It makes little sense to come up with another list of “best” Chicago books. To select a “top” 10 (or 20 or 1,000) has always seemed arbitrary and destined for accusations of unjustified boosterism and hyperbole, even in a city built on a foundation of unjustified boosterism and hyperbole.
Fairly or unfairly, Chicago often serves as a general proxy for American cities. Love or hate this idea of ostensible representativeness (most Chicagoans kind of just roll their eyes), to embrace it can prove helpful in one respect: looking at ambition, failed policies, immigration, founding myths, and contemporary life in Chicago, you find resonance elsewhere in America. When thinking through issues confronted by American cities today (and maybe always) — unequal distribution of resources, violent policing, persistent de facto segregation, administrative corruption, privatization of public services, neoliberal coddling of gentrification, fallout from decades of environmental degradation, and others — Chicago serves as a vital case study.
The local commentariat here works itself into spitting rages whenever any outsider — especially if that outsider bears a New York Times business card — parachutes into the Loop for 36 hours to explain Chi-Town (seriously, stop it: no one here calls it that) to the rest of the world. So, designed as a “Chicago 101” syllabus, these books serve as starting points rather than final judgments. They place Chicago at the center of ideas about city life, in some case pressing back on prevailing narratives about American urbanism. Instead of best Chicago books, this selection focuses on books that use a Chicago-centric perspective to address challenges that other places similarly confront.
And given that I’m leaving town this fall and casting my lot with the outsiders when I transplant to — I cringe, really, it feels like betrayal — Brooklyn, I wanted to get this thing together before the movers arrive. Much is missing: I chose not to focus on novels because so many others have done so, and poetry is almost entirely absent. Nelson Algren and Carl Sandburg were not on this list because they are prerequisites for the list. But with the excuses that I don’t intend on completeness and the movers at the gates, I hope it’s acceptable to leave gaps that conversation might fill.
1. “It Really Wasn’t Much of a Place at All.”
Dominic A. Pacyga opens Chicago: A Biography, his sweeping history of the Midwest’s largest city, with Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet. The priest and explorer first came upon a portage between the Chicago and Illinois Rivers in 1673. To build a canal here would be to connect the Great Lakes to the Mississippi, creating the largest inland waterway in the world and facilitating transportation from New York Harbor to the Mississippi along the entire midsection of the continent.
There’s a lot in between and after, and the last page of Pacyga’s book makes it to Barack Obama’s inauguration as President of the United States. That Pacyga covers so much — from the fire that destroyed one third of Chicago in 1871, to the city’s subsequent explosive growth (Chicago had a 1.7 million residents by 1900), to the Haymarket riot, to the 1968 DNC — should give a sense of the book’s scope. With so much terrain to cover, it comes as little surprise that even major events get relatively little space. Pacyga does, however, provide an especially detailed account of labor upheavals that characterized Chicago around the turn of the 20th century, providing context for understanding the city’s pushback against the rampant capitalism for which it earned its reputation.
Chicago: A Biography represents an essential starting point, primarily because it tracks the evolution of the city from a mucky swamp to a “global city.”
2. “Natural Advantages”
William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis and Donald Miller’s City of the Century both present meticulously detailed and conceptually riveting pictures of Chicago in the 1800’s — a century of incredible expansion. Chicago’s founding hustlers (to borrow Nelson Algren’s term for his fellow Chicagoans) proclaimed as early as the 1830’s that a marsh named for stinking onions by indigenous people, seated aside gloriously fertile grasslands on the shores of an inland ocean, would one day represent “the most important point in the great west.” By the time of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, the climax of Chicago’s ascendant century, that destiny had been realized.
Cronon and Miller interrogate the stakes of this transformation, asking about the lives it altered and about the enduring epistemic shifts that Chicago’s rise implied for the United States. Chicago transformed America’s relationship with the West and with capital itself, producing not only a vast urban expanse but also structuring what we would come to understand as “rural,” “suburban,” and “hinterland.” Cronon helps us understand how the city transformed goods into abstract commodities, reshaping our relationship to the food we buy and the environment we consume. He shows how rail transit didn’t just connect distant places, but rather restructured our very understanding of space and time. In notable contrast, Miller’s history dives into the enormous cast of characters that built Chicago and chronicled its rise. City of the Century’s meticulous characterization of the “hustlers” that poured concrete into Chicago’s foundations provides singular descriptions of this cast’s influence on the city’s trajectory.
3.“High Strung, Contagious Enthusiasm”
Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City has become standard literary fare for newcomers to Chicago, and one will often find multiple copies in a transplant’s household. Larson dramatizes the planning of the aforementioned World’s Columbian Exposition, which marked the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to America. Planning required construction of an enormous classical-inspired city in Jackson Park on the South Side, involving many of the city’s (and nation’s) architectural and economic leaders, and marking Chicago’s global coming-out party.
Lurking in the crowds, H.H. Holmes — the book’s eponymous devil — became one of America’s first serial killers. He committed scores of murders silently throughout the fair, the urban anonymity afforded him by the crowds facilitating his crimes. Larson’s book has become important, not just as a document that depicts this contradiction between glorious spectacle and urban underbelly, but also because his romanticized vision of Chicago squares with how the city still views the fair. Its spectacle (and specter) looms large in Chicago’s self-conception.
Where Larson spends time examining the drama among fair planners, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Kid on Earth presents an imaginative — and sparely, gorgeously rendered — view of the event’s history through a child’s eyes. An emotionally paralyzed man living in present-day Chicago, Jimmy attempts to reconnect with his father. In scenes from the 1800s, the monumental fair casts similar shadows over an inter-generational Corrigan family history. Ware depicts how the tendrils of Chicago’s past reach to its present in a city with a complicated history.
Jane Addams founded Hull-House in 1889, well before the Columbian Exposition’s electric lights flickered on. Her settlement house ultimately comprised an enormous complex of buildings in one of Chicago’s poorest immigrant neighborhoods. In Twenty Years at Hull House, one gets the sense of Addams’s determination to reformulate the way that cities treated the poor and immigrant classes — with dignity and a focus on individuals. She charted a course for services and advocacy for the poor that formed the foundation of social work and emphasized that communities matter in urban development.
