Chris Green and Liam Heneghan, eds.
DePaul Humanities Center, free
More than 50 local writers contributed work on the theme of urban nature for this anthology, edited by poet Chris Green and DePaul University environmental science prof Liam Heneghan. Of the dozens of poems included, a mere two—Stuart Dybek’s “Ravenswood” and “Beggar Girl” by Billy Lombardo—mention pigeons. C’mon, poets! You’re giving short shrift to the archetypal urban bird.
The single piece of straight fiction is Elizabeth Crane’s “Turf,” which examines the interactions of people and pups at a dog park. It’s a fine story, but Crane’s insistence on beginning a bunch of proper nouns with H (Hicago, Helizabeth, Great Hane, Herky, Hulie, Hen, Heaver Street, and so on) is almost as nettlesome as being swarmed by gnats on an otherwise lovely summer evening. Of course, maybe that’s the point.
The real gems of the collection are the nonfiction pieces. In “17-Year Itch,” Miles Harvey takes the arrival of 17-year cicadas in Downers Grove as an occasion to reflect on his relationships with his aging mother and young children. Michele Morano’s “Boy Eats World” is a funny take on her toddler’s predilection for stuffing all of urban nature into his mouth. S.L. Wisenberg addresses her nature phobia and urbanphilia in “Plain Scared, or: There Is No Such Thing as Negative Space, the Art Teacher Said.” And Heneghan’s own contribution—”A City for Human-clams: A Plea for Environmental Immobility”—tongue-in-cheekily postulates that the best thing we can do for the environment is become sedentary blobs.
Brute Neighbors is not available in bookstores, real or virtual. Free copies can be obtained via email@example.com while supplies last. —Jerome Ludwig
COUNTY: LIFE, DEATH AND POLITICS AT CHICAGO’S PUBLIC HOSPITAL
David A. Ansell
Academy Chicago Publishers, $29.95
In 1978, David Ansell and four fellow med-school grads loaded a U-Haul with their belongings and drove from Syracuse, New York, to Chicago—more specifically, to Cook County Hospital. At a time when many other medical centers still refused to admit black patients, County was—like home in Robert Frost’s “The Death of the Hired Man”—the “place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
But, Ansell says, the lobby at County “could have been mistaken for a Calcutta bus station.” Rats abounded, and at one of his first surgeries he saw a third-year resident tasked with keeping flies away from the incision. “We were practicing Third World Medicine in Chicago,” he writes. And indeed, as he readily admits, he killed his share of patients. But in 17 years at County, Ansell also pioneered the practice of primary care, breast cancer screening, and the treatment of asthma and HIV/AIDS, while advocating for universal health care and agitating against the inequities that continue to contribute to higher mortality rates among African-Americans and other minorities.
The book is full of sentence fragments and prose worthy of a mass-market romance novel (“Power emanated from her like Chanel No.5”). But none of that detracts from the man’s rock-solid cred. —Kate Schmidt
Tor Books, $24.99
Gene Wolfe’s sparse new novel, Home Fires, is set in a near-future North America that—some geopolitical reorganization aside—looks surprisingly similar to ours. The book doesn’t even get its first confirmed cyborg sighting until well into the second half. Most of the plot transpires on a luxury cruise ship, where Chelle Sea Blue and her mate, a criminal lawyer named Skip Grison, get reacquainted after Chelle’s return from military service on another planet. A yearlong deployment for her equates to two decades for earthbound Skip, and Wolfe weaves a melancholy love story through the action sequences: Skip has to grapple with the insecurities of being a younger woman’s older man, while impulsive Chelle gets caught up in the physical and emotional traumas that result from interplanetary battle.
