READINGS 2001-2014

 

2014

 

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.

 

2013

 

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.

 

Dante: Inferno

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.

 

Jeff Sypeck: Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles

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.

 

2012

 

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.

 

Michael Sims: The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E.B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic

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.

 

David A. Taylor: Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America

Great subject matter, less than great presentation.

 

Peter Orner: Esther Stories

Solid story collection of lonely lives.

 

2011

 

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

Passionate book-length essay on writing, artistic freedom and championing the downtrodden. [Excerpt] [Excerpt]

 

Sebastian Barry: The Secret Scripture

Beautiful prose doesn't quite save the structural and narrative flaws of this otherwise promising novel. [Review] [Excerpt] [Excerpt]

 

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 Colorado town.

 

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.

 

2010

 

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 fictional Arkansas town.

 

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

Terrific collection of novellas, short stories and satirical essays. [Review] [Excerpt]

 

Finley Peter Dunne: Mr. Dooley Remembers

Fine collection of the final essays of the great humorist, along with twelve classic Mr. Dooley columns. [Review] [Excerpt]

 

Andrew Ervin: Extraordinary Renditions

Strong, sharply-written debut about three intersecting lives in Budapest. [Review]

 

Studs Terkel: Working

Lively, compelling, indispensible oral history of Americans talking about their jobs. [Review] [Excerpts]

 

O.E. Rölvaag: Giants in the Earth

Magnificent epic of South Dakota pioneers. [Review]

 

Seamus Heaney (translator): Beowulf

Modern, flowing verse interpretation of the great epic poem. [Review] [Excerpt]

 

Walt Whitman: Leaves of Grass

Whitman's love song to America, best enjoyed in small doses. [Review] [Excerpt] [Excerpt] [Excerpt] [Excerpt]

 

Stendhal: The Red and the Black

Long, plodding disappointment. [Review] [Excerpt]

 

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]

 

Tim Hall: Full Of It: The Birth, Death, and Life of an Underground Newspaper

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

Fine collection of memoirs and stories from late in Algren's career. [Excerpt] [Excerpt] [Excerpt] [Review]

 

2009

Michael T. Fournier: The Minutemen: Double Nickels On the Dime

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

Strong story collection from one of my favorite writers. [Excerpt] [Excerpt] [Review]

 

Jack Conroy: The Disinherited

Fine account of working-class Midwest life in the treacherous 1920s and 30s - but more of a documentary than a novel. [Excerpt] [Excerpt] [Review]

 

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

Unique compilation - just the questions from Calvin Trillin's books. Oddly compelling. [Excerpt] [Review]

 

Eric Schlosser: Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market

Interesting studies of three underground economies, albeit more of a compilation than a unified book. [Review]

 

Greg Kot: Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music

Brisk, informative and entertaining account of how musicians and fans are taking back control of music.

 

Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary

Overlong and unsympathetic portrait of an unhappy woman and those around her. [Excerpt] [Review]

 

Mark Twain: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The great American tale of epic quest. Funny and still relevant. [Review]

 

Aldous Huxley: Brave New World

Comic but ultimately sad tale of a controlling, conforming society. [Excerpt] [Excerpt] [Review]

 

George Orwell: 1984

Brilliant, compelling, sobering. Orwell’s masterpiece is every bit as relevant today as the day it was written. [Excerpt] [Excerpt] [Review]

 

Henry David Thoreau: Walden, or Life in the Woods

Truly great narrative on simplicity, self-sufficiency and communing with nature. [Excerpt] [Excerpt] [Excerpt] [Review]

 

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

Charming collection of Old World tales, of life and piety and death. [Excerpt] [Excerpt]

 

Budd Schulberg: What Makes Sammy Run?

Devastating portrait of ambition and success in 1930s Hollywood. [Excerpt] [Excerpt] [Review]

 

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.

