James Baldwin: Notes of a Native Son
Uneven collection of essays, marred by vagueness and generality.
Peter Guralnick: Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians
Wonderful collection of musician profiles that I've just re-read for the first time in at least twenty years, and enjoyed just as much as ever.
Knut Hamsun: In Wonderland
Weird, idiosyncratic and vivid travelogue of Hamsun's 1899 journey through the Caucasus region of Russia, one which says as much about the eccentric and cantankerous author as the region itself.
Richard Wright: Black Boy
Angry, fiery, passionate memoir of Wright's childhood and teenage years in the repressive South.
Budd Schulberg: The Harder They Fall
Dark, cynical and tragic novel of a dubious heavyweight contender.
Markuz Zusak: The Book Thief
Vividly rendered and heartbreaking novel of civilian life in WWII Germany. The book sometimes suffers from overwritten prose, but that's only a minor qualm for what is overall a very fine book.
Joseph Mitchell: Old Mr. Flood
Charming, delightful, marvelous evocation of a vanished place and time.
Edgar Allan Poe: Poe's Tales Of Mystery And Imagination
Hugely disappointing re-reading, with rare moments of brilliance but far more narratives dulled by long-winded, verbose and digressive prose.
Joseph G. Peterson: Beautiful Piece
Psychological portrait of an obsessive young man.
Stuart Dybek: The Coast of Chicago
Strong, soulful, often enchanting collection of stories from Chicago's gritty Southwest Side.
Colin B. Morton and Chuck Death: Great Pop Things: The Real History of Rock 'n' Roll from Elvis to Oasis
Funny as hell in spots, though it loses steam at the end. (Stones jokes are timeless, but Pulp? Hardly.) I also would have preferred only half as many jokes about Bowie, Eno and Morrissey (all fishes in barrels), though admittedly one of the funniest bits in the whole book is Strangeways prisoners complaining about overcrowding and inhumane conditions which resulted from obsessed Smiths fans breaking in. Overall, a very fun collection that even a merely casual fan of rock history should enjoy.
Margaret Atwood: Oryx and Crake
Great storytelling about a dying future world and how it got that way. Clean and simple, yet deceptively deep.
Various Writers: On the Clock: Contemporary Short Stories of Work
Strong collection of short stories set in a broad range of jobs, from corporate offices to food service and even a circus. Poignant to funny to grim, these stories show workers struggling to survive in a cutthroat and indifferent business world. Pieces by Bonnie Jo Campbell, Matt Bell and many other fine indie writers.
Kent Haruf: The Tie That Binds
Another marvelous book from Kent Haruf, full of his usual warmth, compassion, atmosphere and sudden, riveting action.
Various Writers: Daddy Cool: An Anthology of Writing by Fathers For & About Kids
The title says it all. Stories about kids by dad writers. Solid throughout.
Seamus Heaney: North
Stark, gripping, eloquent, touching poems of Ireland, past and present.
James Claffey: Blood a Cold Blue
Passionate ideas, imaginative phrasing, vivid imagery.
J.F. Powers: Morte D'Urban
Brilliant portrait of a priest balancing between the pious and secular worlds.
Ben Tanzer: Orphans
Familiar voice, familiar obsessions, unfamiliar sci-fi setting. And it all works.
Anonymous: Egil's Saga
Marvelous tale of cruelty, greed, independence, tradition and family ties.
John Vachon: John Vachon's America
Too much text, too few photographs.
Boldly audacious, brilliantly vivid depiction of Hell.
Homer: The Odyssey
Sluggish, wordy, repetitive, endless buildup without much payoff at the end.
D.B. Wyndham-Lewis (editor): The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse
Fun collection of some very awful poetry, by poets both renowned and obscure. If you're a writer, this book is a great ego boost.
Anonymous: The Poetic Edda
Marvelous narratives, but their power is blunted somewhat by the fragmentary, stylistically inconsistent and often contradictory nature of the poems. The Edda is an ancient compilation of even more ancient oral poetry, put together by poets of widely varying skill, and over the centuries much of the text has been lost, or lost in translation. Still, despite its shortcomings, this is one of the great classics of Western literature, and especially so the Sigurd and Gudrun cycle of poems.
Jonathan Messinger: Hiding Out
Enjoyable story collection which could have used more grit.
Matt Bell and Josh Maday: Dancing on Fly Ash: One Hundred Word Stories
Microfiction pieces that intrigue but don't quite fully connect.
Knut Hamsun: Tales of Love & Loss
Fascinating early stories from the Norwegian master.
Patrick Michael Finn: From the Darkness Right Under Our Feet
Joliet stories that hit you in the gut, and the heart.
Various Writers: Hair Lit Vol. One
Solid, fun, often touching collection of stories about hair metal songs.
Marilynne Robinson: Housekeeping
Good but not classic novel burdened by overwritten and digressive prose.
Anton Chekhov: The Duel
Priviliged but unhappy people take personal honor to its extreme.
Stephen D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner: Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
Started well but finished weakly. Mildly entertaining but nothing more than that.
Hans Keilson: Comedy in a Minor Key
Subtle but affecting portrait of a marriage, war and human compassion.
William Butler Yeats: The Wind Among the Reeds
Early collection of poems from the Irish master.
Samuel Beckett: Endgame
Bleak and quietly profound.
J.P. Donleavy: The Ginger Man
Loathsome protagonist, meandering narrative, overwritten prose. Mediocre.
Kingsley Amis: Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis
Thoroughly entertaining and informative guide to alcohol, by one of its wittiest and most erudite enthusiasts.
William Trevor: Cheating at Canasta
Lovely, quiet yet powerful collection of stories about people who are lonely but often not alone.
Kurt Vonnegut: Armageddon in Retrospect
Funny, angry, incisive stories and essays about war, peace and humanity.
Elizabeth Crane: You Must Be This Happy to Enter
Mediocre collection of overly clever stories.
