October 25, 2014

On Writing: Tom Montgomery-Fate interviews Michael Burke

A big thank you to Tom Montgomery-Fate, a great writer and teacher, for this opportunity. Filmed a while ago. Tom's interview with me begins at about 12 minutes after I read my short story, "Things That Matter."

The Interview

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April 28, 2014

Beautiful Fools
R. Clifton Spargo

The Two Hotel Francforts
David Leavitt

Heart of Darkness
Joseph Conrad


What is Art? – Years ago, I threw in the towel on finishing the reading of a book just for the sake of finishing. Too many books. Too little time. Along the way, I learned that abandoning a book doesn’t mean the author has failed or the book is poorly written; in fact, setting aside a book might say more about me as a reader – in general, but, specifically, too, at this time, with this particular story – than it does about the writer or the work. The act of reading stories is a two-way street and it’s on this street, once an introduction is made and a warm rapport is established, that art sometimes flourishes. In other words, I believe art is an act, not an object. Art is not the written word or the song performed or the painting on a canvas. Art is the exchange, the human experience created when one person connects emotionally, physically and intellectually with an artist’s creation. So the fact that I am setting aside Spargo and Leavitt’s novels doesn’t disturb me and should not be seen as a judgment about their novels. Sometimes it takes a while for an artistic connection to ignite, let alone to be forged. It wasn’t until I read Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” for the fourth time, over a number of passing years, that the story and I clicked, and I was finally able to hear so much of what Conrad had been saying all of this time. (After all, Conrad’s words hadn’t changed; but, over the passing decades, I had.) So perhaps I will once again meet “Beautiful Fools” and “The Two Hotel Francforts” on the street named Art – and, perhaps then, we will become friends.

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The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 2, 1923-1925
Edited by Sandra Spainer, Albert J. DeFazio III & Robert W. Trogdon


Keep, Don’t Keep – Only two years of correspondence. Roughly 460 pages of published reading. This exhaustive documentation of the young Hemingway coming to life, as a man and as an artist in Paris, is an important contribution to literature (and perhaps shows just how hungry the marketplace remains for all things Papa). But reading this encyclopedic volume of correspondence also gives you a far deeper appreciation for the hard work previous editors have done in editing (and narrowing down) the correspondence of Hemingway and other writers over the past several decades. Of course, the purpose in this book is not to leave anything out – and it’s not until you begin to fully experience the scholastic heft of this task that you begin to fully appreciate the surgical (and, sometimes, brutal) choices other editors have made in culling through thousands of letters. Here’s the irony: During these very early years in the 1920s, Hemingway was writing “Out of Season” and the other stories of “In Our Time” in which he honed the practice that would become the hallmark of his highly influential style: knowing what to leave out to make the story stronger.

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April 27, 2014

Writers e-Handbook: The How, Why and Where Journal for Emerging Writers of all Genres
Jotham Burrello
 
One-of-a-Kind – I am honored to be mentioned in Jotham Burrello's new "Writer's e-Handbook: The How, Why, and Where Journal for Emerging Writers of all Genres." In the preface, Jotham recounts one of my favorite stories about something inspirational my Dad asked me years ago regarding the great James Baldwin. But this one-of-a-kind guide offers a lot more than that anecdote; it features interviews and advice (in print and via video) with more than two dozen top-notch writers (including Audrey Niffenegger, Jane Hamilton and Joe Meno) plus how-to sections on finding agents and publishers as well as a useful appendix featuring sample cover letters, book contracts and much more. Writers e-Handbook is a must-have for any writer you know.  Writers e-Handbook is available via Amazon.

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Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris
Edmund White
 
Au revoir – Edmund White continues his breezy, chatty memoirs recalling his life in the 1980s in the City of Lights. An earlier memoir, Sketches from Memory, featured more American-in-Paris charm; but, this longer book is more of a whirlwind, covering more ground, dropping more names, describing White’s social and artistic life (Sketches offered a more intimate domestic portrayal), and featuring numerous entertaining anecdotes of a life lived abroad. A few, unrelated excerpts:

I amazed and pleased everyone by saying a few words in French at the beginning of the meal. But as I drank more and more white wine, I acquired a fatal confidence and soon was stringing together long chains of French words and tossing them like bouquets at the worried-looking experts. Finally, Simone said, unsmiling, “You know, you’re not making any sense. No one can understand a word.” When I think of that moment now, late at night, forty years later, I still cringe.


At another grand dinner, given by Diane von Furstenberg to launch a new perfume, I was seated next to France’s then most famous model, Inès de la Fressange. I asked her what she did.
 
As a novelist, I was intrigued by the economics of painting. Whereas serious novelists, even celebrated ones, could barely survive, the top painters were very rich. It was all because a painting was a unique object whereas a book was a multiple.

  *

Now Americans didn’t like feeling intimidated by a superior culture but enjoyed dipping randomly into Czech or Hungarian cuisine, folklore, or even politics in a lightly condescending, neocolonial way before running back to their enclaves in bookstores and reading their copies of English-language newspapers and attending concerts by American or British music acts. That’s probably why so many young Americans scorned France and believe the French were rude or snooty; they weren’t used to dealing with their equals or their more intellectually and artistically refined counterparts in other languages.

He never heard me speak English except once in London, in a roomy, old-fashioned taxi when I shouted directions to the Cockney driver. Brice told me that whereas I had a charming little accent in French, in English I sounded like a rustic braying for more “white wine.” He thought every American was shouting “white wine” all the time.


*

One winter day Raymond Carver, wearing a leather jacket, and I had our picture taken in front of the Academy, knowing that we would never get any closer during his stay.

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Speak Italian: The Fine Art of the Gesture
Bruno Munari
 
Perfetto – We are living in an age when texting, Tweeting and all sorts of technology are tilting written communication back toward a form of hieroglyphics, in which pictograms trump words. And with scientists now studying whether an increased use of digital devices leads to a shrinking vocabulary, it’s a good time to bone-up on an ancient but powerful communication tool: the gesture. Movement conveys meaning and sometimes a hundred words are better summarized with the thrust of a finger or the flick of a wrist. Visiting Harvard earlier this year, our friend from Firenze, Alessandro Bigazzi, purchased this slim book for Robert and me. (Gifts are sweet gestures themselves.) We have a long way to go before we’re close to mastering the art of the gesture, but this handy guide is a fun place to start.

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March 2, 2014


Studs Terkel’s Chicago
Studs Terkel

His Kind of Town – I grew up hearing Studs Terkel’s voice on my Dad’s clock-radio, tuned to WFMT-FM. I listened to hours of conversations Studs had with singers and songwriters and authors. I came to know that laugh of his and felt I came to know him, too. This was back in the 1960s, when I was just a little kid, fascinated by that gravelly voice – fascinated by these conversations, such adult conversations over the airwaves.

It was years later (decades, really) before I ever met the man. I met Studs through the Community Media Workshop, a feisty organization here in Chicago that helps other nonprofits tell their stories more effectively. Each year, the Workshop honors three or four reporters with Studs Terkel Awards. When he was alive, Studs participated each and every year, posing with anyone who wanted a photograph (and all 200 of us did). In every photo, Studs always – always – pointed with his thumb or forefinger at whoever else was in the picture with him (above you'll see Alton Miller, Studs and yours truly). Studs also ended every awards ceremony with a fiery stem-winder.