 

2008

Nick Hornby: A Long Way Down

Four strangers consider suicide but together somehow find reason to go on. [Review]

 

Michael Chabon Presents The Amazing Adventures of The Escapist, Vol. 1

Well-executed derivative work about a fictional comic strip. [Review]

 

Richard Grayson: Highly Irregular Stories

Another fine story collection from Grayson - four chapbooks from early in his career. [Excerpt] [Review]

 

Michael Chabon: Maps and Legends

Nice collection of essays which celebrates genre writing in its many forms. [Excerpt] [Review]

 

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

Grim but invigorating novel of destitute sharecroppers in 1930s Georgia. [Excerpt] [Review]

 

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

Funny, sad and strange tale of a lonely clerk and his quest for dignity and respect. [Excerpt] [Review]

 

Joseph Conrad: Lord Jim

Overwritten, ponderous, poorly structured - sad, for what should have been a masterpiece. [Excerpt] [Excerpt] [Excerpt] [Review]

 

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

Gripping early novel from the master. [Review] [Essay] [Excerpt]

 

Billy Lombardo: The Logic of a Rose: Chicago Stories

Good collection of coming-of-age stories from Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood.

 

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]

 

2007

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

Warm collection of anecdotes of Trillin's family travels in the Mediterranean and Caribbean.

 

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.

 

Rick Kogan: A Chicago Tavern: A Goat, a Curse, and the American Dream

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

Lively account of a year spent wagering - and mostly losing - at Chicago's thoroughbred racetracks.

 

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

Fascinating poetic exploration of small-town America - but much too long and often repetitive. [Excerpt] [Excerpt] [Review]

 

Sinclair Lewis: Babbitt

Brilliantly insightful satire of an upstanding citizen and the unsettling discontents stirring within him. [Excerpt] [Review] [Review]

 

Knut Hamsun: Hunger

Simply put, one of the greatest novels ever written, and the finest I've ever had the pleasure to read. [Review] [Review] [Review]

 

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

Wonderful story of a stubborn employee and an excessively patient boss in mid-19th Century Manhattan. [Review] [Review]

 

Sherwood Anderson: Winesburg, Ohio

Marvelous, wide-ranging, emotionally moving cycle of stories about the lonely and seeking inhabitants of a small Midwestern town. [Excerpt] [Review]

 

Joe Pernice: Meat Is Murder

Slow-starting but good-finishing tale of a Smiths record on one youngster's life.

 

Cormac McCarthy: The Road

Powerful novel of father and son wandering through a post-apocalypse wasteland. [Review] [Excerpt]

 

Ian McEwan: Atonement

Magnificent novel of youthful indiscretion and unintended consequences, and a meditation on truth versus fiction as well as a writer’s responsibility. [Review] [Excerpt]

 

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 Strait of Gibraltar in pursuit of better circumstances in Spain.

 

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.

 

2006

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

A stunning achievement—a novel with an epic sweep which still manages to convey the small details of people’s everyday lives, a stirring story of love, suspense and war. [Review] [Excerpt]

 

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

Great anti-war novel highlighted by Vonnegut's spare but vivid prose. [Excerpt] [Excerpt]

 

Franz Kafka and Peter Kuper: The Metamorphosis

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]

 

Art Spiegelman: In the Shadow of No Towers

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]

 

John Banville: The Sea

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 Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

 

Wade Rubenstein: Gullboy

Odd, darkly comic novel about a father and his unique son.

 

2005

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

Fascinating account of Chicago's most notable criminal elements, from the city’s 1830s inception through Capone’s 1931 conviction on tax evasion charges. [Review] [Excerpt] [Excerpt]

 

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

Wonderful collection of newspaper columns, 1966 to 1973. (Out of print.) [Excerpt] [Excerpt]

 

Alex Kotlowitz: There Are No Children Here

Every bit as good as advertised. Absolutely essential reading.

 

Carolyn Eastwood: Near West Side Stories: Struggles for Community in Chicago's Maxwell Street Neighborhood

Oral histories from the four main ethnic groups of Chicago's Near West Side, and their fight to save the neighborhood from the city's urban renewal efforts. [Excerpt] [Excerpt]

 

Ward Just: An Unfinished Season

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.

 

Stuart Dybek: I Sailed With Magellan

Fine collection of interconnected stories set in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood during the 1960s. [Excerpt] [Excerpt]

 

Michael Chabon: The Final Solution

Nice literary fiction in which Chabon imagines the final case of Sherlock Holmes' career. Literary--not just genre--fiction.

 

William Trevor: A Bit on the Side

Impeccably crafted collection of short stories by the Irish master. [Excerpt]

 

Daniel Curley: Living With Snakes

Quiet, gently-written collection of stories from the late author.

