I finished the book yesterday during a long afternoon spent in bed recovering from my illness. It was an especially fitting setting. The Great Fire is full of languid afternoons and young men beset by obscure diseases and weary from the war. I enjoyed the setting; the sense of war nearby, war recently ended and perhaps soon to be reignited. It was like a less bleary version of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises it also reminded me a lot of the film Casablanca, but maybe just because I happened to watch it around when I started reading the book. The book revolves around a couple of former soldiers, Aldred Leith and Peter Exley, who have been cast far and wide, to Japan and Hong Kong respectively, in the aftermath of World War II. They are surrounded on all sides by others, women and older folks, whose lives have been similarly touched by the war, and all of whom seem to be searching in vain for normalcy in the aftermath of shattering conflict. The central drama of the book concerns a budding love affair between Leith and a student of his, Helen Driscoll. Helen’s dull and menacing parents as well as the vast age difference between Aldred and Helen set up what turns out to be a fairly filmic love story. The chief drama for the reader lies both in wending one’s way through Hazzard’s elliptical, lyrical prose and in wondering whether or not the May – December romance will ever be consummated.
"Why is it that members of the same family get appointments in several sections of government and only large firms seem to get representation on boards dealing with zoning and construction?" Sound familiar?This question was posed in 1971 by the newly elected alderman of the 44th Ward, Dick Simpson, to the "'Boss' of all Chicago," Mayor Richard J. Daley. Simpson took the floor to question nepotism in Chicago politics when Daley appointed his powerful ally Ald. Thomas E. Keane's son to the Zoning Board of Appeals.The question prompted a tirade from Daley. "His face was purple with rage and his aides feared that he would have a stroke," Simpson writes, adding that a one-hour recess followed to allow Daley to regain his composure. The issues that Simpson raised as an independent alderman 26 years ago still haunt Chicagoans and City Hall politics.Rogues, Rebels and Rubber Stamps, Dick Simpson's 2001 book, explains how historical events shaped the city's politics through intriguing reconstructions of battles on the council floor using newspaper accounts, histories, memoirs and his own observations.Simpson, who teaches urban politics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, also constructs a methodological study of city elections and roll call votes in the council. "From this montage of characters, struggles, and votes emerges the story of the council and the meaning of its history," he writes.What is the meaning of the council's history, then? Simpson argues that Chicagoans never enjoyed a true, representative democracy. He presents a very strong case to support his thesis: that politicking and elections produced three types of councils, which provided - depending on who exercised power - a means for either the mayor or influential aldermen to have their way, or forced compromises between the two elements; but the emerging policies rarely benefited citizens - who remained and continue to be unrepresented.Based on his study of voting patterns, Simpson characterizes the city council as the mayor's rubber stamp, a fragmented body run by powerful aldermen and a forum engaged in "wars" when neither the mayor nor aldermanic voting blocks are dominant.Current Mayor Richard M. Daley's city council is a rubber stamp, as was his father's, according to Simpson. In these councils, which became increasingly more common after the establishment of Chicago's "Democratic machine" in the 1930s, aldermen vote with the mayor with very little to no resistance.Rubber stamp councils enabled mayors to provide patronage jobs and get reelected with the strong backing of political, union, business, institutional and community leaders. These councils also streamlined policymaking. Simpson writes that mayors running rubber stamp councils "took away the ward bosses' control of government services to make Chicago 'the city that works.'"The city worked in different ways when the council was fragmented. The most telling period of this model is the era Simpson calls "The Councils of Gray Wolves," which was dominant from 1871 until 1931. The name was coined by McClure's Magazine reporter Lincoln Steffens who characterized the alderman as gray wolves "'for the color of their hair and the rapacious cunning and greed of their natures.'" He wrote that the aldermen were "'a lot of good natured honest thieves.'Now, that last statement might be applicable to Chicago's modern aldermen, too. But they do not carry the clout of the gray wolves, who aligned themselves with business interests in their wards and mustered votes to pass legislation by logrolling. Simpson characterizes fragmented councils as having a "strong council-weak mayor form of government." Unlike in a rubber stamp council, which acts on the mayor's orders, aldermen in fragmented councils exchanged favors to secure benefits to their ward and, consequently, to further their political ambitions.The era of Council Wars from 1983 to 1986 under Mayor Harold Washington produced a different dynamic. Despite constant gridlocks due to a majority of opposition aldermen and the mayor's unwillingness to bend to machine politics, Chicago had a progressive experience. The mayor's veto powers coupled with his need for opposition support to pass legislation made for a fertile ground of compromise.As a result "came extended programs of affirmative action, freedom of government information for citizens, the signing of a court decree ending patronage, and the largest neighborhood infrastructure improvement program in Chicago's history," Simpson writes.What does the future hold for Chicago politics and citizens? Mayor Richard M. Daley disrupted the traditional machine politics, yet he did create his own machine, according to Simpson. And, he still rules over a rubber stamp council - which means no real representation.The current mayor moved away from old-style patronage jobs, but established a "pinstripe patronage" - one driven by city contracts to businesses. There is a shift from hands-on "builder mayors" that led pro-growth regimes, such as Daley's father and Mayor Ed Kelly, to manager mayors who lead "management regimes" that substitute policy for patronage, such as the current mayor's.And the citizens? Well, they will just have to push for independent aldermen like Simpson, who organized a ward council and cast city council votes that represented his constituency's decisions. Otherwise, the words of Ald. Paddy Bauler on the heels of Richard J. Daley's election in 1955 might ring true for many years: "Chicago ain't ready for reform."Note to non-Chicagoans: This post was written with a Chicago audience in mind. But Simpson's work can also be taken as the study of a political microcosm and applied to politics everywhere - your local government, national affairs or even international politicking. It's quite a gripping, historical read - I recommend it to everyone interested in politics or urban policymaking.
