June 1, 2016 — My photos and writing are included in The Empty Bottle Chicago: 21+ Years Music / Friendly / Dancing, a book edited by John E. Dugan and published by Curbside Splendor. Find out more about the book — or buy a copy — at the publisher’s website.
Pioneer Press, August 20, 2015 — There was a time when you could walk into airports without worrying about metal detectors. You could greet friends — or even celebrities — as they exited airplanes, coming down stairs right onto the tarmac. “It breaks my heart that that era has vanished forever,” says Christopher Lynch, who grew up near Chicago’s Midway Airport… Read the story.
Photo: Rotunno Family Collection
Society of Midland Authors Books Blog, May 5, 2015 — The Society of Midland Authors celebrated its 100th birthday on May 1 and 2, 2015, in Chicago… On Saturday, May 2, the Society held a free daylong event at University Center in the South Loop, featuring speeches by noted authors, panel discussions on literary topics and short readings… Read my report of the day’s events at the Society of Midland Authors Books Blog.
Photo of Steve Bogira, left, and Jonathan Eig by Robert Loerzel
Society of Midland Authors Books Blog, April 10, 2015 — The authors who gathered at the Auditorium Hotel in Chicago on November 28, 1914, didn’t expect a free dinner. But they were somewhat stunned when the writer who’d invited them, John M. Stahl, picked up the tab for everyone… Read my post at the Society of Midland Authors Books Blog.
Chicago Tribune illustration
Society of Midland Authors Books Blog, April 2, 2015 — As the Society of Midland Authors celebrates its 100th birthday, we present a history of the organization, starting with this look at its origins.
In 1914, Carl Sandburg called Chicago “Hog Butcher for the World.” Edgar Lee Masters, a Chicago lawyer born in Kansas, was giving voice to the common folk buried in a cemetery in the fictional town of Spoon River. Other writers scattered around the prairies, like Kansan William Allen White and HoosierJames Whitcomb Riley, were drawing attention with the craft of their words. The Midwest was teeming with creativity… Read my post at the Society of Midland Authors Books Blog.
Photo by Robert Loerzel
Chicago magazine, March 2015 — Blood Runs Green Reexamines One of the Most Notorious Crimes in Chicago. The 1889 murder of Patrick Henry Cronin is at the center of this insightful new book by Gillian O’Brien. Read my review in Chicago magazine.
This review by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on October 11, 2009.
John Gilkey is a convicted thief from California who bought stuff using other people’s credit-card numbers. There’s nothing especially dramatic or shocking about Gilkey’s crimes, although he did figure out some fairly clever ways of getting away with fraud for a while. If Gilkey had stolen something mundane like groceries or office supplies, we wouldn’t be reading a book about him. Ah, but books were the object of Gilkey’s serial pilfering. And not just any books — he stole rare first editions and antiquarian volumes that are worth thousands of dollars.
So what we have here is a book about a guy who steals books, who’s caught by an amateur sleuth who loves books. It sounds like just the thing you’d want to read if you were, well, a person who loves books. However, Allison Hoover Bartlett’s The Man Who Loved Books Too Much does not turn out to be a solid addition to the true-crime library.
Bartlett keeps her story moving along at a good pace with clear, plain prose, but the narrative fails to deliver much in the way of actual thrills. She goes to great lengths to probe the motives behind Gilkey’s obsession with stealing books, constantly asking: Why did he do it? And why is he so interested in old books?
Gilkey’s own answers to those questions are not particularly profound. Bartlett senses that he wants to build a collection of old books as a sort of status symbol, so that he can impress people. Paradoxically, Gilkey can’t really impress anyone, since he keeps his stolen books hidden away in secret stashes. Digging deeper for more insights, Bartlett turns to other books about obsessive collectors and book thieves, and she finds a few relevant quotes.
Judging from her footnotes, Bartlett’s research was pretty thin. For example, instead of quoting directly from a 1985 collection of Sigmund Freud’s letters, she relies on a 2006 book that quotes the 1985 book. Bartlett pulls her most interesting details from other recent books about book collecting, especially Nicholas Basbanes’ A Gentle Madness, which just makes you want to seek out those earlier works. And her footnotes reveal that she relied on interviews to construct the story of Gilkey’s crimes, without citing any police reports or court documents.
The great strength of Bartlett’s reporting is the access she received from Gilkey himself. Her interviews with Gilkey are the most fascinating aspect of this book, revealing a self-deluded man who continually finds ways of rationalizing his crimes. The Man Who Loved Books Too Much eventually turns into an intriguing psychological study of the relationship between the author and her subject. Does Bartlett get too close with Gilkey as she tags along with him on visits to a bookstore he had once robbed? Is it her responsibility to tell the police when Gilkey tells her details of his criminal exploits? Bartlett raises these questions without satisfactorily answering them. She seems to feel queasy about becoming a participant in the story she’s writing about.
