Since the Cliff Dwellers had so much fun last February doing a tribute to Studs Terkel’s Division Street: America, we are doing a Terkel encore on Wednesday evening, November 9, with readings by members from his book Working. I will once assume the persona of Studs and introduce the readers. Studs might also provide some incisive post-election analysis.
The bar opens at 4:30 prior to the event. Dinner is at 6:15. The presentation follows dinner. Cost for the dinner and presentation is $35 (credit card only). Reservations can be made to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The winner of the 2016 Man Booker Award for fiction will be announced this coming Tuesday. Of the six books on the shortlist, Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing is my choice to win the coveted prize. The Canadian Thien, who now lives in Montreal, covers ground in this book that has been pretty much ignored in contemporary English language fiction; namely the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the harsh toll it took on the lives of writers, artists, and most especially, in the context of Thien’s novel, musicians. As the Nazis did in Hitler’s Germany, the Red Guards burned books. But in their assault on bourgeois culture, the Red Guards took it a horrifying step further by savagely destroying pianos and violins as well.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing focuses on three brilliant musical talents, who try to function in the constricted artistic world of revolutionary China, but ultimately all their lives are destroyed by the oppressive environment in which they lived and worked. The narrative tells us how Zhuli, the young woman with extraordinary violin skills, Kai, the passionate and versatile pianist, and Sparrow, the pioneering and imaginative composer, all are artistically and personally victimized in the Cultural Revolution. It takes the Canadian progeny of Sparrow and the Chinese progeny of Kai to discover the secrets of the past, and to tie all the troubling and confusing loose ends together by the conclusion of the book.
There are other worthy books on the Man Booker shortlist, but none have the literary heft and emotional impact on the reader as does Thien’s novel. I especially liked Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk and Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project, and I would not be shocked if either of these would win the prize. I would be shocked and disappointed if either one of the two American novels, The Sellout by Paul Beatty and Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh, or All That Man Is by Canadian-born British writer David Szalay, happens to be selected as the winner.
A few years ago, I saw Mary Wisniewski speak at one of those annual Nelson Algren Committee birthday celebrations that are nostalgically held at various locations in the old Polonia area of Chicago. An investigative reporter at Reuters at that time, and now a Chicago Tribune reporter, she spoke enthusiastically about a new Algren biography that she was working on. Now, Algren: A Life has just been published by Chicago Review Press, and it is the most definite biographical work on Algren since Bettina Drew’s Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side came out in 1989.
I thought Drew’s biography lacked a genuine feel of Chicago’s people and neighborhoods. It was well written and informative, but you just knew that the author was an outsider. Not so with Mary Wisniewski, whose father Mitchell was raised in Chicago’s Polonia of the 1940s and the 1950s and who is quoted in her book responding to the Polish characters in Algren’s Never Come Morning as saying “I didn’t know anybody like that” and “Those people are bums.”
In fact, Algren was more of a caricaturist and myth-maker in his fiction than a realist. He was a creative genius in so many ways, yet his novels lacked coherent plots, often leaving his readers unsatisfied at the end. There is no doubt that Algren wrote with passion and commitment, but many times his stories just seemed to break down. Yet his prose essay Chicago: City on the Make remains one of the greatest books ever written about Chicago.
Wisniewski’s biography of Algren is truly a labor of love, written with great respect of the man, yet exposing his frailties and flaws. As a truly talented investigative reporter, she knew where to find local sources to bring out new insights into the already well- charted waters of Algren’s affair with Simone de Beauvoir, his financially disastrous dealings with Hollywood, and his addictive personality.
I wish that Wisniewski would have delved into Algren’s Jewish identity (or lack of) in more detail. How did it feel like for Algren to be a Jewish kid in his formative years growing up in a Catholic neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side? How did the adult Algren respond to the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel?
Algren: A Life is one of the best biographies that I have read recently. Wisniewski really writes well and her research is presented in a crisp and most readable way. I highly recommend this book.
Bob Dylan has become the twelfth American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, one more than the Brits, and three less than the French. Other Americans who have won are fiction writers Sinclair Lewis, Pearl Buck, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Toni Morrison; the playwright Eugene O’Neill; and the poets Joseph Brodsky and Czeslaw Milosz.
I have loved the music and words of Bob Dylan since the early 1960s. But for him to win the Nobel Prize for Literature is truly a travesty. According to the Swedish Academy’s permanent secretary, Sara Danius, Dylan “is a great poet in the English-speaking tradition.” She goes on to draw parallels between his work and that of the ancient Greek poets by stating “if you look back, far back, 2,500 years or so, you discover Homer and Sappho and they wrote poetic texts that were meant to be performed, often with instruments—and it’s the same way with Bob Dylan.”
I know that the Swedish Academy is trying to be groundbreaking in stretching its definition of literature to include one of the great folk/rock musical lyricists of our time. Are we now to assume that Paul McCartney and Sting may be recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature in the future? I find the pick of Dylan this year as an insult to the world wide literary community.
I find it incomprehensible that Philip Roth has not yet been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. In fact, no American has won the prize since Toni Morrison in 1993. How can Roth be denied? In a brilliant and prolific writing career spanning more than fifty years, from Goodbye, Columbus in 1959 to Nemesis in 2010, Roth has achieved every literary recognition but the Nobel Prize. He has won two National Book Awards, three Pen/Faulkner Awards, the Pulitzer Prize and the International Man Booker Prize. No living writer has a more esteemed body of work. I surely hope, that when the Nobel Committee announces its Prize in Literature later this week, Mr. Roth will deservedly be its recipient.
Over the years I have grown accustomed to high quality Gilbert & Sullivan operettas being performed here in the Chicago area on the University of Chicago and Northwestern campuses. I have so enjoyed these performances at Mandel Hall by the Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company and the University of Chicago Department of Music and at Cahn Auditorium by the Bienen School of Music. But little did I know, until recently, that there was another Gilbert & Sullivan production company located in Evanston, called the Savoyaires, that has been doing annual performances for fifty-three years.
Last night I went to see the Savoyaires’ performance of Thespis at the auditorium of Chute Middle School in Evanston. I was impressed. Although Thespis is one of the more infrequently performed operettas in the Gilbert & Sullivan canon, with a preposterous story (there is even a character named Preposteros in it) of the Olympian Gods and a theatrical company trading places for a year, it is truly great fun with fantastic music and characteristically intelligent humor. Kat Stevens, as the puckish Mercury, steals the show, although Kingsley Day as Thespis, the manager of the traveling theater company, also turns in a memorable performance.
I encourage you to see this performance as it is only playing this weekend and next. Tickets can be purchased at http://www.savoyaires.org.