Studs Terkel: American Dreams: Lost and Found
The stories here are as fascinating as ever - but with the American Dream being so vague, the book lacks the cohesion of his best books.
Edward J. Rathke: Ash Cinema
Haunting novel of grief, longing and reaching across time.
Margaret Atwood: The Penelopiad
Disappointing retelling of the classic Ulysses and Penelope myth.
Entertaining, lively collection of traditional poetry.
Ben Tanzer: This American Life
Funny collection of monologues and stories.
Larry Brown: Joe
Tense, biting story of family and retribution.
Mike Royko: Sez Who? Sez Me
Funny, witty, skewering collection of Royko columns from the 1970s and 80s.
Knut Hamsun: Victoria
Fine narrative of romantic tensions, slightly undone by a melodramatic and unrealistic ending.
Tarjei Vesaas: The Ice Palace
Haunting tale of childhood secrets and learning to grieve, and learning to live on.
Jason Fisk: Hank and Jules
Sobering portrait of a failing marriage, marked by frustration, heartbreak and temptation.
Kent Haruf: Where You Once Belonged
Prodigal son returns home to a hostile welcome.
Sinclair Lewis: Go East, Young Man
Fine stories with all the satirical wit and social commentary you would expect from Lewis.
Kingsley Amis: Lucky Jim
Wry satire of midcentury British academia.
Norman Mark: Mayors, Madams and Madmen
Moderately interesting but much too anecdotal.
Nick Hornby: Juliet, Naked
Pop music and failed relationships - but still a letdown.
Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day
Lovely, quiet, dignified portrait of an English butler and a vanishing way of life.
Sweet, gentle profile of White and his classic story.
Joe Meno: Office Girl
Deceptively light narrative that runs much deeper than it seems. Nicely done.
Carl S. Smith: Chicago and the American Literary Imagination, 1880-1920
Interesting study of a pivotal era in American literature, with discussions of Chicago-based literature from several angles
Richard Wright: Native Son
More polemic than novel, contrived narrative in service of the author's grand message.
George Ade: In Pastures New
Typically light and funny fake travelogue of Europe and Egypt.
Fyodor Dostoevsky: Crime and Punishment
Slow, ponderous, verbose, endlessly digressive. Not a classic.
Kjersti A. Skomsvold: The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am
Uneven debut novel of a lonely, lost old woman.
Breaulove Swells Whimsy: The Affected Provincial’s Companion, Vol. 1
Lighthearted, fun and (I think) tongue-in-cheek manual for becoming a modern-day dandy.
Matthew LeMay: XO
Good, but not completely convincing study of Elliott Smith's great album.
Ryan W. Bradley: Prize Winners
Crisp, quick and obsessed with sex.
James Joyce: The Dead
Excellent, atmospheric story of long-ago Dublin life.
Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man
Chaotic, propulsive, contemplative, visceral, devastating. Brilliant.
Jack London: White Fang
Though this is the first time I've read the book in over thirty years, it's every bit as good as I remembered it.
Michael Czyzniejewski: Chicago Stories: 40 Dramatic Fictions
Funny, imaginative, thoughtful monologues from Chicago's famous and infamous.
Tom Williams: The Mimic's Own Voice
Brilliant fictional biography of an artistic genius.
Ben Tanzer: My Father's House
Emotionally moving story of coping with grief before loss has even occurred.
William Trevor: Felicia's Journey
Lovely novel of loneliness, longing and regret, and two vivid characters whose lives briefly cross, with only one emerging unscathed.
Various Writers: Great Tales of City Dwellers
Strong 1955 short story anthology - Algren, McCullers, Wolfe...
Jane Addams: Twenty Years at Hull-House
Memoir of the first twenty years of the pioneering Chicago settlement house, by the great social reformer.
Great subject matter, less than great presentation.
Peter Orner: Esther Stories
Solid story collection of lonely lives.
Jim Thompson: Savage Night
A hitman's compelling tale and surreal fate.
Various Writers: The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers
Entertaining, thoughtful discussions between writers.
Ben Katchor: The Cardboard Valise
Weird and wonderful graphic novel from the best one going.
Aharon Appelfeld: The Iron Tracks
Grim, joyless yet quietly powerful story of memory and revenge.
Sholom Aleichem: Selected Stories
Delightful tales of Eastern European Jews of a now-distant yet vivid past.
Isaac Bashevis Singer and Richard Burgin: Conversations with Isaac Bashevis Singer
Stimulating discussions on literature and humanity.
Bohumil Hrabal: Too Loud a Solitude
Thoughtful, philosophical, funny and tragic novel about the power of the written word. Stunning.
Alan Heathcock: Volt
Strong, sometimes brutally real collection of short stories set in small-town America.
Thomas Hardy: Jude the Obscure
Love versus marriage, happiness versus obligation, scholarship versus real life.
Jason Fisk: Salt Creek Anthology
Suburban story cycle of mostly empty lives.
Charles Dickens: Great Expectations
Fine but overlong story of ambition, resignation and redemption.
Ben Tanzer: You Can Make Him Like You
Funny, thoughtful novel of looming fatherhood.
Per Petterson: Out Stealing Horses
Quietly intense, impeccably narrated, simply beautiful.
Nelson Algren: Nonconformity: Writing on Writing
Sebastian Barry: The Secret Scripture
Len O'Connor: A Reporter in Sweet Chicago
Interesting memoir of the longtime Chicago journalist.
Scott Phillips: Rut
Dysfunction and corruption reign in a forlorn
Stona Fitch: Senseless
Tense, disturbing thriller of political extremism and one man's fight for survival.
Sinclair Lewis: Elmer Gantry
Entertaining satire of religious ambition and hypocrisy - but more of a polemic than a novel.
Austin Kleon: Newspaper Blackout
Innovative, fun collection of found poetry, all created by blacking out newspaper articles.
Jamie Iredell: Prose. Poems. A Novel
Lyrical portrait of a dissolute life, glimmering slightly at the conclusion.
