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

Nonfiction Review: “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” by Atul Gawande

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Being Mortal IIRECOMMENDED

We’re all going to die, apparently. I’ve known enough of death to assiduously avoid thinking about it until it’s too close to ignore. The other week I visited a friend in hospice. He spent his last days holding court and watching herons stalk frogs in the wetlands beyond the windows. His room seemed more like a hotel than a hospital, with floor-to-ceiling glass and plush lounge chairs. A few weeks earlier he’d had a cough checked, now he was dying—or at least, now he knew he was. There would be no heroic efforts to prolong his life, just medication to enhance its quality. He talked about what he valued. He felt at peace. The next week, he was too tired for visits, so we talked by phone. Then he slipped into death. It was timely to pick up “Being Mortal” by physician writer Atul Gawande a few days later.

We all know the quip about the certainty of death or taxes, but still they creep up and catch us unawares. We don’t consider our life’s end thoroughly enough, asserts Gawande. He writes to “lift the veil” on the whole ghastly institutionalized business of illness, aging and dying, in order to refocus on what he believes to be most important—sustaining meaning in life. He wants us to have an urgent conversation about issues of autonomy and maintaining the integrity of one’s life, so we don’t lose ourselves at the end. Read the rest of this entry »

Poetry Review: “Résumé” by Chris Green

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Resume by Chris GreenRECOMMENDED

With the holiday season already in full swing, “A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens’ yuletide story about surly old skinflint Ebenezer Scrooge, will once again be brought to life on stage and in countless TV movie adaptations. Yet most workers, in the wake of the Great Recession, can’t help but identity with Bob Cratchit, literature’s most put-upon worker. Given the devastation of both the national economy and the global economy, having a job and keeping a job, any job, has prompted many individuals to re-evaluate not only their work life but the very meaning of work itself. Creative writing has always provided fertile ground for such inquiries: fiction (“The Jungle,” “The Grapes of Wrath”), plays (“Death of a Salesman,” “Glengarry Glen Ross”) and the ragtag poetry of Charles Bukowski, Frank O’Hara and others, question our capitalistic system, the Scrooges who run it, and the value of what all workers do each day to earn a buck.

“Résumé,” Chicago poet Chris Green’s latest collection, takes readers on a contemplative journey through his hardscrabble employment history, which includes stints as a janitor, landscaper, adjunct poetry instructor, security guard and other wage-slave positions. The poems that comprise this slender collection explore the highs (such as they are) and plumb the depths of the catch-as-catch-can world of unskilled labor. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “The End of Absence” by Michael Harris and “Virtually Human” by Martine Rothblatt

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virtually human end of absence

 

RECOMMENDED

By Liz Baudler

Michael Harris can’t remember his partner’s phone number without his smart phone. Martine Rothblatt, on the other hand, created a robot modeled directly after her life partner. They’re poles apart, but in books published within the last three months, both writers diagram the same anxiety, asking technology to fill the gap our brains create.

While both books fall under the category of popular science, Harris, a journalist writing his first full-length book, takes a polemic tone. Rothblatt, trained as a scientist and the writer of more academic works on subjects from transgenderism to Middle East peace solutions, focuses on explanation and theory of anything that might be relevant to her subjects. “The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection,” Harris’ book, is almost entirely predicated on worry. Worries that we don’t get enough time alone without a buzzing, blingling techbeast. Worries that Harris and the rest of us don’t have the attention span to finish “War and Peace.” Worries that disconnection from the net is disconnection from humanity.

Rothblatt, writer of “Virtually Human: The Promise–and the Peril–of Digital Immortality” and the CEO of biotechnology company United Therapeutics, wants to connect us to a future full of technology like us. The gap Rothblatt aims to fill is of the more permanent kind: death. With a mindclone, a “humanly cyberconscious being” with the mindfile, or “stored digital information” about a person, death can be cheated. Life beyond death is not Rothblatt’s ultimate goal: she just lays out the mindclone as the logical next phase of technological development. But the reader can only conclude very few reasons to create another race of being—and an infrastructure for its existence. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: “Where To? A Hack Memoir” by Dmitry Samarov

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wheretoRECOMMENDED

I wish I’d had a taxi driver like Dmitry Samarov when I immigrated to Chicago. Our driver got lost on the way from O’Hare Airport, pulled over on a dark, midnight road by the Des Plaines River so we could check our map, then crashed through roadwork and over a bunch of orange traffic cones. Samarov seems a more careful driver, a meticulous observer of people and a sharp storyteller.