In the end, no matter how much Bartlett tries to puff up Gilkey’s book thievery into a weighty topic, the story boils down to some rather obvious traits of human behavior: People like cool stuff. Some people become obsessed with cool stuff. Some people become so obsessed that they steal it. And if the stuff you steal is cool enough, someone just might a book about you.
This review by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Signal to Noise magazine’s fall 2008 issue.
A few years ago, the Mekons’ Jon Langford told me about his fascination with old-time folk and country songs about death. He lamented the dearth of death songs on today’s charts. “And now pop music’s essentially sanitized to the point where there’s no drinking, cheating or killing songs on country radio—although the movies are full of fantasy, death and violence,” he said. “A lot of those folk songs were talking about real events. Maybe society is censoring itself. The mainstream cannot deal with this material anymore.”
After that interview, it occurred to me that Langford did not have it quite right. Maybe mainstream Nashville has shoved the murder ballad into the closet, but gangsta rap overflows with violence. And as Graeme Thomson proves with his book, I Shot a Man in Reno (subtitled “A History of Death by Murder, Suicide, Fire, Flood, Drugs, Disease and General Misadventure”), the Grim Reaper is lurking in just about every genre of popular music. Over the course of this thoughtful essay, Thomson discusses hundreds of death songs. The author of previous books on Elvis Costello and Willie Nelson, here he carefully delineates all the varieties of musical death, from old-fashioned murder ballads to the car-crash sagas of the ’60s and the mortality-obsessed music of heavy-metal and emo bands.
Thomson is a surefooted guide through this musical graveyard. His writing is never dry or academic, but he smartly puts each song into its sociological and psychological context. It’s fascinating to see how concepts of death changed over the decades, as Thompson points out trends such as the explosion of death songs during the 1960s psychedelic era.
It would have been nice if Thomson had lingered longer over some of the significant songs he writes about, rather than flitting so quickly from one tune to another. And while this book is largely a work of interpretation rather than history or journalism, it would benefit from more of the stories behind the songs. Thomson does make excellent use of quotes from some A-list songwriters; he interviewed Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Will Oldham and Nick Cave, and he draws on other sources for remarks from other musicians.
At first, it may seem puzzling that songs on this grim topic have become hits and even popular standards, but Thomson persuasively shows that death very much belongs in pop music. If music is about the human experience, death must be in there, along with everything else. One of Thomson’s sources, Richard Thompson, puts it best in the book’s final chapter, saying, “The obvious thing to say is that a song about death is a song about life.”
This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on April 6, 2008.
Husbands suspected of killing their wives seem to be in the news almost constantly these days. A new book by defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey and Kenosha journalist Jean Rabe compiles some of the most famous spousal murder cases into one bloody roll call of botched crime scenes, outlandish alibis and celebrity trials.
When the Husband Is the Suspect: From Sam Sheppard to Scott Peterson — The Public’s Passion for Spousal Homicides includes short narratives by Rabe on each case, along with Bailey’s commentaries. The cast of real-life characters includes a few suspects Bailey defended, such as Sam Sheppard and O.J. Simpson, as well as Robert Blake and other recent headline-makers.
Bailey discussed the book in a phone interview from his home in Massachusetts.
Q. What common elements do you see in these cases?
A. The most common one in the assassinations — the so-called hits for hire — is that otherwise intelligent people seem to hire the biggest idiots in the world to do the job. I represented some really classy assassins, all of whom, in fact, were trained by the government, and they’re almost impossible to trip up.
Q. But the typical person doesn’t have access to these professionals.
A. They really don’t have access to any specialists in the art. It’s like going in to get your brain surgery done by your local practitioner.
Q. You book also includes husbands charged with committing the murder themselves. They often plan what seems like a “perfect crime,” but then they always slip up.
A. These guys … come up with some cover-up story, like the most typical: pushing the wife down the stairs and having her injured in all kinds of places. … I would call it dumb. You have to add in a quotient that there’s probably a strong emotional factor at the time of the killing, and a lot of this is cover-up. But it’s really shoddy cover-up, in most cases.
Q. What are the common motives in these cases?
A. It’s kind of a selfish alternative to divorce. The stupid mistakes suggest a psychopathic, very greedy person who doesn’t want to pay the legal fees or the spouse’s share and thinks that this is a good way to avoid the divorce — and in some cases, to inherit money that wasn’t his. Money is a large factor in my view. Very few people will kill their wives if they’re not feeling pretty greedy.
Q. Does it make a difference to you whether you believe a client you’re representing is innocent?
A. It does. If I can’t satisfy myself that the client is telling me a straight story, I will almost always suggest that the client go and take a polygraph test. That, probably more than any other reason, has enabled me to compile a much greater acquittal record than most other lawyers in the United States — because I’m picking and choosing innocent people.
Q. Many people believe O.J. Simpson was guilty of murder, despite his acquittal. When you try to persuade someone that Simpson was innocent, what do you emphasize?
