Crime Studies: The Story Behind Lori Rader-Day’s Campus-Set Debut, “The Black Hour”

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By Brandie Rae Madrid

First-time novelist and Chicago transplant Lori Rader-Day’s “The Black Hour” is set in a prestigious university in a fictional Chicago suburb. After an inexplicable attack by a student shooter, Professor Amelia Emmet returns to work, albeit with a cane, a new anxiety about her students, and a slew of faculty who think she must have brought the crime on herself somehow. Told from two perspectives—that of Emmet and her new teaching assistant Nathaniel—the novel explores the aftermath of a violent crime that is becoming all too common on campuses today.

You’re originally from Indiana? What brought you to Chicago?
I am. The central Indiana area just northwest of Indianapolis near a town call Lebanon. Lots of people pass by it and may not stop.

We came to Chicago in 2001. I had gotten a job, and I asked my boyfriend if he wanted to come up here with me, and he responded by asking to marry him. So my fiancé and I came to Chicago together, and we got married about two years later. So, a good job, but also just trying to find adventure.

Chicago and its history end up being a big part of this novel. Can you speak a little bit about that and how that came about?
I can’t say that I’m an expert in Chicago crime history, but I think it’s really interesting to live in a town with so much rich history of all kinds. And then Chicago has such interest in its own history that I just love, but it also has an interest in its own crime history. I was thinking about what would draw Nathaniel in the book to Chicago once he’s there—because he’s interested in what happened to Dr. Emmet. But I thought he would have this sort of dark interest in crime, and of course Chicago is a good place to study crime if you’re going to do it. Read the rest of this entry »

Things Fall Apart: Kathleen Rooney on Sexism, Politics and “O, Democracy!”

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KathleenRooney

By Brendan Tynan Buck

Kathleen Rooney’s fifth book cost her job as a senate aid for Dick Durbin. An essay in “For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs” mentioned a flirtation with her boss, the Chicago office district chief, and when that got back to Washington, she was fired. (He wasn’t.) Rooney’s recent novel “O, Democracy!” examines the firing of Colleen Dugan from the employment of “the Senior Senator of Illinois” during the climax of the 2008 election. Though based partly in autobiography, Rooney stresses it’s best to engage her book as standalone fiction. I recently had the opportunity to chat with Kathleen about structuring her novel, sexism in politics, and the presidential election of 2008.

How did your experience as a senate aid inform the creation of the novel?
Writing the book, I tried hard to use my experiences to create something that was definitely fiction, the reason being that I wanted events to be more interesting and logical than real events are. This is my first novel, even if it’s my seventh book. I’ve written memoir before, but I didn’t think that would be the best shape or form for the story that I wanted to tell. The separation between my actual self and my protagonist exists because I wanted to avoid the critique of self-absorbed navel gazing that memoirs often get. I wanted it to be a story that’s not just about one individual, but about a bigger system. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists” by Hillary Chute

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RECOMMENDED outsidethebox

As the medium of comics continues to grow in both artistic legitimacy and creative diversity, the question arises of how we will handle an inclusive definition of such an eclectic collection of forms. Does an open and encompassing parameter for graphic narrative allow us to recognize works such as Jim Davis’ Garfield strips and the latest run of Marvel’s X-Force series as using the same language, albeit for entirely different purposes and audiences? Can the same terms we use to discuss Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel “From Hell” work for examining Theodor Geisel’s propaganda cartoons?

It’s because of these questions that University of Chicago professor Hillary Chute is becoming such a valuable voice in the suddenly-no-longer-ironic field of comics scholarship. “Outside the Box” is her third book on comics, following “Graphic Women” and her collaborative work with Art Spiegelman on “MetaMaus.” Chute is such a unique voice largely because she never read comics until well into her graduate school studies, where she experienced Spiegelman’s “Maus” and was immediately taken by it.

As a result, her passion for the medium comes not from any nostalgia but from a scholarly appreciation and understanding. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “A Better World” by Marcus Sakey

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ABetterWorldAfter all the time Marcus Sakey spent creating a stratified, believable world of gifted and normal races, all he intended to do was knock the blocks over. Pour the bucket of water on the sand castle.