Concurrently, Daniel Burnham — architect of the Columbian Exposition — moved on from the fair to create an urban plan that would transform Chicago and cement the city’s status as a global metropolis. Carl Smith’s The Plan of Chicago makes it clear that Burnham’s monumental visions leave a complicated legacy. Despite “sincere” hopes that “City Beautiful” concepts would ennoble the poor, the Plan of Chicago deserves criticism for overlooking conditions of daily life for those to whom Addams ministered. As much as it marks a culmination of optimism in city planning, it lays some of the foundation for abysmal policies that would haunt public housing in Chicago and in many other cities. Moreover, it marks a kind of opening chapter in “public-private partnerships” that govern contemporary efforts to encourage markets to solve urban problems.
5. Bigger Ambitions for Chicago-Born Novels
Native Son and The Adventures of Augie March belong at the heart of any serious conversation about Chicago novels (though I find Augie difficult to get through). The ambitions of Richard Wright and Saul Bellow in these two midcentury novels rise to the level of Chicago’s ambitions for itself. Their alternatingly devastating and ennobling investigations of individual agency and social determination in two unforgettable protagonists — Augie and Bigger Thomas — make them essential to an understanding of American ideas about selfhood, race, and ambition.
It can be easy to forget that these novels take place in Chicago; they belong to us all and not to any one city. “I am an American,” Augie declares right at his beginning. “Chicago born” comes only second, though it acts as validation of his Americanness. Upon reflection, one cannot imagine either novel taking place in any other American city — one of huge immigrant classes fragmented into neighborhoods bitterly segregated along racial and ethnic lines.
Reading these novels together with a spatial understanding of Chicago deepens one’s appreciation for how wide a gulf exists between the lives of their protagonists and the populations they represent. Augie and Bigger find themselves in Hyde Park, for example (which still boasts of its veneer of racial diversity relative to other neighborhoods), but their experiences there are utterly separate. From this smallest of details — the incongruity of lives despite physical proximity — emerges persistent truths about the structure of racial dynamics in American cities.
6. Making the Most of Migration
The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson’s mammoth history of the Great Migration, won the 2015 Chicago Reader’s poll of “Greatest Chicago Book.” Chicago shares billing with LA and NYC as important destinations for those whose lives Wilkerson traces from the rural south to the urban north and west, but there can be no doubt that the Great Migration wrought indelible changes in the social fabric of every region in the United States from World War I through the 1970s; and in this story, Chicago plays a central role. Unwavering in her depictions of the political and physical violence of Jim Crow and nuanced in both her telling of personal stories and descriptions of broader effects of the migration on cities and people, Wilkerson’s book is the seminal text on the largest internal migration in American history.
Meanwhile, Adam Green’s Selling the Race provides an incisive contribution to conversations about how black Chicagoans carved a place for culture in modern America. Against prevailing narratives that cast black Americans (including many new migrants to Chicago) as victims of modernity, swept up by forces that looked to capitalize on anxieties of belonging, Green argues that they became powerful agents of cultural production. Examples from Mahalia Jackson to Ebony and Jet magazine (product of the Chicago-based Johnson Publications) present a rich picture of how much of black culture was generated and packaged for sale to wide audiences in Chicago.
7. Obsessions with the Ordinary
No city values the “ordinary” so dearly as Chicago. And if Studs Terkel stands as the everyman’s greatest champion, his Division Street America best ties the city’s affection for ordinariness to American identity. It would be a mistake to suggest that Terkel shilled the myth of a “city that works” (a term coined by Richard J. Daley). Rather, his no-nonsense portrayals of everyday Chicagoans — rich, poor, Democrat, Republican, racist, gay, jag-baggy, and others — coalesce to create this affecting hodgepodge. As Alex Kotlowitz (no slouch himself in the department of spotlighting and writing movingly about injustice in Chicago) has observed, there’s always Studs in the background — curious, probing, insisting, and asking questions that prompt often-ignored individuals to tell their stories.
Vivian Maier, whose recently discovered work also transacts in Chicago’s obsession with the ordinary, may outshine Terkel decades from now. She embodies the perfect female flâneur (or, as historian Lauren Elkin has rightly insisted, flâneuse). Maier spent most of her life as a nanny in Chicago, secretly capturing some 100,000 images on the city’s streets. The domestic nature of her work all but guaranteed invisibility, given chauvinistic structures of artistic production and labor valuation. But when John Maloof was researching the Northwest Side neighborhood of Portage Park in 2007, he came upon Maier’s forgotten images. He bought and disseminated them. Vivian Maier: A Photographer Found is a great introduction and Maier now belongs in discussions about great American street photographers. Hers is an utterly Chicago story.
8. Daley’s Siege
Richard J. Daley reigned over much of 20th-century Chicago. He ruled the city from 1955 until 1971, dominated Democratic Machine politics, and earned all of his enemies. Several books on this list describe Daley, and his complicated legacy plays out differently in their assessments. For this reason, I have left out of this list any Daley biographies.
Perhaps no account of Daley proves as brutal as Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago. In his run-up to descriptions of protests and Chicago police reprisals, Mailer writes, “Daley was no national politician, but a clansman.” The 1968 DNC, convened by Daley, proved a flashpoint in American political history. The chaos fragmented the Democratic Party nationally, and set the stage for Richard Nixon’s victory in November. In Mailer’s description of Chicago, his clear affection for the city makes it all the more heartbreaking (despite his intimations of inevitability) that the fractures of American society should appear on live television broadcasts from Michigan Avenue.
Algren-esque musings notwithstanding, Mailer remains a Chicago outsider. So it feels appropriate to add Chicagoan Haskell Wexler’s film Medium Cool to this list of books. Combining documentary footage of the convention protests with a fictional film, Wexler enlivens and deepens Mailer’s account. He depicts the tumult of 1968 like perhaps no other text from that stormy year. As a bonus, Medium Cool echoes experiments happening in documentary at places like Kartemquin films, which would go on to produce the now-canonical Chicago films Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters.
9. Out in Chicago
The most recently published addition to this list is Timothy Stewart-Winter’s Queer Clout. In it, Stewart-Winter troubles the dominant narrative of 20th-century gay rights activism in the United States, which typically treats New York and San Francisco as the two central cities, often to the exclusion of the Midwest. He fills this narrative with a cacophonous history of LGBTQ culture and activism in Chicago, where firings, shakedowns, police bribes, and bar raids were just as much a part of life throughout the city as anywhere else.
