Fiction Review: “The Best American Short Stories 2013″ Edited by Elizabeth Strout, Heidi Pitlor

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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 »

Graphic Novel Review: “The Graphic Canon, Volume 3: From Heart of Darkness to Hemingway to Infinite Jest” edited by Russ Kick

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There is a Kathy Acker comic now.

With this third entry in Russ Kick’s acclaimed series of anthologies adapting works of literature into illustrated form, the most notorious work by America’s most controversial postmodern author, “Blood and Guts in High School,” exists in comics form.

I can stop writing reviews now. I have now everything I ever wanted out of Western literary culture.

All of which is what makes the Graphic Canon series so interesting as a concept. Adapting prose works into comics is nothing new, going back to the long-running “Classics Illustrated,” which for decades brought works of classical literature into a cheap and accessible format before closing down in 1971. It would briefly resurface in the early nineties with noteworthy artists such as Bill Sienkiewicz, P. Craig Russell, Jill Thompson and others, reflecting the tones and themes of the original stories with comparable artistic style and motifs. Read the rest of this entry »

Poetry Review: “Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry,” edited by Charles Henry Rowell

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anglesofTo anthologize is a political act. As political acts go, though, it’s a relatively subtle one. Still, to make decisions about inclusion and exclusion in something that will stand as an authority on a field—a handbook for the uninitiated—carries the heavy burden of cultural gatekeeping.

“Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry” joins the ever-increasing Norton family of anthologies this year under the capable direction of editor Charles Henry Rowell. Rowell is a professor of English at Texas A&M University and the founder and longtime editor of Callaloo, a well known literary quarterly of the African Diaspora.

“Angles of Ascent” seems clearly designed to update a mainstream history of black literature, poetry in particular, to include its most recent movements and movers. Rowell’s introduction gives us a clear and accessible mini-history of black poetry in the U.S. and its socio-political contexts. He traces for us the difficulties of the “divided mind” throughout that history—a schism created by pressure from the white publishing establishment to be mainstream and apolitical, and pressure from the black communities to be political. Read the rest of this entry »

We’re Sleeping In Today: The Way We Sleep Blog Tour Stops Here

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Booking Local and Lightly: A Holiday Shopping Guide for the Literary Expat

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Part of what makes Chicago an amazing city is how many people have come here to get a new handle on their lives. I truly do think that what makes you a Chicagoan is not whether you were born here or how long you lived here, but how alive you feel about being here.

That said, I also truly do think that being an expat gets incredibly annoying come the holiday season. Seriously, you’ve got two family holidays a month apart. One of them you’re expected to spend time with your family, the other you’re expected to spend money. So after you’ve already made one trek to sit around and play the game of pretending Facebook doesn’t exist and asking each other “So how have you been?” you have to make another one a month later.

With freight. Read the rest of this entry »

Anthology Review: “Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, ‘Found’ Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts” edited by David Shields and Matthew Vollmer

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In February 2010, David Shields released “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto.” In this text, Shields laid out a barrage of thoughts (some his own, but most grabbed and remixed from the voices and works of other thinkers and writers), arranging them into twenty-six theme-driven chapters. All this in an effort to light a fire in the world of fiction, which “Reality Hunger” chastised as an increasingly hermetic one, amidst an era of hyper media-saturation, constantly evolving form, and an overwhelming public demand for sensation and brevity.

“Fakes,” a new anthology of writing curated by Shields and Matthew Vollmer, represents a work in this vein. With its plurality of voices, all pushing at the edges of form in various—but always short-lived—styles, this collection (subtitled “An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts and Other Fraudulent Artifacts”) highlights and propagates an alternative to the marginalized voice of The Author.

