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Chicago: City on the Make

algren-city1

Nelson Algren blew me away with his powerful poetic prose in Chicago: City on the Make. I expected it to be a novel, but it isn’t. It’s a prose poem essay that packs a lot of history and observation into very well written essays on the city. Written in the 6o’s, Chicago: City on the Make brought old Chicago, one that’s grittier and livelier to life. Algren’s Chicago was getting softened up, suburbanized almost when he wrote the book. Now downtown at least is like a lot of cities, though the neighborhoods are quite individual.

The book’s a must-read for people who know the city and want to learn more. The 50th Anniversary edition that I read has a lot of good annotations, but there were some references that weren’t covered that I had to use Bing to find.

Half-way through the book, I emailed a friend who teaches a unit on Chicago in her high school urging her to add at least a few chapters from the book to the class reading list.

Here are a few quotations from a book that’s full of great passages:

“Yet once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”

“…a city that was to live by night after the wilderness had passed. A city that was to forge out of steel and blood-red neon its own peculiar wilderness.”

“It’s the place built out of Man’s ceaseless failure to overcome himself. Out of Man’s endless war against himself we build our successes as well as our failures. Making it the city of all cities most like Man himself— loneliest creation of all this very old poor earth.”

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Poem of the Week

Wild Nights

Emily Dickinson

Wild nights – Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!
Futile – the winds –
To a Heart in port –
Done with the Compass –
Done with the Chart!
Rowing in Eden –
Ah – the Sea!
Might I but moor – tonight –
In thee!

Poem of the Week

To the New Year

by W.S. Merwyn

With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning

so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible

Poem of the Week

A friend sent me this poem today. I just loved it and had to share.

Failing and Flying

BY JACK GILBERT

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.

Poem of the Week

The Vacation

by Wendell Berry

Once there was a man who filmed his vacation.
He went flying down the river in his boat
with his video camera to his eye, making
a moving picture of the moving river
upon which his sleek boat moved swiftly
toward the end of his vacation. He showed
his vacation to his camera, which pictured it,
preserving it forever: the river, the trees,
the sky, the light, the bow of his rushing boat
behind which he stood with his camera
preserving his vacation even as he was having it
so that after he had had it he would still
have it. It would be there. With a flick
of a switch, there it would be. But he
would not be in it. He would never be in it.

His Second Wife

Ernest Poole’s His Second Wife follows Ethel  as she leaves small town Ohio after her father’s death. She goes to New York to live with her sister, Amy, a socialite and shopper, and Amy’s husband Joe and daughter. Ethel tries to fit in to the shallow scene Amy relishes, but just can’t. The superficial and materialism don’t appeal at all.

She’s after the new and exciting ideals, art and politics New York is supposed to offer. After Amy’s sudden death, Ethel stays to help Joe, but struggles to avoid getting trapped living her sister’s life.

Poole creates an original dilemma that rings true. Ethel isn’t the polar opposite of Amy as a lesser writer would have made her. She doesn’t hate shopping or all of bourgeois life, she just wants more. The novel recounts her struggle to find friends and to find her own identity, while evading Amy’s more manipulative friends who want to control Joe after he’s married Ethel. An original, compelling story, worth getting from Amazon, which offers it for free on Kindle.

His Family

Ernest Poole, author of The Harbor and Giants Gone was the first novelist to win the Pulitzer Prize and he won it for His Family. In His Family, Roger Gale tries to live out his promise to his dying wife to keep his daughters together, to really know each one. Each young woman is distinct and unless they were sisters they’d never cross paths. Set in New York around the time of WWI, the novel follows Gale and his three daughters through a tumultuous era. Deborah throws herself into her work as principal for a tenement school. Edith obsesses over being the perfect mother making sure her children have the perfect childhood and Laura flits about as a “modern woman,” which by her definition means being a fashion plate who dances a lot.

Roger owns a clipping service, not the usual business featured in novels. His perspective of his daughters and life in this era was perceptive and genuine. He cares and yet feels unable to influence or understand his daughters. Life hands them surprises and tragedy, catching everyone off guard. Roger is as shaped by his daughters, particularly Deborah, as they are by him.

Here are a few favorite quotations:

“He saw each of his daughters, part of himself. And he remembered what Judith had said: ‘You will live on in our children’s lives.’ And he began to get glimmerings of a new immortality, made up of generations, an endless succession of other lives extending into the future.”

“Queer, how a man can neglect his children, as I have done … when the thing he wants most in life is to see each one …happy.”

“He had thought of childhood as something intimate and pure, inside his home, his family. Instead of that, in Deborah’s school he had been disturbed and thrilled by the presence all around him of something wild, barbaric, dark, compounded of the city streets, of surging crowds, of rushing feet, of turmoil, filth, disease and death, of poverty and vice and crime.”

