Seven Minutes and Semi-Drunk: Write Club Brings Bare-Knuckled Lit Brawls to Your Living Room

Book Reviews, Chicago Authors, Essays, Humor, Nonfiction No Comments »
Lindsay Muscato and Write Club Overlord Ian Belknap/Photo: Evan Hanover

Lindsay Muscato and Write Club Overlord Ian Belknap/Photo: Evan Hanover

By Adrienne Gunn

Write Club, Chicago’s pre-eminent storytelling brawl that pits two writers with opposing themes against one another in front of a live audience, has collected its funniest and most badass bouts into a new anthology, “Bare Knuckled Lit: The Best of Write Club.” The live show, taking place in Chicago on the third Tuesday of every month at The Hideout, prides itself on high-intensity, no-holds-barred matches. How does “Bare-Knuckled Lit” compare? Write Club founder and “overlord” Ian Belknap says, “It’s the difference between hunting on a game preserve, and hunting in the wild; between a fencing match, and a fistfight in a gas station parking lot.” Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “The Girls of Usually” by Lori Horvitz

Book Reviews, Memoir No Comments »

girls of unusually“The Girls of Usually” is Lori Horvitz’s debut, bite-sized chunks of memoir from a woman of many places. Now an English professor in North Carolina, Horvitz would periodically interrupt her New York City life in her twenties to traverse Europe. Those twenties were edgy politically and personally. Burdened with a Communist sometimes-boyfriend, living in an AIDS-ravaged neighborhood, Horvitz slowly realized her burgeoning lesbian identity, complicated by her youth.

Her essays stay brief when dealing with her childhood and mid-twenties, growing longer with age and importance. Characters and objects illuminate Horvitz’s history and locale. Communist Russia is defined by blonde, blue-eyed Rita (the anarchist British tour guide, the first woman Horvitz ever sleeps with) and the packs of gum she trades with locals on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Read the rest of this entry »

The Gift of the Banya: An Enlightening and Freeing Journey Through the Russian Baths

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with light steam

“With Light Steam: A Personal Journey through the Russian Baths,” by Bryon MacWilliams, captures the fractured identity of contemporary Russia with high fidelity in a way that is at once tender and clear-eyed. This book is introspective American travel writing at its best. A genre-defying mosaic of memoir, historical research and a reflection on time and place, “With Light Steam” is easily in a league with “Travels in Siberia,” by Ian Frazier for spectacular American travel writing on Russia.

MacWilliams takes the reader on an insightful, but never belabored tour of the history of Russian baths, which play a major role in the nation’s history if for no other reason than that many major events of Russian history occurred in these steamy rooms (e.g. in an act that initiated the early Russian state as an independent power, its matriarch, Princess Olga, burned to death an entire delegation of Drevlians—a rival tribe—in a banya to revenge her husband’s death). Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Chicago Portraits” by Chicago Tribune Staff

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chicago portraitsRECOMMENDED

“Chicago Portraits” has a simple but noble mission: to celebrate Chicago while highlighting the hard work of Chicago Tribune newsroom photographers, whose names often go unnoticed. While the digital age has cataloged images for all to enjoy, it has also opened doors to intellectual property theft, making it easy for one to print or distribute images and rob photographers, both famous and not so famous, of royalties. Furthermore, technical innovations like tablets, the smartphone, camera apps and social media have allowed too many users to fancy themselves as talented, knowledgeable photographers. This line of thinking hurts the public every bit as much as the professional lensman or woman with a lifetime of craftsmanship: the public expects less of the art itself while legions of trained and talented artists suffer in oblivion. This handsome coffee-table volume offers a chance to momentarily reverse this hateful trend and take in photographs with the proper printing (and credit) their authors deserve. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “We Are Pirates” by Daniel Handler

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we are pirates - handlerDaniel Handler, better known as Lemony Snicket, does write the occasional book for adults, in addition to his wildly popular books for younger readers. “We Are Pirates” is his first novel specifically for adults in a few years; however, it does read a bit like a YA novel. This is perhaps because the main character is a girl of fourteen, Gwen, who does, although, engage in adult behavior like pillaging on the high seas. Gwen is punished for shoplifting with a stint at a nursing home, where she becomes attached to an elderly gentleman with Alzheimer’s disease. The old man loves fiction about pirates and soon he and Gwen hatch a harebrained scheme to become pirates in the San Francisco Bay.

