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

Author Profiles, Chicago Authors, Chicago Publishers, Essays, Genres No Comments »
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 »

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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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 »

Banking, Spies, Romance: Lorraine Evanoff Talks About “Foliage”

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Hea shot - L. Evanoff copy (2)

Photo:  Cheryl Mann

Chicago native Lorraine Evanoff lived in France for years and now works in film finance. We discussed by email her debut novel, “Foliage.”

This is a fast-paced, plot-driven suspense novel. Did you write it with a view that it could make a film?
I didn’t consciously write my novel with the view of it becoming a film. Since I worked in the film industry for so long, it’s possible that my writing style is just naturally geared that way. Interestingly, the original opening of the novel was different, with a more gradual setup, but after a few edits, I decided to jump right into the action. It seemed more exciting that way. Read the rest of this entry »

Epiphany and Enlightenment: Amina Gautier Discusses “The Loss of All Lost Things”

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Photo: Jenni Bryant

By Christine Sneed

Fiction writer and former DePaul English Department faculty member Amina Gautier recently published her third book, “The Loss of All Lost Things,” winner of the Elixir Press Award in Fiction. Among many other honors and prizes, Gautier won the Flannery O’Connor Award for her first book of stories, “At-Risk,” and the Prairie Schooner Book Prize for her second book, “Now We Will Be Happy.” Gautier, a resident of Miami and Chicago, is a fiction writer of uncanny insight into the human heart and a master of the short story form. She discussed her new book by email.    Read the rest of this entry »

Humanity Amid the Inhumanity of War: Matt Gallagher on his novel “Youngblood”

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Matt Gallagher, Brooklyn, NY 2015

Matt Gallagher

By Christine Sneed

Prediction: this will be a year to remember for Matt Gallagher and his publisher, Atria Books. Gallagher’s debut novel, “Youngblood,” has already reaped incandescent endorsements from several literary titans, among them, Tim O’Brien, Phil Klay and Ben Fountain. A former U.S. Army captain, Gallagher is known to many readers as the author of a well-regarded memoir published in 2010, “Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War.” “Kaboom” was based on a blog that Gallagher wrote while serving in Iraq. It was lauded for both its acerbic humor and its honesty–the blog was so candid that the government shut the site down in 2008. Gallagher is also the co-editor, with Roy Scranton, of the 2013 anthology, “Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War.” From his home in Brooklyn, the debut novelist was kind enough to answer a few questions for Newcity recently about his writing process and “Youngblood,” published this month. Read the rest of this entry »

Gaining Gay Power: Timothy Stewart-Winter Discusses “Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics”

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TSW photo_1
By Toni Nealie

Stonewall and Harvey Milk were exceptional, but Chicago’s story better represented the nation’s path to gay power. In his first book, “Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics,” Timothy Stewart-Winter combines oral history and archival records to tell the local story of activism and politics. By email, he told me that the movement was shaped by the fear of being exposed by law enforcement, then losing your job, family or both.

I was unaware of the alliance between black civil rights activists and the gay liberation movement. Was that news to you? What was surprising?
It surprised me that black politics gave birth to gay politics, not just by offering a template, but by forging a liberal coalition that questioned the police, the machine and a business elite that favored boosterism over marginalized folks. We hear a lot about black straight homophobia and white gay racism. They both mattered, but they were never the only part of the story. Read the rest of this entry »

Giving Voice to the Voiceless: Ethan Michaeli on His Biography of a Newspaper, “The Defender”

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Photo: Jason Reblando

By Toni Nealie

When Ethan Michaeli went to work in 1991 as a copy editor at Chicago’s famous black newspaper The Defender, he knew little about the city’s African-American community or Chicago. “The Defender was a great portal into the city and the African-American community,” he says. He went on to become an investigative reporter covering crime, public housing, the environment and politics. “This really taught me to understand the value and power of the press. The Defender was still a daily newspaper then. It had clout. It could get problems solved. That made a real impression on me.”

Michaeli’s book, “The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America,” is the first comprehensive history of the publication. Founded by Robert Abbott, the paper chronicled American race history and once sold hundreds of thousands of copies daily. Its editorials helped catalyze the Great Migration, fought for improved working conditions for the Pullman porters, and condemned the Ku Klux Klan’s infiltration of Chicago (while the Tribune commended the Klan’s goals.) The paper covered the Emmett Till trial and Martin Luther King’s tour of Chicago; it helped elect mayors and presidents, including Barack Obama. Read the rest of this entry »

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

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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 »