 

 

2004

 

Jonathan Lethem: Men and Cartoons: Stories

Crisp, fast-moving collection of stories from the acclaimed novelist.

 

Richard Wright: 12 Million Black Voices

Wright's impassioned essay on the African-American experience, first published in 1941. Accompanied by stellar FSA photographs from the era. [Excerpt]

 

Nelson Algren: Chicago: City on the Make

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]

 

Nick Hornby: High Fidelity

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.

 

Ben Katchor: The Jew of New York

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.

 

Ward Just: The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert

A fine series of character sketches on mid-level players in Washington D.C.: diplomats, journalists, intelligence analysts and, yes, a Congressman who once loved Flaubert but has now sold his ideals.

 

Ring Lardner: The Portable Ring Lardner

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.)

 

Irene Zabytko: When Luba Leaves Home

Warm, lovingly written collection of stories about immigrants in Chicago's Ukrainian Village neighborhood in the late 1960s.

 

Halldor Laxness: Iceland's Bell

Fascinating novel of 17th Century Iceland and its struggles under Danish rule. Caveat: saga-like in style, and thus somewhat of a slow read.

 

Knut Hamsun: Hunger

After all these years, still the greatest novel I've ever read.

 

H.L. Mencken: The Vintage Mencken

Wonderful career-spanning collection of writings by arguably America's greatest journalist. [Excerpt] [Excerpt]

 

William Golding: Lord of the Flies

Golding's classic story of adolescent survivalists and the dark side of human nature. [Excerpt]

 

Par Lagerkvist: Herod and Mariamne

Brief, crisply-written novel of the doomed marriage of biblical tyrant Herod and the self-sacrificing Mariamne. [Excerpt]

 

Joseph Heller: Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man

Very fine comic novel, from the author of Catch-22, in which an aging author struggles to come up with one last, great novel.

 

Other Voices #39

Very fine Chicago-based literary journal, with contributions by Joe Meno, Leelila Strogov and others, plus an interview with Glen David Gold.

 

Kurt Vonnegut: Galapagos

Darkly comic and deeply insightful novel about the end of the known world, and the rejuvenation of the human race from a tiny group of survivors from a remote island. Oustanding. [Excerpt] [Excerpt]

 

Franz Kafka: The Metamorphosis and Other Stories

Kafka's classic story collection, including the landmark title story, the calmly harrowing "In The Penal Colony", the painful "The Hunger Artist" and others.

 

Howard Zinn: A People's History of the United States

One of the most thought-provoking books I've ever read. It will challenge your assumptions and make you re-think your beliefs about America's past. Not revisionist history, but unvarnished, unapologetic truth. [Excerpt] [Excerpt] [Excerpt] [Excerpt]

 

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.

 

Ben Katchor: Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: The Beauty Supply District

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.

 

Barbara Freese: Coal: A Human History

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 America is the land of opportunity.

 

Roy Emerson Stryker: In This Proud Land: America, 1935-1943, As Seen in the FSA Photographs

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.

 

Stuart Dybek: Childhood and Other Neighborhoods

Very fine story collection from one of the masters of the craft.

 

 

2003

 

Stuart Brent: The Seven Stairs

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."

 

Jim Thompson: The Nothing Man

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 Boston. About halfway through, it was starting to seem like the protagonist's murders were rather gratuitous, not unlike those which soured me on Thompson's revered The Killer Inside Me. But then the ending hits, and suddenly the book is not what it had seemed. Clifton Brown is indeed a nothing man, not really existing as his own self but instead living through manipulating and tormenting others. He thinks he's winning the game, but as it turns out he's been losing all along. And the local sheriff will see to it that he continues to do so, denying him the grand exit he desires.

 

Studs Terkel: Talking to Myself

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.

 

Philip Levine: The Mercy

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.

 

Dave Eggers: You Shall Know Our Velocity!

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.

