Fiction Review: “The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins” By Irvine Welsh

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Irvine Welsh

Irvine Welsh/Photo: Jeffrey Delannoy

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When we can’t stop stuffing our faces with junk, drinking more than we should, wasting hours on end in front of the TV or computer screen, staying in that dead-end job, or continuing to long for that person who is just not into us, what is it that will jolt us out of our funk, turn things around, move things forward? Self-help books? Life coaches? Phone apps? Extreme ruts often call for extreme measures. In Irvine Welsh’s new release, “The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins,” employing unorthodox means seems exactly what’s needed to catapult the main characters out of their vicious cycles. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Drawn From Water—An American Poet, An Ethiopian Family, An Israeli Story” by Dina Elenbogen

Chicago Authors, Memoir, Nonfiction No Comments »

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The search for identity is always fraught, involving questions that the seeker does not even know to ask at the start of the journey. Dina Elenbogen finds this out firsthand in her new book “Drawn From Water: An American Poet, An Ethiopian Family, An Israeli Story” in which she takes the reader on an exploration to Israel after Operation Moses in 1984, a rescue mission that brought 7,000 Ethiopian Jews to the country. Read the rest of this entry »

Comedy, Tragedy and Combatting the Ultimate Void: Aleksandar Hemon Discusses His New Novel, “The Making of Zombie Wars”

Chicago Authors, Fiction, Humor No Comments »
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Aleksandar Hemon/Photo: Velibor Bozovic

By Amy Danzer

Aleksandar Hemon brings the funny in his new novel, “The Making of Zombie Wars.”

After giving us “The Question of Bruno,” “Nowhere Man,” “The Lazarus Project,” “Love and Obstacles,” and “The Book of My Lives,” he now presents us with a comical story that centers around born-and-raised Highland Parker, Joshua Levin, an ESL instructor who compulsively comes up with script ideas that never hold much promise, with the exception of “Zombie Wars.” According to just about everyone in the novel, his girlfriend is too good for him; his relationship with his family is pretty average-if-a-bit-strained; and his army vet landlord, Stagger, has an absolute lack of appreciation for boundaries. Everything in Joshua’s world moves mediocrely along until he plays a dangerous game of seduction with his Bosnian student, Ana who is married to a Bosnian war vet. Thereafter, misadventures ensue like a Coen Brothers film. Though its pace is swift and the mishaps ridiculous, there’s no shortage of poignant subtext. Hemon recently entertained some questions I had for him about his new novel at his shared writers’ space on the North Side of Chicago. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Principles of Navigation” by Lynn Sloan

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RECOMMENDEDprinciples of navigation

Chicago photographer Lynn Sloan’s debut novel, “Principles of Navigation,” opens with a photograph, a crystallized moment at Rolly and Alice Becotte’s wedding: “We are perfect here, aren’t we?” Rolly observes. A closer look reveals the disarray of life with the intrusion, at the right edge of the photograph, of the padded hip of a wedding guest that neither can identify. It is the imperfect unknowable that drives this domestic drama.

Theirs is a dynamic marriage with ever-shifting goals, longings, and moral high ground; they are united only as long as each exercises “a reserve, as if… they were asking each other for forgiveness.” As this fragile courtesy inevitably crumbles, each Becotte reveals more of their internal complexities. Alice is pliable, a bit superstitious, but she is a relentless logician in calculating her fertility. Rolly dreams of the world beyond their rural college town, constructing canoes that carry his imagination to the world beyond, but he is surprisingly uxorious. Read the rest of this entry »

Pleasure, Art, Ambition: Christine Sneed Discusses Her New Novel, “Paris, He Said”

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Christine Sneed/Photo: Adam Tinkham

By Toni Nealie

Making art is tough, whether you are a writer, a musician or a visual artist. It’s hard to keep going when there are bills to pay if you are not gaining traction in your career. How do you balance commerce and artistic sensibility? Who defines your success? What part does environment play? How much of an artist’s success depends on luck? How much should one give up in order to make art? Newcity contributor Christine Sneed explores ambition, beauty and intimacy in her new novel “Paris, He Said.”

The central character Jayne has been out of art school for eight years and is stuck in a low-paid rut in New York when her wealthy, older lover Laurent invites her to live with him in Paris so she can paint. He’s a successful gallery owner and an urbane pleasure-seeker who doesn’t curtail his dalliances with other women once Jayne moves in. New York is dreary and hard work. In contrast, Paris is a sensual city of light. Jayne escapes the American grind for something rather more delightful. On the surface, “Paris, He Said” is an entertaining romantic fantasy, but Sneed has crafted a literary work concerned with trade-offs. What do people give up for their various passions and how do they get comfortable with themselves? Read the rest of this entry »

Clowes Encounter: Talking Comics and Chicago with Cartoonist Daniel Clowes

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danclowesportrait

By Ray Pride

An early spring afternoon a few days ago along Milwaukee Avenue, south of North, east of Damen, so far removed from the Wicker Park of the 1990s: I pause in front of Myopic Books, still standing, surrounded by storefronts peopled by yupscale saloons, Levis, American Apparel, and remember the days when it was Earwax Café, the front windows there? It had two-top tables in both the plate-glass windows where you could watch the passersby on the street, or turn your head, and watch the other customers, and on certain days and nights, catch sight of a clutch of furiously productive scribblers, which could include Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, Archer Prewitt, Gary Leib, among others. They hadn’t “arrived,” but they were there.

I was, too. The food was cheap and heavy, tending to the vegan, and the ashtrays were as often filled with torn-up notes a writer had digested or an artist had rejected as with ashes. My clearest memory of sighting the young artistes was while awaiting a momentous date with a not-yet-girlfriend, sitting at the table in that window, the girl who looked into small tatters and saw her name, and looking away with mild mortification over her shoulder and catching sight of scribblers off to the side, taking in the smell of the food and the not-quite-burnt coffee in the air before looking back at her blushing face. The scraps, the girl, the general atmosphere: plus the furious nurture of a few of the founding foundlings of the still-spreading school of Chicago cartoonists hunched over a free meal.

Now, in the decades since, Clowes’ lovingly rendered Midwestern grotesques have colonized the consciousness of a couple generations of readers far beyond the Chicago comics scene in the waning of the twentieth century. I like talking to Dan. He laughs easily and scores points quietly. We were talking since the 1990s, but I’ve had agreeable structured, journo-subject interviews with Clowes since at least the 2001 release of the movie of “Ghost World.” We tried to remember if and when our respective pasts might have first crossed in those formative Chicago years. It could have been a gallery opening for Ware’s work, he suggests, but we figure it might also have been at some casual locale like the Rainbo Club, and we had probably bristled at each other at some point or another, with a fine mix of shyness, fear and hostility. “In the way we do—we Chicagoans do,” Clowes agreed, laughing. Read the rest of this entry »

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/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 »

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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 »