Critical Force: Make Way for Roxane Gay and Her “Bad Feminist” Self

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roxanegayBy Amy Beth Danzer

It was this year’s AWP Conference in Seattle when I first came in contact with the tour de force that is Roxane Gay. After an evening of readings, publishing-house parties and general carousing, a crew of us found ourselves in the lobby of one of the main hotels hosting the conference, where the likes of Tobias Wolff or Richard Bausch could be spotted waiting for an elevator. As we made our way toward the hotel bar, my friend Adrienne stopped and gasped, “Oh my god, that’s Roxane Gay! I love her.” There she was in unassuming jeans and t-shirt, the ubiquitous culture critic who Flavorwire declared one of 25 Women Poised to Lead the Culture in 2014, Roxane Gay. I knew about her, but was not yet intimate with her work. Adrienne on the other hand was a confirmed admirer and devoted follower. As soon as an opportunity arose, she jumped at the chance to discuss with Gay the very important matter of Juan Pablo Galavis, the then-new Bachelor, and his romantic interests, Ferrell and Crawley. Though not a fan of the show myself, I was thoroughly entertained by the conversation and thoroughly impressed by Gay, who was clearly an intellectual, informed and sophisticated, yet still able to speak vox populi—a combination I dig in people, especially in writers. I needed more of a fix, which was all too easy to satisfy; she and her work are everywhere. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Game We Play” by Susan Hope Lanier

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TGWP_coverRECOMMENDED

When dealing with short story collections that aren’t what we like to think of as “novels in stories,” there’s an overriding philosophy that the first and last stories are usually the best two stories of the collection. The stuff in between is usually good, sure, but first and last stories are there to anchor the collection at both ends. The first story entices you to read the collection, while the last should send you off with an overwhelmingly positive opinion so strong you forget any duds that were in the middle. What makes Susan Hope Lanier’s debut collection “The Game We Play” odd then is that I don’t think it’s necessarily arranged this way.

Nevertheless, the biggest knock I can give against Lanier’s debut is that my favorite stories are buried in the middle. Not that the collection’s opener, “How Tommy Soto Breaks Your Heart,” doesn’t manage to entice, combining teenage angst and the aftermath of 9/11 to create a nice little flash piece, but it has a hard time competing with “Sophie Salmon” and “Felicia Sassafrass is Fiction.” “Sophie Salmon” is the story I would describe as more or less the collection’s heart: an optimistic, funny and touching love story that’s incited by what is likely the impending doom of its titular character. “Felicia Sassafrass is Fiction,” on the other hand, is the most adventurous piece of short fiction that I’ve read in a long time. It’s most easily described as like that part of “Breakfast of Champions” where Kurt Vonnegut decides to drop in on Kilgore Trout, but even as the biggest Vonnegut fan in existence, I have to admit Lanier is better at using language to position the author’s relationship with her creation, mocking the cliché gestures she gives Felicia, “She crosses her arms or falls to the floor, her eyes turning into two watering stop signs.” “Felicia Sassafrass is Fiction” does an exemplary job of capturing the kinks in the creative process; I’m a sucker for stories like that. Read the rest of this entry »

Starting at Endings: Garnett Kilberg Cohen Discusses Her New Story Collection, “Swarm to Glory”

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Photo: Lynn Sloan

Photo: Lynn Sloan

By Christine Sneed

I first became familiar with Columbia College professor Garnett Kilberg Cohen’s stories a couple of years ago when I read one of her two previous collections, “Lost Women, Banished Souls.” Immediately apparent in these stories is Garnett’s light touch and her talent at writing about love in its many complex permutations. When she asked me this past spring if I’d be willing to read an advance copy of her newest story collection and, if I liked it, send her Milwaukee-based publisher, Wise Blood Books, a blurb, I was happy to do so. Many of these new stories balance on the narrow, spiked fence between comedy and tragedy, and love—its protean nature especially—is again a key theme. Garnett and I recently exchanged some thoughts about “Swarm to Glory.” Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Secret Place” by Tana French

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thesecretplaceRECOMMENDED

Tana French is finally back with the fifth book of the Dublin Murder Squad mysteries with “The Secret Place.” Her ingenious conceit continues, in which a minor character from a previous book becomes the lead character in the next—so in “The Secret Place,” the point of view is from Stephen Moran, a rookie cop from “Faithful Place.” Stephen is approached by Holly—the daughter of another detective on the squad. Part of the fun of French’s books is that an inscrutable minor character is opened up in a future book, completely changing the reader’s perspective.

