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This is a transcription of Episode 09 — Chicago: Baseball, Hot Dogs, Industry, and Infamy.
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode, we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.
Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.
David: We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
[cheerful theme music]
David: Welcome to season one, episode eight of Strong Sense of Place. Today we are getting curious about Chicago.
David: Home to the most adorable presidential plaque anywhere.
Melissa: Presidential plaque —
David: The story is that in 1989 Barack Obama had his first date with then-Michelle Robinson. They went to a Baskin Robbins ice cream parlor at the corner of Dorchester and East 53rd. In 2007, he described it to Oprah magazine. ‘On our first date, I treated her to the finest ice cream Baskin Robbins had to offer. Our dining table doubling as the curb. I kissed her, and it tasted like chocolate.’ And now there’s a plaque with that text on it at that location.
Melissa: That is so cute. Now I want to go there and have an ice cream.
David: And they made a movie about that date. It’s called Southside With You.
Melissa: That’s nice.
David: It came out in 2016, supposed to be pretty good. Haven’t seen it. I suspect it also has a strong sense of Chicago.
Melissa: I have two data points on Chicago. One: When I was 14, I went to the Barry Manilow Fan Club Convention with my mom in Chicago.
David: These are personal data points on Chicago. So, you went to the Barry Manilow Fan Club Convention.
Melissa: The Barry Manilow Fan Club Convention — in the summer between ninth grade and tenth grade.
David: The perfect time to go to the Barry Manilow Fan Club Convention. Not sure what your mom was doing there, but you were in the right.
Speaker 3: My mom and I actually had kind of matching dresses for the big celebration concert. And there was a Q&A at the hotel for the fan club. And Barry Manilow showed up. It was his birthday, and there was a cake. And he sang. It was amazing. The other thing I remember from that trip is that we went to eat at a TGI Friday’s and they were new, and it was really exciting.
Melissa: Moving on.
Speaker 3: The second time I went to Chicago was with you, and that’s when we were on a book tour, our Midwestern book tour for my roller derby memoir called Rollergirl: Totally True Tales From the Track. It was January, and we went straight into snow country to visit roller derby leagues and to promote that book. And also, to eat an Italian beef sandwich because we were obsessed with the documentary and the book Sandwiches That You Will Like, which is a collection of recipes and restaurants of regional sandwiches around the country.
David: We have not gone wrong chasing down those sandwiches, either.
Melissa: If you like sandwiches and if you like regional recipes — because they do really give you a strong sense of the place — this book is Sandwiches That You Will Like. We will link to it in the show notes. It’s amazing.
David: It’s out of print, isn’t it?
Melissa: It is not.
David: Let’s talk about the Chicago 101.
Melissa: First things first: For our listeners outside of the United States, Chicago is located in the state of Illinois, and if you are looking at the map of the United States, Illinois is about one-third of the way between the East coast and the West coast.
David: An easy way to find it would be the mitten that makes Michigan, and it is just off to the lower left side.
Melissa: That implies that people know where Michigan is.
David: It looks like a mitten. It’s the mitten-y state.
Melissa: I’m looking at a picture of the map right now. It does not look like a mitten.
Melissa: Moving on. Today, I’m mostly gonna focus on Chicago’s history because it’s very dynamic. There are railroads and shipping and meatpacking and Teamsters. It has muckrakers and corrupt politicians. There are jazz and blues musicians and baseball.
Melissa: Hot dogs, deep-dish pizza, and Italian beef sandwiches. There were race riots, and gangsters, and a population made up of immigrants from all over Europe. It’s basically everything that makes the United States really great and also really challenging.
Melissa: And we’re going to be talking about a lot of these things when we talk about our books today. So, first: way back in the day, 1830 Chicago started when plots of land were sold to finance the building of a canal. It was called the Illinois and Michigan Canal, and it was going to link the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River, which meant the boats could go all the way from the Great Lakes down the river and to the Gulf of Mexico.
David: Right. And this was when?
David: Oh, long, long, long ago. Relative to the relative to the United States.
Melissa: The population was a whopping 4,000 people.
David: In Chicago?
Melissa: In Chicago. Okay. Fast forward about 20 years. Chicago now has its first telegraph, its first railroad, and the population is 30,000. And that is mostly European immigrants. So it’s starting — the Chicago that we know today is kind of starting there. It’s the 1850s. Fast forward a little bit more. In 1860, the Republican national convention was held in Chicago, and that’s when Abraham Lincoln won the nomination.
David: So Abraham Lincoln is walked the streets of Chicago.
Melissa: Yes. Such as they were in 1860.
Melissa: So surely you’ve heard of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow.
David: I have.
Melissa: Mrs. O’Leary’s cow is often blamed for the great Chicago fire in 1871.
David: There’s a song about Mrs. O’Leary’s cow.
Melissa: Mrs. O’Leary’s cow may not actually be responsible for that.
David: It all felt a little apocryphal one. Yes. I remember hearing that story when I was, I don’t know, eight and thinking, Really? The whole thing? A cow.
Melissa: I know the poor cow.
Melissa: So that fire destroyed about one-third of the city and left 100,000 people homeless. But on the upside, the railroads and the factories survived. And by the late 1800s, Chicago was really, really booming. You get your first skyscraper, which was a whole 10 stories tall. You get the world’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, which we’ll talk about in a minute. So Chicago was booming, growing, thriving. But there was also a downside to all of that growth and wealth. The working conditions in the meatpacking plants that were kind of the engine for Chicago were really terrible.
David: Made famous by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.
Melissa: Correct. Which we will also be talking about later. Okay. Upton Sinclair was not the only writer inspired by Chicago. No surprise. In 1914, Carl Sandburg wrote a poem that said Chicago was ‘the hog butcher for the world, toolmaker, stacker of wheat, player with railroads, and the nation’s freight handler.’
David: Didn’t he? Wasn’t he the guy who was credited with calling Chicago the City of Big Shoulders, too. Is that the same poem?
Melissa: It is, yeah. That’s a great poem. We’ll put it in show notes. It’s really good. Chicago was also a great place for music. After WWI, a lot of African American migrants from the South emigrated to Chicago and gave us Chicago blues.
