Thursday, July 1, 2010

Granta Summer 2009: Chicago Edition

Finally, last year's summer Granta is completed by me, reading-wise. So yes, I'm a year late and a dollar short or something. Some sort of flippant & pithy dismissal of my missing the train the first go round, not literally. That's who I am, one who misses metaphorical trains.

I haven't read a lot of Granta outside of last summer's Chicago issue, but as a native Chicagoan (sort of, live very near it in the NW suburbs) I can say definitively that I enjoyed the content this British literary magazine chose to include. Good for the Brits! Cheers and tally-ho, in fact. But on a less colloquially condescending note, I'm impressed with the shear number and variety of good things to be found here. Every piece of writing contains some new insight, new perspective worth reading, even if the work on the whole isn't to your taste. If you have any interest in Chicago at all, at least one of the many pieces to be found in this issue is sure to smack you mightily with its earnest analysis of life and times in the Windy City.

MORE TOO MUCH GOOD STUFF THAN AN AM/PM ClAIMS TO HAVE IN STOCK! (Note: AM/PM convenience stores are relatively new to Chicago (within the last two years or so), and I dunno, I figured alluding to their old tagline "Too much good stuff" was an opportunity not to be missed. I'm beginning to think that isn't the case at all. That I was wrong. That doing so was ill-advised -- but there's no turning back now. No sir. Gotta keep moving on.)

And so . . .

I mean surrhiously, this is a nifty collection of anecdotes, fictions and things not to be despised snidely. It's culled from the keyboards and word processors, or typewriters and typepaper, or stone tablets and chisels, or ectoplasmic residue left in shapes on walls resembling our alphabet by ghosts of Studs Terkel (perhaps?) and transcribed by real life ghostbuster writers, of famous Chicago-area authors mostly still living and one dead (i.e. Nelson Algren with his featured short story, "The Lightless Room"; the only writing appearing here posthumously, I gather).

Dinaw Mengestu for those of you who don't know is one of the New Yorker's Top 20 Under 40. Who'd have thought I'd find a way to sneak a reference to that in? (Anyone who's read one or more posts from the last month is who.) Mengestu is also a Chicago transplant via Peoria via Ethiopia. I'm not sure about him living anywhere else in that interval, but rest assured he's a native born Ethiopian who came to live in Chicago. I learned a great deal about it in his autobiographical essay, "Big Money." It's cool. It's about his work as a courier for his dad's delivery service.

It touches passingly on the way in which someone can be a profoundly well-educated person and still find him or herself doing work in which the presumption by outsiders is that it is work meant only for the downcast and insignificant lower (and in so many ways second) class citizens. He found himself at times desiring to showcase he was more than his low-level job to the haughty lawyers and other white collar professionals he sometimes worked for, but didn't, in part because what could he prove? What would there be about "proving" oneself that would allow you to save face? Perception is sealed already, and anything incongruous would be mitigated by some form of dismissal, more than likely.

Thom Jones, meanwhile, has a piece describing his time working in a General Mills factory, making Bugles right around the time of their debut. It's a Bukowski-esque jaunt of a tale, in part describing another individual who falls outside of our prescriptive norms and classification. Maybe this happens often in Chicago.

Stuart Dybek's essay speaks of a priest swimming far out to the horizon of Lake Michigan. He spots him all the time at this task deep into fall, when most everyone else has given up on the lake until spring. It's a truly charmed and beautifully described anecdote, although that's just par for the course with Dybek.

Alex Kotlowitz rounds out my favorites of this collection. In "Khalid," he describes gang life in Chicago, and focuses in on the nuances of the culture and how it relates to the city's infrastructure (with particular respect to the Chicago Police Department). He then makes it more personal with the story of a Sudanese refugee and her children, one of whom is named Khalid. The story is sure to get a grip on you emotionally, with a profundity I don't think I'll be likely to find elsewhere anytime soon.

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