Larger Than Life: Scott Blackwood Discusses His Novel “See How Small”

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Scott Blackwood/Photo: Tommi Ferguson

By Christine Sneed

Evanston-based fiction writer Scott Blackwood’s new novel, “See How Small,” has been garnering the kind of reviews that writers dream of, along with notices from esteemed writers such as Ben Fountain, Margot Livesey, and Daniel Woodrell.

“See How Small” begins on a late autumn evening in Austin, Texas, when two strangers enter an ice cream shop shortly before closing time and murder the three girls working the counter. The book is a tale about the survivors—family members, witnesses, and suspects—enduring the tragedy’s aftermath. “See How Small” addresses the consequences of the girls’ deaths during the ensuing years, navigating how the crimes affect those closest to them and the girls themselves, whose voices still echo after their deaths. The teenagers hover among the living, watching over the town, attempting to connect with those left behind. “See how small a thing it is that keeps us apart,” they say. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Jillian” by Halle Butler

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RECOMMENDEDjillian

Halle Butler’s debut novel “Jillian” is the story of two ordinary, unhappy women stuck in lives they did not anticipate.

Megan is a twenty-four-year-old working in a gastroenterology office in a well-off neighborhood in Chicago. Her coworker, Jillian, is a thirty-five-year-old woman who commutes in from the suburbs where she lives with her young son. All of Megan’s self-loathing and hatred gets siphoned toward Jillian, a woman she can’t stop talking about. Which isn’t to say Jillian doesn’t deserve criticism. She’s a disaster—driving on an expired license, adopting a dog she can’t afford, and developing an embarrassingly mild addiction to low-grade pain relievers. But she is certainly no worse than Megan who furiously resents her office job and the successes of her friends. So while on the surface Jillian seems like the polar opposite of Megan (after all she’s sickeningly upbeat and has goals, something Megan noticeably lacks), as the book progresses you realize that the women are alike in their unhappiness; they just handle it in different ways. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life: Breakup Stories” by Michael Czyzniejewski

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breakup storiesRECOMMENDED

Breakup stories, as a genre, have become as clichéd and overdone as their inverse, love stories. Dear John/Jane letters, lipstick-smudged collars, and clothes piled up and doused with bleach have become the tell-tale signs of love affairs that have run their course. Yet writers with sagacity and wit can sidestep such been-there, done-that tropes and elevate the breakup story to new levels. In Michael Czyzniejewski’s short-fiction collection “I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life: Breakup Stories,” readers zigzag through the demise of one relationship after another, some of them long-term romances, others missed connections that crash and burn even before they begin.

Tragicomic incidents involving public masturbation, a lethal peanut butter sandwich, apocalyptic plagues, and Meryl Streep’s breasts open gateways into the pathos that calls out for recognition when a relationship, regardless of its depth or duration, hurdles toward dissolution. Czyzniejewski exhibits an enviable knack for black humor, combining the scathingly urbane with the wickedly boorish, all through a lens that shifts kaleidoscopically from naturalism to postmodernism to magic realism and beyond. Read the rest of this entry »

The War At Home: Emily Gray Tedrowe’s “Blue Stars” Explores the Lives of Those the Soldiers Left Behind

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Emily Gray Tedrowe/Photo: Marion Ettlinger

Emily Gray Tedrowe/Photo: Marion Ettlinger

“Blue Stars,” the new novel by Chicagoan Emily Gray Tedrowe, presents us with an original prism through which to view the complexities of military life. As the sister of a military man herself, Tedrowe is intimately familiar with the struggles of those who are left behind during war. “While he was there, I didn’t want to think or write about the experience,” Tedrowe says of her brother’s service. “When he returned, I started to think about those on the home front.”

To those of us outside its ranks, the military and its members tend to be viewed in absolute terms: the organization must be supported at all costs, and those who volunteer are considered noble and beyond reproach. Those who do not support the military’s mission or who question it in any way are regarded as unpatriotic. Tedrowe’s novel successfully questions the wisdom of these two-dimensional notions through a rarely considered angle, the women waiting at home during war in the digital age, and their experiences after the fact. “Blue Stars” presents the reader with the stories of two women in military families during the Iraq War who possess very human strengths and flaws. Read the rest of this entry »

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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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 »