“The Best American Comics” is unusual in two respects. For one, it’s more egalitarian than any other volume of the Best American Series. Grant Snider’s introspective webcomics stand deservingly by Alison Bechdel’s excellent and complex graphic novel “Are You My Mother?” But alas, the comics content is less likely to stand alone. The pieces that work best in the 2013 edition are the ones that are either self-contained, like a daily newspaper strip, or make the reader want to rush out and buy the whole work.
Comics’ best attribute is their ability to tell simultaneous narratives with words and images. And they’re like any medium where words are secondary: there are people who groove with a song’s melody, and people who only care for lyrics. The excerpts from “Rachel Rising” and “Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller,” both with captions, had just enough story arc to make this reader pencil down their names for future, full-length purchase. Language-less strips have a special challenge, and less ways to clue the reader into the context. It’s easy to give up on them and just skip ahead while vaguely admiring the art. About one-fourth of Best American Comics feels like this, but a beautiful exception is “Grainne Ni Mhaille” by Colleen Doran and Derek McCullough, which tells an Irish immigrant family’s trials via Doran’s gorgeous super-hero style illustration. Read the rest of this entry »
Once a year, the Best American series descends from the heavens holding in its pages what its editors, and guest editors, have determined are the best writing in sports, nonfiction and short fiction from the previous year, among others. This year, the series drafted “Olive Kitteridge” author Elizabeth Strout to edit the “The Best American Short Stories: 2013,” a strong pedigree to be sure. But did Strout and series editor Heidi Pitlor choose wisely?
The answer is largely dependent on what you think the purpose of a year-end anthology is. If you’re someone who thinks that anthologies should focus on finding and promoting new voices, “The Best American Short Stories” probably isn’t for you. The anthology features many of the usual suspects. Of the twenty-two stories in the collection, three stories are from Granta, six are from the New Yorker, and the vast majority of their authors have been published in one publication if not both. Strout, when discussing her choices in the introduction, praised the distinct voices of three authors most will recognize immediately: Junot Díaz, George Saunders and Alice Munro. But it’s not as if these are the wrong choices. “Train,” Munro’s contribution, displays the chops that won her a Nobel Prize; Saunders, a writer renowned for baking unique voices into each one of his stories, lends the anthology what is probably his greatest novella, “The Semplica-Girl Diaries.” And while perhaps Díaz relies a little too much on his perennial narrator Yunior, he does so with good reason: Yunior is one of the strongest voices in contemporary fiction, and more importantly, one unique to Díaz. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Shaun Crittenden
By Naomi Huffman
Charles Blackstone’s new novel “Vintage Attraction” chronicles the relationship between Peter Hapworth, a bored adjunct writing professor, and Isabelle Conway, a prominent sommelier and host of a local cable access show that shares the book’s title. Their story closely mirrors how Blackstone met and fell in love with his wife, local restaurateur and former host of “Check, Please!,” Alpana Singh.
The book was released this fall to mixed reviews, but Blackstone, who also serves as managing editor of the online publication Bookslut, says, “I appreciate the time that all reviewers spend with this book [….] I know that there will always be some who will jump to conclusions based on a quick read and overly simplistic assumptions. I don’t really consider that book reviewing, though. There have been a lot of reviewers—and readers—who have responded very deeply and intelligently to the book, and I’m grateful for that.”
I had the opportunity to speak with Blackstone in person at his home in the Gold Coast, and later over email. We talked about wine, pugs, the pressure to be a prolific writer, and the line between memoir and fiction. Read the rest of this entry »
In Dave Eggers’ “The Circle,” Mae Holland gets a job working for a powerful company. The company, called the “Circle,” is a bit of a mash-up between Google and Facebook—it’s run by young, creative, enthusiastic people, and Mae feels lucky to have gotten a job there. Her relatively lowly position as a customer-service rep is touted as a common and useful way to move quickly through the ranks, and she is given additional responsibilities almost immediately. She’s encouraged to shop at the company store and try out new samples from the bonus room as long as she gives them smiles or frowns in her public online spaces. Like many young people entering the job market, she thinks it’s great that there are beds, showers and three meals a day available on campus. The inclusive health plan includes a permanent bracelet that sends her vital statistics to her Circle doctor constantly. What could be wrong with that? There’s a history of illness in her family. Mae agreeably assigns more and more of her life to the Circle after gentle reminders of the benefits she’ll reap, and of the aid she can provide to so many, just for providing her honest thoughts and feedback about products she encounters. Although clearly satirical, every bizarre invention Eggers comes up with seemed to be reflected in the daily news. Read the rest of this entry »
Maybe I just didn’t get it. “Duplex,” the newest novel from author and writing professor Kathryn Davis, is certainly a rich and complex narrative that appears to try to parse out the complexities of growing up and experiencing life in as fantastical and surreal a world as possible. How much it succeeds in those goals may be up to the reader. The novel is in its own way captivating, but for the same reasons it entrances, it also alienates.