Let’s back up. Last summer Sakey released the thriller “Brilliance,” where about one-percent of the population had strange talents, like the ability to anticipate body motion, count large numbers in seconds, or see computer code. “Brilliance” was a marvel of total immersion. The world felt fully explained and realized partly because almost every character the protagonist Nick Cooper (at the time a “gifted” government agent) encountered was dimensional. Every place fully drawn and realized.

“A Better World,” the sequel to “Brilliance” carries none of that over. For one thing, it likely wouldn’t stand alone if encountered first on a bookshelf. Compared to how thoroughly “Brilliance” delineated the systems we all encounter, “A Better World” just requires a lot of swallowing and accepting. Characters so pivotal and fascinating in “Brilliance,” like a financier gifted with supreme probability analysis, barely seem familiar here. The main characters—Cooper, his love interest Shannon, his ex-wife Natalie—don’t reveal any more of themselves. Read the rest of this entry »

Lit 50 2014: Who Really Books in Chicago

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Photo: Joe Mazza/BraveLux

When we began work on the 2012 version of Lit 50, there were some 200 published writers on our long list. This year, there were 437. As always, trimming the list to a mere fifty writers required a certain kind of agony (and a few sleepless nights), but we’re proud of the list we gathered here, and we feel it celebrates the wealth of talent and diversity of Chicago’s literary community.

Close followers of Lit 50 will know this year’s list celebrates writers across all forms: novelists, essayists, poets, graphic novelists, playwrights. Our call to local literary folk yielded a wealth of celebratory news: overseas teaching offers, sealed book deals, hard-earned fellowships and awards. It also introduced dozens of writers that were not already known to us. We’re proud that this year’s Lit 50 includes seventeen writers who are making their first appearance on this list, including Chris Abani, the Nigerian-born writer who escaped a death row sentence in 1991 and now teaches graduate students at Northwestern University. We’re thrilled to add Lindsay Hunter, Cristina Henriquez, and Kate Harding, women whose voices we’ve long admired and whose forthcoming books we’re impatient to read. We’re also eager to welcome a handful of poets, including Roger Reeves, Parneshia Jones, and Roger Bonair-Agard.  It’s our crazy hope that in 2016, the “short” list will have doubled once more. But someone’s going to have to bring us some whiskey. (Naomi Huffman)

Lit 50 was written by Liz Baudler, Brendan Buck, Brian Hieggelke, Alex Houston, Naomi Huffman, Megan Kirby, Micah McCrary and John Wilmes

All photos by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux on location at Spertus Institute/Venue SIX10
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A Writer of Place: Chicago Icon Stuart Dybek Returns With Not One, But Two Books at Once

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sdybekBy Brendan Buck

Stuart Dybek is a Chicago writer, through and through. He grew up on Chicago’s South side in the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods in the fifties and sixties, and holds graduate degrees from both the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Loyola University. He is the author of two collections of poetry, “Brass Knuckles,” published in 1979, and “Streets in their Own Ink,” from 2004. Dybek is best known for his contributions to the short story form. His collections include the “The Coast of Chicago” from 1990 and “I Sailed With Magellan,” from 2003. These collections and the stories within laid out new rules for the short story. Call it flash fiction, call it micro fiction, call it brevity. Dybek is a master.

When I called Dybek, he was in the middle of rewriting a piece for  Lucky Peach, the themed food and writing quarterly magazine. During our chat we discussed flash fiction, the importance of place in his work, and the two collections he has out this June, “Paper Lantern: Love Stories” and “Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Stories,” both published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Old Neighborhood” by Bill Hillmann

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TheOldNeighborhoodCOVERBill Hillmann is a man who’s led many lives—a feared street brawler, an elite bull-runner in Spain, a gang affiliate, a Union construction laborer, a Chicago Gold Gloves champion, and the founder of the Windy City Story Slam. A charismatic and powerful Chicago storyteller, Hillman’s debut novel “The Old Neighborhood” has just been released by local indie press Curbside Splendor. In a promotional interview with Curbside senior editor  Jacob Knabb, Hillmann says that he “…wanted to write about violence and the effect it has on people, especially kids.”  No small task, this is what Hillmann accomplishes in “The Old Neighborhood.”