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We may live in a time when it’s finally okay to acknowledge what most have long known -- namely, that book reviewers sometimes know the authors of the books they review. To be sure, book review editors still put up a front of seeking out reviewers who have no acquaintance with an author under consideration, but, as social media has made the world smaller, and as the literary world itself has undergone an unhappy shrinkage, it’s gotten harder and harder to verify that an assigned review won’t wind up being a better reflection of a reviewer’s affection (or animosity) for an author, rather than a true measure of a book’s particular quality. It’s gotten to be a bit like blurbs, hasn’t it? I mean, really -- is there anyone out there who still visits bookstores and believes that the downright epileptic spasms of praise on the backs of books indicate true, unsolicited, un-commissioned opinions? This is nothing knew. Henry James wrote extensively and glowingly about Robert Louis Stevenson even as there was a chair in Stevenson’s house known as the “Henry James chair” for the Master’s use of it during salons and soirees; and H.L. Mencken went after Theodore Dreiser -- really lit him up -- after having met him a number of times. Neither James’s nor Mencken’s opinions are likely the direct product of these relationships, but how can we know that for sure? The relationships are not acknowledged in the critical essays that we must trust to be assessments that are uncorrupted by non-critical views. And now, 100 years later, in a literary world notably smaller and vastly more interconnected, it still works the same way: friends (and enemies) write about each other’s books, but pretend they are writing about strangers. All of which is prelude to me saying fie on that. I am reviewing Marc Nieson’s new book, Schoolhouse: Lessons on Love & Landscape, and I have a more than passing familiarity with both the author and the subject. In fact, I’ve known the latter even longer than the former. Schoolhouse is a memoir, which basically means it’s about Nieson’s life and the wisdom he’s drawn from it, but first and foremost it uses Nieson’s time living in an old stone schoolhouse during his stint at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as a temporal fulcrum and emblem of transition. My part in this is that I visited the schoolhouse even before Nieson did. He’s older than me, but I attended the Workshop before he did, and the guy who lived in the schoolhouse before Nieson happened to be another Workshop student who was also an auto mechanic who knew how to work on Alfa Romeos. As it happened, I had bought a Spider just after I graduated from college, a joke that almost no one got. Anyway, the joke turned out to be on me: the car cost a fortune in repairs, and I spent a number of days visiting the schoolhouse of Schoolhouse. I met Nieson, most likely, at a Workshop poker game, and even in the first few pages of his book one taps into the gentle, anger-averse mien that made Nieson something of an odd presence at both those games, and in that creative writing program, each of which often featured conflict. We became friends in a more than casual, yet less than wholly intimate way, such that there is a lot that is new to me in Schoolhouse, but also much that I recognize from those old Iowa days -- in particular, Nieson’s description of the diagram that Frank Conroy used to illustrate the co-creation of art, that melding of minds that is the necessary component of any truly literary event. (I myself have since scarified that image onto the brains of probably 1,000 students by now.) Indeed, you might then leap to the conclusion to that in order to review Nieson’s book I wouldn’t really have to do all that much. We were close; I lived those days too. Probably, I could skim it and do just fine. But that would be completely wrong. There are a few things you can say with certainty about Schoolhouse. It’s a love story that is also a book about a kind of emotional sustainability -- how to do right by both your soul and your surrounding -- and it’s the tale of a rootless man coming to grow a few. The book globetrots from Iowa to New York to Italy, but thematically it never strays far from the old stone building, since demolished, that stands to this day as a symbol of Nieson’s education, the retelling of which might just teach us a few things too. It’s a kind and quiet book about a world that often isn’t either, and it’s told in a spare language that serves an inverted measure of the volume’s difficult-to-plumb sophistication. But hold on right there. Because that kind of description, i.e., the usual descriptions of book reviews, doesn’t really describe my experience of Schoolhouse at all. If I’m to be honest, then I must allow that my experience of my friend’s book was based almost entirely on the difference between the man I found in these pages and the one that I thought I knew. When you read books by strangers -- as Gertrude Stein would have us do (“I write for myself and strangers,” she wrote, though