A. There are three things that stand independently and are all inconsistent with guilt. The first is the timeline. [In the book, Bailey argues that Simpson did not have enough time to commit the murders, return home and catch a flight to O’Hare, as prosecutors claimed he did.] The second was the demeanor, which is extremely important in cases where people known to be non-criminals are involved in a murder case. And the third was his statement to the police, which I think … no guilty person with his background could possibly have pulled off. He spoke to them for three hours … and never slipped one bit. And a guy who had just killed two people the way these two were killed could never have done that.
Q. How has media coverage of trials changed since 1963, when you persuaded an appeals court that publicity prevented Sam Sheppard from getting a fair trial?
A. The quality of news coverage has diminished, because giants of the print media are no longer being nurtured properly. Television reporting is too often a snapshot. There just is no way to devote an evening newscast to the depth of reporting that would describe in detail what the witnesses had to say.
Q. Your book doesn’t include the case of Drew Peterson of Bolingbrook, whom police have called a suspect, but haven’t charged, in the disappearance of his wife, Stacy. What are your observations of that case?
A. There isn’t any question that the circumstances are suspicious. There also isn’t any question in my mind that, with all of the pressures on the police, they don’t feel like they’ve got enough to get a conviction. If they don’t catch a break, this case could go on forever.
Q. Police have not found Stacy Peterson’s body, but as you write in your book, other people have been prosecuted in murder cases without a body.
A. You don’t have to have a body if you’ve got enough circumstantial evidence, so that is not going to be a barrier to charging this guy. But I’ve got to tell you, when you go to a trial with no body, it’s a powerful argument to point to the courtroom doors and tell the jurors: “You can’t be sure the victim won’t walk through there, can you?”
Q. What advice do you give to innocent people who are wrongly accused on how they should behave?
A. The classic mistake is to put up a false alibi, thinking, “Well, since I didn’t do it, it won’t be any crime to give a cleaner explanation of where I was than the truth, which is: I was out with neighbor’s wife, banging the hell out of her.” This is not the kind of alibi you want to bring to a jury, so a false one is made up. Those inevitably crumble, once the police bring pressure.
This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Time Out Chicago’s May 31-June 6, 2007, issue. For more, read my Q&A with Brunetti at Underground Bee.
For a collection of comic books, Ivan Brunetti’s Misery Loves Comedy (Fantagraphics, $24.95) looks unusually plain on the outside. No dust jacket. No illustration. Just the title and the author’s name embossed on a dark green cover.
“I wanted the book to look like a psychiatric case study,” Brunetti says. “I wanted to have a cover that would seem nonthreatening, and when you open it, then it would hit you.”
Boy, does it hit you. Self-loathing and misanthropy are standard topics in underground comics, but few artists have tunneled down to the extreme depths that this Chicago artist explored in his Schizo comic books. Collected in the new anthology, these 1990s cartoons reveal Brunetti feeling violent impulses, shame over lustful longings and disgust at humanity. Decapitations, eruptions of puke and elongated penises fill the panels. These disturbing (and often disturbingly funny) confessions are punctuated by comic strips with titles such as “Drink My Piss, Motherfucker” and “Please Hurt My Oversized Testicles.”
After reading the first Schizo, R. Crumb wrote a letter published in the second issue: “Have you given any thought to getting on PROZAC? … I thought your comic was sharp and funny, but SO fucking NEGATIVE and SELF-ABSORBED, it’s hard to take… But then, Kafka is hard to take, so I dunno…” The later cartoons in Misery Loves Comedy show evidence that Brunetti has mellowed a bit, and further proof is revealed in the two almost-sweet covers he drew this year for The New Yorker, one of a little girl skating on an ice floe, another showing a variety of costumed kids.
It’s not just New Yorker covers that are keeping Brunetti busy. Between his job running Columbia College’s website and teaching classes there, Brunetti edited 2006’s An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories, (Yale University Press, $28), an omnibus of comics by some 80 artists, and he’s starting work on a second volume, slated for 2008.
Brunetti, who lived in Italy until he was 8 and then grew up on Chicago’s southeast side, is sheepish when he talks about his early comics. What was the response when his family and friends saw Schizo? “Very bad,” Brunetti says quietly. “Very, very negative. No good came out of that. I regret a lot of that. I wish I could have stepped back from everything and written it as fiction. Now I feel like I’m trapped. If I wrote something as fiction, it would just seem really false. It would be obvious, from having read my other stuff, that I’m really talking about myself.”
Brunetti describes himself as a private person who hates violence and vulgarity, and his friends agree with that assessment.
“Anyone who’s familiar only with his work might be surprised to learn that in person he’s incredibly kind and generous, but if you think about it, this isn’t really that much of a contradiction,” says Chicago cartoonist Chris Ware says. “Despite his regular territory of the dark, dirty depths of the human soul, he also never diverges from the Charles M. Schulz basic charter of the cartoonist: ‘Cartooning is, after all, drawing funny pictures.’”
Allowing the old comics to be collected in a new book was a difficult decision, Brunetti says. “The issues had gone out of print, and people kept asking me. It’s like a repository for those things. It’s like a tombstone. I almost wish people would think I was dead or something, that it was a posthumous project.”