How Pain Defines and Defies Us: Leslie Jamison Discusses “The Empathy Exams”

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Leslie Jamison

Photo: John Freeman

By John Freeman

Newspapers may be dying, our publishing industry is at war with Amazon, but a bright spot remains in U.S. letters: the literary essay. In the past decade, writers known for other books and other work have begun working in the form that gave birth to the New Yorker.

These new essayists—from John Jeremiah Sullivan to Elif Batuman, Aleksandar Hemon and Daniel Alarcon—don’t come from the same boys club as the writers of the last heyday of the essay. They are unglossy, smart, deeply stylish and, with her debut collection of essays, “The Empathy Exams,” Leslie Jamison proves she will probably write her way into their company.

Jamison is hardly an underdog. She grew up in Los Angeles, the daughter of a prominent economist, niece to the psychotherapist Kay Redfield Jamison. She attended Harvard and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is currently studying for a Ph.D. at Yale. Her debut novel, “The Gin Closet,” the tale of three generations of women and their tortured family history, received high praise when it appeared in 2010.

And yet it did not prepare readers for “The Empathy Exams.” Written over a period of many years, the book examines how pain both defines and defies us, and meditates on its role in empathy. The title essay recalls a period that Jamison spent as a medical actor, faking ailments in scenarios meant to test doctors of their diagnostic skills and their ability to demonstrate empathy. “Empathy isn’t just listening,” Jamison writes, “it’s asking the questions that need to be listened to.” Read the rest of this entry »

News: Bibliophiles Unite at the Third Annual Chicago Book Expo

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Photo: Rebecca Ciprus

Photo: Rebecca Ciprus

Talents from the literary community were on display at the third annual Chicago Book Expo at Columbia College on Saturday, December 6 from 11am-5pm. Eighty-five booths blanketing two floors of the college’s campus at 1104 South Wabash housed authors selling their books, presses promoting works by their authors, and literary journals showcasing their work and providing information on their submission processes to visiting writers; other associations, groups, nonprofits and educational institutions were also on hand to promote their unique approaches to writing and publishing. There was something for every literary taste, from Rose Metal Press’ beautiful hybrid chapbooks to Appoet’s interactive mobile application that transforms two-dimensional stories into three-dimensional tales that interact with the time and space of the reader, to “After Hours,” a literary journal dedicated to the poetry and prose of Chicago authors. Mystery novels, parenting guides and history books also filled the booths of this animated event that drew in about a thousand visitors. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Ugly Girls” by Lindsay Hunter

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Ugly GirlsRECOMMENDED

The title of Lindsay Hunter’s debut novel lets us know at once what’s in store: a tale of “Ugly Girls.” In a recent interview with Juliet Escoria of The Believer, Hunter says, “It was… important to me to allow my characters to be ugly mentally, emotionally, and physically. I wanted it to be about two real girls who ran the gamut of ugliness. Who traded ugly back and forth like a friendship bracelet. Who were unlikable but interesting.” Hunter’s two main characters are exactly that. In pursuit of teenage thrills, identity and power in the form of fast cars, sex and guns, Perry and Baby Girl are each ugly in their own way, not terribly likable, but indeed interesting.

Ugliness does not reside in the girls only. It’s present in all of the characters in the book—even in the food! Hunter has a tremendous talent for sketching ugliness in all of its naked glory. But she doesn’t do so for mere artistic effect or to condemn her characters. It’s through her characters’ ugliness that we see their vulnerability, their humanity and maybe even recognize our own. As Hunter’s story unfolds amid the back drop of trailer homes, truck stops, prison cells and classrooms, she reveals the wellspring of ugliness: the limitations, loneliness, shame, grief and despair.

Hunter is a shapeshifter, slipping from one vantage point to another. She allows us intimate glimpses into the ocean of thoughts a character may have before one of these arbitrary thoughts is acted upon. She exposes the disparity between how characters wish to be perceived, how they think they’re perceived, and how they actually are perceived. She shows how characters internalize competition for rank in a flawed hierarchy. Read the rest of this entry »

The Myth of the American Dream: Cristina Henriquez on Her New Novel, “The Book of Unknown Americans”