There’s no arguing that the amount of pure information which inundates us daily is, to say the least, staggering—especially if you’ve got a desk job. Novel reading has dropped off noticeably in this climate, but the energy of The Novel’s soul (“or whatever it is inside us that  might otherwise wither, if not for the life-giving and life-sustaining energy of art,” the foreword states) remains abundant, and wonders where to go, this shared human energy of story and language. Read the rest of this entry »

Untimed: The Secret History of Sam Weller and Mort Castle’s “Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury”

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By Greg Baldino

On July 24, a party was held in the lobby of the Inland Steel Building to celebrate the launch of “Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury” on Chicago soil. The book, edited by Bradbury biographer Sam Weller and polymath Mort Castle, had officially debuted at the San Diego Comic Con with contributors Margaret Atwood and Joe Hill, but on that Tuesday the book’s Midwestern roots were trumpeted. On hand were the editors themselves, proud as parents, as well as a roster of Chicago and Midwest literary talent: Joe Meno, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Audrey Niffenegger, Jay Bonansinga and Bayo Ojikutu—all of whom had penned original stories for the volume.

Nursing one of several beers enjoyed that night (less for the alcoholic buzz than for something cold to wipe across my brow in the summer heat), I was surprised to see an artist friend in the audience. They’d walked in off the street, believing the party to be a reception for the collection of local club posters that decorated the space. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Visiting Dr. Williams: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of William Carlos Williams” edited by Sheila Coghill and Thom Tammaro

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William Carlos Williams lived his whole life in New Jersey, became a much-loved doctor who delivered thousands of babies, hung out with that fascist Ezra Pound and, incidentally, revolutionized American poetry. Not in a wishy-washy way, either, but truthfully, and with the simple maxim “no ideas but in things.” Two of his poems, “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “This is Just to Say,” are often held up for praise in earnest college poetry classes, easy to both parody and love, but for those of us who cherished those eager, bright-eyed discussions in class, well, wouldn’t it be great if you could talk to your blue-collar dad about those poems at Thanksgiving?  Or your bus driver, or your co-workers at whatever stodgy job you ended up with when your college degree let you down? Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Granta’s “Ten Years Later”

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Writing about 9/11 once felt so much stranger. The image of the Twin Towers falling is so indelibly marked in the American consciousness that initially it may have seemed commenting on it was excessive or incompatible. Yet, with the passing of ten years, an image once unilaterally perceived in the West—“we are all Americans now,” as the French newspaper Le Monde famously printed—has become burdened with the history that sprouted from it.

Given the event’s transforming meaning, Granta’s “Ten Years Later” essentially skirts the issue of what exactly occurred ten years ago. While the New Yorker chose the bizarrely nostalgic route of scrapping together what amounts to an e-book time capsule of its coverage immediately following the attacks, per their M.O. Granta has chosen a considerably riskier approach. Out of its sixteen essays, only one addresses September 11 directly. The rest cover, according to the blurb, the “complexity and sorrow of life since 11 September 2001.” Read the rest of this entry »

Reading Preview: “They Could No Longer Contain Themselves”

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On the surface, Kathleen Rooney might seem like a literary traditionalist. The DePaul English professor has forged a pretty straightforward path to success, releasing poetry and essay collections as well as nonfiction books on professional nude modeling and the mighty Oprah Book Club. Yet she’s always been fascinated by what she calls hybrid genres: chapbooks of short-short fiction, flash fiction and book-length prose poetry. So, while studying at Emerson College in Boston, she developed Rose Metal Press along with friend Abigail Beckel. “We wanted to give voice to undefinable, multi-genres,” says Rooney. “We saw a lot of really great work by a lot of others that were being pushed through the cracks.”

On June 19, Rose Metal Press is having a launch party for its latest publication, “They Could No Longer Contain Themselves,” an anthology of short shorts that Rooney says explore the Edgar Allan Poe idea of perversion. “Often you have characters who know what they should do, but they still do the opposite. That lack of impulse control.” (Alex Baumgardner)

June 19 at Beauty Bar, 1444 West Chicago, 7pm. Four of the collection’s five authors will read.

“They Could No Longer Contain Themselves: A Collection of Five Flash Chapbooks”
By Elizabeth J. Colen, John Jodzio, Tim Jones-Yelvington, Sean Lovelace and Mary Miller
Rose Metal Press,  248 pages, $15.95