Sasha Frere-Jones, Guy Maddin, Eula Biss, Chaz Ebert, Stephin Merritt, and Eric Schlosser
Sasha Frere-Jones, Guy Maddin, Eula Biss, Chaz Ebert, Stephin Merritt, and Eric Schlosser Credit: Courtesy Chicago Humanities Festival

In line with the theme of this year’s Chicago Humanities Festival, “Journeys,” we posed a question to some of the fest’s headliners: If you could go anywhere, where would you go, and why?

Eula Biss, author

I would like to travel back to upstate New York, where I grew up, circa 1400, and see what it was like before Columbus. But I wouldn’t want to stay—I belong in this time and place.

“Eula Biss: Where We Are From,” Sat 10/25, 2:30 PM, Owen L. Coon Forum, Donald P. Jacobs Center, 2001 Sheridan, Evanston, $12.

Chaz Ebert

If I could take a journey anywhere it would be to the afterlife, so that I could see for myself this magical place that Roger visited and described as a breathtakingly beautiful vastness where the past, present, and future happen simultaneously and you are in the existence of a oneness where you are filled with bliss and euphoria. But I want a round-trip ticket, because as fantastic as that sounds, my journey here is not yet finished.

“Roger Ebert: Life Itself,” Sat 10/25, 3 PM, Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson, Evanston, 3 PM, $12.

Sasha Frere-Jones, pop-music critic for the New Yorker

I want to go to the LA of Blade Runner. I would probably get killed by a replicant, but I want to eat at that noodle bar and see the light moving through the rain and go to the strip club with the snake. I would like to go there to die. Not to live. I would like to go there and have a replicant crush my head. I get a night and then the replicant kills me and that would be it.

“Talking Music With Sasha Frere-Jones,” Sat 11/1, 3:30 PM, School of the Art Institute of Chicago Ballroom, 112 S. Michigan, $20.

Guy Maddin, filmmaker

As a child I dreamed, from the sofa in front of the TV, of Jules Verne destinations, outer space or the center of the earth, the former because away from gravity I could move my limbs with the thrilling jitter the first spacewalkers affected (an artifact of being filmed at eight frames per second I realize now), and the latter because the very core of our globe sounds like James Mason (alas, he was merely the star of the Verne adaptation produced by Pat Boone). Now, stooped low from years of real mile-by-mile travel, I long to lie again on that sofa, a veritable air traffic controller’s couch from which I would arrange brief sorties into the fraught audience of American Bandstand and other such regions of perfumed inscrutability.

“Guy Maddin: His Winnipeg,” Wed 11/5, 8 PM, Museum of Contemporary Art, Edlis Neeson Theater, 220 E. Chicago, $10.

Stephin Merrit, musician, poet

I spend every August agonizing over my inability to ever get it together to spend August at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh (rhymes with Edward R. Murrow). It’s a huge arts festival, in a beautiful city full of adorable people with absurdly cute accents, and I could just spend every day going to the theater. When I was 15, I spent two August weeks in London going to the theater, and it was the best two weeks of my life, but even then I knew I should have been in Edinburgh.

“Words With Friends: Stephin Merritt,” Fri 11/7 6 PM, Francis W. Parker School, 2233 N. Clark, $12.

Eric Schlosser, author

I would go back in time for a day: the Dakotas in the age of the dinosaurs; ancient Rome; Jerusalem when Christ threw the money-changers out of the temple; America right before Columbus landed; and too many more to count. I’d love to have a beer with Ben Franklin. I’d love to eavesdrop on my parents’ first date. But at the end of the day, I’d want to come back to 2014. Bad as things may seem at the moment, they’ve always been a lot worse.

Eric Schlosser, Sat 11/8, 10 AM, UIC Forum, Main Hall AB, 725 W. Roosevelt, $20 (includes copy of Schlosser’s book Command and Control).

Chicago Humanities Festival, 10/25-11/9, various times, venues, and prices.

Anthropologist Matti Bunzl’s unrestricted year at the MCA

On an evening in late May 2008, the Museum of Contemporary Art is a zoo. Aluminum lobster sculptures dangle near impeccably polished stainless-steel rabbits. Hundreds of MCA members wander the main galleries feasting on Wolfgang Puck egg rolls and art.

“It’s all quite magical,” anthropologist Matti Bunzl writes of this shiny, happy opening party for the MCA’s massive Jeff Koons retrospective. “What Willy Wonka’s factory would look like if he was in the toy business.”

A University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor—who became Chicago Humanities Fest artistic director in 2010—Bunzl effectively won a “golden ticket” to the MCA during his 2008 sabbatical, granting him unrestricted access to the museum for one year. There, he conducted ethnographic fieldwork, or what he likes to call “deep hanging out,” to observe how curatorial choices are made; in particular, how donors factor into these decisions and how marketing frames the exhibitions. Spoiler: money factors into everything.