Effective action depended ultimately on collaborations between gay rights and black civil rights groups, and the pursuit of delicate coalitions. Queer Clout traces the fits and starts of these collaborations and coalitions. Post-Orlando, Stewart-Winter’s discussion of the importance of gay bars for LGBTQ individuals — historically and presently — seems especially valuable. Bars served ground zero for exploitation by law enforcement, but also as meeting places and (most of the time) safe havens.
Stewart-Winter cautions against readily equating the gay rights movement with the civil rights movement; the layering of race, sexual orientation, and gender identification necessitates a more complicated picture. And his affecting description of unequal access to healthcare among Chicagoans affected by AIDS creates a devastating picture of failed policies. In a city divided between a black south and white north, lack of access to educational resources, preventive care, and treatment becomes a reminder of how segregation produces injustice that communities and policymakers must continue to fight to address.
10. Humboldt Park
To understand gentrification in Chicago, head to the Humboldt Park neighborhood, where protests against rising rents, tax hikes, and teardowns took place recently on the 606. This park, built on a former rail line, echoes efforts in other cities to erase industrial infrastructure from urban landscapes. Having whetted the appetite of developers, The 606 has accelerated the pace at which Humboldt Park is becoming unaffordable for longtime residents.
Sandra Cisneros grew up in Humboldt Park. Her beloved The House on Mango Street takes place in a similar fictional neighborhood. Traditional readings peg the novella as the coming-of-age story of Esperanza, a daughter of Mexican immigrants. Cisneros experiments with form — the book is a series of short vignettes — to explore Esperanza’s struggles with sexuality, national identity, class, and the Spanish language. The poetic language of these depictions alone makes an argument for the work’s importance.
To read Mango Street alongside Chris Ware’s Building Stories widens the lens through which readers can examine the relationship between individual and community identity. Ware’s unnamed protagonist, who loses a leg in a childhood accident, lives in Humboldt Park. Her story unfolds across 14 pamphlets, broadsheets, books, and other objects. Like Cisneros, Ware’s formal cartwheels advance conversations about identity. As with Cisneros, the book’s themes center on self-description — again, a disjointed and chronologically jumbled task (there’s no “right” way to read the book). He’s also interested in the evolving neighborhood, as the heroine moves away and revisits the three-flat in which so much life happens.
11. Whose City?
What does Chicago look like today? Natalie Moore’s The South Side, published last year, combines history and memoir to describe neighborhoods in the city that are too often represented in national news media in one-dimensional stories of gun violence. Her book draws productively from her own biography of a childhood in middle-class and largely black Chatham, and feels less concerned with comprehensiveness than with augmenting and correcting the record. As the current South Side reporter for the local NPR affiliate, Moore brings a great deal of connections and numerous voices to this project.
By contrast, Larry Bennett’s The Third City offers a picture of contemporary Chicago that seems at times too rosy in its assessment of the younger Richard M. Daley’s infrastructure investments (the book was published before the first term of Mayor Rahm “One Percent” Emanuel). Visions of Chicago as a global city — one that attracts entrepreneurs to ride the next wave of innovators was for a time called “Silicon Prairie” — ring with the optimism of the 19th century. It presents a picture of Chicago that has become popular among elected officials looking to attract private money and foreign tourists. This vision of Chicago’s third incarnation (a vision of privatization premised on the notion that a city’s chief ambition should be to attract capital to its core) looks like a new version of Burnham’s century-old Plan. It has fans elsewhere.
How to square this vision with the neighborhoods that sustain Chicago, and other cities, remains an unanswered question.
12. There Are No Two Finer Words…
Among garrulous Chicagoans, most will grudgingly agree: we miss Hot Doug’s. Chicago treasure Doug Sohn’s sausage emporium was not only a celebration of encased meats, but equally a democratizing force on a desolate block on California Avenue in the Avondale neighborhood. One waited in line (often for more than an hour) whether one was Anthony Bourdain, Aziz Ansari, or even Doug’s dad. In Hot Doug’s, the coffee table book that cashed in on Doug’s decision to close the shop not long ago, local voices weigh in on The Line: when they waited, how long they waited for, who got engaged to whom while waiting, who had to rush to the hospital to deliver a baby, etc.
Doug reminded us all (always calling us “my friend”) that in Chicago, one waits in line like civilized people. The snow, cold, heat, wind, and rain be damned.
13. Coda: Next Steps
There’s so much more to read and through-lines to trace from Carl Sandburg to Gwendolyn Brooks to Aleksandar Hemon to Chance the Rapper. Those interested in extensive lists of Chicago novels should consult, all kidding aside, several best-of lists already out there. My favorite was published by the dearly departed local site Gapers Block, and it organizes novels by neighborhood. Chicago magazine published a fun list of new Chicago-centric reads for the summer. I’m excited to read Margo Jefferson’s Negroland and Darryl Pinckney’s Black Deutschland. And Curbside Splendor Publishing (a local house) recently put out The Empty Bottle Chicago: 21+ Years of Music / Friendly / Dancing, a history of one of the Northwest Side’s most-loved venues.
But now, it’s time to get to packing.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
In the 18 months since Kyiv’s Maidan protests have moved on, flared up, and fizzled in the cities of the east, Ukraine has managed to lurch into geopolitical purgatory — not as hot as Damascus, not as cool as Prague. The city has settled into the importunate schizophrenia of the post-structural, where monetization serves as antidote for nearly anything — civility, representative government. That is code for this: though no person directly responsible for the government-ordered sniper attacks of January and February 2014 has been prosecuted, Kyivites no longer have to concern themselves with actual cross-hairs of actual rifle scopes. And the money’s starting to flow again. The IMF is around, gobbling up transitive verbs: forgiving, restructuring, forecasting. Yet, for a place that is supposedly peaceful, consumed with reform, the hoi polloi have seen little forgiveness, less structure, and a forecast that is, at best, stormy. We spend, rather, a lot of time waiting for the other shoe to drop. I do.
