Photo: Jocelyn Augustino
By Ted Anton
In “What We’ve Lost Is Nothing,” former Oak Park resident manager and journalist Rachel Snyder tells the story of what happens when two high-school girls stay home to try ecstasy the same afternoon their street is rocked by a series of home invasions. The neighborhood suspicions threaten to rip apart Oak Park’s suburban veneer of race and class harmony. An assistant professor in creative writing at American University in Washington, Snyder has written for The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine, and has appeared frequently on National Public Radio. She published the investigative “Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade” in 2007. “What We’ve Lost Is Nothing” is her first novel.
So what was the inspiration for “What We’ve Lost Is Nothing?”
I was accompanying an American military MIA mission in Vietnam, writing for a magazine, and a friend there told me this story of these robberies all in one night that happened in Georgia. The story stuck with me. Read the rest of this entry »
There are plenty of apocalyptic young-adult fiction books these days, but Mary Miller’s debut novel, “The Last Days of California,” has a fresh approach to an end-of-days story. Jess and her family are driving from Alabama to California for what her father believes is Armageddon. Based on the prediction of a prophet from their unspecified church, Jess’ father envisions a scenario of bodies floating up into heaven, as in the “Left Behind” series of books. Fifteen-year-old Jess wavers in her belief as they travel across the country, not quite sure if she’s about to experience the rapture, or even whether she believes in God or the teachings of her church at all.
Sitting next to Jess in the backseat is her sister, Elise, newly pregnant. Although only a few years older than Jess, the world-weary Elise is cynical beyond her years and firm in the belief that the end is nowhere in sight. Her only fragility is her inability to acknowledge her pregnancy, aside from telling her sister and then seemingly forgetting about the topic entirely. Miller’s pacing of the novel is really important, considering what is practically the closed set of the family car and a few motel rooms. While she’s unfolding Jess’ relationship with her family and her evolving ideas about religion, she’s rather brilliantly tied the awakening of a young girl to a ticking clock in the background. Read the rest of this entry »
Gene Wolfe’s “The Land Across” is a novel that’s terribly difficult to summarize. (The jacket copy tries valiantly but ultimately ends up only tangentially relating to the book’s actual arc.) It’s told to us by Grafton, a writer of travel books. Grafton has traveled to the book’s eponymous but unnamed nation to be the first to write a travel guide of the place, despite the nation’s dubious record of arresting travelers at the border. (It is telling of Grafton that when he mentions this he says, “It just made me more determined than ever.”) The moment that Grafton enters the nation, he is beaten by a trio of border guards, his passport is confiscated, he is detained for not having his passport, and is foisted into the custody of a man who the government isn’t fond of. Grafton’s immediate goal becomes getting his passport back so he can return home. Sounds straightforward so far, yes?
Grafton’s subsequent path isn’t. At one point in the novel, Grafton’s main concerns are having an affair with the wife of his jailer and searching for a lost treasure in a spooky house. At another point he is abducted by an order of religious fanatics in rebellion against the government to read their propaganda before landing himself in a prison of the JAKA, the nation’s secret police. Then, when his cellmate and fellow American Russ Rathaus escapes using a life-sized voodoo doll, he finds himself in the employ of his jailers. There are satanic cults, ghostly animated hands, and an obviously corrupt church. To say the plot of “The Land Across” is complicated is an understatement. Read the rest of this entry »
“The giddy Poles,” as a Ukrainian author called them, are a freedom-loving people, yet they have lived under tyranny for most of three centuries, most severely punished in the last. In World War II, Poland’s Jewish population was virtually exterminated, and millions more perished. This tragedy was followed immediately by a Communist rule that afforded little opportunity for shedding ghosts.
In his brilliant major novel originally published in 1984, Wieslaw Mysliwski has by accretion, “Stone Upon Stone” as in its title, demonstrated how one man—if imperfectly—rebuilt his life under such circumstances. (Of the novel’s English translation in 2011, this reviewer wrote in Newcity, “As for this ‘Stone,’ you will not want to put it down.”)
Now comes Mysliwski with a compelling new novel—his second to win the Polish Nike Prize for literature—again adroitly rendered into English by Bill Johnston, in which he reveals not just the layers of a man’s life, but those of a nation’s memory and history, by unwrapping it; hence the title “A Treatise on Shelling Beans.” Read the rest of this entry »
By Liz Baudler
Pardon the 1920s jargon, but Chicago author Renee Rosen is the bee’s knees. Rosen’s the author of “Dollface,” the story of Vera Abramowitz, a nice Jewish girl who ends up falling in love with a gangster from the North Side and one from the South Side in Chicago’s heyday as the crime capital of America. Vera and her best friend Evelyn sashay through the city until the going gets tough, and then they toughen up. Rosen, who launched “Dollface” with 1920s aplomb—complete with speakeasy, gangland tour and submachine guns—talked with us about how the time period and its lady characters are more than just a passing craze.
You always felt like you had a book in you. Why this one?
This has been a ten-year-love affair for me. When I started working, there was no “Boardwalk Empire,” no remake of “The Great Gatsby.” I started to research, and became so enamored of the characters that walked our streets. I knew there was a story that could come out of this era. I just had to dig and find it.
Why do you think the twenties are back in style?
We’ve all been struggling since about 2008, and the twenties was such a prosperous time, such a happy-go-lucky time, and I think that’s a perfect escape for us now. We’re tired, we’re weary. And I also think people love the fashion. Mary Janes, cloche hats are back in. People are having a lot of fun with it. Read the rest of this entry »
By Megan Kirby
Take the bus to Navy Pier on a dreary afternoon. Buy an overpriced ticket for the Ferris Wheel and ride alone to the top. Look out over the lake and imagine it drained and muddy, a stretch of grey marshland. Look back toward downtown and imagine the buildings cracked and broken.
This is the Chicago of Veronica Roth’s massively popular teen dystopian trilogy, “Divergent.” Roth grew up in the Chicago suburbs, and went to school at Northwestern University in Evanston. After orbiting the city her whole life, she set her series to the rattle of El cars in the shadow of the Willis Tower. At only twenty-five years old, Roth released the final installment to her trilogy: “Allegiant” went on sale October 22.
Combined sales for “Divergent” and “Insurgent,” the trilogy’s first two titles, passed a million last summer, and both books spent significant stretches on the New York Times Best Sellers list. A “Divergent” movie, filmed largely in Chicago, will be released March 21.
Roth is one of the latest success stories capitalizing on an end-of-the-world trend—these days, grim, survivalist covers dominate the YA shelves. Most of these books follow similar setups. Some vague tragedy occurred in the past, war or sickness or famine, and survivors must build in the aftermath. Totalitarian governments rise up. Conformity and obedience are rewarded; rebellion is severely punished. Through this wreckage, a hero rises from the youngest generation. Adults are to blame for corruption and betrayals; past generations have failed. Salvation lies in youth. 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 »