Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film IndustryFlickering Empire
by Michael Glover Smith and Adam Selzer
Book #12, reading during October, 2015
Final Book

This is the last book of my year-long project where I read books that other people recommend to me, and this is the perfect title with which to finish strong.  Not only is it about Chicago history, aka my amazing homeland, but is also the first book written by my spouse, Michael Smith.  Published in early 2015, I could either be an awful wife having waited this long to read it, or you could say that I saved the best for last.  Either way, the back cover has been closed, and luckily for me, the dedication to me is typed within a book (yep, that’s right) that I can honestly say was wonderful.

Admittedly, I’m not a big film history buff.  I love specific genres of film, but I’m not studying their origins, so I was a little nervous that the information would be over my head.  In all actuality, some of it was, but mainly the names of the early iterations of film equipment, but those are sparse and you can just glaze over them if you wish (because I obviously did).  The appeal for me as a film ignoramus was all of the firsts.  So much of what this book includes are facts about how things common today first came to be in the early 20th century, and in Chicago.  Because there are too many to describe, here’s list of some of my favorites:

-How seemingly disparate histories intersect, i.e. how Colonel Selig (a studio head) was financially aided in court to fight back against Thomas Edison by the meatpacking company who received bad publicity because of Upton Sinclair’s serial turned novel, The Jungle.

-That absolutely nothing has changed since 1912 regarding the intimate relationship between corruption and Chicago government and police.

-The description of early Chicago has honestly been the only one that I’ve read thus far to make me want to read about historic Chicago.  Charles Dickens, when he visited Chicago is said to have been “shook [so badly by the experience] that some commentators feel that he never really recovered his former optimism” after seeing it as a “dirty, grimy land full of thieves, con artists, and people who lived in poverty and misery…”  I don’t know, it kind of fills me with pride.  Don’t mess with Texas Chicago.

-The progression from still photos to what we view today is astounding, and once moving pictures became so, it seems unjust that so many of the early films have been lost.  It’s also unbelievable that some are merely hiding out, only to be discovered one hundred years later in an entirely different country, such as the new found Chicago-made Sherlock Holmes, unearthed in France in 2014.

-The definition of the word nickelodeon came from nickle theaters in Chicago.

-The first Sherlock Holmes film was made in Chicago, and with his famous hat, which was a creation of the filmmaker, not the actual story.

-Chicago filmed the first film adaptation of the Wizard of Oz.

-One of the disturbing realities of film history is that animals were indeed killed in the making of early Chicago film.

-Thomas Edison was actually a huge asshole (who knew?!) who appropriated the ideas of others while taking the credit on a historical scale.  As they say, history is written by the winners.

-Orson Welles studied at the Art Institute of Chicago.

-And lastly, the gripping description of one of the first African American filmmakers, Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates, a direct response to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.

Who knew that Chicago was essentially the birthplace of film?  Not I, but Flickering Empire does a bang up job of setting the scene for early film history in Chicago, and doing it in a way that is anything but textbook.  The authors set the scene for a fledgling time and place where film and city are akin in their voracity to exist and grow.  I couldn’t have planned (and I planned for nothing, as all the books were recommended) for a better title to cap my Year of Unknown Books project.

*Project Recap: For one year, I will read one book per month that I know nothing about that was recommended to me by a stranger; friend; family member, or co-worker; and I will write about that experience.  God help us all.

Wolf in White Van WolfinWhiteVan
by John Darnielle
Book #11, reading during September, 2015

When Wolf in White Van first came out, my cousin Ethan recommended it to me as he is an avid music fan and WiWV was written by John Darnielle of the band The Mountain Goats.  I believe that I resisted it for so long because the face value description describes the story of a game creator, but like so many books, what the publishers choose to put on the jacket fails to capture the depth of the novel as a whole.

When asked to describe the book to my spouse, it reminded me of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and the film The Wrestler, starring Mickey Rourke.  Especially as a librarian, you have about 15 seconds to encapsulate the essence of a novel before losing their attention.  At the outset you can only think to say that Station Eleven is a about a post-apocalyptic world and then watch the interest immediately fade.  It is however, not about the apocalypse but so, so much more.  Re: The Wrestler, one of my favorite films of all time, I cannot even guess how many times people have said, “I don’t like wrestling,” to which I immediately reply, “it’s not about wrestling!”  This book is of the like.  I could say, it’s about a role playing game creator who shot his face off, but it’s not about that.  Like the above two, WiWV is about the descriptions, the writing style, and the feeling that it leaves you with days after you’ve finished.