My most vivid memory of Studs occurred about a decade ago on a warm Spring evening when the Community Media Workshop had hosted the Studs Terkel Awards ceremony at the Arts Club in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood. The speeches were finished, dinner plates from the buffet and dessert table were cleared, and the Curtis Black Jazz Trio was wrapping up. Studs was about 90 years old. Cane in hand, Studs charged toward one of the bar tables and ordered cognac. The bartender politely informed Studs there was no cognac available. Studs, near-deaf, leaned closer and growled again in a louder voice: “A nightcap. Some cognac!” When the bartender shouted his reply, Studs’ red face lit with glee. “What’dya mean you don’t have cognac?” he roared. “For Christ’s sake, this is the Arts Club!”

Studs died in 2008. I, along with so many others, miss Chicago’s favorite raconteur, America’s favorite rabble rouser. Through 17 books, Studs Terkel made the ordinary extraordinary by enabling us to hear the uncommon voices of common men and women. “Studs Terkel’s Chicago” is his love letter to the Windy City. Reading this book, I couldn’t help but once again feel bedazzled by that voice, his voice:

“It is still the arena of those who dream of the City of Man and those who envision a City of Things. The battle appears to be forever joined. The armies, ignorant and enlightened, clash by day as well as night. Chicago is America’s dream, writ large. And flamboyantly.

It has – as they used to whisper of the town’s fast woman – a reputation.”

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October 29, 2013

Giving Kids a Fair Chance:
A Strategy that Works
James J. Heckman

Dollars and Sense -- The book opens with an essay by Dr. Heckman (a Nobel laureate in economics from that hot-bed of liberalism, the University of Chicago) stating the economic case for investing in the first five years of life as the first five years of learning. Eleven other scholars follow, attempting to either refute or reaffirm Heckman's claims. You can tell the conservatives from the liberals merely by their book titles. For example, Charles Murray's is "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010" while Mike Rose's is "Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education." (While one may not be wise to judge a book by its cover, one often can judge an academic's bias by his book title.) The most delicious part of this book is the final essay, in which Heckman responds to his critics and supporters, commanding the scene as an intellectual D'Artagnan fencing masterfully in a swordplay of ideas. He skewers each opponent. They don't just hand out those Nobels for nothing!

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How Children Succeed:
Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character
Paul Tough

Growing Up Well -- A young child's social and emotional development is at least equally as important as the child's intellectual and cognitive development. As a society, the United States of America has a long way to go before this scientific fact is reflected in public policies and embedded within cultural norms for how we treat and what we expect from new families. Paul Tough delves into this subject with great enthusiasm, a keen eye, and a gift for telling stories. He notes, for example, that when 16-year-old James Heckman received his Social Security card in the mail, the first thing this future Nobel Prize-winning economist did was to take his Social Security number and resolve it into primes. The guy loves math! Tough's book also features an eye-opening reminder for me: Angela Duckworth, a professor at Penn, has examined the difference between motivation and volition. Basically, a person can "want" something to change, but do they "chose" to make the change occur? Do they have a plan, a path, to actually achieve the desired change? Volition is what changes a life -- and the world.

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How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One
Stanley Fish

Tedious.

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July 7, 2013

Tales of the City
Armistead Maupin
Model Behavior
Jay McInerney
Gone Girl
Gillian Flynn

O tempora! O mores! -- I've been boning up on U.S. history by reading U.S. fiction. School books are sanitized of diverse perspectives and devoid of alternate analyses. Journalism is polluted with corporate bias and partisan slant. Our country's populace is roughly divided between those holding fast (and furious) to their own set of comforting factoids and those mesmerized into complacency by televised fare (see: the History Channel's latest features on ancient astronauts and doomsday fantasies ... This is history?) In a society such as ours, one dominated and diminished by ludicrous religious myths, it's best to turn to fiction if you're seeking any truth. Am I suggesting we look to made-up stories to counter the insidious propaganda of Big Religion? Yes. Fight fire with fire, I say. "Tales of the City" is set in San Francisco in the mid-1970s. Armistead Maupin's tantalizing melodrama celebrates Free Love, pot, the City by the Bay, and introduces us to my new favorite philosopher, Anna Madrigal. As Anna tells newcomer Mary Ann Singleton, "Dear ... I have no objection to anything." Has any single line in literature ever more succinctly summarized an entire era? Jay McInerney made his reputation with a debut novel that provided a telling take on the 1980s, "Bright Lights, Big City." In "Model Behavior," McInerney skewers a central part of 1990s life -- the time at the dawning of the widespread use of the internet but just before ubiquitous cell phones and text messages. (Characters in this novel send faxes, leave voice messages on tape machines and -- raise your hand if you're old enough to remember this -- mail letters.) McInerney masterfully depicts the moment in our time when empty-headed celebrities from Hollywood and fashion began to fully take their seats as the new Gods in the Pantheon of the Phonies. Thanks, in part, to the technological advances of the Digital Age, the enthroned have only grown more entrenched. Gillian Flynn's page-turning thriller, "Gone Girl," echoes with the paranoia, fear and suspicion leading to and through the nation's most recent economic collapse. "Gone Girl" reminds us, especially in a time of growing panic, the rational is often deemed irrational while irrational behavior is frequently rewarded -- and often triumphs. God bless America.

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June 13, 2013

COMMENTARY: Equality in the Land of Lincoln

Opportunities come and go. Ours just went.

Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington – plus Washington DC and three Native American tribes (Coquille, Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians and Suquamish) – are in the vanguard of embracing marriage equality. But not Illinois.

With our state’s long, pathetic history of political leadership that is either incompetent or corrupt (and, often, both), this failure should come as no surprise. Yet, with a “supermajority” of Democrats holding elected office, overwhelming support in public opinion polls, and elected representatives spouting more Abraham Lincoln quotes than Doris Kearns Goodwin, many of us felt our time had come.

In fact, our time had come. But Democratic leaders in the Illinois House allowed the poisonous power of silent bigotry to win the day May 31 when they chose not to even call the marriage equality bill for a vote. In short: opportunity knocked and Democrats failed to answer the call.

The few Illinois Republicans who stuck their necks out for marriage equality must feel like they have been left twisting in the wind. And they have. I suppose many young voters, too, now feel more turned off by politics than ever. The same holds true for voters of any age who cannot believe that equality even requires debate in a civil society in the second decade of the 21st Century.

I know Illinois, one day, will have marriage equality – but it won’t be due to anything any Illinois politician does. The time for them to be effective, to demonstrate true “leadership,” has now just passed. To have been among the first states would have been historic and worthy of quoting Lincoln. To be among the dribble of other states that eventually, someday, in time, embrace equality merely adds another embarrassing chapter to our state’s history rich with political embarrassments.

Marriage equality will eventually come to the Land of Lincoln as it will even to states like Mississippi and Arkansas, riding the tide of this great social change sweeping America and the world. Maybe it will happen this November. Or November next year. Or some distant November years from now.

