Monthly Archives: April 2014

Renaissance, Riots, and Recovery

CBR_Logo2Along the Streets of Bronzeville:
Black Chicago’s Literary Landscape
by Elizabeth Schroeder Schlabach

From roughly the 1930s to the mid-1950s, between the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement, the Chicago Black Renaissance flourished in Bronzeville, nurturing some of the country’s greatest musicians, film directors, artists, writers, and poets. During this time, migrants seeking to escape the institutionalized racism of the South took on the daunting challenge of staking out a new way of life in a harsh urban landscape. Many found inspiration and a common political identity here as they developed a unique aesthetic consciousness. Along the Streets of Bronzeville carves out a minutely observed local history of the community that shaped the imaginations of Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Margaret Burroughs, and many others.

bronzeville 9780252037825With scholarly analysis and eyewitness accounts, this exploration of specific businesses, artists’ organizations, and key figures recovers the vivid details of a neighborhood in flux. An area known in the 1920s as the “Stroll”—roughly present-day Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard—comes to life with its curious crowds milling about day and night. A $1 million department store complex at 47th St. and South Parkway became a commercial mecca and the center of Bronzeville life, with its elegant Regal Theater and massive Savoy dance hall. Numerous African-American-run businesses flourished here as nowhere else in America at the time.

Elizabeth Schlabach, an assistant professor of History at Earlham College, considers the cultural meaning of these and other prominent sites and activities, not least the prestigious South Side Community Art Center and the South Side Writers’ Group. She attends to social and economic hardships as well by focusing sharply on a few sobering details, especially as they appear in literature. She explores, for instance, the significance of the dreary, tight one-bedroom “kitchenette” apartments that affected the creative vision of their occupants.

Schlabach also reflects on Bronzeville residents who expressed their creativity in unconventional ways. To this end, she examines the South Side gambling phenomenon known as “policy.” Policy offered residents the opportunity to think and dream beyond every day difficulties. By evaluating the imaginative richness of so-called “dream books”—interpretive handbooks for common dreams intended to increase the odds of winning at policy—she illuminates the talents and aspirations of ordinary people. This too entered the creative consciousness of South Side artists and writers.

Although Schlabach’s language could at times be clearer, most readers will find Along the Streets of Bronzeville to be an accessible and informative guide to Bronzeville’s history and cultural geography. She captures both the thrill and alienation of a city open to migrants yet prone to segregation (among the more jarring details is a brief mention of restrictive housing covenants supported by the University of Chicago in the first decades of the twentieth century). Readers of Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks may be most pleased, however, since of all the writers and artists discussed, they receive the greatest share of the author’s attention.

Along the Streets of Bronzeville offers a rich, artistically oriented micro-history that complements broader, more substantial works such as Adam Green’s Selling the Race: Culture, Community, and Black Chicago, 1940-1955; Thomas Holt’s Children of Fire; and Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. Throughout, Schlabach strikes a fine balance between acknowledging injustice and hardship and illuminating the proactive artistic and political endeavors characteristic of the Chicago Black Renaissance.

Three-Star Review

October 2013, University of Illinois Press
Regional History
$45, hardcover, 192 pages
ISBN: 978-0-252-03782-5

—Reviewed by Vicky Albritton

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Enchanting ‘Enchantments’

CBR_Logo2The Last Enchantments
by Charles Finch

In his latest novel, Chicago-based author Charles Finch has written a story that has earned comparisons to Brideshead Revisited, The Great Gatsby, The Line of Beauty, A Good School, and other renowned works of fiction. These comparisons might or might not be apt, but in comparing Finch’s lyrical novel to these other titles, it would be easy to miss the wonder and beauty that marks The Last Enchantments.

Set largely at Oxford University, The Last Enchantments captures a moment in time in the life of Will Baker, a Yale grad who spends a year studying at Oxford, leaving behind a career as a political campaign worker, a long-time girlfriend, life in the States, and, perhaps, more than just a bit of his old self. Will seems at once ready to leave behind everything he knows—and presumably loves—and loathe to enter into this new phase of his life, and he all but reluctantly inches into this new world of Anglophiles and Britishims.

Finch 9781250018717Once at Oxford, Will connects with a disparate group of people, including some quirky roommates and colorful classmates. These characters are richly drawn with distinctive personalities, but it is Will’s two great loves—Alison, the girl he leaves behind, and Sophie, the would-be love of his life—who are crucial to Will’s growth as a person.

As Will narrates his story, looking back from some indeterminate time in the future, we see him grow and change, largely in fits and starts. We see as he navigates his new world across the pond, and we see as he tries to fit in with the snobby and privileged world of Oxford. We see as he extracts himself from the life—and people—he left behind and immerses himself into his new life, all the while knowing it is merely temporary.

The Last Enchantments feels something like a melancholy reminiscence, told by a narrator who, years later, still can’t decide whether the experience was all good or all painful. It is this pain, however, that makes the book so compelling: We can easily feel how Will’s time at Oxford forced change upon him, wrenching, pulling, tearing him away from one phase of his life into the next.