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Photo: Michael Lionstar

Photo: Michael Lionstar

By Amy Friedman

Immigration is a hotly debated topic, though more often through the lenses of policy proposals and the scoring of political points than about the very real people involved. Cristina Henriquez’s new novel, “The Book of Unknown Americans,” works to bridge this gap by exposing the immigrant experience in first person, giving voice to those who are frequently spoken about or spoken for without actually being spoken to. The unknown Americans in her book narrate their own chapters, and in doing so speak to their unique cultural traditions and backgrounds that too often become muddled in the minds of native-born citizens. This narrative technique allows for the immigrant experience to come alive with a richness and complexity that routinely goes unsung in third-person accounts that have a tendency to cast immigrants as menacing outsiders rather than as integral members of the American landscape. Read the rest of this entry »

Shopping List: Good Things Come in Small-Press Packages

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KingMeMy mother used to say “good things come in small packages” when I was young. For a while I wore a pin that declared magnum in parvo, which translates as much in little or greatness in small things. That carries over into my love of small, independent publishers. Here’s a list of recent small press books by Midwest authors or publishers, to give or be given these holidays.

“On Immunity: An Inoculation” by Eula Biss,  cultural analysis and personal history, from Graywolf Press, 216 pages, hardcover, $24.

“Once I was Cool” by Megan Stielstra, totally cool personal essays, from Curbside Splendor, 202 pages, $15.95.

“Swarm to Glory” by Garnett Kilberg Cohen, sly fiction about endings, from Wiseblood Books, 212 pages, $13.

“King Me” by Roger Reeves, poems about love and masculinity, poverty, class and race relations, from Copper Canyon Press, $15. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “What the Lady Wants” by Renée Rosen

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cover-what-the-lady-wants-430x647RECOMMENDED

Marshall Field: business titan, leading citizen of a growing prairie city, terrible luck in love.  Wedded to a demanding, shrewish social climber, he suffers quietly along in marriage, and on the eve of the great Chicago fire, lays eyes upon one teenage Delia Spencer. There’s instant connection. The blaze is encroaching but it’s no match for the sparks between Field and the young girl.

This is how local author Renée Rosen imagines Marshall Field and his young mistress Delia beginning their decades-long affair. Rosen specializes in picking intriguing characters out of Chicago history and inserting them into her own narrative. Her debut adult novel, “Dollface,” saw her explore the city’s gangland days through a gutsy female narrator, and she’s at it again in “What the Lady Wants.” In Field and Spencer, Rosen works with real-life main characters this time, which is no detriment to either the plot or the characters themselves. In an appendix, Rosen explains that while Field’s life is quite documented, the characters around him are not. She carved out a rich slice of Chicago’s past—the Fire, the Haymarket Bombing, the 1893 World’s Fair—and takes great liberty to fill in the motives behind her characters’ private lives.

Readers won’t mind the wholesale inventions, partly because they keep the story going, but mostly because Rosen has an innate grasp of human relationships. She is skilled at sketching the little vicious cliques of women who judge Delia for adultery, and details the push and pull of the illicit affair itself in a way that feels compassionate toward everyone. Following the tangled strings of Delia, her husband Arthur and the Fields will grip those with complicated love lives of their own. Like Vera, the narrator of Rosen’s “Dollface,” Delia is a woman who bucks convention, associates herself with powerful men, and slowly realizes that she is her own greatest advocate.

If “What the Lady Wants” seems a tad escapist, so be it. It’s escapism crafted with care and research. Rosen has found her niche, and if she can keep the magic going, audiences even beyond Chicago will fall in love with her women and their city. (Liz Baudler)

“What The Lady Wants”
By Renée Rosen
New American Library, 448 pages, $15

Nonfiction Review: “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” by Atul Gawande

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Being Mortal IIRECOMMENDED

We’re all going to die, apparently. I’ve known enough of death to assiduously avoid thinking about it until it’s too close to ignore. The other week I visited a friend in hospice. He spent his last days holding court and watching herons stalk frogs in the wetlands beyond the windows. His room seemed more like a hotel than a hospital, with floor-to-ceiling glass and plush lounge chairs. A few weeks earlier he’d had a cough checked, now he was dying—or at least, now he knew he was. There would be no heroic efforts to prolong his life, just medication to enhance its quality. He talked about what he valued. He felt at peace. The next week, he was too tired for visits, so we talked by phone. Then he slipped into death. It was timely to pick up “Being Mortal” by physician writer Atul Gawande a few days later.

