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 »

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 »

Meekling Press: Combining Word and Form

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photo: Shaun Crittenden

“Muscles Involved” by Erin Kautza/Photo: Shaun Crittenden

By Naomi Huffman

When a copy of Erin Kautza’s “Muscles Involved” came across my desk at Newcity, I was immediately enamored with it. It’s an accordion book that unfolds into an approximately seventeen-foot-long page. On one side is Kautza’s poetry—lilting lines that are both brutal and gorgeous; on the other, an illustration resembling one long leg of ropy, knotted muscle. Enclosed with the book was a thick business card, printed on a letterpress, that read: Meekling Press.

Meekling Press was founded in 2012 by Rebecca Elliott, John Wilmes and Lori Orillo, who all met while pursuing MFAs in creative writing at the School of the Art Institute. Their projects present narrative in the most fitting form, allowing the nature of the work to determine the way it is consumed. Each of their projects is printed on a letterpress, cut and folded and bound by hand, produced in very limited editions. The result is an experience that convinces the reader the work could be experienced no other way.

One recent summer evening, I met Wilmes (an occasional Newcity contributor) and Elliott at the Meekling Press studio, located in the apartment Elliott shares with her boyfriend in Lincoln Park. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Old Neighborhood” by Bill Hillmann

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TheOldNeighborhoodCOVERBill Hillmann is a man who’s led many lives—a feared street brawler, an elite bull-runner in Spain, a gang affiliate, a Union construction laborer, a Chicago Gold Gloves champion, and the founder of the Windy City Story Slam. A charismatic and powerful Chicago storyteller, Hillman’s debut novel “The Old Neighborhood” has just been released by local indie press Curbside Splendor. In a promotional interview with Curbside senior editor  Jacob Knabb, Hillmann says that he “…wanted to write about violence and the effect it has on people, especially kids.”  No small task, this is what Hillmann accomplishes in “The Old Neighborhood.”

Set in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood in the 1990s, “The Old Neighborhood” follows Joey Walsh, a member of a large, multiracial family with strong and violent ties to their community. Joey grows up while racial tensions are high and the future of his neighborhood is uncertain. The Edgewater Joey and his family knows is changing and the neighborhood street gangs are willing to do whatever they think is necessary in order to gain full control of their community.

“The Old Neighborhood” flourishes when Hillmann describes Joey’s Edgewater and focuses on Joey’s daily interactions with family and friends. Like when Joey describes spending time with his Grandpa at their family’s summer house, or when Joey and his father are driving out of the city and toward the Skyway, “past Comiskey in that canyon-like valley,” or the novel’s opening scene in the beer garden at St. Greg’s Parish carnival, or those afternoons when Joey and his best friends Ryan and Angel watch over the neighborhood and shoot the shit from the windowsills at Edgewater Hospital. It’s during scenes like these that Joey’s voice is the strongest and  his world most alive. Read the rest of this entry »

Finding Space: An Interview with Ben Tanzer

Author Profiles, Chicago Authors, Chicago Publishers 1 Comment »

1901386_687975724588122_1540003181_n-1By Liz Baudler

“As far as I know, the only people who have read the book are three women, all twenty-five and under, and two of you said, ‘I have no interest in having kids, but I liked the book,’” said Ben Tanzer. The Chicago author, publisher and podcaster was referring to his new essay collection “Lost In Space,” adventures in fathering his two sons, Myles and Noah. “Lost In Space” drips with pop-culture riffs and love letters to Chicago; it’s a book non-parents can wholeheartedly enjoy and actual parents can appreciate. Ben Tanzer and I chatted over Cuban coffees and Latin music about the hard jobs of writing and parenting.

Whenever I’ve heard you read, you’ve focused on relationships.
I am very into relationships. Sometimes it’s conscious, sometimes less so, but I’ve always been drawn to how people connect and how things get disrupted. In our lives, the most confusion’s around relationships, so how do we communicate, what’s real? How we can say things to people that we know are a mistake. Read the rest of this entry »

Diary Duel: Malcolm X Interests Sue on Publishing’s Eve

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Diary of Malcolm X coverBy Jeff Gilliland
Another wrinkle has emerged in the twisted tale of “The Diary of Malcolm X.” Shortly after our November 14 cover article—“Necessary Means: ‘The Diary of Malcolm X’ and the Fight for an American Legacy”—went to print, attorneys for some of Malcolm’s heirs brought a copyright infringement lawsuit against the book’s publisher, Third World Press. Filed in the District Court for the Southern District of New York, the complaint accuses Chicago-based Third World Press of entering into an unlawful agreement with the editors of the “Diary,” and repeatedly ignoring requests to cease from publishing the text. On November 8, presiding judge Laura Taylor Swain issued a temporary restraining order on the release of the “Diary,” which has been extended until preliminary arguments can be heard in January, 2014. The plaintiff in the lawsuit is X Legacy, LLC, a legal entity created by five of the six Shabazz sisters in 2011 “to protect, consolidate, and enhance the value of the assets and properties relating to the beneficiaries of…Malcolm X.” According to the text of the suit, the sisters formed the limited liability corporation to prevent any member of Malcolm’s family from unilaterally licensing or exploiting his assets without permission from the rest of the heirs. When third sister Ilyasah Al-Shabazz entered into a publishing contract with Third World Press, the suit alleges, she did so without X Legacy’s consent and without “any ownership rights or authority…to copy, publish, or disseminate the Diaries.” Read the rest of this entry »