Though elegant overall, Wolfe’s laconic style feels overdone at times. Too many important plot points are revealed in dull, after-the-fact conversations, and the most incredible thing in the novel isn’t its speculative vision of the future but the amount of detached reflection characters engage in during various catastrophes. Multiple intrigues—the attempted murder of Chelle’s mother, the hijacking of the ship by pirates, the kidnapping of Chelle by the aforementioned cyborg—cause the plot to sprawl a bit. But there’s a lot of pleasure in the way Wolfe paints his dystopia, offering up murky little snatches that cohere into an uneasily familiar world. —Sam Worley
THE INDIGNANT GENERATION: A NARRATIVE HISTORY OF AFRICAN AMERICAN WRITERS AND CRITICS, 1934-1960
Lawrence P. Jackson
Princeton University Press, $35
African-American writers had plenty to be indignant about during the middle decades of the 20th century, even in supposedly progressive northern cities like Chicago. Civic leaders here sneered at the backward Jim Crow south while confining south-side blacks to a dilapidated, overcrowded strip and denying them all but the most menial jobs. Ugly as it was, the situation provided rich intellectual soil from which sprang a host of black national all-stars, including poet Gwendolyn Brooks, playwright Lorraine Hansberry, novelists Richard Wright and Willard Motley, and sociologists Horace Cayton and Saint Claire Drake.
In The Indignant Generation—which nicely complements Making the Second Ghetto, Arnold Hirsch’s insightful 1983 study of race and housing in Chicago from 1940 to 1960—Emory University professor Lawrence P. Jackson surveys the era with clarity and perception. Focusing on the literary hubs of Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C., the book captures the complexities of the period, the great hope and skepticism its black writers engendered. Jackson notes the Chicago Defender’s optimistic 1940 prediction that Wright’s Native Son would transform the nation’s “rotten” social and economic system into a “living democracy for all.” More than 70 years later, there’s still reason for indignation. —Steve Bogira
THE PARIS WIFE: A NOVEL
Can there be anything new to say about American writers living in Paris between the world wars? People like F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Gertrude Stein, and, of course, Ernest Hemingway have been so well documented that it’s hard to imagine what stones are left to be turned. But The Paris Wife dares to go where mere facts can’t. Paula McLain’s fictionalized portrayal of Hemingway’s marriage to Hadley Richardson conjures the complex emotional territories and psychological nuances behind the history.
Told primarily in Hadley’s engagingly imagined voice, the story starts in Chicago, 1920, with the 28-year-old Saint Louis native meeting 21-year-old Hemingway at a party. A whirlwind courtship ensues. McLain then follows the couple from a cheap flat on Dearborn to Paris, where, among many larger-than-life personalities, the rest of their five-year marriage runs its course.
Although Hadley is clearly the sympathetic heroine of the novel, Hemingway’s fictional perspective is intermittently offered via italicized third-person narration that lends balance and avoids broad-stroke moralism. Meticulously researched (with a great debt owed to Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast), The Paris Wife injects a worn subject with a fresh dose of humanity. —Kathie Bergquist
THE WILDER LIFE: MY ADVENTURES IN THE LOST WORLD OF LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE
The word “obsessive” or some variation on it shows up twice in the blurbs on the back cover of Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life, once in the author’s bio, and countless times in the text itself. That’s not too surprising. The book is essentially an account of McClure’s brief obsession with Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House on the Prairie series about pioneer life in the American midwest. But some degree of fanaticism may be required of the reader as well: average folks aren’t likely to be fascinated by the minutiae of Wilder’s life to the degree that they’re supplied.
McClure starts out promisingly enough, reflecting on her childhood history with Wilder’s books and telling how finding her old copy of Little House in the Big Woods sparked a journey into what she dubs “Laura World.” Rereading the series inspires the Chicago writer and editor to do research on Wilder, attempt various old-fashioned craftsy projects like making snow candy, watch the TV and movie versions of the books, and visit the sites where Wilder lived. Some of McClure’s experiences—including a run-in with a group of end-timers at a weekend workshop on homesteading—are pretty entertaining. But her attempts to imbue her project with gravitas fall flat. Explaining why she’s willing to spend weeks trying to make sourdough bread without a starter, McClure asserts that in the wake of her discovery that Wilder’s accounts of her childhood are largely fictional, “This bread was all I had.”
The italics are hers. The statement is certainly tongue-in-cheek, as is a reference to the “pillars of advanced Laura fandom”—but McClure ultimately takes herself a little more seriously than seems strictly necessary. Forced analogies to Wilder’s life quickly wear thin, and the climax—in which McClure decides not to make a second visit to the cabin where Little House in the Big Woods is set, saying that “somewhere along the way I’d stopped believing that the story was there”—feels overdramatized. The book reminded me of my own visit to a Laura Ingalls Wilder museum. It was enjoyable at first, but after a couple hours I lost interest. —Julia Thiel