Photo: Jocelyn Augustino
By Ted Anton
In “What We’ve Lost Is Nothing,” former Oak Park resident manager and journalist Rachel Snyder tells the story of what happens when two high-school girls stay home to try ecstasy the same afternoon their street is rocked by a series of home invasions. The neighborhood suspicions threaten to rip apart Oak Park’s suburban veneer of race and class harmony. An assistant professor in creative writing at American University in Washington, Snyder has written for The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine, and has appeared frequently on National Public Radio. She published the investigative “Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade” in 2007. “What We’ve Lost Is Nothing” is her first novel.
So what was the inspiration for “What We’ve Lost Is Nothing?”
I was accompanying an American military MIA mission in Vietnam, writing for a magazine, and a friend there told me this story of these robberies all in one night that happened in Georgia. The story stuck with me. Read the rest of this entry »
There are plenty of apocalyptic young-adult fiction books these days, but Mary Miller’s debut novel, “The Last Days of California,” has a fresh approach to an end-of-days story. Jess and her family are driving from Alabama to California for what her father believes is Armageddon. Based on the prediction of a prophet from their unspecified church, Jess’ father envisions a scenario of bodies floating up into heaven, as in the “Left Behind” series of books. Fifteen-year-old Jess wavers in her belief as they travel across the country, not quite sure if she’s about to experience the rapture, or even whether she believes in God or the teachings of her church at all.
Sitting next to Jess in the backseat is her sister, Elise, newly pregnant. Although only a few years older than Jess, the world-weary Elise is cynical beyond her years and firm in the belief that the end is nowhere in sight. Her only fragility is her inability to acknowledge her pregnancy, aside from telling her sister and then seemingly forgetting about the topic entirely. Miller’s pacing of the novel is really important, considering what is practically the closed set of the family car and a few motel rooms. While she’s unfolding Jess’ relationship with her family and her evolving ideas about religion, she’s rather brilliantly tied the awakening of a young girl to a ticking clock in the background. Read the rest of this entry »
By June Sawyers
Gypsy, vagabond, nomad, bohemian dandy, consummate storyteller. Robert Louis Stevenson was all of these, and more. He is both familiar and yet strangely unfamiliar. We may recognize the name but who was the person behind the famous moniker? Even the most casual reader knows that he is the author of such literary classics as “Treasure Island,” “Kidnapped” and, most famously, “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Unlike other iconic literary figures of the nineteenth century though—Poe, Dickens, Wilde, to name a few—Stevenson, for many, remains a cipher.
Before she started researching her new novel, “Under the Wide and Starry Sky,” Nancy Horan didn’t know much about him either. “I probably read ‘Jekyll and Hyde,’ ‘Treasure Island,’ and ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’ in high school, possibly ‘Kidnapped,’” she told me. “That was about it. I thought of him as a boy’s adventure writer.” Read the rest of this entry »
Gary Shteyngart has cornered the market on the fairly useless modern invention: the book trailer. Along with his famous lil’ buddy, James Franco, he’s managed to go viral more than once. He was one of the first authors to popularize the book trailer for “Super Sad True Love Story,” also featuring Franco, with Shteyngart as an immigrant writer who could barely read or write English. The trailer for his memoir, “Little Failure,” features Franco and Shteyngart as a couple in pink bathrobes, where Franco overshadows his lover with his own recent memoir, “Fifty Shades of Gary.” Aside from yet another opportunity for Franco to play Is He or Isn’t He? the trailer really does showcase the humor contained in “Little Failure,” but what it doesn’t hint at is the quite serious approach he takes to examining his own role as a male Russian immigrant to New Jersey and how that has informed his writing and his development as a person.
Shteyngart excels when he steps back to examine the cultural and familial pressure he’s under to succeed. The book is filled with some frankly stunning images of the artist as a child, with all the fear and anxiety written plainly on the younger version of the face we know from those book trailers. In one rather bizarre image, he’s climbing what appears to be an indoor jungle gym—it turns out his father built a ladder in the living room for him to conquer his fear of heights, and he was encouraged to climb a bit higher every day. He writes about the casual violence he suffers as a child at the hands of his parents, swift blows to the head and neck, the sort of thing that goads him through his teens and adulthood. He never names the relationship he had with his parents as abusive, but calling out his parents for their behavior drives most of the book. “Little Failure,” for example, is a pet name his mother called him, translated from the Russian. Read the rest of this entry »
Reading “The Sun Also Rises” at age twelve, I counted the cocktails and the beers and the absinthes and realized Hemingway had a problem. Around that same age, Olivia Laing woke up to her mother’s alcoholic partner screaming and shortly found herself barricaded with the rest of her family in a bedroom. Like the rest of the world, I turned my experience into a punch line involving writers and alcohol, but Laing alchemized her brush with darkness into a book. “The Trip to Echo Spring” is an examination of some of America’s best writers and notorious alcoholics, a subject that ordinarily exemplifies cliché. But Laing’s dazzling prose and fervent dedication banish the vultures of cliché from circling in a work of literary analysis that should thrill the curious amateur and delight the picky scholar.
