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

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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

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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”

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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 »

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

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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 »

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

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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 »

Fiction Review: “Vivian Apple at the End of the World” by Katie Coyle

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vivian apple at the end of the worldRECOMMENDED

When Vivian Apple goes home after a Rapture’s Eve party, she finds two holes in the ceiling of her parents’ room, as if they were yanked out of this mortal coil, much like Bugs Bunny running straight through a door. “Vivian Apple at the End of the World” is yet another apocalyptic tale, but offers a fresh spin in this popular genre.

Vivian’s parents were “Believers,” followers of Pastor Frick, who predicted the Rapture. About 3,000 people disappeared on the predicted night. Vivian’s parents tried to convert her, but despite being the model daughter, she never believed in the teaching of the Church of America. “Believers” and the rest of the left behind assume that quickly following the Rapture of the most faithful, society will fall apart and the world will end. Amid the chaos and confusion as society does start to crumble, Vivian has the wits to follow her instinct and investigate what might have happened. She begins a cross-country road trip with her best friend, Harp, and a boy she met at the Rapture’s Eve party, Peter. Vivian and Harp’s friendship is the kind that inspires readers. Theirs is a fierce loyalty, the kind where one seventeen year-old can say to another, “I don’t want to be meek anymore. I want to be unstoppable.” The kind where they jump in the car and drive moments after the suggestion of the journey is made. Read the rest of this entry »

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

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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 »

Snow Problem: Bill Roorbach Discusses His New Novel, “The Remedy for Love”

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Photo: Sarah A. Sloane

Photo: Sarah A. Sloane

By Christine Sneed

“The Remedy for Love,” Bill Roorbach’s third novel, is a suspenseful and sexy novel set in western Maine during the lead-up to and the dramatic onslaught of a blizzard. Eric, an attorney in his mid-thirties, his marriage on the skids, closes his law office early and on the way home stops to buy the ingredients for a meal he plans to cook for his estranged wife. At the store, he ends up helping out Danielle, a young woman in need of a haircut, a clean coat, and a few bucks when she comes up short at the register. After making up the difference, Eric continues to play the good Samaritan and drives her several miles out of town to the cabin in the woods she’s squatting in.

Through a series of mishaps that, due to the approaching blizzard, Eric realizes could prove fatal, he’s forced to take refuge in the cabin with Danielle, who is at best a very reluctant host. Over the course of the next few days, while the temperature drops and foot after foot of snow falls from the sky, this couple gets to know each other very well. Read the rest of this entry »

Hot Money: Ian Morris Discusses his Debut Novel, “When Bad Things Happen to Rich People”

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BadRichBy Christine Sneed

“When Bad Things Happen to Rich People” is Chicago-based writer and founder of Fifth Star Press Ian Morris’ funny and briskly paced debut novel, a social satire set in Chicago during the lethally hot summer of 1995. The novel’s protagonist, Nix Walters, is an adjunct instructor of English at a communications college in the Loop, where he has few prospects for advancement. When Nix was still in his early twenties, he became a literary punch line when his first and only novel, touted as the next big literary phenomenon, was universally panned by critics.  Now, years later, his pregnant wife Flora and he are struggling financially.

Their fortunes change, however, when Nix is asked to ghostwrite the memoirs of publishing magnate Zira Fontaine. Although grateful for the lavish author fee, Nix quickly finds his marriage, his career and his identity threatened as he struggles to retain his self-respect as both writer and teacher while working on Fontaine’s memoir. His marriage is going off the rails and Nix must also navigate a board-led insurrection at Fontaine’s corporation. These tensions come to a turbulent climax when a brutal heat wave hits the city. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Carnival at Bray” by Jessie Ann Foley

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Carnival_at_Bray_FrontCoverRECOMMENDED

“There will be time to do the responsible thing.” Those words will echo with readers long after they finish “The Carnival at Bray,” the debut novel by local writer and English teacher Jessie Ann Foley. The responsible thing: sixteen-year-old Maggie Lynch—a Chicagoan transplanted via her mom’s whirlwind remarriage to a man from the windy shores of Ireland—just going to school. Not going to the Nirvana concert in Rome, like her Uncle Kevin wants her to. Especially not with the boy she just met, Eoin, who can hold her so close when they dance. It’s 1994, before cell phones and Facebook, and everything is possible.

So there’s romance and music, staples of YA fiction. Dysfunctional family complete with bartender single mother and rock star uncle who’ve never really grown up? Check. Protagonist transported to strange and unfamiliar place and not entirely sure she likes it? Yep. But the specificity of place, whether it’s Chicago, Ireland, or Italy, carry this book to places far beyond the expected. The curls of ham on a pizza, the smell of goat pee in the morning, a nun’s wimple taking on the exact shape of cabbage—these moments spring off the page. Even the minor characters of Bray, Ireland, are sketched with fondness, as Maggie makes friends with a wily ninety-nine-year-old farmer and confidences in a scholarly yet steadfast English teacher nun. And for all the implausibility of the escape Maggie plans to undertake, there’s the endless plausibility of the working-class Chicago family dynamic, full of contradiction and throbbing expectation, that drives her to Rome. Read the rest of this entry »