Corey Mesler: The Ballad of the Two Tom Mores
Lust, murder and dark hilarity consume a
Mel Bosworth: Grease Stains, Kismet and Maternal Wisdom
Boy meets girl, heartbreak unexpectedly does not prevail.
George Ade: In Babel: Stories of Chicago
Wonderful collection of short stories, originally published as newspaper columns. [Review]
Ring Lardner: The Portable Ring Lardner
Finley Peter Dunne: Mr. Dooley Remembers
Andrew Ervin: Extraordinary Renditions
Strong, sharply-written debut about three intersecting lives in Budapest. [Review]
Studs Terkel: Working
O.E. Rölvaag: Giants in the Earth
Magnificent epic of
Seamus Heaney (translator): Beowulf
Walt Whitman: Leaves of Grass
Stendhal: The Red and the Black
Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart
Good but less than essential novel of African tribal life, tradition versus modernity. [Review]
Alan Sillitoe: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning
Entertaining comic novel of youthful irresponsibility. [Excerpt]
Patrick Hamilton: Hangover Square
Disturbing portrait of alienation, obsession and mental illness. [Excerpt]
Ian McEwan: Amsterdam
Two men strive to make their mark and when thwarted then seek revenge, but a third gets the biggest revenge of all.
Tarjei Vesaas: The Birds
Relentlessly sad novel of helplessness and not belonging. [Excerpt]
Pär Lagerkvist: Barabbas
Beautiful and quietly powerful story of an unrequited longing for faith. [Review]
Jonathan Swift: Gulliver's Travels
Brilliant, angry, timeless satire of the entire human race.
John McGahern: Amongst Women
Strong novel about what happens to revolutionists after the revolution is won. [Review]
William Trevor: Fools of Fortune
Lovely novel of revolution, revenge and self-imposed exile. [Review]
Gabe Durham: The Complete Genealogy of Everyone, Ever
Whimsical and very funny collection of stories about well-meaning losers. [Review]
Eric Bogosian: Pounding Nails in the Floor with My Forehead
Outrageous, obscene, bitter, provocative - and laugh-out-loud funny.
Arthur Koestler: Darkness At Noon
A powerful, thoughtful and ultimately tragic discourse on revolutionary politics. [Review]
Kent Haruf: Eventide
Another lovely novel of the fictional small town of Holt, Colorado. [Review]
Matt Bell: The Collectors
Inventive and sadly beautiful fictionalization of the tragic Collyer brothers. [Review]
Lively and funny novel of a New York rag sheet and the misfits who created it. [Review]
Nelson Algren: Chicago: City on the Make
Algren's classic, bitter love song to his city.
Nelson Algren: The Last Carousel
Thoughtful and passionate discussion of the Minutemen's great album. [Review]
Flannery O'Connor: A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories
Powerful but bitter and bleak story collection that I will not be reading again. [Review]
Aleksandar Hemon: Love and Obstacles
Jack Conroy: The Disinherited
William E. Leuchtenburg: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1940
Very fine and highly informative study of FDR, the New Deal and the Great Depression. [Review]
Edmund Wilson: The American Jitters: A Year of the Slump
Very fine collection of essays from 1930-31 on the early days of the Great Depression.
Mark Costello: The Murphy Stories
Devastating portrait of a man and his family, marriage and unfaithfulness. [Review]
John Cook: Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records
Excellent history of the indie rock label. [Review]
Matthew Sharpe: The Sleeping Father
Well-intentioned but less than successful novel of family dysfunction. [Excerpt]
William Walsh: Questionstruck
Interesting studies of three underground economies, albeit more of a compilation than a unified book. [Review]
Brisk, informative and entertaining account of how musicians and fans are taking back control of music.
Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary
Mark Twain: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The great American tale of epic quest. Funny and still relevant. [Review]
Aldous Huxley: Brave New World
George Orwell: 1984
Henry David Thoreau: Walden, or Life in the Woods
Barbara Kingsolver: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life
Wonderful narrative of a year spent farming one's own food, eating locally and saving the planet. [Review]
Muriel Miller Branch: The Water Brought Us: The Story of the Gullah-Speaking People
Informative account of the Gullah culture of the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia.
Virginia Woolf: A Room of One's Own
Compelling discourse on the critical need for freedom and privacy for women fiction writers.
Ander Monson: Neck Deep and Other Predicaments
Inventive essays on the writer's intriguing past and mundane commonalities of his everyday life. [Review]
C.S. Lewis: A Grief Observed
Lewis recounts his battle with grief and loss, somehow emerging with hope.
Michael Harrington: The Other America: Poverty in the Untied States
Passionate 1962 study on the state of poverty in the richest country in the world. [Excerpt]
Richard Matheson: I Am Legend
Purported classic with a fascinating premise which doesn't quite deliver.
Patrick McCabe: Winterwood
Promising but ultimately disjointed and disappointing story of love, kin, home and myth.
William Trevor: Death in Summer
Lovely, understated novel of loneliness and a quest for belonging.
Isaac Bashevis Singer: Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories
Budd Schulberg: What Makes Sammy Run?
Laura Ingalls Wilder: Little House on the Prairie
Classic account of 19th Century pioneer life.
Charles Simmons: Wrinkles
Innovative and fascinating telling of an otherwise ordinary story. [Review]
Pär Lagerkvist: The Dwarf
Powerful and furious novel of war, religion and humanity. [Review]
Nathanael West: Miss Lonelyhearts
Odd, bitter, angry - might be a classic, but I'm not quite sure.
Stona Fitch: Give + Take
Offbeat caper novel of crime and philanthropy.
Erich Origen and Gan Golan: Goodnight Bush
Quietly brutal satirical sendoff to the worst President in U.S. history.
