The Poetics of Mona: Parsing Jen Beagin’s Excellent Debut Novel, “Pretend I’m Dead”

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By Christine Sneed

Jen Beagin’s novel “Pretend I’m Dead” is an enviably accomplished debut. It’s full of brilliant language and many instances of laugh-out-loud, frequently self-mocking humor. The novel’s four sections all focus on Mona, a young woman whose adventures take her to places such as Lowell, Massachusetts and a small New Mexico town near Taos. Wherever she goes, she always manages to meet a number of characters as memorable as she herself. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Home by Nightfall: A Charles Lenox Mystery” by Charles Finch

Book Reviews, Chicago Authors, Fiction, Mystery No Comments »

Home by NightfallAuthor Charles Finch’s latest mystery, “Home by Nightfall,” features Finch’s British, upper-class detective Charles Lenox pursuing clues to two crimes, one in London and one in the country town of Markethouse where he and his brother, Sir Edmund Lenox, grew up.

The first puzzle is where did a brilliant German pianist named Muller disappear to after a concert he gave? He seems to have vanished into thin air, since no one saw him leave the concert hall, and there have been no sightings of him in London. In addition to this disappearance, a countryside mystery forms in the town of Markethouse when minor transgressions like small thefts and the inexplicable drawing of a young girl on a newcomer’s steps culminate in a knife attack on Markethouse’s mayor. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Slaughterhouse: Chicago’s Union Stock Yard and the World It Made” by Dominic A. Pacyga

History, Nonfiction No Comments »


“Roses are red, violets are blue, the stockyards stink and so do you!” begins Dominic Pacyga’s account of Chicago’s Union Stock Yard. At the stockyard’s zenith, fifty-thousand people were employed there and in the adjacent Packingtown just south of Bridgeport. Pacyga, a historian whose Polish grandparents lived in Back of the Yards and worked in the meatpacking industry, weaves together a deft social, ethnic, business and labor history and story of the place. “The Stockyards were Chicago,” he says.

The Union Stock Yard represented modern capitalism and the industrial factory system applied to food for the first time. Companies such as Swift and Armour centralized and unified meat markets in the nation. Previously it took almost a day to butcher a steer, but Chicago’s packinghouses took only thirty-five minutes. The spectacle of killing and processing thousands of animals each day drew 50,000 tourists each year, from around the United States and around the world. Politicians included it on their campaign trails. Rudyard Kipling wrote, “They were so excessively alive, these pigs. And then they were so excessively dead, and the man in the dripping, clammy, hot passage did not seem to care.” Read the rest of this entry »

Out of the Dumps: Live Storytelling Show You’re Being Ridiculous Celebrates Its Fifth Anniversary

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Jeremy Owens at Mary’s Attic/Photo: Jill Howe

The live storytelling series You’re Being Ridiculous returns this month and next to the Mayne Stage for a run of shows that coincides neatly with its five-year anniversary. The theme of the anniversary series is “Beauty” and will feature stories from a wide variety of storytellers; the first show in the series will include Brooke Allen, Lily Be, Eileen Dougharty, Keith Ecker, Kate Harding, Karen Shimmin, Megan Stielstra, Natasha Tsoutsouris and the show’s founder, Jeremy Owens. Read the rest of this entry »

Defiant Women: Karen Abbott’s “Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War”

Author Profiles, Fiction No Comments »
karen abbott

Karen Abbott/Photo: Nick Barose

From the author who gave us “Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul,” which centered around Chicago’s famed brothel, the Everleigh Club, Karen Abbott now gives us “Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War.” In her new book, Abbott once again proves herself a masterful storyteller able to entertain and inform with such intelligence and ease that the two become indistinguishable.

“Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy” follows four women through the course of the Civil War. Rose O’Neal Greenhow is a Confederate woman living in Washington D.C. who gets close to Northern politicians in order to gather information she can then pass back to the Confederates. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Van Lew was on the side of the Union but living in Richmond where she helped spy on the Confederacy. Belle Boyd is a young confederate who we first meet when she shoots a union soldier in her home at the age of seventeen. Emma Edmonds is another young woman who disguises herself as Federal soldier Frank Thompson as a means to help out in the war and escape an unfortunate home life. Read the rest of this entry »

Reassembling and Contextualizing the Past: “The Lost Landscape” of Joyce Carol Oates

Memoir No Comments »

Joyce_Carol_Oates 2By Amy Strauss Friedman

“Here is the paradox of the memoir: its retrospective vision, which is its strength, is also its weakness,” Joyce Carol Oates warns in her new book “The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age.” “The fact is–We have forgotten most of our lives. All of our landscapes are soon lost in time.” With this challenge in mind, the prolific Oates works cautiously to reconstruct what is lost through the muddied nature of memoir, exploring her childhood on a farm in western New York and the ways in which her upbringing has shaped her writing life. In fact, this memoir is composed largely of reprinted essays written between 1986 and present day, indicating the discontinuous, cyclical nature of recall. “Our memories seem to lack the faculty for chronological continuity,” Oates correctly suggests. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Diane von Furstenberg: A Life Unwrapped” by Gioia Diliberto

Biography, Book Reviews, Chicago Authors No Comments »

dvfA Diane von Furstenberg dress is a great equalizer. I held an informal poll on Facebook and discovered that friends of different shapes, sizes, coloring, lifestyle, location and wealth all had DVF dresses in common. I shouldn’t have been surprised by the garment’s popularity, because last year the company had sales of an estimated $500 million. During the early seventies, the wrap was selling at a rate of 25,000 per week, before ubiquity killed it in 1977.

In “Diane von Furstenberg: A Life Unwrapped,” Chicago-based journalist Gioia Diliberto digs into the rise, fall, rise, fall and rise of both the woman and the brand.

Thoroughly researched, it is a juicy biography of a fashion icon. Diane, the daughter of a concentration camp survivor, became a princess and blazed her way into America. She aimed to create body-conscious clothes that were easy to wear and affordable. When heavily pregnant, Diane made the rounds of New York retailers with her samples in a suitcase. Some executives refused to meet her then, but by the mid-1970s the wrap dress was everywhere. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Good Neighbor” by Amy Sue Nathan

Chicago Authors, Fiction No Comments »

the good neighbor“The Good Neighbor,” the second book by “The Glass Wives” author Amy Sue Nathan, is largely about a lie and its repercussions. Recently divorced high-school counselor and single mother Izzy Lane one day invents a fake boyfriend named “Mac” to write about on her blog and save face in front of her ex-husband. Her best friend Jade, who owns a small but growing blogging platform, decides to pick up Izzy’s blog so she can tell steamy stories about her new, supposedly successful relationship and give dating advice to singles over forty. Izzy’s lies continue to snowball, and the only people who know the truth are her gay brother Ethan and her elderly neighbor Mrs. Feldman, both of whom demand she come clean. Izzy proceeds to drag her feet. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: “City Creatures: Animal Encounters in the Chicago Wilderness” edited by Gavin Van Horn and David Aftandilian

Chicago Publishers No Comments »

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“City Creatures,” edited by Gavin Van Horn and David Aftandilian, is an outstanding compilation of essays, poetry, photographs and art that describes the Chicago area’s ecosystem, encouraging us to take a closer look at our environment. After finishing this book, among the questions one asks is how can we take better, more proactive care of the natural world that’s intertwined throughout our urban infrastructure and how can we enjoy that world more fully? Read the rest of this entry »

News: Reading the “Hot Stuff”: Prominent Chicago Authors Discuss Sex and Literature at “Beyond Lolita”

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beyond lolita
According to Pulitzer Prize finalist Luis Alberto Urrea, it’s not just the subject of writing that’s sexy, but also the sensual experience of reading itself. “Literature is an erotic experience in a lot of ways,” Urrea says, “no matter who or what you read. Just think, our work goes to bed with you at night, bathes with you, is held close to your heart. You warm the pages with your breath, it’s a very personal thing.” Read the rest of this entry »