By June Sawyers
Gypsy, vagabond, nomad, bohemian dandy, consummate storyteller. Robert Louis Stevenson was all of these, and more. He is both familiar and yet strangely unfamiliar. We may recognize the name but who was the person behind the famous moniker? Even the most casual reader knows that he is the author of such literary classics as “Treasure Island,” “Kidnapped” and, most famously, “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Unlike other iconic literary figures of the nineteenth century though—Poe, Dickens, Wilde, to name a few—Stevenson, for many, remains a cipher.
Before she started researching her new novel, “Under the Wide and Starry Sky,” Nancy Horan didn’t know much about him either. “I probably read ‘Jekyll and Hyde,’ ‘Treasure Island,’ and ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’ in high school, possibly ‘Kidnapped,’” she told me. “That was about it. I thought of him as a boy’s adventure writer.” Read the rest of this entry »
Gary Shteyngart has cornered the market on the fairly useless modern invention: the book trailer. Along with his famous lil’ buddy, James Franco, he’s managed to go viral more than once. He was one of the first authors to popularize the book trailer for “Super Sad True Love Story,” also featuring Franco, with Shteyngart as an immigrant writer who could barely read or write English. The trailer for his memoir, “Little Failure,” features Franco and Shteyngart as a couple in pink bathrobes, where Franco overshadows his lover with his own recent memoir, “Fifty Shades of Gary.” Aside from yet another opportunity for Franco to play Is He or Isn’t He? the trailer really does showcase the humor contained in “Little Failure,” but what it doesn’t hint at is the quite serious approach he takes to examining his own role as a male Russian immigrant to New Jersey and how that has informed his writing and his development as a person.
Shteyngart excels when he steps back to examine the cultural and familial pressure he’s under to succeed. The book is filled with some frankly stunning images of the artist as a child, with all the fear and anxiety written plainly on the younger version of the face we know from those book trailers. In one rather bizarre image, he’s climbing what appears to be an indoor jungle gym—it turns out his father built a ladder in the living room for him to conquer his fear of heights, and he was encouraged to climb a bit higher every day. He writes about the casual violence he suffers as a child at the hands of his parents, swift blows to the head and neck, the sort of thing that goads him through his teens and adulthood. He never names the relationship he had with his parents as abusive, but calling out his parents for their behavior drives most of the book. “Little Failure,” for example, is a pet name his mother called him, translated from the Russian. Read the rest of this entry »
Reading “The Sun Also Rises” at age twelve, I counted the cocktails and the beers and the absinthes and realized Hemingway had a problem. Around that same age, Olivia Laing woke up to her mother’s alcoholic partner screaming and shortly found herself barricaded with the rest of her family in a bedroom. Like the rest of the world, I turned my experience into a punch line involving writers and alcohol, but Laing alchemized her brush with darkness into a book. “The Trip to Echo Spring” is an examination of some of America’s best writers and notorious alcoholics, a subject that ordinarily exemplifies cliché. But Laing’s dazzling prose and fervent dedication banish the vultures of cliché from circling in a work of literary analysis that should thrill the curious amateur and delight the picky scholar.
Take the title, from a line from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” where Brick refers to a liquor cabinet and its contents. Laing dissects all the levels on which “the trip to echo spring” works as a metaphor, but the sheer fact that she highlights it as a metaphor already bodes well for the book’s originality, even if the subjects are familiar ones. Tennessee Williams, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Cheever, Carver and Berryman (Laing apologizes for not including women writers, feeling that would hit a little close to home) are the subjects of a meandering pilgrimage the British writer takes through America to see their places of inspiration: New York, New Orleans, Key West, Chicago, Washington State. It’s a journey only the keenest of fans would take, the sheer stretch of land insurmountable. And with the writers chosen, the catalogue might as well be too. Laing, though, picks the works of her muses delicately. Read the rest of this entry »
Gene Wolfe’s “The Land Across” is a novel that’s terribly difficult to summarize. (The jacket copy tries valiantly but ultimately ends up only tangentially relating to the book’s actual arc.) It’s told to us by Grafton, a writer of travel books. Grafton has traveled to the book’s eponymous but unnamed nation to be the first to write a travel guide of the place, despite the nation’s dubious record of arresting travelers at the border. (It is telling of Grafton that when he mentions this he says, “It just made me more determined than ever.”) The moment that Grafton enters the nation, he is beaten by a trio of border guards, his passport is confiscated, he is detained for not having his passport, and is foisted into the custody of a man who the government isn’t fond of. Grafton’s immediate goal becomes getting his passport back so he can return home. Sounds straightforward so far, yes?