Although the novel could be simply characterized as a coming-of-age tale, Finch has skillfully blended emotion and language to craft believable characters who are sometimes annoying, sometimes funny, sometimes obtuse, and sometimes astute. Settings and situations feel real. Emotions feel authentic. Will is often introspective, observant, and insightful—qualities that to some cynical readers might seem too good to be true in a twenty-something American patrician offspring. But what woman wouldn’t love to know a man so in tune with his emotions?

As such, it is easy to root for Will as he struggles through this eventful year in his life, a year that marks a turning point for him. When Will says things like “I felt shivery, manic. It had been a long time since the future was a secret,” it is easy to identify with him as he contemplates what direction his life might take.

Similarly, when we see Will chatting with a would-be girlfriend, it is easy to empathize when he realizes the true nature of this relationship:

“She laughed now, a sincere laugh, as I did, too—and suddenly as we stopped laughing a formal feeling came over the moment, a hush; a junction, an ending in the affairs of two people who might have been something else to each other, but who have after all been something.
From then on we would only be friends
—truly nothing more.”

And, it is easy to commiserate when we watch as Will lets go of a woman he loves deeply:

“Slowly and gently I began to let go of my hopes of her. No, that’s not accurate:
I never let go of my hopes, but I saw that they were slipping away whether
I wanted them to or not …”

It cannot be said that Will is always so keen; sometimes he is much more inscrutable, perhaps to an extent that some readers might find him evasive or shallow. Indeed, at times, The Last Enchantments seems rife with characters who can seem determinedly enigmatic. This may well frustrate some readers, but in many ways such frustrations echo real life: Who among us could admit to fully knowing—inside and out—those around us, or even ourselves?

Moody, melancholic, and nostalgic, The Last Enchantments is at base a coming-of-age story about love and loss. It is in many ways achingly beautiful, and it is carefully told with sensitivity and grace. Although many readers may be most familiar with Finch’s “Charles Lenox” mystery novels, The Last Enchantments is a compelling, evocative story that deserves to be read and savored as the enchanting stand-alone story it is.

Four-Star Review

January 2014, St. Martin’s Press
$24.99, hardcover, 323 pages
ISBN: 978-1-250-01871-7

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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Poetry, Emotion: A Novel Approach

CBR_Logo2A Winged Thing, and Holy
by Mary Gray Kaye

When, after several years away from the page, Genevieve Dupont ventures into a poetry class at Chicago’s downtown library, she falls hard for Jonathan Waters, a classmate whose intimate verses climb right under her skin. Certain that under his tutelage, and in his arms, she can become the poet she yearns to be, Genny pursues this “Mountain Man” with abandon. But the secret behind his elusiveness tears her apart, and his treachery doesn’t end there.

Mary Gray Kaye’s A Winged Thing, and Holy promises a drama-filled romance enhanced by the poetry sure to permeate her prose. Though the prose exceeds expectations, the novel overall is a bit of a letdown. The main characters, Genny and Jon, are both at precipices in their poetic and personal lives, but these emotional conflicts present on the page as general discomfort with only a vague idea of objective. It is unclear, even through the thickest moments of their physical relationship, whether Genny is attracted to Jon or to his poetry, and Jon’s emotions seem to fluctuate between amusement, annoyance, and ardor with every new paragraph. Both characters remain in the same developmental funk, circling and wandering, making fleeting efforts at progress but rarely moving forward.

winged thingPeripheral characters are similarly fuzzy. Genny is all too aware that her boyfriend, Brian, is merely a prop in her life, and he reads as such until he is dismissed halfway through the novel. Her coworker, Deets, could be gay, could be a potential love interest, but is developed no further than as a sounding board for Genny’s angst. Same with her little sister, Denise, whose cookie-cutter, fairy-tale romance and wedding provide a nice contrast to Genny’s disastrous love life, but offer little else. These characters and others float in and out of the story like confetti; from far off they make an exciting scene, but it’s impossible to get a good look at any one element.

The plot suffers the same illusion­—bright, bold, but directionless as Genny floats in a swirl of dissatisfaction with work, romance, and poetry. She begins class after class, but we rarely hear about more than one session; she doggedly pursues Jon despite her frequent, active discomfort in his presence and, though they dip in and out of lust, their relationship makes very little progress before, tormented, Genny unearths Jon’s secret.

Furthermore, the reader is aware of every plot twist long before it happens—forays into Jon’s point of view reveal the true identity of his muse and, as for the earth-shattering scandal that, five pages from the end of the book, finally rockets Genny into action, well, that’s outlined in the flap copy. Ultimately, there is very little in the way of promise or suspense to keep readers invested in this dalliance.

All that said, it is clear from her prose that Mary Gray Kaye, a local author, is skilled in poetry as she often creates wonderfully evocative renderings of Genny’s emotions and surroundings; even her day-to-day outfits become luscious in Kaye’s carefully woven language. And, though much of Chicago feels a bit scattered in the novel, Kaye’s Lake Michigan is just as majestic on the page as it is in person.

The fuzzy characters and disoriented plot of A Winged Thing, and Holy would benefit from some serious refocusing, but what the novel lacks in organization it more than makes up for in the dynamic grace of Kaye’s poetry.

Three-Star Review

October 2013, self-published (with assistance by noisivelvet)
$15.00, paperback, 251 pages
ISBN: 978-1-489-55877-0

—Reviewed by Sarah Weber

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