Monday, December 24, 2007

Just past the solstice

Winter arrived in Chicago well before the solstice, and now we're relieved that the hasty days of paltry sunlight squeezed between the great smothering arms of darkness are pushing back. In the meantime, I've been rereading a favorite poet, Edward Hirsch. This is from a treasured collection, Earthly Measures.


We couldn't tell if it was a fire in the hills
Or the hills themselves on fire, smoky yet
Incandescent, too far away to comprehend.
And all this time we were traveling toward
Something vaguely burning in the distance--
A shadow on the horizon, a fault line--
A blue and cloudy peak which never seemed
To recede or get closer as we approached.
And that was all we knew about it
As we stood by the window in a waning light
Or touched and moved away from each other
And turned back to our books. But it remained
Even so, like the thought of a coal fading
On the upper left-hand side of our chests,
A destination that we bore within ourselves.
And there were those--were they the lucky ones?--
Who were unaware of rushing toward it.
And the blaze awaited them, too.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

"Best of"

I want to praise good books book by book, and consequently I resist the reduction of end-of-year “best of” lists. The quantifying of quality. With winter comes the call for book critics’ favorites, a short list of top picks, an impossibly small number of books deemed better than all the others. I find this process painful and, in spite of solid critical criteria, arbitrary. It’s a game, a gamble, a shuffling of priorities and compromises. And so begins the reluctant dealing of the cards from a stacked deck, the required discards, the arranging and rearranging of the fanned hand in search of a winning combination, a feeling of being strong-armed, of bluffing, of hedging one’s bets.

I played this high-stakes game for six consecutive years as a National Book Critics Circle board member, seated at a long table with a large cast of passionate players. Now it’s a game of solitaire, but somehow I still seem to be facing a group, my various reading selves. The me that loves a poetry collection one day and finds it cryptic the next. The self that swoons over the pages of a novel, then, months later, realizes that somehow it is the response that is memorable, instead of the book. Or, conversely, my insatiable reading self who can’t bear to give up any of the year’s beloved titles. And the overworked editor who inevitably overlooks a deserving book. Winnowing down my true wish list of outstanding books to conform to a prescribed number is a form of editing, much like my daily sacrifice of prose to meet requisite word counts. Another surgical procedure, another steep climb in painfully tight shoes, another interrupted dream. But selecting the best is also an act of sharpening, of rigorous questioning, honing, pressing, testing. A study in necessity and essence. A test of time and resonance. A duel between the rapturous self and the critical mind. A letting go. A leap.

Here’s a poem from a collection I’ve chosen as one the “best” of 2007, Captivity by Laurie Sheck.

As when an otherwise opens

Now December strikes in with its own brittleness, as when an otherwise

Opens in the body, wrenching further into slant and hazard.

Past the covert operations of the state, past checkpoints and official access.

A crystal splits along the lines of its own cleavage.

Questions unshelter themselves harshly. Each war-zone of them flaring,

and radical with damage.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Reading is living.

Readers and writers are by definition thoughtful people, reflective, questioning, analytical, sometimes anxious, often self-deprecating. One can’t help but question the entire enterprise of the life of the mind, especially when you realize that you’re happiest alone in a small room with a window, a book, and a sleeping cat. You don’t want to go anywhere in person, since you can go everywhere in your imagination. So one asks one’s self, is this healthy?

But some of us are lucky enough to share our passion with others, eye to eye. I had many such opportunities this autumn, and all were affirming and revelatory. Of course, some encounters were also nerve-wracking. It never fails to amaze me, what strangers will say. But you, know, if you accept invitations to moderate panels and speak, you are opening yourself to scrutiny and commentary.

And so it was one fine and chilly night when I spoke to a group of sharp-minded women in a beautifully restored old mansion on a college campus along Lake Michigan. The subject was one I was perhaps too ardent about: women, justice, and the environment. As always, I worked hard preparing for the talk, and brought along all kinds of notes and quotes and never once looked at them, which in this case, may have been a mistake. At any rate, I stumbled to a halt, and ask for questions. I enjoy this exchange, and on this night, my good listeners came up marvelously discerning queries. Pleased and relieved, I sat down, and signed books (such a many-faceted pleasure), and then found myself entangled in a rather thorny conversation with a skeptic. Frowning thoughtfully, she said that she couldn’t imagine spending so much time reading. Surely no woman with children (How did she know I have none, and how many does she have?) could do what I do day after day. And really, who would want to. Didn’t I feel cut off from real life? Wasn’t I even more distant from true experience than real writers because I was writing about writing, two levels away from breath and flesh and blood? Wasn’t it isolating? Artificial? Even, she seemed to imply, cowardly.

