October 31, 2016

Book review: “The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros

There is a universal quality to Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street and also something very specific. This is the story of Esperanza Cordero, and, at its heart, it is the story of every child who has gone through the very difficult transformation into becoming a teenager with all its excitement, fear, challenge and risk. No wonder it’s read in so many high school classes. At the same time, the book’s strength as literature is that it tells the story of a unique girl in a unique place — a Mexican-American girl in the neighborhoods of Chicago whose life is focused not only on the changes in her body but also on her need to figure out how to maneuver in the broader world. Esperanza lives in a community that is made up of newly arrived immigrants from Mexico and first-generation Americans, but also includes black and white people from such places as Texas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Puerto Rico. There’s even Ruthie, an emotionally fragile woman, who wears a babushka, the colorful traditional Russian headscarf that, in mid-twentieth century Chicago, was ubiquitous as a means of protecting the hair of women of many backgrounds from the wind. Ruthie, tall […]
October 24, 2016

Book review: “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America” by Nancy Isenberg

Well, this book is a mess. Given its title, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Louisiana State University history professor Nancy Isenberg would seem to be a book about a certain group, or class, in American society. But, throughout the book, Isenberg adamantly and continually avoids defining that group. A lot of times, it’s poor Southern whites, but, at other times, it’s only some poor Southern whites. Sometimes, it includes poor whites from elsewhere in the country, such as Maine and California. And, sometimes, she’s not talking about white trash at all, but about the fact that, from the beginning, there was the stratification of classes in the British colonies and then in the new United States. She is shocked — just shocked! — at the reality that there are rich and poor in this nation, and that it’s hard for the poor to rise up the economic ladder as, ideally, they are supposed to be able to do.   Other, better books I acknowledge that this book, riding its White Trash title, may lead to other, better books. Isenberg’s text hints at what some of those books might be: A book on the treatment […]
October 21, 2016

Essay: Chicago’s deadly streets in the late 19th and early 20th century

On the evening of March 9, 1903, Maria Stanton wanted to cross Clark Street at Goethe Street, on the edge of Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood, the enclave of many of the city’s richest families. A household servant in her early thirties, she was plainly dressed in a heavy brown blouse and skirt of rough material and a dark blue jacket. Her only jewelry were a pair of plain gold crescent earrings. In her pocketbook, she carried $1.50, the equivalent of about $25 today. Stepping off the western curb, she started across the pavement, only to look up and see a crowded cable train bearing down on her.  The Chicago Tribune reported: Bystanders said the victim started to cross Clark street toward the east, immediately behind a south bound train. As she stepped on the other tracks she found herself a few feet from a north bound Lincoln avenue train. She paused, looked back, and saw another car approaching from the north, shutting off retreat. The gripman rang the gongs and the passengers shouted, but the dazed woman still stood motionless on the tracks while the north bound Lincoln avenue train struck her and knocked her down. She fell forward and […]
October 19, 2016

Book review: “The Children of Men” by P.D. James

There is something of a happy ending to The Children of Men by P.D. James, but that’s only if you don’t think past the final page. On the plus side, humanity has suddenly found a way to dodge a catastrophic extinction event, albeit one that, at the start of the book, has been playing out for a quarter of a century. On the negative side, people are still people, and that’s a bleak reality for James. This is one profoundly desolate novel, and James had no business at all conjuring up a feel-good conclusion. I think she wanted to find hope despite her dark view of human nature. Her perspective is pretty dark, such as the take on marriage given by her narrator Dr. Theodore “Theo” Faron, an Oxford don and very much a bloodless prig. He is asked if he loved his wife at any point during their now-ended marriage, and he responds: “I convinced myself I did when I married. I willed myself into the appropriate feelings without knowing what the appropriate feelings were. I endowed her with qualities she didn’t have and then despised her for not having them. Afterwards I might have learned to love her […]
October 17, 2016

Book review: “A Dirty Job” by Christopher Moore

A Dirty Job is a book about death. And it’s hilarious. It’s Christopher Moore, after all. As with all really funny books, there’s a deeper meaning to the laughs in A Dirty Job, published in 2006. Think of Terry Pratchett’s ridiculously humorous novels about his fantasy Discworld which grapple with real-life issues such as racism, pollution, technology, war, stick-up-the-ass-ness and, yes, death. All the time, Death. (Well, he is a major character in the series.) Reading A Dirty Job, I couldn’t help but wonder what Pratchett and Moore would have thought of each other and how they might — or might not — have gotten along if they’d met. (Alas, Pratchett died in March, 2015.) Their books are the products of writers with a skewed vision of the world and, for all their great humor, a sorrowful one as well. You can’t laugh if everything in life is just  hunky-dory.  Tragedy, though, betrayal, pain and, yes, again, death — these are what bring on the hilarity. Either that, or it’s a weepfest.   Side job A Dirty Job opens and closes with a death. In the first pages, Charlie Asher’s wife Rachel dies, leaving him with their newborn daughter Sophie. […]
October 12, 2016

The ten best books about Chicago: a list

There are many very good and even great books about Chicago, and here are the 10 that I think are the best: Nature’s Metropolis by William Cronon Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis by Harold M. Mayer and Richard C. Wade Plan of Chicago by Daniel H. Burnham and Edward H. Bennett Chicago: City on the Make by Nelson Algren The Jungle by Upton Sinclair Boss by Mike Royko Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City by St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros Chicago: The Second City by A. J. Liebling Forever Open, Clear, and Free: The Struggle for Chicago’s Lakefront by Lois Wille Certainly, at another time, I might come up with others. After all, this list doesn’t include Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March or Richard Wright’s Native Son. Maybe it should. The best books about Chicago, whether fiction or non-fiction, examine a city that is the fabric of the interwoven lives of its citizens. The great books about the city know that its streets are escape routes and borders. They know that its weather batters and caresses. They know that its rust is beautiful. […]
October 11, 2016

Essay: Chicago’s Trail of Tears

In London during the summer of 1835, demonstration trains began giving free rides along a newly completed section of the London and Greenwich Railway, the first railway of any sort in the city as well as the very first elevated railroad in the world. In addition to testing the track and viaduct, these trial runs were aimed at boosting public awareness of the new technology and were so successful that taking a trip on the trains became the fashionable thing to do. “For a few weeks in the summer,” writes R. H. G. Thomas in London’s First Railway: The London & Greenwich, “ladies made up parties to ride in the [train] carriages….Groups of foreign visitors, members of the Society of Friends and parties of Cambridge scientists all found their way there, as did several MPs [Members of Parliament], the Swedish ambassador and the Prince of Orange [the future King William II of the Netherlands] and suite.” London was an old city, originally settled around 50 A.D. As the capital of the expanding British Empire, it had grown by this time to some 1.7 million residents and had pushed past Beijing to become the most populous city on the planet. It […]