Fiction Review: “All the Birds, Singing” by Evie Wyld

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Evie Wyld’s second novel, “All the Birds, Singing” throbs with an undercurrent of violence. The first sentence describes a dead sheep, “vapors rising from her like a steamed pudding.” The protagonist bears a horribly scarred back, and she’s deeply afraid. Jake Whyte, “arm in a sling, looking like a lesbian or a hippy or something,” is not an especially likable character. She’s gruff, aggressive, unfriendly and frightened, but she’s strong and resourceful, too. Wyld tells her story forward and backward. Every other chapter is told from the perspective of either the older Jake or the younger. The older lives in England, on her own sheep farm. Her story is told forward. The younger Jake’s story is told in reverse. She works as a shearer in Australia. The structure might sound confusing but it’s quite easy to follow, although I did get a bit confused when her Australian mates referred to her as a “good bloke.” Apparently it’s a high compliment, even for a woman.

Wyld was named one of Granta’s 20 top British novelists recently, belying an unexpected maturity to her work. Wyld’s chapter featured in Granta’s compilation was by far the standout of the collection. Like the novel, it left the reader with a ferocious ache to know the rest of the story usually reserved for “Homeland” or “Game of Thrones.” Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Something Wrong with Her: A Real-Time Memoir” by Cris Mazza

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“Something Wrong with Her” is an arresting chronicle of the personal consequences of an artist’s sexual dysfunction, caused by a medical condition called a weak pelvic floor. The condition can be treated with physical therapy but in Mazza’s case it remained undiagnosed for decades, deepening the isolation of a gifted author trying to understand why she feels pain when others feel pleasure. That this happened during a sexual revolution of the 1970s and eighties only adds to her self-doubt.

Many narrative levels operate in the book. Striking journals of unhappy relations with men are grafted onto a memoir that is being critiqued by the author’s writing group. Arranged “like the barbs on an arrow” are quotes from Mazza’s numerous published stories and novels, her personal emails, dream logs and high-school yearbook inscriptions. The emails are with a tenor saxophonist friend addressed as “MarkR,” who has a lifelong crush on her. Both experience failed marriages while brooding on the past. Interspersed are useful mantras on creative writing, all this arranged as a jazz fake book, a loose-leaf that musicians used to carry to club dates and wedding gigs. Read the rest of this entry »

The Last Frontier: On Ben Tarnoff’s “The Bohemians”

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thebohemiansBy June Sawyers

When Mark Twain arrived during the waning days of the Gold Rush, San Francisco may have been a frontier city on the rough edge of American life, but it was also fast becoming a literary town with a strong bohemian flavor.

For Twain, it was love at first sight: the Missourian was smitten by the city as soon as he set eyes on it. He loved its rowdy atmosphere, its unpredictability, the feeling that anything could happen here. Twain (still using his given name Samuel Clemens) arrived in San Francisco in 1863, while the Civil War was still raging. Although only twenty-seven, he had already lived a life full of adventure, from piloting steamboats on the mighty Mississippi to wandering through Missouri with Confederate guerrillas.

Twain is one of the four Bohemians in this compelling group portrait by writer Ben Tarnoff. Twain is the best known member by far, but the true leader of the faction, the true literary spokesman of bohemian San Francisco, was Bret Harte, a shy, soft-spoken dandy originally from Albany, New York. The other Bohemians were two now largely obscure figures, author and editor Charles Warren Stoddard and poet Ina Coolbrith. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Can’t and Won’t” by Lydia Davis

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Before starting “Can’t and Won’t,” I knew Lydia Davis as the translator of Proust’s “Swann’s Way,” the first of seven volumes of notoriously dense French modernism. My associating her with such long-windedness is of note because it points out one of the many oddities of Davis as a writer and thinker: she is, to many, best known for her “flash fiction,” stories that are sometimes as brief as a single sentence. Her output is diverse, ranging from startlingly short pieces to epic translations. Her new collection is a bold, brilliant showcase of her sundry talents, its contents a mesmerizing array of largely disconnected stories, letters and translations.

Cumulatively, these heterogeneous storytelling techniques create an atmosphere of disorientation and absurdity, while the shortest pieces, like commas in a long, nonsensical sentence, provide an essential rhythm and structure. They are reminiscent of Tweets or Facebook updates in their brevity and mundanity—qualities for which such writing is often denigrated. By creating tiny stories that stick with you, demand rereading, and appear amid more conventional pieces, however, Davis challenges widely-held beliefs regarding the content, length and purpose of “highbrow” fiction. Read the rest of this entry »

Rewriting the Adolescent Narrative: Megan Milks on “Kill Marguerite”

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photo: Megan Milks

Photo: Megan Milks

By Anne Yoder

I first encountered Megan Milks’ work when we were both fledgling critics for PopMatters. Her writing stood out as intelligent, daring and quite promiscuous in its range of ideas. She went on to found the zine “Mildred Pierce” and contribute to the avant-lit blog Montevidayo. And I’m still reading her today.

