Stephen Rodrick/Photo: Jeff Minton
By Brian Hieggelke
On paper (literally), Stephen Rodrick leads a swell life. He operates as a magazine journalist at the highest level, penning thoughtful cover stories about celebrities for the New York Times Magazine, or undertaking month-long adventures with the oil men inhabiting North Dakota’s still relatively rugged frontier. But Rodrick’s been haunted by his father’s absence in his life, first as a Navy pilot who spent more time on missions than at home, and then permanently when his father was killed in a crash while serving the country.
With his new memoir, “Magical Stranger: A Son’s Journey Into His Father’s Life,” Rodrick confronts his ghost head on. His story of growing up the underperforming son of a Type A father he worships, and what it’s like to lose him like he did, is both heartbreakingly sad and self-deprecatingly hilarious. But Rodrick is not content to just rewrite his diary; his father’s life was mostly lived away from his family and the son decides to undertake, through reporting, a journey to understand that part of it. Rodrick spends vast amounts of time on board various ships with a modern-day parallel to his father, Commander Hunter “Tupper” Ware. His up-close-and-intimate portrait of the modern-day Naval pilot is equally amusing and heartfelt; together with his own story, he elevates the form of the memoir. Read the rest of this entry »
By Kelly Roark
Susan Nussbaum’s debut novel is eye-opening, devastating and laugh-out-loud funny. A group of young disabled people in a fictional Chicago institution tackle demons past and present. While Nussbaum exposes some of the very real horrors of the institutionalization of disabled persons, “Good Kings Bad Kings” is far from heavy-handed. Richly imagined diverse characters face the issue of institutionalization, and make changes in both small and dramatic ways to take control of their own futures. The winner of this year’s PEN/Bellwether Prize for socially engaged fiction joins us for a conversation about the types of institutions disabled persons often live in, her fantastic characters, and her reclamation of the word “crip.”
Are there a lot of institutions like the one in the book?
Yes, I don’t know the number in Illinois, but there are many thousands in the country. There may be more than a thousand in the state. There are nursing homes—they’re legion—everywhere, and then there are other facilities for people with mental disabilities, kids with various developmental disabilities. There are places where, if parents think they can’t manage or someone else can do better, there are certain pressures on families to institutionalize a disabled child. And there are certainly no financial breathers from how much it costs to have a disabled child. The government makes it very hard for a disabled person to survive in a way that is manageable, financially, because the institutions have big lobbies. Culturally, we’re also a people who feel it’s good to segregate people who make us uncomfortable. It’s a long tradition, going back way over a hundred years. Doctors really pushed to get these families to put their kids into facilities. Real hell holes. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Jasmine Kwong
The Seminary Co-Operative Bookstore, a cornerstone in Hyde Park for more than fifty years, has been busy settling into their new location at 5751 South Woodlawn. And while they’ve moved only a few blocks away, it begins a new era in the store’s history. The bookstore, which operates as a member-owned cooperative, designed the new location with its community in mind. The floor-to-ceiling windows offer an abundance of natural light, a contrast to the former location’s basement browsing area. “The new space has worked out incredibly well,” says the Co-Op’s general manager Jack Cella. “Every day people come in and comment on how much they like it, even those who were prepared to dislike it because they have such fond memories of the old location.”
The Co-Op’s history became the focus of University of Chicago alumni Jasmine Kwong and Megan E. Doherty when their alma mater bought the building where the bookstore had long leased space. The two formed the Seminary Co-Op Documentary Project aimed at covering the bookstore’s rich history. “We discovered that we wanted to document the Co-Op, appreciated that we had complementary approaches, and decided to join forces,” says Kwong. They began to collect documents, interviews and photographs from members and patrons. Read the rest of this entry »
One of the many awful aftershocks of a violent incident like the Boston Marathon bombings is the tendency of public figures to say terrible things while trying to make sense of what happened and why. Among the unproductive statements made recently, unfortunately by quite a few well-meaning people, is an idea that “there’s no explanation for what happened.” Sure, I will grant that there’s no justification. But “there’s no explanation” indicates that we just don’t want to understand. This is an understandable, but regrettable, impulse. It is an impulse closely related to the constitutive element of hatred: the refusal to understand. When we refuse to understand, we turn the object of our misunderstanding into a potential object of hatred. We must recognize that there are explanations. They may be illegitimate, awful and evil but there are explanations.
In “American Honor Killings: Desire and Rage Among Men,” David McConnell presents a thoughtful and well researched, if uneven, alternative to the silence impulse. He writes about violence perpetrated by men against men who are either gay or perceived to be gay—mostly what could be referred to as “hate crimes” (a label McConnell discards: “admitting ‘hate crimes’ looks like criminalizing motive, and that looks like criminalizing thought”). Instead, “I settled on the exotic-sounding words ‘honor killings’ in the book title, because, incredibly, that’s what these crimes resemble.” It’s a good observation. The murders he describes are all revenge killings for perceived violations of normative, heterosexual masculinity. Like other murders we call honor killings, the motivations for these murders clearly fall on the dark end of a spectrum of human values. They are twisted understandings of honor and pride, but their relation to what we, the normal, would call honor and pride, are what make them both repulsive and fascinating. Read the rest of this entry »
By John Wilmes
‘The business of literature is blowing shit up.’
