Caturated: Jesus Lizard’s David Yow’s Book of Cat Drawings, reviewed in Cat Drawings

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By Steve Gadlin

David Yow’s book “Copycat (and a litter of other cats)” features a collection of his cat artistry. When my wife picked it up and thumbed through it, she said, “this is pretty good,” and held on to it for another fifteen minutes. In most households, this would constitute a pretty good review. In my home, it meant a little something more.

You see, I also draw cats. A lot of ‘em. A few years ago I started a website called IWantToDrawACatForYou.com as a joke-slash-social-experiment. A fortuitous trip to ABC’s “Shark Tank” and a deal with Mark Cuban later, it has become an accidental business for me. To date, I’ve drawn 17,228 cats. So if there’s any person in this world who has an excuse to turn her nose at David Yow’s book, it’s my wife. A “pretty good” from her has to be worth at least a “totally awesome” from a non-cat-drawing family. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Good Girl” by Mary Kubica

Book Reviews, Chicago Authors, Debut Novel or Collection, Fiction No Comments »

goodgirlRECOMMENDED

Local author Mary Kubica’s debut “The Good Girl” is set in Chicago. Mia, the twenty-five-year-old daughter of a wealthy North Shore judge is kidnapped; although, without a ransom note, there’s little to go on. The hard-hearted judge is sure his daughter has just run off, being irresponsible and inconsiderate. The mother is sure something’s happened to her, having a different impression of her daughter. Chapters are labeled either “Before” or “After” the abduction, where Mia, “after,” can’t or won’t disclose what happened to her during her captivity. The point-of-view shifts from Mia’s mother, the detective, and the kidnapper himself as Kubica slowly teases out the story. Because the kidnapper’s perspective is clear, there doesn’t seem to be a mystery—but Mia’s post-kidnapping condition doesn’t make sense. Instead of relief, she’s anxious, unsure of who she is, uncomfortable with her reunited family. She claims not to recall the details of her three-month captivity, which is questioned by her mother, rejected by her father, and attributed to a kind of Stockholm Syndrome by her therapist. Her level of shock seems to indicate that something much worse than the kidnapper reveals happened while they were hiding in the woods. “She’s thinking. She wakes up from a dream and tries to remember the details. She gets bits and pieces, but never the whole thing. We’ve all been there. In a dream, your house is a house but it’s not your house. Some lady doesn’t look like your mother, but you know that she is your mother. In the daytime, it doesn’t quite make as much sense as it did during the night.” Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “If it is your life” by James Kelman

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RECOMMENDED ifitisyourlife

A few years back, The Guardian attempted to interview the Scottish Booker Prize winner James Kelman about his then-new novel “Kieron Smith, Boy.” The result was essentially an interrogative monologue by the interviewer, interspersed with Kelman’s “monosyllabic replies” and silences that were “long and Pinteresque.” Unfortunate for the interviewer, yes, but also no real surprise given Kelman’s writing, which dwells on the gaps between spoken words and the tangles of thought beneath them. As a character in his brilliant (if bleak) new collection “If it is your life” puts it, “Human beings are near the surface. Just scratch and that is us.”

Kelman’s work is all about this scratching, laying bare the inner lives of men and women in the margins as they have a pint or die alone or watch children build a raft to sail across a lake of detritus in the backcourt of a Glasgow tenement. His stories drop readers into the murky minds of working-class, often nameless, largely Glaswegian narrators who are plagued by intractable troubles that they cannot effectively convey to themselves or others. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “The Other Side” by Lacy M. Johnson

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RECOMMENDED theotherside

Lacy M. Johnson’s new memoir “The Other Side” tragically details her experience of getting kidnapped and raped by her former boyfriend. Nothing about this is necessarily strange—Johnson isn’t the first to write a memoir in order to render a personal trauma. What is strange about “The Other Side” is that despite its difficult subject matter, it is pleasurable to read. Johnson isn’t a victim of a crime who has become a writer in order to work through the physiological repercussions of that crime, but rather, she is a writer first and has the powers to render these events in a virtuosic prose that is simultaneously horrifying and admirable.

