The Gift of the Banya: An Enlightening and Freeing Journey Through the Russian Baths

Book Reviews, Memoir, Nonfiction No Comments »

with light steam

“With Light Steam: A Personal Journey through the Russian Baths,” by Bryon MacWilliams, captures the fractured identity of contemporary Russia with high fidelity in a way that is at once tender and clear-eyed. This book is introspective American travel writing at its best. A genre-defying mosaic of memoir, historical research and a reflection on time and place, “With Light Steam” is easily in a league with “Travels in Siberia,” by Ian Frazier for spectacular American travel writing on Russia.

MacWilliams takes the reader on an insightful, but never belabored tour of the history of Russian baths, which play a major role in the nation’s history if for no other reason than that many major events of Russian history occurred in these steamy rooms (e.g. in an act that initiated the early Russian state as an independent power, its matriarch, Princess Olga, burned to death an entire delegation of Drevlians—a rival tribe—in a banya to revenge her husband’s death). Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Chicago Portraits” by Chicago Tribune Staff

Book Reviews, Nonfiction No Comments »

chicago portraitsRECOMMENDED

“Chicago Portraits” has a simple but noble mission: to celebrate Chicago while highlighting the hard work of Chicago Tribune newsroom photographers, whose names often go unnoticed. While the digital age has cataloged images for all to enjoy, it has also opened doors to intellectual property theft, making it easy for one to print or distribute images and rob photographers, both famous and not so famous, of royalties. Furthermore, technical innovations like tablets, the smartphone, camera apps and social media have allowed too many users to fancy themselves as talented, knowledgeable photographers. This line of thinking hurts the public every bit as much as the professional lensman or woman with a lifetime of craftsmanship: the public expects less of the art itself while legions of trained and talented artists suffer in oblivion. This handsome coffee-table volume offers a chance to momentarily reverse this hateful trend and take in photographs with the proper printing (and credit) their authors deserve. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Lies, First Person” by Gail Hareven; Translated by Dalya Bilu

Fiction No Comments »

lies, first personRECOMMENDED

Unlike the minority of novelists who frame their stories as discovered texts, Israeli novelist Gail Hareven has her narrator swear off truth entirely by announcing, “You should never believe writers, even when they pretend to be telling the truth. Everything that’s written here is pure fiction.” Hareven’s “Lies, First Person” begins with Elinor Brandeis happily living in Jerusalem. Her grown children thrive abroad, her loving husband Oded is a successful lawyer, and she pens a beloved newspaper column. Elinor’s paradise is interrupted by the unexpected call of her estranged uncle, who she refers to as the “Not-Man.” Her husband’s family believes her estrangement with Professor Aaron Gotthilf’s is the result of his controversial “Hitler, First Person,” a terrible fictional autobiography of the holocaust’s architect, but only Oded knows the cause is his rape and abuse of Elinor’s sister Elisheva. Shaken by Gotthilf’s intrusion, and further still by a visit to Elisheva’s home in rural Illinois, Elinor descends into madness and murder. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “We Are Pirates” by Daniel Handler

Book Reviews, Fiction No Comments »

we are pirates - handlerDaniel Handler, better known as Lemony Snicket, does write the occasional book for adults, in addition to his wildly popular books for younger readers. “We Are Pirates” is his first novel specifically for adults in a few years; however, it does read a bit like a YA novel. This is perhaps because the main character is a girl of fourteen, Gwen, who does, although, engage in adult behavior like pillaging on the high seas. Gwen is punished for shoplifting with a stint at a nursing home, where she becomes attached to an elderly gentleman with Alzheimer’s disease. The old man loves fiction about pirates and soon he and Gwen hatch a harebrained scheme to become pirates in the San Francisco Bay.

Unfortunately, Handler’s novel never seems to come together. It suffers from stifled dialogue, quite unusual for him, and moves awkwardly from teenage discontent to parental anxiety to sudden violence. While clearly influenced by the language and impulsive characters of pirate literature, “We Are Pirates” doesn’t achieve the thrill of some of those great books like the obscure, strange and wonderful “A High Wind in Jamaica.” Gwen and the old man’s journey is more one of confusion, whereby “being at sea” is a too-obvious metaphor for the drifting mind of the very young and the very old. Read the rest of this entry »

On Race and Racetracks: Mark Wisniewski Discusses His New Novel, “Watch Me Go”

Fiction, Uncategorized No Comments »

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By Christine Sneed

I first became acquainted with Milwaukee native Mark Wisniewski’s writing when I read his excellent short story “Straightaway” in the 2008 edition of “The Best American Short Stories.” The story’s main character, Douglas “Deesh” Sharp, is also one of the two main characters in “Watch Me Go,” Wisniewski’s compelling and suspenseful third novel.

