Fiction Review: “The Fugue” by Gint Aras

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Lovers of Chicago-area literature have a new book to add to their nightstands: Gint Aras’ novel, “The Fugue,” which has been called “an homage to the urban grit of Nelson Algren and the family sagas of Leo Tolstoy.” Aras sets his novel in Cicero, Illinois, spanning the era of World War II to 2001. He focuses on several displaced refugees and their children and keeps the reader eagerly turning pages.

Aras riffs on the fugue motif in multiple ways. The novel itself unfolds like a fugue. It opens with young Orest in hiding with his mother, grandfather and baby brother in 1940 war torn Western Ukraine. It develops with interwoven stories and voices of characters related in some way to Orest, and the novel closes with a recapitulation, a return to Orest’s story in Western Ukraine. Read the rest of this entry »

Graphic Novel Review: “Beverly” by Nick Drnaso

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Nick Drnaso’s “Beverly” is an impressive graphic novel about the cruelty and hopelessness of suburban life. The art in Drnaso’s graphic novel is comfortingly simple. Panels are pastel-colored and made up of clean lines and simple shapes. This style contrasts dramatically with the darkness of the content, making it all the more jarring.

The stories in “Beverly” swirl around disappointment, loneliness and miscommunication. In “The Saddest Story Ever Told,” a housewife is excited for the opportunity to give feedback on a new TV show. She encourages her daughter to watch with her—it’s something they can do together—but it turns out the questions aren’t about the show, but rather the advertisements. Read the rest of this entry »

Journal Review: The Point Issue 11, Edited by Jon Baskin, Jonny Thakkar, Etay Zwick

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Original, witty, and rewarding, The Point magazine was created in 2009 by three University of Chicago graduate students and “founded on the suspicion that modern life is worth examining.” Playing on the word point and named after Chicago’s South Side Promontory Point, the semiannual publication goes far beyond our city’s borders in scope. All issues are made up of essays, a symposium on a topic chosen by the editors, reviews, artwork and an editors’ letter outlining the issue’s theme.

In Issue 11, the editors write about politics. In “On Purity,” they suggest that it’s impossible for ideals to remain uncorrupted, that “the ability to build an effective political movement, in addition to a passionate one, might depend on cultivating the kind of convictions that are able to survive contamination.” What sort of convictions might these be? The writers in this issue address that question. Read the rest of this entry »

Gaining Gay Power: Timothy Stewart-Winter Discusses “Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics”

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TSW photo_1
By Toni Nealie

Stonewall and Harvey Milk were exceptional, but Chicago’s story better represented the nation’s path to gay power. In his first book, “Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics,” Timothy Stewart-Winter combines oral history and archival records to tell the local story of activism and politics. By email, he told me that the movement was shaped by the fear of being exposed by law enforcement, then losing your job, family or both.

I was unaware of the alliance between black civil rights activists and the gay liberation movement. Was that news to you? What was surprising?
It surprised me that black politics gave birth to gay politics, not just by offering a template, but by forging a liberal coalition that questioned the police, the machine and a business elite that favored boosterism over marginalized folks. We hear a lot about black straight homophobia and white gay racism. They both mattered, but they were never the only part of the story. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Sex and Death” by Ben Tanzer

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Though Ben Tanzer’s new collection of short stories is mostly set in domestic spaces and everyday places like homes, airplanes, baseball fields, school events and Facebook, in noir fashion, “Sex and Death” is rife with femme fatales, con games, affairs, jealous spouses, pasts which characters can never entirely leave behind, and even some riddles, wrapped in mysteries, inside enigmas.