The book opens just as Johnson is escaping a soundproof room where she was raped and slated to be murdered. From there Johnson’s narrative is in constant nonlinear motion, racing back and forth between self-confessed naiveté and hard-fought empowerment. Although most of what is contained in “The Other Side” is reflected off of the crime at its center, Johnson is smart enough to use this horrific event to reach for higher truths and new epiphanies. What her audience is left with is a powerful, but often quiet, meditation on memory as it pertains to the physical body. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?’ by Dave Eggers

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RECOMMENDED yourfathers

Book by book, Dave Eggers has pushed the limit of what he has done before, and then takes one step further. His latest novel may look slim, but it represents another startling leap into new territory.

Here is a tale as tightly wound as an alarm clock. Told entirely in dialogue, it takes place on a deserted military base on the California coast. Thomas, its hero, has kidnapped an astronaut, Kev, and chained him to a post. “I’m a moral man and a principled man,” Thomas assures him.

It’s usually a bad sign when a hostage-taker makes such assertions. It may not be so here. Thomas merely wants to ask Kev a few questions about his past, but then he gets another idea. He grabs another hostage. This victim is a congressman, a double-amputee war veteran who wakes up groggy on the floor. He is kinder to Thomas than Kev, more understanding. He knows this will not end well for Thomas, and pities him: “You’ve got a head full of rocks, kid. And there are a hundred thousand others like you in the desert right now.”

On it goes. Thomas begins conversations and then cuts them short, rushing off for another hostage. He grabs an elementary school teacher; he abducts his own mother. He subdues and kidnaps a police officer.

In the past five years, Eggers has begun writing screenplays and “Your Fathers” yokes the economies of that work—its reliance on dramatic thrust and human speech—to novelistic purpose here. Toggling between his captives, Thomas assembles a kind of explanation for why, as he sees it, the world has forsaken him: it has vacuumed his generation’s sky free of dreams and replaced it with satellites, or “space kites,” as Thomas calls the International Space Station. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking” by Jordan Ellenberg

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RECOMMENDED hownottobewrong

Jordan Ellenberg starts off his mathematics paean by invoking, of all things, sports. Much like math, it’s not as bad as it sounds. Not everyone’s going to be a professional soccer player, he says, but pickup players and World Cup defenders use the same skills. So is it with math. It’s more than just the passing drills of multiplication tables and quadratic formulas. “How Not To Be Wrong” is the logical continuation of Ellenberg’s classroom teaching, and Slate’s “Do The Math” column. For years he’s been working to inspire not just math literacy, but respect and wonder too.

The stories Ellenberg tells—and he is a storyteller—refuse to insult his reader’s intelligence. Whether it’s the bullet-riddled planes coming back from the front or the dead salmon that seem to show a thought process in an MRI, things are not always what they seem. To the mathematician, math is a curious process of assumption and provocation. “How Not To Be Wrong” is part exposé—concepts most of us are never privy to are explained along with obvious surprises we just need to hear over again. (Numbers are fudged, findings inconclusive. If we had a logically mathematical voting system, we’d have elected President Gore.) A truly gifted professor, Ellenberg includes diagrams, proofs and poetry to illustrate his points. His utility has been clearly maximized by the telling of mathematical yarns. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Girl Who Was Saturday Night” by Heather O’Neill

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RECOMMENDED thegirl

“The Girl Who Was Saturday Night,” the second novel by Heather O’Neill, follows two years in the life of Nouschka Tremblay. Nouschka and her fraternal twin brother Nicolas grew up as child stars. The product of a night between the irresponsible Quebecois singer Etienne Tremblay, who only raises them when the cameras are running, and a fourteen-year-old groupie, whose only contribution to their upbringing was leaving them on their grandfather’s doorstep, the Tremblay twins’ childhood in the limelight has left them extremely damaged people.

The novel begins when the twins are nineteen and inappropriately attached to one other; they still share the same bed. Nicolas is a petty thief and already a deadbeat dad. Nouschka is an accidental beauty queen who finds herself in the middle of numerous affairs, the next of which might be with Raphael Lemiux, a mentally unstable criminal and former figure skating champion.

