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

Chicago Authors, Debut Novel or Collection, Fiction, Young Adult No Comments »

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 »

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 »

Building Stories: A Conversation with Rebecca Makkai about the Construction of her Novel, “The Hundred-Year House”

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Photo: Ryan Fowler

Photo: Ryan Fowler

By Brian Hieggelke

I live in a loft, in a printing factory built in 1883. Sometimes I daydream by gazing at a spot in our home, where perhaps an HDTV or a contemporary couch now sits, and wonder about that very space a century or more ago. What kind of workers perched there day after day? What kind of lives did they lead? What, if anything, did they talk about as they cranked out the original “Tarzan” novels and other fare?

This kind of curiosity drives Chicago writer Rebecca Makkai’s second novel, the delightful “The Hundred-Year House.” Zee, a troubled English professor, and her husband Doug, a literary scholar who’s having a hard time making progress with his exploration of a now-obscure poet’s legacy, have just moved into her family’s coach house on the North Shore, on a property that once served as an artists’ colony. What unfolds is something of a literary mystery with an original structure: Before long, we’ve abandoned Zee and Doug and their unanswered questions and visit the house in an earlier time, and then in another even earlier, each leap backward illuminating the narrative as we go. It’s a smart book, full of delicious turns of phrase and pieces of “found” documents, poems, letters, etc. that mesmerize once you’ve crossed its threshold.

Makkai grew up and lives a middle-class life on the gilded streets of the North Shore, a juxtaposition that informs her writing with a mix of insider and outsider perspective. The mother of two young children published her debut novel, “The Borrower,” in 2011 and will add a story collection featuring several of her “Best American Short Stories” winners, called “Music for Wartime,” to her list next summer. Not to mention her writings for Harper’s magazine and her work on a memoir about a grandmother she never really knew, one who’d been the leading lady of the Hungarian stage and a very successful novelist in that country back in her day. We had a lot to talk about when we had lunch. Read the rest of this entry »

Starting at Endings: Garnett Kilberg Cohen Discusses Her New Story Collection, “Swarm to Glory”

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Photo: Lynn Sloan

Photo: Lynn Sloan

By Christine Sneed

I first became familiar with Columbia College professor Garnett Kilberg Cohen’s stories a couple of years ago when I read one of her two previous collections, “Lost Women, Banished Souls.” Immediately apparent in these stories is Garnett’s light touch and her talent at writing about love in its many complex permutations. When she asked me this past spring if I’d be willing to read an advance copy of her newest story collection and, if I liked it, send her Milwaukee-based publisher, Wise Blood Books, a blurb, I was happy to do so. Many of these new stories balance on the narrow, spiked fence between comedy and tragedy, and love—its protean nature especially—is again a key theme. Garnett and I recently exchanged some thoughts about “Swarm to Glory.” Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Good Girl” by Mary Kubica

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goodgirlRECOMMENDED

Local author Mary Kubica’s debut “The Good Girl” is set in Chicago. Mia, the twenty-five-year-old daughter of a wealthy North Shore judge is kidnapped; although, without a ransom note, there’s little to go on. The hard-hearted judge is sure his daughter has just run off, being irresponsible and inconsiderate. The mother is sure something’s happened to her, having a different impression of her daughter. Chapters are labeled either “Before” or “After” the abduction, where Mia, “after,” can’t or won’t disclose what happened to her during her captivity. The point-of-view shifts from Mia’s mother, the detective, and the kidnapper himself as Kubica slowly teases out the story. Because the kidnapper’s perspective is clear, there doesn’t seem to be a mystery—but Mia’s post-kidnapping condition doesn’t make sense. Instead of relief, she’s anxious, unsure of who she is, uncomfortable with her reunited family. She claims not to recall the details of her three-month captivity, which is questioned by her mother, rejected by her father, and attributed to a kind of Stockholm Syndrome by her therapist. Her level of shock seems to indicate that something much worse than the kidnapper reveals happened while they were hiding in the woods. “She’s thinking. She wakes up from a dream and tries to remember the details. She gets bits and pieces, but never the whole thing. We’ve all been there. In a dream, your house is a house but it’s not your house. Some lady doesn’t look like your mother, but you know that she is your mother. In the daytime, it doesn’t quite make as much sense as it did during the night.” Read the rest of this entry »

Writing What? Essaying Megan Stielstra, Essayist of “Once I Was Cool”

Author Profiles, Chicago Authors, Essays, Memoir 1 Comment »

megan stielstra

By Liz Baudler

Megan Stielstra’s writing career is forever changing. She tells me this as we sit on couches in the office space for her new nine-to-five job, and it looks like a sushi bar, all square lines and pale stripes of wood and white blocks. The walls are whiteboards and she can’t wait to take a marker to them.

Stielstra’s writing career has never been about the best-selling novel she hoped to write. It took shape as she scrubbed floors in Florence and read a lot. When she went to Columbia College, she walked out of her first class feeling like she had smoked everything there was to smoke, so high was she from the excitement of writing.

The writing career detoured when a trusted professor asked her if she’d ever thought about teaching. Yet she can’t stand in front of a classroom without writing, or else she’d violate some incredible trust with her students. It still amazes her that they trust her with first drafts: she would balk at handing over hers like that. Read the rest of this entry »

They Are All Outsiders: Marvin Tate Talks About “The Amazing Mister Orange”

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AMO_CoverAny project Marvin Tate undertakes is just a sliver of the performer’s multimedia career—he’s been one of the funky minds behind the band D-Settlement, performance poet and all-around mixer-upper. That said, a sliver of Tate bursts with rhythm and spice, and his slim volume of poems, “The Amazing Mister Orange,” channels and chronicles the down-on-their-luck, the temporarily mighty going for a fall, with zingy grace and tempo. We chatted over email about the book’s genesis and style.

Who was “Mister Orange”?
Mister Orange is/was a name I once called my good friend Ainsworth Roswell, an amazing performance artist who taught me how to be in touch with the freak in thee. His favorite color was orange, he was Jamaican by way of England and so he had this incredible accent  that blew MF’s away. He would put on these underground shows in Post Wicker Park in dank basements, BDSM clubs and on street corners. He ended up committing suicide by jumping from the seventh floor of the Water Tower Place and landing in the food court. I bet he was making a statement; he was always interested in class, weed and race. Read the rest of this entry »