Set in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood in the 1990s, “The Old Neighborhood” follows Joey Walsh, a member of a large, multiracial family with strong and violent ties to their community. Joey grows up while racial tensions are high and the future of his neighborhood is uncertain. The Edgewater Joey and his family knows is changing and the neighborhood street gangs are willing to do whatever they think is necessary in order to gain full control of their community.

“The Old Neighborhood” flourishes when Hillmann describes Joey’s Edgewater and focuses on Joey’s daily interactions with family and friends. Like when Joey describes spending time with his Grandpa at their family’s summer house, or when Joey and his father are driving out of the city and toward the Skyway, “past Comiskey in that canyon-like valley,” or the novel’s opening scene in the beer garden at St. Greg’s Parish carnival, or those afternoons when Joey and his best friends Ryan and Angel watch over the neighborhood and shoot the shit from the windowsills at Edgewater Hospital. It’s during scenes like these that Joey’s voice is the strongest and  his world most alive. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Something Wrong with Her: A Real-Time Memoir” by Cris Mazza

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RECOMMENDEDSOMETHING-COVER-FRONT

“Something Wrong with Her” is an arresting chronicle of the personal consequences of an artist’s sexual dysfunction, caused by a medical condition called a weak pelvic floor. The condition can be treated with physical therapy but in Mazza’s case it remained undiagnosed for decades, deepening the isolation of a gifted author trying to understand why she feels pain when others feel pleasure. That this happened during a sexual revolution of the 1970s and eighties only adds to her self-doubt.

Many narrative levels operate in the book. Striking journals of unhappy relations with men are grafted onto a memoir that is being critiqued by the author’s writing group. Arranged “like the barbs on an arrow” are quotes from Mazza’s numerous published stories and novels, her personal emails, dream logs and high-school yearbook inscriptions. The emails are with a tenor saxophonist friend addressed as “MarkR,” who has a lifelong crush on her. Both experience failed marriages while brooding on the past. Interspersed are useful mantras on creative writing, all this arranged as a jazz fake book, a loose-leaf that musicians used to carry to club dates and wedding gigs. Read the rest of this entry »

Rewriting the Adolescent Narrative: Megan Milks on “Kill Marguerite”

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photo: Megan Milks

Photo: Megan Milks

By Anne Yoder

I first encountered Megan Milks’ work when we were both fledgling critics for PopMatters. Her writing stood out as intelligent, daring and quite promiscuous in its range of ideas. She went on to found the zine “Mildred Pierce” and contribute to the avant-lit blog Montevidayo. And I’m still reading her today.

Milks’ stories in her debut collection “Kill Marguerite” draw influence from cultures both high and low, from Homer and Joyce to video games and teen magazine columns. They never sit quietly, but rather unsettle convention and defy expectation. In fact, the moment you think you know what’s happening, the story opens into an unexpected black hole, thrusting you into a passage that devours and reconfigures expectations. Read the rest of this entry »

Toasting the Man Chicago Almost Forgot, Nelson Algren

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NALGRENOn March 29, the Nelson Algren Committee will host the twenty-fifth annual Nelson Algren Birthday Party to honor the man who eternalized Chicago’s “drunks, pimps, prostitutes, freaks, drug addicts, prize fighters, corrupt politicians, and hoodlums” with his books “The Man With the Golden Arm,” “Neon Wilderness,” and “Chicago: City on the Make.”

This year would mark Algren’s 106th birthday—which actually falls on March 28—but  the festivities planned are lively: theater mainstays Donna Blue Lachman and Bob Swann will be presenting Algren’s work with folksinger Mark Dvorak, filmmaker Tom Palazzolo, actor-director Nate Herman, activist Robert Lopez, and novelist Christopher Corbett. Poetry readings, excerpts from the in-progress documentary, “Nelson Algren: The End is Nothing, The Road is All,” and a tribute to Algren’s lover Simone de Beauvoir. Read the rest of this entry »