Nick Hornby: A Long Way Down
Four strangers consider suicide but together somehow find reason to go on. [Review]
Well-executed derivative work about a fictional comic strip. [Review]
Richard Grayson: Highly Irregular Stories
Michael Chabon: Maps and Legends
Ben Tanzer: Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine
Another winner - boy meets girl, pop culture is dissected, sadness fades to hope. [Review]
William Maxwell: So Long, See You Tomorrow
Lovely novel of three families in small town Illinois during the 1920s. [Review]
James Agee and Walker Evans: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Frustrating and exhilarating - a thorny classic. [Review]
Erskine Caldwell: Tobacco Road
Raymond Chandler: The Long Goodbye
Truly great noir of murder, passion and absolution. [Excerpt]
Herman Melville: Billy Budd, Sailor
Fair, but hardly a classic. [Review]
Nikolai Gogol: The Overcoat
Joseph Conrad: Lord Jim
Mark Sarvas: Harry, Revised
Good debut novel about grief, starting over and Dumas.
Kent Haruf: Plainsong
Lovely, warm novel of small-town life.
Paul Fattaruso: Bicycle
Charming little collection of micro-fictions about, yes, bicycles. [Review]
Aleksandar Hemon: The Lazarus Project
Magnificent novel of the past and present, longing and belonging. [Review]
Mark Russell: The Superman Stories
Funny and clever stories about the everyday life of the Man of Steel.
Hjalmar Söderberg: Doctor Glas
Masterful novel of longing, fateful decisions and death. [Excerpt]
Nelson Algren: Never Come Morning
Billy Lombardo: The Logic of a Rose: Chicago Stories
collection of coming-of-age stories from
Flann O'Brien: The Third Policeman
Less than satisfying comic tale of life, death and bicycles. [Review]
John McGahern: The Barracks
Sensitive, emotionally gripping Irish novel of a distant husband and wife. [Review]
Al Burian: Burn Collector: issues one through nine
Solid collection of the first nine issues of the great zine.
Jim Thompson: The Kill-Off
A uniquely told twist on the conventions of crime fiction by one of the giants of the art. [Review]
Chris Abani: Song For Night
Powerful and often harrowing novella of war and remembrance. [Review]
E.M. Forster: Howards End
Great novel about the English social classes, how they interact and what responsibilities they have to each other. [Review]
Jon Krakauer: Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith
Gripping, thoroughly researched account of murder and the dark side of religious faith.
Calvin Trillin: Travels With Alice
collection of anecdotes of Trillin's family travels
in the Mediterranean and
Verlyn Klinkenborg: The Last Fine Time
Uneven account of a working-class bar in Buffalo, just after WWII. Has its moments, just not enough of them.
Lovely memoir of Chicago's legendary Billy Goat Tavern, by one of its loyal denizens.
George W.S. Trow: Within the Context of No Context
Rambling, muddled, murky essay that's likely not worth your time. [Review]
Kurt Vonnegut: A Man Without a Country
Charming collection of essays from the late great novelist. [Review]
Richard Warch and Jonathan Fanton (editors): John Brown: Great Lives Observed
Balanced, non-partisan collection of writings on the legendary abolitionist. [Review]
Ted McClelland: Horseplayers: Life at the Track
account of a year spent wagering - and mostly losing - at
J. Matthew Smith: Jailed by My Father
Warmly-told collection of autobiographical essays.
Nathanael West: The Day of the Locust
Dark, bitter, sometimes bitingly funny tale of Hollywood's woeful underclass.
Ben Tanzer: Lucky Man
Daring, innovative and emotionally moving debut novel about four troubled friends.
William Trevor: The Hilll Bachelors
Yet another excellent collection of Irish short stories from the master. [Excerpt]
Charles D'Ambrosio: The Point
Solid story collection from the renowned writer, with the tighter pieces being the best of the lot.
Steven J. McDermott: Winter of Different Directions
Smart collection of short stories about lost souls and uncertain futures. [Review]
James M. Cain: The Postman Always Rings Twice
Sharp, riveting piece of classic noir. The main characters are doomed, just as they should be. [Review]
Edgar Lee Masters: Spoon River Anthology
Sinclair Lewis: Babbitt
Knut Hamsun: Hunger
F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby
Well written but (sorry) less than classic novel of Jazz Age New York. [Review]
Herman Melville: Bartleby the Scrivener
Sherwood Anderson: Winesburg, Ohio
Joe Pernice: Meat Is Murder
Slow-starting but good-finishing tale of a Smiths record on one youngster's life.
Cormac McCarthy: The Road
Ian McEwan: Atonement
Aaron Petrovich: The Session
Black comedy "novella in dialogue" in which all is not quite as it seems. [Review]
Samuel Beckett: Waiting For Godot
The classic stage play—despairingly poignant and darkly comic. [Excerpt]
Edward Gorey: Amphigorey Again
Wonderfully warped drawings and unsettling narratives from the master artist.
James Joyce: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Uneven, meandering and greatly disappointing novel from one of the purported greats. [Excerpt]
Bayo Ojikutu: Free Burning
Gripping urban novel of a man's increasingly desperate attempt to support his family and keep it intact. [Review]
Jim Thompson: Pop. 1280
Darkly comic and disturbing tale of a small-town psychopath, with an odd (and fairly unsatisfying) messianic twist at the end. I strongly prefer my Thompson protagonists to be psychopathic and immoral and rather proud of it, but Nick Corey’s transformation—which comes completely out of nowhere—dilutes the otherwise delicious badness of his character.
Ward Just: Forgetfulness
Wonderfully written and deeply insightful novel about one man confronting grief, vengeance and his past. [Review]
Laila Lalami: Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits
Expertly crafted and
emotionally moving novel about Moroccans risking their lives crossing the
Various Writers: All Hands On: THE2NDHAND Reader
Intriguing collection of stories from the Chicago-based literary broadsheet, ranging from conventional narratives to more experimental forms.
Andrew Patner: I.F. Stone: A Portrait: Conversations With a Nonconformist
Fascinating profile of, and conversations with, the maverick independent journalist.
