By Liz Baudler
“As far as I know, the only people who have read the book are three women, all twenty-five and under, and two of you said, ‘I have no interest in having kids, but I liked the book,’” said Ben Tanzer. The Chicago author, publisher and podcaster was referring to his new essay collection “Lost In Space,” adventures in fathering his two sons, Myles and Noah. “Lost In Space” drips with pop-culture riffs and love letters to Chicago; it’s a book non-parents can wholeheartedly enjoy and actual parents can appreciate. Ben Tanzer and I chatted over Cuban coffees and Latin music about the hard jobs of writing and parenting.
Whenever I’ve heard you read, you’ve focused on relationships.
I am very into relationships. Sometimes it’s conscious, sometimes less so, but I’ve always been drawn to how people connect and how things get disrupted. In our lives, the most confusion’s around relationships, so how do we communicate, what’s real? How we can say things to people that we know are a mistake. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Shaun Crittenden
By Naomi Huffman
I first met Gina Frangello in 2011, when I was an undergrad studying writing at Columbia College; I took a fiction seminar class she taught my senior year. When she introduced herself she talked about her novel, which she was revising, and which would turn out to be “A Life in Men,” released last month from Algonquin. She went on to talk about the books we would read and study that semester (“You guys are going to love Milan Kundera,” she insisted—she was right), and then she talked passionately for several minutes about the books she was reading, written by friends and by writers she admired. Her enthusiasm was palpable; right away, I began to admire her support of other people’s work.
The summer after I graduated from Columbia, I was hired by Gina and her husband David to nanny her twin daughters Madeleine and Kenza and their friend Siena, who were then eleven years old. I picked them up three days a week from their home in Roscoe Village, which has the kind of beautiful slatted hardwood floors, gaping windows and dark wood trim I’ve come to associate with old Chicago houses. There was often some sort of minor tragedy unfolding when I arrived at their home those summer mornings—a misplaced shoe or transit pass, a forgotten lunch box, teeth or hair that needed brushing. I don’t know what she did when we finally left, but I liked to think of Gina writing, savoring the new quiet of the house, working in her small office just off the main rooms of the house, which does not have a door. Read the rest of this entry »
By Megan Kirby
Jen Lancaster signs her books with neon bright Sharpies: yellow, orange and hot pink. Women line up in the Theater Wit lobby with books pressed to their chests, some sipping champagne from plastic flutes (a glass came free with ticket purchase). When it’s their turn with Lancaster, the author asks them about their haircuts, their jackets, how far they drove to get to the event. “I’m so glad you could make it!” she says again and again, like a gracious hostess—and somehow it seems genuine every time. When anyone holds up an iPhone and asks for a picture, Lancaster always agrees.
Everyone wants to be Jen Lancaster’s best friend.
In February, the New York Times bestselling author signed books and answered questions at Theater Wit’s screening of “Freaky Friday” (“The most excellent version with Jodie Foster, none of that Lohan bullshit,” she teased on her blog, jennsylvania.com). The Book Cellar hosted the event in honor of Lancaster’s newly released body-swap novel, “Twisted Sisters.” Since publishing her first book in 2006, Lancaster’s written ten books total (seven memoirs and three novels, all generally labeled “chick lit”), and she’s turned a cult-like following into major mainstream success. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Jocelyn Augustino
By Ted Anton
In “What We’ve Lost Is Nothing,” former Oak Park resident manager and journalist Rachel Snyder tells the story of what happens when two high-school girls stay home to try ecstasy the same afternoon their street is rocked by a series of home invasions. The neighborhood suspicions threaten to rip apart Oak Park’s suburban veneer of race and class harmony. An assistant professor in creative writing at American University in Washington, Snyder has written for The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine, and has appeared frequently on National Public Radio. She published the investigative “Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade” in 2007. “What We’ve Lost Is Nothing” is her first novel.
So what was the inspiration for “What We’ve Lost Is Nothing?”
I was accompanying an American military MIA mission in Vietnam, writing for a magazine, and a friend there told me this story of these robberies all in one night that happened in Georgia. The story stuck with me. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Shaun Crittenden
By Naomi Huffman
Last winter, I interviewed Christine Sneed about her then just-released “Little Known Facts,” a novel about an aging Hollywood heartthrob named Renn Ivins, and the effects of his celebrity on his relationships with his children, ex-wife and his much younger girlfriend. It was one of my favorite books of the year, and other critics seem to agree: Booklist named it among the Top Ten First Novels of 2013, and in addition to profiling the novel, Kirkus Reviews included it on their Book Gift Ideas for Avid Readers list.
In October, Sneed, who teaches creative writing at Northwestern and co-hosts the Sunday Salon reading series, was awarded Chicago Public Library Foundation’s 21st Century Award. We caught up around Thanksgiving in her workspace in her Evanston condo to talk about her writing process, journaling, and her forthcoming novel, “Paris Gare St. Lazare.” Read the rest of this entry »
By Liz Baudler
Pardon the 1920s jargon, but Chicago author Renee Rosen is the bee’s knees. Rosen’s the author of “Dollface,” the story of Vera Abramowitz, a nice Jewish girl who ends up falling in love with a gangster from the North Side and one from the South Side in Chicago’s heyday as the crime capital of America. Vera and her best friend Evelyn sashay through the city until the going gets tough, and then they toughen up. Rosen, who launched “Dollface” with 1920s aplomb—complete with speakeasy, gangland tour and submachine guns—talked with us about how the time period and its lady characters are more than just a passing craze.
