Culture of Opportunity: Obama’s Chicago
The People, Politics, and Ideas of Hyde Park

As a student at the University of Chicago, I can say that I’ve lived in Hyde Park for three years. But after reading Rebecca Janowitz’s book Culture of Opportunity, I was forced to wonder if that statement was true. Had I ever really engaged with Hyde Park in the way it deserves? Or had I merely treated it as somewhere to get a meal, find a book, buy my groceries? There is a history and a uniqueness to Hyde Park of which I (like many new residents, or like those who know the neighborhood only as the home of President Obama) was unaware. Janowitz’s timely book goes a long way toward filling this void.

Culture of Opportunity, as a political and social history of the neighborhood, starts with its founding as a garden suburb in the 1850s and goes through its experimental and tension-ridden integration in the 1960s, finally ending with its productively volatile and ever-changing present. Janowitz’s book is also  a contextualization of President Barack Obama, introducing us to a line of progressive Hyde Park politicians of which he is the most recent and successful. But the book is also something of even wider value: a portrait of an entirely unique neighborhood, written by one of its own.

Rebecca Janowitz will be doing a book signing at the Quadrangle Club on May 19th. Click here for event information.



Songs of Spring

April 21, 2010

Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo by Michael McCarthy

Michael McCarthy’s book Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo does with style and ease what is perhaps the hardest thing for a book about birds to accomplish: it is compelling and fascinating even to those who have no interest in birds.

Part of his success comes from the skill of his writing. McCarthy is quietly humorous, with a conversational yet intelligent tone.  His passion for his subject shines through in every description and anecdote; yet despite his expertise, he manages to make the world of migrant birds open and understandable even to someone (like myself) who might not be able to tell a sparrow from a cuckoo, let alone a garden warbler from a greenshank.

But more so, McCarthy’s book is accessible and enjoyable to everyone because, as he so eloquently shows, we do all care about birds. Even if we don’t know the details of species or flight patterns, birds are an essential part of our culture, our history, and our daily lives. The best way to appreciate this is to try, as McCarthy does, to imagine a world without them. But, as he tells us, the worst part is that we may not have to imagine much longer.

The final piece to the puzzle of what makes Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo such an exceptional book is that it goes beyond a mere ecological narrative. It is also a story of people: the people who watch these birds, the people who discovered them, and the people who are working to save them. Perhaps my favorite scene is McCarthy’s twilight search for the nightingale, with the help of his son, Sebastian. In this personal story we can see an instance of an experience that is important to us all, an experience that is under extreme threat. And if we don’t take action now, McCarthy warns, it is an experience we will be forced to forever live without.

Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo is both a celebration and a warning. It shows us a beautiful world that many of us may not even be aware of, and then shows us how close we are to losing that world forever. This is more than just a book about birds, and there is no one to whom this story is not important.


Spring 2010 interns

April 5, 2010

Meet our latest and greatest batch of dedicated, hard-working interns…

Anjali Becker

Jali Becker recently graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in history and no clear idea of what she actually wanted to do, now that she was supposedly “all grown up.” After spending a few years consulting, she realized that what she really likes is reading books, talking about books, and generally being around books. So she decided that a career in publishing might be a good idea. She can’t cook, hates cleaning, and knows way more random movie trivia than is healthy. Her favorite word is “sesquipedalian.”

Laura Stiers

Laura Stiers is a third-year English major at the University of Chicago, where she is the poetry editor for the literary magazine Euphony. Last summer, she worked as a student assistant at the University of Chicago Press, and found it to be pretty much the coolest job ever. Now she is excited to continue her adventures in publishing at Ivan R. Dee. Laura occasionally spends her time not reading a book for one or even two hours at a stretch, but then quickly comes to her senses.

A.Jay Wagner

A.Jay Wagner originally hails from rural Ohio and has the accent to prove it. After graduating from the University of Dayton with a marketing degree, he impetuously packed his bags for Portland, Oregon. While in Portland, he worked various grocery jobs before finding employment for two years in the commercial real estate industry. He interned at Yeti Magazine and Tin House. He published a zine, Ephemeral, of friends’ writing and art on a clam shell letterpress. No doubt, a large stack of Ephemeral issues (complete with 4-D glasses) sit piled in a corner of Reading Frenzy. A.Jay returned to his Midwestern roots to begin work on a master’s degree in journalism at DePaul. He writes for a variety of blogs and also interns at Windy Citizen.

Ryan Warden

Ryan Warden is a senior at Northwestern University, studying English literature with side interests in film and media studies. In addition to interning at Ivan R. Dee, he works as a bookstore assistant at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art and as a tutor at the Northwestern University writing center, working primarily with ESL students, faculty and staff. After graduation, he hopes to continue working in book publishing, following his interests in film, cultural studies, history, and literature in translation.

The Wobblies: The Story of the IWW and Syndicalism in the United States by Patrick Renshaw

In the early 20th century, Chicago gave rise to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or as they are commonly known, the Wobblies. Though active nationally they were founded in Chicago and are still to this day headquartered in Irving Park. The Wobblies were a radical union hoping to unite all workers across the world in an effort to abolish the wage system and eliminate exploitation.