My first encounter with Ambrose Akinmusire — the liner notes of his 2011 Blue Note debut, When the Heart Emerges Glistening — left the barest of impressions: late-20s, Oakland-born, LA-based, studied with Terence Blanchard. That biography matched with the implausible maturity of the music and my aesthetic’s nitpicking evil twin was off to discover what the trick was. Something was up. What was the true ontogeny of this most recent messiah — the one who would coax America back to jazz? Twenty-nine-years-old: Who was he trying to fool? Trying to be — Miles? Dave Douglas? Erik Truffaz? Clifford Brown maybe, mercifully back among us, moved on from bop? All the markers were in place: the Blue Note pedigree, the technical agility, the burnished phrasing, the seemingly unconscious feel for the very note the room needs to hear and when. Faith comes so dear, and the commodified — and, admittedly, the local situation — world has been hell on any generosity of spirit I may have once possessed.
Not that Ukraine hasn’t seen results — it has. Annual inflation has stabilized (sic) at 140 percent. In the capital, a U.S. dime and nickel (equivalent) will still buy you a ride anywhere our subway goes. The Parliament refuses to repeal, or modify, its privilege of universal criminal immunity. And there are Russians — two kinds: the kind who have been here for hundreds of years with their language and culture and few see any point in calling them Russian any longer; and the other kind. The latter group — here with its tanks, sophisticated mobile rocket-launchers, and deliveries of lethal aid masquerading laughably as humanitarian food and medical supply convoys — is both thankfully in the minority, and largely restricted to a territory in the east of the country about the size of the State of Rhode Island. And with the Kremlin-financed war they prosecute there, we have nearly 8,000 dead and another 1,000,000 “temporarily displaced” in the reductive patois of the political sophisticate. Ukrainian society, battling to make even modest inroads in the realm of cultural reform, is stuck with the leftovers of that distinctively post-Soviet borscht whose core ingredients are moral exhaustion, brutal cronyism, and arriviste contempt posing as sophisticated optimism.
Into this mess comes a young man with a horn, on tour with a new album entitled The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint, and perhaps it is only by me, but neither the metaphysical nor the political significance of this Oakland, Calif., musician’s presence in Kyiv goes unmarked. Brutal cops, poverty, disenfranchisement, and an empowered class that refuses, largely, to address itself to the question of dignity in identity: this black man from the East Bay has more in common with Kyiv than he probably imagines. With the written word, baseball, and jazz about all there is left to believe in, I need to find out who he is. But if my confession is honest, the truth is that Ambrose Akinmusire had me long before he ever traveled to Kyiv. From the opening phrase of “Confessions to My Unborn Daughter,” the first song on Heart Emerges, he had me.
He starts out alone, a student running through some badass warmup intervals in a practice room of a Saturday, and then a series of Perfect 4ths and a drop echoed by the piano and a forlorn Do-Sol-Fa interval that screams theme music from a ’70s TV police procedural. Followed by a concatenation (I’m going to insist) with tenor sax Walter Smith III of such virtuosity that, well, if these two don’t put you in mind of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, you’re not even trying. From that point on the man is relentless — melody after melody where the American sublime riffs on songs not unrelated to those from the old country that your grandmother sang to you both to bind you up and to break your heart.
He that hath ears to hear. Ambrose Akinmusire isn’t just one more modest variation of every other one; his horn is the one thing needful. In a hard world, where moments of authentic revelation, of unsoiled, uncompromised, and uncompromising human achievement, and unimpeded self-examination are so seldom encountered, so elusive, he is the rara avis. And even if he weren’t, even if he was just another product of the genius of American marketing, there is, arguably, no place on earth more conducive to passing off the derivative as innovative than stylishly intellectual, post-Wall, East-Central Europe. Still, finally, with jazz, hearing — live — is believing, and I would have my chance to see, to hear, to judge.
No rain since May, peat bogs that ring the city have been smoldering for weeks. The air has a bite to it, like the inside of your country uncle’s smokehouse after a three-day cure of roadkill wrapped in bicycle tire. As he locks up and heads out on his walk, a neighbor pulls on a surgical mask. He sees me and quips that he hopes the burn doesn’t reach the toxic mystery piles the Soviets buried out there in the ’50s — waving a hand at some undefined coordinate the way Kyivites do when giving directions. It was right after the War, before the city began to spread. I tell him I’m going to see an American trumpet player that evening and he disappears back into his flat and comes out with two more masks and hands them to me — one for me, one presumably for the horn player. It’s a crisp October evening, and in Kyiv — where Sting or Alla Pugacheva constitute a hot ticket — Ambrose Akinmusire has a big gig in a small hall.
The venue is a retooled warehouse a short walk from home, and the chill and the smell of smoke distract from a gimpy lower back and the moral pressure of the task ahead, a task that begins with getting his name right. His website is solicitous, complete with a phonetic rendering that shows the emphasis is on the MU — AkinMUsire. MU, the 12th letter of the Greek alphabet, the world’s tiniest bittorrent client, and, way back, something akin to the Phoenician word for water. Get the name right — at my age I may not see his like again.
When your quotidian is shreds and tatters and the hurly-burly your daily bread, it is too easy at times to shut down the frontal cortex and just let the pituitary take over. And when the horn player is late, late, late to the stage, my old man’s brain struggles to conjure up anything but the worst. And when the worst turns out to be just that he is late, and he appears intact, I exhale.
The crowd of mostly under-25s is jammed, maybe 300 in all, into a room holding half that. Overheard conversations put a lot of them as music students, conservatory types, slender boys with the slightly fey posture of those who have spent untold years under the tutelage of some humorless piano instructor. When they clap they hold their hands as if preparing to feed an apple to a horse – fingers arching back delicately, tightly. Bored-looking girlfriends, a few haircuts, and a very few from Kyiv’s emergent economic powerhouse — the IT class. There is also a fair representation of a category of Eastern European city-dweller of whom space prohibits adequate description — the gorodskoy sumashedshiy, the urban crazy. That, and four young Americans who are here for all of us.
