Fiction Review: “Visions of Anna” by Richard Engling and “She Plays in Darkness” by Fern Chertkow

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RECOMMENDEDvisions of anna

Each artistic endeavor, to one degree or another, symbolizes a quest for immortality. The tragic irony, of course, is that most art does not survive. For every Shakespeare play taught in schools, produced on stage, and adapted into feature films, countless other plays dissolve into the ether of history, unacted, unread, untouched. Read the rest of this entry »

Larger Than Life: Scott Blackwood Discusses His Novel “See How Small”

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Scott_Blackwood

Scott Blackwood/Photo: Tommi Ferguson

By Christine Sneed

Evanston-based fiction writer Scott Blackwood’s new novel, “See How Small,” has been garnering the kind of reviews that writers dream of, along with notices from esteemed writers such as Ben Fountain, Margot Livesey, and Daniel Woodrell.

“See How Small” begins on a late autumn evening in Austin, Texas, when two strangers enter an ice cream shop shortly before closing time and murder the three girls working the counter. The book is a tale about the survivors—family members, witnesses, and suspects—enduring the tragedy’s aftermath. “See How Small” addresses the consequences of the girls’ deaths during the ensuing years, navigating how the crimes affect those closest to them and the girls themselves, whose voices still echo after their deaths. The teenagers hover among the living, watching over the town, attempting to connect with those left behind. “See how small a thing it is that keeps us apart,” they say. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Jillian” by Halle Butler

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RECOMMENDEDjillian

Halle Butler’s debut novel “Jillian” is the story of two ordinary, unhappy women stuck in lives they did not anticipate.

Megan is a twenty-four-year-old working in a gastroenterology office in a well-off neighborhood in Chicago. Her coworker, Jillian, is a thirty-five-year-old woman who commutes in from the suburbs where she lives with her young son. All of Megan’s self-loathing and hatred gets siphoned toward Jillian, a woman she can’t stop talking about. Which isn’t to say Jillian doesn’t deserve criticism. She’s a disaster—driving on an expired license, adopting a dog she can’t afford, and developing an embarrassingly mild addiction to low-grade pain relievers. But she is certainly no worse than Megan who furiously resents her office job and the successes of her friends. So while on the surface Jillian seems like the polar opposite of Megan (after all she’s sickeningly upbeat and has goals, something Megan noticeably lacks), as the book progresses you realize that the women are alike in their unhappiness; they just handle it in different ways. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948 by Noah Berlatsky

Chicago Authors, Comics/Graphic Novels/Cartoonists, Essays, History No Comments »

wonder womanRECOMMENDED

The reason I know a smidgen about comics: I hang out with a lot of geeks. Feminist, sex-positive, queer-friendly geeks. They told me the backstory of Wonder Woman’s creator, William Marston, radical psychologist and happy polyamorist. Jill Lepore explored Marston’s home life in “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” but Chicago-based culture and comics writer Noah Berlatsky took a deep dive into the marriage of psychology and artwork that is Marston’s enduring pop culture impact.

Even comics skeptics find Wonder Woman unique and titillating. As Berlatsky rightly points out, she’s been a feminist icon for decades, and among certain circles, a kinky queer one. (Lasso of truth? Ladies-only island? Hmm…) Berlatsky illuminates how Wonder Woman—of World War II inception—nods at that era’s values yet still espoused female superiority and pacifism, slyly winked at lesbianism and even may have stood traditional rape and incest narratives on its head. He also focuses appropriately on the artist, Harry Peter, as well as Marston, and shows how even Peter’s idiosyncratic perspective and anatomy bolster the argument that the series was ahead of its time. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life: Breakup Stories” by Michael Czyzniejewski

Chicago Authors, Chicago Publishers, Fiction, Story Collections No Comments »

breakup storiesRECOMMENDED

Breakup stories, as a genre, have become as clichéd and overdone as their inverse, love stories. Dear John/Jane letters, lipstick-smudged collars, and clothes piled up and doused with bleach have become the tell-tale signs of love affairs that have run their course. Yet writers with sagacity and wit can sidestep such been-there, done-that tropes and elevate the breakup story to new levels. In Michael Czyzniejewski’s short-fiction collection “I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life: Breakup Stories,” readers zigzag through the demise of one relationship after another, some of them long-term romances, others missed connections that crash and burn even before they begin.