It will happen – and Illinois political leadership will have nothing to do with it.

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April 6, 2013

Here and Now: Letters, 2008-2011
Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee

Correspondence – This is just what an exchange of letters between Robert N. Georgalas and I would be like – if Bob wrote both sets. Reflective, erudite: Auster and Coetzee share their thoughts and observations on a variety of subjects, from sports to economics to friendship and beyond. Though coming from two different backgrounds and writing always with great oceans between them, these two insightful writers enjoy a true correspondence of the heart.

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CHICAGO VOICES: Kevin Grandfield
 
Kevin Grandfield has begun to share his poetry via a YouTube channel called “poemeo.” Here is one of my all-time favorites, “It is Enough.” For those of you who are print-lovers, you’ll find this brief, beautiful poem included in the Polyphony Press anthology, “The Thing About Hope Is …”
 
 

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The Last Carousel
Nelson Algren
 
The Man with the Golden Pen – My friend Oz picked up a paperback copy of “The Last Carousel” at Bookworks in Wrigleyville and gave it to me. Oz is a living and breathing Algren character so I’ve had the triple pleasure of relishing a gift from a dear friend, revisiting the still-edgy stories of a great Chicago writer, and contemplating just how Algren captured the truth of real life. Bookies, boxers, Hollywood producers, heroin addicts and everyday heroes – they’re all here along with some sage advice about writing: In one essay, Algren quotes a letter recently received from a college co-ed who is “on the threshold of a literary career” and seeks advice on her next move. “’Your next move, honey,’ I had to caution her,” Algren writes, “’is to take two careful steps backward, turn and run like hell. That isn’t a threshold. It’s a precipice.’”

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CHICAGO VOICES: Michael Caplan’s new film about Nelson Algren
 
Michael Caplan and Montrose Pictures – makers of “Peoria Babylon,” “The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me” (the film version of David Drake’s captivating one-man show), “Stones from the Soil” and “A Magical Vision” – are in the homestretch of completing their newest documentary, “Algren.” Here’s a glimpse at their trailer.
 

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January 21, 2013

APPRECIATION: "One Today," by Richard Blanco

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January 20, 2013


Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry
Christine Sneed

Must Read – You know a book is good when it becomes the book you’re telling everyone to read. Winner of the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction and a Chicago Writers’ Association Book of the Year, the stories in this collection are moving, poignant, funny – and true-to-life. Sneed masterfully writes about the risk and humor of seduction as well as the role loyalty plays in love.

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WRITING TIPS: The 5 Books Every Writer Needs

I once groused to the writer and actor George Savino that I possessed too many books – more books, even, than fit at the time into my many bookcases. “I know why we keep books,” George explained quietly. “It’s so we can display them as Knowledge Trophies.” Since George’s bulls-eye observation I have done a better job of giving away finished books, and while I still have a long way to go I also now pass along George’s advice when I am invited into college classes to discuss writing. “There are only five books every writer needs to keep,” I announce somewhat dramatically, but it always grabs the students’ attention. “’The Elements of Style’ by Strunk and White because it’s the best grammar and style book you’ll ever read. ‘The Art of Fiction’ by David Lodge because it’s the best book on form you’ll ever read. ‘Reading Like a Writer’ by Francine Prose because she dissects the tools every wordsmith uses to construct a story – words, sentences, paragraphs, narration, character, dialogue, details and gesture. The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide,’ by John McNally (pictured here) because he provides sound, practical, candid advice without bravado or romance on what it takes and what it means to be a working writer. And a touchstone book – a book that will remind you why in the hell you fell in love with writing. For me, “The Thin Man,” by Dashiell Hammett, does the trick. No story starts faster. No story is more tightly written.

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The Last of the Savages
Jay McInerney

Always the Last to Know – As I started reading this engaging novel, I realized that Jay McInerney has become one of my favorite writers, an author I trust to spin a captivating tale, a wordsmith I relish and study. I also discovered that my appetite for McInerney books I’ve not yet read is equal to my love of re-reading F. Scott Fitzgerald. In part, I’m entranced by how their Irish-American outlook colors the stories they tell – American stories of tragedy and triumph, of social climbing, of tattered faith and romance. But it’s also the writing that attracts me to both: the poetry of their sentences. “The capacity for friendship is God’s way of apologizing for our families,” McInerney begins this novel of the unlikely bond between a southern rebel and a northern conformist. That’s a sentence worthy of the great Fitzgerald at the top of his game.

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The Fifth Floor
Michael Harvey

Toddlin’ Town – Hard-boiled detective Michael Kelly prowls the rollicking streets of modern-day Chicago, goes toe-to-toe with an abusive husband (as well as the sly wife and their devious daughter), becomes entangled in a mystery rooted in the Great Chicago Fire, and has a showdown with the Mayor Himself. All in a day's work for this classics-quoting gumshoe. If you love murder mysteries and love the Windy City, this book is for you.

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November 5, 2012

CHICAGO VOICES: Terrific book promo for "Briefly Knocked Unconcious by a Low-Flying Duck"

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October 8, 2012

A Farewell to Arms: The Hemingway Library Edition
Ernest Hemingway

All Good Writing is Rewriting -- Stories can end in one of four ways: triumph, defeat, stalemate or surrender. Ernest Hemingway tried them all in writing his masterpiece novel. This insightful edition, with introductions by Patrick Hemingway and Sean Hemingway, includes the 47 alternatives Ernest attempted. Among the alternatives was the one suggested by F. Scott Fitzgerald: to conclude with Hemingway's brilliant passage from Chapter 34, "If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break, it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially." That would've made for one hell of an ending, a quite poetic ending -- a truly F. Scott Fitzgerald ending. But Hemingway ended with that now famous (and quintessentially Papa) ending: "But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn't any good. It was like saying good-by to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain." Perfect -- and true. This edition also features about 40 possible titles Hemingway weighed. Of course, Hemingway "got the words right" there, as well.

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CHICAGO VOICES: 10 Words or Less

Like millions of Americans, I use Twitter to add my voice to incoherent rants about politics and incompetent corporations. I also tweet other bits of commentary, including my “10 words or less” movie reviews. Here’s a sample of what you’ve been “missing” by not following me:

The Ides of March – et tu, Clooney?
Albert Nobbs – Glenn Close? Her eyes say it all.
War Horse – Spielberg does John Ford.
The Trip – Goes nowhere, but is great fun getting there.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – Gary Oldman speaks volumes with silence.
Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman – impressive image-maker.
The Descendants – Tender, grace-filled. But she cheated on George Clooney?!
Mission Impossible – One of the all-time best theme songs.
Howl – Why can’t James Franco be in every movie?
Bill Cunningham New York – A cut above all the rest!
The Artist – Should win Best Dog.
Hugo – Everyone in Paris speaks with a British accent?
J Edgar – So M was Hoover’s mother and Bond’s boss?
Watching “The Help” really makes me miss “In Living Color.”
Just saw “Tree of Life.” What, no funny outtakes?
Bernie – Real life once again trumps fiction.
A Model for Matisse – Henri was a real cut-up!
Moonrise Kingdom – The Royal Tenenbaums for the prepubescent set.
Arbitrage – Always be selling … someone out.
The Master – A slow boat to China, indeed.
Looper – Only thing better than one Bruce Willis? Two.
Diana Vreeland – Before the devil wore Prada, she wore Blahnik.

