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 »

The Myth of the American Dream: Cristina Henriquez on Her New Novel, “The Book of Unknown Americans”

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Photo: Michael Lionstar

Photo: Michael Lionstar

By Amy Friedman

Immigration is a hotly debated topic, though more often through the lenses of policy proposals and the scoring of political points than about the very real people involved. Cristina Henriquez’s new novel, “The Book of Unknown Americans,” works to bridge this gap by exposing the immigrant experience in first person, giving voice to those who are frequently spoken about or spoken for without actually being spoken to. The unknown Americans in her book narrate their own chapters, and in doing so speak to their unique cultural traditions and backgrounds that too often become muddled in the minds of native-born citizens. This narrative technique allows for the immigrant experience to come alive with a richness and complexity that routinely goes unsung in third-person accounts that have a tendency to cast immigrants as menacing outsiders rather than as integral members of the American landscape. Read the rest of this entry »

Shopping List: Good Things Come in Small-Press Packages

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KingMeMy mother used to say “good things come in small packages” when I was young. For a while I wore a pin that declared magnum in parvo, which translates as much in little or greatness in small things. That carries over into my love of small, independent publishers. Here’s a list of recent small press books by Midwest authors or publishers, to give or be given these holidays.

“On Immunity: An Inoculation” by Eula Biss,  cultural analysis and personal history, from Graywolf Press, 216 pages, hardcover, $24.

“Once I was Cool” by Megan Stielstra, totally cool personal essays, from Curbside Splendor, 202 pages, $15.95.

“Swarm to Glory” by Garnett Kilberg Cohen, sly fiction about endings, from Wiseblood Books, 212 pages, $13.

“King Me” by Roger Reeves, poems about love and masculinity, poverty, class and race relations, from Copper Canyon Press, $15. 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

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 »

Glorified Losing: Brian Costello Talks “Losing in Gainesville”

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Photo: John Sturdy

Photo: John Sturdy

By Brendan Buck

Brian Costello, a Florida native and Chicago immigrant, is a comedic performer, musician and writer. He currently hosts the monthly game show “Shame that Tune” at the Hideout and drums in the band Outer Minds, but he’s also a two-time novelist. His first, “The Enchanters vs. Sprawlburg Springs,” was released by Featherproof Books in 2005, while his second, “Losing in Gainesville,” was just released by Curbside Splendor. I recently caught up with Costello over email about his new book.

One of the first things that strikes me about your novel is its conversational and lyrical style, similar to the writings of William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren, the latter’s work having a direct reference in the book. Were these writers a conscious influence on your writing? Who are your influences?
Not really. I like them both, and learned a lot from “All the King’s Men,” but overall, with structure, I was influenced by double LPs like “Exile on Main Street” by the Rolling Stones, “Trout Mask Replica” by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, and “Double Nickels on the Dime” by the Minutemen. I love double albums, and how each side can create a different mood. Side Two of “Exile on Main Street” comes to mind, for instance. With “Losing in Gainesville,” I wanted to write a “triple album,” where each part/side has a different mood to it. Within the actual writing, the influences could be everything from Herman Melville to the movie “Dazed and Confused,” rock critics like Lester Bangs and Richard Meltzer, the TV show “The Wire,” and various writers directly referenced in the novel itself. 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 »

Hot Money: Ian Morris Discusses his Debut Novel, “When Bad Things Happen to Rich People”

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BadRichBy Christine Sneed

“When Bad Things Happen to Rich People” is Chicago-based writer and founder of Fifth Star Press Ian Morris’ funny and briskly paced debut novel, a social satire set in Chicago during the lethally hot summer of 1995. The novel’s protagonist, Nix Walters, is an adjunct instructor of English at a communications college in the Loop, where he has few prospects for advancement. When Nix was still in his early twenties, he became a literary punch line when his first and only novel, touted as the next big literary phenomenon, was universally panned by critics.  Now, years later, his pregnant wife Flora and he are struggling financially.

Their fortunes change, however, when Nix is asked to ghostwrite the memoirs of publishing magnate Zira Fontaine. Although grateful for the lavish author fee, Nix quickly finds his marriage, his career and his identity threatened as he struggles to retain his self-respect as both writer and teacher while working on Fontaine’s memoir. His marriage is going off the rails and Nix must also navigate a board-led insurrection at Fontaine’s corporation. These tensions come to a turbulent climax when a brutal heat wave hits the city. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Carnival at Bray” by Jessie Ann Foley

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Carnival_at_Bray_FrontCoverRECOMMENDED

“There will be time to do the responsible thing.” Those words will echo with readers long after they finish “The Carnival at Bray,” the debut novel by local writer and English teacher Jessie Ann Foley. The responsible thing: sixteen-year-old Maggie Lynch—a Chicagoan transplanted via her mom’s whirlwind remarriage to a man from the windy shores of Ireland—just going to school. Not going to the Nirvana concert in Rome, like her Uncle Kevin wants her to. Especially not with the boy she just met, Eoin, who can hold her so close when they dance. It’s 1994, before cell phones and Facebook, and everything is possible.

So there’s romance and music, staples of YA fiction. Dysfunctional family complete with bartender single mother and rock star uncle who’ve never really grown up? Check. Protagonist transported to strange and unfamiliar place and not entirely sure she likes it? Yep. But the specificity of place, whether it’s Chicago, Ireland, or Italy, carry this book to places far beyond the expected. The curls of ham on a pizza, the smell of goat pee in the morning, a nun’s wimple taking on the exact shape of cabbage—these moments spring off the page. Even the minor characters of Bray, Ireland, are sketched with fondness, as Maggie makes friends with a wily ninety-nine-year-old farmer and confidences in a scholarly yet steadfast English teacher nun. And for all the implausibility of the escape Maggie plans to undertake, there’s the endless plausibility of the working-class Chicago family dynamic, full of contradiction and throbbing expectation, that drives her to Rome. Read the rest of this entry »

Critical Force: Make Way for Roxane Gay and Her “Bad Feminist” Self

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roxanegayBy Amy Beth Danzer

It was this year’s AWP Conference in Seattle when I first came in contact with the tour de force that is Roxane Gay. After an evening of readings, publishing-house parties and general carousing, a crew of us found ourselves in the lobby of one of the main hotels hosting the conference, where the likes of Tobias Wolff or Richard Bausch could be spotted waiting for an elevator. As we made our way toward the hotel bar, my friend Adrienne stopped and gasped, “Oh my god, that’s Roxane Gay! I love her.” There she was in unassuming jeans and t-shirt, the ubiquitous culture critic who Flavorwire declared one of 25 Women Poised to Lead the Culture in 2014, Roxane Gay. I knew about her, but was not yet intimate with her work. Adrienne on the other hand was a confirmed admirer and devoted follower. As soon as an opportunity arose, she jumped at the chance to discuss with Gay the very important matter of Juan Pablo Galavis, the then-new Bachelor, and his romantic interests, Ferrell and Crawley. Though not a fan of the show myself, I was thoroughly entertained by the conversation and thoroughly impressed by Gay, who was clearly an intellectual, informed and sophisticated, yet still able to speak vox populi—a combination I dig in people, especially in writers. I needed more of a fix, which was all too easy to satisfy; she and her work are everywhere. Read the rest of this entry »