David: The electric blues.
Melissa: Yes! The difference in the Chicago blues is that both the electric guitar and the harmonica are amplified with lots of distortion —
[chicago blues music]
Melissa: That was kind of the gritty elements of the city being added to the Southern tradition of blues. You had artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, and — I didn’t know this — the musicians started out usually by playing at open-air markets on Maxwell street, which was the biggest market in North America at the time. And then they would graduate to house parties and then finally into the clubs.
David: There’s a story that I love about Howlin’ Wolf. He used to play with a really long mic cord, and so he would start the show — and he was a really dynamic performer, and he took on many aspects of the wolf. Apparently, a very like charming guy if you met him on the street, but when he was in his show, he was IN HIS SHOW. So he would take about halfway through this show, he would take his mic and walk into the crowd with the dancers and visit the tables, and he would climb up on the tables and then eventually, he would work his way out the front door, and he would stand in the street and howl.
Melissa: [laughter] It’s amazing. I love that. It’s always a little intense when musicians come down off the stage into the audience because they’re doing their whole over the top thing, inches from your face. It’s really amazing.
Melissa: So, Chicago was a good time. Yes, but sometimes it was also a bad time.
David: I mean, there was a reason to sing the blues in Chicago.
David: Those two things walk hand in hand.
Melissa: Let’s talk about baseball for a second because if you’re a baseball fan, you probably know that there was a big scandal at the World Series in 1919.
David: Chicago Black Sox.
Melissa: Eight players from the Chicago White Sox team were in cahoots with a bunch of professional gamblers, and they decided to throw the series to the underdog Cincinnati Reds. Boo! The New York Times has a really great piece about that.
David: And there was a movie Eight Men Out.
Melissa: Yes, Eight Men Out. Also, in the 1920s, Chicago was synonymous with gangsters. Al Capone and Bugs Moran ran rival gangs. In 1929, Al Capone ordered the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. I had heard that name, but I didn’t know the details, and I’m going to share him with you now. He had four of his men dress up like cops, and they went to Bugsy Moran’s Northside Gang headquarters, and they lined up seven of the Northside Gang crew against the wall and shot them. And that was in retaliation because previously, Bugs Moran had driven six cars past a hotel in Cicero, Illinois, where Al Capone and his buddies were having lunch. And Moran’s gang fired more than a thousand bullets at the hotel while they were eating.
David: Wow. I feel like it’s super easy to romanticize the mobster era, and yet, living through that would have been awful.
Melissa: Yeah. On the upside, by 1931, Capone was in jail for tax evasion. And Moran’s gang was kaput because after the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, he lost too many of his powerful henchman and his gang just kind of fell apart.
David: Oh, so that worked.
Melissa: It did work. Okay. Fast forward again: 1965 Martin Luther King jr visited Chicago to bring his campaign for civil rights to the North. And one of the novels I’m going to talk about later is set against the backdrop of the speech that he gave when he went to Chicago. During that speech — this was in the book that I’m going to talk about, but this happened in real life during that speech – someone threw a rock at him, and it almost hit him in the head.
Melissa: So three years later, in 1968, Chicago was an even more turmoil because Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated. There were huge race riots in Chicago, and there was also a major protest against the Vietnam War at the Democratic National Convention. So ‘68 was kind of a tough year.
David: A lot of turmoil in Chicago.
Melissa: Finally, the first-ever McDonald’s opened in Chicago in 1955. But there are more than 2000 hotdog stands in the city of Chicago. That’s more than all of the McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger Kings combined. And the traditional Chicago dog is a flavor explosion. Things that are on a Chicago dog… Ready?
Melissa: Mustard, onions, sweet pickle relish, a dill pickle spear, tomatoes, pickled peppers, and a dash of celery salt, and that is all crammed into a poppy seed bun.
David: I would take off the tomatoes, but otherwise, yeah.
Melissa: Mine would be modified with no mustard, but other than that, I’m into it.
Melissa: That is everything I have to say about Chicago.
David: Are you ready for Two Truths and a Lie?
Melissa: I am ready.
David: Okay. I have something I want to talk about. I want to talk about the 1893 Colombian Exposition.
David: It was originally intended to be a celebration of Columbus’s arrival in the new world 400 years earlier. The United States wanted to do a big celebration. Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago all fought for the honor of having the celebration. Chicago eventually won out because: politics. The exposition was almost a square mile of exhibits and displays and buildings that were built specifically for the exposition, so the greatest architects of the era came together and built this place, which from all accounts was just gorgeous. Just drop-dead amazing — little electric lights back when that was a novelty.
Melissa: Literally, people had never seen anything like it.
David: And it was called The White City, famously in the book by —
Melissa: Erik Larson.
David: Yes, Erik Larson. It was open for six months from May to October. It drew more than 27 million people during that time. To give you a frame of reference, there were only 63 million people in America when that happened.
David: So half of America. On October 9th, 1893, the day the city designated as Chicago day, they set a world record for outdoor event attendance: 750,000 people went.
Melissa: Holy cow. In corsets, no less.
David: And again, at the time Chicago, only had a million people. It was Disney World and Burning Man and the Consumer Electronics Show all wrapped into one six-month event.
David: Here are the names that we know: Buffalo Bill Cody was there. Louis Comfort Tiffany, who founded Tiffany’s. Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, Alexander Graham Bell, Marshall Field of Marshall Field’s department stores, Phillip Armour of the hotdog fame. H H. Holmes, one of the first serial killers. Nikola Tesla. Scott Joplin was there and played. Frederick Douglas was there. John Phillips Sousa was there with his band. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir did their first performance outside of Utah.
David: Harry Houdini—
Melissa: Basically, every famous person that at the time.
David: I mean those are the names that we recognize 125 years later.
