Chicago


Cubicles
Photo by Giant Gingko used under a Creative Commons license.

Joshua Ferris, Then We Came To The End (Little, Brown, 2007).
A funny and bittersweet novel about a failing Chicago advertising agency. Ferris captures the flavor and politics, the miscellany and absurdities of working in an office. The novel is told in the first-person plural, which initially seems like a trick that can’t be sustained, but the momentum lasts and the story’s end has surprising warmth. And, again: it’s funny.

MostlyFiction has an excerpt. So does NPR. Mark Sarvas calls it a luminous, affecting debut. James Poniewozik (The New York Times) calls it expansive, great-hearted and acidly funny.  Brian Pisco says it’s like an amazing combination of Catch-22 and The Office. JS says it holds a mirror to life in a cubicle. Jennifer Finney Boylan calls it wild and heartbreaking. Mark Flanagan says Ferris nails corporate culture. Shannon Luders-Manuel likens it to Office Space and The Office. Garan Holcombe couldn’t resist its combination of distant, laconic wit, spiritual boredom, and playground camaraderie. Steve Himmer (Small Spiral Notebook) says the novel’s great triumph is its collective voice. Keith Law calls it often hilarious but uneven and disjointed. Andrew Holgate (Times Online) calls it incisive, urgent, funny and snappily written. Nancy Fontaine says it captures office life like a documentary film. Vince Passaro (O, The Oprah Magazine) says Ferris knows that great comedy has a hard bite. Steve Krause appreciates the dark undercurrent. B. Morrison laughed, cried, and was moved. Tom Boncza-Tomaszewski (The Independent) says it isn’t about work; rather, it explores how groups of people get along and what they do in order to survive. Rachel Aspden (The Guardian) says it’s more tragedy than satire. New York or London (but which?) was disappointed. Anna and Amy call it brilliant and poignant (careful: spoilers). Katelyn calls it touching. Meghan O’Rourke (Slate) appreciates Ferris’s take on work. Clare Bucknell (The Telegraph) says it’s a sharp, comic look at the workplace. Mike Landweber likes the narrator’s snarky voice. Daibhin calls it quirky and smart. Jenny calls it cool and interesting and funny. Cass didn’t think it was funny. It made Sheila O’Malley laugh so hard she cried. It gave Sam Sattler flashbacks. Badger too. Lucy Biederman says its perspective is huge. Yvonne Zipp (Christian Science Monitor) says it doesn’t lose sight of its characters’ humanity. Carl from Chicago likes the verisimilitude. Ara Jane love love love loves it (that’s the short version). Bibliolatrist says it’s one of the best books she’s ever read. Toby says it is just alright. Kirsty B. says it is a huge disappointment. And this blogger thinks it’s dreadful. Kevin Rabalais (New Zealand Listener) says it makes the unfunny funny. Listen to Terry Gross interview Ferris on NPR’s Fresh Air. Bret Anthony Johnston interviewed Ferris after the book was named a Finalist for the National Book Award. Someone interviewed Ferris for PopEntertainment.com. Alden Mudge interviewed him too. And here is Gawker on the book party.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

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The Great Migration
Photo from discoverblackheritage used under a Creative Commons license.

Nicholas Lemann, The Promised Land (Vintage, 1992).
An account of the “Great Black Migration” following World War II from the South to the North, with a focus on Ruby Haynes, who left Clarksdale, Mississippi, in the Mississippi Delta, in search of better fortune in Chicago. The 1944 invention of the mechanical cotton picker displaced workers across the rural South, and Northern cities promised new opportunity. Lemann did his share of reporting for this book, and he obviously spent a lot of time in ghettos that few will visit. But he also serves up history, sociology and public policy. He pays attention to the culture of 1940s Mississippi sharecroppers, which changed as it moved north. Also, the government response to the migration and to urban poverty gets considerable attention, both at the local level — his explanation of the planning of the Robert Taylor homes alongside the Dan Ryan Expressway in south Chicago is illuminating, though the buildings have now been torn down — and at the federal level, where he chronicles the successes and failures of the 1960s’ war on poverty.

Here is Lemann’s bio at the Columbia School of Journalism, where he is a professor; there also are links to articles he has written recently. C. Vann Woodward reviewed the book for The New York Times. Matthew Cooper reviewed it for The Washington Monthly. Richard Lacayo reviewed it for Time. Entertainment Weekly gave the book an A-.
Watch Lemann’s appearance on Charlie Rose’s show in 1995 (skip ahead to the 41:00 mark). And here is a transcript of Lemann’s appearance on Booknotes in 1991. Playthell Benjamin and Dawn D. Bennett-Alexander both have their say. Robert Gregg is more critical of Lemann than most. Even so, the University of Chicago recommends the book (among others) to incoming freshmen.

Buy it at Amazon.com.