Saturday, December 4, 2010

The City of Big Readers

I didn't know what to expect when I accepted an invitation to participate in a holiday gathering of the Mayor Daley High School Book Club. Karen Burke, the club coordinator, explained that the book club had been meeting with the mayor for thirteen years, and that this would be the last gathering. I've long been grateful to Mayor Daley for his extraordinary support of reading and public libraries, and I'd been told that he was a big reader, but I was unprepared for his warmth, candor, and caring in conversation with students from Orr Academy High School on Chicago's West Side. The students were also a revelation. So smart, so funny, so sweet in the best sense of the word. Gorgeous, it must be said, and giving. So, too, their radiant and, clearly, loved teacher and school librarian. It was a room full of passion for learning, for sharing, for stories, and for books (students named as their favorites Stephen King and Kurt Vonnegut). And for pizza.

Mayor Daley spoke frankly about how tough life is, how vulnerable we all are, how crucial education is, how essential books are to navigating the world. He sat forward and talked intently about how he struggled in school, how mortifying it was to fail the bar exam twice, with his father as mayor and his heart set on a state's attorney job. Mayor Daley told us about how his grandfather was killed by a drunk driver, a neighbor, just days before Christmas, and how difficult the holiday was forever after for his mother. He spoke with love and sorrow about his son who died before he turned three, and of how much life the young boy possessed. He spoke with pride and relief of his son who has just returned from serving in Afghanistan, and of how we need to bring all the troops home now.

The mayor showed us his office, or rather, his three offices, rooms in descending levels of formality. Rooms filled with the auras of conversations, arguments, thoughts, and emotions, as well as gifts, art, memorabilia, and, most of all, family photographs. And photographs of policemen killed in the line of duty, of teens shot down on the street for no good reason. Every day Mayor Daley studies photographs of these fallen Chicagoans with profound sorrow and concern, renewing his vow to do his best to do right by everyone who calls Chicago home.

But this was a day for celebration. The mayor, smiling and joking, yet always commanding, gamely posed for photographs with each of the Orr students, young women and young men full of desire for meaning and accomplishment, full of creativity and hope. This is what it is to be a mayor of a big complicated city. To feel grief and responsibility, and to mentor the young and promising, and feel joy in their beaming presence.

I cannot thank Karen, the mayor, his staff, and all the Orr Academy students and their teacher and librarian enough for an inspiring and uplifting meeting of the mind and spirit. To talk about books and how books enrich and guide us, to talk about what it means to live life fully and positively, to express gratitude and laugh together, I couldn't have received a greater gift.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A wild and beautiful book

Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. By David Abram. Pantheon.

How is it that our curious, inventive species has gone from worshipping nature to destroying it? Why did human beings lose appreciation for the great mesh of earthly existence and our place within that intricate and spectacular dance of life-sustaining relationships? A creative and visionary ecologist and philosopher, David Abram offered provocative answers to these complex and urgent questions in his first book, the highly influential Spell of the Sensuous (1996). In his second recalibrating mix of stories, reflections, and discoveries, he offers original and profound insights into the causes of our disparagement of “sensuous reality,” of “bodied existence,” and the horrific consequences of our increasing detachment from the living world, a separation accelerated by the seductiveness of the cyber realm.

Abrams reawakens appreciation for our knowing bodies and minds––our animals selves which evolved to thrive on Earth, in one ravishing passage after another. From encounters with other animals (Abram’s tales of the wild are extraordinary) to an astonishing response to shadows to the many forms of sentience on the planet to an arresting discussion of the significance of oral culture. Not only does Abram write with poetic precision and ethical intent, he also draws on his unusual experiences as a sleight-of-hand magician and his apprenticeship to indigenous shamans as he writes about perception, awareness, and the endless complexity and surprises of the living world with breathtaking insight.

Wonder is an emotion we need more of, Abram believes, and this is a book in which close observation and sustained contemplation of natural wonders inspires an “earthly cosmology” meant to redirect our attention and compassion away from the human-made realm and back to the “enfolding earth.” We can’t “restore” nature, Abram writes, without “restorying” our breathing, spinning, sentient planet, and this enrapturing book is a start, as Becoming Animal reminds us that the sacred is in our every cell and everywhere around us.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Eight Forty-Eight - Laurence Gonzales Explores Human-Ape Hybrid in New Novel

I don't read many thrillers, but I couldn't resist this smart interspecies tale and its irresistible hero.

Click here to listen to my interview with the author of LUCY:
Eight Forty-Eight - Laurence Gonzales Explores Human-Ape Hybrid in New Novel

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Cold Snap on a hot day

A review:

BOOKLIST, June 2010

Cold Snap: Bulgaria Stories.By Cynthia Morrison Phoel.2010. 240p. Southern Methodist, $22.50 (9780870745614).