Who was this stranger who sensed the exact content of my own dark worries and fears? My own self-criticism, my own litany of failures. But because I’ve ruminated on this so much, I know that she is wrong. I know that reading opens you to life. Stories, poems, essays, history, science writing, and biography deepen your understanding of the living world, of humankind, of the cosmos. Reading engenders empathy, reveals hidden connections, gives words to inchoate feelings, breaks down the cell of the self, infuses daily chaos and tedium with meaning. You discover that many suffer the same doubt, fear, desire, anger, and hope that you do. You realize how fortunate you are when you read about the brutal lives and deaths of other. Reading extends your perception, stokes a sense of social responsibility, awakens compassion and appreciation for beauty, and provides a vessel for sorrow. Reading makes you a citizen of the world, a fuller, more conscious human being. I never feel completely alone, or at a loss, with books at hand. I know that I’m part of a great bright web of consciousness. The past is illuminated, as are countless ways of being and knowing, every conceivable sort of landscape, the wondrous world of animals, plants, stones, water, and sky. A reader contains multitudes.

My interlocutor was generous after all (and how knows the shade and shape of her regrets and unfulfilled yearning), and bought a copy of my anthology, In Our Nature. I signed it with a little frisson of mischievous pleasure: “Reading is living!”

Not many days later I heard the literary critic and writer Alan Cheuse speak to Scott Simon on NPR’s “Weekend Edition.” I admire Cheuse for his intelligent and passionate response to books, and very much like his edgy fiction. Here’s my Booklist review of his new book, The Fires:

Book critic Cheuse, whose resonant commentaries are heard on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, returns to fiction after the essay collection Listening to the Page (2001). Cheuse ignites fire in the mind and in the heart in a pair of tightly written novellas (the dialogue volleys as smoothly as that of a play) that form a yin-yang of grief and healing. In the title story, a woman suffering the debilitating hot flashes of menopause journeys to Uzbekistan to collect the body of her husband, who died in a fiery accident, and finds herself participating in a Hindu cremation. In "The Exorcism," a man struggles with his own conflagration of sorrow after his ex-wife, a brilliant jazz musician, dies of a heroin overdose. He then offers sanctuary to their college-student daughter, whose mourning turns dangerously incendiary. Startlingly beautiful in their searing radiance and molten heat, Cheuse's poetic tales of pain and forgiveness, loss and remembrance stoke our age-old fascination with fire as a force of destruction and renewal.

But my high regard went up several notches after this exchange:

Scott Simon asked Cheuse how much he reads, and Cheuse answers, four or five books a week. (If someone asked me that, I would say six or more, depending on the books.) Simon continued:

“How does all that reading affect your writing; do you have to be careful?”

And booklover Cheuse answers without missing a beat:

“I think being careful is the worst thing you can possibly do to yourself as a writer. You need to read as much as you possibly can, and live as much as you possibly can, and write as much as you possibly can. Reading is as much a part of life as any part. It’s life itself and it allows us to live other lives that we might not have lived if we hadn’t picked up those books. So, it seems to me to be a good human being you must read as much as you can. And certainly if you want to be a good writer you should read as much of the good stuff as you can get your hands on.”

My hero.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Studs Terkel tells his story

Studs Terkel's Touch and Go.

Looking back over ninety-five years of life with an eye to writing a memoir is a daunting task, even for veteran storyteller Studs Terkel. The bestselling, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of a dozen books of oral history, among them Hard Times, Race, The Great War, and Hope Dies Last, Terkel summons up memories redolent with sensuous detail and shaped by his irreverent humor, concern with justice, antennae for drama, and unfailing sense of how the small things unlock the large. Here he is, a boy of eight in a New York café, sensing that “something illicit is going on” between his father and Natacha Rambova, Rudolph Valentino’s wife. But he is a “child pragmatist” attuned to his father’s “burdens,” and willing to enjoy his father’s trust and the sweet drink unperturbed. And there it is, Terkel’s madeline, and a clue to his future success in bearing witness to people’s lives with curiosity, understanding, and respect. Writing with a gruff lyricism rooted in the literature he loved by his friend Nelson Algren, whom he describes bluntly as “nutty as a fruitcake,” Steinbeck, and Flannery O’Connor, Terkel recounts his formative years at the front desk in the working-class Wells-Grand Hotel in Chicago run by his father, his graduation from University of Chicago’s law school, and his serendipitous entrée into radio and early television success. Roguishly funny and candidly self-deprecating, Terkel recounts one atmospheric, keenly detailed, and rousing tale after another of adventures in a life of conversing. His musings on music and theater reveal the secrets of his success in shaping conversations with people from all walks of life, and his recollections of the great movements for workers’ rights and racial equality, as well as his own blacklisting and the FBI’s long surveillance, lead to bracing observations about current predicaments. “Remember,” is Terkel’s refrain, and his dazzling memoir reminds us that in memories personal and collective reside wisdom.