By 20 minutes in, the quartet has managed to tear even the most device-dependent up from the glow of the screen. The moment comes with the song “Regret (No More),” a fatal blow– if ever there be — to the unexamined life. Whether he has succeeded in corrupting any of the youth in the room to the joys to be discovered in a deliberate study of, and an even more deliberate departure from, the cultural legacy left to us, only time will tell. But for those minutes Ambrose Akinmusire and pianist Sam Harris bewitch the room — the moment never to be repeated, never needing to be. It gives me no end of joy to see that this tune, so confessional, so idiosyncratic — all doits and lip-slurs and half-valving — is such a crowd favorite. The song ends and the room howls. Ambrose smiles. The Savior has not left the building.
Two hours and two encores later and it’s 11:30, and before I can convince myself that it’s not going to happen I’m introducing myself to the man in a room off the main stage. When I ask if he’s got time to talk at the end of this very long day, he is grace in action, and agrees. Then I, who can barely talk to him about music, ask what he’s reading and Ambrose Akinmusire treats it as if it’s the question he’s been expecting all along.
Ambrose Akinmusire: Ta-Nehisi Coates, right now. And James Baldwin. I had a period there where I was reading a lot of Chekhov. Those stories over and over. All that anger held me for a long time, then in the end…
My heart is racing. Chekhov? Jesus. He breaks off, distracted, perhaps recollecting, certainly tired. He is soft-spoken, deferential — qualities that appear again and again in the music — an ear for the quiet tones, a respect for voices other than his own.
The Millions: How does the reading — Chekhov, Baldwin, Coates — inform the music?
AA: You have to define your own morality. Good writing helps but it’s not something to follow unquestioningly. You work through it, it’s internal, it has to be, or it’s just formalism and not your own; you just end up doing what everybody else is doing. Personally, you end up carrying around mistakes that you can’t change and it’s paralyzing. We’re all going through that. All the time.
TM: So that’s where “Regret (No More)” comes from? Confronting yourself. A state of confession. The lament, the wail?
AA: I wrote that at a time when I was working on some things. I understood that I had to get past them, let them go. You can’t dwell on the past. It blinds you. And I want the music to lead, not follow, if you see what I mean.
I do, but I’m a little star-struck. The tone he achieved on stage had me in tears. He goes on.
AA: So it is a cry, yeah, but not in sorrow so much, but liberating. Discovery — in the abstract or in the particular — it’s personal at first, until, in time, you begin to see how universal it is, how everybody is experiencing it. The cry starts out tentative, grows more confident as the story starts to tell itself…”
TM: Stories. The ornate song titles, album titles — from out here it feels like there’s some literary process going on. I’m just standing there listening, but I’m looking for ancestry — Miles, Dizzy, Terrance, whoever. And with Sam (pianist Sam Harris), I’m hearing Bill Evans and then Kenny Barron and then nothing at all. Who am I hearing?
AA: It’s impossible to say. I listen to everything. We all do. I read everything I can and it all has its intended effect. Everybody in the band is always reading something. The great work, work that lasts, it’s never coercive. You can’t force resolution, meaning, on an audience. You have to respect their intelligence; they’ll take it where they need it to go. They decide — or not — how it all resolves. So, there’s a risk there every time, and that’s freeing for everybody.
Bassist Harish Raghavan has been part of the — let’s call it — ”interview” the entire time, but silent. What strikes me at first as poise — these are, after all, men of international reputation — now is revealed as kindness. We talk about personal things: family, Indian, Black, White, Chicago, Oakland, Seattle, and my old heart lifts.
Harish Raghavan: I’m reading the Coates, too. And Devil in the White City. The Erik Larson book. I’m from Chicago, so I’m really into the history. I’ve been listening to that Hardcore History podcast a lot. Man, that stuff is just incredible. Really challenging.
But I’m an idiot. I am Chris Farley interviewing Paul McCartney. I suck. He says Chicago and I blank on the Cubs. I consider, briefly, showing them the surgical masks, telling them about the air, the fires. But sometimes Kyiv, it seems, is just too much to process. The fugue passes, common sense intervenes, and we talk about the tour. ”Why Kyiv?“ I ask. Harish looks at Ambrose, who defers.
HR: I don’t know. We had this trip to Poland and the agent calls and tells us we’re going to Kyiv. We didn’t have any idea what to expect, I mean, with what you hear in the news.
With what you hear in the news. The lateness of the hour hits me — how tired I am, how tired they must be. You can taste the outskirts burning at the back of your throat. The crowd is mostly gone. I’m halfway to asking how he could stand to play in all this stink. Somebody with an American accent calls for a gin and tonic. Three shaved heads stand near the exit, watching. No neck tattoos. Security, I pray. We shake hands all around and again I’m struck by the decency of these men. I shove the masks deeper into my pocket and head out into the sour night.
Whatever they may have expected, what the Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet got was a night onstage before this cloud of witnesses, most of whom had, in all likelihood, known them previously only via the Ukrainian duality of a Facebook post and an illegal download. An otherwise unimaginable crowd in a country in the grip of a rumored war stopping to listen to a black man from Oakland and his band testify while the city burns away its edges. Ukraine heaves, working to purge itself of ideologies long dead and new injustices turning gangrenous. But for one night, here stands a man channeling James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Anton Chekhov to lead them. He that hath ears to hear.
Image Credit: cultprostir.ua.
A recent Millions essay by Michelle Huneven got us thinking: much hay has been made of how various print and digital platforms affect reading practices, but what about setting? Where you do your reading, and how much unbroken time you can give to it, will arguably shape your experience far more than does the difference between screen and page. And as cable and the web colonize our homes, it seems to us that the best reading is increasingly done in transit – for better and for worse. We’ve read pieces of War and Peace on the DC Metro (tough) and half of Anna Karenina in a single gulp on a night train through Tuscany (sublime).
By way of starting a conversation about the ideal marriage of text and transportation, we’ve asked our contributors and our Facebook group to make recommendations for three modes of transportation: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. “Planes” should be self-explanatory; “Trains” comprises commuter rail (and buses) as well as longer distance trips; and “Automobiles,” perforce, centers on audiobooks, podcasts, and works read out loud by those not behind the wheel. Contributor responses appear first, followed by selections from the Facebook response. We invite you to add your own in the comments section or via twitter (using the hashtag #roadbooks). Bon voyage!
