In Book Swap, a Reader staffer recommends two to five books and then asks a local wordsmith, literary enthusiast, or publishing-adjacent professional to do the same. In this installment, Reader deputy editor Kate Schmidt swaps book suggestions with her roommate (and fiance) Ted Cox, longtime Chicago journalist, current editor of the news site OneIllinois, and author of 1,001 Days in the Bleachers (Northwestern), a collection of sports columns that first appeared in the Reader.
Kate Schmidt, Reader deputy editor
I was blown away by civil rights lawyer and constitutional law scholar Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness (The New Press). First published in 2012, it’s helped inspire a bipartisan effort to reform criminal sentencing policies, but as Alexander warns in a recent New York Times editorial, practices being promoted now, like electronic monitoring—”e-carceration” she calls it—can just as effectively perpetuate what is currently a system of legal discrimination and segregation.
Northwestern bioethicist and lawyer Katie Watson’s Scarlet A: The Ethics, Law, and Politics of Ordinary Abortion (Oxford, 2018) looks at another aspect of the American berserk. At her Chicago Humanities Fest talk with the Nation‘s Katha Pollitt last month, Watson pointed out that, where abortion is common—about one in four American women have them—and 90 percent of them take place in the first trimester—something about 60 percent of Americans think should be legal—it’s the rare controversial exceptions like late-term abortions and abortions in cases of rape or incest that dominate public discussion and shape public policy.
A lot of Americans seem to prefer reality- TV reality to reality these days. One of my solaces has been pie therapy under the tutelage of The Hoosier Mama Book of Pie (Midway, 2013), a cookbook by Paula Haney of Chicago’s Hoosier Mama Pie Company. The pastry chef at Evanston’s Trio when Grant Achatz was first making his name, Haney brings the rigor and the digital scale of a pro to the process. Far from fancy, many of her recipes are for humble pies like buttermilk, vinegar, and sugar, or for chess pies, their fillings stretched out with cornmeal.
At the start of the summer I was asked by a friend to recommend a classic American novel, and threw a curveball at her: Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country (1913), a social satire of the Gilded Age that also becomes a genuine tragedy. In a 2004 review for the Guardian‘s series on old classics, the author Margaret Drabble summed it up nicely: “Not all enjoyable novels are great, and not all great novels are enjoyable. This is, supremely, both.”
Ted Cox, editor, OneIllinois
You can have your pies—I’ll take Peace, Love, and Barbecue (Rodale, 2005), the cookbook from Mike Mills of downstate’s award-winning 17th Street Barbecue. No, it hasn’t replaced local barbecue maven Gary Wiviott’s Low & Slow (Running Press, 2009) as my bible, but with apologies to Chicago’s pit masters, the restaurant’s flagship location on 17th Street in Murphysboro, down by Carbondale, has established itself as my favorite rib joint in the state.
Where neglected masterpieces are concerned, I’m haunted right now by The Tunnel (Knopf, 1995), the late William Gass’s beautifully written, all-but-unreadable, 650-page novel, published after 30 years of labor. Its obsession with resentment, bigotry, neo-Nazism, and the “Party of Disappointed People” seems to have foretold the forces that propelled Donald Trump to the presidency—forces we’ll be trying to tamp down for decades. I’ve been contemplating rereading it for years, and now it’s also available excerpted in the just-out William H. Gass Reader (Knopf)—hint, hint for anyone in need of a Christmas gift for me. v