Adam Morgan is the editor-in-chief of the Chicago Review of Books who writes about place, books, and the arts for The Paris Review, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, and elsewhere. He now lives in Charlotte, NC.
White children celebrating after having raided the home of African Americans during the race riots, Chicago, 1919. Jun Fujita / Chicago History Museum / Getty Images
Adam Morgan | Longreads | June 2019 | 10 minutes (2,587 words)
Precisely one hundred summers ago, at least 165 people were killed in “race riots” against black Americans in cities ranging from Washington, D.C. to Bisbee, Arizona. The bloodiest conflict of that “Red Summer” unfolded on the South Side of Chicago between July 27 and August 3. It started at the 29th Street Beach, where a white man threw rocks at black swimmers and killed a 17-year-old boy named Eugene Williams. Over the next few days, 38 people were killed and more than 500 were injured as roving gangs of white men terrorized Chicago’s Black Belt.
“Chicagoans tend to be enthusiastic and vocal discussants of our own history,” Eve Ewing writes in the introduction to 1919, her second book of poetry. “But 1919 didn’t seem to make it into the timeline alongside titanic stories about Fort Dearborn, Jean-Baptiste Point du Sable, the World’s Columbian Exposition, the 1968 riots, Richard J. Daley, or Harold Washington.”
So Ewing — the poet of Electric Arches, the scholar of Ghosts in the Schoolyard, the comic book writer of Marvel’s Ironheart, the playwright of No Blue Memories, and arguably the most powerful cultural voice in Chicago over the past five years — set about telling the story of 1919 in a characteristically clever way. Flecked with historical photos and evocative quotes from a post-riot commission report, filled with biblical and mythological references, seamlessly bending time and genre, 1919 is an unforgettable conversation-starter. Every poem leaves a bruise. Read more…
Adam Morgan | Longreads | May 2019 | 14 minutes (3,793 words)
Four years ago, when the news broke that a second Harper Lee novel had been discovered fifty years after To Kill a Mockingbird, the literary world was shocked. Some readers were thrilled by the prospect of returning to the world of Scout, Atticus Finch, and Boo Radley. Others were concerned the 88-year-old Lee might have been pressured to publish an unfinished draft. But Casey Cep, an investigative reporter for the New Yorker and the New York Times, drove down to Alabama to get to the bottom of it. And what she found wasn’t a publishing conspiracy, but another lost book Lee had attempted to write for more than a decade, but never finished.
The book was called The Reverend. It would have been a true-crime novel like In Cold Blood (a book Lee helped Truman Capote research, write, and edit, despite his failure to give her any credit). The Reverend would have told the story of Willie Maxwell, a black preacher who murdered five members of his own family in the 1970s in order to collect life insurance money. It would have touched on voodoo, racial politics in post-industrial Alabama, and a courtroom setpiece that rivaled To Kill a Mockingbird for drama. But Harper Lee never finished writing The Reverend, and now, thanks to Casey Cep, we know why.
Cep’s debut, Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, is fascinating, addicting, and unbearably suspenseful. Cep actually tells three concentric stories: the crimes of Willie Maxwell, the trials of his lawyer Tom Radney, and Harper Lee’s failed attempt to write about them. When I called Cep from “a Southern phone number” on an unseasonably hot spring afternoon, she initially thought I was one of her sources calling with a “some bombshell thing they want to show me, far too late to help with the book.”
Adam Morgan | Longreads | April 2019 | 9 minutes (2,462 words)
There’s a section in Robert Bolaño’s 2666 — “The Part About the Crimes” — where women are raped and murdered for nearly 300 pages, their mutilated bodies abandoned in the deserts of northern Mexico. The violence is brutal enough to seem gratuitous, even sadistic, but Bolaño was merely fictionalizing the real-life female homicides of Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas. And while 2666 circles these murders like a vulture, the women themselves barely get a chance to speak.
The women in Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s debut collection of short stories, Sabrina & Corina — Chicana and Indigenous women living in Denver and southern Colorado — suffer similar fates. But we meet their sisters, mothers, and daughters. We meet the men who abuse them. And finally, we hear their voices.
In the title story, a teenaged cosmetology student is tasked with applying her murdered cousin’s funeral makeup. In “Sisters”, a double date leaves one sibling blind. In “Cheesman Park”, a bank teller flees Los Angeles for Denver after she and her mother are attacked, separately, by the men who claim to love them. And in “Any Further West,” a sex worker and her daughter travel in the opposite direction in search of a better life.
Sabrina & Corina is a moving, textured, masterful collection, saturated with a strong sense of place. I spoke with Kali Fajardo-Anstine about her book, the cycles of violence, and the gentrification of her hometown’s Chicano and Indigenous communities. Read more…
Adam Morgan| Longreads | February 2019 | 8 minutes (1,962 words)
I understand why Marlon James calls his new trilogy “an African Game of Thrones” — it builds the right expectations for an epic fantasy with dozens of characters spread across warring kingdoms. However, judging by the first book in the series, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, another apt comparison, especially when it comes to style and structure, might be “an African Gormenghast.”
Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series (1946-1959), if you’ve never read it, is a dense literary labyrinth that makes A Game of Thrones and its sequels look downright old-fashioned. The story of a wealthy heir who lives in a vast, crumbling castle, Gormenghast has never been wildly popular thanks to its challenging style, but it does hold cult status among scholars and writers like Neil Gaiman, China Miéville, Sofia Samatar, even Harold Bloom. “Reading it at the age of 13,” Samatar has written, “I understood that fantasy, the place I was looking for, is not to be found in dragons, ghosts, or magic wands. It resides in language.”
Growing up in the suburbs of Kingston, Jamaica, Marlon James didn’t have access to many fantasy novels, but he did stumble upon Gormenghast as an adult. “It was like a blueprint for how the fantastical grows up,” he says, echoing Samatar, adding that it’s the one book that “continues to rule his life.”
Perhaps that’s why Black Leopard, Red Wolf takes so many narrative risks. It’s a sprawling series of stories within stories that fold back on themselves, a hypnotic spoken-word fable full of sex, violence, and magic. It’s not quite what you’re expecting — and it’s all the better for it. Read more…
Door to attic of the Old New Synagogue where according to myth the golem rests. Slowcentury / Getty
Adam Morgan | Longreads | September 2018 | 10 minutes (2,560 words)
In the summer of 1990, an Icelandic writer named Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson traveled to Czechoslovakia with his friend, the singer-songwriter Björk. Their alternative rock band, The Sugarcubes, was performing in Prague because of the city’s folk status as the birthplace of the sugar cube. But while they were in town, Sigurðsson made a pilgrimage to the Old Jewish Cemetery, where the legendary creator of the Golem of Prague had been buried more than four centuries earlier. After placing a stone on his grave, Sigurðsson asked the rabbi for help solving a personal problem, and in exchange, promised to bring the golem into Icelandic literature.
Today, Sigurðsson goes by the name Sjón. In 2013, when his surreal novels were first translated into English by Victoria Cribb, critics compared him to Borges, Calvino, and Kafka. Most of his books are less than 200 pages, but this week sees the publication of CoDex 1962, a labyrinthine epic that invites comparison to Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. Originally published as three separate novels in Iceland in 1994, 2001, and 2016, CoDex 1962 is Sjón’s fulfillment of the pact he made in the Old Jewish Cemetery almost three decades ago. Read more…