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September 3, 2012


The Catcher in the Rye
J.D. Salinger
Daddy
Slyvia Plath

The Roots of Contemporary Literature – Since The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951 and the poem "Daddy" was published in 1965, legions of young Salingers and young Plaths have filled thousands of classrooms in hundreds of writing workshops across America. These writers (and I am one) all, more so than less, seem to be telling one of two stories. It's either, "Daddy, Daddy, you bastard, I'm through," or, "If you want to know the truth, I'm a virgin. I really am." In part, that's a testament to the influence of Salinger and Plath in the second half of the 20th century. But it's also an indictment. Here, in the second decade of the 21st century, should we not have other stories to tell? And other ways in which to tell them?

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September 1, 2012

Ayn Rand and the Prophecy of 'Atlas Shrugged'
Directed by Chris Mortenson

Cult Classic -- In this film, the mediocre writer and minor intellect is worshipped by bitter fans (who, by the way, are all white). Their ravenous slobbering over Rand's lower-case philosophy celebrates her central thesis that selfishness is a virtue. No film has ever made a more astute argument against itself.

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CHICAGO VOICES: Chicago Literary Hall of Fame launches newsletter

Read all about it! The inaugural issue recaps the new class of writers to be inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame on November 30 (Jane Addams, Sherwood Anderson, James T. Farrell, Ernest Hemingway, Langston Hughes and Carolyn Rodgers), recaps events from earlier this year honoring Ida B. Wells and Studs Terkel (penned by yours truly), remembers Ray Bradbury and Bill Granger, and lists a variety of upcoming literary events. Chicago Writers Association and the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame are forging a stronger literary community in the Windy City by building upon our rich traditions and showcasing the diverse array of writers working today.

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August 3, 2012


The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal
Gore Vidal
Edited by Jay Parini

On Writers and Writing: A re-post in honor of Gore Vidal (1925-2012) – I turn back again and again to Gore Vidal’s writing for several reasons: his snarky humor, his reflections on other writers, his insights on literature and politics. The essays here feature Gore in fine Snark Mode. Writing of Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of many Tarzan adventure stories, Vidal observes: “Not one to compromise a vivid unconscious with dim reality, he never set foot in Africa.” On the jumbled prose of a USC English professor: “Professor Halperin has not an easy way with our rich language.” And on John Updike, with a glancing swipe at a certain U.S. politician: “There is nothing, sad to say, surprising in Updike’s ignorance of history and politics and of people unlike himself; in this, he is a standard American and so a typical citizen of what Vice President Agnew once called the greatest nation in the country.”

Gore Vidal being Gore Vidal, sometimes even a passing reference is an opportunity for a sideswipe. In an essay on the memoir of Tennessee Williams, Vidal refers to “the artistically gifted and humanly appalling Carson McCullers.” Robert Lowell and Jean Cocteau receive better treatment. Dorothy Parker and Truman Capote seem well-equipped to withstand anything Gore tosses their way.

His reflections on William Dean Howells and Dawn Powell are particularly enlightening. In fact, combined together, these essays have helped me better understand a key point in craft: How third-person narration in a story or novel invites (and welcomes) a variety of observations, illuminations, opinions and commentary often not allowed for by first-person narrators. That seems like a fairly basic lesson in craft; one I certainly know and, of course, have studied. But without directly focusing on the essential mechanics of point of view in either essay, Vidal’s writing provides a master class on the subject. Similarly, in Tarzan Revisited, Vidal notes: “Though Burroughs is innocent of literature and cannot reproduce human speech, he does have a gift very few writers of any kind possess: he can describe action vividly … Because it is so hard, the craftier contemporary novelists usually prefer to tell their stories in the first person, which is simply writing dialogue. In character, as it were, the writer settles for an impression of what happened rather than creating the sense of the thing happening.”

The concrete lessons about writing are couched throughout, cushioned (though it’s often a rather firm, even uncomfortable cushion) between thoughtful observations about writers and writing. Three long quotes to provide example:

From his 1983 essay on Howells, commenting on many contemporary writers: “Then, if he is truly serious about a truly serious literary career, he will become a teacher. With luck, he will obtain tenure. In the summers and on sabbatical, he will write novels that others like himself will want to teach just as he, obligingly, teaches their novels. He will visit other campuses as a lecturer and he will talk about his books and about those books written by other teachers to an audience made up of ambitious young people who intend to write novels to be taught by one another to the rising generation and so on and on. What tends to be left out of these works is the world. World gone, no voluntary readers. No voluntary readers, no literature – only creative writing courses and English studies, activities marginal (to put it tactfully) to civilization.”

From a 1953 essay on novelists and critics from the previous decade: “It is a possibility, perhaps even a probability, that as the novel moves toward a purer, more private expression it will cease altogether to be a popular medium, becoming, like poetry, a cloistered avocation – in which case those who in earlier times might have written great public novels will be engaged to write good public movies, redressing the balance. In our language the novel is but three centuries old and its absorption by the movies, at least the vulgar line of it, is not necessarily a bad thing.”

And from a December 1967 essay in Encounter: “In any case, rather like priests who have forgotten the meaning of the prayers they chant, we shall go on for quite a long time talking of books and writing books, pretending all the while not to notice that the church is empty and the parishioners have gone elsewhere to attend others gods, perhaps in silence or with new words.”

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July 28, 2012

Almost Invisible
Mark Strand

Gems -- The brief prose poems in this slim volume remind you how powerful words and sentences can be in the hands of a master.

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The Paris Wife
Paula McLain

Bonsoir -- To love this book, you probably don't have to be enamored with the ex-pat writers of the 1920s who swarmed Paris; but, it wouldn't hurt. Here's Hadley and Hemingway -- and Stein and Toklas, Pound, bullfighting in Spain, the valise filled with Papa's early manuscripts lost in Gare de Lyon, and Pauline, of course, and the Murphys and, eventually, Scott and Zelda, who just about steal the show on these pages as it seems they so often did in real life. I bow to McLain for even attempting this novel and admire how she tells a fairly breezy tale. My only quibble is that every dish in this moveable feast seems cooked at the same temperature: no scene or development seems particularly more dramatic than another. That might be a consequence of revisiting some well-known stories and adhering as best as possible to the truth. Or it might reflect the emotional residue of a truly lost generation.

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Just Like Us:
The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America
Helen Thorpe

You and Me -- This is a personal tale that sheds much-needed light and reasoned, reasonable reflections on the too-often testy public debates swirling around immigration. The book is a page-turner with journalistic insight written by a seasoned reporter who also just happens to now be the First Lady of Colorado. Ultimately, the up-and-down, back-and-forth story of Just Like Us gave me hope for America -- and a better understanding of what it means to call myself, "American."