David: And while they were there, the Colombian Exposition is credited with the advent of the Ferris wheel. There was the first Ferris wheel was there. This one was 264 feet high, which is 80 meters. It had 36 cars, each of which could accommodate 40 people. So it was basically half a boxcar. They’d load you in and cranky way up higher than you’ve probably ever been in your life. The Columbian Exposition gets the credit for inventing the idea of an amusement park. One of the attendees went home and started Coney Island. The first commercial movie theater was there belly dancing in America [laughter] started at the Columbian Exposition, as well as the tune that we recognize as the snake-charmers tune. It was invented there because the belly dancers didn’t have the music, and their manager was like, ‘Okay.’ And he made up a tune, and that was the tune.
David: So in short, if you were going to go a time-traveling, you could do worse than Chicago 1893 because it was amazing. The fair ended on a weird note because the mayor of Chicago was assassinated two days before the end of the event.
Melissa: How did they forget that?
David: I know! It’s just one of the things that happened. There’s only two buildings that are still standing, but the cool did not stop in 1893. The Obama Presidential Center is being built in Jackson park location of the Columbian Exposition, and it will include a new branch of the Chicago Public Library.
David: So Two Truths and a Lie. Two of these things were exhibited for the first time; one of them was not.
David: The three things are: Cracker Jacks, Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, or Twinkies. Two of those things you could get at the fair, one could not.
Melissa: Pabst Blue Ribbon!
David: You could get a PBR at the Columbian Exposition.
Melissa: in the same kind of can?
David: It was a bottle, but still, you could get a PBR. The answer is —
Melissa: Cracker Jack!
David: The Twinkie. Twinkies weren’t invented until 1930. They were invented in Chicago by a guy named Jimmy Dore, which is the most Chicago name ever. He was a manager at the Hostess Brands Factory. He wanted to create a pastry that was filled with cream, and he named it after an ad for Twinkle Toe Shoes that he came across.
Melissa: That’s adorable. Also, I have to admit, I do really like Twinkies. I mean, I probably haven’t had one in 40 years, but I remember them as being quite delicious.
David: This will blow your mind. The original Twinkie had banana cream filling.
Melissa: I knew that. That does not sound good to me [laughter]
David: So that’s it. That’s Two Truths and Lie. Are you ready to talk about books?
Melissa: I am and surprise: I’m cheating.
Melissa: My first book recommendation is two book recommendations.
Melissa: In my defense, they’re both set in roughly the same time period, but they’re very different from each other, and they’re both really remarkable works of classic fiction. So I’m going to do my best to sell them both in the time it would take to talk about one book.
David: Speed recommendations
Melissa: Kind of. So they are So Big by Edna Ferber and The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, starting with So Big. This is a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, and until I saw it on the shelf of a used bookstore, I had not heard of it. And I feel like there aren’t people out there doing think pieces about it the way they are about, say, The Jungle, for example. It is really good. It was published in 1924, and it’s a really inspiring story, I think in any circumstances, but it feels especially relevant right now because it tackles big issues like the divide between the rich and the poor, the tension between people who live in the cities and rural areas, and sexism —
David: All of which are very much part of the current landscape.
Melissa: Exactly. So our heroine in this book is named Selina, and she has a really tough life, like, straight out of the gate. She becomes an orphan when she’s 19 because her father is shot and killed in a gambling hall. So she pulls herself up by her bootstraps, and she becomes a teacher, and she gets a job teaching in a rural farming area outside of Chicago, and the people in that village are not excited about her being there and trying to give them an education. One of the men actually says to her, ‘What good does it do a truck farmer when he knows Constantinople is the capital of Turkey? That doesn’t help him raise turnips.’
David: So far, you can set this story today.
Melissa: Yes. That’s what I’m saying. I read this book, and I was thinking, ‘How have I not heard of this book before?’ So Selina perseveres, and she eventually falls in love with one of the farmers in this town, and she gives up teaching to help him work the family farm. So the first half of the book is just the story of her life and what it’s like for her, and it’s really inspiring because she refuses to give up, but it’s also really, really frustrating. For example, her husband’s farm is not yielding that much produce. And the way it worked is you would grow your vegetables and then you were a truck farmer, so you’d put them on a truck and drive into Chicago, into the market street and sell the produce out of the back of your truck. And her husband’s farm was not doing very well. So she was reading magazines and books about how to improve farming. And she told him her ideas and he basically handwaved them away and said, ‘You’re not a farmer, you’re a woman. You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ So she just had to kind of watch in silence as they struggled, knowing that if they tried some of her ideas that might actually help them.
David: This is fiction.
Melissa: This is fiction, but is it?
Melissa: The thing that I loved about Selina and it was very challenging for me to watch her kind of resign herself to working on the farm. But the thing that made me really love her is that she has a burning passion for beauty. She loves art. She loves life. She’s a vibrant, joyous person in these really, really hard circumstances, and she just absolutely refuses to give up. But it’s also a really harsh look at poverty and sexism and the kind of double-edged sword of believing that hard work will eventually pay off because sometimes it really doesn’t—
David: Even though we all would like to believe that it does.
Melissa: And you can’t stop — I feel like you can’t really stop believing that.
Melissa: This is kind of a quiet story, not, you know, there are no big dynamic plot twists. There’s just a lot of things happening inside of the characters. And the themes for me were actually a little bit similar to The Great Gatsby even though it’s a completely different kind of book. But there’s that longing and the wealth kind of dangling out there in front of people and hope and regret. So if you want to do a three-fer, you could add The Great Gatsby into the mix with The Jungle and So Big.
Melissa: This book was actually inspired by the life of a real woman. Her name was Antje_Paarlberg, and she lived in a Dutch community outside of Chicago, and I found a picture of her online, which I will put into show notes. Wow. Does she look like a tough old broad. It’s one of those black-and-white photos where everyone looks like they’re frowning, I think because they couldn’t move, but it is a really intense picture. As I said, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1925, and there’s also a film version from 1953 starring Jane Wyman, who was the biggest actress of the time. I watched the trailer, and it is a melodramatic masterpiece, so I will also put that into show notes.
David: Is the book melodramatic?
Melissa: The book is not melodramatic. The book is, is very quietly, truthfully told. It feels like it could be an autobiography almost. That is So Big by Edna Ferber.