Grafton’s subsequent path isn’t. At one point in the novel, Grafton’s main concerns are having an affair with the wife of his jailer and searching for a lost treasure in a spooky house. At another point he is abducted by an order of religious fanatics in rebellion against the government to read their propaganda before landing himself in a prison of the JAKA, the nation’s secret police. Then, when his cellmate and fellow American Russ Rathaus escapes using a life-sized voodoo doll, he finds himself in the employ of his jailers. There are satanic cults, ghostly animated hands, and an obviously corrupt church. To say the plot of “The Land Across” is complicated is an understatement. Read the rest of this entry »
On the radio, Greg Kot is a congenial guy. WBEZ, after all, is not a station dedicated to music programming, and this fact forces “Sound Opinions” to extend their reach beyond music fans, something Kot and co-host Jim DeRogatis accomplish with expertise, luring in listeners more likely to stay tuned for talk radio than to turn the dial in search of actual songs. In print, this broadening approach backfires, as Kot has the uncanny ability to evaporate behind his prose, a skill both enviable and alienating, offering the author a backseat ride through his own book.
The occasions that call for critical analysis are many in “I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the March Up Freedom’s Highway,” though Kot seldom takes advantage. The Staple Singers were a remarkable gospel group who transitioned into mainstream fame during an era when they were confronted by both religious and racial orthodoxy; yet life events that call for greater reflection in the wake of this context, the suicide of young Cynthia Staples for instance, or Mavis’ divorce, receive no such treatment. How is it possible for the gem of gospel groups to endure sacrilege? The question is left unasked. Read the rest of this entry »
“The giddy Poles,” as a Ukrainian author called them, are a freedom-loving people, yet they have lived under tyranny for most of three centuries, most severely punished in the last. In World War II, Poland’s Jewish population was virtually exterminated, and millions more perished. This tragedy was followed immediately by a Communist rule that afforded little opportunity for shedding ghosts.
In his brilliant major novel originally published in 1984, Wieslaw Mysliwski has by accretion, “Stone Upon Stone” as in its title, demonstrated how one man—if imperfectly—rebuilt his life under such circumstances. (Of the novel’s English translation in 2011, this reviewer wrote in Newcity, “As for this ‘Stone,’ you will not want to put it down.”)
Now comes Mysliwski with a compelling new novel—his second to win the Polish Nike Prize for literature—again adroitly rendered into English by Bill Johnston, in which he reveals not just the layers of a man’s life, but those of a nation’s memory and history, by unwrapping it; hence the title “A Treatise on Shelling Beans.” Read the rest of this entry »
By Megan Kirby
Take the bus to Navy Pier on a dreary afternoon. Buy an overpriced ticket for the Ferris Wheel and ride alone to the top. Look out over the lake and imagine it drained and muddy, a stretch of grey marshland. Look back toward downtown and imagine the buildings cracked and broken.
This is the Chicago of Veronica Roth’s massively popular teen dystopian trilogy, “Divergent.” Roth grew up in the Chicago suburbs, and went to school at Northwestern University in Evanston. After orbiting the city her whole life, she set her series to the rattle of El cars in the shadow of the Willis Tower. At only twenty-five years old, Roth released the final installment to her trilogy: “Allegiant” went on sale October 22.
