Poetry Review: “Who’s Afraid of Helen of Troy” by David Lazar

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If you are smart and you like to have a chuckle while you read, then please do yourself a favor and don’t read David Lazar’s clever new book “Who’s Afraid of Helen of Troy: An Essay on Love” in a quiet public place. This erudite romp through romance is to be relished out loud, in the comfort of your own bed or train car—either alone or with some lucky other. Selections might even find themselves on your ex’s voicemail. If you aren’t a scholar of Greek mythology, you might want to keep your aged college texts (or Google) nearby, because you are going to (re)learn a lot. Greek tragedy, after all, has given readers their first roadmap of love. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Papi” by Rita Indiana, translated by Achy Obejas

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Rita Indiana’s novel, “Papi,” translated by Achy Obejas, is entering the American literary scene at a ripe moment for fiction in translation. A famously cited statistic says that only three percent of the books published in the United States are translations, compared with sixteen percent in France or a colossal thirty percent in Poland. However, works of literary fiction in translation have been appearing regularly on the bestseller lists since the 2012 publication of the first of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series and its intimate, visceral description of women grappling with male-dominated violence and class struggle. Read the rest of this entry »

Refugee Poet Burns Bright: Middle Eastern Poets at the Poetry Foundation

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Photo: Iraqi Mutual Aid Society

Assyrian poet Younan Houma at last year’s festival/Photo: Iraqi Mutual Aid Society

Twana Twana carried sixty years of memories from his native Mosul to Chicago’s North Side in 2012. Routine work days as a pharmacist in the old city, or glimpses of his favorite landmark, an imperfectly leaning minaret giving Mosul its nickname “the hunchback,” are cherished memories that shape his poems. Though resettlement has greatly helped his children, like many Iraqi refugees Twana finds himself torn between his birthplace and Chicago. “As a refugee you are like a candle, you burn so that others can see,” he says.

This month, Twana is one of a handful of local Middle Eastern refugee poets reading at the Poetry Foundation’s April 23 Poetry Off the Shelf event, “What We Carried: Poetry by Middle Eastern Refugees.” The festival is cohosted with the Iraqi Mutual Aid Society, a local nonprofit based in West Ridge which serves some of the eight thousand Iraqi refugees resettled in the Chicago area since 2007. Local refugees as well as published Middle Eastern poets will read at the event to shed light on Middle Eastern experiences in the city. Read the rest of this entry »

The Journey, the Perceptions and the Fakery of Nostalgia: Discussing “The Miles Between Me” with Toni Nealie

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Photo: Bruce Sheridan

Photo: Bruce Sheridan

By Amy Danzer

This month, Newcity’s literary editor Toni Nealie releases her debut collection of lyrical essays, entitled “The Miles Between Me.” The essays investigate family mythologies from India and England to New Zealand, Canada and the United States. They explore the range of emotions Nealie experiences as she navigates new landscapes, neighbors and family dynamics, as well as different ways to pass the time, measure distance, travel post-9/11 and deal with loss. Nealie, spurred by her journalistic instinct, infuses the essays with delicious morsels of fascinating facts; her unique vantage point offers fresh perspective on the familiar; and her love of language makes the essays a sheer pleasure to read. I recently had the chance to ask Nealie several questions about her essays via email.

Can you say a little something about the inception of “The Miles Between Me”—what informed the framing of the book?
Moving with my family from Aotearoa New Zealand to the United States weeks before 9/11 flipped my life topsy-turvy. It upended every idea I held about society and myself. All my scaffolding was gone. As a journalist, I had told other people’s stories, but reportage couldn’t get to the heart of my questions. Essaying allowed me to make sense of political and private events. Personal and lyric essays led me to reflect on home, journey and migration. I could ferret out disruptive ideas about parenthood, marriage, race and family history—poking at imagined truths and scratching away at unreliable memories. I could digress and meander and explore without being forced to take a position. Distance and isolation gave me an opportunity to ponder ideas about our flimsy construction of self and our deceptive sense of control. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Getting Right” by Gary D. Wilson

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Getting Right front cover-2


This family saga, Gary D. Wilson’s second novel, centers around three middle-aged siblings from Kansas. In “Getting Right,” the youngest, Connie, develops terminal lung cancer. She requests her unnamed middle sibling, a writer who left Kansas for Chicago and beyond, to record her life story. Ostensibly, that’s what he sets about doing, along with the life of their elder, stroke-stricken brother Len along the way, but at the heart of the novel is the narrator’s own story, of his departure from Kansas and his separation from the people he once called family.
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Fiction Review: “Chicago” by Brian Doyle

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A Mark Twain-like adventure based on the author’s memories of five seasons spent in Chicago right after college, Brian Doyle’s “Chicago” is a loving, lingering look at the indelible mark the city left on him. It beautifully, sometimes nostalgically, captures the narrow window of early adulthood when there is no limit to exploration and discovery, the grace period before time fills up with multiple responsibilities and entrenched habits.