 

Peter Matthiessen: At Play in the Fields of the Lord

 

Upton Sinclair: The Jungle

A monumental novel, this is the relentlessly bleak story of a simple Lithuanian immigrant and his family who live at the mercy of Chicago's stockyards around the turn of the 20th Century. While this book's legacy is the ultimate passage of Pure Food and Drug Act and the Beef Inspection Act (two crucial statutes which were the government's first attempt to control the previous unregulated meatpacking industry), Sinclair's main intention was to promote Socialism and call for the end to wage slavery. In fact, the oppressive labor situation portrayed in the book was far more disturbing to me than the description of unsanitary working conditions which dominated the public's attention. Sinclair was sadly aware of this, later writing "I aimed at the public's heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach."

 

Ben Hecht: Erik Dorn

[Excerpt]

 

John Dos Passos: Manhattan Transfer

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 Gotham's history. [Excerpt]

 

Travis Hugh Culley: The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power

 

Aleksandar Hemon: The Question of Bruno

A remarkable short story collection, made even more remarkable by the fact that Hemon emigrated to the U.S. from Bosnia in 1992 and has only been writing in English since 1995. His lack of preconceived English-language notions actually bolsters his writing, enabling him to come up with highly imaginative and descriptive, albeit unconventional, phrases (such as "a molasses of bees"). The wonderful 78-page novella, "Blind Josef Pronek and Dead Souls" is a fine prelude to his excellent debut novel, Nowhere Man.

 

Kristina Borjesson (editor): Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press

 

Roddy Doyle: A Star Called Henry

Excellent novel told from the perspective of a soldier/killer for the fledgling Irish Republic. Riveting, passionate and ultimately hopeful, even after Henry Smart is betrayed by the revolutionary leaders who come to consider him expendable. The book is an interesting interpretation on what political freedom and independence really mean. [Excerpt]

 

Bill Ganzel: Dust Bowl Descent

 

Gordon Baldwin (editor): In Focus: Eugene Atget

Concise, well-organized collection of Atget's lovely documentary photographs of the commercial structures and public gardens of Paris and its environs, from the early 20th Century. Baldwin's accompanying text does an excellent job of describing both the historical context of the photo subjects and Atget's compositional techniques.

 

Jack Gelber: The Connection

 

Nelson Algren: The Neon Wilderness

 

Calvin Trillin: Deadline Poet

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 Clinton's first year to give Trillin plenty to impolitely comment upon.

 

Clifford Odets: Golden Boy

 

James Thurber: Thurber Country

 

F. Richard Ciccone: Royko: A Life In Print

 

Joseph Heller: Catch-22

Heller's anti-war masterpiece is riveting, horrifying, appalling and wickedly funny. And suddenly more relevant than ever.

 

Knut Hamsun: Pan

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.

 

Judy Blunt: Breaking Clean

 

Tess Slesinger: The Unpossessed

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.

 

Richard Condon: The Manchurian Candidate

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.

 

Harper Lee: To Kill A Mockingbird

 

Bill Bryson: I'm A Stranger Here Myself

 

David Benioff: The 25th Hour

 

 

2002

 

Ben Katchor: Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer

In this graphic novel, Katchor brilliantly creates an alternate-univerise New York City, delicately straddling the line between used-to-be and never-was. Knipl isn't the protagonist as much as a leitmotif, weaving in and out of these narratives in his nocturnal sojourns, not appearing on every page but never more than a block or two away. Odd, yet amiable.

 

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]

 

John Colapinto: About the Author

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.

 

Aleksandar Hemon: Nowhere Man

 

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.

 

John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath

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]

 

Kate Jennings: Moral Hazard

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

 

Michael Collins: The Keepers of Truth

 

Walker Evans: Simple Secrets

 

Ernest J. Gaines: A Lesson Before Dying

 

Robert Reid and Larry Viskochil (editors): Chicago and Downstate: Illinois as Seen by the Farm Security Administration Photographers, 1936-1943

 

Jonathon Raban: Passage to Juneau: A Sea and its Meanings

Raban takes a solo sailboat journey from Seattle to Juneau through the Inside Passage, and nothing happens. Yes, he encounters occasional rough seas and meets oddball characters in port, but his journey consists mostly of his ponderous, self-absorbed musings and a brazen showing-off of his obscure literary knowledge. His retelling of Captain Vancouver's 18th Century explorations of the same area is infinitely more interesting than his modern-day narrative of cruising this well-travelled route.

 

Galen Rowell: Poles Apart: Parallel Visions of the Arctic and Antarctic

 

Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep

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.

