Review: “Where To? A Hack Memoir” by Dmitry Samarov

Book Reviews, Chicago Authors, Chicago Publishers, Memoir No Comments »

wheretoRECOMMENDED

I wish I’d had a taxi driver like Dmitry Samarov when I immigrated to Chicago. Our driver got lost on the way from O’Hare Airport, pulled over on a dark, midnight road by the Des Plaines River so we could check our map, then crashed through roadwork and over a bunch of orange traffic cones. Samarov seems a more careful driver, a meticulous observer of people and a sharp storyteller.

“Where To? A Hack Memoir” is a series of linked vignettes that are wry, hilarious and sometimes melancholic. Samarov, the immigrant “progeny of Soviet intelligentsia and an art school graduate,” describes the cab driver as a passing presence who sees the ugly, the beautiful and the inexplicable. Cab drivers are frequently immigrants, former professionals, now “forced back down to the bottom rung of the societal ladder.” They contend with a gritty city and ruthless cops. The bureaucracy is a time-sucking revenue collector, its authority figures despotic. Passengers are lovelorn, snowbound, disabled, drunk, sweet, amusing, obnoxious and sometimes famous. We glimpse it all. Read the rest of this entry »

Snow Problem: Bill Roorbach Discusses His New Novel, “The Remedy for Love”

Author Profiles, Fiction No Comments »
Photo: Sarah A. Sloane

Photo: Sarah A. Sloane

By Christine Sneed

“The Remedy for Love,” Bill Roorbach’s third novel, is a suspenseful and sexy novel set in western Maine during the lead-up to and the dramatic onslaught of a blizzard. Eric, an attorney in his mid-thirties, his marriage on the skids, closes his law office early and on the way home stops to buy the ingredients for a meal he plans to cook for his estranged wife. At the store, he ends up helping out Danielle, a young woman in need of a haircut, a clean coat, and a few bucks when she comes up short at the register. After making up the difference, Eric continues to play the good Samaritan and drives her several miles out of town to the cabin in the woods she’s squatting in.

Through a series of mishaps that, due to the approaching blizzard, Eric realizes could prove fatal, he’s forced to take refuge in the cabin with Danielle, who is at best a very reluctant host. Over the course of the next few days, while the temperature drops and foot after foot of snow falls from the sky, this couple gets to know each other very well. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Thrown” by Kerry Howley

Book Reviews, Nonfiction, Sports No Comments »

Howley7RECOMMENDED

Disclaimer: I’m not a fan of fighting. My teen son was a wrestler and endured his share of cauliflower ear, knee injuries, concussion and all-or-nothing coaches. My husband made a documentary about head injuries in sport, so I tend to be squeamish and protective of the human body. I therefore approached “Thrown” with caution.

It’s a layered, complex work about MMA fighters, their ambitions, obsessions and myth-making. Out of sweaty training basements and small-town fighting cages in the Midwest, we meet fighters Erik and Sean. Why do they fight? We are asked to weigh their world of “ecstatic experience” against the alternative offered by the healthy-minded, with their pre-natal yoga and gluten-free diets, “their dull if long lives of quietist self-preserving conformism.” By the end of the book, I’m in with the fighters. Read the rest of this entry »

Hot Money: Ian Morris Discusses his Debut Novel, “When Bad Things Happen to Rich People”

Author Profiles, Chicago Authors, Chicago Publishers, Debut Novel or Collection, Fiction No Comments »

BadRichBy Christine Sneed

“When Bad Things Happen to Rich People” is Chicago-based writer and founder of Fifth Star Press Ian Morris’ funny and briskly paced debut novel, a social satire set in Chicago during the lethally hot summer of 1995. The novel’s protagonist, Nix Walters, is an adjunct instructor of English at a communications college in the Loop, where he has few prospects for advancement. When Nix was still in his early twenties, he became a literary punch line when his first and only novel, touted as the next big literary phenomenon, was universally panned by critics.  Now, years later, his pregnant wife Flora and he are struggling financially.