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A Squirrel’s Tale: Elizabeth McKenzie and her “The Portable Veblen”

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Elizabeth McKenzie (c) Linda Ozaki

Photo: Linda Ozaki

By Hugh Iglarsh

Like all fine novels, Elizabeth McKenzie’s “The Portable Veblen” is more than a story. It’s a guidebook to our own moment, pointing out both the sights of real interest and the tourist traps to avoid. McKenzie, author of “Stop That Girl” and “MacGregor Tells the World,” and editor of the Japanese poetry anthology “My Postwar Life,” mingles whimsy and satire in her tale of the courtship of Veblen Amundsen-Hovda and Paul Vreeland. The two are hippie-raised California kids trying to find connection and meaning in an absurd world.

I recently spoke to McKenzie about her life and work. The senior editor of Chicago Quarterly Review, McKenzie has deep Chicago-area roots on both sides of her family. But “The Portable Veblen” is pure California, where high-tech meets pop-psych. The time and place-heavy novel is set in gleaming Palo Alto, near where the real Thorstein Veblen—author of “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” coiner of the phrase “conspicuous consumption” and scourge of the Gilded Age one percent—had his homemade cabin. The curmudgeonly Norwegian-American philosopher (who also wrote “The Higher Learning in America: A Study in Total Depravity”) is Veblen Amundsen-Hovda’s hero as well as namesake, serving as the ethical center of the novel.
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Unionizing College Football: Ben Strauss Discusses “Indentured”

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strauss headshot

Even after researching and writing “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA,” a searing indictment of college sports’ governing body, author Ben Strauss still can’t resist the power of the bracket. “March Madness is still a lot of fun! But at the same time, it’s hard to watch with the same passion as when I was younger knowing that the system is so fundamentally flawed,” Strauss says.

Those flaws are painstakingly catalogued in “Indentured,” co-authored by Joe Nocera. It charts the NCAA’s long history of funneling the spoils of college sports directly to coaches and administrators. The star athletes who generate the estimated $13 billion a year are unpaid “amateurs” and can have their careers taken away for the slightest violation of their amateur status or daring to speak out against the system.

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Live Lit: Reading Under the Influence

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Halfway into round three of trivia, a race had formed in the packed back room of Sheffield’s. Everyone in the audience technically had a point after they unanimously shouted an answer, but two in the crowd had emerged ahead. Before the featured reader continued, co-host Jon Natzke interrupted him to shout, “The only people who should be answering are those with two points.” As a RUI veteran, I know this warning is necessary, as the crowd at “Reading Under the Influence” is a raucous bunch, and with a book and a drink ticket on the line, anything goes. Read the rest of this entry »

Under Chicago’s Shiny Facade: Natalie Moore Discusses “The South Side”

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natalie moore photo. credit David Pierini

Photo: David Pierini

By Toni Nealie

If you ride a bus from the Magnificent Mile south along Michigan Avenue, or take the Green Line west, a cityscape of glossy buildings and lush planters changes to one of boarded windows and cracked sidewalks. Beyond the Loop, the color of the riders changes, a fact noticed by Natalie Moore when she was a teenager. In “The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation,” Moore examines the city’s deep divisions, its history of segregation and the contemporary policies that reinforce racial inequality. “Ending segregation surely won’t end racism,” she says, “but its dismantling will provide better outcomes for black people.”

Moore is the South Side bureau reporter for WBEZ and has published stories in Essence, the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times and elsewhere. She blends reportage, investigative research, family history and her own difficult experiences in this portrait of the city. She discusses redlining, subprime mortgages, racial steering, negative educational policies and retail leakage as the reasons behind intentional black segregation and its accompanying disinvestment, unemployment, high poverty rate and crime. A century after the Great Migration to Chicago began, Moore describes it as a “story of northern racism.” Read the rest of this entry »