Melissa: Then as a companion to that, we’ve also got The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. This is also a novel that reads like a biography, but it’s the biography of an immigrant family in 1906 in Chicago. And I read this for the first time about 10 years ago because I felt like it was a piece that was missing from my education. I’d remembered learning about it when I was in, I don’t know, maybe elementary school, but I’d never read the whole thing.
David: It’s one of those books that you hear about in high school, maybe.
Melissa: It totally blew me away. It feels kind of weird to describe it as a page-turner, but I was really, really invested in this story. Part of what won me over is that it starts with a wedding, so you are dropped right into the middle of this Lithuanian wedding. Where are these two young immigrants are getting married and they’re very shy and they’re very in love and they’re really excited and the wedding just sounds like so much fun. There’s live music and there’s all this food and dancing and you’re pulled right into the story of these people. And that is literally the last time anything joyous happens in the book. But it’s brilliant because you get really invested in them. It’s their wedding. It’s the start of everything.
Melissa: So this book is a really graphic detailed, sometimes painful expose of what it was like to work in the meatpacking plants in Chicago at the turn of the century. This family of immigrants that we meet are very hardworking and very well-intentioned. There’s almost nothing they won’t do or put up with to try to earn a fair living. And they have absolutely no control over what’s happening to them. For example, our hero’s name is Jurgis, and he’s required to go to work very, very early in the morning, 6:30-7:00 a.m., but sometimes the cattle are not moved onto the floor for butchering until 1:00 in the afternoon. He’s required to be there in the morning, but he only gets paid for the hours that he’s actually working. So he’s there from 7:00 a.m. until 1:00 and then when the cattle show up at 1:00, they have to work as quickly as possible. So they’re exhausted at the end of their shift. And he knows that if he complains or is late or doesn’t come in that early, he’ll just be replaced by someone else. There’s no job security, there’s no ‘go talk to your manager about that.’
Melissa: It was just brutal from when he woke up to when he went to bed, and the book is just kind of filled with dozens have examples of that. Each member of the family has their own kind of sad story to tell about their job.
David: So this sounds like a description of a series of just tragic and horrible things. What keeps you coming back to the book?
Melissa: The thing that keeps the book from becoming too overwhelming and too grim is that the members of this family are so good to each other and so well-intentioned. So you keep hoping for them. Sadly it doesn’t always work out very well for them. But you keep coming back because they’re good people.
David: Were they fun to hang around?
Melissa: Fun? No, this book’s not fun.
Melissa: It’s fascinating. It’s really fascinating to read about how the meat-packing industry worked and what living in Chicago was like at that time. This is not a Chicago that anybody would want to visit. I mean, I imagine if you were rich you, it was probably fine, but for the, you know, the working class, it was pretty brutal.
Melissa: In 1904 Upton Sinclair went undercover and worked in the meatpacking plants and the stockyards for seven weeks and that’s how we got all of the information that he put into the book. His story was originally published as a serial and a left-wing newspaper called Appeal to Reason, and he said that he wrote this book primarily to expose the terrible working conditions for factory workers, but people who read it really reacted to how gross the butchering process was.
Melissa: He said in an interview, ‘I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident I hit them in the stomach.’
Melissa: I am a meat eater, and there were parts of this book that were really challenging to read and there are paragraphs that I just skipped because I couldn’t read about the process of taking a pig through the butchering floor. So for vegetarians and vegans, I would say tread lightly. This might not be the book for you. Read So Big instead.
David: Or it might toughen up your stance.
Melissa: Oh, it will definitely toughen up your stance. When I was reading it, I thought to myself, ‘Am I going to be able to eat a hamburger again?’ The answer is yes, but yeah, it’s pretty brutal. The reaction to the book was very strong, as you might expect. Theater Roosevelt said that Sinclair was a crackpot.
David: Really? Wow.
Melissa: Winston Churchill loved the book, and the Nazis hated it. In 1943 when they were doing their book burning, it was a big target because of its socialists leanings by the public outcry in the United States actually led to the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906 which made it a crime to mis-brand meat and meat products that were being sold for food. So truth in labeling kind of started with that Act. And that also ensures that meat and meat products are slaughtered and processed under sanitary conditions that are strictly regulated. There were no regulations before this book.
David: Upton told a story that changed the world and is changing the world still.
David: That’s great.
Melissa: So this book won’t be for everybody. It is a tough read because of the things I’ve already told you. But also because of the way the people are mistreated, it’s really challenging to read about these hardworking people getting beaten down over and over and over. It also made me think about the people who right now are working multiple minimum wage jobs to make ends meet. This thing was written a hundred years ago. And it’s still really relevant. So, hats off to Upton Sinclair creating something so timeless. Let’s get it together, people. That is The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.
David: Awesome. Okay. My first book is Life Itself by Roger Ebert. It’s his autobiography. It occurred to me when I was thinking about explaining this book that if you are of a certain age, of course you know who Roger Ebert is.
David: And if you’re younger than that, maybe not because his fame — hee was a movie critic, so his fame dropped pretty much as soon as he stopped reviewing movies, I think. Although his site still lives on. It also occurred to me that Roger Ebert, he was a newspaper reporter, and he talked about movies on television and all three of those things changed so much in my lifetime. It might be worth just a moment to just kind of nod at all that stuff. The newspaper used to be the voice of the city —
Melissa: Particularly in Chicago.
David: Yeah. Pre-internet, you know, there were a couple of daily papers in Chicago and those papers had a lot to do with what happened in that city. And if you wanted a message, you went to the paper, you didn’t go to Twitter, you went to the press and he talked about movies at a time when the movies were talking about adult issues where character development was happening. And I think a lot of that is left now and gone to television where you can have, you can assume that the viewer has the opportunity to see the first episode all the way through the series, and you have unlimited amount of time to develop a character instead of 90 minutes or two hours. And also movies have now become very fantastic rides more than about strong character development. And Roger came through television at a time when, at least in Cincinnati we had about four TV channels. And so half an hour every week Roger would show up and talk about movies with Gene Siskel. And that was — again, if you’re of a certain age — life-changing to see these guys talking about movies.
Melissa: Yeah, there weren’t a dozen or hundreds of places where you could get people’s hot takes on movies.