“Watch Me Go” is a work of literary suspense set in multiple locations in New York State, the story focusing on Jan, a white woman from Arkansas, and on Bronx-born Deesh. Their involvement is risky; the secrets they’re privy to both endanger them and can save each other’s lives. The book takes on weightier themes, racial and economic injustice among them, than Wisniewski’s earlier novels, “Confessions of a Polish Used Car Salesman” and “Show Up, Look Good.” As Wisniewski told me in an email, his new novel “puts American hatreds in front of readers’ faces and says, ‘Come on—we can do better than this.’” Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Herbie Hancock: Possibilities” by Herbie Hancock (With Lisa Dickey)

Biography No Comments »

Herbie Hancock - PossibilitiesRECOMMENDED

Chicago-born piano wizard Herbie Hancock aptly opens his autobiography by recalling a Stockholm concert when he played the wrong chord with the Miles Davis Quartet: “Miles pauses for a fraction of a second, and then he plays some notes that somehow, miraculously, make my chord sound right… And then Miles just took off from there, unleashing a solo that took the song in a new direction. The crowd went absolutely crazy.” That night, Davis (who famously said, “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.”) ultimately offered the young Hancock a musical direction for life: integrating the “wrong” chord into the performance matters more than playing the “right” chord. Perhaps Davis reiterated the advice when he warned Hancock against playing “butter notes,” or to just “play nothin’” when not knowing what to play. Jazz isn’t unlike theater, or life itself: silence is powerful, and listening is everything. Jazz is no place for safety; copying anyone, or reproducing last night’s performance, is deadly. Read the rest of this entry »

Cheering Like Drunk Soccer Moms: LitMash Aims to be the Ultimate Cross-Genre Slam

Lit Events No Comments »

JW_reduced

J.W. Basilo probably wouldn’t describe himself as a freedom fighter, but that just might be what he is. His live lit show LitMash, presented by Chicago Slam Works, is breaking down barriers, proving that labels don’t define us; we are more than that, better than that! A poet doesn’t only need to socialize with (or compete against) poets, for goodness sake. They can journey beyond the enjambed line, befriending paragraphs and one-liners along the way.

At least that’s Basilo’s vision for LitMash, which usually runs the first Monday of every month in the Drinking and Writing Theater at Haymarket Pub & Brewery. The nondiscriminatory literature slam puts poets, storytellers, essayists and standup comics side by side—as long as the piece is six minutes or less, anything goes. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “My Florence: A 70-Year Love Story” by Art Shay

Art Books, Book Reviews, Chicago Authors, Memoir No Comments »

florence shayRECOMMENDED

Chicago photographer Art Shay—the same man who photographed royalty, presidents, sports figures and historical moments like the 1968 Democratic Convention—now presents us with a collection of photographs featuring his “beloved wife and model,” and owner of Titles, Inc. for more than thirty years, the sprightly Florence Shay.

One of the very first photographs in “My Florence: A 70-Year Love Story,” is from the Shays’ 1944 honeymoon, in which a twenty-two-year-old Art in U.S. Air Force uniform looks upon his beaming bride with enormous adoration in his eyes, clearly enamored. He looks grateful to be in such close proximity to someone so beautiful and full of life. The photographs in Shay’s latest collection portray his late wife’s brimming effervescence in that same spirit of reverence and love. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Veronica Mars (2): Mr. Kiss and Tell” by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham

Fiction, Young Adult No Comments »

Veronica Mars Mr. Kiss and TellRECOMMENDED

Veronica Mars fans (also known as “Marshmallows”) have yet another book to assuage their separation anxiety following the television show’s tragic cancellation. The book is full of favorite characters and plenty of LoVe (shorthand for Logan and Veronica). Co-written by Rob Thomas with Jennifer Graham, they perfectly capture the tone of the spunky neo-noir detective series.

In “Mr. Kiss and Tell,” a girl is found half-dead, beaten and raped. The hotel where the girl was last seen hires the Mars detective agency to help prove their (lack of) liability. The victim is none other than Grace Manning, little sister of Meg, who in one of the series’ perhaps more soap-opera-like storylines, died, after being in a coma, pregnant, with Veronica Mars’ ex-boyfriend’s baby. Read the rest of this entry »

Reformer on Reformer: Leigh Buchanan Bienen Documents the Legacy of Crusader Florence Kelley

Chicago Authors, History, Memoir, Nonfiction No Comments »

Leigh Bienen 08-16-12

By Amy Friedman

“After a few months in Chicago, Florence Kelley’s soft-voiced but electric style of public speaking, as well as her magnetic personality and her demonstrated commitment, made her prominent among the advocates for the cause whose day had come.” While Leigh Buchanan Bienen here describes her book’s subject, the factory inspector, reformer, attorney, writer and mother who fought for the rights of workers and children in 1890s Chicago, these words could have just as easily been written about the author herself. As an attorney and champion of just causes, Bienen fought tirelessly to abolish the death penalty, first in New Jersey and then in Illinois. She also served as Director of the Chicago Historical Homicide Project that transcribed handwritten documents into online records, making data available to the public on more than 14,000 homicides in Chicago between 1870 and 1930. Bienen is a prolific writer and a senior lecturer at Northwestern University School of Law, among many other accomplishments. Reading her latest book, it’s easy to see why Florence Kelley, a fellow Cornell graduate, attorney and advocate for the underdog, became Bienen’s focus.

The book unfolds through a unique format that weaves together three distinct narratives: Kelley’s private struggles as a single mother of three living in Jane Addams’ Hull-House and her public accomplishments as a factory inspector pushing for legal protections for workers in the late nineteenth century; Bienen’s personal account of life as the wife of Henry Bienen, fifteenth president of Northwestern University, as well as her professional efforts to end the death penalty; and the changing modern political landscape that in so many ways mirrors the struggles and events of Kelley’s world. Read the rest of this entry »