Edgar Lee Masters

Born in Kansas and raised in downstate Lewistown, Illinois, Edgar Lee Masters lived in Chicago from 1892 until 1920. An attorney, Masters formed a partnership with the great Clarence Darrow from 1903-1908. He had a prolific literary career, writing 21 books of poetry, 12 plays, 6 novels and 6 biographies. Harriet Monroe, the editor of Poetry Magazine, assisted Masters in getting Spoon River Anthology published in 1915. Nearly one hundred years later, Spoon River remains one of the great works of American poetry. Edgar Lee Masters will be inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame this December. >  Edgar Lee masters

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

Man Booker 2014 longlisted novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by American author Joshua Ferris, curiously has three symbols encased in squares on the book jacket. The three are a tooth, a baseball and the Star of David. After a few pages into the book, it becomes clear to the reader the significance of the first two symbols in the context of the story, yet it takes quite a long time to finally figure out the symbolism of the Jewish star.

The main character and narrator of the novel is Dr. Paul O’Rourke, a dentist in Manhattan with a successful practice. A Maine native, O’Rourke’s main recreational activity is watching tapes of Boston Red Sox games. His enthusiasm for the Red Sox is such, that we truly understand why fan is the truncated version of fanatic.

When an unapproved website of his practice is posted on the Internet, Dr O’Rourke finds some disturbing content in his biography. Trying to get to the bottom of it, he immediately responds with an angry email to the web address of the site’s creator seeking an explanation. More mysterious and troubling emails are received, and it is the dentist’s obsessive quest to understand the meaning of the content and to discover the true identity of the sender that drives the book’s plot.

I found the book quite engaging, and clearly Ferris is a gifted author. Comparisons to a younger Philip Roth, especially when Ferris is describing O’Rourke’s interactions with his office manager and Jewish ex- girlfriend Connie’s family, cannot help be noted.

It’s funny how reading can subliminally affect your behavior. During the week or so of reading this book which was about a dentist and dentistry, I noticed that I found myself flossing twice a day instead of once, and brushing three times a day rather that two.

The Chicago Jewish Authors Series

The schedule is now out for the next three Chicago Jewish Authors Series events at Max and Benny’s Restaurant and Deli, 461 Waukegan Road in Northbrook:

October 13, 2014—–Estelle Laughlin, author of Transcending Darkness: A Girl’s Journey Out of the Holocaust

November 17, 2014—–Shuli Eshel and Roger Schatz, authors of Jewish Maxwell Street Stories

January 19, 2015——Diane Piron-Gelman (aka D.M. Pirrone), author of Shall We Not Revenge


All these events are on Monday evenings and the presentations begin at 7:00 p.m.

Man Booker Longlist Snapshots

When the Man Booker Prize longlist of thirteen novels was announced three weeks ago, I rushed out to my local public library to take out the four that were available on its shelves. Three of the four were by American born writers as this is the first year that the competition has been internationalized to include authors who were not from the UK or from the nations of the former British Commonwealth.

Three of the novels were focused on the arts and the creative mind. Siri Hustvedt’s epistolary novel, The Blazing World, relates the tale of a woman artist whose career ambitions were stifled during her marriage to her famous art critic husband. She had observed that lesser male talents than herself were achieving considerable acclaim in the Manhattan art scene. Once widowed, she arranges to mask her work by creating three charade exhibits, fronted my male artists in cahoots with her. These exhibits are successful of course, revealing the true nature of the two-faced, male-dominated, and misogynistic New York phony-baloney art world.

Hustvedt’s protagonist, Harriet “Harry” Burden, is an empathetic woman, who the reader wholeheartedly sides with as the plot is unraveled through revelations in letters and other documents. In general, the narrative flows nice and easy, although, all too often, it is sidetracked with excessive footnotes (I admit my prejudice to the use of footnotes in fiction).

The second novel with a focus of the creative arts, literature in particular, is History of the Rain by Niall Williams. It’s a wonderful book, with beautiful lyrical prose that comes so naturally from so many Irish writers. From her home in County Clare, by the banks of the River Shannon, the book’s narrator, Ruth Swain, tells a fable-like story how her Englishman father, Virgil, through serendipitous circumstances escapes near death in the trenches of France during the First World War, winding up a property owner in rural Ireland.

Literature and the power of the word give strength and purpose to the lives of both Ruth and Virgil. They are the emotional ballasts to deal with life’s immense heartbreaks and sorrows. Transformative and transcending are adjectives that come to mind as I try to summarize the emotional impact of this book on the reader.

Orfeo, by Evanston-born writer Richard Powers, is a novel with a Breaking Bad feel throughout. Our anti-hero, Peter Els, a musical composer and retired adjunct professor at a small college, is obsessed the infinite possibilities of genetics that can be created in a chemistry lab. In post-9/11 America, we are all watched one way or another, and Els’ chemical explorations soon find that they are on the FBI radar. This compels the good professor to go on the lam.

I really liked this book, especially its rapidly paced narrative and its depiction of college town America, specifically Bloomington, Indiana and Champaign, Illinois. I even got into the modern music theory of the book, although Philip Glass and his kindred spirits remain unkind to my listening sensibilities.

This novel really is about good intentions, gone awry, which in a sense is typical of so much of the American experience.

The book that I liked least in this first batch of longlist reads was Karen Joy Fowler’s, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. It depicts more college town America (Bloomington, Indiana again) and another main character on the lam.  I just couldn’t get into the head of the narrator, Rosemary Cooke, and her (and other family members as well) particular obsession with her sister, the chimp, Fern. Yes, folks, I did say sister.

There was just too much animal rights activism and too much “well chimps are really quite like humans” sentimentality in this book for my liking. Frankly, how this book made the longlist, and The Goldfinch was excluded remains a puzzlement to me.