Melissa: I lived in a really small town in Pennslvania. Our movie theater had three screens, and we only got like the big studio releases. We didn’t get any kind of independent films or anything.
David: And you couldn’t go to YouTube and watch the trailer. You know, maybe you see the trailer on TV. But to have these two educated guys show up and argue about movies like it was because it was important. It was a significant, at least for me. You know, I love movies and these guys showed up on a weekly basis to remind us of why we love the movies. Roger takes a very straightforward approach to his autobiography where he starts when he was born with the stories of his childhood and he works forward. In his mid-twenties, he became a critic. To hear him tell it, he stumbled into all three of the decisions that would change his life. He became a newspaper reporter because there was a job and he really liked newspaper reporting. He became a critic because the old critic retired and some editor was like, ‘You, you kid! You go do the thing.’ And he got into TV because one of his buddies was like, ‘Hey, we need somebody to do this TV thing.’ And apparently he was horrible at TV when he first started. He was completely nervous and he would flop sweat and it was just like a mess.
Melissa: He didn’t look like a TV star.
David: He did not look like a TV star.
Melissa: He was a sweet looking man, but he did not look like a TV star.
David: So he becomes a film critic. His friend Cisco describes the job of being a film critic as ‘covering the national dream beat,’ which I thought was a really great way of framing that. He spends a lot of time in bars and newsrooms and with the legends of Chicago journalism. And this was the part of the book that I really loved the most. He’s got all of these sort of great small, illustrative stories and character sketches. A lot of the chapters in the book are a portrait of one person or in one case, a dog, and Ebert’s relationship with them. So you hear about Russ Meyer and Lee Marvin and John Wayne and Ingmar Bergman and Martin Scorsese. And you get pictures of those people, but you also get a picture of Roger because he’s the projector through which this is happening.
David: As an example, there’s a chapter about Robert Zanka who was a features editor for the Chicago Sun-Times for many years, who was apparently beloved by everybody who knew him. Ebert wrote this bit, which I thought was great. He says, ‘People felt a particular quality in Zanka. They gravitated toward them. You sensed he noticed you, you particularly you, and was in league with you and he had your back. He had a conspiratorial quality. He and you were in league against the world and were getting away with it. A little more than 20 years later at his funeral, our friend John Anderson stood beside his coffin., looked around the room of mourners, and said, Most of us here, we’re probably sure we were Zanka’s as best friend.’
David: Isn’t that nice?
Melissa: Really nice.
David: This book also has the single best piece of advice on criticism I’ve ever read. He quotes Pauline Kael, who was a contemporary of his, who worked with The New Yorker and who was a really influential critic at the time. She was asked how she reviewed movies, and she said, ‘I go into the movie. I watch it, and I asked myself what happened to me.’ To use that as a point for talking about books and then what happens to you that is your, you’re a pivot. Ebert also was the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for criticism.
David: His writing is so natural, he feels like you’re hanging out with them and he’s a good storyteller and this is what we’re talking about. He doesn’t feel like he’s, sometimes we talk about somebody who feels like they’re writing for third base or something, you know? It’s like they’re trying really hard to get their point across. This is not that. He’s very natural with it.
Melissa: One of the things that I always felt when I was watching him or reading him is that he felt supremely engaged with the world and that’s why he was able to write so naturally and speak about movies so naturally is because he was just telling you what he felt and saw.
David: Yeah, I think that’s right. He’s in the moment. Ultimately, and I don’t think this is a spoiler because if you knew Ebert, you knew this, he contracted thyroid cancer, and at the end of his life, toward the end of his life, it used him his ability to speak and eat, which he writes about movingly in the book about, in particular, about missing dinner conversation.
David: And what it’s like to hang out with people over food. And he doesn’t miss the food as much as he misses just the social quality of that. He continued to write and in fact, he may have written because he couldn’t speak. He continued to write for the Chicago Sun-Times until the day died. He was very active online blogs and Twitter and whatnot. Toward the end of his life, he got married to a woman, Chaz Hammelsmith, that was her name before she married Roger. She was African-American and he was most distinctly not, and he writes about that with just this, a love of life. He, basically, late in life, he inherited a family and a big boisterous, loud family.
Melissa: So awesome.
David: He got children and later, grandchildren and he just loved everything about that. This is just such a really life-affirming book, and I really enjoy reading it. It made me want to spend more time with Roger Ebert and it made me want to go to Chicago and hang out in Chicago bars. And it made me also a sort of more in the loss of of the newspaper and the newspaper room. That’s Life Itself by Roger Ebert.
Melissa: Okay, good news. My next pick is a little bit lighter than the other two books I talked about.
David: It would be hard to go darker.
Melissa: But it’s only a little bit lighter.
Melissa: This is the 13th book in the V.I. Warshawski detective series by Sara Paretsky. She has been writing these books since 1982 and number 20 is going to be released this year.
Melissa: Let’s talk about V.I. Warshawski.
David: That is 40 years of the same character. Does she develop over time?
Melissa: Yes. Yes. To Sarah Paretsky’s credit, V.I. Warshawski is very well-formed character and she goes through stuff in these books and she does change over the course of the books.
David: That’s awesome.
Melissa: Yeah, it’s great because if you start at the beginning, I imagine you get a very full ride. This is my first one, but I have read about the series and synopses of the earlier books. The reason I picked this book is because Sarah Paretsky said that this is her favorite one in the series. So V.I. Warshawski is a P.I. in Chicago and all of the books are written in first person, so we get her perspective and her internal monologue. So we get to know her really, really well.
Melissa: As I was reading it, I kept saying to myself, ‘Oh, she is such a knucklehead’ and coming from me. That’s kind of a compliment. I mean that in the best way. What I mean by that is that the bad guys and the cops are always trying to stop her from doing what she’s doing because she’s always sticking her nose into places it doesn’t belong, but she is relentless. She’s driven by her own code and she refuses to give up.
Melissa: I respect that.
David: That describes you too.
Melissa: I am a knucklehead.
David: [laugher] I was thinking more about the relentless part.