When I call him to discuss the resulting book, In Search of a Lost Avant-Garde: An Anthropologist Investigates the Contemporary Art Museum, the word “magical” comes up again. This time it’s in reference to the once-mysterious door on the fourth floor of the MCA leading to the curatorial department. “I was so interested to understand what goes on behind that door—what that space looks like, what’s the conversation,” he says. “In reality, it’s just people at their computers writing e-mails.”

Suffice it to say, In Search of a Lost Avant-Garde is about much more than e-mails. It’s about how priorities shift in times of steady institutional growth, and how growth challenges a museum’s ability to take risks. What better backdrop than the MCA’s Jeff Koons show? Originally titled the far livelier In the House of Balloon Dog: A Year Inside Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art Museum, the book was scheduled to come out last year—when publication was abruptly halted. Apparently, the MCA required specific edits to the original manuscript. The chapter “The Gift” received the most revision, with specifics of the MCA’s Collectors Forum (including names and descriptions of artists whose work was being considered for acquisition) edited out entirely. The language is slightly softened here and there, but Bunzl insists it’s the same book. “There were some complications, but they were totally straightforward.”

Interestingly, the precautions taken to safeguard donor support further illustrate Bunzl’s critique. The very thesis of the book reveals itself in the editing process, not unlike how Koons’s stainless-steel rabbits reflect the viewer back to himself.

The MCA, for its part, delivered the following statement: “Matti Bunzl’s new book, In Search of a Lost Avant-Garde, is a provocative cultural study of art and contemporary art museums. We will be carrying it at the MCA Store and we wish Matti well in this and all his future endeavors.” —Laura Pearson

By Matti Bunzl (September 16, University of Chicago Press)

A brief excerpt from Where To?: A Hack Memoir, former Chicago cabdriver Dmitry Samarov’s new book

I answer a call in Humboldt Park. It’s one of those new-construction condo buildings. The ones with the fake-brick facade the wrong shade of red and cheap cinderblock the rest of the way back to the alley. A young, well-dressed man comes out hauling two oversized vinyl bags. I open the hatch to load his cargo and he says, “Don’t worry, it’s a mascot costume.”

I take him to a nightclub just off the Ohio feeder in River North. The fare is about ten dollars and he asks for eight, then seven dollars change from his twenty.

“Do I hear six?” I deadpan, making him laugh.

Two weeks later, a radio call brings me back to the cinderblock condo in Humboldt. The guy recognizes me right away, “You got a card? It’s a real bitch getting a cab around here.” I tell him I don’t. He gives me his though. It has his name and Mood Director underneath.

“Remember that mascot costume? It’s a bear suit. In the place I work at, there are go-go dancers up behind the bar and they’re getting sprayed with water, like they’re taking a shower. The guys eat that shit up. I sneak up behind the ladies, in full costume, and pretend to be doing ’em,—’Uh, uh, uh,’—you know, it’s my job to make sure everyone’s having a good time. Thinking next I’m gonna be a gorilla and I’ll get one of the other guys to dress like a giant banana and I’ll chase him all over the club. Awesome, right? We have pillow fights, all sorts of crazy shit. I do one of these stunts and you should see all the cameras come out, flashes all over the place, click, click, click!”

I pull over in front of the club. He even remembers the bit about “Do I hear six?” from last time. All the while he’s selling, inviting me to stop in, to ask for him by name. I thank him and give back his seven dollars change.

By Dmitry Samarov (September 9, Curbside Splendor). Release party featuring readings by Martha Bayne, Shay DeGrandis, Bill Hillmann, Naomi Huffman, Irvine Welsh, and Erika Wurth: Sun 9/14, Rainbo Club, 1150 N. Damen, 773-489-5999.

Chicago author Lindsay Hunter, whose debut novel, Ugly Girls (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), is out November 4, loves fall because it creates so many opportunities to snuggle up with a book. Here are three titles she’s looking forward to reading over the next couple months:

The Secret Place by Tana French (Viking Adult, September 2)

French writes the kinds of atmospheric, plot-and-character-driven books that beg to be read under a gray, rainy sky. Perfect for fall.

A Different Bed Every Time by Jac Jemc (Dzanc Books, October 14)

Jemc is a writer you read when you want to feel like there are possibilities in language and in life that you never even dreamed could be possible.

Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story by Rick Bragg (Harper, October 28)

Read this while you’re listening to Lewis’s new album Rock & Roll Time [also out October 28]. You’ll find yourself thinking, How is this man still alive? and then, Thank God this man is still alive.

Losing in Gainesville

By Brian Costello (10/14, Curbside Splendor). Book-release party with performances by Mannequin Men, Bobby Burg, Matchess, and the Coldies, Fri 9/19, 9 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, 773-276-3600,, $10.