We all know the quip about the certainty of death or taxes, but still they creep up and catch us unawares. We don’t consider our life’s end thoroughly enough, asserts Gawande. He writes to “lift the veil” on the whole ghastly institutionalized business of illness, aging and dying, in order to refocus on what he believes to be most important—sustaining meaning in life. He wants us to have an urgent conversation about issues of autonomy and maintaining the integrity of one’s life, so we don’t lose ourselves at the end. Read the rest of this entry »

Poetry Review: “Résumé” by Chris Green

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Resume by Chris GreenRECOMMENDED

With the holiday season already in full swing, “A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens’ yuletide story about surly old skinflint Ebenezer Scrooge, will once again be brought to life on stage and in countless TV movie adaptations. Yet most workers, in the wake of the Great Recession, can’t help but identity with Bob Cratchit, literature’s most put-upon worker. Given the devastation of both the national economy and the global economy, having a job and keeping a job, any job, has prompted many individuals to re-evaluate not only their work life but the very meaning of work itself. Creative writing has always provided fertile ground for such inquiries: fiction (“The Jungle,” “The Grapes of Wrath”), plays (“Death of a Salesman,” “Glengarry Glen Ross”) and the ragtag poetry of Charles Bukowski, Frank O’Hara and others, question our capitalistic system, the Scrooges who run it, and the value of what all workers do each day to earn a buck.

“Résumé,” Chicago poet Chris Green’s latest collection, takes readers on a contemplative journey through his hardscrabble employment history, which includes stints as a janitor, landscaper, adjunct poetry instructor, security guard and other wage-slave positions. The poems that comprise this slender collection explore the highs (such as they are) and plumb the depths of the catch-as-catch-can world of unskilled labor. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “The End of Absence” by Michael Harris and “Virtually Human” by Martine Rothblatt

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virtually human end of absence

 

RECOMMENDED

By Liz Baudler

Michael Harris can’t remember his partner’s phone number without his smart phone. Martine Rothblatt, on the other hand, created a robot modeled directly after her life partner. They’re poles apart, but in books published within the last three months, both writers diagram the same anxiety, asking technology to fill the gap our brains create.

While both books fall under the category of popular science, Harris, a journalist writing his first full-length book, takes a polemic tone. Rothblatt, trained as a scientist and the writer of more academic works on subjects from transgenderism to Middle East peace solutions, focuses on explanation and theory of anything that might be relevant to her subjects. “The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection,” Harris’ book, is almost entirely predicated on worry. Worries that we don’t get enough time alone without a buzzing, blingling techbeast. Worries that Harris and the rest of us don’t have the attention span to finish “War and Peace.” Worries that disconnection from the net is disconnection from humanity.

Rothblatt, writer of “Virtually Human: The Promise–and the Peril–of Digital Immortality” and the CEO of biotechnology company United Therapeutics, wants to connect us to a future full of technology like us. The gap Rothblatt aims to fill is of the more permanent kind: death. With a mindclone, a “humanly cyberconscious being” with the mindfile, or “stored digital information” about a person, death can be cheated. Life beyond death is not Rothblatt’s ultimate goal: she just lays out the mindclone as the logical next phase of technological development. But the reader can only conclude very few reasons to create another race of being—and an infrastructure for its existence. Read the rest of this entry »

Glorified Losing: Brian Costello Talks “Losing in Gainesville”

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Photo: John Sturdy

Photo: John Sturdy

By Brendan Buck

Brian Costello, a Florida native and Chicago immigrant, is a comedic performer, musician and writer. He currently hosts the monthly game show “Shame that Tune” at the Hideout and drums in the band Outer Minds, but he’s also a two-time novelist. His first, “The Enchanters vs. Sprawlburg Springs,” was released by Featherproof Books in 2005, while his second, “Losing in Gainesville,” was just released by Curbside Splendor. I recently caught up with Costello over email about his new book.

One of the first things that strikes me about your novel is its conversational and lyrical style, similar to the writings of William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren, the latter’s work having a direct reference in the book. Were these writers a conscious influence on your writing? Who are your influences?
Not really. I like them both, and learned a lot from “All the King’s Men,” but overall, with structure, I was influenced by double LPs like “Exile on Main Street” by the Rolling Stones, “Trout Mask Replica” by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, and “Double Nickels on the Dime” by the Minutemen. I love double albums, and how each side can create a different mood. Side Two of “Exile on Main Street” comes to mind, for instance. With “Losing in Gainesville,” I wanted to write a “triple album,” where each part/side has a different mood to it. Within the actual writing, the influences could be everything from Herman Melville to the movie “Dazed and Confused,” rock critics like Lester Bangs and Richard Meltzer, the TV show “The Wire,” and various writers directly referenced in the novel itself. Read the rest of this entry »