Their fortunes change, however, when Nix is asked to ghostwrite the memoirs of publishing magnate Zira Fontaine. Although grateful for the lavish author fee, Nix quickly finds his marriage, his career and his identity threatened as he struggles to retain his self-respect as both writer and teacher while working on Fontaine’s memoir. His marriage is going off the rails and Nix must also navigate a board-led insurrection at Fontaine’s corporation. These tensions come to a turbulent climax when a brutal heat wave hits the city. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Carnival at Bray” by Jessie Ann Foley

Chicago Authors, Debut Novel or Collection, Fiction, Young Adult No Comments »

Carnival_at_Bray_FrontCoverRECOMMENDED

“There will be time to do the responsible thing.” Those words will echo with readers long after they finish “The Carnival at Bray,” the debut novel by local writer and English teacher Jessie Ann Foley. The responsible thing: sixteen-year-old Maggie Lynch—a Chicagoan transplanted via her mom’s whirlwind remarriage to a man from the windy shores of Ireland—just going to school. Not going to the Nirvana concert in Rome, like her Uncle Kevin wants her to. Especially not with the boy she just met, Eoin, who can hold her so close when they dance. It’s 1994, before cell phones and Facebook, and everything is possible.

So there’s romance and music, staples of YA fiction. Dysfunctional family complete with bartender single mother and rock star uncle who’ve never really grown up? Check. Protagonist transported to strange and unfamiliar place and not entirely sure she likes it? Yep. But the specificity of place, whether it’s Chicago, Ireland, or Italy, carry this book to places far beyond the expected. The curls of ham on a pizza, the smell of goat pee in the morning, a nun’s wimple taking on the exact shape of cabbage—these moments spring off the page. Even the minor characters of Bray, Ireland, are sketched with fondness, as Maggie makes friends with a wily ninety-nine-year-old farmer and confidences in a scholarly yet steadfast English teacher nun. And for all the implausibility of the escape Maggie plans to undertake, there’s the endless plausibility of the working-class Chicago family dynamic, full of contradiction and throbbing expectation, that drives her to Rome. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Belzhar” by Meg Wolitzer

Book Reviews, Fiction, Young Adult No Comments »

belzharRECOMMENDED

After her first love dies, Jam Gallahue’s parents enroll her in a school for the “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent” teen to recover from her emotional distress. So begins Meg Wolitzer’s new young adult novel, “Belzhar.”

So deeply in love was Jam that she’s not able to function as she did before. “Reeve was different from the boys I knew—all those Alexes, Joshes, and Matts. It wasn’t just his name. He had a look that none of them had: very smart, slouching and lean, with skinny black jeans hanging low over knobby hip bones.” Wolitzer fans dubious of forays into young-adult literature should breathe easily: that sentence doesn’t end with “and he was a vampire.”

While Wolitzer seems like the quintessentially adult writer, from the sharp wit of “The Wife” to the ambitious, decades-spanning “The Interestings,” she’s acutely aware of that that teenage soul is nothing if not fraught with drama. More like her fairy tale-ish “The Uncoupling,” Belzhar treads fearlessly into fantasy. Jam’s school isn’t an institution, this is no “Girl, Interrupted,” although that is close to what’s happened to our young heroine.  Every student in the school is dealing with emotional problems and, presumably, has very wealthy parents to bankroll their child’s emotionally sheltering private education.

Read the rest of this entry »

Critical Force: Make Way for Roxane Gay and Her “Bad Feminist” Self

Author Profiles, Chicago Authors, Debut Novel or Collection, Essays No Comments »

roxanegayBy Amy Beth Danzer

It was this year’s AWP Conference in Seattle when I first came in contact with the tour de force that is Roxane Gay. After an evening of readings, publishing-house parties and general carousing, a crew of us found ourselves in the lobby of one of the main hotels hosting the conference, where the likes of Tobias Wolff or Richard Bausch could be spotted waiting for an elevator. As we made our way toward the hotel bar, my friend Adrienne stopped and gasped, “Oh my god, that’s Roxane Gay! I love her.” There she was in unassuming jeans and t-shirt, the ubiquitous culture critic who Flavorwire declared one of 25 Women Poised to Lead the Culture in 2014, Roxane Gay. I knew about her, but was not yet intimate with her work. Adrienne on the other hand was a confirmed admirer and devoted follower. As soon as an opportunity arose, she jumped at the chance to discuss with Gay the very important matter of Juan Pablo Galavis, the then-new Bachelor, and his romantic interests, Ferrell and Crawley. Though not a fan of the show myself, I was thoroughly entertained by the conversation and thoroughly impressed by Gay, who was clearly an intellectual, informed and sophisticated, yet still able to speak vox populi—a combination I dig in people, especially in writers. I needed more of a fix, which was all too easy to satisfy; she and her work are everywhere. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Game We Play” by Susan Hope Lanier

Book Reviews, Chicago Authors, Chicago Publishers, Debut Novel or Collection, Story Collections No Comments »

TGWP_coverRECOMMENDED

When dealing with short story collections that aren’t what we like to think of as “novels in stories,” there’s an overriding philosophy that the first and last stories are usually the best two stories of the collection. The stuff in between is usually good, sure, but first and last stories are there to anchor the collection at both ends. The first story entices you to read the collection, while the last should send you off with an overwhelmingly positive opinion so strong you forget any duds that were in the middle. What makes Susan Hope Lanier’s debut collection “The Game We Play” odd then is that I don’t think it’s necessarily arranged this way.