Shouldering the Burden: “How Long Will I Cry?” Gives Voice to Youth Violence

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By Naomi Huffman howlong

Standing out among the buzz of new fall books and emerging authors in this city is one very significant project: “How Long Will I Cry?” an anthology of oral stories of youth violence. The book is the fruition of two years of interviews collected from the streets of this city, which were then transcribed and edited into concise narratives by creative-writing students at DePaul University. These narratives were initially adapted into a play of the same name, which debuted at Steppenwolf earlier this year and toured through South Side and West Side libraries. The project also inspired DePaul University’s new venture: Big Shoulders Books, a publishing house that seeks to emphasize the real worth of story-telling, and will offer one book a year that engages Chicago communities.

“How Long Will I Cry?” features the subjects one might expect to find in a book of this topic: runaway teen mothers, high-school dropouts, teenagers with rap sheets, people on parole, people on welfare, people on drugs. But because the stories are theirs, in their own words, there is no mistaking these people for some monolith of poverty, illiteracy, and violence. Instead, they’re wholly individualized, celebrated, mourned.

I recently spoke with Miles Harvey, a creative-writing professor at DePaul who built the project, led his students through the process of interviewing, transcribing, and creating the narratives, wrote the adaptation for Steppenwolf, edited the anthology, and is now working to promote the book. Read the rest of this entry »

Necessary Means: “The Diary of Malcolm X” and the Fight for an American Legacy

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Photo: Marion S. Trikosko, 1964

Photo: Marion S. Trikosko, 1964

By Jeff Gilliland

On April 15, 1964, a passenger jet touched down in Cairo and a tall, lean black man stepped out into the glaring sun. His travel documents read “Malik El-Shabazz,” but to many of those who glimpsed their reflection in his horn-rimmed glasses that day, he was known by another name: Malcolm X. The famed black nationalist and civil rights leader was fresh off his contentious split with the Nation of Islam, which he had helped grow from a small religious sect headquartered in Chicago to a nationwide movement for economic and social empowerment. Now he was on his way to make the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that marks one of the five pillars of Islam. Though he may not have known it at the time, the voyage Malcolm began that day would profoundly alter his religious beliefs and racial philosophy—bringing him out of the shadow of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, and establishing a legacy that continues to this day. Read the rest of this entry »

The Long Run: Chicago Review Press Marks Forty Years of Independent Publishing Success

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founder Linda Matthews

Linda Matthews

By Naomi Huffman

When Chicago Review Press was created in 1973, founders Curt and Linda Matthews operated the press out of their basement. Initial titles failed to earn an income that could keep the press afloat. That changed in 1975, when Michael Mann Productions purchased the rights to “Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar,” written by Frank Hohimer while incarcerated at Joliet Correctional Center. The film rights were renewed every subsequent year until the film was finally released in 1981. Buoyed by this success, the Matthews moved operations to an office in River North and began to publish more titles. In 1987, the company purchased Independent Publishers Group (IPG). Chicago Review Press now publishes about sixty new titles each year, and currently has more than 650 in print.

This year marks Chicago Review Press’ fortieth anniversary–a laudable achievement for any company, and especially for an independent publishing company. Publisher Cynthia Sherry has been with the company for nearly twenty-five years, and was kind enough to answer my questions about the drama of the digital age, about the equally maddening and thrilling work of publishing books. Read the rest of this entry »

City Time Capsule: “Chicago by Day and Night” is a Lively Guide to 1890s Chicago

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chicago_by_day_and_night

Chicago welcomed the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition almost twenty years after the Great Fire, inviting thousands to flood the Second City. “Chicago by Day and Night: the Pleasure Seeker’s Guide to the Paris of America” was created to assist this influx of newcomers. With 300 pages and sixty-nine illustrations, the guide acted as a primer for exposition visitors and residents alike, detailing what one might need to know, from lodging accommodations to entertainment venues and revues, places of worship, gambling and vices, shopping centers, dining establishments and more.

The guide was recently revived by Northwestern University English Department lecturer Bill Savage and local writer and reenactment specialist Paul Durica. Savage was introduced to the text by a colleague at the Northwestern University Press where it was under consideration for reprinting. Savage enlisted Durica for his specialized knowledge on this Chicago time period.

The pair proceeded to do some digging. Due to its age, the guide was available in the public domain and a candidate for  republishing. To track down the guide’s author, they searched Library of Congress records to no avail. All that was listed was a name penciled in on the cover page, Harold Richard Vynne, a journalist and writer. “The publisher’s records no longer exist,” says Durica. “We have little information on how the book was put together.” The two reviewed the original text, making very few changes in order to preserve its style and tone. They wrote an introduction that explains the relevance of the text and their work. Any edits were “for the sake of clarity,” says Durica. “Alternate spellings of the same word, sometimes within the same chapter, have been retained. Everything else is original, including all of the photographs and illustrations.” Read the rest of this entry »