Fiction Review: “Visions of Anna” by Richard Engling and “She Plays in Darkness” by Fern Chertkow

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RECOMMENDEDvisions of anna

Each artistic endeavor, to one degree or another, symbolizes a quest for immortality. The tragic irony, of course, is that most art does not survive. For every Shakespeare play taught in schools, produced on stage, and adapted into feature films, countless other plays dissolve into the ether of history, unacted, unread, untouched. Read the rest of this entry »

Larger Than Life: Scott Blackwood Discusses His Novel “See How Small”

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Scott_Blackwood

Scott Blackwood/Photo: Tommi Ferguson

By Christine Sneed

Evanston-based fiction writer Scott Blackwood’s new novel, “See How Small,” has been garnering the kind of reviews that writers dream of, along with notices from esteemed writers such as Ben Fountain, Margot Livesey, and Daniel Woodrell.

“See How Small” begins on a late autumn evening in Austin, Texas, when two strangers enter an ice cream shop shortly before closing time and murder the three girls working the counter. The book is a tale about the survivors—family members, witnesses, and suspects—enduring the tragedy’s aftermath. “See How Small” addresses the consequences of the girls’ deaths during the ensuing years, navigating how the crimes affect those closest to them and the girls themselves, whose voices still echo after their deaths. The teenagers hover among the living, watching over the town, attempting to connect with those left behind. “See how small a thing it is that keeps us apart,” they say. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Jillian” by Halle Butler

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RECOMMENDEDjillian

Halle Butler’s debut novel “Jillian” is the story of two ordinary, unhappy women stuck in lives they did not anticipate.

Megan is a twenty-four-year-old working in a gastroenterology office in a well-off neighborhood in Chicago. Her coworker, Jillian, is a thirty-five-year-old woman who commutes in from the suburbs where she lives with her young son. All of Megan’s self-loathing and hatred gets siphoned toward Jillian, a woman she can’t stop talking about. Which isn’t to say Jillian doesn’t deserve criticism. She’s a disaster—driving on an expired license, adopting a dog she can’t afford, and developing an embarrassingly mild addiction to low-grade pain relievers. But she is certainly no worse than Megan who furiously resents her office job and the successes of her friends. So while on the surface Jillian seems like the polar opposite of Megan (after all she’s sickeningly upbeat and has goals, something Megan noticeably lacks), as the book progresses you realize that the women are alike in their unhappiness; they just handle it in different ways. Read the rest of this entry »

Live Lit Review: Naked Girls Reading Series

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Michelle L'amour/Photo: LaPhotographie Nashville

Michelle L’amour/Photo: LaPhotographie Nashville

Like so many good things, the Naked Girls Reading series materialized from a happy accident. When international showgirl Michelle L’amour’s husband Franky Vivid happened upon her reading in the buff one eve, inspiration set in. The two of them first thought of nakedgirlsreading.com as a funny, novel idea. But after a test run with a couple of willing burlesque troupe members, Naked Girls Reading took form and took off. The show just celebrated its sixth year and now has chapters in twenty-five cities across the world, with three more in the works, one of which is slated to open in Berlin.

The show is exactly as it sounds: a live literary event where unclothed women read. Michelle L’amour and The Chicago Starlets–Honey Halfpint, Greta Layne, Lady Ginger, and Sophia Hart–enter the candlelit room in silky dressing gowns and before they sit down to lounge on a Victorian sofa or plush chair to read, they disrobe completely. They’re adorned only by extended eyelashes, a distinguishing something or other–ruby earrings, horn-rimmed glasses, purple velvet pumps–and gorgeous cravats provided by Sammy the Tramp, a local Vaudevillian performer and Mash Up Tie merchandiser. Read the rest of this entry »

Kinetic Vaudeville: The Paper Machete Marks Five Years as “Chicago’s Weekly Live Magazine”

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Chad the Bird - Paper Machete

Think vaudeville meets The Daily Show. Think The Nation meets Mad magazine. Think jazz concert on the floor of the Senate. Think funny. Really funny. Then, think serious. Think all those things and what you have is The Paper Machete—Chicago’s weekly, live magazine.

Held every Saturday afternoon at the Green Mill, the show is the brainchild of host Christopher Piatt and this January they had their fifth anniversary. As a weekly, that means they’ve done about 250 unique shows featuring comedians, musicians, performance artists, playwrights, sketch comics, live lit performers, puppeteers and anything else you can think of (Piatt’s minister from Kansas recently gave a homily).

Each performer brings skills from their particular field but is required to do a piece that addresses current events. This leads to some interesting juxtapositions: like a rhymed and metered poem comparing “Sex and the City” to “Girls” and a piano ballad entitled “Baby, Please Don’t Vaccinate Your Baby.” Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948 by Noah Berlatsky

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wonder womanRECOMMENDED

The reason I know a smidgen about comics: I hang out with a lot of geeks. Feminist, sex-positive, queer-friendly geeks. They told me the backstory of Wonder Woman’s creator, William Marston, radical psychologist and happy polyamorist. Jill Lepore explored Marston’s home life in “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” but Chicago-based culture and comics writer Noah Berlatsky took a deep dive into the marriage of psychology and artwork that is Marston’s enduring pop culture impact.

