The British writer Deborah Levy recently wrote that flamenco is “a dance of seduction and pain.” Ana Castillo’s 1999 novel Peel My Love Like An Onion is a glance into the seduction and pain experienced in the life of the flamenco dancer and singer Carmen la Coja (Carmen the Cripple in Spanish). Carmen, a polio victim as a child, overcomes her disability, to become an internationally proclaimed flamenco star.
The book focuses on how Carmen copes with the two great loves of her life, the older gypsy musician Agustin, and his gypsy godson, the young flamenco dancer Manolo. The author’s narrative weaves in the emotions that are so often reflected in flamenco dance—love, passion, deceit and remorse.
Ms. Castillo, who also is a distinguished poet, was born and raised in Chicago, and most of Peel My Love Like An Onion is set in Chicago. Her poetic imagery abounds in the book such as “my milkless breasts and my love that I had offered and given of so freely discarded like compost to be buried.” She also forgoes the use of quotation marks when characters speak in the narrative, which is somewhat confusing for the reader at first, but doesn’t seem distracting as the story moves on.
So join us at the Cliff Dwellers on Saturday, August 27 as I facilitate a book club discussion on Peel My Love Like An Onion. The discussion is free and open to the public, and starts at 11:00 a.m. Stay for lunch and enjoy the great food and the beautiful 22nd floor view at the Cliff Dwellers, located at 200 S. Michigan, across the street from the Art Institute. The next book club selection will be A Dream of Kings by Harry Mark Petrakis, to be discussed on September 24.
As I was walking the streets of the Pilsen neighborhood yesterday with my good friends Jerry Schenwar and Ron Swartz, we discovered a recently opened independent bookstore called Pilsen Community Books at 1102 W.18th Street. We were impressed with the quality of both fiction and non-fiction on the shelves. The owners are Mary and Aaron who stressed the importance of “community” in the bookstore’s name. After all, books lead to conversations and dialogues, that allow people to open their minds and share ideas that better the communities they live in. All purchases support a book giveaway program called Pilsen Reads. If you find yourself in the neighborhood, stop by and say hello to Mary and Aaron, browse around, and maybe buy a book or two.
Since 2014, when the Man Booker Prize selection process internationalized, thirteen novels written by American authors have been longlisted. Four in 2014; four in 2015; and now five in 2016. Two were shortlisted in both 2014 and 2015, but none won. The last three Pulitzer Prize winners for fiction, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer all surprisingly failed to make a longlist. This year’s group of five is the weakest crop of them all. I predict one, maybe two at most, will barely make the shortlist, and certainly will not be a serious contender for the winner.
The five American novels on the 2016 longlist are Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh; Hystopia by David Means; My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout; The Sellout by Paul Beatty; and Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves. The best of the lot is Eileen, a book exceedingly dark, yet in its most brilliant moments Moshfegh creates agonizing dramatic tension for the reader reminiscent of the best of Daphne du Maurier.
In fact, an America of darkness and gloom seems to pervade all these novels. Beatty’s book, a parody of American institutional racism, though is fraught with rollicking black humor (sorry for the double entendre). I occasionally felt that I was in the middle of a Chris Rock comedy routine. Hystopia depicts an America run amok with crazed Vietnam War veterans, and the government’s attempt to reprogram their unhinged minds.
America’s inhumane prison system in the 1920s and 1930s in the Deep South (Work Like Any Other) and its inhumane juvenile incarceration system in New England of the 1950s (Eileen) are exposed as great historical wrongs. The impact of poverty and the insidious vestiges of puritanical roots on an American family are pervasive in the pages of My Name is Lucy Barton.
At this point, let me just say, that these five longlisted authors are all fine writers. I am just questioning the Booker’s judges on their selections for the best of American fiction this year. Perhaps in the year of the rise (and likely fall) of Trump in the States, the Man Booker judges may be warping their 2016 selection process with an exaggerated political lens, rather than a purely literary one? Just asking.
Dr. Janusz Korczak was one of the most innovative European educators during the first half of the twentieth century. His book, King Matt the First, remains as one of the most beloved children’s stories in Poland. Dr. Korczak played a heroic role during the Holocaust, serving as a guardian of orphans in the doomed Warsaw Ghetto. I have the distinct honor of moderating a panel discussing the life and times of Dr. Korczak on the evening of November 16, at the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, starting at 7:30.
The distinguished panel includes Ron Grossman, prominent journalist and social historian who writes for the Chicago Tribune; Marlene Targ Brill, award-winning author, and Dr. Ronald Swartz, Professor Emeritus of education and philosophy at Oakland University. Admission is $6.00. Free to JRC members.