“Where To? A Hack Memoir” is a series of linked vignettes that are wry, hilarious and sometimes melancholic. Samarov, the immigrant “progeny of Soviet intelligentsia and an art school graduate,” describes the cab driver as a passing presence who sees the ugly, the beautiful and the inexplicable. Cab drivers are frequently immigrants, former professionals, now “forced back down to the bottom rung of the societal ladder.” They contend with a gritty city and ruthless cops. The bureaucracy is a time-sucking revenue collector, its authority figures despotic. Passengers are lovelorn, snowbound, disabled, drunk, sweet, amusing, obnoxious and sometimes famous. We glimpse it all. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Thrown” by Kerry Howley

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Howley7RECOMMENDED

Disclaimer: I’m not a fan of fighting. My teen son was a wrestler and endured his share of cauliflower ear, knee injuries, concussion and all-or-nothing coaches. My husband made a documentary about head injuries in sport, so I tend to be squeamish and protective of the human body. I therefore approached “Thrown” with caution.

It’s a layered, complex work about MMA fighters, their ambitions, obsessions and myth-making. Out of sweaty training basements and small-town fighting cages in the Midwest, we meet fighters Erik and Sean. Why do they fight? We are asked to weigh their world of “ecstatic experience” against the alternative offered by the healthy-minded, with their pre-natal yoga and gluten-free diets, “their dull if long lives of quietist self-preserving conformism.” By the end of the book, I’m in with the fighters. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Belzhar” by Meg Wolitzer

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belzharRECOMMENDED

After her first love dies, Jam Gallahue’s parents enroll her in a school for the “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent” teen to recover from her emotional distress. So begins Meg Wolitzer’s new young adult novel, “Belzhar.”

So deeply in love was Jam that she’s not able to function as she did before. “Reeve was different from the boys I knew—all those Alexes, Joshes, and Matts. It wasn’t just his name. He had a look that none of them had: very smart, slouching and lean, with skinny black jeans hanging low over knobby hip bones.” Wolitzer fans dubious of forays into young-adult literature should breathe easily: that sentence doesn’t end with “and he was a vampire.”

While Wolitzer seems like the quintessentially adult writer, from the sharp wit of “The Wife” to the ambitious, decades-spanning “The Interestings,” she’s acutely aware of that that teenage soul is nothing if not fraught with drama. More like her fairy tale-ish “The Uncoupling,” Belzhar treads fearlessly into fantasy. Jam’s school isn’t an institution, this is no “Girl, Interrupted,” although that is close to what’s happened to our young heroine.  Every student in the school is dealing with emotional problems and, presumably, has very wealthy parents to bankroll their child’s emotionally sheltering private education.

Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Game We Play” by Susan Hope Lanier

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TGWP_coverRECOMMENDED

When dealing with short story collections that aren’t what we like to think of as “novels in stories,” there’s an overriding philosophy that the first and last stories are usually the best two stories of the collection. The stuff in between is usually good, sure, but first and last stories are there to anchor the collection at both ends. The first story entices you to read the collection, while the last should send you off with an overwhelmingly positive opinion so strong you forget any duds that were in the middle. What makes Susan Hope Lanier’s debut collection “The Game We Play” odd then is that I don’t think it’s necessarily arranged this way.

Nevertheless, the biggest knock I can give against Lanier’s debut is that my favorite stories are buried in the middle. Not that the collection’s opener, “How Tommy Soto Breaks Your Heart,” doesn’t manage to entice, combining teenage angst and the aftermath of 9/11 to create a nice little flash piece, but it has a hard time competing with “Sophie Salmon” and “Felicia Sassafrass is Fiction.” “Sophie Salmon” is the story I would describe as more or less the collection’s heart: an optimistic, funny and touching love story that’s incited by what is likely the impending doom of its titular character. “Felicia Sassafrass is Fiction,” on the other hand, is the most adventurous piece of short fiction that I’ve read in a long time. It’s most easily described as like that part of “Breakfast of Champions” where Kurt Vonnegut decides to drop in on Kilgore Trout, but even as the biggest Vonnegut fan in existence, I have to admit Lanier is better at using language to position the author’s relationship with her creation, mocking the cliché gestures she gives Felicia, “She crosses her arms or falls to the floor, her eyes turning into two watering stop signs.” “Felicia Sassafrass is Fiction” does an exemplary job of capturing the kinks in the creative process; I’m a sucker for stories like that. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Secret Place” by Tana French

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thesecretplaceRECOMMENDED

Tana French is finally back with the fifth book of the Dublin Murder Squad mysteries with “The Secret Place.” Her ingenious conceit continues, in which a minor character from a previous book becomes the lead character in the next—so in “The Secret Place,” the point of view is from Stephen Moran, a rookie cop from “Faithful Place.” Stephen is approached by Holly—the daughter of another detective on the squad. Part of the fun of French’s books is that an inscrutable minor character is opened up in a future book, completely changing the reader’s perspective.

Holly’s dad, Frank, went from hard-nosed prick in “The Likeness” to tough-guy-with-heart-of-gold in “Faithful Place.” Holly tells Stephen that she found a note in the “secret place”—a board at her school where girls are invited to pin up secrets, a place to release emotions but also a place carefully guarded by the faculty. Holly attends St. Kilda’s, a posh private girls’ school where a boy from the nearby private boy’s school was found killed one year ago. Holly’s note reads “I know who killed him.” Read the rest of this entry »