Though the title is Losing in Gainesville, and though the settings—filled with undergrad-infested hovels and sun-beaten, grassless front yards—are decidedly Floridian, Brian Costello’s second novel is about the universality of hanging out in an aimless existence, wedged somewhere between college graduation and 6:30 AM wake-up calls and dry-cleaned suits. Costello—who plays in local psych-tinged punk band Outer Minds, cohosts the comedy game show Shame That Tune, and occasionally contributes to the Reader—fervently details the days of twentysomethings with such obvious firsthand wisdom that the book often reads like a stream of consciousness. While the house parties, punk-band life, and shitty beer can easily fill one’s days, finding a purpose in whatever hellhole is home can still be a fucking slog. Especially when the dream you’ve long tucked away—the one that will become a reality once you’re good and ready—takes a giant crap on your chest.

The story takes place in mid-90s-era Gainesville, a melting pot of “alternative” lifestyles, and is populated by subcultures: punks, hippies, goths, burnouts, losers, vegans, misanthropic know-it-alls, free spirits, straight-edge lifers, crusties, and drunks—plenty of drunks. Our recurring hero, Ronnie Altamont, is one of those drunks (read: aspiring writer), living among a mostly skuzzy cast of characters that includes an adjunct professor, a record-store clerk, and a delusional hip-hop songstress named Icy Filet. He moves to Gainesville in ’96 for really no apparent reason other than to get out of Orlando—as good a reason as any according to his logic—and spends his 13 months in town playing in bands no one cares about and floundering around, first occupying a scummy trailer squat and then a punk house, at which he spends the best parts of his time sitting on his roof pounding Old Hamtrack beer. Costello uses Altamont as a vehicle to spin a yarn about the counterculture monotony of “living the dream,” chock-full of hangovers and soul-sucking responsibility. The vicious cycle turns bleak at times, as it should, but when the fresh pitcher of beer foams over and the Quadrophenia debate begins—or the brilliant idea is hatched to start a cover band called Doug Clifford, after Creedence Clearwater Revival’s drummer—everything is OK till the next morning’s crippling headache. And repeat. —Kevin Warwick

Lena Duhnam
Lena DuhnamCredit: Autumn de Wilde

Lena Dunham: Not That Kind of Girl

Mon 10/6, 6 PM-8:30 PM, Northwestern University School of Law, Thorne Auditorium, 375 E. Chicago, sold out.

In the first episode of the TV show Girls, Hannah, an aspiring essayist played by the show’s creator/writer/star Lena Dunham, famously declared her ambition to be the voice of her generation, or maybe just a voice of a generation. Dunham’s debut essay collection, Not That Kind of Girl, which came out last week, has no such grand ambitions. Instead, she writes, “I am a girl with a keen interest in having it all, and what follows are hopeful dispatches from the frontlines of that struggle.” Dunham will be chatting with Girls coexecutive producer Jenni Konner tonight at the Chicago Humanities Festival, but if you don’t have a ticket or connections, you’re out of luck: it’s been sold out since August. —Aimee Levitt

Renegade Dreams: Living Through Injury in Gangland Chicago

By Laurence Ralph (September 22, University of Chicago Press)

Harvard anthropologist Laurence Ralph intended to study gang violence when he moved to the west side in 2007. And he did, but broadly, considering its political and sociological contexts. Ralph lived on the west side for three years, spending time with fellow residents and ministers, following community activists to meetings, getting to know gang members of various generations. Renegade Dreams comes to life because of this immersion, and Ralph also perceptively links what he learned in the field with previous research. All of his characters are pseudonymous, as is the neighborhood he’s describing (“Eastwood”), and, unfortunately, some characters and even organizations are composites as well. “What hasn’t been altered . . . are the events I describe and the voices of my collaborators,” he writes in an author’s note. But composites alter that inherently, and make it impossible to check an author’s work. ­Steve Bogira

Men: Notes From an Ongoing Investigation

By Laura Kipnis (November 18, Metropolitan Books)

Laura Kipnis doesn’t write so much to persuade as to provoke. Her best-known work, the 2003 polemic Against Love, argued that marriage is a destructive, oppressive force that shouldn’t be yearned for so much as feared. Now the Northwestern prof, in her new book Men, turns her attention to the idea of masculinity. She considers, among others, con men and men’s men, Larry Flynt and Christopher Hitchens, men who hate Hillary and women who hate men, and her feelings are as complex as you might expect. “What strikes me most about these essays,” she writes, “is their covert envy of men, including the ones I would also like to thrash and dismember. Men have always wrested more freedom from the world and I envy that, even when it’s a stupid kind of freedom.” You may not agree, but she’ll give you plenty to think about. —Aimee Levitt

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