The Great and Royal Animal Within: An Interview with Simone Muench

Chicago Authors, Poetry No Comments »
Simone Muench/Photo: Joe Mazza/BraveLux

Simone Muench/Photo: Joe Mazza/BraveLux

By Jarrett Neal

I sat down to dinner with Chicago poet Simone Muench to discuss her new collection “Wolf Centos,” a dazzling yet haunting volume of poems crafted in the Italian tradition of the cento: poems comprised entirely of lines from other poems. Employing the wolf as the primary symbol, these poems address and, indeed, awaken the primal sensibilities in all of us. Muench, whose previous collections include “Orange Crush” and “Lampblack & Ash,” shared the details of her craft, what excites her as a poet, and what makes “Wolf Centos” such a distinct collection.

What was the inspiration for “Wolf Centos”? 
Brandi Homan led me to the form; Vasko Popa, Gabriela Mistral, and my childhood malamute Zach, helped guide me to the wolf.

What was your process in writing these poems?
I gleaned through numerous single-authored texts as well as many world anthologies and, in a similar manner to erasure, when a line would light my eye, I’d highlight it. I would go through texts and underline lines and phrases that sparked my attention. Once I was done underlining various lines that “called” to me, I would then transcribe them in a Word document, until I had hundreds of lines. From there I would start the act of stitching the lines together, tailoring something that made sense to me in terms of atmosphere, associative imagery and sonic latticework. Read the rest of this entry »

The Right to Control Our Bodies: Jonathan Eig discusses “The Birth of The Pill”

Chicago Authors, History, Lit 50 No Comments »
Jonathan Eig/Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

Jonathan Eig/Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

By Toni Nealie

When you’ve had reliable contraception all your life, it’s easy to take it for granted. Now that politicians and religious groups are contesting women’s access to reproductive health care, “The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution” is timely. Jonathan Eig has written a compelling, frustrating and enraging account of activist Margaret Sanger, scientist Gregory Pincus, heiress Katharine McCormick, and Catholic gynecologist John Rock, and their race to discover a miracle pill. The group wanted to stop women dying from dangerous contraceptives, abortion, childbirth and exhaustion. They aimed to help couples plan their families and enjoy sex.

Eig, a former reporter and the best-selling author of “Luckiest Man,” “Opening Day” and “Get Capone,” was captivated by the individuals and the important story behind the pill. Crusader Margaret Sanger believed sex was good and that women should have more of it, but it needed to be separated from procreation. That’s where her lifelong quest began. Sanger and her supporters had to invent and test a workable hormone formula, raise money, build alliances and work their way around repressive laws banning information about birth control. Read the rest of this entry »

The Million-Dollar Wound: How A Life of Fighting, Chanting, Loving and Running Paid Off When I Published a Novel and Got Gored by a Bull

Author Profiles, Chicago Authors No Comments »
Bill Hillmann in striped shirt/Photo: Foto Mena

Bill Hillmann in striped shirt/Photo: Foto Mena

By Bill Hillmann

In November of 2005, I moved down to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, to write a novel. I’d attempted to write a book the year before but it was complete garbage so I threw it in the trash. Then I saved up a bunch of money using my big shoulders, working as a Local 2 Laborer on construction sites all over the city and figured I’d rent a place, live simply, and like my mentor Irvine Welsh (of “Trainspotting”) advised me, “write every single fookin’ day.” I met Irvine around 2003 through a mutual friend in the Chicago boxing community named Marty Tunney. Irvine and I hit it off and he really fanned my flames as a writer. Anytime I asked him a question he gave me the best advice he could. As simple as it was, writing every day was the best advice I ever got.