You can order Touch and Go here:

Saturday, October 27, 2007

New interviews, inspiring conversations

We've posted new interviews in fiction and poetry. Some are freshly recorded conversations with three significant and very different writers: Junot Diaz, George Saunders, and Ann Patchett. The others are interviews from our archives with no less remarkable writers. All are worth listening to.

I've had the great pleasure and privilege of speaking with readers and writers this week at two distinctive and, each in their own way, historic venues. The Nineteenth Century Club in Oak Park, Illinois, and the Guild Complex in Chicago. One a venerable, Corinthian-columned philanthropic institution founded in 1891 and dedicated to lifelong learning and community building; the other a vibrant and arty neighborhood literary center established in 1989.

You can learn a lot about a place by visiting its rest room. The ladies' lounge at the Nineteenth Century Club, which was founded by women for women, is a gracious parlor with wall fixtures, Victorian furniture, old photographs and intricate lace under glass made by the founders. And a recently created plaque listing some of the famous women who have used this ladies' room in the past, among them Amelia Earhart, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Indira Gandhi, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ruth Page, and Jane Addams. After reading this illustrious roll call, I corrected my posture, felt like an impostor, and went in to the lovely dining room to partake of a luncheon well-served on good china. The room was filled with a symphony of bright conversation. Then the talkers and diners were transformed into an attentive, receptive, and smart audience of book lovers concerned about the shrinking space accorded books in newspapers, and desirous of an ongoingly vital "culture of the sentence," to use Cynthia Ozick's phrase. How would we know who we are without literature?

The Guild Complex is on busy Division Street in the Chopin Theater. The Chicago/International Writers Exchange was held downstairs in an art-filled, low-light room furnished with vintage couches and chairs. The short description of the exchange is: "A discussion of literary cultures and literary practices between writers from Australia, Bulgaria, Egypt, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Russia, and Chicago." First, we served box luncheons which we balanced on our laps. Twelve incisive writers, one in-awe moderator. More on the amazing conversation anon, but for now a big big thank you to our international guests: Linsday Simpson, Aziz Nazmi Shakir-Tash, Hamdy El Gazzar, Lawrence Pun, Nirwan Dewanto, Ksenia Golubovich, our international guests. And to Chicago's Francisco Aragon, Rosellen Brown, Tom Montgomery-Fate, Tyehimba Jess, Alex Kotlowitz, and Bich Minh Nguyen.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

In praise of reading: Orhan Pamuk

Other Colors: Essays and a Story by Orhan Pamuk

Leave it to Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk––author of the novels Snow and My Name is Red, and the nonfiction work, Istanbul: Memories and the City––to turn what could have been simply a solid essay collection into a beautifully spiraling, meditative sequence of memories, dreams, ideas, and reflections. By gathering some of the brief, quickly written lyrical essays he published in a weekly magazine in the late 1990s, portraits of his family, various speeches, literary essays, interviews, and responses to politics and events, including the terrible earthquake that struck Istanbul in 1999, Pamuk allows readers to get closer to his inner world than the authors of most memoirs. What comes across most hauntingly is the tension between Pamuk’s utter devotion to writing, and his recognition of how very few people share this passion, and of how very few books will stand the test of time. Pamuk is, accordingly, humble about what he calls the “clerkish” aspect of writing, the patience required, the long hours of solitude. But he is also exalted, believing that it is only through novels that we can truly understand what life is like for others.

