By Helen Kaplow
Everyone knows about Scott Fitzgerald, writer of the semi-autobiographical “The Great Gatsby,” the latest lavish film version at your local theaters now. Scott’s wife Zelda was the quintessential flapper and party girl. Together, they were the glamorous “It” couple of the Roaring Twenties, icons of the Jazz Age, first in New York and then as famous American ex-pats in Paris, hanging out with Hemingway and Gertrude Stein and that hip gang. With the release of the Hollywood film, no less than four books have been freshly published about Zelda and/or Scott and Zelda.
“Beautiful Fools,” an immensely human and tender novel, is the contribution of R. Clifton Spargo, a Chicago-based writer and cultural critic who pens “The HI/LO,” a blog for the Huffington Post. An Arts Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he has published many stories and essays, and this is his first novel.
In an unconventional look at the couple, Spargo’s book is not set during the Fitzgeralds’ mythic heyday. He tells their story in the next decade, after the fall. Now broken by mental illness, alcoholism, adulterous relationships and financial ruin, Zelda is institutionalized on the East Coast while Scott is living in California and has a girlfriend. Spargo’s book tells the tale of the couple’s final meeting on holiday together in Cuba during the end of the 1930s—a trip about which very little is actually known. Read the rest of this entry »
By Naomi Huffman
I’ll likely always remember Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg’s memoir “You Were Never in Chicago” as the book that made me fall back in love with this city. Steinberg’s nostalgic telling of his steady transformation to becoming a Chicagoan, which began when he moved to Evanston from rural Ohio to study at Northwestern as an undergrad in 1978, reminded me very much of my own coming-to-the-city story. Steinberg describes emerging from the subway downtown for the first time: “climbing those stairs, the rainy city a square of gray light that opened up to buildings and cars and people.” And a few paragraphs later: “In the beginning, you just soak it all in.” Indeed.
Last month, when the New York Times published Rachel Shteir’s takedown of three recently published books about our city that included Steinberg’s “You Were Never in Chicago” (and also “The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream,” by Thomas Dyja and “Golden: How Rod Blagojevich Talked Himself Out of the Governor’s Office and Into Prison,” by Jeff Coen and John Chase), the response was vehement. Carol Marin of WMAQ Channel 5 news, Rex Huppke of the Tribune and even Mayor Rahm Emanuel all replied in defense of the city, and with a few zingers to throw back at Shteir. Read the rest of this entry »
By Brendan Buck
George Saunders is a number of things. He’s a writer, a professor at Syracuse University and a MacArthur Fellow (aka “genius”). His newest collection, “Tenth of December,” has made him into a New York Times best-selling author. But “Tenth” is only one of several notable collections, which include “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” “In Persuasion Nation” and “Pastoralia.” But despite having one hell of a pedigree, George Saunders remains humble and approachable, and was willing to shoot emails back and forth with me over a weekend on voice, process and genre.
You tend to wear your influences on your sleeve. Your teacher Tobias Wolff is an obvious one, but you’ve also written at length about how Vonnegut changed your idea about what literature was. In the writing, what ways do you feel your influences have expressed themselves?
I’m actually not sure. There are a lot of questions that the writer himself probably doesn’t think much about, or the answer to which he can’t really articulate. I think influence works like this: you are madly casting about for something to love, so you know better how to direct your energy. Something suitable arrives. You wallow in it. It gets into your DNA. Then you tire of it and move on. Over and over. And then, at the end, all of the things that are “you” have been filtered through these various influences. And you are changed, both as a writer and a person—but in thousands of ways that are too subtle to describe, except in very broad terms. That is, I don’t think the sum change could necessarily be described. And, from a creative standpoint, there’s probably not all that much value in describing it, if you see what I mean. My guess is, we are attracted to writers who are doing something that it is in our nature to do—so we imitate them for awhile so that we can eventually distinguish what in us is different from them—and move on accordingly. Read the rest of this entry »
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 »
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 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 »
By Brian Hieggelke
I’ve known Michael Lenehan for more than twenty years, in that distant friendly way you know your competitors. He was the top editor of the Chicago Reader from the time we started Newcity until the company was sold in 2007. I knew very little about him—friendly competitors tend to limit their conversations to five minutes or less—other than that he had a devilish grin and the kind of dry wit that feels like it must be skewering you without you even understanding how. What I did know is that he was largely responsible for executing the Reader’s editorial vision all those years, and that he not only once published a 20,000-word story on beekeeping that epitomized what made the Reader different, he wrote it. Lenehan was an editor who was a proven writer.
Now, several years after the sale of the Reader led to his exit from what had been his life’s work, he’s published his first book, “Ramblers: Loyola Chicago 1963—The Team That Changed the Color of College Basketball,” the story of Chicago’s—of Illinois’—only national basketball champion, ever. But even more than digging up the backstory of the hardcourt’s ultimate one-hit wonder, he convincingly constructs a narrative, told with acumen and suspense—that this team, that this national championship game, marked a turning point in the sport and in the country, as we grappled with the final stages of overt racial discrimination. But expect no self-righteous soapboxes here; Lenehan lets the story tell itself by following the fates of three teams that converged in the tournament that year: the Loyola Ramblers; the would-be-dynasty-in-process Cincinnati Bearcats, who like Loyola fielded a starting lineup dominated by African-American players but attacked the game in a wholly different style; and the Mississippi State Bulldogs, a team so white that it had to sneak out of state at night in order to play in an integrated basketball game. Read the rest of this entry »
By Greg Baldino
Instagram has turned everyone into an armchair food photographer, but there’s still no smartphone app for recording a memorable meal as an uplifting and insightful autobiographical comic. For that you need Lucy Knisley; SAIC alum, former cheesemonger, and the creator of “Relish: My Life in the Kitchen,” a collection of cartoon stories about growing up and eating fabulously.
You’ve been doing comics about food for most of your career, going all the way back to early stories in “Radiator Days” about selling cheese at Fox and Obel. How did the idea for a whole book about food come together?
I’ve always loved books that tell stories through food. I love this idea, of consuming food through looking at it and reading about it. Comics have always been a great way to connect with readers through a story and the visuals, and adding this element of shared sensory experience really appealed to me. I began to brainstorm the idea of this book after returning from a trip to Vancouver with my father, where I’d written and drawn a lot about what we’d eaten. It occurred to me that considering my upbringing around food, I had a lot of stories to tell on this theme, and so I began to conceptualize “Relish.” Read the rest of this entry »
By Alli Carlisle
Chicago author Jerry Brennan recently published his book “Resistance,” an epic WWII novel about the Czech assassination plot against the little known but pivotal Nazi Reinhard Heydrich. Brennan studied history at West Point and journalism at Columbia, and now works in telecommunications here in Chicago. He writes short stories and poetry as well as novels, occasionally under a pseudonym, working on projects and contributing to a literary review he co-edits with a friend when he’s not working his day job.
Like many other authors, Brennan found the traditional publishing industry somewhat less than receptive, so he took a practical approach: he started his own publishing company and put out the book himself. With $6,840 he raised on Kickstarter.com, Brennan financed the creation of Tortoise Books and the publishing of “Resistance,” which launched at the Printers Row Lit Fest last June. The Kickstarter video features Brennan and his pregnant fiancée engaged in a staged argument over how they’ll have enough money to finance the wedding and the baby—they take turns looking straight into the camera in ghostly deadpan, affirming that they would never use their pregnancy to wrangle sympathy donations. Read the rest of this entry »