San Miguel was even more breathtakingly beautiful than I’d expected. It’s a Spanish colonial town built on a small mountainside. Spectacular cathedral spires stretch into the sky amid colorful hundreds-of-years-old buildings. The cobble stone streets wind and climb the steep pitch of the mountainside. Art galleries and excellent restaurants haunt every path. San Miguel made an impact on the Beat Generation and is the town Neal Cassady left while counting rail ties on his way to Celaya when he died suddenly. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Ugly Girls” by Lindsay Hunter

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Ugly GirlsRECOMMENDED

The title of Lindsay Hunter’s debut novel lets us know at once what’s in store: a tale of “Ugly Girls.” In a recent interview with Juliet Escoria of The Believer, Hunter says, “It was… important to me to allow my characters to be ugly mentally, emotionally, and physically. I wanted it to be about two real girls who ran the gamut of ugliness. Who traded ugly back and forth like a friendship bracelet. Who were unlikable but interesting.” Hunter’s two main characters are exactly that. In pursuit of teenage thrills, identity and power in the form of fast cars, sex and guns, Perry and Baby Girl are each ugly in their own way, not terribly likable, but indeed interesting.

Ugliness does not reside in the girls only. It’s present in all of the characters in the book—even in the food! Hunter has a tremendous talent for sketching ugliness in all of its naked glory. But she doesn’t do so for mere artistic effect or to condemn her characters. It’s through her characters’ ugliness that we see their vulnerability, their humanity and maybe even recognize our own. As Hunter’s story unfolds amid the back drop of trailer homes, truck stops, prison cells and classrooms, she reveals the wellspring of ugliness: the limitations, loneliness, shame, grief and despair.

Hunter is a shapeshifter, slipping from one vantage point to another. She allows us intimate glimpses into the ocean of thoughts a character may have before one of these arbitrary thoughts is acted upon. She exposes the disparity between how characters wish to be perceived, how they think they’re perceived, and how they actually are perceived. She shows how characters internalize competition for rank in a flawed hierarchy. Read the rest of this entry »

The Myth of the American Dream: Cristina Henriquez on Her New Novel, “The Book of Unknown Americans”

Author Profiles, Chicago Authors, Fiction No Comments »
Photo: Michael Lionstar

Photo: Michael Lionstar

By Amy Friedman

Immigration is a hotly debated topic, though more often through the lenses of policy proposals and the scoring of political points than about the very real people involved. Cristina Henriquez’s new novel, “The Book of Unknown Americans,” works to bridge this gap by exposing the immigrant experience in first person, giving voice to those who are frequently spoken about or spoken for without actually being spoken to. The unknown Americans in her book narrate their own chapters, and in doing so speak to their unique cultural traditions and backgrounds that too often become muddled in the minds of native-born citizens. This narrative technique allows for the immigrant experience to come alive with a richness and complexity that routinely goes unsung in third-person accounts that have a tendency to cast immigrants as menacing outsiders rather than as integral members of the American landscape. Read the rest of this entry »

Shopping List: Good Things Come in Small-Press Packages

Chicago Authors, News Etc. No Comments »

KingMeMy mother used to say “good things come in small packages” when I was young. For a while I wore a pin that declared magnum in parvo, which translates as much in little or greatness in small things. That carries over into my love of small, independent publishers. Here’s a list of recent small press books by Midwest authors or publishers, to give or be given these holidays.

“On Immunity: An Inoculation” by Eula Biss,  cultural analysis and personal history, from Graywolf Press, 216 pages, hardcover, $24.

“Once I was Cool” by Megan Stielstra, totally cool personal essays, from Curbside Splendor, 202 pages, $15.95.

“Swarm to Glory” by Garnett Kilberg Cohen, sly fiction about endings, from Wiseblood Books, 212 pages, $13.

“King Me” by Roger Reeves, poems about love and masculinity, poverty, class and race relations, from Copper Canyon Press, $15. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “What the Lady Wants” by Renée Rosen

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cover-what-the-lady-wants-430x647RECOMMENDED

Marshall Field: business titan, leading citizen of a growing prairie city, terrible luck in love.  Wedded to a demanding, shrewish social climber, he suffers quietly along in marriage, and on the eve of the great Chicago fire, lays eyes upon one teenage Delia Spencer. There’s instant connection. The blaze is encroaching but it’s no match for the sparks between Field and the young girl.

This is how local author Renée Rosen imagines Marshall Field and his young mistress Delia beginning their decades-long affair. Rosen specializes in picking intriguing characters out of Chicago history and inserting them into her own narrative. Her debut adult novel, “Dollface,” saw her explore the city’s gangland days through a gutsy female narrator, and she’s at it again in “What the Lady Wants.” In Field and Spencer, Rosen works with real-life main characters this time, which is no detriment to either the plot or the characters themselves. In an appendix, Rosen explains that while Field’s life is quite documented, the characters around him are not. She carved out a rich slice of Chicago’s past—the Fire, the Haymarket Bombing, the 1893 World’s Fair—and takes great liberty to fill in the motives behind her characters’ private lives.