Sonya: While traveling far from home, I like to give myself over fully to a changed perspective, leaving my customary myopia behind as much as possible; The Economist is my preferred reading. The robust “World” and “Business” sections in particular knock me off my precious literary perch, which can be awfully refreshing.
Kevin: My criteria for a plane book are two: I want it to be fast-paced, and I want to be able to finish it, if not by the time I touch down, then at least during the return flight home. I’ve never had a better plane reading experience than Boston to Los Angeles, 1994, The Hunt for Red October.
Edan: When flying, I always want something short enough to read cover-to-cover (in addition to a novel, a fashion magazine or gossip rag, and a book of jumbles, crosswords, or soduku). On my last few flights, I’ve brought a volume from Melville House’s Art of the Novella series. I’ve written about Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra here. I can also recommend Customer Service by Benoît Duteutre, about a man with cell phone issues who just wants help from a goddamned human being. It’s an appropriate read for when you’re flying through the air in a magical bullet, and you’ve just been forced to pay for a bag of peanut m&ms (a.k.a., dinner) with your credit card because cash is no longer accepted.
Garth: Last summer, en route to Hawaii, I read most of Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife. If I say that I wasn’t even tempted to look at The Real Housewives of New Jersey (on a continuous loop on my back-of-seat TV), it’s not to slight Jacqueline or Dina, but to indicate how engrossing and provocative I found Talese’s exploration of sex in America.
Anne: For the nervous flyer (like myself), who wants to forget they’re in a fuselage for the duration of the flight, Lucy Grealy’s memoir Autobiography of a Face offers a gripping and unsentimental account of her childhood bone cancer and living with the consequent facial disfiguration. The book can captivate for the time it takes to cross an ocean – even, in my case, the Pacific.
Emily W: My fear of flying makes reading when skybound a rare pleasure. For me, it’s usually the iPod, cocktails, and a Vogue or a Harper’s Bazaar. The one book that managed to suppress my fear of death in the sky for five hours was J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, which I read from cover-to-cover on a red-eye from San Francisco to DC.
Max: Plane rides are perfect for magazines, especially the New Yorker. The freedom to work through an entire issue in one sitting feels like a luxury, even if the leg room is lacking.
Anne: Amy Hempel’s Collected Stories offer enchantments brief enough for daily a commute, but the collection provides a cornucopia of word play and eclectic tales to occupy a longer haul. Plus, Hempel’s story, “To Those of You Who Missed Your Connecting Flights Out of O’Hare,” is a sure endorsement of the soothing lull of a long train ride.
Sonya: I like the Russians for train travel. When you’re watching the natural landscape – the largely uninhabited regions – of a country fly by in flashes, it just feels right to be reading stories that take place over the great land mass of Mother Russia. For a long trip, Dr. Zhivago; for, say, the DC-New York Metroliner, Chekhov’s “The Steppe” – in both cases, the land journey is also the journey of the soul.
Garth: The subway is feast or famine for me. The right book, and I’ll miss my stop; the wrong one, and I’ll read for half an hour without registering a single word. When I don’t have a New Yorker handy, Joan Didion – say, Play it as it Lays or Salvador – is perfect subway reading: lucid enough to let me in quickly; sophisticated enough to hold my attention; and discretely structured, for ease of exit.
Kevin: Typically before boarding at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, I stop at a news kiosk and pick up the NYT and the WSJ. I enjoy having the time to read each front to back, and I like being able to change from news to business to sports and then back again. There’s also no doubt that I like the romance of a newspaper on the train: the economy fold, the crinkle of the pages mixed with the sound of the clattering tracks.
Emily W: On trains, I’m usually one for gazing out the window or striking up a conversation with a stranger, but this winter on the Northeast Direct from DC to Boston, I found Poets and Writers’ January/February 2010 issue quite absorbing, particularly their “Literary Life” essays. I’m a bit of skeptic when it comes to writing about writing but P&W convinced me otherwise.
Edan: I never travel by train, but the next time – or, really, the first time – I get the opportunity to ride one across the country, or even state lines, I plan to bring along my copy of Selected Stories by Alice Munro. I will flip immediately to “Wild Swans,” a startling, discomfiting, and accurate account of an encounter with a stranger on a train. Munro writes: “Victim and accomplice she was borne past Glasco’s jams and Marmalades, past the big pulsating pipes of oil refineries.” I’d like to read that sentence as another landscape glides by my own train car window.
Max: There’s something about taking a longer train ride that puts one in the mood for adventure. When I was younger, I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas on a train ride from Washington D.C. to New York and emerged from Penn Station feeling pleasantly addled and ready for a night on the town.
Amir Hother Yishay: I finished the last 200 hundred pages of A Storm of Swords, by George R.R. Martin, on a subway ride
Jane Weichert: Nothing Like It in the World by Stephen Ambrose is an very readable story of the building of the first transcontinental railroad. It was built by the immigrant Chinese and Irish and gives an understanding of the brutal conditions under which they worked. Last Train to Paradise by Les Standiford is a spell-binding tale of the last of the privately financed infrastructure projects undertaken by larger-than-life 19th century businessmen. Here Henry Flagler races against his own mortality to complete a railroad from Jacksonville to Key West, with the final run south from Miami requiring herculean engineering, management, and financial resources.
Becky Donahue: Short stories are wonderful…just finished reading Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro. Podcasts…Slate does a great job and lots of content to choose from. My new favorites are Spilled Milk and The Moth.
Sonya: Once weekly, I drive two hours each way – prime audiobook time. “As read by the author” is often a great way to go when choosing nonfiction in particular. I recommend Elizabeth Gilbert reading Eat, Pray, Love; Anne Lamott reading any of her memoirs; Helene Cooper reading The House at Sugar Beach; and, my favorite among these, Dreams From My Father. The author was allowed much more range of expression back in 2005 when he recorded it, and it’s a rare experience hearing a future president do Kenyan accents and urban “Negro dialect” (ahem) and using the f- and n-words. [Ed.’s note: for the latter, we also recommend the Lyndon Johnson tapes.]
Anne: It’s rare that I travel by car these days, and even rarer that I find myself behind the wheel, but when I do, I like to listen to In Their Own Voices: A Century of Recorded Poetry. Listening to poems, like songs, lets me internalize their rhythms and cadences. This collection features a wide range of twentieth-century poets reciting their own poems, from Sylvia Plath’s contemptuous “Daddy” to Gertrude Stein’s playfully repetitive “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso.”