Melissa: So V.I.’s mom — they call her Vic. Her friends call her Vic. Yeah, I’m going to call her Vic because we’re friends. Vic’s mother was an Italian opera singer and her father was a Polish-American cop. So their family beautifully represents the melting pot that is Chicago. She grew up on the Southside, close to shut-down factories and steel mills.
David: So in the shadow of The Jungle.
Melissa: In the shadow of The Jungle. And through the course of the books, she develops this really lovely found family that is around her all the time. So there a downstairs neighbor with whom she shares the custody of two golden retrievers and that was really sweet. Sometimes the dogs stay with Sal downstairs and sometimes they go with Vic.
Melissa: Sometimes they go with her when she goes running around the Lake; it’s really fun and they add a little levity because she’s a P.I. who’s getting her butt kicked. Her best friend is a Viennese doctor, which comes in really handy because when she gets beat up, the doctor can fix her up. In this installment, Vic is dealing with two significant events that happened in the 1960s in Chicago and that I alluded to in my intro. As I mentioned earlier, Martin Luther King, Jr. visited Chicago in 1965, and he was almost hit with a rock. That incident plays a major role in the plot of this book. The other historical event that is really significant to this story and is true is that there was a blizzard in 1967. So on January 26th and 27th of that year, 23 inches of snow, that’s 58 centimeters.
Melissa: Yeah, 23 inches of snow fell over the course of those two days, and it was a full-on blizzard with winds of more than 50 miles an hour. The winds were so powerful, it made snowdrifts that were, like, 15 feet tall. That is in itself pretty significant, but the thing that made it even weirder is that just two days before, the temperature had been 65 degrees and sunny, that’s 18 Celsius for our European friends. People were hanging out on the street in tee shirts, drinking beer, thinking it was summer. And then two days later, buried in the snow and the forecast had said there was a 50% chance of snow with an accumulation of four inches. So no one was prepared for that to happen. And that blizzard also plays a part in this story of V.I. Warshawski.
Melissa: So that’s the backdrop.
David: So does the author keep that up through the series where there are real events happening through time and the detective is interacting with those things?
Melissa: Sara Paretsky lives in Chicago and as far as I can tell, all of the installments in this series use real events and people and locations to tell the story.
David: So if you read it, you get a history of Chicago over time.
Melissa: Yeah, absolutely. Chicago is all over this book.
Melissa: So the heart of this one is a missing persons case. There’s an elderly woman in a nursing home and she’s dying and her last wish is to find her nephew who’s been missing for 40 years.
David: Whoa, okay.
Melissa: Yeah. And Vic doesn’t want to get involved in what seems on the surface to be a no-win case. People who are missing for 40 years usually don’t resurface, but she gets roped into it for reasons I won’t give away here, but they point very strongly to her character, her good character and what things are really important to her. So she starts digging into why this young man went missing in the 1960s and things go very, very wrong. She stirs up a hornet’s nest, as you can imagine, that involves old cops and politicians and the 1960s race riots and some of that involves her family, and she didn’t know that it was going to involve her family. So there are a lot of kind of big revelations for her as we’re also experiencing these surprises.
Melissa: This book works great as a standalone, but if you wanted to really dig in, there are 13 books before it, if you want to just start at the beginning. Sara Paretsky does a great job of filling in the backstory, so I never felt like I didn’t know who the characters were. I felt a really strong connection to V.I. Warshawski right away. Sarah Paretsky is really gifted at jumping you in and giving you context without it feeling like she’s doing that. It felt really seamless. Yeah. She has said in interviews that she created this character because she loved detective novels, but she hated the way that women were portrayed in them. So she wanted to create a smart, gritty woman who could hold her own on the tough streets of Chicago. Of course, I love that.
Melissa: The other thing though that I think really makes this detective compelling is that she’s tough, but she’s not invincible. The stress and the emotional trauma of this case [inaudible] really affect her, and we see that. In some of the detective stories I read and some of the spy novels, the trauma that the characters go through is kind of romanticized.
Melissa: So they’re moody because they’ve had their heartbroken. This has a much more real feel to it. She gets beat up and it hurts and she moves a little more slowly and she starts to feel some self-doubt. At one point she cries, and it’s really, really sad. But it’s so good because she feels like a real person. She might be a little bit tougher and smarter than the rest of us, but she feels like flesh and blood. So if you like detective stories and you want to explore Chicago’s history, this is a real page-turner. That’s Hardball by Sara Paretsky.
David: My next book is Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, and I am still trying to figure out how to talk about this book. So it’s a graphic novel. It’s set in Chicago.
Melissa: I’ve seen the art. It’s very cute.
David: The art is amazing and we’ll get to that in a second. The New Yorker called this book, ‘the first formal masterpiece of the medium.’ It won an American book award in 2001. The Times said that it was one of the 10 greatest graphic novels of all time. It has been lauded throughout, and it deserves it. It is also not an easy read by any stretch, I don’t think.
Melissa: The title makes it sound very whimsical.
David: Yeah, it’s ironic. The main character is a kid who grew up with his mom, has never met his dad and gets a call when he’s about 35 from his dad. His dad wants to hang out.
David: And he goes. And like I said, set in Chicago but it’s a very unsexy Chicago. It is the drug store, old person’s home, hospital and it has a very strong sense of those places. Ware presents those places and like I was in the doctor’s room and I get kind of like smelled the cotton balls, you know, and knew what the texture of the lab coat the doctor was wearing was like, it’s very evocative.
Melissa: That made my palms sweat. [laughing] I hate going to the doctor. I get really stressed out just thinking about going in a doctor’s office. So yeah, that made my palms a little damp. And when you said you could smell it, I smell it too.
David: The book is a sort of a pastiche of the character’s story and the character’s history. There’s this sort of a parallel story that’s happening with his his grandfather who goes to the Colombian Exposition. So you see Chris Ware’s interpretation of the Columbian Exposition, which is beautiful.
Melissa: Maybe we can put a little screen captire in show notes.
David: Oh yeah, for sure. Absolutely. There are also dreams and sometimes those things are so subtly intertwined that you’re, like, ‘Wait, is the character dreaming now? And I’m following him on a dream.’ There are daydreams which definitely feel like that way. Things sometimes are presented where it’s unclear if they’re real or not and you kind of have to go through the book and then back up and read it again to figure out whether or not that’s a real detail.