Shalom Auslander: Beware of God: Stories
Extremely funny, deeply thoughtful and borderline blasphemous stories about God, believers and faith.
Marjane Satrapi: Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood
Excellent graphic memoir about a young girl's upbringing in post-revolution Iraq.
Todd Dills: Sons of the Rapture
Epic fathers-and-sons tale spanning two centuries, from hipster Chicago to hidebound South Carolina. Funny, sad and often quite dizzying.
James Meek: The People's Act of Love
Robert Olen Butler: Had a Good Time: Stories from American Postcards
Sharp collection of stories inspired by postcards of the early 20th Century.
Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse-Five
Terrific graphic interpretation of Kafka's classic short story.
Joe Meno: Hairstyles of the Damned
Sharply written, perfectly voiced, and funny tale of a teenaged boy of the early 1990s struggling to find his place in the world.
John McNally: America's Report Card
Biting satire on our current political climate, told via a lost teenage girl and an only slightly less lost grad student.
Theodore Dreiser: Sister Carrie
Classic novel of social realism which brilliantly depicts Chicago and New York of the late 19th Century, focusing on three tragic characters. [Excerpt]
Tony Fitzpatrick: Bum Town
Wonderful poetic ode to Fitzpatrick's father, Chicago's South Side and the ghosts that haunt both. [Review]
Idiosyncratically brilliant illustrated account of Spiegelman's experiences with 9/11 and its aftermath. Unforgettable.
Daniel Clowes: Ice Haven
Fine graphic novel about a fictional town and its lonely, directionless denizens.
Jonathan Coe: Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson
Excellent, innovative biography of the compelling, confounding, tormented British experimental novelist.
Richard Grayson: And To Think That He Kissed Him on Lorimer Street
Fine collection of semi-autobiographical short stories from the prolific author. [Review]
J. Niimi: Murmur
Well-meaning but ultimately disappointing study of R.E.M.’s Murmur, one of the elusively great albums in rock history. Although there are fine passages throughout, Niimi can’t settle on a focus, alternating between gushing R.E.M. fan, recording studio wonk, cultural theorist, social historian and memoirist—using just one of any of these focuses would have improved the narrative immensely.
Kevin Guilfoile: Cast of Shadows
Strong, ambitious debut novel which goes far beyond the thriller genre to explore reproductive technology, medical ethics, philosophy, alternate reality, religious fanaticism and, most importantly, a grieving father and the dubious extremes he will go to find the truth. [Review] [Excerpt]
Miriam Toews: A Complicated Kindness
Fine novel about a teenaged girl struggling against her repressive religious community. A bit of a “grower”—the narrator’s casual language is off-putting at first, but ultimately the vivid and poignant narrative wins out. [Excerpt]
James Joyce: Dubliners
Marvelous collection of stories from the literary legend. Dare I now brave Ulysses?
Paul Strathern: Kafka in 90 Minutes
Sharp, concise biography of the great writer. [Excerpt]
Brian Costello: The Enchanters Vs. Sprawlburg Springs
Fun romp through suburban hell, seen through the eyes of a sloppy pseudo-punk band. [Review]
Colin Meloy: Let It Be
Wonderful memoir of boyhood and the Replacements' best album, from the Decemberists frontman.
Henry Roth: Call It Sleep
Interesting 1930s novel of Jewish immigration and assimilation. [Excerpt]
A long, thoughtful contemplation on grief and loss.
Ander Monson: Other Electricities
Not quite a story
collection, not quite a novel, Monson’s wonderful inventive prose
unforgettably depicts life and ever-present death in
Wade Rubenstein: Gullboy
Odd, darkly comic novel about a father and his unique son.
Calvin Trillin: Obliviously On He Sails: The Bush Administration in Rhyme
Typically fun collection of Trillin's topical poetry. [Excerpt]
William Trevor: The Story of Lucy Gault
Sadly beautiful novel about a young Irish girl's impulsive mistake and its reverberations on the lives of everyone around her.
Herbert Asbury: The Gangs of Chicago
Nick Hornby: The Polysyllabic Spree
A warm, engaging, thoughtful account of Hornby's passion for reading, and his ongoing battle to read as many books as he buys.
Davy Rothbart: The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas
Wonderful collection of short stories, narrated by lonely misfits trying to find their place in the world. [Brief Review]
Various: Chicago Noir
Highly enjoyable collection of Chicago stories, many offering inventive takes on the noir tradition. [Review]
Joe Sacco: Palestine
Brilliant "graphic journalism" account of the Israeli-Palestine conflict, told from the Palestinian perspective which is so largely ignored by the American media.
Åsne Seierstad: A Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal
Personal account of the bombing and fall of Baghdad in 2003 from the acclaimed journalist.
Knut Hamsun: In Wonderland
Illuminating account of Hamsun’s travels to the Caucasus region of Russia in 1899.
Aleksandar Hemon: Nowhere Man
Brilliant novel of a young Bosnian refugee and his struggle to make sense of his place in America and the world.
Don DeGrazia: American Skin
Powerful coming-of-age novel about skinheads and ever-shifting alliances and philosophies.
Kirby Gann: Our Napoleon in Rags
Vividly written novel about one man's doomed efforts to redeem mankind and make the world a better place. [Review/Excerpt]
Kevin Smokler (editor): Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times
Sharp, thoughtful collection of essays on the current state of serious reading. [Review]
Ian McEwan: Saturday
Masterfully written novel of one man's day from one of our greatest living writers.
Stephen Elliott: Happy Baby
Inventive and oddly uplifting novel about a man’s quietly harrowing journey through the state juvenile system and a self-abusive adulthood. [Review]
Pär Lagerkvist: The Eternal Smile
Three long, epic stories about religious faith and the meaning of human life. The first and last, “The Eternal Smile” and “The Executioner” are less successful due to being more allegories than plot- and character-driven stories. But the middle story, “Guest of Reality,” is a lovely short story meditation on faith and death, told from the viewpoint of the young boy Anders. [Excerpt]
John McNally: The Book of Ralph
Highly entertaining novel about growing up and its often ugly aftermath.