Combined sales for “Divergent” and “Insurgent,” the trilogy’s first two titles, passed a million last summer, and both books spent significant stretches on the New York Times Best Sellers list. A “Divergent” movie, filmed largely in Chicago, will be released March 21.
Roth is one of the latest success stories capitalizing on an end-of-the-world trend—these days, grim, survivalist covers dominate the YA shelves. Most of these books follow similar setups. Some vague tragedy occurred in the past, war or sickness or famine, and survivors must build in the aftermath. Totalitarian governments rise up. Conformity and obedience are rewarded; rebellion is severely punished. Through this wreckage, a hero rises from the youngest generation. Adults are to blame for corruption and betrayals; past generations have failed. Salvation lies in youth. Read the rest of this entry »
When I consider buying poetry for other people, there are two main groups I typically shop for: those who have not studied poetry but have an interest, and those who have. Neither group is particularly easy to shop for: the newbies need something that can be read on the surface, yet possibly has greater depths, while buying for the vets requires knowledge of their particular taste: did they study critically or creatively? Do they like narrative with their poems or are they all about sound? Do they like experimental poems or do they find them pretentious? The joy of discovering Mary Jo Salter’s new collection, “Nothing By Design,” is that she has given me a book I can give to both groups without fear.
For the newbies, Salter should be a revelation. Her poems feature easily defined narratives, some of which arc between poems, such as the ones in the section, “Bed of Letters,” which mediates on the divorce of the speaker. Poems throughout the collection deal with universal topics and themes ranging from infidelity, war and death. Read the rest of this entry »
“The Best American Comics” is unusual in two respects. For one, it’s more egalitarian than any other volume of the Best American Series. Grant Snider’s introspective webcomics stand deservingly by Alison Bechdel’s excellent and complex graphic novel “Are You My Mother?” But alas, the comics content is less likely to stand alone. The pieces that work best in the 2013 edition are the ones that are either self-contained, like a daily newspaper strip, or make the reader want to rush out and buy the whole work.
Comics’ best attribute is their ability to tell simultaneous narratives with words and images. And they’re like any medium where words are secondary: there are people who groove with a song’s melody, and people who only care for lyrics. The excerpts from “Rachel Rising” and “Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller,” both with captions, had just enough story arc to make this reader pencil down their names for future, full-length purchase. Language-less strips have a special challenge, and less ways to clue the reader into the context. It’s easy to give up on them and just skip ahead while vaguely admiring the art. About one-fourth of Best American Comics feels like this, but a beautiful exception is “Grainne Ni Mhaille” by Colleen Doran and Derek McCullough, which tells an Irish immigrant family’s trials via Doran’s gorgeous super-hero style illustration. Read the rest of this entry »
Once a year, the Best American series descends from the heavens holding in its pages what its editors, and guest editors, have determined are the best writing in sports, nonfiction and short fiction from the previous year, among others. This year, the series drafted “Olive Kitteridge” author Elizabeth Strout to edit the “The Best American Short Stories: 2013,” a strong pedigree to be sure. But did Strout and series editor Heidi Pitlor choose wisely?
The answer is largely dependent on what you think the purpose of a year-end anthology is. If you’re someone who thinks that anthologies should focus on finding and promoting new voices, “The Best American Short Stories” probably isn’t for you. The anthology features many of the usual suspects. Of the twenty-two stories in the collection, three stories are from Granta, six are from the New Yorker, and the vast majority of their authors have been published in one publication if not both. Strout, when discussing her choices in the introduction, praised the distinct voices of three authors most will recognize immediately: Junot Díaz, George Saunders and Alice Munro. But it’s not as if these are the wrong choices. “Train,” Munro’s contribution, displays the chops that won her a Nobel Prize; Saunders, a writer renowned for baking unique voices into each one of his stories, lends the anthology what is probably his greatest novella, “The Semplica-Girl Diaries.” And while perhaps Díaz relies a little too much on his perennial narrator Yunior, he does so with good reason: Yunior is one of the strongest voices in contemporary fiction, and more importantly, one unique to Díaz. Read the rest of this entry »