Melissa: It sounds like exactly what graphic novels are for, though. The perfect meshing of story and medium.
David: So there are two things, at least, that Ware does amazingly well in this book that you cannot capture in a different form. One is his design aesthetic. It’s hard to talk about that other than to say it’s beautiful and elegant and it’s sort of the saving life in this book. The story itself is downer, and it parallels [laughter] — Ware also had this experience where also grew up alone and then met his father late in life. And it was a lot of just nothing. It was just, you know, he met his dad and he describes it and an afterword in the book about meeting his dad and how it was so nothing, it was so awkward and unpleasant and not awkward and unpleasant enough to leave. But still, really bad.
David: And the other thing that he captures in this book is time. Time in graphic novels is really amazing because you can manipulate it in a way that is really hard to do in text. Just as an example, so two characters will be sitting next to each other on a bench. And in the first panel you see one of the characters speak to the second character. And in the second panel they’re just two characters staring at each other. And in the third panel, the character responds. And if you read that, you recognize that that middle panel is just the two of them sitting there awkwardly looking at each other. And even as I was explaining that, I was, like, ‘Boy, it would be way easier to show you this.’ You know? Because it is, and doing that in text is almost impossible to just sort of have this natural awkward moment in the text because what are you going to say? Describe there? How do you create that in text? But in comics it’s right there.
David: And Ware expands that idea to show, for instance, there’s a couple of pages where you see two characters or sometimes three and the events they’re having in their lives parallel with each other across even their lifetime. So this character is older. So their events start earlier, then this character joins about here where they get born and then this character and they meet here and this character dies and that is one page. You’re seeing the loose framework of these two characters’ lives in that one page. That one image is summing up for you, the broad strokes of those peoples’ lives. And again, you can’t do that in text. You can do that in movies. That is an amazing piece of cartooning, right? To just capture that and to say something about those characters in that moment.
David: Ware also has just this amazing sense of detail. So, for instance, there’s a diner scene where there’s a poster in the background and the poster is mostly black and it’s the piano, it’s piano keys shot from above. And there was a rose laying on the piano keys and on the bottom of that poster, in text, it says JAZZ. And I’ve seen that poster. [laughter]
Melissa: I think we’ve all seen that poster, right?
David: That poster is in a diner, of course, and you’re, like, ‘I have been in that diner.’ Ware also includes a lot of ephemera in the book, some of it based on items that you’ve seen in the book. So for instance, there are cutouts of places that are in the book that seemed that he’s basically asking you to cut out from the page and assemble into a 3D model of somebody’s home.
Melissa: He wants you to cut up the book? Whoa.
David: Or a baseball card for like a nondescript store that they’ve been to. There’ll be a series of nine cards on a page of an image of a store, like Walgreens, and you flip over the back and it has a little story about that store attached to it, that kind of thing. But that’s all presented as a baseball card.
Melissa: Are those things part of the story?
David: They’re details that happened with the story.
Melissa: So the art sounds amazing. And you’ve said the story is kind of a bummer. Did you feel engaged with the characters when you were reading it or is it one of those experiences where you’re kind of appreciating it and enjoying the details of it, but maybe not necessarily being inside that story?
David: Yeah, that brings me into one of the things I wanted to talk about, which was the many different ways there are to love a book and this book is challenging for that reason. I think there are reasons to not love this book. Famously, there is a critique of this book, the title of which is ‘why does Chris Ware hate fun?’
David: I’m, like, ‘Okay, I can see that.’
Melissa: But I feel like you could also easily argue the other side, which is, isn’t it great that the graphic novel form is so powerful it can show you that comics don’t have to just be fun. It’s literally a novel.
David: Well, and I feel like Chris Ware’s love for life is in the design. It’s not in these characters’ story, and that’s a complicated message. He is presenting a beautiful world with deeply flawed characters in it. And he’s talking about the things that I think a lot of art struggles with: mostly family, why are we here, and how far back does my tragedy go? And that kind of stuff. And he does that really well. I always sort of argue for if an artist is going to present me with something bleak, I also need to hear what’s my path out. It is not enough to say the world is a horrible place. You also have to provide an answer of some kind. And I think Chris Ware presents his answer in his design. I think he presents it in the way that he presents his world in that his world is beautiful and attractive and fun to explore and really interesting to look at the way he’s looking at it. At the same time that the story is tragic. Those two things together produced this just amazing resonance. There’s just, like, yeah, there’s truth there. That we live in a world with Walgreens and parking lots and diners and lousy poster design and yet the world continues to be interesting and good and worth looking at. And that’s Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth.
Melissa: I really, really love my final book, continuing my tradition of saving my favorite book for last. This is Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory.
David: Why did you love it so much?
Melissa: It’s kind of a magic trick and it made it really, really fun because the premise makes it sound like it’s a science fiction novel and then when you read it you realize ot’s really kind of a humorous family saga. It’s lighthearted and very funny and very, very touching.
David: That sounds like catnip.
Melissa: Yeah. So here’s the setup. Okay. Teddy Telemachus is a con man. He’s an illusionist and a card sharp and he finagles his way into a government project called project Stargate. It’s researching how to use psychic powers to help win the Cold War.
Melissa: Exactly. And he is charming and duplicitous. He’s amazing. And that is based on a real thing. In real life, in 1978, there was a special US army unit created to investigate the potential for using psychic phenomena for spy purposes. And it was called the Stargate Project. That’s a real thing. I just blew your mind, didn’t I?
David: Yeah, I love that idea. I love being part of that team.
Melissa: Right. So did Teddy, but Teddy has zero real psychic abilities. He’s just very, very convincing and really good at reading people and while he’s there he meets Maureen and he is smitten immediately and she becomes the love of his life.
David: She’s on the discovery team.
Melissa: Maureen is a real psychic. They get married and they have three children and their kids have real powers too.
Melissa: So their daughter is like a human lie detector. One of their sons has telekinesis, which means he can move things with his mind.
Melissa: And the other son can see the future. And Teddy thinks to himself, ‘this is amazing. I have this really gifted family.’ They become The Amazing Telemachus Family and they perform all over the United States.