Unfortunately, Handler’s novel never seems to come together. It suffers from stifled dialogue, quite unusual for him, and moves awkwardly from teenage discontent to parental anxiety to sudden violence. While clearly influenced by the language and impulsive characters of pirate literature, “We Are Pirates” doesn’t achieve the thrill of some of those great books like the obscure, strange and wonderful “A High Wind in Jamaica.” Gwen and the old man’s journey is more one of confusion, whereby “being at sea” is a too-obvious metaphor for the drifting mind of the very young and the very old. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “My Florence: A 70-Year Love Story” by Art Shay

Art Books, Book Reviews, Chicago Authors, Memoir No Comments »

florence shayRECOMMENDED

Chicago photographer Art Shay—the same man who photographed royalty, presidents, sports figures and historical moments like the 1968 Democratic Convention—now presents us with a collection of photographs featuring his “beloved wife and model,” and owner of Titles, Inc. for more than thirty years, the sprightly Florence Shay.

One of the very first photographs in “My Florence: A 70-Year Love Story,” is from the Shays’ 1944 honeymoon, in which a twenty-two-year-old Art in U.S. Air Force uniform looks upon his beaming bride with enormous adoration in his eyes, clearly enamored. He looks grateful to be in such close proximity to someone so beautiful and full of life. The photographs in Shay’s latest collection portray his late wife’s brimming effervescence in that same spirit of reverence and love. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help” by Amanda Palmer

Book Reviews, Memoir, Nonfiction No Comments »

art of askingAmanda Palmer’s “The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help” is not about crowdfunding. Her TED talk covers that just fine. It is a love story about art, audience and the business of both, starring two men (a mentor and a husband), and one woman, Palmer herself. The indie cabaret pianist is not everyone’s darling. The internet routinely critiques Palmer’s privilege, patriotism, ableism, feminism. One person’s read of her as genuine and sassy is another’s self-absorbed and tone-deaf.

Palmer wrote a portrait of an artist in real time, an artist flailing in front of us, and when an artist flails, we can either point and laugh or we can learn something. Palmer’s book is a segmented essay of varying brilliance, covering an intensely rough year where her best friend and mentor Anthony is diagnosed with cancer and she deeply questions her marriage to Neil Gaiman because of his emotional distance and lack of dancing ability. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood” by Richard Blanco

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blancoRECOMMENDED

“Made in Cuba, assembled in Spain, imported to the USA” is how Richard Blanco describes himself in addition to being the fifth inaugural poet of the United States, and therefore, “the youngest, first Latino, first immigrant, and first gay writer to hold the honor.” After delivering three prizewinning poetry collections, he is now the author of the funny, humble and moving memoir, “The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood.”

Told through seven chapters, each focusing on a specific memory—a strategy that allows one to navigate very briskly through time—“The Prince of Los Cocuyos” is sheer delight. The setting is Westchester, a Miami suburb, during the 1970s and 1980s, and the Blanco household is a vibrant one, filled with rambunctious personalities: a father, an older brother and a grandfather; a brutally thrifty and domineering Abuela (a bookie for Cuban mafiosos) who is often at odds with a kinder, but no less fierce, version of herself—the author’s mother. These two women run the household, frequently sparring over housework, money and childrearing. Our little Riqui, in particular, is cause for concern. Abuela is determined to make “un hombre” out of him by driving his artistic spontaneity underground. She disapproves of his taste for architecture, confiscates art and coloring books, shames his affection for animals and keeps a constant watch for any signs of his burgeoning queerness: “(…) it’s better to be it but not act like it, than to not be it and yet act like it. By being it she meant being gay—un maricón.” Abuela means well, of course. Years of a hardscrabble existence as a Cuban exile have thickened her love but nevertheless, she causes great harm to her grandson’s psyche. Through the years, this relationship moves in and out of love and hate but there’s no denying that they need each other. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Ugly Girls” by Lindsay Hunter