Nelson Algren: The Man With the Golden Arm
Simply one of the greatest American novels ever. An unequivocal must-read. [Excerpt]
David Bezmozgis: Natasha and Other Stories
Fine collection of stories from this debut author, about Russian Jewish immigrants in Toronto finding their way to a new life.
Mike Royko: Slats Grobnik and Some Other Friends
Alex Kotlowitz: There Are No Children Here
Every bit as good as advertised. Absolutely essential reading.
Excellent character-driven novel of a young man coming of age in 1950s Chicago. [Excerpt]
James T. Farrell: Studs Lonigan: A Trilogy (Young Lonigan)
First volume of Farrell's classic work of realism, a gritty tale of Chicago's working-class Irish in the early 20th Century.
Nice literary fiction in which Chabon imagines the final case of Sherlock Holmes' career. Literary--not just genre--fiction.
Impeccably crafted collection of short stories by the Irish master. [Excerpt]
Quiet, gently-written collection of stories from the late author.
Crisp, fast-moving collection of stories from the acclaimed novelist.
Wright's impassioned essay on the African-American experience, first published in 1941. Accompanied by stellar FSA photographs from the era. [Excerpt]
Algren's classic book-length essay is both a loving tribute to, and a scathing attack on, his adopted hometown, "this most two-faced of American cities." [Excerpt]
Brilliantly funny, and often quite moving, novel which incisively narrates the unformed hopes, fears and misconceptions of the commitment-fearing male animal. [Excerpt]
Paul Krugman: The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century
Excellent collection of columns from the New York Times writer and Princeton professor. In clear and lucid prose, Krugman relentlessly eviscerates the misguided economic and social policies of the Bush Administration.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Brilliant, autobiographically-based fiction which recounts the waking hours in a single day of a prisoner of the Russian Gulag.
Alex Kotlowitz: Never a City So Real: A Walk in Chicago
Marvelous series of profiles of everyday, yet extraordinary, Chicagoans.
Anthony P. Hatch: Tinder Box: The Iroquois Theatre Disaster 1903
Riveting account of the horrific fire at Chicago's Iroquois Theatre, which senselessly claimed roughly 600 lives.
Strong but often-dizzying series of intertwining narratives about a multitude of Jewish oddballs in 19th century New York City and Buffalo. Another sharp graphic novel from one of the very best.
A fine series of character sketches on mid-level players in
Nice old (1946) collection of Lardner's novellas, short stories and miscellanea, including his signature piece "You Know Me Al." Great humor with sharp insights into the human condition. (Out of print.)
Warm, lovingly written collection of stories about immigrants in Chicago's Ukrainian Village neighborhood in the late 1960s.
Fascinating novel of 17th Century
After all these years, still the greatest novel I've ever read.
Golding's classic story of adolescent survivalists and the dark side of human nature. [Excerpt]
Brief, crisply-written novel of the doomed marriage of biblical tyrant Herod and the self-sacrificing Mariamne. [Excerpt]
Very fine comic novel, from the author of Catch-22, in which an aging author struggles to come up with one last, great novel.
Very fine Chicago-based literary journal, with contributions by Joe Meno, Leelila Strogov and others, plus an interview with Glen David Gold.
Kafka's classic story collection, including the landmark title story, the calmly harrowing "In The Penal Colony", the painful "The Hunger Artist" and others.
One of the most thought-provoking books I've ever read. It will
challenge your assumptions and make you re-think your beliefs about
Azar Nafisi: Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
Interesting memoir of life in Tehran after the Islamic Revolution, and the oppression of women and artists alike (of which the author is both). The book speaks eloquently of the battle between art and ideology.
Katchor's second Knipl collection. The extended series which closes the book, "The Beauty Supply District", is particularly good, though one should read the series in one sitting to catch all the interconnections.
Very fine social history of coal which studies its monumental impact on the development of human civilization and its terrifying impact on the environment and the future of our planet. [Excerpt]
Barbara Ehrenreich: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America
An outstanding, eye-opener of an expose'. Ehrenreich stealthily takes a series of
low-paying jobs (Wal-Mart salesperson, waitress, cleaning woman, nursing home
aide)--the only kind of job our economy is consistently good at creating--to
see if she can survive. In short, she barely does, even working with the strong
advantage of not having a family to support at the time. A must-read for anyone
who still believes
Roy Emerson Stryker: In This Proud Land:
Excellent collection of Farm Security Administration photographs, hand-selected by Stryker, the photo program's director and godfather. All of America's greatest documentary photographers of the era--Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, John Vachon--are amply represented here, vividly illustrating a bleak and mostly forgotten decade. Sadly, this book, published in 1973, is now out of print.
Very fine story collection from one of the masters of the craft.
Very fine memoir of Stuart Brent, the legendary Chicago bookseller. Though Brent achieved his greatest financial success at his later Michigan Avenue store, Stuart Brent: Books and Music, I get the strong impression that he left his heart at The Seven Stairs, his original ramshackle store on Rush Street. At the farewell party for The Seven Stairs, Brent notes the obvious unease of his literary friends, an unease which he clearly felt himself:
"Ben Kartman was grim, Reuel Denny seemed bewildered, and above all, the old gang: Algren, Conroy, Parrish, Terkel, Motley, Herman Kogan...they were being charming and decent enough, but something was out of kilter. I had never seen them more affable, but it wasn't quite right--being affable really wasn't their line."
This novel surprised me. I had never heard of it before, having only
come across it in a three-novel compilation that I picked up for three dollars
in a used bookstore in
Warm personal memoir, as Studs turns the interviewing table around 180 degrees. A priceless anecdote:
Nothing terrible happened to Hanson, other than a crying jag one Saturday afternoon. He had had a few. What was the trouble? I asked him.
"My father died."