Melissa: Okay. That part’s not real. That’s all fiction. The Telemachus is made up. Just to be clear.
David: I had a friend who said to me in high school, ‘Telekinesis pisses me off because I can’t do it.’
Melissa: Teddy kind of feels like that. He’s a little bummed that everyone in his family has special powers and his special power is kind of hoodwinking people. Anyway, they are on their way to being very famous. And then one night something tragic happens and it changes everything for this family. And that sounds really grim, but it’s handled with a light touch. So a terrible thing happens, and it changes everything. But it’s not like you’re crying into the pages of your book.
David: And you’re not going to tell us what it is.
Melissa: Well, no, it would, yeah, it would give everything away. And you don’t find out in the book, I’m trying to remember, I think you don’t find out for a while what happened. You just know something happened and there’s little hints and then slowly revealed.
David: So it’s the Hemingway trick.
Melissa: Yeah. It’s good. So I don’t want to give too much of the plot away because the way it’s constructed is like a Jenga game. And I usually don’t like tricky novels like this and I absolutely loved it.
Melissa: Daryl Gregory has said that he really did structure the book like a magic trick on purpose.
David: Aw, that’s nice.
Melissa: And he had an Excel spreadsheet to keep all of the details straight. That can make it sound like it’s complicated. It’s not. It’s a very easy breezy, enjoyable read. You can just go along for the ride, and you will understand everything eventually. And it’s really fun.
David: So like a real magic trick where all of the complicated stuff is happening backstage and you’re just watching the effect.
Melissa: Yes. So there’s a big scene near the end where all of the secrets and motivations are revealed and all of the plot threads come together and it’s very, very satisfying And it’s surprising. And at the same time, I also said, ‘Of course.’ It just holds together really, really well.
David: That sounds perfect.
Melissa: And the tone of that scene is really, really fun because almost like a madcap 1930s movie. It’s mischievous and it’s boisterous and it’s really cinematic. This is really, really well done and this is, you’re aware when you’re reading it, ‘Holy cow, like, this is everything is coming together.’ It’s amazing. Daryl Gregory also has a very, very fun writing style. He’s talking about big feelings and addressing some really serious themes because he’s talking about family stuff and family stuff is always kind of gut-wrenching but he has a very light touch and there’s a lot of humor and he’s really playful with his language. I highlighted pages and pages of this book on my Kindle, but I want to read one quote that kind of gives you a sense of what his writing is like.
Melissa: This is about the daughter, who is the human lie detector coming back to Chicago to the family home to see the family: ‘Nothing killed nostalgia for your childhood home like moving back into it. She’d come limping back to Chicago in her eight-year-old Ford Festiva, a teenage son in the passenger seat sprouting and stewing from every pore, dragging a U-Haul crammed with the entirety of her possessions: a mattress and box spring; a wood-veneer coffee table; two sturdy kitchen chairs; and two dozen wet cardboard boxes labeled HUMILIATION and DISAPPOINTMENT.’
Melissa: Good, right.
David: Yeah, that’s good.
Melissa: So what makes this book great for this episode besides the fantastic writing, is that it’s set in Chicago of the 1990s and the 1960s, so there are really great period details. And one of the major plot threads involves old school gangsters, so there’s some ties into the Chicago mob scene. They’re also magic tricks, lots of psychic phenomena, a little romance, basically all the good stuff. And I really loved that the tropes of sci-fi and crime novels were used to explore the relationships between the family members. Really, really clever. And the family is a hoot. They very obviously love each other, but they’re all really kind of snappy and sarcastic and they tease each other almost constantly. So you’re just kind of chuckling the whole time you’re reading it. I really felt like they were real people in my notes. I said I should go to Chicago and see how they’re doing.
Melissa: You know that feeling when you finish a book and you think, ‘I wonder what they’re doing now.’ That’s how I felt.
David: Yeah. I wish I could call them, see what’s going on.
Melissa: Exactly. Tell me more about what you’ve been up to because the last time you told me a story, it was crazy.’ Fun fact: When he was doing the research for the book, the author Darrell Gregory attended a spoon bending seminar in Los Angeles.
David: Did he learn how to do it?
Melissa: He said he felt it was more strength than mental abilities. So this is one of those books that when I finished it made me want to flip it over and start it all over again.
David: I think I would love that book.
Melissa: You definitely would love this book and I’m not the only one who thinks you would love this book. It was a Nebula Award finalist and it was one of NPRs best books of the year in 2017. That is Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory.
David: Those are seven books we love set in Chicago. Visit our show notes at strongsenseofplace.com for links and details. Mel, can you tell us about this special blog posts you wrote for this episode?
Melissa: Yes. We have a recipe for Chicago dogs so you can make them in your own kitchen.
Melissa: One of the things that’s great about it is that it’s really an acquisition and assembly recipe. You don’t have to be a great cook. You just got to pile stuff onto the poppy seed bun. And we have a tribute to Quimby’s books in Chicago, which is a fantastic independent bookstore.
Melissa: Thank you for listening to Strong Sense of Place. For more in Chicago, including the books we discussed today and literary landmarks, visit our website strongsenseofplace.com.
David: Be sure to sign up for our free weekly newsletter. I’m not kidding. It’s got so much good stuff in it, you should check it out.
Melissa: It really does. I spend all Friday afternoon writing it.
David: She does. It’s packed with our favorite book- and travel- related things, and please follow us on Instagram. I don’t know if you know we’re on Instagram with photos and short book reviews and other things we love. We’re also on Twitter @strongsenseof. And you can find us on Facebook at facebook.com/strongsenseofplace. If you enjoyed the podcast, you could do us a huge favor and rate it, review it, and most of all tell somebody else. If you have a friend who likes books and travel or either one of those things, or who just you think would like the show, let them know —
Melissa: Or who you think maybe needs to learn some stuff about the world.
David: Wow, that’s cold. And don’t forget to subscribe. So you never miss an episode. Mel, what are we covering in our next show?
Melissa: We’re eating meatballs and getting murder-y in Sweden.
Top image courtesy of Liz Lawrence.
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