 

Ralph Ellison: Flying Home and Other Stories

 

Studs Terkel: Chicago

 

Nick Hornby: How To Be Good

 

Alfred L. Brophy: Reconstructing the Dreamland: The Tulsa Riot of 1921

 

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 New York Eskimo

 

Jim Thompson: Wild Town

 

Michael Martone (editor): Townships

 

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 East River or a trout stream next to a tire store parking lot, in which "I don't fear that my very presence is making it less pristine."

 

Richard Rayner: Drake's Fortune

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 England, he was fully aware he was perpetrating a fraud, but at some point (probably once he was deported to America, where he was unexpectedly adored -- not lynched -- by his followers) he started to believe in his own con. He thought the scam was real, and that once the Drake estate was settled he would become the richest, most powerful man in the world. Not surprisingly, he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and eventually died in a prison mental hospital. A really interesting story. Reading it, it's not so surprising that investors in the 90's threw good money at every Internet venture that came along. It's just something inherent in our nature.

 

Olov Isaksson & Soren Hallgren: Bishop Hill: A Utopia on the Prairie

 

Calvin Trillin: Tepper Isn't Going Out

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.

 

John Cassidy: Dot.con: The Greatest Story Ever Sold

 

Erik Wahlgren: The Vikings and America

An uneven 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 Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland. Later, he argues persuasively that Leif Erikson's legendary Vinland settlement was not the excavated Viking site at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, but actually at the northernmost coast of Maine. In doing so, he quite logically follows the saga-described journeys of Bjarni Herjulfsson, Leif Erikson and Thorvald Erikson into Nova Scotia and Maine. But just when he has himself all set up to discuss the colonizing voyage of Thorfinn Karlsefni, who spent three years with sixty other settlers at Leif's old Vinland site and would seem to offer the best evidence in support of the Vinland-in-Maine theory, Wahlgren drops the narrative completely and starts discussing scattered Viking archaeological finds in Greenland and Arctic Canada. He also glosses over the rather significant fact that no Viking archaeological finds have been made in Maine or Nova Scotia. This book just seems frustratingly incomplete.

 

Robert J. Casey: Chicago Medium Rare

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.

 

Mike Royko: Up Against It

 

Wayne F. Miller: Chicago's South Side, 1946-48

 

Simon Winchester: The Map That Changed the World

 

Rockwell Kent: N by E

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.

 

 

2001

 

The Onion: Dispatches from the Tenth Circle: The Best of the Onion

 

Alex Kotlowitz: The Other Side of the River: Two Towns, A Death, and America's Dilemma

 

Nelson Algren: Nonconformity

 

Frank McCourt: Angela's Ashes

 

Art Speigelmann: Maus

 

Ben Hecht: A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago

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.

 

W.C. Heinz: The Professional

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.

 

Michael Azerrad: Our Band Could Be Your Life

 

George Ade: Artie

 

John Griesemer: No One Thinks of Greenland

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.

 

Ralph Ellison: Juneteenth

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 America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago

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.

 

Frank Harris: The Bomb

 

Jim Thompson: After Dark, My Sweet

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.

 

Alan Ehrenhalt: The Lost City: Rediscovering the Virtues of Community in 1950's Chicago

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.

 

Jim Redd: The Illinois and Michigan Canal: A Contemporary Perspective in Essays and Photographs

As much about the Illinois River valley as the I&M Canal itself. Still, a pretty interesting read, and the photos are first-rate.

 

Art Shay: Album For An Age

 

Bill Bryson: In A Sunburned Country

 

Knut Hamsun: Hunger

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 America

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.

 

David Sedaris: Me Talk Pretty One Day

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.

 

Terry Evans: Disarming the Prairie

 

Jon Krakauer: Into the Wild

A totally unforgettable book. A cautionary tale of misplaced, youthful idealism and its tragic consequences.

 

Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man

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.

 

Carl Sandburg: Chicago Poems

 

Mike Royko: Sez Who? Sez Me

 

Nelson Algren: Chicago: City on the Make

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 Chicago: the back alleys, the dispossessed, the swindlers dressed up in their Prarie Avenue finery, the kill-or-be-killed ethos of this cutthroat "trader's town." Seldom has indignation been so lyrical. A book which every native Chicagoan should read.