WiWV took a little bit of time to get into; I didn’t know where it was going, and it took me a while to become accustomed to the internal monologue style of the most of the novel.  In a nutshell, the book starts with current day, and the narrator, Sean, who is left with a mangled face from an interaction with a gun, recalls the steps leading to the beginning of the book.  This non-linear style is subtle, and for me the real charm of the book is in the small details, Sean’s observations about his life.  Author Darnielle also gives us just enough suspense in small droplets so that you’re curious enough to turn the page, but not so that your stomach is left in anxious knots.

This book is technically an “adult” book, but I can see why a lot of people (the American Library Association to name one organization) would recommend it for teens as well, though I’d say probably for more of an advanced reader.  Teen gods may strike me dead, but I am a teen librarian and don’t love teen literature as an adult reader.  I think it has its place for teens, but as an adult, I’m past it, so I appreciated that Darnielle writes about high school in way that isn’t clunky and melodramatic, but links me to the characters by recollections of my own teenage years.  Sean’s recollections of his high school years are carbon copies to many of ours: depression, smoking, the need to fold in on oneself, especially in the presence of parents, music as release and discovery, and the sometimes realization that organized religion and those in positions of authority are flawed.

Halfway through the novel, I had no idea where the book was taking me but it builds from Sean having a seemingly “normal” life to his eventual incident with the gun, sprinkled with his life as a disfigured being, leaning in and out of his alternate universe game, the Trace Italian.  I pondered if we were going to be given a final ah-ha! detailing what happened: did the gun go off accidentally, or was it a suicide attempt?  Or was Darnielle going to do that very hip and often aggravating thing where we are given nothing, forcing the reader to utilize their own glass half empty/half full proclivities.  Luckily for me, who thought that Mickey Rourke lived at the end of the film and drove off into the sunset with Marisa Tomei, it was somewhere in the middle.

Without the recommendation, I probably wouldn’t have read Wolf in White Van solely based on its description, but in the end, wound up really appreciating it for being exactly the opposite of what it seemed to be.  I’ll also add that I oscillated between reading the novel and listening to the audio, read by author Darnielle himself, and it was fantastic.  Darnielle expresses such vulnerability and honesty from the point of view of the main character that you feel like the Sean is speaking directly to you.  Thanks, Ethan.  It was a great recommendation.

There’s a war on women’s bodies* and this is one of the many battles-people who don’t need access to affordable healthcare and education believe that no one else needs it either.  Or, they operate under the delusion that they have a personal life-line to God.  They don’t, and I hope that you don’t think that you do.

This is about so much more than abortions; that’s such a small part of it.  It’s about all the big life stuff: having control over what you want to do with your body, having access to birth control, breast exams, cancer screening and most importantly, access to information, regardless of social class.

What makes you think that what you need won’t be restricted, too?


*There is a war for control over what comes out of women’s uteruses. We are fighting for control of our own reproductive organs.  The fight is mainly aimed at women with reproductive capabilities, but eventually affects all men and women in need of PP’s services.

*Project Recap: For one year, I will read one book per month that I know nothing about that was recommended to me by a stranger; friend; family member, or co-worker; and I will write about that experience.  God help us all.

Let Me Be Frank With You (a Frank Bascombe Book)Richard Ford
by Richard Ford
Book #10, reading during August, 2015

Let Me Be Frank With You (a double entendre concerning the narrator and the expression of his truths) was recommended by a male library patron, most likely double my age, and wonderfully reflects the spirit of this year-long project.  He recommended an unknown book by an unknown (to me) author that in the end, I ended up loving and in no way would have ever picked myself.