Put on trial for having “publicly denigrated Turkish identity” by writing and speaking out about the Armenian genocide––a century-old denied crime currently stoking the worsening situation in Iraq and contributing to the controversy over Turkey’s role as an ally to the U.S. and potential member of the European Union––Pamuk is keenly sensitive to the full significance of freedom of expression, and writes with candor and valor about political matters. But, clearly, he is happiest recreating the atmosphere of his beloved Istanbul, reporting on his travels, and musing over the work of his favorite writers, among them Faulkner, Dostoyevsky, Borges, and Camus. There is at wistfulness and grandeur in Pamuk’s essays, a mix of pain and joy that is at the heart of the human experience.

Pamuk writes so unaffectedly about the “pleasures of reading,” listing among them the way a book allows the reader to “escape the sadness of everyday life and spend some time in another world.” Pamuk also writes that reading, especially when he was young, “was central to my efforts to make something of myself, elevate my consciousness, and thereby give shape to my soul.” In comparing words to images and reading to watching a film, Pamuk, who initially dreamt of being a painter, admits that if he could find the same pleasures reading brings in film or television, he would “read fewer books.” But, “words (and the works of literature they make) are like water or like ants. Nothing can penetrate into the cracks, holes, and invisible gaps or life as fast or as thoroughly as words can. It is in these cracks that the essence of things—the things that make us curious about life, about the world—can first be ascertained, and it is good literature that first reveals them. Good literature is a piece of wise counsel that has yet to be give, and as such it has the same aura of needfulness as the latest news; that is mainly why I still depend on it.”

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Just Out: The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates: 1973 - 1982

It’s impossible to write about Oates’ diverse, almost bewilderingly large, and steadily growing oeuvre without expressing astonishment at her productivity. But more significant are her intensity and artistry, spirit and intelligence, deep commitment to truth, and receptivity to discovery and mystery. Since she turned 34 thirty-four years ago, Oates has not only written myriad published works, she has also kept a journal that is now surpassing 4000 single-spaced typewritten pages in length. Greg Johnson, Oates’ biographer (Invisible Writer, 1998), has edited the entries from the first decade with great sensitivity, sustaining a narrative arc and focusing on passages in which Oates chronicles how she works and reveal the forces that compel her.

Oates was already famous as a provocative, category-defying writer and a National Book Award winner for them (1969) when she began her journal. But what inspired what she describes at the outset as “an experiment in consciousness,” was a “peculiar experience,” a “mystical experience” that occurred in 1970 and continued to haunt her in 1973. Much of this volume, in fact, consists of Oates’ musings on the power of the unconscious, the inexplicable, and the intrusion of forces beyond the self. Again and again, stories and novels intrude upon her, push at the gates and prowl the edge of her mind. Here are explanations of her phenomenal creativity.

Oates is so lucid, so intent on explaining her writing process to herself, so fluent in her observations of the world at-large, both human and natural, the reader feels privileged to have access to such a thoughtful chronicle, such revealing disclosures. Oates also writes of her close and loving marriage to Raymond Smith, her heart condition, her love of teaching, and how she protects her privacy and establishes a “pattern of living” that enables her to write. She observes that you can’t force fiction. She analyzes all the elements that go in to a novel, and declares that “the novelist must be on the side of life.”

And how poignant this is: in 1975, Oates writes that she wouldn’t want to be known as prolific; she has already sensed the negative response to her stream of books. And yet, soon after she writes, “I don’t care: I want to write what I want to write.” She records a “burning eagerness to work.” She exclaims, "At times I feel that I could write endlessly, scarcely rising to the surface to eat, or even breathe.” Writing is “voluptuous.” But Oates is driven. As this volume draws to a close, Oates writes of her long-submerged feelings about her family’s hidden past, and her discomfort with the great divide between her lovely, successful life, which she often expresses gratitude for, and the dire deprivation her family endured. Here are the stirrings of the desire to understand, to inhabit, to bring back to life her family’s lost world. And she did so, 25 years later in The Gravedigger’s Daughter, which is based on her grandmother’s story, and a stunning and very recent revelation: her grandmother was Jewish.

Oates' journal begins with a transformation and a new way of
writing, and it ends with another opening, another deepening of her artistic calling. Oates is not merely prolific. She is ravenous for words, stories, truth. Her work will stand as a monumental exploration of the American psyche, the collective unconscious, the parameters of literature, and one woman’s complex inheritance.

The one line among many powerful statements that illuminates Oates the most: “I feel so much.”