You always felt like you had a book in you. Why this one?
This has been a ten-year-love affair for me. When I started working, there was no “Boardwalk Empire,” no remake of “The Great Gatsby.” I started to research, and became so enamored of the characters that walked our streets. I knew there was a story that could come out of this era. I just had to dig and find it.
Why do you think the twenties are back in style?
We’ve all been struggling since about 2008, and the twenties was such a prosperous time, such a happy-go-lucky time, and I think that’s a perfect escape for us now. We’re tired, we’re weary. And I also think people love the fashion. Mary Janes, cloche hats are back in. People are having a lot of fun with it. Read the rest of this entry »
By Micah McCrary
John Freeman’s “How to Read a Novelist” contains fifty-six illuminating profiles of some of the most-acclaimed writers of our time, including Toni Morrison, Jonathan Safran Foer, Joyce Carol Oates and A.S. Byatt. Each of these profiles contains both wisdom and idiosyncrasy, certainly sides of some writers that we don’t see in their books. In a conversation with John Freeman, the former editor of Granta and sometimes Newcity contributor, we get a little bit of his idiosyncrasy.
The first thing I’m interested in here is the issue of intimacy. “It was a breach of everyone’s privacy when a reader turns to a writer,” you write, “or a writer’s books, for vicariously learned solutions to his own life problems. This is the fallacy behind every interview or biographical sketch, to tether a writer’s life too literally to his work, or to insist that a novel function as a substitute for actually living through the mistakes a person must live through in order to learn how to properly, maybe even happily, survive.” However, I’d argue that this is part and parcel of the act of reading: we hope that reading will be a conversation, so what’s wrong with a little theft of shared or similar experience?
I think what is intimate and what is personal are often confused in America. We anecdote-share in conversation, pass the bucket of trauma back and forth until the scale is roughly equal. So we often crave intimacy even though we are way past the point of too much information. This is why a good novel, a really good one, is so powerful. It provides a different framework for intimacy: one of the mind, rather than of details. And in the end, the mind has control of everything anyway, from how we feel to how we make sense of the world. This is why that title of Jonathan Franzen’s first essay collection—“How to Be Alone”—felt like a stroke of genius. To be intimate and yet alone with a good book is an extraordinarily liberating thing. It can shatter the boundary between you and another in a way nothing can, except maybe love. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Shaun Crittenden
By Naomi Huffman
Charles Blackstone’s new novel “Vintage Attraction” chronicles the relationship between Peter Hapworth, a bored adjunct writing professor, and Isabelle Conway, a prominent sommelier and host of a local cable access show that shares the book’s title. Their story closely mirrors how Blackstone met and fell in love with his wife, local restaurateur and former host of “Check, Please!,” Alpana Singh.
The book was released this fall to mixed reviews, but Blackstone, who also serves as managing editor of the online publication Bookslut, says, “I appreciate the time that all reviewers spend with this book [….] I know that there will always be some who will jump to conclusions based on a quick read and overly simplistic assumptions. I don’t really consider that book reviewing, though. There have been a lot of reviewers—and readers—who have responded very deeply and intelligently to the book, and I’m grateful for that.”
I had the opportunity to speak with Blackstone in person at his home in the Gold Coast, and later over email. We talked about wine, pugs, the pressure to be a prolific writer, and the line between memoir and fiction. Read the rest of this entry »
By Sarah Cubalchini
Leslie Stella’s “Permanent Record” follows teenage boy Badi Hessamizadeh, an Iranian-American in post-9/11 America, who wishes to be a normal high-school student. After an incident with blowing up the school’s toilet, Badi is encouraged to attend a new school, where his name is stripped down to Bud Hess and he tries to get involved by writing for the school newspaper. But when mysterious threatening letters appear in the school newspaper, Badi’s troubled past and his much hated nickname, “towelhead,” come back to haunt him, and to prove his innocence, he must find out who’s the one writing all the letters.
After writing three adult novels, what inspired “Permanent Record?”
The idea first emerged as adult fiction about ten years ago. I wrote the book with the same setting (a Chicago private school) and some of the same characters, but from the perspective of a teacher who no longer appears in the book. (Badi, the protagonist in “Permanent Record,” appeared in that version, but as a supporting character.) That version didn’t work for a variety of reasons, so over the years and in between other projects, I rewrote it twice. I was drawn to something in that story over and over, and finally I had to figure out what it was. I realized what I had liked about the earlier versions were not the adult characters and their stories, but the teens. Read the rest of this entry »
By Naomi Huffman
Despite the piles of books I encounter as a book reviewer and editor, I’m still often seduced by a book the old-fashioned way: a delightful cover design, a formidable number of pages, a titillating title. With Karen Joy Fowler’s “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,” it was the latter.
But a few chapters in, Fowler seduces with something else entirely, delivering a shock that quite literally changes the “truth” of the story, at least as the reader has come to understand it so far. It’s a trick, but it’s one Fowler deals deftly, and there’s nothing cheap about it. What follows is a story about how a young girl named Rosemary grieves the loss of her sister Fern, and how the memory of that loss has haunted her even into middle age. Rosemary tells the reader what she remembers, but because she was just five years old when Fern was lost, much of the novel pertains to memory and explores how what we remember is often just as important as what we choose to forget.
Karen Joy Fowler spoke with me recently from the road, while touring to promote “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.” Read the rest of this entry »