Readers won’t mind the wholesale inventions, partly because they keep the story going, but mostly because Rosen has an innate grasp of human relationships. She is skilled at sketching the little vicious cliques of women who judge Delia for adultery, and details the push and pull of the illicit affair itself in a way that feels compassionate toward everyone. Following the tangled strings of Delia, her husband Arthur and the Fields will grip those with complicated love lives of their own. Like Vera, the narrator of Rosen’s “Dollface,” Delia is a woman who bucks convention, associates herself with powerful men, and slowly realizes that she is her own greatest advocate.

If “What the Lady Wants” seems a tad escapist, so be it. It’s escapism crafted with care and research. Rosen has found her niche, and if she can keep the magic going, audiences even beyond Chicago will fall in love with her women and their city. (Liz Baudler)

“What The Lady Wants”
By Renée Rosen
New American Library, 448 pages, $15

Poetry Review: “Résumé” by Chris Green

Book Reviews, Chicago Authors, Poetry No Comments »

Resume by Chris GreenRECOMMENDED

With the holiday season already in full swing, “A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens’ yuletide story about surly old skinflint Ebenezer Scrooge, will once again be brought to life on stage and in countless TV movie adaptations. Yet most workers, in the wake of the Great Recession, can’t help but identity with Bob Cratchit, literature’s most put-upon worker. Given the devastation of both the national economy and the global economy, having a job and keeping a job, any job, has prompted many individuals to re-evaluate not only their work life but the very meaning of work itself. Creative writing has always provided fertile ground for such inquiries: fiction (“The Jungle,” “The Grapes of Wrath”), plays (“Death of a Salesman,” “Glengarry Glen Ross”) and the ragtag poetry of Charles Bukowski, Frank O’Hara and others, question our capitalistic system, the Scrooges who run it, and the value of what all workers do each day to earn a buck.

“Résumé,” Chicago poet Chris Green’s latest collection, takes readers on a contemplative journey through his hardscrabble employment history, which includes stints as a janitor, landscaper, adjunct poetry instructor, security guard and other wage-slave positions. The poems that comprise this slender collection explore the highs (such as they are) and plumb the depths of the catch-as-catch-can world of unskilled labor. Read the rest of this entry »

Glorified Losing: Brian Costello Talks “Losing in Gainesville”

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Photo: John Sturdy

Photo: John Sturdy

By Brendan Buck

Brian Costello, a Florida native and Chicago immigrant, is a comedic performer, musician and writer. He currently hosts the monthly game show “Shame that Tune” at the Hideout and drums in the band Outer Minds, but he’s also a two-time novelist. His first, “The Enchanters vs. Sprawlburg Springs,” was released by Featherproof Books in 2005, while his second, “Losing in Gainesville,” was just released by Curbside Splendor. I recently caught up with Costello over email about his new book.

One of the first things that strikes me about your novel is its conversational and lyrical style, similar to the writings of William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren, the latter’s work having a direct reference in the book. Were these writers a conscious influence on your writing? Who are your influences?
Not really. I like them both, and learned a lot from “All the King’s Men,” but overall, with structure, I was influenced by double LPs like “Exile on Main Street” by the Rolling Stones, “Trout Mask Replica” by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, and “Double Nickels on the Dime” by the Minutemen. I love double albums, and how each side can create a different mood. Side Two of “Exile on Main Street” comes to mind, for instance. With “Losing in Gainesville,” I wanted to write a “triple album,” where each part/side has a different mood to it. Within the actual writing, the influences could be everything from Herman Melville to the movie “Dazed and Confused,” rock critics like Lester Bangs and Richard Meltzer, the TV show “The Wire,” and various writers directly referenced in the novel itself. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: “Where To? A Hack Memoir” by Dmitry Samarov

Book Reviews, Chicago Authors, Chicago Publishers, Memoir No Comments »

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 »