Milks’ stories in her debut collection “Kill Marguerite” draw influence from cultures both high and low, from Homer and Joyce to video games and teen magazine columns. They never sit quietly, but rather unsettle convention and defy expectation. In fact, the moment you think you know what’s happening, the story opens into an unexpected black hole, thrusting you into a passage that devours and reconfigures expectations. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Be Safe, I Love You” by Cara Hoffman

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When Lauren Clay returns from her tour of duty in Iraq, everything in her small town seems wrong. When she left, her father could barely care for himself or her kid brother—it’s the main reason she joined the army, so she could support them. When she returns, her father is capably leading the household, everyone is well, except for the dog, who died before her return. But the town looks wrong; every building looks like a façade, and her friends have changed or not changed in ways that don’t make sense. Also, she sees the dog. In “Be Safe, I Love You,” Cara Hoffman’s young soldier does a good job hiding her post-traumatic stress from her loved ones. All her life she’s been the responsible older sister; when she returns from war, her greatest priority is her brother. Without her pack, her gun, and her Kevlar vest, their small town feels as unsafe as a battleground to her.

Hoffman is no stranger to delving deep into the expectations of feminine behavior—her first book, “So Much Pretty,” is devastating and brilliant, a fury-driven story of violence against women. In “Be Safe, I Love You,” she continues to confront feminist issues like the role of the female soldier as well as more challenges of small American towns near army bases: low employment, few professional choices, religion, even a hierarchy of soldiers. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Blood Will Out” by Walter Kirn

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RECOMMENDED BloodWillOut_r3.indd

Some truths, if fictionalized, just wouldn’t be believable. Walter Kirn’s memoir “Blood Will Out” is of that ilk. Quirky characters abound, none quirkier than the book’s subject, Clark Rockefeller himself. But quirky oozes into sinister and downright evil quickly. Clark Rockefeller is no Rockefeller. He’s Christian Gerhartsreiter, German national and con man extraordinaire (but let’s call him Rockefeller; that’s what he likes to be called). Clark’s fairly unbelievable himself. His grandiose lies—he has the keys to Rockefeller Center, he owns a jet propulsion lab and is close personal friends with J.D Salinger—appear remotely possible to Kirn. The rich are different, they say. But when the effusive yet enigmatic gentleman kidnaps his own daughter, his cover is blown, and even more chillingly, he’s linked to an unsolved eighties murder.

Kirn jumps around in time, interviewing friends of the murdered man, recounting his dinners with Clark, and attending Rockefeller’s trial, where the man acts as if Kirn didn’t even exist. This isn’t an investigation into psychopathy; it’s an appraisal of a relationship. Read the rest of this entry »

Toasting the Man Chicago Almost Forgot, Nelson Algren

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NALGRENOn March 29, the Nelson Algren Committee will host the twenty-fifth annual Nelson Algren Birthday Party to honor the man who eternalized Chicago’s “drunks, pimps, prostitutes, freaks, drug addicts, prize fighters, corrupt politicians, and hoodlums” with his books “The Man With the Golden Arm,” “Neon Wilderness,” and “Chicago: City on the Make.”

This year would mark Algren’s 106th birthday—which actually falls on March 28—but  the festivities planned are lively: theater mainstays Donna Blue Lachman and Bob Swann will be presenting Algren’s work with folksinger Mark Dvorak, filmmaker Tom Palazzolo, actor-director Nate Herman, activist Robert Lopez, and novelist Christopher Corbett. Poetry readings, excerpts from the in-progress documentary, “Nelson Algren: The End is Nothing, The Road is All,” and a tribute to Algren’s lover Simone de Beauvoir. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “The Jesus Lizard Book” by The Jesus Lizard

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RECOMMENDED jesuslizard

David Yow has finally managed to crowd surf his way to coffee tables everywhere. Here is a book whose unwieldy shape demands it be splayed across a flat surface, or pile-driven through it, in veneration of a band whose jump to a major record label actually saw them sell less albums. To the brave souls who bookended that legacy with an actual book, one is astonished by its physicality, somehow both ordinary and extreme.

This is the tale of the Jesus Lizard, just a regular rock group who managed to take the four-fold ingredients (bass, drums, guitar, vocals) endemic to the genre and exploit their banality with an alchemy that both alienates and entices. Removed from the sweaty setting of concert halls worldwide, split from the speakers that siren their songs, the reader is pushed to consider the band on abstract terms between bounties of anecdotal praise from music industry veterans of every stripe. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Bark” by Lorrie Moore

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Lorrie Moore is widely regarded as one of our greatest living American writers, and for good reason. Her short stories are exquisite examples of the form, and her long-awaited collection “Bark” is no exception. The worst thing about it is, at 192 pages, it’s a bit on the short side. All of Moore’s stories move brilliantly between the individual and the universal. One way she does this is by referencing current events, like the day Michael Jackson died, or the night before the Abu Ghraib prison photos broke. LikeA Gate at the Stairs,” which is very much a post-9/11 novel, the characters in “Bark” continue to be worried by the war, both its effects and its non-effects on us. “Debarking” takes place in the GW Bush era. ‘“You’re supposed to give things up for Lent. Last year we gave up our faith and reason; this year we are giving up our democratic voice, our hope,’” says one character. In “Debarking,” Ira, a newly divorced dad, begins dating a woman and also, essentially, her son. Moore skewers indulgent modern parenting (“Oh, we couldn’t leave Bruno here alone. He’s only sixteen.”) and childhood education (Ira’s daughter studies the stock market while finger-knitting). Read the rest of this entry »