Poetry Review: “Who’s Afraid of Helen of Troy” by David Lazar

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If you are smart and you like to have a chuckle while you read, then please do yourself a favor and don’t read David Lazar’s clever new book “Who’s Afraid of Helen of Troy: An Essay on Love” in a quiet public place. This erudite romp through romance is to be relished out loud, in the comfort of your own bed or train car—either alone or with some lucky other. Selections might even find themselves on your ex’s voicemail. If you aren’t a scholar of Greek mythology, you might want to keep your aged college texts (or Google) nearby, because you are going to (re)learn a lot. Greek tragedy, after all, has given readers their first roadmap of love. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Papi” by Rita Indiana, translated by Achy Obejas

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Rita Indiana’s novel, “Papi,” translated by Achy Obejas, is entering the American literary scene at a ripe moment for fiction in translation. A famously cited statistic says that only three percent of the books published in the United States are translations, compared with sixteen percent in France or a colossal thirty percent in Poland. However, works of literary fiction in translation have been appearing regularly on the bestseller lists since the 2012 publication of the first of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series and its intimate, visceral description of women grappling with male-dominated violence and class struggle. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Getting Right” by Gary D. Wilson

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Getting Right front cover-2


This family saga, Gary D. Wilson’s second novel, centers around three middle-aged siblings from Kansas. In “Getting Right,” the youngest, Connie, develops terminal lung cancer. She requests her unnamed middle sibling, a writer who left Kansas for Chicago and beyond, to record her life story. Ostensibly, that’s what he sets about doing, along with the life of their elder, stroke-stricken brother Len along the way, but at the heart of the novel is the narrator’s own story, of his departure from Kansas and his separation from the people he once called family.
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Fiction Review: “Chicago” by Brian Doyle

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A Mark Twain-like adventure based on the author’s memories of five seasons spent in Chicago right after college, Brian Doyle’s “Chicago” is a loving, lingering look at the indelible mark the city left on him. It beautifully, sometimes nostalgically, captures the narrow window of early adulthood when there is no limit to exploration and discovery, the grace period before time fills up with multiple responsibilities and entrenched habits.

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Poetry Review: “Flammable Matter” by Jacob Victorine

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Flammable Matter-Cover-2 copyRECOMMENDED

In his first collection, Jacob Victorine writes devastating poems about humans burning. Winner of Elixir Press’ Editor’s Award, “Flammable Matter” memorializes victims—named and unnamed—of fire. Some received media attention when they immolated themselves—monks lamenting Chinese occupation of Tibet, Tunisian food-sellers protesting heavy-handed government forces, and Chicago’s Malachi Ritscher railing against the Iraq war. Some are etched in our collective mind’s eye—like those photographed plummeting from the Twin Towers on 9/11, when the author was a teen growing up in New York. A small boy died in a house fire when playing with matches. The author’s mother, eight at the time, never forgot.

Victorine creates lyric work from fragments of family stories, Ritscher’s self-penned obituary, Richard Pryor’s comedy routine about setting himself alight, government advisories and news reports. One poem, “The Helicopter Concerto” is a multi-part contrapuntal formed from an interview with the poet’s father, a Vietnam veteran. Lines from media comments sections thread through the collection, providing a chorus of interjections, critique and conscience. Humans are messy, complicated and not always compassionate. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “A Decent Ride” by Irvine Welsh

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a decent rideScotland-born Chicago author Irvine Welsh, renowned for “Trainspotting,” now gives us his tenth novel, “A Decent Ride.” Named his “funniest, filthiest book yet,” it’s definitely a book for lovers of the bawdy and a rollicking good time, not for the faint of heart.

Edinburgh cabbie “Juice” Lawson returns from Welsh’s 2001 novel, “Glue.” It’s now 2011 and he continues as an incorrigible womanizer and boozer. When Hurricane Bawbag comes to town—a symbol of chaos and disruption—mayhem ensues. All is topsy-turvy. Those who ordinarily hold sway are outwitted by fools. Reality TV and business mogul Ronnie Checker finds himself at the mercy of his lowly cabbie. The bullies at The Pub With No Name are injured by Wee Jonty MacKay. Interactions occur between unlikely combinations of people: upper classes and lower, young and old, parents and children, siblings, the living and the dead. Eccentric behavior prevails and sacrilege abounds. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Lightkeepers” by Abby Geni

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Chicagoan Abby Geni’sThe Lightkeepers” opens with nature photographer Miranda joining a crew of six biologists on the isolated Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco. Overrun with rodents and bats, pummeled by waves, prodded by winds and bound in all directions by sharks and jagged rocks, the setting doesn’t suggest menace so much as insist on it. The threats materialize one night when Miranda is attacked in her bedroom. Afterward, paralyzed by the community’s insularity, she battles with how to proceed, until nature intervenes.

Miranda narrates her experiences through letters to her dead mother. This epistolary attempt to contact someone she’s already lost strands her voice more wholly, exaggerating her isolation as a resident of this deserted island and as a silenced assault victim. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “And Again” by Jessica Chiarella

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Science-fiction novels are often about society-shaking changes with worldwide implications. Chicagoan Jessica Chiarella’s debut novel “And Again,” focuses on less-lofty, but no less significant, aspects of this premise. While the topics of identity, transhumanism, and possible immortality are all raised ever so briefly in this novel about cloning, “And Again” is an intimate work that explores the personal repercussions of an FDA trial for a medical procedure that transfers the minds of four terminally ill patients into new, genetically perfect bodies.

Chiarella focuses largely on questions of character. How should the artist Hannah react to a boyfriend who was absent in what might have been her last days? What does she think when she finds her new body has none of the skills of her old one? Can David, the cheating Republican congressman, reform himself and be a faithful husband when he no longer has a brain tumor to worry about? These questions are fascinating, but the most intriguing parts of the book involve Linda, who had an accident that left her immobile and mute for eight years. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Fugue” by Gint Aras

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Lovers of Chicago-area literature have a new book to add to their nightstands: Gint Aras’ novel, “The Fugue, ” which has been called “an homage to the urban grit of Nelson Algren and the family sagas of Leo Tolstoy.” Aras sets his novel in Cicero, Illinois, spanning the era of World War II to 2001. He focuses on several displaced refugees and their children and keeps the reader eagerly turning pages.

Aras riffs on the fugue motif in multiple ways. The novel itself unfolds like a fugue. It opens with young Orest in hiding with his mother, grandfather and baby brother in 1940 war torn Western Ukraine. It develops with interwoven stories and voices of characters related in some way to Orest, and the novel closes with a recapitulation, a return to Orest’s story in Western Ukraine. Read the rest of this entry »

Graphic Novel Review: “Beverly” by Nick Drnaso

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Nick Drnaso’s “Beverly” is an impressive graphic novel about the cruelty and hopelessness of suburban life. The art in Drnaso’s graphic novel is comfortingly simple. Panels are pastel-colored and made up of clean lines and simple shapes. This style contrasts dramatically with the darkness of the content, making it all the more jarring.

The stories in “Beverly” swirl around disappointment, loneliness and miscommunication. In “The Saddest Story Ever Told,” a housewife is excited for the opportunity to give feedback on a new TV show. She encourages her daughter to watch with her—it’s something they can do together—but it turns out the questions aren’t about the show, but rather the advertisements. Read the rest of this entry »