she had plenty of writer buddies) -- you don’t get to experience that at all. Of course you recognize that you have a particular kind of intimacy with people in books, and with people through books, which everyday relationships lack, but if you never read a book that was written by someone you know, then you never come truly face to face with the sad inadequacy of real life, which is the reason books exist in the first place. When I read Schoolhouse, I realized there was more pain and past in Nieson’s life than I had ever known or suspected might have lurked there. My impulse was to dig into my own past and project this new Nieson onto my fragmented memories of him, as though I could I heal the gaps in my past that suddenly felt like wounds. Which was kind of stupid, but which, as it happens, is sort of what Schoolhouse is about. There’s a wonderful story here, but I’m not going to tell you anything about it. Rather, I will tell you that Schoolhouse is about those times when “you can hardly tell whether you’re hiding out from the past, or in it.” The book, then, is not about the past, it’s about memory, and the inadequacy of memory is what ensures that “there are all kinds of amputations and oversights in this world.” Amputations and oversights...That pretty well describes the emotion I was left with at the end of this simple, powerful book, written by a guy I once knew fairly well. Or so I thought. A good book, by its goodness, proves the inadequacy of the world to which it is addressed. And I now know Marc Nieson all over again, as you might -- as a vague, perfect, intimate stranger.
A man shaves off his mustache and, consequently, his life. A boy gets lost within his dilemmas and insecurities, echoing downfalls of a mature man. Where does Emmanuel Carrere want the reader to end up? I'm unsure, but you can read Class Trip & The Mustache for yourself and try to figure it out.Both stories are unforgiving, that is for sure. The reader faces two dilemmas (which I will attempt to convey in reverse order, having read The Mustache first). There is a man. He is convinced that he had a mustache for years. He jokes about shaving it off. And, in the first five pages of the short novel, he shaves off the mustache. And with it, his life - or what one can only presume to be his life.Next, the reader is entangled in a series of existentialist debates. Did the unnamed protagonist really have a mustache? (OK, that one is a bit practical, but bear with me.) If yes, what does it mean - in terms of character - that he shaved it? If not, then what fuels his obsession with the belief?Carrere takes the reader through an unsolvable quest of insecurities in The Mustache. The distinct, single-voice narrative - which is definitive of the author's voice in Class Trip as well - runs, simultaneously, through both the protagonist's and the reader's mind. One cannot disconnect from the voice.The narrative constitutes an integral part of Carrere's mission: to draw the reader in to the story. One has the opportunity to see all the wrong turns the protagonist takes, yet the reader is helpless in dissociating with the narrative. Hence, it is easy to sympathize with the protagonist, his search of peace of mind, his comfort in the repetitive, and his focus on the mundane - even if he does it just to get grounded.Class Trip presents much of the same dilemmas. Despite its publication nine years after The Mustache, the story carries and presents the same self-centered debates. Nicholas - a protected, shy middle-school student who still wets his bed, is enamored with his father, and has considerable paranoid tendencies - goes off to the ski school with all of his classmates.The plague sets in at the get go: his father refuses to let Nicholas ride in the school bus due to safety concerns; once Nicholas arrives at the chalet the father forgets to unload his bag; and the kid becomes the laughing stock of his class because someone refusing to lend him pajamas makes the comment that "he'll pee in them."Events lead Nicholas to form a bond with the class bully, Hodkann, and the charismatic instructor, Patrick. The latter accentuates Nicholas's hopes and bright side. Hodkann only contributes to Nicholas' insecurities and wish to prove himself, however. Nicholas' life at the chalet gets darker as events unfold, and he succeeds in daydreaming certain sequences that even a most paranoid person would have a hard time imagining.What is fascinating about Carrere's two novels is that despite the unforgiving self pity and pain the protagonists and readers endure - not to mention obvious salvations presented in both stories, which both the protagonists and reader avoid - and the parallel frustrations put forth (and lived through), the characters are very real. And they represent a part of everyone's dark, self-doubting, paranoid side.Note: If you have read either novel, or do end up reading them, and want to get into discussions as to WTF it all means, please leave a comment or email me. I am looking, desperately, for answers.
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