Nevertheless, the biggest knock I can give against Lanier’s debut is that my favorite stories are buried in the middle. Not that the collection’s opener, “How Tommy Soto Breaks Your Heart,” doesn’t manage to entice, combining teenage angst and the aftermath of 9/11 to create a nice little flash piece, but it has a hard time competing with “Sophie Salmon” and “Felicia Sassafrass is Fiction.” “Sophie Salmon” is the story I would describe as more or less the collection’s heart: an optimistic, funny and touching love story that’s incited by what is likely the impending doom of its titular character. “Felicia Sassafrass is Fiction,” on the other hand, is the most adventurous piece of short fiction that I’ve read in a long time. It’s most easily described as like that part of “Breakfast of Champions” where Kurt Vonnegut decides to drop in on Kilgore Trout, but even as the biggest Vonnegut fan in existence, I have to admit Lanier is better at using language to position the author’s relationship with her creation, mocking the cliché gestures she gives Felicia, “She crosses her arms or falls to the floor, her eyes turning into two watering stop signs.” “Felicia Sassafrass is Fiction” does an exemplary job of capturing the kinks in the creative process; I’m a sucker for stories like that. Read the rest of this entry »

Building Stories: A Conversation with Rebecca Makkai about the Construction of her Novel, “The Hundred-Year House”

Author Profiles, Chicago Authors No Comments »
Photo: Ryan Fowler

Photo: Ryan Fowler

By Brian Hieggelke

I live in a loft, in a printing factory built in 1883. Sometimes I daydream by gazing at a spot in our home, where perhaps an HDTV or a contemporary couch now sits, and wonder about that very space a century or more ago. What kind of workers perched there day after day? What kind of lives did they lead? What, if anything, did they talk about as they cranked out the original “Tarzan” novels and other fare?

This kind of curiosity drives Chicago writer Rebecca Makkai’s second novel, the delightful “The Hundred-Year House.” Zee, a troubled English professor, and her husband Doug, a literary scholar who’s having a hard time making progress with his exploration of a now-obscure poet’s legacy, have just moved into her family’s coach house on the North Shore, on a property that once served as an artists’ colony. What unfolds is something of a literary mystery with an original structure: Before long, we’ve abandoned Zee and Doug and their unanswered questions and visit the house in an earlier time, and then in another even earlier, each leap backward illuminating the narrative as we go. It’s a smart book, full of delicious turns of phrase and pieces of “found” documents, poems, letters, etc. that mesmerize once you’ve crossed its threshold.

Makkai grew up and lives a middle-class life on the gilded streets of the North Shore, a juxtaposition that informs her writing with a mix of insider and outsider perspective. The mother of two young children published her debut novel, “The Borrower,” in 2011 and will add a story collection featuring several of her “Best American Short Stories” winners, called “Music for Wartime,” to her list next summer. Not to mention her writings for Harper’s magazine and her work on a memoir about a grandmother she never really knew, one who’d been the leading lady of the Hungarian stage and a very successful novelist in that country back in her day. We had a lot to talk about when we had lunch. Read the rest of this entry »

Starting at Endings: Garnett Kilberg Cohen Discusses Her New Story Collection, “Swarm to Glory”

Author Profiles, Chicago Authors, Story Collections No Comments »
Photo: Lynn Sloan

Photo: Lynn Sloan

By Christine Sneed

I first became familiar with Columbia College professor Garnett Kilberg Cohen’s stories a couple of years ago when I read one of her two previous collections, “Lost Women, Banished Souls.” Immediately apparent in these stories is Garnett’s light touch and her talent at writing about love in its many complex permutations. When she asked me this past spring if I’d be willing to read an advance copy of her newest story collection and, if I liked it, send her Milwaukee-based publisher, Wise Blood Books, a blurb, I was happy to do so. Many of these new stories balance on the narrow, spiked fence between comedy and tragedy, and love—its protean nature especially—is again a key theme. Garnett and I recently exchanged some thoughts about “Swarm to Glory.” Read the rest of this entry »