The narrator of the four short story compilation is Frank Bascombe, a 60-something upper class New Jersey Democrat who’s trying reconcile the aging process that has forced itself upon him, his friends and family.  This subtly written collection, said to be in the style of William Faulkner and John Updike, is comprised of his observations and interpretation of tangible events in his life, though they are secondary to his internal monologue. He lives in a post-Katrina world where Jersey inhabitants are surveying and calculating their losses, both materially and sacredly.  Throughout the four stories, Frank describes a concrete situation that he’s encountered, and spends the bulk of each story mulling over its meaning in his life, including but not limited to his ex-wife’s illness, the shortcomings of children, friendship and the experience of an aging man.  He untangles these issues with a dry humor that reminded me of my grandfather’s crass and wizened wit, which left me with a heavy and mournful heart.  On the other side of that coin, reading Frank talk about sex and his erection left me with an extreme embarrassment reserved only for granddaughters who deeply wish to believe that their grandfathers are eunuchs.

Being a middle-class woman in her low 30s, this book was like a glimpse into another world, perhaps one that reflects the goings on of the affluent community in which I am employed, especially when compared to the mixed race and economically diverse urban neighborhood in which I’ve lived for the past decade.  The author, by way of the narrator, manages to simultaneously write about a specific type of man’s experience, with fingers that stretch out to tap into what most humans must undergo throughout their lifetime: his long gone career in real estate, the stock market, his second marriage, dying friends, memory, his aging body, and the actualization that the children you’ve created have morphed into beings other than that idealized image that you may have had before their birth, et al. Having not even purchased my first home, living on the salary of a teacher and librarian, and currently inhabiting a face sans wrinkles, Frank’s world is somewhat foreign to me, but led me to a deeper understanding of not only the mind of an old bastard (I mean that in the best way possible), but the collective mentality of a geographic region and and how a masculine gender formed decades ago translates into 2015.

Roald Dahl once said, “The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who live exciting lives.”  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that we all live in bubbles of our own making; we often associate with people of like social classes, sexualities, politics and religions. There was enough in this book to create a sense of kinship based on such issues of race and liberal leanings, but it also propelled me into an unknown age, gender and social class (to which I would only be so lucky to aspire).  Despite what connected me to Frank, or what made me wonder at the otherness of him, what I kept pondering days after the closing of the book was the universal humanness.  When we’re stripped to our bare selves, whether it be through natural disaster, aging, loss of health and relationships, Ford shows us that our pain, laughter and hopefully the wisdom to let go bind us all.

Amazingly accessible insight to help calm your breath and mind.

(Lodro Rinzler, 2012)

Buddha Walks into a Bar

*Project Recap: For one year, I will read one book per month that I know nothing about that was recommended to me by a stranger; friend; family member, or co-worker; and I will write about that experience.  God help us all.

Tales of the City & Michael Tolliver Lives Michael Tolliver Lives Tales of the City
by Armistead Maupin
Books #8 & #9, read during June and July, 2015

When I found out that I would be traveling to San Francisco for the 2015 American Library Association Conference, I naturally referred to my librarian coworkers to recommend books that take place within the city limits.  When I travel, I love to read fiction for a particular locale because beforehand, it warms you up to the culture and when you return, it helps to bubble all of those sense memories to the surface again.  One of my most well-read and hippest coworkers recommended Tales of the City (TOC) by Armistead Maupin.  For her, it had special meaning because she traveled to Frisco* during the 1970s, coincidentally when the first of the series takes place.  Flash forward to 2015, two copies of the book on the shelf (not just one), which is indicative of its steadfast popularity.

The experience of reading TOC was an interesting one because of its unexpected results (the best kind!).  As I began reading, I was slightly put off by the very 1970s language, almost to the point where I wondered if the vernacular of the era and locale was written in jest.  You know, a lot of far outs, dudes, doobies, don’t you come here oftens? and of the like.  In the end, the language came to enhance the experience of the novel; if you weren’t alive during the 1970s, you’ve been given the gift of a genuine cultural artifact, and if you were alive during the 1970s, then here’s your passport back in time.  The content of the book details the interwoven lives of a variety characters who all live, love and smoke together in an apartment on Barbary Lane in San Francisco under the protective wing of landlady Anna Madrigal.  Like many of the TOC characters, Anna has a beautiful soul, is whip smart, wise (and can I be her when I grow up?) and possesses the ability to corral a family together for herself, or as she puts it, her “logical family.”  As the novel came to a close, I realized that my skepticism turned into a love affair and I felt such sadness as I closed the book.  Maupin artfully describes the personalities, pasts and current dramas of each character but does so with an amazingly skillful hand that the stories are finely handed to us in the most believable of ways, as if you’re sitting in a friend’s living room having a conversation over cocktails.