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Ugly GirlsRECOMMENDED

The title of Lindsay Hunter’s debut novel lets us know at once what’s in store: a tale of “Ugly Girls.” In a recent interview with Juliet Escoria of The Believer, Hunter says, “It was… important to me to allow my characters to be ugly mentally, emotionally, and physically. I wanted it to be about two real girls who ran the gamut of ugliness. Who traded ugly back and forth like a friendship bracelet. Who were unlikable but interesting.” Hunter’s two main characters are exactly that. In pursuit of teenage thrills, identity and power in the form of fast cars, sex and guns, Perry and Baby Girl are each ugly in their own way, not terribly likable, but indeed interesting.

Ugliness does not reside in the girls only. It’s present in all of the characters in the book—even in the food! Hunter has a tremendous talent for sketching ugliness in all of its naked glory. But she doesn’t do so for mere artistic effect or to condemn her characters. It’s through her characters’ ugliness that we see their vulnerability, their humanity and maybe even recognize our own. As Hunter’s story unfolds amid the back drop of trailer homes, truck stops, prison cells and classrooms, she reveals the wellspring of ugliness: the limitations, loneliness, shame, grief and despair.

Hunter is a shapeshifter, slipping from one vantage point to another. She allows us intimate glimpses into the ocean of thoughts a character may have before one of these arbitrary thoughts is acted upon. She exposes the disparity between how characters wish to be perceived, how they think they’re perceived, and how they actually are perceived. She shows how characters internalize competition for rank in a flawed hierarchy. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “What the Lady Wants” by Renée Rosen

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cover-what-the-lady-wants-430x647RECOMMENDED

Marshall Field: business titan, leading citizen of a growing prairie city, terrible luck in love.  Wedded to a demanding, shrewish social climber, he suffers quietly along in marriage, and on the eve of the great Chicago fire, lays eyes upon one teenage Delia Spencer. There’s instant connection. The blaze is encroaching but it’s no match for the sparks between Field and the young girl.

This is how local author Renée Rosen imagines Marshall Field and his young mistress Delia beginning their decades-long affair. Rosen specializes in picking intriguing characters out of Chicago history and inserting them into her own narrative. Her debut adult novel, “Dollface,” saw her explore the city’s gangland days through a gutsy female narrator, and she’s at it again in “What the Lady Wants.” In Field and Spencer, Rosen works with real-life main characters this time, which is no detriment to either the plot or the characters themselves. In an appendix, Rosen explains that while Field’s life is quite documented, the characters around him are not. She carved out a rich slice of Chicago’s past—the Fire, the Haymarket Bombing, the 1893 World’s Fair—and takes great liberty to fill in the motives behind her characters’ private lives.

Readers won’t mind the wholesale inventions, partly because they keep the story going, but mostly because Rosen has an innate grasp of human relationships. She is skilled at sketching the little vicious cliques of women who judge Delia for adultery, and details the push and pull of the illicit affair itself in a way that feels compassionate toward everyone. Following the tangled strings of Delia, her husband Arthur and the Fields will grip those with complicated love lives of their own. Like Vera, the narrator of Rosen’s “Dollface,” Delia is a woman who bucks convention, associates herself with powerful men, and slowly realizes that she is her own greatest advocate.

If “What the Lady Wants” seems a tad escapist, so be it. It’s escapism crafted with care and research. Rosen has found her niche, and if she can keep the magic going, audiences even beyond Chicago will fall in love with her women and their city. (Liz Baudler)

“What The Lady Wants”
By Renée Rosen
New American Library, 448 pages, $15