“Duplex,” I think, is about a young girl named Mary who falls into teenage love with her high-school boyfriend Eddie, who may or may not have died on the street where they both live in the book’s very first moments. Her town’s resident sorcerer (and possibly classmate) is captivated by her and decides she will bear his future offspring, which, I think, is a Teddy bear brought to life by his seed. (“I think” was a recurring theme for me as I read this book.) The reader is dropped into the fantastical, possibly futuristic world of “Duplex” from the first word, given no context or history, not even provided a reliable narrator. Chapters switch perspectives, stories, and time of delivery, and some of them are stories told by an older girl named Janice to her mostly unnamed younger friends. In this world some neighbors are robots, there is a maybe-protagonist who is possibly also a rabbit (or king of the rabbits) named Downie, a daughter (not daughter?) named Blue-Eyes, and references to ominously named but never-explained past events like The Rain of Beads, The Great Divide and The Aquanauts. The entire town is lost in something called Space Drift. Some of these stories are sort of told; others (The Rain of Beads in particular) are often referenced but left unexplained. Some are the titles of chapters, but do not seem to lend context. Read the rest of this entry »
By Sarah Cubalchini
Leslie Stella’s “Permanent Record” follows teenage boy Badi Hessamizadeh, an Iranian-American in post-9/11 America, who wishes to be a normal high-school student. After an incident with blowing up the school’s toilet, Badi is encouraged to attend a new school, where his name is stripped down to Bud Hess and he tries to get involved by writing for the school newspaper. But when mysterious threatening letters appear in the school newspaper, Badi’s troubled past and his much hated nickname, “towelhead,” come back to haunt him, and to prove his innocence, he must find out who’s the one writing all the letters.
After writing three adult novels, what inspired “Permanent Record?”
The idea first emerged as adult fiction about ten years ago. I wrote the book with the same setting (a Chicago private school) and some of the same characters, but from the perspective of a teacher who no longer appears in the book. (Badi, the protagonist in “Permanent Record,” appeared in that version, but as a supporting character.) That version didn’t work for a variety of reasons, so over the years and in between other projects, I rewrote it twice. I was drawn to something in that story over and over, and finally I had to figure out what it was. I realized what I had liked about the earlier versions were not the adult characters and their stories, but the teens. Read the rest of this entry »
Dara Horn has a particular gift for mixing contemporary stories with ancient ones, threading them together with resonant themes. The story of Job, for example, is a common theme in her books. Job, a decent person, suffers a great many disasters, yet never blames God or questions his faith. Why bad things happen to good people or, better yet, how people play the hand they’re dealt, however poor, is a recurring question in her novels. “A Guide for the Perplexed” sounds like it might be useful to someone like Job, and Horn’s title is based on a book called “The Guide for the Perplexed,” by Maimonides. Indeed, the Rabbi’s twelfth-century book is a work that explores the relationship between religion and philosophy. Given Horn’s propensity to delve deep into the past, the book opens somewhat surprisingly in the not-so-distant future. Josie Ashkenazi has invented a program called Genizah that logs basically every detail of your life for easy searching. The Genizah is explained early when Josie’s daughter loses her shoe—Josie simply types in her daughter’s name as well as “shoe” and is instantly shown a picture of the shoe dropping to the floor of the car. The software pulls information using mobile and home devices, and nearly everyone in the world uses it. It’s less widely used, however, in Egypt, where Josie’s jealous sister, Judith, encourages her to go and work on a special project at the library. Read the rest of this entry »
Katie Hafner could have whined her way through this book. In her new memoir, “Mother Daughter Me,” she meets past parental estrangement head on when her aging mother moves in with her and her teenage daughter Zoe. That’s in addition to the anguish already suffered eight years earlier when her husband Matt dropped dead of a heart attack, leaving her a sudden single mother. Yet Hafner’s tone is never pitying or sappy. Nor does it stray into clinical. A better word for it would be “journalistic,” but the warm journalism of a profile, rather than a detached third-person account. It’s worth noting that the book slides seamlessly between present and past tense, a tool not just for clarity, but almost as a grammatical way of coping.
Hafner writes like she must elucidate the audience to a singular life, one filled with her mother’s loving German sometimes-boyfriend and father’s austere British wife, a sister who becomes a mother to Katie and then a pariah to the whole family. She does it with detail and even-handedness, writing of her mother’s alcoholism, “I believed then, as I do now, that my mother had no intention of being the agent of sorrow and hurt, that she was doing the best that she could, that she wanted to take care of her girls but got tripped up.” Another place this equanimity serves her well is when she discusses Zoe, who one moment is buying flowers for grandma and the next locking her in a bathroom during an underage drinking party. The only pitting of characters against each other is done by the characters themselves, not Hafner. Read the rest of this entry »
By Naomi Huffman
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 »
Around the halfway point of Giano Cromley’s debut novel, “The Last Good Halloween,” protagonist Kirby Russo is told by his reserved sidekick Julian that “I just realized this is like that Ferris Bueller movie.” Kirby quickly assures Julian that “What we’re doing is nothing like that movie,” but you can’t blame him for the comparison. After all, “The Last Good Halloween” is set in the eighties and features two young guys and a girl skipping school for a drive in the most cowed of the three’s father’s prized automobile. (In this case the drive is on Halloween 1988 and the car a 1969 Plymouth Roadrunner.) But as Kirby says, unlike Ferris they’re “on a mission,” and anyways Kirby’s grand rebellion much more resembles that of another smart-mouthed teenager’s: Holden Caulfield.
Kirby Russo is a member of that long line of literary protagonists that have come in the wake of JD Salinger’s most famous creation. Just as Holden calls everyone out as phony, Kirby refers to the majority of his parental figures by their first names, save for his actual father, whom he refers to as “Original Biological Contributor.” Also like Holden, Kirby takes a certain pride in his middling academic performance and claims not to be that smart. This is because Kirby is the kind of wounded asshole who you can’t help but feel bad for even as he willingly alienates the people he wants, and needs, to take him seriously. Read the rest of this entry »