There were soft, fumbled, solicitous murmurs and silence. My mother, passing by, reached in under the rolltop desk and withdrew a pint. She uncorked it, set it down by the Swede and patted his shoulder.
"When did this happen?" I asked.
"Thirty years ago," he blubbered.
My mother, without missing a beat, corked the bottle and replaced it in the rolltop desk.
Fascinating blue-collar, working-class poetry which beautifully invokes a crushing industrial landscape and the endless struggle of its denizens to carve out decent, human lives within it.
An outstanding novel about two peripatetic friends trying to travel the world and unburden themselves of a hefty amount of ill-gotten cash ("ill-gotten" to them, at least), with only marginal success. The plot moves quickly but is surprisingly complex and inventive structurally. A major fiction debut.
A monumental novel, this is the relentlessly bleak story of a simple
Lithuanian immigrant and his family who live at the mercy of
This outstanding, sprawling novel has epic qualities, and yet Dos Passos consciously avoids the Big Statement. Instead,
dozens of simple, unrelated New York City lives form, intertwine and pull apart
again, most of them ending up as unresolved as life itself. To cite just two,
Ellen Oglethorpe helplessly finds herself as a social butterfly, flitting from
engagement to engagement while never making a permanent connection, alighting
only temporarily on the life of Jimmy Herf, a
frustrated journalist already ancient at 30. The novel beautifully captures a
bygone era of
Travis Hugh Culley: The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power
A remarkable short story collection, made even more remarkable by the
fact that Hemon emigrated to the
Kristina Borjesson (editor): Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press
Excellent novel told from the perspective of a soldier/killer for the
Concise, well-organized collection of Atget's
lovely documentary photographs of the commercial structures and public gardens
Thoroughly enjoyable, and surprisingly non-dated, compilation of Trillin's current-event poetry,
originally published in The Nation between 1990 and 1993. Trillin's barbs repeatedly hit home, at both Republicans
and Democrats alike, though the first Bush Administration bears the brunt due
to the time frame involved. Don't worry, though--there were enough shenanigans
going on during
Heller's anti-war masterpiece is riveting, horrifying, appalling and wickedly funny. And suddenly more relevant than ever.
This followup to Hamsun's monumental Hunger is clearly the lesser of the two novels, and at first I was quite put off by the over-the-top romantic bliss in which Lieutenant Glahn wallowed. But as his relationship with Edvarda rapidly deteriorated, the book got funnier and more involving. Watching the societally helpless Glahn trying to navigate polite society was frequently uproarious, and I even began to see parallels between Glahn and the unnamed narrator of Hunger. Sometimes it even seemed that the two could be one and the same person.
This 1934 "socialist feminist" novel is a brilliant satire of both the arrogant detachment of the upper class ("Don't speak to me of bravery among your lower classes. I know nothing to compare with Emily Fancher's courage in coming here tonight," says a society matron of the wife of a tycoon who has the "courage" to appear at a society ball just after her husband is sent to prison for embezzlement) and the complete impotence of leftist intellectuals ("Our meetings are masterpieces of postponement, our ideologies brilliant rationalizations to prevent our ever taking action.") which had me repeatedly laughing out loud. But ultimately, the book is the sad and poignant story of a young intellectual couple who are so wrapped up in idealism and abstract ideas that they are afraid to simply live life.
Excellent Cold War thriller about mind control, global intrigue and political aspirants who are dramatically, and terrifyingly, different from what they profess to be. This classic is unfortunately and inexplicably out of print.
H.E.F. Donohue and Nelson Algren: Conversations with Nelson Algren
A fascinating transcript of conversations, circa 1962-64, with my literary hero. Algren discusses his life, his books, the literary establishment and the world at large with his usual combination of humor, swagger and keen insight. I actually found myself arguing with him over his stated justification for no longer writing novels.
In this graphic novel, Katchor brilliantly creates an alternate-univerise
Studs Terkel: Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith
In the twilight of his own life, the great Studs Terkel takes on his most ambitious project yet: talking to a broad cross-section of people on their feelings about death and the possibility of an afterlife. While some sections are harrowing or depressing, the majority of this great book is a joyous celebration of life. [Excerpt]
This is the worst novel I've read in quite some time--an unsatisfying mishmash of suspense thriller and a satire on the literary life, including most of the worst cliches of both. At one point, the narrative reads "The situation might have seemed absurd, like something out of a Restoration farce..." which is an unintentionally apt description of the book as a whole. The book became progressively difficult to read, but I was intent on finishing it, just for the lessons learned that I could apply to my own writing. DON'T make your plot hopelessly contrived. DO make your setting as realistic as possible. DO make your protagonist at least slightly likeable.
Jack Conroy and Curt Johnson (editors): Writers in Revolt: The Anvil Anthology
The Anvil was a proletarian literary journal of the 1930's and early 1940's. This anthology cuts a broad cross-section across its numerous contributors, and yet is remarkably coherent in theme. Again and again, these short stories deal with common people scuffling their way through the Depression and its immediate aftermath. Heavy-handed at times, as is to be expected with this genre, but always compassionate. I bought this primarily for Nelson Algren's pieces, but like any good anthology, it introduced me to several other writers whom I knew nothing about (Martin Savela, H.H. Lewis, and Joseph Kalar, just to name three) that I now want to explore further.
Reading a "classic" for the first time is usually a disappointment, as the result often falls far short of the buildup. But The Grapes of Wrath was everything I hoped it would be, and far more. An absolutely monumental work of fiction -- an unforgettable epic about the human spirit, unconditional generosity and the pursuit of dreams. [Excerpt]
This brief novel really packs a wallop, conveying more meaning and emotion than most books four times its length. Two parallel stories about a woman living two parallel worlds: one as a liberal 60's idealist working in the belly of the beast as a Wall Street speechwriter, and the other as a wife struggling with a beloved husband stricken with Alzheimer's. The novel rarely has the two worlds intersect, which is how the protagonist wanted her life ordered. She hates everything about Wall Street, but she still finds solace there, in that the job gives her something to focus on, something other than the husband who is inexorably slipping away.