David Shields quotes the phrase from an essay by publishing entrepreneur Richard Nash, and it seems almost the summation of what’s brought us together for the afternoon. It explains the animal that’s operated on subconscious levels for both of us, as long as we’ve taken the task of writing, and writing well, all too seriously. And that much of literature seems to have lost a want to explode—that all the most-sold novels of recent years seem content to accept the nostalgia of the form’s tradition, and to deny the challenge to cut to metaphysical bone and efface the self—is what drives Shields’ last few books. “How Literature Saved My Life,” his latest, is no exception. Read the rest of this entry »
By Liz Baudler
Chicagoan Anne Elizabeth Moore has just released “New Girl Law,” a book about her experiences working with Cambodian college girls attempting to rewrite the Chbap Srey, the Cambodian female code of conduct. A teacher at SAIC and author of “Cambodian Grrrl,” Moore guided the project and followed its return to Cambodia, and recently discussed her work’s impact with me.
In “New Girl Law,” the process of the girls rewriting the Chbap Srey seemed quite organic. Did that surprise you?
It did. I think what’s sort of remarkable about that first batch of work that these young women did was that I was like, “You guys should know how to do this,” and because of who I was and how I was brought into the situation and the conditions under which that project was established, they did it. From there, there’s a whole bunch of things that could happen. People can be like, “This is a really stupid process and it doesn’t work for me at all and I hate it and you’re an American and you don’t understand what we’re doing at all.” Or, a community, a group of people can be like, “Actually, that’s worked for us and we want to do this with it.” And that’s kind of what happened in “New Girl Law.” They came up with this project that we then implemented despite my potential inability to meet the demands that would come with that, but then they did lead this process of pretty amazing work, rethinking the gender policy on which their nation was founded. Like, who does that when you’re twenty? Read the rest of this entry »
Acclaimed science writer Mary Roach fell in love with human anatomy in her fifth-grade science class when Mrs. Claflin introduced her to a “headless, limbless modeled plastic-torso,” and got her hands on model organs that “fit together like puzzle pieces, tidy as wares in a butcher’s glass case.” This introduction, along with the findings from a 1968 study on humans’ intolerance to bacteria-ridden food and an evident personal curiosity for the scientific taboo help lead to “Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal,” Roach’s latest book.
Roach’s witty and conversational voice allows “Gulp” to read like a novel rather than a science book. Instead of being taught about our digestive system we are told about it. And, for anyone who’s ever flunked an exam on the periodic table or failed to locate the pancreas of a dissected frog, there’s a huge difference. Read the rest of this entry »
By Kelly Roark
Meg Wolitzer’s new novel, “The Interestings,” begins with a group of teenagers in a summer camp. Jules, the initial outsider, is there on a scholarship but finds herself embraced by a circle of friends that open her world a little wider. A look at talent and various means of success, “The Interestings” follows these characters to their late fifties. Wolitzer discussed the book and some of its themes with me.
You attended a summer camp like the characters in the book— is that what inspired this story?
Yes. I mean, in part. If the summer camp experience hadn’t led to a lot of other thoughts I would never have written a book about it because it’s not a “summer camp” novel. For me, the experience opened my life up to the fact that there’s a big wide world out there. So, it was really when I came of age. I loved it so much there and it was the first time I got to take myself seriously. I met these wonderful kids who are not the kids in the book but I met my own group of wonderful kids. I couldn’t bear to be without them. Read the rest of this entry »
A picture is worth a thousand words—it’s true, and also makes difficult work of reviewing a book of cartoons. Take, for example, Demetri Martin’s drawing of a mountain view with a sign in front that reads “Scenic View” with braille underneath. It’s certainly less funny when I describe it, but really does contain all the fun of flipping through a book of Gary Larson’s “Far Side” comics from the 1990s. Martin’s comedy is very charming. Like Ellen, or Jerry Seinfeld, he reminds us of the absurdity of everyday life—like the phrase “training bra” or self-flushing toilets. Judging by his too-short-lived television series, he’s got a fondness for paper and pen. Martin displays nothing short of glee as he stands next to a large pad of paper flipping through image and word combinations. One-liners from his comedy routines (“If I owned a copy store, I would only hire identical twins to work at it”) are the sort of thing that translate easily to book format. Venn diagrams, Q&As, graphs and illustrated mechanisms are all fodder for his simple but ingenious drawings. He’s not above the occasional fart joke, so there’s nothing too precious going on, despite a cartoon or two about the perception of fame in New York versus Los Angeles, or how the ubiquitous sight of planes and helicopters around a city resembles flies around a pile of shit. Practically every page is a showcase for his particular wit, a moment to examine, pause, smile. Or, if you’re more cynical, each page says, “Ha, ha, ha! Look how clever I am!” Read the rest of this entry »
“After Hiroshima, after the death of Roosevelt, and after the [House Un-American Activities Committee] investigations, only then did one begin to see the complete unreality of the American dream.”
So (late in life) declared filmmaker Joseph Losey, who directed the creepy and provocative 1951 film noir, “The Prowler,” and was rewarded for his artistry with a HUAC subpoena, membership in the Hollywood blacklist and lifelong exile. His statement, according to “Nightmare Alley” author Mark Osteen, can serve as a description of film noir, the shadowy and critical genre that served as a reality check for America during the period between World War II and the Korean War.
Osteen, who teaches English at Loyola University in Maryland, notes that noir flourished at a crossroads moment for the nation, as New Deal populism and humanism clashed with nascent Cold War paranoia and reaction. In Hollywood, the conflict played out tragically, with consequences that still linger. In the media-inflamed, witch-hunt atmosphere, studio bosses refused to stand up for their top writers, directors and performers (many of whom were associated with noir), while opportunistic former colleagues (such as Ronald Reagan) proved willing to purge their own unions of left-leaning members. The best thus crashed and burned, and those who survived grew cautious. It was the real beginning of our own postmodern, post-political, post-ethical era. Read the rest of this entry »