Most of Tanzer’s characters claim to be just “fine,” but they are simultaneously imprisoned by binds that tie, harried with work, and hellbent on not becoming their parents, “waiting for an opening, a weakness, something you can grab hold of, and then twist, pull, prod and arrange into something different and useful.” These openings are often made way by ennui, curiosity and unresolved pasts. A married man suddenly finds himself in unfamiliar sheets with “the moist smell of sex still lingering in the air” after seemingly-innocuous-though-ultimately-flirtatious exchanges with a married woman from his kid’s school. A widow considers reaching out to her late husband’s mistress, “the only other person in the world who might be able to mirror [her] feelings of love and loss.” A man flashes back to boyhood and tries to put certain recurring memories together to make sense of his parents’ failed relationship. A married woman, unsure if she wants to stay with “the husband who sometimes feels like a sibling or friend,” reconnects with an old flame on Facebook for a little excitement, until things get strange. Read the rest of this entry »

Giving Voice to the Voiceless: Ethan Michaeli on His Biography of a Newspaper, “The Defender”

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Photo: Jason Reblando

By Toni Nealie

When Ethan Michaeli went to work in 1991 as a copy editor at Chicago’s famous black newspaper The Defender, he knew little about the city’s African-American community or Chicago. “The Defender was a great portal into the city and the African-American community,” he says. He went on to become an investigative reporter covering crime, public housing, the environment and politics. “This really taught me to understand the value and power of the press. The Defender was still a daily newspaper then. It had clout. It could get problems solved. That made a real impression on me.”

Michaeli’s book, “The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America,” is the first comprehensive history of the publication. Founded by Robert Abbott, the paper chronicled American race history and once sold hundreds of thousands of copies daily. Its editorials helped catalyze the Great Migration, fought for improved working conditions for the Pullman porters, and condemned the Ku Klux Klan’s infiltration of Chicago (while the Tribune commended the Klan’s goals.) The paper covered the Emmett Till trial and Martin Luther King’s tour of Chicago; it helped elect mayors and presidents, including Barack Obama. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Juventud” by Vanessa Blakeslee

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Vanessa Blakeslee’s coming-of-age novel “Juventud” transports us into the world of teenager Mercedes, the half-Catholic, half-Jewish daughter of the rich, isolated hacienda owner Diego Martinez in Santiago de Cali, Colombia. Diego is raising his daughter alone with the help of drivers and maids.

The mystery of Mercedes’ mother’s disappearance is just one of many enigmas with which the protagonist must contend throughout her journey into adulthood. Sheltered, naive and pampered, Mercedes is surrounded by a powder keg of drug traffickers and violence amid a country deeply divided between rich and poor, between the land owners and the desplazados. As she searches for love and involves herself in political protests, her father works to send her to an American boarding school to keep her safe from a world terrorized by the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia ) and the ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional). But before Diego can ferry his daughter out of the country, Mercedes finds love with Manuel, a political activist and devout Catholic who changes her perspective on all she thinks she knows. As they plan for a tenuous future together, events conspire to change what Mercedes shakily envisions for herself and her young lover. Read the rest of this entry »

Poetry Review: “I Remember: Chicago Veterans of War” Edited by Chris Green

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i remember

In “I Remember: Chicago Veterans of War,” Chris Green has woven the personal memories of veterans from all of the modern wars to capture the experience of going to war and returning from it. It’s a quick read and a charged one, full of all the devastating memories you expect from a book about war. Read the rest of this entry »

Race and the Silver Screen in Chicago’s Loop: Gerald R. Butters on his new book, “From Sweetback to Superfly”

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gerald butters iiBy Toni Nealie

Chicago’s Loop was once a lively area of movie theaters, the second most important cinema market in the country from the 1920s through the 1970s. By 1990, all eleven venues were gone. Film historian and Aurora University professor Gerald R. Butters has written a thoroughly researched and absorbing book, “From Sweetback to Superfly: Race and Film Audiences in Chicago’s Loop,” examining the clash of community, entertainment and business interests in Chicago. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Home by Nightfall: A Charles Lenox Mystery” by Charles Finch

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Home by NightfallAuthor Charles Finch’s latest mystery, “Home by Nightfall,” features Finch’s British, upper-class detective Charles Lenox pursuing clues to two crimes, one in London and one in the country town of Markethouse where he and his brother, Sir Edmund Lenox, grew up.

The first puzzle is where did a brilliant German pianist named Muller disappear to after a concert he gave? He seems to have vanished into thin air, since no one saw him leave the concert hall, and there have been no sightings of him in London. In addition to this disappearance, a countryside mystery forms in the town of Markethouse when minor transgressions like small thefts and the inexplicable drawing of a young girl on a newcomer’s steps culminate in a knife attack on Markethouse’s mayor. Read the rest of this entry »