Since writing TOC, Maupin has written a plethora of other novels about the specific lives of some of the Barbary Lane characters and luckily, my new addiction was satiated by Michael Tolliver Lives (MTL).  As MTL takes place in current day (late 2000s), we fast forward from when we met him nearly three decades ago.  In TOC, he was a sensitive, fun, sweet guy and in the years has only become the wonderful, concentrated version of himself.  I don’t know if MTL is based on Maupin’s real life, but I truly hope it is because Michael’s life: his partner, his job, his friendships, and his character (his essence) are perfection in their purity, because Michael is a gentle, pure soul.  And can I also say that I really enjoyed the relationship, including the sexual life of Michael and his partner?  They are in touch and honest about their needs and express them openly with each other, and I loved Michael’s accepting yet insecure inner monologues regarding his partner’s consensual extramarital relations.  Maupin shines a light on the universal truth of long-term relationships; self-doubt always rears its ugly head, no matter how long you’ve been together.  It was also refreshing to read about a healthy sex life from a gay male’s point of view because on a personal level, I feel that I am constantly inundated with a white hetero male’s point of view of sex, which is fairly homogenous.

In MTL, Maupin also catches us up on the lives of our other beloved characters and in true Maupin style, he threads in details of their lives because he knows that even though the book is about Michael, the friends’ lives and well-being, who by now are our friends, are just as important to us.  As I closed Michael Tolliver Lives, I was struck with a similar feeling of de ja vu; I was heartbroken that the tale was over, akin to saying goodbye to a good friend at the airport when you don’t know when you’ll see them again.

What makes Maupin such an impressive storyteller is that his content is ahead of its time, tapping into issues that are just below the surface of the mainstream cultural consciousness.  In TOC (again 1970s) Maupin introduces us to an array of transgender characters and mind you, we were still in the thick of the fight for gay rights, and Maupin dares to write about not only trans individuals, but shockingly, trans characters in love!  With friends!  As people!  In MTL, he delves further into the thoughts and emotions of some oldie and newer trans characters and really does a service, especially to the straight (and oftentimes clueless) world by breathing life into the intricacies of the lives of these trans individuals.  What Maupin does for trans people is groundbreaking because humanizes them, thereby taking away their otherness.  This is especially pertinent to this specific time in our history with the increased visibility of such trans figures as Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner (there’s even an Armistead quote during the first episode).  Way before the dialogue even began on a larger, world scale via social media, Maupin understood the importance of visibility.

Maupin’s books are the great equalizer: Catholic, gay, straight, trans, queer, and all along the spectrum of personhood, there’s really something for everyone, and something with which you can become newly acquainted.  If you need a good book(s), if you need to feel, to armchair travel to San Fran, to fall in love with a new friend, I cannot stress enough that you read Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series.

*I thought Frisco was a city in the south.  In Merle Haggard’s song “Here in Frisco” I actually thought he was thinking about “Frisco,” a southern city that he missed because he was visiting some big city.  No comment needed.  Thank you to my own spouse for enlightening me.


While at the ALA Conference in San Francisco, learning about all that is shiny, sticky and new in librarianship, I started my day with Gloria Steinem.  She spoke for less than an hour but completely blew my hair back.  The woman is brilliant, modest, quick on her feet, and all of the other things that you’d expect of a woman who has dedicated her life to equal rights.

A few paraphrases from GS:

-Men can be feminists.

-If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.

-Every year on Columbus Day I forget to put a note on that statue in Columbus Park that says “murderer.”

-Women are kept down by men controlling by their reproduction. It all starts there.

-We’ll boost the economy by giving women equal pay. It would put millions back into the economy.

She left me in an incredible headspace, feeling empowered to be better, to connect as humans, to learn and impart, to question what is being said to you, and to be the kind of librarian that I want to be, rather than what I think is expected of me by my peers.  It’s easy to forget these basics in the day-to-day, and we all need a little nudge back to the inner light once in a while.  Mine just happened to be from Gloria Steinem.

Best conference ever.


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