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Printers Row
Edited by Elizabeth Taylor

The Book Lovers -- The relatively new literary supplement to the Chicago Tribune is everything a literary supplement should be. Rather than page after page of tedious plot recaps and ponderous reviews (see: the evermore stodgy New York Times Book Review), Printers Row offers a lively reflection of the Windy City's vital literary scene. In addition to brief book reviews, Printers Row publishes clever features, interesting Book Club profiles, and telling glimpses into Chicago's appreciation of writers and the written word. A typical delight: the use of a CTA public transit map to show titles of books passengers were spotted reading at different El and subway stops throughout the city. My favorite Book Club profile so far describes the Edward Hines Jr. Veteran Affairs Hospital Literature and Medicine Book Club, whose members knocked Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms" for being too wordy. (As Robert Charles pointed out, that's a rather cheeky criticism coming from a group that calls itself -- now take another deep breath -- the Edward Hines Jr. Veteran Affairs Hospital Literature and Medicine Book Club.) Other features have listed Chicago schools named for authors; turns out, Louisa May Alcott has both an Elementary School and a School for the Humanities named after her. Printers Row is not inexpensive; but, it also spotlights reading recommendations from local booksellers and even provides much-needed, much-appreciated publicity to independent and self-published authors like yours truly. What's more, Printers Row publishes a new short story each week, rivaling perhaps only The New Yorker in sharing at least 52 new works of fiction every year. In short, Printers Row is the perfect reading for people who love books -- written, edited and designed by people who so obviously love books themselves.

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June 8, 2012

AROUND TOWN: Printers Row Lit Fest


There are those of us who believe summer in Chicago starts with the Printers Row Lit Fest in June. Thanks to the Chicago Writers Association, I'll have an opportunity to hawk copies of "What You Don't Know About Men" from Noon to 2 pm, on Saturday, June 9. Please join me if you can!

"What You Don't Know About Men" tells the stories of 20 men -- brothers, lovers, fathers, sons -- who are marching their way through life. You can order the book online or, better yet, at your favorite bookstore.

Here's a brief promo video, compiled from photos taken by Oz, Jim Slonoff and others.

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May 21, 2012

AROUND TOWN: The People March "In the night, and overhead a shovel of stars for keeps, the people march: 'Where to? what next?'" If Carl Sandburg was alive this evening, he might have written "helicopters" rather than "stars." Bravo to people, everywhere, who march.

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May 20, 2012

AROUND TOWN: The 'Chicago Spring' Just what we needed. Taxpayers get to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for our government's new police-military build-up -- and that's just to cover expenses for this weekend's NATO meeting. Citizens get clubbed and their rights get stomped upon by the blue-helmeted storm troopers. Chicago earns yet another black-eye: the murder capital with lousy schools once again demonstrates its brutal nature as the whole world watches. The one-sided TV news coverage and shamefully slanted newspaper coverage underscores why traditional media has gone Code Blue. (What do they mean when they say, "the Chicago Police are showing real restraint?" Do they mean the cops haven't yet shot anyone?) And compare how the media widely trumpeted the Arab Spring to how they're today breathlessly attacking this Chicago Spring. "Let us all praise the mighty citizens, risking life and limb, to speak truth to power." Well, that was good for those people in those countries over there in the Middle East, but it's apparently a very different story when it's here in Chicago! May 20, 2012. A sad day, all around -- except for those brave protestors who took to the streets to exercise their fundamental rights of speech and assembly. They are American heroes -- even though, in the media and in most circles, they will be painted in the dark colors of "terrorism." O, America, I love you so.

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May 11, 2012

CHICAGO VOICES: Thank You, Mr. President Sally Duros was kind enough to interview Robert Charles and me regarding President Obama's historic announcement this week. Here is the interview on her Huffington Post blog. Here is the brief, 7-minute audio interview and slide show on Sally's website.

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April 8, 2012


AROUND TOWN: Printers Row and Printers Row

Thanks to Courtney Crowder for the shout-out for "What You Don't Know About Men" in today's Printers Row, the Chicago Tribune's terrific new book section. Also, I'll be hawking the book at the Printers Row Lit Fest this year. Look for me on Saturday, June 9, from Noon to 2, at the Chicago Writers Association tent. And a big thanks to CWA President Randy Richardson for organizing this!

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March 13, 2012



AROUND TOWN: Visiting Shakespeare and Company




Our good friend Marja Lingsma made the photo on the left of Robert Charles and me during a visit to Paris last Thanksgiving. What a truly memorable day we enjoyed walking along the Seine with Marja and master magician George Parker, discussing art and politics and commerce and love! That's Robert's photo of Marja and George on the right. And here's a link to Chiara Clemente's new short film, via The New Yorker, about Shakespeare and Company, featuring the wonderful Sylvia Whitman. By the way, the books in the bag I'm holding were "Howl and Other Poems," by Allen Ginsberg and "A Moveable Feast," by Ernest Hemingway (the so-called Restored Edition). One extra treat about purchasing the books at this great shop is you leave with the books marked by the round, blue Shakespeare and Company stamp. Lovely.

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March 12, 2012


Nights at the Dream Cafe
John Mahoney

Long Life -- Nights at the Dream Café is the loveliest book – and most lovingly written – I have ever read.

Accomplished poet John Mahoney (photographed here by the talented Kat Powers) mines 94 years of life lessons to imagine these interconnected, page-turning tales. Each features his welcomed trademarks: imagery as delicately complex as the first falling snowflake; stories woven together with an unrelenting, thoroughly refreshing and completely captivating tenderness; authentic characters deftly drawn from an eager curiosity concerning the varied circumstances and customs of others; and a reassuring point of view shaped by a heart lacking cynicism, an eye focused by empathy and a soul buoyed by the joys of true communion. This book is a triumph.

Nights at the Dream Café is a celebration of human riches: kindness, humility, forgiveness and optimism. Reading John Mahoney’s book is like stepping off the train in Longreach after a long day’s journey, crossing Crow River Bridge, and walking up Main Street toward the glowing lights of the Dream Café itself. As you enter, proprietor George Andros greets you with a warm smile. His wife, Helen, offers to hang your coat and suggests you try the sliced turkey. The young actress Jill Whiting is just leaving as Peggy Hicks breezes inside behind you. Nan Ulrich is seated at the piano, playing a gentle tune. Franz Scheff and Luigi Toscano are nearby, accompanying Nan with their mandolin and accordion. Eddie Hartnett and Virginia Woods sit across from one another in a booth, laughing at a shared secret. Tom Gibbs sees you enter and, even though you are new in town, invites you to join him and Peggy at their table. As you take your place, Tom says, “There are no strangers at the Dream Café. Tell us friend: What’s your story?”

And you realize – even though you are meeting all of these people for the first time – you are home. What’s more, you are destined to return to the Dream Café, night after night, hungry for more good company, another fine meal and the evening’s new story.

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Fundraising and the Next Generation:
Tools for Engaging the Next Generation of Philanthropists


Money Makes the World Go 'Round -- Fundraising and the Next Generation is the go-to guide for philanthropy in the twenty-first century. Emily Davis has penned a practical, insightful and informed book that everyone engaged in fundraising will find useful. More than ever, the world needs new ways to approach old problems. Davis provides a vision.