Tragicomic incidents involving public masturbation, a lethal peanut butter sandwich, apocalyptic plagues, and Meryl Streep’s breasts open gateways into the pathos that calls out for recognition when a relationship, regardless of its depth or duration, hurdles toward dissolution. Czyzniejewski exhibits an enviable knack for black humor, combining the scathingly urbane with the wickedly boorish, all through a lens that shifts kaleidoscopically from naturalism to postmodernism to magic realism and beyond. Read the rest of this entry »

Tales out of School: Relevancy and Change in Columbia College’s Annual Story Week Festival

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Audrey Petty and Mitchell S. Jackson/Photo: Ben Bowen

Audrey Petty and Mitchell S. Jackson/Photo: Ben Bowen

By Kim Steele

For a literary festival like Columbia College’s Story Week to remain relevant for nineteen years is quite an accomplishment. This year, it succeeded once again by emphasizing the important and unique relationship between literature and current events; demonstrating that literature is a catalyst for all of us to discuss what is happening in the world around us.

In fact, this year’s theme, “The Power of Words” is, in part, a reaction to the violence in our city and world in the past few months. Eric May, the artistic director of Story Week and an associate professor in creative writing at Columbia, notes how the desire to remain pertinent influences which authors they host as well as the focus of the various panels. In fact, the panel “Fighting Violence: The Power of Words” addressed the relationship between violence and literature head on. It featured Kevin Coval (the author of “The BreakBeat Poets” and the founder of Louder Than A Bomb), Mitchell S. Jackson (“The Residue Years”), Audrey Petty (editor, “High Rise Stories”) and Miles Harvey (editor, “How Long Will I Cry?”). Read the rest of this entry »

Understanding Human Performance: Sian Beilock Investigates “How the Body Knows Its Mind”

Author Profiles, Chicago Authors, Nonfiction No Comments »

Sian Beilock_author photoBy Toni Nealie

I struggle to write when I sit at my desk for too long. My students freeze when stressed. Chicagoans pine for sun in winter. “How the Body Knows Its Mind” resonated with me because it identifies the science behind what we feel and suggests simple changes to improve our lives. I caught up with neuropsychologist Sian Beilock after her week of presentations around the country.

What was the impetus for the book? How does it follow the work that you did on human performance in your previous book “Choke”?
I think everyone thinks of the mind as telling the body what to do — our thoughts, our feelings, our learning, our ability to perform — reside in our head. As I started doing research for “Choke” I realized what we do with our bodies and our surroundings have a big impact on how we learn and how we feel. No one was really telling that story. Everyone was telling the story about what happens inside our head. There’s a great story to tell about some simple things we can do to feel better, perform better and learn better if we understand a little bit of the science. Read the rest of this entry »

The War At Home: Emily Gray Tedrowe’s “Blue Stars” Explores the Lives of Those the Soldiers Left Behind

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Emily Gray Tedrowe/Photo: Marion Ettlinger

Emily Gray Tedrowe/Photo: Marion Ettlinger

“Blue Stars,” the new novel by Chicagoan Emily Gray Tedrowe, presents us with an original prism through which to view the complexities of military life. As the sister of a military man herself, Tedrowe is intimately familiar with the struggles of those who are left behind during war. “While he was there, I didn’t want to think or write about the experience,” Tedrowe says of her brother’s service. “When he returned, I started to think about those on the home front.”

To those of us outside its ranks, the military and its members tend to be viewed in absolute terms: the organization must be supported at all costs, and those who volunteer are considered noble and beyond reproach. Those who do not support the military’s mission or who question it in any way are regarded as unpatriotic. Tedrowe’s novel successfully questions the wisdom of these two-dimensional notions through a rarely considered angle, the women waiting at home during war in the digital age, and their experiences after the fact. “Blue Stars” presents the reader with the stories of two women in military families during the Iraq War who possess very human strengths and flaws. Read the rest of this entry »

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: “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 »