Art Spiegelman’s new stage show, Wordless!

Photo: Robert Kozloff/The University of Chicago

Photo: Robert Kozloff/The University of Chicago

In 1970, when Art Spiegelman was twenty-two, he went to a gallery opening in Binghamton, New York, for an exhibition of woodcuts by Lynd Ward. Spiegelman wanted to tell Ward how much he admired the wordless novels the artist had made in the 1930s, but also, and no less importantly, he wanted to ask him what his favorite comic books were. The way Spiegelman tells it, the sixty-five-year-old Ward was gracious but confused: he didn’t know much about comics; his Methodist minister father had forbidden them. Ward’s woodcut novels, which blended Depression-era social realism with a Faustian sense of good and evil, owed more to the biblical engravings of Gustave Doré than they did to the Sunday funnies. Spiegelman didn’t get the comics talk he came for, but he spent some time in the gallery, studying those prints. Two years later, he composed a four-page comic about his guilt over his mother’s suicide. It was just a few panels, but their startling intimacy set the pattern for much of his later work, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning Maus, in which they were later included. Spiegelman titled that short comic “Prisoner on the Hell Planet,” and in its stark style and pitch-black outlook, you can see the influence of Ward’s woodcuts.

Spiegelman has given Ward’s novels a central role in Wordless!, the new stage show he created with the composer Phillip Johnston, and which the two men presented twice last Saturday to sold-out crowds at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts. Wordless! weaves together Spiegelman’s reflections on the history of wordless novels with slide show projections of the genre’s classic works, which Johnston and his sextet accompany with rollicking, klezmer-inflected, vaudeville jazz. The back-and-forth between lecture and performance neatly captured Spiegelman’s ambivalence about his role on stage. On the one hand, he was a comic artist on a mission, there to add a new branch to the family tree of the graphic novel, one that would demonstrate the genre’s deep roots and help solidify its place in the canon of “real literature.” Mostly though, Spiegelman was having fun. He was there to give the crowd what he had sought from Ward: a conversation about some of his favorite comics and a taste of the overwhelming pleasure they give him. “Don’t worry if you get a little lost while you’re watching,” he reassured his listeners between puffs on his e-cigarette. “I’m hoping you will careen between my words and these picture stories until you’re left as breathlessly unbalanced as I am.” Read More »


The Price of the Ticket

November 14, 2013 | by


Photography credit: Carl Van Vechten.

Back in 1985, on the morning of November 23 (a cold, wet, gray autumn Saturday), I woke up happy. At that time in my life, nothing could have been more unusual.

But I knew that before that day’s sun had set, I was going to meet James Baldwin, whose body of work (the novels and short stories, his plays and all those exquisite essays) had inspired my own burning desire to write.

Baldwin was on an interview-and-autograph tour which would be his last, crisscrossing America after the simultaneous publication of The Evidence of Things Not Seen (a book-length essay on the Atlanta child murders that were then still common knowledge) and The Price of the Ticket. On that Saturday afternoon, Mr. B. (as I privately referred to him) was scheduled to appear at a bookshop on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. For the preceding month, each customer who made a purchase at Guild Books had received a Xeroxed postcard-size printout of an invitation to the event. Baldwin’s appearance had also been touted in a news story printed that week in the Tribune.

I thought of how strange it must be—how truly bizarre—for a great writer who has spent thousands of hours alone in a room, grasping for words, struggling to sculpt just the right image on paper, to be confronted suddenly with hundreds of smiling, book-buying admirers; dozens of them invariably requesting special inscriptions for someone special; others craving a momentary brush with celebrity; still others bearing poems, plays, or stories they’re praying to share, plus the others who want to say a few words. I belonged in the latter category. Or I told myself I did. And what I wanted to tell Mr. B., more than anything else, was something like this: Thank you—for your books, for all of your work, and for being such a formidable mentor. I knew he’d heard some variation of that a thousand times before, but I was determined to say it.

Baldwin’s appearance was set for three P.M., and when I arrived at Guild Books just after two o’clock, a crowd of some three hundred was already crammed inside. A line of people stretched out the door and snaked around the corner and down the block. It may have been the most successfully integrated aggregation ever to peacefully assemble in Chicago (food festivals and ChicagoFest notwithstanding). Blacks and whites, Hispanics and Asians, Sikhs with turbans and Jews with yarmulkes were all in line, drawn together by the power of the words.

Passersby inquired about the reason for such a gathering. When told that hundreds were ignoring the autumn chill in order to meet James Baldwin, some of them smiled. Others drew a blank: they wanted to know why he was famous. Read More »


Happy Birthday, Mike Royko

September 19, 2013 | by


“Whether one eats a cat or not is a personal choice, and I don’t want to sway anyone one way or another. But if you do, there is one obvious cooking tip: always remember to remove the bell from the cat’s collar before cooking.” —Mike Royko



Don’t You Forget About Me

August 6, 2013 | by


Some people revere Jean-Luc Godard, others obsess over finding subliminal messages in the films of Stanley Kubrick. Much as I love the work of these masters, the filmmaker whose work I tend to think the most about is John Hughes. From the iconic films he both wrote and directed (The Breakfast Club, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles) to those he wrote and produced (Home Alone) the movies Hughes helped create between 1984 and 1991 are all classics in my eyes. (Even I will admit that after that his work gets really iffy: 101 Dalmatians, anybody?) I grew up laughing at his films, and when I eventually found myself homesick for the Chicagoland area I knew growing up, I’d revisit the copies of his films that I still watch on a monthly basis. Eventually I’d come to the realization that while David Kamp rightfully called Hughes the “Sweet Bard of Youth” in his 2010 Vanity Fair piece on the late director, I came to realize—thanks in large part to the distance between me and the place where I grew up—that Hughes was something even more; that he was to Chicago and its northern suburbs what Woody Allen was to Manhattan in the seventies and eighties. He made being from those bland suburbs seem more interesting than I recalled.

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March 26, 2013 | by

Tulsa aerial 392 - Copy_jpg

People pretend the idea of fact-checking fiction is hilarious and a paradox and maybe even scandalously bureaucratic and wrongheaded. But when fiction gets facts wrong, people care. If a novel claims to be about a real place, people say, It should at least get the street names right. If somebody writes a story about Manhattan, and he mixes up the streets, he’s expected to fix it. 

When I first realized this, it worried me. If I ever wrote a story, I thought, it would be murder to go back and change the street names. Not because of their precious sonic qualities, the effect removing them would have on the rhythm of the sentences. But because likely I’d have done more than transpose street names. I’d have bent Broadway to intersect with Bowery so that my hero could stumble out of a Bowery bar and look up and be able to see Grace Church, for example. Moving the streets, shuffling them back or prying them apart, would ruin the effect.

Which could have been the fact-checker’s point—everybody has the real Manhattan in their head, and with it a host of associations. We love Manhattan; don’t change it. Years later, I wrote a book about my hometown, Tulsa. And after I was done I decided to call it A Map of Tulsa.

My father read it and sent a simple, complimentary e-mail. Which was the perfect thing. Then when I was home and we could talk in person and were alone for a minute, he mentioned that there was just one thing: I had gotten a few details of geography wrong in my book. For example, St. Francis Hospital being right by the highway.

Yes, I said, that’s right. I know.

Which amounted to: I did it on purpose. Read More »