Fiction Review: “Lies, First Person” by Gail Hareven; Translated by Dalya Bilu

Fiction No Comments »

lies, first personRECOMMENDED

Unlike the minority of novelists who frame their stories as discovered texts, Israeli novelist Gail Hareven has her narrator swear off truth entirely by announcing, “You should never believe writers, even when they pretend to be telling the truth. Everything that’s written here is pure fiction.” Hareven’s “Lies, First Person” begins with Elinor Brandeis happily living in Jerusalem. Her grown children thrive abroad, her loving husband Oded is a successful lawyer, and she pens a beloved newspaper column. Elinor’s paradise is interrupted by the unexpected call of her estranged uncle, who she refers to as the “Not-Man.” Her husband’s family believes her estrangement with Professor Aaron Gotthilf’s is the result of his controversial “Hitler, First Person,” a terrible fictional autobiography of the holocaust’s architect, but only Oded knows the cause is his rape and abuse of Elinor’s sister Elisheva. Shaken by Gotthilf’s intrusion, and further still by a visit to Elisheva’s home in rural Illinois, Elinor descends into madness and murder. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “We Are Pirates” by Daniel Handler

Book Reviews, Fiction No Comments »

we are pirates - handlerDaniel Handler, better known as Lemony Snicket, does write the occasional book for adults, in addition to his wildly popular books for younger readers. “We Are Pirates” is his first novel specifically for adults in a few years; however, it does read a bit like a YA novel. This is perhaps because the main character is a girl of fourteen, Gwen, who does, although, engage in adult behavior like pillaging on the high seas. Gwen is punished for shoplifting with a stint at a nursing home, where she becomes attached to an elderly gentleman with Alzheimer’s disease. The old man loves fiction about pirates and soon he and Gwen hatch a harebrained scheme to become pirates in the San Francisco Bay.

Unfortunately, Handler’s novel never seems to come together. It suffers from stifled dialogue, quite unusual for him, and moves awkwardly from teenage discontent to parental anxiety to sudden violence. While clearly influenced by the language and impulsive characters of pirate literature, “We Are Pirates” doesn’t achieve the thrill of some of those great books like the obscure, strange and wonderful “A High Wind in Jamaica.” Gwen and the old man’s journey is more one of confusion, whereby “being at sea” is a too-obvious metaphor for the drifting mind of the very young and the very old. Read the rest of this entry »

On Race and Racetracks: Mark Wisniewski Discusses His New Novel, “Watch Me Go”

Fiction, Uncategorized No Comments »

Mark_Wisniewsk_crop3

By Christine Sneed

I first became acquainted with Milwaukee native Mark Wisniewski’s writing when I read his excellent short story “Straightaway” in the 2008 edition of “The Best American Short Stories.” The story’s main character, Douglas “Deesh” Sharp, is also one of the two main characters in “Watch Me Go,” Wisniewski’s compelling and suspenseful third novel.

“Watch Me Go” is a work of literary suspense set in multiple locations in New York State, the story focusing on Jan, a white woman from Arkansas, and on Bronx-born Deesh. Their involvement is risky; the secrets they’re privy to both endanger them and can save each other’s lives. The book takes on weightier themes, racial and economic injustice among them, than Wisniewski’s earlier novels, “Confessions of a Polish Used Car Salesman” and “Show Up, Look Good.” As Wisniewski told me in an email, his new novel “puts American hatreds in front of readers’ faces and says, ‘Come on—we can do better than this.’” Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Herbie Hancock: Possibilities” by Herbie Hancock (With Lisa Dickey)

Biography No Comments »

Herbie Hancock - PossibilitiesRECOMMENDED

Chicago-born piano wizard Herbie Hancock aptly opens his autobiography by recalling a Stockholm concert when he played the wrong chord with the Miles Davis Quartet: “Miles pauses for a fraction of a second, and then he plays some notes that somehow, miraculously, make my chord sound right… And then Miles just took off from there, unleashing a solo that took the song in a new direction. The crowd went absolutely crazy.” That night, Davis (who famously said, “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.”) ultimately offered the young Hancock a musical direction for life: integrating the “wrong” chord into the performance matters more than playing the “right” chord. Perhaps Davis reiterated the advice when he warned Hancock against playing “butter notes,” or to just “play nothin’” when not knowing what to play. Jazz isn’t unlike theater, or life itself: silence is powerful, and listening is everything. Jazz is no place for safety; copying anyone, or reproducing last night’s performance, is deadly. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “My Florence: A 70-Year Love Story” by Art Shay

Art Books, Book Reviews, Chicago Authors, Memoir No Comments »

florence shayRECOMMENDED

Chicago photographer Art Shay—the same man who photographed royalty, presidents, sports figures and historical moments like the 1968 Democratic Convention—now presents us with a collection of photographs featuring his “beloved wife and model,” and owner of Titles, Inc. for more than thirty years, the sprightly Florence Shay.