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November 13, 2011


AROUND TOWN: The Greatest Compliment

I visited The Book Cellar in Lincoln Square yesterday to browse and purchase a couple of books. While I was paying at the register, a customer approached the clerk and asked where the store kept Kurt Vonnegut's books. "We keep them right here," the clerk replied, turned and grabbed a stack of books from the counter behind the register. He handed them to the customer.

"Why do you keep Vonnegut's books behind the counter?" I asked.

"They're the ones most likely to be shoplifted," the clerk replied, then continued ringing up my purchase.

Now that's a compliment. Forget the Nobel. So long, Pulitzer. Your books are most apt to be stolen? Sweet.

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October 27, 2011

CHICAGO VOICES: Oz on the Occupy Movement

My friend Oz returned to Chicago about a year ago. He's participated in a few of the local Occupy protests. I invited him to share his take on what's happening.

Whether it be Occupy Chicago or Occupy Wall Street or Occupy Spokane the Point Is We Are Dissatisfied! What is your question? Need you ask? We have worked our entire lives and have paid our bills and have suffered our diseases and for what? To be laid off and to have our homes be valued less through no fault of our own and to be denied health insurance because we happen to be sick.

So it happens that some wonder why we are disgruntled, to say the least.

Our parents taught us our patriotism, our loyalty and some of us our religion. And what is our reward?

Unemployment.

Foreclosure.

Debt.

Mounting debt.

Absence of health insurance.

Enough is said by We the Many People. You, the Wealthy who own our jobs and our banks and our homes and our lives and our futures MUST stop stealing and give us back your ill-gotten gains.

We are workers. We are providers. We are mothers and fathers and sons and daughters striving to keep our families together, and you insist on fighting us every inch of the way.

Again, enough. Enough! Must I say it again? Sadly, perhaps.

Occupy, the movement, is not organized, it is not a top-down thought-through consultation.

It is an angry, thoughtful, inclusive, welcoming gathering of Humans, Americans, (okay, we’d probably even welcome Martians)People who are Working Together For A Change In How The U.S.A. is Run.

Yeah, dude, that’s some tough shit. Scares a bunch to the back of the bus, now doesn’t it? Don’t let it do that to you. Come on up front. You are welcome here.

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October 22, 2011

"What You Don't Know About Men" named as Book of the Year finalist

I was thrilled to learn late last night that my debut short story collection, "What You Don't Know About Men," has been named as a finalist in the first-ever Book of the Year Awards sponsored by the Chicago Writers Association. The book is nominated in the non-traditional fiction category. What fun! Winners should be announced by December 1, and the party celebrating the awards will be held January 14 at The Book Cellar in Chicago's Lincoln Square neighborhood.

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October 9, 2011

Windy City Times’ review of “What You Don’t Know About Men”

“This is simply a terrific book, a debut by a very promising writer,” Tracy Baim concludes her review of my short story collection. Those words mean the world to me, especially coming from Tracy.

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The Portable Malcolm Cowley
Edited by Donald W. Faulkner

The Man Who Knows – Reading Malcolm Cowley is like taking a survey course of 20th Century literature. In the early 1920s, Cowley met Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein in Paris. Later, he succeeded Edmund Wilson as the literary editor of The New Republic, and throughout his career as critic, editor and writer he shaped how people around the world view the spectrum of writers reaching from Hart Crane to Jack Kerouac, from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Ken Kesey, from William Faulkner to John Cheever – and those are just a few examples of writers Cowley actually knew or closely edited. His influence stretched well beyond; what we think today of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman and Henry James is largely influenced by words Cowley has written. “Every time a young professor,” Cowley wrote in a 1951 letter to Hemingway, “goes to work on a writer of our generation it seems to me that he doesn’t know what it was all about.” Fortunately for those of us raised and schooled in 20th century American literature, there was a Cowley capable of putting the whole, broad scene into compelling perspective. Who will be the 21st Century’s clear-eyed interpreter? We’ll see.

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Horoscopes for the Dead
Billy Collins

Always and Forever – Billy Collins was, is and always will be America’s poet laureate. “Horoscopes for the Dead” features his trademark crispness, insight and wit. Here is his poem, “Feedback.”

The woman who wrote from Phoenix
after my reading there

to tell me they were all still talking about it

just wrote again
to tell me that they had stopped.

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Theatre North’s “Hairspray,” David Gruba’s “Broken Wand,” and BAC Street Journal

A More Perfect Union – If you are feeling shaken by the serious challenges we face as a nation (multiple, endless wars; an anemic economy; grid-locked politics, to name just three), you might find much solace in the arts. Does that seem like a stretch? Consider: The other night in Ironwood, Michigan (population just under 6,000, located in the Gogebic Range of the state’s western Upper Peninsula), Robert Charles and I thoroughly enjoyed the local Theatre North’s production of, “Hairspray.” John Waters’ tale of integration in 1962 Baltimore, featuring a cross-dressing star-turn for the actor portraying Edna Turnblad, might strike you as an odd and even risky choice for a community theater production in the North Woods. Yet, the show’s run was sold-out, the second act’s “I Know Where I’ve Been” (an anthem to the very American struggle of equal opportunity) proved to be a true show-stopper, and the loud, enthusiastic standing ovation at show’s end was well-earned by the earnest and talented cast. Add to all of that this fact: “Hairspray” kicks-off Theatre North’s 48th season. (“Theatre North is among the three oldest continuously operating community theaters in the United States,” according to a program note.) The evening brought back to mind a short story and literary journal I also recently enjoyed. "Broken Wand," by David Gruba (pictured here), is a clever bit of literary sleight-of-hand, telling the tale of two magicians. It’s also just one of many gems in a slim journal published by the Beverly Arts Center on Chicago’s south side. Like the community-created production of “Hairspray,” the poems, stories, photographs and other artwork featured in this fine journal define, describe and decipher the ways in which we live our lives. In so doing, locally created art – whether printed on a page or performed on a stage – builds and fortifies the very bonds of community that hold our nation together. And that, I find, is a reassuring thought. Together, artists are, indeed, helping to build a more perfect union.

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August 26, 2011


City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and ‘70s
Edmund White

Pride and Prejudice – “In the 1970s in New York,” Edmund White begins his breezy, chatty memoir, “everyone slept till noon.” White recounts two important decades in his life, decades key to his personal growth and development as an artist as well as key to the growth and development of the struggle for equality in America. He recalls the sex, literature and politics of this time with an easy-come, easy-go flair; you feel as if he’s seated in the comfortable chair across from you sharing fond and less-than-fond memories, from Stonewall and before to the founding of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, from recollections of James Merrill and Susan Sontag to depictions of the crime and grime of America’s proudest city.

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Papa: A Personal Memoir
Gregory H. Hemingway, M.D.