James Agee and Walker Evans: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Robert Reid and Larry Viskochil (editors):
Raban takes a solo sailboat
Galen Rowell: Poles Apart:
Parallel Visions of the
A purported classic of the literary noir, this one really didn't have the bang I was expecting. Maybe the book was too long. Maybe it the two anti-climaxes occurring after the story had appeared to wrap itself up not once, but twice. Why Marlowe continued to hunt for Rusty Regan when he wasn't getting paid to do so, and had no other personal stake in the matter, isn't adequately explained by Marlowe's supposed respect to the dying General's final moments. Good, but Jim Thompson did this genre much better.
Alfred L. Brophy: Reconstructing the Dreamland: The
Robert Gordon: Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters
Kenn Harper: Give Me My Father's
Body: The Life of Minik, the
Carl Hiassen: Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World
Ian Frazier: The Fish's Eye: Essays About Angling and the Outdoors
Frazier is an obsessive
outdoorsman, but not an elitist. He seems to prefers
areas, such as the
This is a very involving
account of Oscar Hartzell, a wildly successful
Depression-era perpetrator of the long-established "Sir Francis Drake
Estate" scam. What amazed me was not so much the scam itself (which was
absolutely brilliant), but instead the god-like status that Hartzell's
"investors" conferred on him. "Drakism"
was practically a cult, with believers who were virtually evangelistic in
nature. Another interesting thing is that while Hartzell
was living the high life in
Olov Isaksson & Soren Hallgren: Bishop Hill: A Utopia on the Prairie
A very entertaining little novel about an ordinary NYC guy who likes sitting alone in his legally-parked car and reading the newspaper. Naturally, his fellow New Yorkers, the media and the mayor's office all blow Tepper's pastime completely out of proportion: other New York citizens come to him for advice, though he doesn't really provide any; the media treats him as a front-page human interest story, bestowing iconic status; and the mayor, a wonderfully paranoid caricature of Rudolph Guiliani and his quality-of-life initiatives, condemns him as a "force of disorder" and tries, in vain, to crush him.
study of Viking explorations in North America. At times, the narrative
flows smoothly, as when Wahlgren describes Norse
migration from Scandinavia to the North Sea Islands and on to
An amusing memoir of everyday life in Chicago, circa 1890-1910, when many of the city's now-familiar neighborhoods still qualified as wilderness. Long out of print.
An interesting account of yet another of Kent's bold, idealistic and ill-fated adventures, this time on a sailing expedition to Greenland. Not surprisingly, a shipwreck is involved.
The Onion: Dispatches from the Tenth Circle: The Best of the Onion
The Other Side of the River:
Ben Hecht: A Thousand and
One Afternoons in
An excellent collection of Hecht's Chicago Daily News columns from 1921. His essays explore the gamut of Roaring Twenties Chicago, from flappers to financiers to broken laborers. Even the most hopeless of his characters still maintains a quiet dignity.
Heinz is a contemporary of Algren's (both were highly regarded by Hemingway), and this book's themes are vaguely reminiscent of Algren: a boxer pulls himself out of society's lower class, gets a title shot and loses everything on one tiny, impulsive mistake. The narrative portions of this novel are extremely well-written, but ultimately the book bogs down from unnecessary or misplaced dialogue.
After ten pages, I already had more enjoyment from this book than I did from 300 pages of Juneteenth. The Vonnegut comparisons are a stretch, though. I think Griesemer was inspired by Catch-22 more than anything else.
Not so much a novel as transcribed oratory. What little plot there is is very hard to follow, and the characters don't converse so much as they proclaim to each other. Ellison was an immense talent, and some of the passages here absolutely sing. But after reading this and Kafka's The Trial, I'm swearing off any and all posthumously-published novels. The editor admits that Ellison died without leaving specific instructions as to how the 2000-plus pages of manuscript should be put together, and the final result proves that, for the most part, the editor was only guessing.
Lealan Jones and Lloyd Newman: Our
I'm pulling for these kids, I really am. Lealan is very driven, and he'll definitely make it. But I see Lloyd drifting, and I fear that his aimlessness will keep him forever in the ghetto that Lealan is escaping.
Definitely the most human of Thompson's novels. I actually found myself cheering on the protagonist although, Thompson being Thompson, I knew he'd come to an untimely demise.
The Lost City: Rediscovering the Virtues of Community in 1950's
As much as Ehrenhalt claims to not be waxing nostalgic for an imagined 1950's idyll, that's exactly the case here. If you read Algren's works from that decade, you get little sense of the city being a warm, embracing place. Nor from Hecht's earlier writings, either.
As much about the
In the last fifteen years, I've read and re-read this book numerous times, and each time I've experienced it on a different level: physical starvation, religion, ambition, idealism, artistic integrity, and even humor. Easily the greatest book I've ever read.
William Least Heat-Moon:
River-Horse: A Voyage Across
Like the cross-country boat trip this book describes, getting through this book is a test of endurance. I greatly enjoyed Heat-Moon's narrative as he journeyed through towns on the Hudson, the Erie Canal and the Ohio, but things bog down quite a bit as he travels the Missouri, whose valley is so wide that few towns are adjacent and the only structures to describe are the inhumanly-scaled dams foolishly plunked down by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Amusing, but ultimately most essay material turns out to be little more than brain candy. This is no exception. I can't imagine ever re-reading this stuff.
A totally unforgettable book. A cautionary tale of misplaced, youthful idealism and its tragic consequences.
Having received Juneteenth as a Christmas present, I thought I'd re-read Invisible Man first. Nice idea, and the book is terrifically written, but I only got halfway through before giving up and delving into my ever-expanding unread pile.
This is the book that the
Chicago Chamber of Commerce didn't want the world to see. Instead of pumping up
the tourism and real estate industries with promotional-pamphlet blather,
Algren's essay presents the real history and state of