One of the very first photographs in “My Florence: A 70-Year Love Story,” is from the Shays’ 1944 honeymoon, in which a twenty-two-year-old Art in U.S. Air Force uniform looks upon his beaming bride with enormous adoration in his eyes, clearly enamored. He looks grateful to be in such close proximity to someone so beautiful and full of life. The photographs in Shay’s latest collection portray his late wife’s brimming effervescence in that same spirit of reverence and love. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Veronica Mars (2): Mr. Kiss and Tell” by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham

Fiction, Young Adult No Comments »

Veronica Mars Mr. Kiss and TellRECOMMENDED

Veronica Mars fans (also known as “Marshmallows”) have yet another book to assuage their separation anxiety following the television show’s tragic cancellation. The book is full of favorite characters and plenty of LoVe (shorthand for Logan and Veronica). Co-written by Rob Thomas with Jennifer Graham, they perfectly capture the tone of the spunky neo-noir detective series.

In “Mr. Kiss and Tell,” a girl is found half-dead, beaten and raped. The hotel where the girl was last seen hires the Mars detective agency to help prove their (lack of) liability. The victim is none other than Grace Manning, little sister of Meg, who in one of the series’ perhaps more soap-opera-like storylines, died, after being in a coma, pregnant, with Veronica Mars’ ex-boyfriend’s baby. Read the rest of this entry »

Reformer on Reformer: Leigh Buchanan Bienen Documents the Legacy of Crusader Florence Kelley

Chicago Authors, History, Memoir, Nonfiction No Comments »

Leigh Bienen 08-16-12

By Amy Friedman

“After a few months in Chicago, Florence Kelley’s soft-voiced but electric style of public speaking, as well as her magnetic personality and her demonstrated commitment, made her prominent among the advocates for the cause whose day had come.” While Leigh Buchanan Bienen here describes her book’s subject, the factory inspector, reformer, attorney, writer and mother who fought for the rights of workers and children in 1890s Chicago, these words could have just as easily been written about the author herself. As an attorney and champion of just causes, Bienen fought tirelessly to abolish the death penalty, first in New Jersey and then in Illinois. She also served as Director of the Chicago Historical Homicide Project that transcribed handwritten documents into online records, making data available to the public on more than 14,000 homicides in Chicago between 1870 and 1930. Bienen is a prolific writer and a senior lecturer at Northwestern University School of Law, among many other accomplishments. Reading her latest book, it’s easy to see why Florence Kelley, a fellow Cornell graduate, attorney and advocate for the underdog, became Bienen’s focus.

The book unfolds through a unique format that weaves together three distinct narratives: Kelley’s private struggles as a single mother of three living in Jane Addams’ Hull-House and her public accomplishments as a factory inspector pushing for legal protections for workers in the late nineteenth century; Bienen’s personal account of life as the wife of Henry Bienen, fifteenth president of Northwestern University, as well as her professional efforts to end the death penalty; and the changing modern political landscape that in so many ways mirrors the struggles and events of Kelley’s world. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

Nonfiction Review: “The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help” by Amanda Palmer

Book Reviews, Memoir, Nonfiction No Comments »

art of askingAmanda Palmer’s “The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help” is not about crowdfunding. Her TED talk covers that just fine. It is a love story about art, audience and the business of both, starring two men (a mentor and a husband), and one woman, Palmer herself. The indie cabaret pianist is not everyone’s darling. The internet routinely critiques Palmer’s privilege, patriotism, ableism, feminism. One person’s read of her as genuine and sassy is another’s self-absorbed and tone-deaf.

Palmer wrote a portrait of an artist in real time, an artist flailing in front of us, and when an artist flails, we can either point and laugh or we can learn something. Palmer’s book is a segmented essay of varying brilliance, covering an intensely rough year where her best friend and mentor Anthony is diagnosed with cancer and she deeply questions her marriage to Neil Gaiman because of his emotional distance and lack of dancing ability. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The First Bad Man” by Miranda July

Debut Novel or Collection, Fiction No Comments »

the first bad manRECOMMENDED

The first half of Miranda July’s novel, “The First Bad Man,” is fascinating and fresh. Cheryl Glickman is an eccentric loner with a rich imagination. She imagines the outcome of a romantic life she and a relative stranger might share. She feels a special connection with babies she calls “Kubelko Bondy,” and she has globus hystericus, an actual affliction that causes the sufferer to feel they have a perpetual lump in their throat. The gradual exposure of Cheryl’s lifestyle and inner thoughts is amusing and joyful. July infuses her writing with love and sympathetic humor. Cheryl says, “I didn’t explain that I was single. Therapy is for couples. So is Christmas. So is camping. So is beach camping.”

When Cheryl’s bosses put her in the uncomfortable position of playing host to their unemployed, ill-mannered daughter, Cheryl’s life is turned upside down. Her homelife is controlled by her “system” which is a complicated means she’s worked out to avoid devolving into despair. Largely, it involves extreme simplification. As Cheryl explains, “Before you move an object far from where it lives, remember you’re eventually going to have to carry it back to its place—is it really worth it? Can’t you read the book standing right next to the shelf with your finger holding the spot you’ll put it back into? Or better yet: don’t even read it.” Her unwelcome houseguest, Clee, throws this careful existence into chaos with her own slovenly practices, which mostly involve laying on the couch surrounded by trash and dirty clothes. Imagine how Cheryl recoils. Read the rest of this entry »