Emily W: With audiobooks, it’s all about the reader; audio samples are essential to choosing a good recording. On recent car trips, my husband and I have found Huckleberry Finn and The Da Vinci Code particularly entertaining (in the latter case, guffaw-inducing) because the readers were so excellent at accents, genders, and dialects. And I have extremely fond memories of listening to Larry McMurtry’s Anything for Billy with my parents and sisters on a childhood drive from Virginia to Massachusetts.
Kevin: Audiobooks are not foolproof. A couple years ago I tried to listen to Cold Mountain on a road trip; between changing lanes, counting out toll money, and generally trying to stay alert, I found Charles Frazier’s slow, somnolent reading impossible to follow. These days my voices of choice are David Sedaris (yes, please, Santaland Diaries one more time) and Garrison Keillor, or anyone else working in short-form comedy.
Garth: Though my wife and I like to read aloud to each other on long trips, The Lannan Literary Foundation podcasts are a recent discovery I’m pretty enthusiastic about: lengthy readings by writers like Deborah Eisenberg and Samuel R. Delany, followed by intelligent discussion with peers like Ben Marcus and Junot Díaz. We parcel them out like rest stops.
Max: A good travel audiobook can make even a drive from Chicago to New York seem something more than just endless fields and turnpikes. Most memorable was Paul Theroux’s account of his train trip from Cairo to Johannesburg, Dark Star Safari. The library is great for these.
Amir Hother Yishay: I always read on car rides, never having been a fan of audio books myself. One of my greatest car reading experiences would probably be reading One Hundred Years of Solitude over a two week trip from Toronto to St. Johns.
Miriam Parker: One of my most enjoyable long car rides included listening to Born Standing Up by Steve Martin. He reads it and is fantastic. I actually had to stop the car once to write down something brilliant he had said or else I would have caused a huge accident on I-40.
Christine Magee: Commuting in and out of the city on a regular basis last year was made palatable by listening to Carson McCullers, The Heart is a lonely Hunter. The fact that the narrative transported me to a different place and time made it the perfect choice. It got to the point where I was looking forward to sitting in traffic so I could hear more! This wonderful book full of tension and struggle made my daily commute seem like a breeze!
Rob writes in with this question:I’m a seventeen year old who is going to be spending five weeks this summer in Chicago (to be specific – Evanston, since I’ll be part of Northwestern’s summer high school music institute). I’m a life-long New Jerseyan, and have never been in the city of broad shoulders for longer than three days.So, since I like reading books about the place I’m visiting, I was wondering if you could recommend anything that captured the essence of Chicago – I’m looking for works that encapsulate Chicago in the same way Kavalier & Clay encapsulates New York.I was thinking about The Lazarus Project and Carl Sandburg’s work. Do you have any other ideas?Chicago has inspired some of America’s greatest fiction and continues to be a fruitful setting for contemporary writers. I’ve just completed The Lazarus Project (review hopefully forthcoming), and its twinned stories – set in Chicago 1908 and present day Eastern Europe – mine Chicago’s multicultural past and ignominious history. The book, based on the true story of the mysterious death of immigrant Lazarus Averbuch reminded me a lot of The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson’s non-fiction account of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the serial killer who lurked in its shadows (my review here). Both Devil and Lazarus vividly evoke the chaos of Chicago, a turn of the century boomtown of slaughterhouses, nascent industry, and the first “skyscrapers” that was quickly aligning itself as the country’s center after only decades earlier being its frontier.An interest in this era in Chicago will inevitably lead one to Upton Sinclair, whose 1906 novel The Jungle is a muckraking, contemporary account of the slaughterhouse workers who drove Chicago’s economic engine. The novel is a landmark among American social novels.Jumping forward in time, Chicago produced one of America’s greatest novelists, Saul Bellow, who haunted the hauls of Northwestern in the 1930s. Garth writes that “the greatest Chicago novel ever is The Adventures of Augie March, which is highly recommended for someone who liked Kavalier & Clay.” This contention is hard to dispute.Patrick points us to another, more contemporary literary lodestar for Chicago: “The poet laureate of Chicago is Stuart Dybek (I mean, I don’t think he actually is, I just think he should be). The Coast of Chicago and I Sailed With Magellan are both absolute must reads. They both entirely take place in Chicago (mostly the South Side, but not exclusively). He’s one of my favorite authors, and somebody who should have a much larger audience.”Patrick also throws a more recent selection into the mix: “Also, it’s not like a totally Chicago Chicago book, but I think [Joshua Ferris’s] Then We Came to the End is about Chicago in a really interesting way, as it encapsulates life in the Loop, full of business people commuting from all the suburbs, folks who live in Lincoln Park, people who drive up from the South Side. Plus it’s really fun.”To these I would also add Adam Langer’s well received duo of books set in West Rogers Park, a neighborhood at the northern edge of the city not far from where I used to live: Crossing California and The Washington Story. Finally, anyone interested in Chicago fiction should consider Chris Ware’s landmark graphic novel, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. It’s another twinned story, with threads taking place in the near present and during 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, for so many the moment of Chicago’s emergence. Ware’s pathos is haunting and his spare, eccentric drawings are mesmerizing. Along with Devil in the White City, it is a favorite of contemporary Chicagoans.We’ve undoubtedly skipped over much worthy Chicago literature, so please enlighten us with further suggestions in the comments. Rob, thanks for a great question!
Erik Larson has followed up his blockbuster book The Devil in the White City with Thunderstruck, another narrative history that ties together a pair of men one “good” and one “bad.” This time he focuses on “the Nobel Prize-winning inventor of wireless technology (Guglielmo Marconi) and the most notorious British murderer since Jack the Ripper (Hawley Crippen), who dispatched his overbearing wife in ways most foul,” according to a profile of Larson in the Seattle PI. In the PI profile Larson says that he didn’t want to do another history with a parallel structure, but in the end he couldn’t help himself.I found Devil to be an engaging read, but didn’t love it, writing: Despite, or perhaps because of, Larsen’s ability to craft such a readable story, the book does inspire some raised eyebrows at times. A scan through the notes at the end of the book reveals the times when Larsen speculates about his characters in the absence of hard facts. While I don’t necessarily disagree with this practice, these moments in the book tend to feel transparent. Likewise, the structure of the book is a bit flimsy as the three characters within share little but being in the same city during the same period of time, and the strenuous effort put forth by Larsen to connect these three characters tends to detract from the stories themselves, as each character is certainly worthy of his own book (even the poor, bewildered Prendergast). Despite these flaws, the book was still a delight to read.It sounds like Thunderstruck will be a book with similar strengths and weaknesses, but undoubtedly an engaging read.