While the majority of their efforts were peaceful, the Wobblies became known for their steely conviction and willingness to take any measure necessary. One of the most known and tragic IWW conflicts that turned violent is the Centralia Massacre, which took place on the first anniversary of Armistice Day. The local American Legion and the Centralia chapter of the IWW had become bitter rivals over a querulous eviction of the Wobblies from their local headquarters. Rumors had spread that the Legion would again try to remove the Wobblies from their home, using the parade as a guise to approach in formation. As the Legion halted in front of the Wobblies headquarters, shots poured out of the hall. Four American Legion members were killed and five wounded. The deputy sheriff was also killed in the skirmish. The only IWW death occurred when outraged citizens stormed the town jail, where all known Wobblies had been incarcerated, and indiscriminately grabbed Wesley Harding, who they then beat and hung.

The union also has a history of fierce government repression, perhaps none more infamously than another massacre, this one in Everett, Washington. In 1916, the industry of Everett, Washington, had been effectively ground to a halt by striking employees. As the local businesses and police forces made attempts at discouraging the strike, the Wobblies showed up to lend support to their striking brethren. As the battle grew more violent, the Seattle Chapter of the IWW boarded two steamers to Everett to join the fight. Upon arrival at the port in Everett, they encountered a crowd of law enforcement and local vigilantes who denied them access. A shootout ensued, leaving at least 7 dead and 43 wounded, the majority of the casualties being IWW members aboard one of the steamers, most being unarmed. Charges would be filed against the Wobblies, but all were acquitted or dropped.

As one of the original unions in America, they also experienced a great number of victories and are often regarded as forerunners for many of the rights of workers today, including minimum wage, shorter days, overtime, and humane treatment of employees. They were also strikingly egalitarian for the times, allowing membership to women, Native Americans, and African Americans; holding no discriminations toward any ethnic group.

Patrick Renshaw’s account of the movement, The Wobblies: The Story of the IWW and Syndicalism in the United States, begins with the precursors of the IWW foundation and tells the story in an “eminently readable” fashion. He retraces the development of the IWW in depth, highlighting the driving politics of the organization and the fateful split that led to its obscurity.

To learn more about Chicago’s activist roots and the origins for the local distaste for Walmart and other big box stores, pick up a copy today.

Richard Wright: From Black Boy to World Citizen

Published on the 50th Anniversary of His Death

Jennifer Jensen Wallach opens her new biography of Richard Wright by commenting on the lifelong racial struggles endured by her subject: “He would never be seen merely as a writer or an intellectual, but as a black writer, a black intellectual. With that label came certain responsibilities, which he met to the best of his ability. Yet he often longed for the anonymity that came with white privilege, the carefree ability to speak only for oneself.”

Living with anonymity can be a luxury that is often taken for granted, especially when one becomes a writer and public figure of Wright’s magnitude. Wright’s combat with racial discrimination spilled into his fictional characters, the most famous of which is the tragic Bigger Thomas, the young African American whose doom is sealed by being the product of a violently segregated environment. Philosopher Franz Fanon’s 1952 essay “The Fact of Blackness” analyzes Wright’s desperate search for racial anonymity and cites Bigger Thomas, the murderous protagonist of Wright’s novel Native Son (1940), as a rare case of a black subject who finally acts: “To put an end to his tension, he acts, he responds to the world’s anticipation.” As Wallach’s biography chronicles, Richard Wright, much like Bigger Thomas, was exactly the figure that the world had anticipated.

From his early rejection of institutionalized religion to his heavy involvement with the Communist Party throughout the 1930s, Wright often wrote about controversial ideas that had been informed by, though not necessary associated with, his race. Beginning with his earliest writings in the late 1920s for the periodical The New Masses, Wright established himself as an author unafraid to stretch boundaries and assert his viewpoints. After winning a Guggenheim Fellowship for his first collection of short stories titled Uncle Tom’s Children in 1938, Wright began writing what would become his most enduring work, Native Son. The canonical African-American novel has become a standard in high school and college literature courses for its sharp social commentary and morally ambiguous protagonist. Wright shocked audiences with an African-American character who was simultaneously endearing and, as many of his contemporary black literary critics pointed out, an embodiment of a dangerous stereotype. Regardless, Wright never apologized for Bigger’s actions and further demonstrated his allegiance to the character by formally embodying Bigger in 1951 when he took the starring role in the first film adaptation of Native Son.

Shortly after the city’s liberation in 1944, Wright moved to Paris to continue his career, making friends with influential philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Wallach’s biography describes the various intellectual influences that enriched Wright’s writing during this time, as his style moved toward a more philosophical direction with books like The Outsider (1953) and Savage Holiday (1954). As the years continued, Wright led an increasingly isolated and radical existence until his mysterious death in 1960, perhaps in an attempt to inhabit the racial anonymity for which he had so desperately sought.

Inspiring subsequent African-American authors such as James Baldwin and Gwendolyn Brooks, Wright’s quest for freedom, equality, and literary excellence are all documented and realized in Wallach’s biography. Wallach weaves his radical political and philosophical beliefs together with the tumultuous events of his personal life to demonstrate how Wright’s life and works of fiction are best understood only when experienced alongside one another.