Even comics skeptics find Wonder Woman unique and titillating. As Berlatsky rightly points out, she’s been a feminist icon for decades, and among certain circles, a kinky queer one. (Lasso of truth? Ladies-only island? Hmm…) Berlatsky illuminates how Wonder Woman—of World War II inception—nods at that era’s values yet still espoused female superiority and pacifism, slyly winked at lesbianism and even may have stood traditional rape and incest narratives on its head. He also focuses appropriately on the artist, Harry Peter, as well as Marston, and shows how even Peter’s idiosyncratic perspective and anatomy bolster the argument that the series was ahead of its time. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life: Breakup Stories” by Michael Czyzniejewski

Chicago Authors, Chicago Publishers, Fiction, Story Collections No Comments »

breakup storiesRECOMMENDED

Breakup stories, as a genre, have become as clichéd and overdone as their inverse, love stories. Dear John/Jane letters, lipstick-smudged collars, and clothes piled up and doused with bleach have become the tell-tale signs of love affairs that have run their course. Yet writers with sagacity and wit can sidestep such been-there, done-that tropes and elevate the breakup story to new levels. In Michael Czyzniejewski’s short-fiction collection “I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life: Breakup Stories,” readers zigzag through the demise of one relationship after another, some of them long-term romances, others missed connections that crash and burn even before they begin.

Tragicomic incidents involving public masturbation, a lethal peanut butter sandwich, apocalyptic plagues, and Meryl Streep’s breasts open gateways into the pathos that calls out for recognition when a relationship, regardless of its depth or duration, hurdles toward dissolution. Czyzniejewski exhibits an enviable knack for black humor, combining the scathingly urbane with the wickedly boorish, all through a lens that shifts kaleidoscopically from naturalism to postmodernism to magic realism and beyond. Read the rest of this entry »

Tales out of School: Relevancy and Change in Columbia College’s Annual Story Week Festival

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Audrey Petty and Mitchell S. Jackson/Photo: Ben Bowen

Audrey Petty and Mitchell S. Jackson/Photo: Ben Bowen

By Kim Steele

For a literary festival like Columbia College’s Story Week to remain relevant for nineteen years is quite an accomplishment. This year, it succeeded once again by emphasizing the important and unique relationship between literature and current events; demonstrating that literature is a catalyst for all of us to discuss what is happening in the world around us.

In fact, this year’s theme, “The Power of Words” is, in part, a reaction to the violence in our city and world in the past few months. Eric May, the artistic director of Story Week and an associate professor in creative writing at Columbia, notes how the desire to remain pertinent influences which authors they host as well as the focus of the various panels. In fact, the panel “Fighting Violence: The Power of Words” addressed the relationship between violence and literature head on. It featured Kevin Coval (the author of “The BreakBeat Poets” and the founder of Louder Than A Bomb), Mitchell S. Jackson (“The Residue Years”), Audrey Petty (editor, “High Rise Stories”) and Miles Harvey (editor, “How Long Will I Cry?”). Read the rest of this entry »

Being Lily: Storytelling and Tamales

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Photo: Luis Perez

Photo: Luis Perez

For Humboldt Parker Lily Be, life is not just a menagerie of thrilling, touching and rip-roaringly hysterical stories. For Lily, it’s personal. And it comes with tamales.

Lily has been a fixture in the storytelling community since 2009. In addition to founding her own show, “Stoop-Style Stories” in August of 2012 with co-host Clarence Browley, Lily has thrown herself into the storytelling scene. She has been featured in an array of programs such as “Do Not Submit,” “I Shit You Not,” “Guts & Glory” and “Essay Fiesta,” to say nothing of countless open mics and appearances on Vocalo and WBEZ, until her appearance at The Moth propelled her into the spotlight, leading to a hands-down victory at The Moth’s StorySLAM competition at the Park West in June of 2013. She was the first Latina to win the competition. Read the rest of this entry »

Understanding Human Performance: Sian Beilock Investigates “How the Body Knows Its Mind”

Author Profiles, Chicago Authors, Nonfiction No Comments »

Sian Beilock_author photoBy Toni Nealie

I struggle to write when I sit at my desk for too long. My students freeze when stressed. Chicagoans pine for sun in winter. “How the Body Knows Its Mind” resonated with me because it identifies the science behind what we feel and suggests simple changes to improve our lives. I caught up with neuropsychologist Sian Beilock after her week of presentations around the country.

What was the impetus for the book? How does it follow the work that you did on human performance in your previous book “Choke”?
I think everyone thinks of the mind as telling the body what to do — our thoughts, our feelings, our learning, our ability to perform — reside in our head. As I started doing research for “Choke” I realized what we do with our bodies and our surroundings have a big impact on how we learn and how we feel. No one was really telling that story. Everyone was telling the story about what happens inside our head. There’s a great story to tell about some simple things we can do to feel better, perform better and learn better if we understand a little bit of the science. Read the rest of this entry »