I spent a lot of time on the el yesterday riding all over Chicago, and there were lots of folks reading books. When you actually look at what people read, you realize that the reading habits of average folks range far beyond the coverage of newspaper book sections. In terms of what actually gets read, genre fiction certainly seems more popular than literary fiction. Here are the books people were reading on the red, purple, and brown lines yesterday.The Tristan Betrayal (a posthumous effort by Robert Ludlum that inspires PW to say “Perhaps it’s time to let the master rest in peace.”)Five Quarters of the Orange (Joanne Harris’ follow-up to Johnny Depp-vehicle Chocolat)Dutch II (part 2 of a trilogy by Teri Woods – and put out by Teri Woods Publishing – that scores an Amazon ranking of 1,229)Devil in the White City (I think every resident of Chicago has read Erik Larson’s account of murder at the World’s Fair.)Great Expectations (I love it when I see people reading classic novels on the el – it can restore ones faith in society, I think)Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Jonathan Safran Foer is reaching the masses!)Hotel Pastis (Peter Mayle’s “novel of Provence”)Sense and Sensibility (Jane Austen never goes out of style)Deception Point (The obligatory Dan Brown thriller – law requires that at least one Dan Brown novel be present in every train car and a dozen on every airplane.)Elantris (PW says: “[Brandon] Sanderson’s outstanding fantasy debut, refreshingly complete unto itself and free of the usual genre cliches.”)Lana: The Lady, the Legend, the Truth (Lana Turner never goes out of style either)We Thought You Would Be Prettier (Laurie Notaro’s “true tales of the dorkiest girl alive” – ranked 1,446 on Amazon)
I’m a big fan of narrative-style history books, and it’s always fun to see a heavily researched piece of history that floats along like a novel. The problem with Erik Larsen’s The Devil in the White City is that it fails, at times, to feel like a strong account of historical events. The book follows two and a half storylines that intertwine, if only geographically, but never intersect. The backdrop is the World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893, a now forgotten event that transfixed the world at the time. Daniel Burnham is the renowned architect of the Fair, beset by meddlers and bureaucrats; H. H. Holmes, whose torturous schemes are at times hard to fathom in their cruelty, is a serial killer who haunts Chicago during the Fair; and Patrick Prendergast, to whom the book only gives over two dozen or so pages, is an increasingly delusional man whose obsession with Chicago’s showy political scene leads to tragedy. The plotlines in the book are fascinating, both because Larson lends them a cinematic flair and because there is a continual sense of wonder that history has managed to forget such vibrant characters. Despite, or perhaps because of, Larsen’s ability to craft such a readable story, the book does inspire some raised eyebrows at times. A scan through the notes at the end of the book reveals the times when Larsen speculates about his characters in the absence of hard facts. While I don’t necessarily disagree with this practice, these moments in the book tend to feel transparent. Likewise, the structure of the book is a bit flimsy as the three characters within share little but being in the same city during the same period of time, and the strenuous effort put forth by Larsen to connect these three characters tends to detract from the stories themselves, as each character is certainly worthy of his own book (even the poor, bewildered Prendergast). Despite these flaws, the book was still a delight to read, especially on my daily rides on Chicago’s elevated trains which still snake through the city as they did when the World’s Fair was held here in 1893.
You may have heard. In a surprise upset, the Booker Prize was awarded to Alan Hollinghurst for Line of Beauty. Oddsmakers, literary professionals, and speculating bloggers all considered David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas to be a lock, but the Booker, as is so often the case, proved too wily to predict. The award will lead to many newspaper write-ups (NYT reg req’d), and a big boost in sales, although, from the looks of things, I would expect relatively modest Vernon God Little numbers rather than blockbuster best seller list Life of Pi numbers. With the Booker overwith, all eyes turn towards the National Book Awards, which will be announced on November 17th. A look at the non-fiction finalists.Bookspotting on the ElI meant to link to this post from Conversational Reading a while ago as it really captures the particular afflictions of many book lovers. His first question caught my eye: “Do you surreptitiously observe what people are reading on public transit?” Anyone who has read this blog for a while knows that I have the odd habit of posting about the books I spot people reading during the course of my day. (Bookspotting I call it.) Some might find this odd, but I think it’s fascinating, and better than any newspaper article or bestseller list at seeing what books people are interested in. Sure you lots of people reading the bestsellers, but you also see a delightfully random sampling of the books that our fellow citizens bury their noses in each day. Some my find this to be an odd hobby, but I it manages to affirm my faith in civilization. Here are the three books that I noticed from my seat on the Red Line today: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (Morrison is an essential of American lit), The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (I’d wager that this book has been a huge seller here in Chicago), and Love’s Labour’s Lost by William Shakespeare (I love seeing people casually reading Shakespeare on their way to work).
The title of this post is taken from a poem called “Chicago” by Carl Sandburg. The reference is to the men of the meat-packing industry, and the nickname came to represent the burly, blue-collar mentality of the place. At least, that’s what I’ve gathered so far. Mrs. Millions and I are more or less fully relocated in Chicago. We found an apartment and we’ll be moved in by the first of the month. The apartment is located in a neighborhood called Ravenswood. It sounds like something out of Edgar Allan Poe, no? We’ve been here about a week, and we’ve spent a lot of time driving around, looking for a place to live and getting to know the city. So far, it seems like a great place. Around every corner there seems to be a row of shops, cafes and restaurants, and driving by Wrigley when a game is on is remarkable. I can see that Chicago has its own very distinct identity, and being here makes me want to read some books that are about or set in the city. Some candidates: American Pharaoh by Adam Cohen, The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, Crossing California by Adam Langer, and The Coast of Chicago by Stuart Dybek.