Phoel’s first collection of stories and a novella incisively dramatizes the interlocked lives of the beleaguered denizens of a Bulgarian town. Phoel spent time in Bulgaria as a Peace Corps volunteer, but one gets no sense of an outsider looking in. Instead, she fully inhabits the minds of her jittery characters as they grapple with various forms of family pressure, poverty, and the maddening cold. Young Dobrin’s brow is becoming permanently furrowed as he worries about his overworked mother and cavalier father, as a giant satellite dish funnels a nonstop stream of soccer and porn into their humble and frigid apartment. Galia has been utterly passive, but now that she’s pregnant, mutinous thoughts are brewing. Mathematician Plamen is plagued by self-loathing. In charge of central heating, Nasko is besieged. With the fierce cold serving as a metaphor for the deep social freeze of this long tyrannized land, Phoel is as confident as the great Russian writer Gogol in her acid humor and insightful portrayals of people who “could endure anything,” making for an unusually commanding and affecting debut. —Donna Seaman

A Chicago Public Radio interview:

Eight Forty-Eight - Author Cynthia Morrison Phoel's 'Cold Snap'

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Living on Earth

What a thrill to appear once again on this fantastic radio show.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Daily Beast debut

A Daily Beast article sparked by a new novel about Emily Dickinson.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

NBCC Awards

The National Book Critics Circle Awards finalists were announced in New York yesterday. It's an exciting list--see below. Of particular resonance to me are fiction finalist Bonnie Jo Campbell for American Salvage, criticism finalist Eula Biss for Notes from No Man's Land, authobiography finalist Debra Gwartney for Live Through This: A Mother's Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love, biography finalist Benjamin Moser for Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, and nonfiction finalist William T. Vollmann for Imperial.

I'm also elated that the incomparable Joyce Carol Oates received the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. And that New Yorker critic Joan Acocella received the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, for which I'm thrilled to have been a finalist.

Here's all the information. Kudos and gratitude to the hard-working NBCC board:

Diana Athill, Somewhere Towards the End (Norton)
Debra Gwartney, Live Through This: A Mother's Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Mary Karr, Lit (Harper)
Kati Marton, Enemies of the People: My Family's Journey to America (Simon & Schuster)
Edmund White, City Boy, Bloomsbury

Blake Bailey, Cheever: A Life (Knopf)
Brad Gooch, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor (Little, Brown)Benjamin Moser, Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector (Oxford University Press)
Stanislao G. Pugliese, Bitter Spring: A Life of Ignazio Silone (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Martha A. Sandweiss, Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line (Penguin Press)

Eula Biss, Notes From No Man's Land: American Essays (Graywolf Press)Stephen Burt, Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry (Graywolf Press)
Morris Dickstein, Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression (Norton)
David Hajdu, Heroes and Villains: Essays on Music, Movies, Comics, and Culture (Da Capo Press)
Greg Milner, Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music (Faber)

Bonnie Jo Campbell, American Salvage (Wayne State University Press)Marlon James, The Book of Night Women (Riverhead)
Michelle Huneven, Blame (Sarah Crichton Books/FSG)
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (Holt)
Jayne Anne Phillips, Lark and Termite (Knopf)

Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History (Penguin Press)
Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City (Metropolitan Books)
Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (Pantheon)
Tracy Kidder, Strength in What Remain (Random House)
William T. Vollmann, Imperial (Viking)

Rae Armantrout, Versed (Wesleyan)
Louise Gl├╝ck, A Village Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
D.A. Powell, Chronic (Graywolf Press)
Eleanor Ross Taylor, Captive Voices: New and Selected Poems, 1960–2008 (Louisiana State University Press)
Rachel Zucker, Museum of Accidents (Wave Books)

Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing: Joan Acocella

Michael Antman
William Deresiewicz
Donna Seaman
Wendy Smith

Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award: Joyce Carol Oates

The National Book Critics Circle, founded in 1974 at the Algonquin, is a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization consisting of some 600 active book reviewers who are interested in honoring quality writing and communicating with one another about common concerns. It is managed by a 24-member all-volunteer board of directors. For more information, please contact National Book Critics Circle president Jane Ciabattari at or go to

Monday, January 11, 2010

Eight Forty-Eight - Exploring the Art of Edgar Miller

Here's my latest Chicago Public Radio piece. Listen to the fabulously articulate and knowledgeable Richard Cahan and Michael Williams talk about their gorgeous new books, Edgar Miller and the Handmade Home. Here's a link:

Eight Forty-Eight - Exploring the Art of Edgar Miller