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Open Books Radio in Full

Welcome to the new and improved Open Books Radio Web site. Have a look around, and sample our "Interview" page. We have organized the interviews into three categories: Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry. Often this sorting has been a bit arbitrary, since many writers write in all forms. I've based their placement here on the book under discussion. So, for instance, A. M. Homes, an extraordinary fiction writer, appears in Nonfiction because much of our conversation revolves around her memoir, The Mistress's Daughter.

Thanks to our wonderful Web designer, Hillary Carlip, you can scroll through the interviews in each category, and listen to each interview as it streams (you can fast forward and pause), or you can download interviews for later.

We would love to hear your comments. You'll find email addresses on the contact page.

Happy listening, happy reading.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Saturday, August 4, 2007


Summer is a time of amplitude. Life feels large and spacious, and yet even though we want to laze about, soaking up warmth and light, we also feel compelled to make the most of this time of flowers and embracing greenery, birds and great big moons. And for most of us, work does not let up. Nor does change take a holiday.

WLUW, home of Open Books, will no longer be a sister station to WBEZ, Chicago’s National Public Radio station. Their connection will be severed by next summer. In the meantime, the show must go on. We will keep producing the show, and broadasting it on WLUW ( while we look for a new station. The good news is the state of the Open Books Radio Web site. A full-force edition is nearing completion. Watch for a fabulous new look, thanks to our terrific designer, as well as uthor bios, new interviews, interview transcripts, reading lists, reviews, and more.

Reading is a blues chaser, and one of summer’s finest and simplest pleasures is reading outside. Let the sun illuminate the page.

Sunday, July 8, 2007


Rivers from time out of mind have been conduits for human culture, whether they are navigated in pursuit of new places and better lives, or to transport beliefs or products. Rivers inspire art, poetry, declarations of love, the daredevil impulse, and contemplation for contemplation’s sake. Just as all rivers lead to the sea, one book leads to another, and all lead to the collective stories of humankind. Rivers are the subject of many a book, from novels to photo-essays to Akiko Busch’s just published Nine Ways to Cross a River.

Busch has the gift of seeing the world new. In previous works she has offered fresh perspectives on our relationship with our belongings and the design of our homes. Now turns her discerning attention to nature, reveals herself as a passionate swimmer, and chronicles her intimate involvement with rivers. Busch inadvertently launched a riverine quest when she swam the river she loves best, the Hudson, in August 2001. Somehow the tragic events that followed made it seem “essential to mark each summer after that with a river crossing.” Not that Busch is interested in athletic feats. No, her river adventures are immersions both literally and imaginatively as she lingers to speak with people who live along the shores of the Delaware, Connecticut, Susquehanna, the Monongahela, the Mississippi, and other rivers, and ponders the lore, spirit, and history of each waterway, including such crucial aspects as the river’s “industrial archaeology” and “timeline of toxicity.” Busch profiles various river keepers, including the Hudson River’s guardian “trickster” Pete Seeger, whose success in guiding the reclamation and restoration of the mighty Hudson proves that “the damage arrives collectively, so too does recovery.”

Writing with a swimmer’s economy, propulsion, and buoyancy as she describes the exhilaration of swimming, and the distinct energy and moods of each river, Busch muses over the profound metaphors associated with rivers, and all the life lessons rivers embody, creating a beautiful, quietly enlightening book of reflections.

As someone who grew up along the Hudson River, I especially enjoyed Akiko Busch’s response to the river and its valley. Here’s an excerpt from her description of one swim across the ever-changing Hudson River:

“The river was choppy that afternoon. Visibility was low. The natural turbidity of the river, a product of its aquatic life, made it difficult to see anything underwater, and when I lifted my head out of the water, the waves and whitecaps obscured the view of the shoreline as well. If this river were a book, it was dense, obscure, difficult to read. Some rivers have a brilliant clarity; they are translucent, quick, clear about themselves and where they are going and where they are taking you. Others, like the Hudson, have a thickness and opacity, as though there is too much type on the page to take it all in. The pages are long and packed with intricate information, and even at the end of the page, you may not be quite sure of what you’ve read. Its narrative begins as a pond on the side of Mount Marcy in the Adirondacks, and the clear mountain stream running from it ends up as a tidal channel in the Atlantic Ocean. Its character, never fixed, is transformed during its passage from freshwater to saline, from a thin, winding stream to a broad straight channel. It has a tide and a current, and it flows both ways; sometimes it flows both ways at once.” Akiko Busch. Nine Ways to Cross a River.
Gorgeous in concept and realization. And don’t I relate to this mutable river.