First, Do No Harm – This jaunty, slim tale features several of the now-famous Hemingway biographical hallmarks: prowling for Nazi submarines in Caribbean waters, duck hunting in Sun Valley, juggling three of four wives (Pauline Pfeiffer, Martha Gellhorn, Mary Welsh). The memoir movingly depicts the complicated love between the iconic father and his third and youngest son, who was obviously writing to find (and perhaps make) a certain peace. Dr. Hemingway strikes the right notes and succeeds in conveying the sense that he’s come to terms with his larger-than-life father. But I finished the book feeling unsettled, knowing some of Gregory’s story beyond that revealed in these pages. The four wives of his own. The eight children. The alcoholism, emotional anguish and gender questioning that would ultimately lead Gregory to die as Gloria Hemingway, age 69, in the Miami-Dade Women’s Detention Center after a run-in with the law. Now, weeks after finishing the book, one moment stays with me – a scene, I think, that says a great deal about the father as well as the son. “And papa and Adriana went on chatting,” Gregory writes, “sometimes in Italian, sometimes in English, and it was nothing really, except that you could tell he was in love, and perhaps the girl was flattered by his attention, or perhaps bored and just being polite or amused, as only young girls can be amused with an infatuated old man, but certainly not in love with him. But very sweet and considerate and never betraying her inner emotions. Never hurting him. That’s the way I like to remember papa.”

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The Chicago Way
Michael Harvey

My Kind of Mystery – Michael Harvey takes a tough guy detective, puts him in the middle of a cold case involving rape, murder, double-cross and old-fashioned corruption, adds some Windy City grit, and creates a first-class page-turner. Want more good news? Harvey’s been writing for a while and there are two more books in the series.

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August 20, 2011


AROUND TOWN: What You Don't Know About Book Tours

I'm excited that my "global book tour" for my new short story collection, "What You Don't Know About Men," gets rolling in September with two readings and a college class lecture. On September 11, I'll be joining some terrific authors -- Patricia Ann McNair, Megan Stielstra and Geoff Hyatt -- at The Chicago Way reading series curated by Julia Borcherts. The festivities get underway at 7 p.m., at The Hidden Shamrock, Lincoln Park's oldest Irish Pub, located at 2723 N. Halsted in Chicago. Plus, on the Saturday afternoon before, I'll be participating in a Book Fair benefiting the In Print writers group at the Barnes & Noble at Cherryvale Mall in beautiful Rockford, Illinois. My panel and book signing is scheduled for 1-3:30 pm on September 10. The college class lecture is a private discussion at College of DuPage. All of this comes in the wake of the terrific book party we held recently at the Edgewater Beach Cafe. I am still overwhelmed that 72 guests joined us for that event. (Here's a photo of me with the party's emcee, my dear friend and fellow author, Ed Underhill.)

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July 18, 2011

CHICAGO VOICES: Patricia Ann McNair

A blog post about the book-signing party for "What You Don't Know About Men" from Patricia Ann McNair, author of the forthcoming "The Temple of Air." Thank you, Patty!

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July 15, 2011


Book Party -- Venue CHANGE

Thanks to an enthusiastic response, we’re changing the location of the book-signing party Sunday to the Edgewater Beach Café.

Same time – 3 pm.
Same date – Sunday, July 17
New venue – Edgewater Beach Café, 5545 N. Sheridan Rd., Chicago, in the historic pink building just off north Lake Shore Drive at Bryn Mawr
Same book – “What You Don’t Know About Men”
Same author – Michael Burke

My friend (and a great writer himself) Ed Underhill will emcee our party. Robert Charles will still perform a bit of magic. And I’ll still provide a grand toast and brief reading. We’ll still have books to purchase (for $12.95) and a cash bar to enjoy.

The Café is on the first floor of the historic Edgewater Beach Apartments. Parking is available in the building (enter off of Sheridan Road, on the south end of the building; plus, it only costs $3 for up to 3 hours once validated by the Café). Street parking also is available. And the Edgewater Beach Café is three blocks from the Bryn Mawr stop on the Red Line subway.

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July 9, 2011


AROUND TOWN: Poetry Slam Turns 25, DePaul Hosts Writing Conference

Watching slam poetry is a bit like watching a lightning storm. You never know when or where a bolt will strike -- and, often, there's jaw-dropping beauty created by the atmospherics. Plus, there's the real danger that, every now and again, a bolt will strike out of nowhere and cause some severe damage. Performance poetry reminds us, then, of the elegance -- and capriciousness -- of life. Marc Kelly Smith (pictured here) is the founder of the Poetry Slam Movement, which celebrates its 25th anniversary on July 30 at Metro. Reserve your tickets for the hottest literary event of the summer here.

DePaul University's 2011 Summer Writing Conference is a blockbuster event, opening with July 15 keynoter Alex Kotlowitz and including an impressive line-up of writers and book people, including Tom Montgomery Fate, Miles Harvey and Jonathan Messinger. The conference encompasses poetry, fiction and non-fiction writing, as well as publishing in a mixed-media world.

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CHICAGO VOICES: Hemingway, Anderson, Fuller, Foreman

As I have written before, I was honored to serve on the 2011 Nominating Committee for the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. Nelson Algren, Lorraine Hansberry, Gwendolyn Brooks, Studs Terkel, Richard Wright and Saul Bellow were inducted in 2010 as the inaugural Hall of Fame class. Several others -- Theodore Dreiser, Harriet Monroe, Carl Sandburg, Mike Royko and James T. Farrell -- are automatic nominees for 2011 based upon the level of support they received last year. I nominated Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Henry Blake Fuller (pictured here), and Kent Foreman; my reasons are described below. Other members of the nominating committee included Gina Frangello, George Rawlinson, Quraysh Ali Lansana, Carlo Rotella, George Saunders, Don Share, Tim Spears, and Nell Taylor -- and, may I say, that's damn fine company. Take a look at all of our nominations here.

Ernest Hemingway
All great writing is authentic. The voice is unmistakable, revealing an organic connection between the writer and what is being written. All great writing is innovative, discovering clever approaches to language, structure, form and story that transform our understanding of literary art. All great writing is influential, changing fundamentally how others write. (As Tobias Wolff has pointed out, if you are writing today you are either trying to write like Ernest Hemingway or trying not to write like Ernest Hemingway. That’s influence.) Strip away the larger-than-life life and what you are left with are the man’s stories – authentic, innovative, influential tales. “At the lake shore there was another rowboat drawn up,” one story begins. “The two Indians stood waiting.” Generations of writers have now come and gone writing in the shadows of this pioneer, for better, for worse, forever.

Sherwood Anderson
Why are great writers great? Because they stand on the shoulders of giants. In an Atlantic Monthly essay published 12 years after Sherwood Anderson’s death, William Faulkner describes his days with Anderson in New Orleans, the debt he and Ernest Hemingway owe Anderson, and the pain they inflicted upon their old friend – Hemingway in "The Torrents of Spring" and Faulkner himself in a parody booklet designed to ridicule Anderson’s style. After Sherwood Anderson helped to get Faulkner’s first book published, the great Southern writer recalls, “I saw Anderson only once more, because the unhappy caricature affair had happened in the meantime and he declined to see me, for several years, until one afternoon at a cocktail party in New York: and again there was that moment when he appeared taller, bigger than anything he ever wrote. Then I remembered 'Winesburg, Ohio' and 'The Triumph of the Egg' and some of the pieces in 'Horses and Men,' and I knew that I had seen, was looking at, a giant in an earth populated to a great – too great – extent by pygmies.”