“The Girl Who Was Saturday Night” is chiefly about fame. The Tremblays spend the novel dodging the narratives of paparazzi and documentary filmmakers; when Nouschka’s relationship with Raphael flourishes, she vows to “lead a well-adjusted, serene life” to overcome everyone’s expectations for their failure. However, the largest narrative with which they must contend is the one of their supposedly happy childhood in the limelight, when the reality is that it was mostly spent in the squalor of their grandfather’s apartment. As Nouschka says of the reaction of one character to she and Nicolas: “Of course she loved our persona. It was designed to be loved.” Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “The Animals: Love Letters Between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy,” edited by Katherine Bucknell

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theanimals

RECOMMENDED

The most enlightening part of “The Animals” is the introduction. Without it, there would be simply no way to tell what letters Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy had exchanged in times of strife. Isherwood and Bachardy are among the most eminent of historic gay couples: right up there with Stein and Toklas. Isherwood—famous for writing the stories that formed the basis of “Cabaret!” and the novella “A Single Man”—spied a barely legal Bachardy, who would become a portrait sketcher to the stars, on Valentine’s Day in 1953.

“The Animals,” which collects a large sum of the letters the two sent each other, starts three years into their relationship, and soon the lover’s lexicon creeps in. The middle-aged Isherwood is Drubbin, an old wise horse perpetually one trot away from the glue factory, while the frisky young Bachardy plays a snow-white Kitten longing for Drub’s cuddles. As they transcribe their sweet nothings, their hands become paws or hooves, their domiciles baskets or stables.

Aside from each letter’s rather fulsome beginnings and endings, theirs is a pragmatic, chatty love of the day-to-day. It’s odd to discover that Bachardy and Isherwood have similar voices. Both are quick to cut down a boring dinner companion. There are digressions about unpaid bills or slow mail. Theirs is a world of rented apartments, trips to England and notable names: Cecil Beaton, W.H Auden, Glenn Ford. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “A Better World” by Marcus Sakey

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ABetterWorldAfter all the time Marcus Sakey spent creating a stratified, believable world of gifted and normal races, all he intended to do was knock the blocks over. Pour the bucket of water on the sand castle.

Let’s back up. Last summer Sakey released the thriller “Brilliance,” where about one-percent of the population had strange talents, like the ability to anticipate body motion, count large numbers in seconds, or see computer code. “Brilliance” was a marvel of total immersion. The world felt fully explained and realized partly because almost every character the protagonist Nick Cooper (at the time a “gifted” government agent) encountered was dimensional. Every place fully drawn and realized.

“A Better World,” the sequel to “Brilliance” carries none of that over. For one thing, it likely wouldn’t stand alone if encountered first on a bookshelf. Compared to how thoroughly “Brilliance” delineated the systems we all encounter, “A Better World” just requires a lot of swallowing and accepting. Characters so pivotal and fascinating in “Brilliance,” like a financier gifted with supreme probability analysis, barely seem familiar here. The main characters—Cooper, his love interest Shannon, his ex-wife Natalie—don’t reveal any more of themselves. Read the rest of this entry »

Comics Review: “Sex Criminals, Volume I TP: One Weird Trick” by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

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RECOMMENDED sex-criminals-vol-01-releases

It’s a story as old as civilization itself: A young woman who stops time when she has an orgasm meets a guy with the same thing. Brought together by the whims of circumstance, they fall for each other, and in the throes of a new relationship start robbing banks.

Think “Tristan and Isolde” filtered through Philip K. Dick and you’ve got half of the idea.

The other half is a smart and sex-positive take on the romantic comedy. Suzie (she’s the girl) acts as the narrator for the series, bringing the smutty shenanigans and the sci-fi to a personal level. What makes her and Jon (he’s the guy) so compelling as a romantic pair is the sheer amount of honesty between them. It’s downright refreshing to see adults talking so frankly and intimately about their sexual histories, not as an arousing enticement but as an intimate disclosure. Past partners, masturbatory habits, even musical preferences are shared between them and with us.

It’s a bold approach to sexual comedy, and some of the best work by Matt Fraction (he’s the writer). Largely known as a prominent writer for Marvel Comics, one of his strengths is playing around with multiple levels of plot and mood. He knows when to place a joke about fleshlights and when to spin out lines of near-poetry, as when Suzie describes her first experience with post-climax timelessness: “I was enveloped in silence and color.” Read the rest of this entry »