All Along the Watchtowers

I thought a nice cup of Intelligentsia coffee would be pleasant as I had an hour to kill downtown waiting for my next meeting to begin. But as I approached the Intelligentsia coffee shop on Randolph, just east of Wabash, the waiting line was literally out the door. Should I patiently wait the 15 minutes in line before forking over the $3.85 to the nice barista to get my small cup of the hot precious liquid that so many people were craving? Well I must admit that Intelligentsia coffee is good, but not that good, so I moved on.
In front of the Cultural Center, which I still fondly remember as the Main Library, there was a trio of Jehovah’s Witnesses, two ladies and a man. All were African American, middle-aged and nicely attired. Each had welcoming smiles as I approached them, with the neat rack of Watchtowers behind them.
Admittedly I’m usually not very friendly to the Witnesses. Occasionally they will visit our street and ring our door. When I answer, I usually have a terse remark for them like “not interested’ or “sorry, have a nice day.” But on this sunny, cloudless morning, downtown amidst the hustle and bustle of pedestrians walking quickly and drivers honking their horns noisily, I decided to get out of my bubble and interact with this dignified trio in front of me.
I approached the group and asked if sharing the Watchtower with others was part of their religious obligations? “It is indeed.” replied one of the women. “And can’t you tell by the beauty of the day that God is with us always. Would you care to take one of these?” as she started to hand me a Watchtower. I declined the offer graciously and bid farewell.
I crossed Michigan Avenue, entering Millennium Park, but I couldn’t get the lady’s “beauty of the day” remark out of my mind as I walked the path leading to the garden, basking in the sun of the divine light suffusing my soul for at least a little while.

A Memoir Worth Reading

I have always been fascinated by Jack Kerouac, the enigmatic Beat writer that captivated America in the late 50s and early 60s.  So when I recently read a superlative review in the New York Times by Dwight Garner (written in April 2017) of a memoir entitled “Minor Characters” by a former Kerouac girlfriend, Joyce Johnson, I was inspired to get a copy of it at the library. After all, Mr. Garner  wrote “I continue to think it is hideously undervalued and under-read. ‘Main Characters’ is, in its quiet and deliberate way, among the great literary memoirs of the past century.”

Yet amazingly, my local library as well as the entire the North Suburban Library System did not even have one copy of a book praised as “among the great literary memoirs of the past century.” Alas I obtained it from the Wheaton Library of all places!
And the reviewer was absolutely correct.  Ms. Johnson’s memoir, written in 1983, was brilliant, one of the best memoirs that I had read in years.

The author chronicles her on and off again romantic relationship with Kerouac when she was a young woman barely in her twenties. There she was, in the frenetic beatnik social circle of Greenwich Village with Kerouac and his cohorts Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlov and Gregory Corso with her “hair hanging down below her shoulders, all in black…….at the seat at the table in the exact center of the universe, where so much is converging.”

However, “as a female, she’s not quite part of the convergence.” In the end, she had no regrets about this role that she played as a “minor character” in the male-dominated world of Jack Kerouac and his friends. Just being there, and experiencing the flowering of that alternative culture, was enough for her.

As unlovable as Kerouac proved to be, she threw her love at him. But Kerouac always kept an emotional distance from her, never fully extricating himself from his mother, who kept her quiet dominance of him for his entire life.

Ms. Johnson’s memoir is much more than her ups and downs trying to connect emotionally with Kerouac. It is also an insightful look into the Beat Movement itself, from its noisy origins through its quiet demise. It is a book highly worth reading.



The Pit by Frank Norris to be Discussed at the Cliff Dwellers on July 20.

Although the author Frank Norris was Chicago born, he is not known as a Chicago writer, leaving the city at age fourteen with his family as they moved to California. Graduating from Berkeley, Norris went on to an adventurous career in journalism which included stints as a news correspondent in South Africa in 1895-96 for the San Francisco Chronicle between the time of the two Boer Wars, and as a war correspondent for McClure’s Magazine during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Norris had five novels published between 1898 and 1902. Two of them, McTeague: A Story of San Francisco (1899) and The Octopus: A Story of California (1901) were part of a trilogy that was published before his death in 1902 at the age of thirty-two. The final novel of the trilogy, The Pit: A Story of Chicago was published posthumously in 1903.
The Pit was included in the recently published Chicago By the Book: 101 Publications that Shaped the City and Its Image. Timothy Spears, whose essay on The Pit is in the book, writes ”although literary critics have complained about the florid writing and the ill-defined relation between the novel’s love story and business plot, they have admired Norris’s fine-grained descriptions of the trading pits of the Board of Trade…………..and how his canny representations of ‘fictional’ values resembles the volatile manipulations of our own time.”
Please join us this coming Saturday morning, July 20, at 11:00 for a discussion of The Pit at the Cliff Dwellers Book Club, at 200 S. Michigan. The discussion is free and open to the public. Our guests are welcome to join us at the club for lunch afterwards.

The 2019 Booker Prize has New Sponsorship

After 18 years of sponsorship, the Man Group has withdrawn from the sponsorship of the leading literary award for the best novel written in English and published in the United Kingdom or Ireland. Now, in 2019, what had been the Man Booker Prize, now returns to its original name, the Booker Prize.
The Booker Prize has a new sponsor, the Crankstart Foundation and its new subsidiary the Booker Prize Foundation, founded and funded by the Silicon Valley Welsh-born billionaire Sir Michael Moritz, and his wife, Chicago-born author Harriet Heyman. The Booker Prize Foundation will also fund the International Booker Prize.
The Booker Prize longlist will be announced on July 24; the shortlist on September 3; and the winner chosen on October 14. Please sign up as a follower of this blog for these announcements, updates and reviews of the Booker Prize competition.