Ragged Dick: Street Life in New York

Cover of Ragged Dick by Horatio Alger

I’d heard of rags to riches stories a.k.a. Horatio Alger stories, but I’d never actually read a book by Horation Alger — till now. I raced through Ragged Dick in two days, not just because it’s short, but because it’s funny. Alger reminds me of Dickens or Twain as he has jokes on every page.

Ragged Dick is a 14 year old orphan, a shoe shine boy who must sleep on the streets in a box of straw or old wagon if he can find one. He’s got wit and pluck and amuses and impresses his well-to-do customers. Time and again he shows his hilariously funny, honest, kind and brave. Yes, it’s a morality tale and the ending is happy, but it wasn’t as pat as I’d expected.

Spoiler Alert: Dick doesn’t wind up as a millionaire by the stories end. He does start out in actual rags which he explains he would get rid of but since George Washington and Louis Napolean (sic) gave him those close he felt he couldn’t.

While Dick’s a good lad, he’s not an angel with a dirty face (though he does have a dirty face). The narrator and Dick tell us that he smokes cigars, goes to the Bowery Theater a lot, doesn’t save money and gambles. Yet he corrals his vices in due time.

Much of the story consists of Dick showing Frank, a country boy who’s uncle is busy with business all day around the streets of New York, where there’s a con artist around every corner. Frank and the uncle get Dick a new suit for the day and suddenly Dick’s treated with great respect wherever he goes (well, almost) and a lot of folks don’t recognize him. Through Frank we learn that Dick’s in a jam. Because he’s so good and diligent about getting business, he makes $3 a day. If he worked at a counting house or store he’d just get $3 a week. He doesn’t pursue other work because that would mean a short term loss. Also, these clerk jobs tend to go to boys from in tact families. The book then is more than just a series of funny adventures, it does show aspects of 19th century urban America.

Like Dickens Ragged Dick will appeal to readers of all ages.

My Ántonia

I just finished Willa Cather‘s My Ántonia (accent on the first syllable please) and am basking in that satisfied feeling that a masterful story, well told offers. H.L. Mencken once wrote, “No romantic novel ever written in America, by man or woman, is one half so beautiful as My Ántonia.” Yep, I have to agree.

Cather excels with her descriptions and plotting. The characters are well drawn and true to life. While I read, I felt I was getting the “straight dope” on prairie life, on how immigrants really thought and fared. I felt I gained a deeper understanding of the period than any history book I’ve read so far can provide.

Jim Burden is the narrator, who leads readers through the stories of the people, townsfolk and country farmers, in Nebraska in the late 19th and early 20th century. These are all people a modern suburbanite like me finds easy to overlook. But through Jim’s eyes, I see their depth and complexities. Throughout the story, I was surprised by events and glad that Cather never stooped to make her characters amble down a well worn path.

This novel would be an excellent choice as a companion to a history unit on the pioneers.

Poem of the Week*

Au Pair

by Mary Jo Salter
The first thing she’d noticed, as they sat her down for lunch
by the picture window, was flags all doing a dance
in front of houses: was today a holiday?
No, they said smiling, it’s just the American way,
and she couldn’t help reflecting that in France
nobody needed reminding they were French,

but the neighborhood had turned out very nice,
no fences, big yards, kids racing back and forth;
you could let the shower run while you were soaping
or get ice from a giant refrigerator’s face.
She couldn’t believe how much the franc was worth
and she had no boyfriend yet, but she was hoping,

and because her father was the world’s best baker
she naturally thought of his bakery in the Alps
whenever they passed her a slice of their so-called bread,
and sometimes she wished she could hire a jet to take her
back just for breakfast, but as her great-aunt had said
so wisely more than once, it never helps

to make comparisons, so she mostly refrained.
She couldn’t believe, though, how here whenever it rained
the mother sent children out without their coats,
not carelessly, but because she had no power
and nobody made them finish the food on their plates
and bedtime was always bedtime plus an hour,

so au pairs were useless really, except for the driving.
Yes, that was puzzling: after she cracked up the car
they didn’t blame her or ask her to pay a thing,
but once she let Caitlin eat some sort of cherry
with red dye in it, and then the were angry, very.
Americans were strange, that much was clear:

no penmanship, and lesbians held hands
on the street, and most women carried a pair
of pumps in a bag they never took out to wear;
it was so disrespectful, she couldn’t understand
how the older ones got called nothing, not even Madame,
but then nobody in this country had a last name

which was going to make it hard to write them a letter
when she got back. It was really bittersweet
her visa running out; she was sad that all
she’d done with her days off was go to the mall,
she’d bought a million T-shirts and that was great
but she had to admit it, saving would have been better,

and she knew somehow that when she got on the plane
she’d probably never live anywhere foreign again
which filled her American family with more pity
than she felt for herself, because at least she was coping,
she’d work at her sister’s shop and stay in the city

*I don’t find one every week, but hope to

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