Take the title, from a line from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” where Brick refers to a liquor cabinet and its contents. Laing dissects all the levels on which “the trip to echo spring” works as a metaphor, but the sheer fact that she highlights it as a metaphor already bodes well for the book’s originality, even if the subjects are familiar ones. Tennessee Williams, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Cheever, Carver and Berryman (Laing apologizes for not including women writers, feeling that would hit a little close to home) are the subjects of a meandering pilgrimage the British writer takes through America to see their places of inspiration: New York, New Orleans, Key West, Chicago, Washington State. It’s a journey only the keenest of fans would take, the sheer stretch of land insurmountable. And with the writers chosen, the catalogue might as well be too. Laing, though, picks the works of her muses delicately. Read the rest of this entry »
Gene Wolfe’s “The Land Across” is a novel that’s terribly difficult to summarize. (The jacket copy tries valiantly but ultimately ends up only tangentially relating to the book’s actual arc.) It’s told to us by Grafton, a writer of travel books. Grafton has traveled to the book’s eponymous but unnamed nation to be the first to write a travel guide of the place, despite the nation’s dubious record of arresting travelers at the border. (It is telling of Grafton that when he mentions this he says, “It just made me more determined than ever.”) The moment that Grafton enters the nation, he is beaten by a trio of border guards, his passport is confiscated, he is detained for not having his passport, and is foisted into the custody of a man who the government isn’t fond of. Grafton’s immediate goal becomes getting his passport back so he can return home. Sounds straightforward so far, yes?
Grafton’s subsequent path isn’t. At one point in the novel, Grafton’s main concerns are having an affair with the wife of his jailer and searching for a lost treasure in a spooky house. At another point he is abducted by an order of religious fanatics in rebellion against the government to read their propaganda before landing himself in a prison of the JAKA, the nation’s secret police. Then, when his cellmate and fellow American Russ Rathaus escapes using a life-sized voodoo doll, he finds himself in the employ of his jailers. There are satanic cults, ghostly animated hands, and an obviously corrupt church. To say the plot of “The Land Across” is complicated is an understatement. Read the rest of this entry »
On the radio, Greg Kot is a congenial guy. WBEZ, after all, is not a station dedicated to music programming, and this fact forces “Sound Opinions” to extend their reach beyond music fans, something Kot and co-host Jim DeRogatis accomplish with expertise, luring in listeners more likely to stay tuned for talk radio than to turn the dial in search of actual songs. In print, this broadening approach backfires, as Kot has the uncanny ability to evaporate behind his prose, a skill both enviable and alienating, offering the author a backseat ride through his own book.
The occasions that call for critical analysis are many in “I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the March Up Freedom’s Highway,” though Kot seldom takes advantage. The Staple Singers were a remarkable gospel group who transitioned into mainstream fame during an era when they were confronted by both religious and racial orthodoxy; yet life events that call for greater reflection in the wake of this context, the suicide of young Cynthia Staples for instance, or Mavis’ divorce, receive no such treatment. How is it possible for the gem of gospel groups to endure sacrilege? The question is left unasked. Read the rest of this entry »
A lot of “Meaty”’s reviews can be summed up this way: “lol omg this girl is talking about how she craps her pants she’s so awesome.” Reading reviews like this, one gets the idea that all Samantha Irby talks about is shit. This is very off-putting if one does not want to read about shit. And it’s very unfair to this slim essay collection, reducing it to a defecation bonanza. So perhaps it’s a good thing Newcity is late to the reviewing feast upon “Meaty.”
Most people would be annoyed, eyebrows raised, a knowing smirk, if upon meeting someone for the first time, they mentioned within five minutes that they wanted a MacBook Pro, they vomited on the train three times in the past eight months, and they needed some more friends. For some reason—her utter lack of guile, perhaps—Irby comes off as charming rather than spoiled or demanding. And eventually, the reason for this tone’s revealed. A girl who grew up taking care of an invalid mother, who accepted her lack of good looks at an early age, who liked hanging out with the moms at parties, who never had anyone to show her how to balance a checkbook: this girl cannot be spoiled. It’s just not possible. At the risk of armchair psychology, her past might be why Irby is so into spoiling herself. Read the rest of this entry »
By Megan Kirby
Today, the nineties are glorified as a golden era for independent publishing, a decade when every photocopier ran hot with the printing of punk-rock fanzines and weird-out mini-comics. A lucky few made it big, releasing polished graphic novels with big-name comics publishers. Most just got tired and left the days of staple-bound periodicals behind them.
Through decades of DIY publishing shifts, there’s been a stubborn constant: “King-Cat Comix and Stories,” a zine that John Porcellino has self-published since 1989, and which is released today through his own distro, Spit and a Half. Porcellino started “King-Cat” when he was in high school with simple line comics and hand-written stories about punk rock and mental health, along with tongue-in-cheek fantasy sequences. (One early issue was dedicated to Porcellino’s fictional love affair with Madonna). He often wrote about Illinois, exploring his hometown of Hoffman Estates and the suburbs around Chicago. Read the rest of this entry »
“The giddy Poles,” as a Ukrainian author called them, are a freedom-loving people, yet they have lived under tyranny for most of three centuries, most severely punished in the last. In World War II, Poland’s Jewish population was virtually exterminated, and millions more perished. This tragedy was followed immediately by a Communist rule that afforded little opportunity for shedding ghosts.
In his brilliant major novel originally published in 1984, Wieslaw Mysliwski has by accretion, “Stone Upon Stone” as in its title, demonstrated how one man—if imperfectly—rebuilt his life under such circumstances. (Of the novel’s English translation in 2011, this reviewer wrote in Newcity, “As for this ‘Stone,’ you will not want to put it down.”)
Now comes Mysliwski with a compelling new novel—his second to win the Polish Nike Prize for literature—again adroitly rendered into English by Bill Johnston, in which he reveals not just the layers of a man’s life, but those of a nation’s memory and history, by unwrapping it; hence the title “A Treatise on Shelling Beans.” Read the rest of this entry »