Henry Blake Fuller
Let us now praise the carpenter-writers, those too-often unsung wordsmiths who hammer out sentences and paragraphs, and are equally responsible for building a great city as the highly praised architects and well-paid financiers. Let us now praise Henry Blake Fuller. “Ogden smiled,” he writes in his most popular work, The Cliff-Dwellers. “He saw that he was face to face with a true daughter of the West; she had never seen him before, and she might never see him again, yet she was talking to him with perfect friendliness and confidence. Equally, he was sure, was she a true daughter of Chicago; she had the one infallible local trait: she would rather talk to a stranger about her own town than about any other subject.” Fuller was born in 1857, in a house that stood where LaSalle Street Station stands today. One of Chicago’s most important early writers, he penned short stories, novels and plays with an eye cast on the social and economic forces at play in the bruising city he loved. Today, Henry Blake Fuller is largely unknown – perhaps because his 1896 play, “At Saint Judas’s,” was very possibly the first play with a homosexual theme published in the United States while a novel published 10 years before his death in 1929, “Bertram Cope’s Year,” centered on gay characters. A man ahead of his time? A writer not to be forgotten.

Kent Foreman
Go to a poetry slam – and you will hear Kent Foreman’s voice still among us. Listen closely and you will catch the husky, rhapsodic echoes of how Kent Foreman bridged generations from the Beats to today’s performance masters. Dubbed “the elder statesman of spoken word” by the Chicago Tribune, Kent was born in February 1935 and died in November 2010. Along the way, he wrote and performed across the United States, received the Chicago Historical Society’s Carl Sandburg Award, delivered a classic performance of a haiku, “Epiphany,” on Def Poetry Jam, and inspired countless writers searching for their own voices. “Kent was such a strong presence in our lives as young poets,” Tara Betts recalls in an online obituary. “The last time I saw Kent we drove on 47th Street together; even as we were taking in the familiar street, Kent was reciting poems.”

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June 16, 2011


AROUND TOWN: Telling the Nelson Algren Story

One underlying theme in Chicago filmmaker Michael Caplan's work is identity. Whether he's exploring his father's story as a young student at a unique school in 1930s Germany ("Stones from the Soil"), or his friend Eugene Burger's story as magic's mystic guru ("A Magical Vision"), or David Drake's life as a gay man coming of age in the 1990s ("The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me"), Michael finds riveting ways to reveal the many and layered truths of his subjects. That's why I'm especially excited about the newest subject he's tackling: Nelson Algren. If you are a Chicago writer, you live in the shadow of Algren, author of the iconic, "Chicago, City on the Make" and winner of the first National Book Award for his novel, "The Man with the Golden Arm." And Michael Caplan is just the filmmaker to tell the Nelson Algren story. If you love Algren, if you love insightful film-making, if you love gritty Chicago writing, I invite you to join me in helping Michael finish his movie by supporting his Kickstarter campaign. Your $25 or more can ensure that this chapter of great Chicago writing -- and a great Chicago writer -- gets its due. You can watch the movie trailer here. Thank you for your consideration.

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June 11, 2011


Leonard Cohen: Poems and Songs
Edited by Robert Faggen

Gifted – My dear friend and colleague Susan Mullin gave me this book as a gift the other day. Gifts presented for no special reason, presented at no special time, are perhaps the loveliest gifts – and it’s just like Susan to be so thoughtful. (Thoughtfulness itself is a gift.) And it’s just like Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets, too, to present such a handsome collection of fine work from a master. Leonard Cohen has shared his many gifts with all of us in a career spanning more than 50 years. His words only resonate more deeply with each passing year. An example, from “Alexandra Leaving:”

As someone long prepared for this to happen,
Go firmly to the window. Drink it in.
Exquisite music. Alexandra laughing.
Your first commitments tangible again.

You had the honour of her evening,
And by that honour had your own restored –
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Alexandra leaving with her lord.

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Las Vegas: Underfoot
Gordon Meyer & Gale Meyer

Down Under – Gordon and Gale Meyer use fewer than two dozen words to preface their delightful picture book. “‘Look! Up! Here!’ Las Vegas screams for you to look everywhere but down. What’s underfoot is no less spectacular; it’s just rarely noticed.” They then share 85 simple, whimsical photographs – each featuring cameo appearances of the tips of the photo-takers’ shoes – of the floors, carpets and sidewalks of Sin City. The result is a magical, fresh and thoroughly charming take on America’s playground in the Mojave Desert.

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May 30, 2011


AROUND TOWN: Printers Row highlights

Three highlights at next weekend's Printers Row Book Fest: Michele Weber Hurwitz, pictured here, and author of a novel for middle-grade readers titled, "Calli Be Gold;" and Tom Montgomery Fate, author of "Cabin Fever: A Suburban Father's Search for the Wild," will both appear Saturday morning. They're terrific writers. Also, you can enjoy a wide range of writers at the Chicago Writers Association tent on Saturday and Sunday.

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May 21, 2011


AROUND TOWN: And the Nominees are ...

When Donald G. Evans and Randy Richardson invited me to participate on the Nominating Committee for the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, I jumped at the chance. And then I realized just how difficult it would be to narrow my nominations down to three or four writers. Nelson Algren, Lorraine Hansberry, Gwendolyn Brooks, Studs Terkel, Richard Wright and Saul Bellow were inducted in 2010 as the inaugural Hall of Fame class. Several others -- Theodore Dreiser, Harriet Monroe, Carl Sandburg, Mike Royko and James T. Farrell -- are automatic nominees for 2011 based upon the level of support they received last year. I spoke and exchanged emails with about a dozen friends, other writers and readers, which, of course, opened up my thinking -- and only made my decision more complicated. (And more fun.) Kurt Eric Heintz pointed me toward the poet Kent Foreman. Writers like Don DeGrazia and Patricia Ann McNair made a case for Ring Lardner and others, while Sun-Times journalist Tom McNamee suggested, in part, George Ade and Edna Ferber. They weren't wrong. In the end, I nominated Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Kent Foreman (pictured here) and Henry Blake Fuller. My ballot and others' are on the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame website. Now it's up to the Selection Committee to decide. I wish them well with this thoroughly enjoyable -- and complex -- decision.

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April 16, 2011


Hitch 22: A Memoir
Christopher Hitchens

Keeping the Faith – The booze-soaked prose of this old-school raconteur creates a first-rate memoir. Rather than merely recapping his work to liberate people from tyrannical regimes and religions, Hitchens offers some up-close-and-personal insights into his upbringing (the eldest son of the beguiling Yvonne and the commanding Commander), his friendships (with Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, James Fenton and others), and his political evolution (from something of a Marxist to something of a conservative). The result is an entertaining, provocative tale, complete with contradictions. Hitchens acknowledges a frequent and thoroughly human desire to have things both ways, in more ways than one. I’ve always found Hitchens to be a dexterous and mostly thoughtful writer, and while I certainly don’t agree with him on all political matters, his book reminded me that I don’t even agree with myself 100 percent of the time. The book also sheds light on a larger point: Everyone gets the United States of America they want. Hitchens became a citizen after 9/11, and he proudly carries an unabashed convert’s zeal in believing in the power of America to repair and heal the world. I find this lack of humility in geopolitics to be as equally disturbing and no less threatening than the widespread lack of humility in the world’s religious faiths.

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