Holly’s dad, Frank, went from hard-nosed prick in “The Likeness” to tough-guy-with-heart-of-gold in “Faithful Place.” Holly tells Stephen that she found a note in the “secret place”—a board at her school where girls are invited to pin up secrets, a place to release emotions but also a place carefully guarded by the faculty. Holly attends St. Kilda’s, a posh private girls’ school where a boy from the nearby private boy’s school was found killed one year ago. Holly’s note reads “I know who killed him.” Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Future for Curious People” by Gregory Sherl

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Sherl_CuriousPeople_zoe_green_fulljacket“The Future for Curious People,” writer and poet Gregory Sherl’s debut novel, seems tailor made to be adapted into Hollywood romantic comedy, though one with a science fiction bent. One of its alternating narrators, Godfrey Burkes, begins the novel proposing to his current girlfriend Madge, who doesn’t quite say yes or no, her response contingent on a trip to the office of Doctor Chin, a specialist in envisioning, a process that allows a sight into the future. (Romantic futures are the only ones that can be viewed legally.)  Our other narrator, Evelyn Shriner, has just broken up with her boyfriend Adrian after a dismal visit with the same doctor, unsatisfied with their Chihuahua-filled future. Unsatisfied with all the futures she’s seen, Evelyn’s a repeat visitor to Chin’s office. But from the moment that Evelyn rummages through her purse for her ID, handing things to Godfrey in the process and prompting him to tell us “she’s completely beautiful—unruly hair, deep brown eyes, skin the color of the sun, and those pretty lips clamped down around a few flimsy scraps of her identity,” it’s pretty clear who is going to end up with whom. The only question is how, which is answered through suggestive envisioning sessions, comical misunderstandings and the requisite large romantic gesture.  Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Good Girl” by Mary Kubica

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goodgirlRECOMMENDED

Local author Mary Kubica’s debut “The Good Girl” is set in Chicago. Mia, the twenty-five-year-old daughter of a wealthy North Shore judge is kidnapped; although, without a ransom note, there’s little to go on. The hard-hearted judge is sure his daughter has just run off, being irresponsible and inconsiderate. The mother is sure something’s happened to her, having a different impression of her daughter. Chapters are labeled either “Before” or “After” the abduction, where Mia, “after,” can’t or won’t disclose what happened to her during her captivity. The point-of-view shifts from Mia’s mother, the detective, and the kidnapper himself as Kubica slowly teases out the story. Because the kidnapper’s perspective is clear, there doesn’t seem to be a mystery—but Mia’s post-kidnapping condition doesn’t make sense. Instead of relief, she’s anxious, unsure of who she is, uncomfortable with her reunited family. She claims not to recall the details of her three-month captivity, which is questioned by her mother, rejected by her father, and attributed to a kind of Stockholm Syndrome by her therapist. Her level of shock seems to indicate that something much worse than the kidnapper reveals happened while they were hiding in the woods. “She’s thinking. She wakes up from a dream and tries to remember the details. She gets bits and pieces, but never the whole thing. We’ve all been there. In a dream, your house is a house but it’s not your house. Some lady doesn’t look like your mother, but you know that she is your mother. In the daytime, it doesn’t quite make as much sense as it did during the night.” Read the rest of this entry »

Crime Studies: The Story Behind Lori Rader-Day’s Campus-Set Debut, “The Black Hour”

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By Brandie Rae Madrid

First-time novelist and Chicago transplant Lori Rader-Day’s “The Black Hour” is set in a prestigious university in a fictional Chicago suburb. After an inexplicable attack by a student shooter, Professor Amelia Emmet returns to work, albeit with a cane, a new anxiety about her students, and a slew of faculty who think she must have brought the crime on herself somehow. Told from two perspectives—that of Emmet and her new teaching assistant Nathaniel—the novel explores the aftermath of a violent crime that is becoming all too common on campuses today.

You’re originally from Indiana? What brought you to Chicago?
I am. The central Indiana area just northwest of Indianapolis near a town call Lebanon. Lots of people pass by it and may not stop.

We came to Chicago in 2001. I had gotten a job, and I asked my boyfriend if he wanted to come up here with me, and he responded by asking to marry him. So my fiancé and I came to Chicago together, and we got married about two years later. So, a good job, but also just trying to find adventure.

Chicago and its history end up being a big part of this novel. Can you speak a little bit about that and how that came about?
I can’t say that I’m an expert in Chicago crime history, but I think it’s really interesting to live in a town with so much rich history of all kinds. And then Chicago has such interest in its own history that I just love, but it also has an interest in its own crime history. I was thinking about what would draw Nathaniel in the book to Chicago once he’s there—because he’s interested in what happened to Dr. Emmet. But I thought he would have this sort of dark interest in crime, and of course Chicago is a good place to study crime if you’re going to do it. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “If it is your life” by James Kelman

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RECOMMENDED ifitisyourlife

A few years back, The Guardian attempted to interview the Scottish Booker Prize winner James Kelman about his then-new novel “Kieron Smith, Boy.” The result was essentially an interrogative monologue by the interviewer, interspersed with Kelman’s “monosyllabic replies” and silences that were “long and Pinteresque.” Unfortunate for the interviewer, yes, but also no real surprise given Kelman’s writing, which dwells on the gaps between spoken words and the tangles of thought beneath them. As a character in his brilliant (if bleak) new collection “If it is your life” puts it, “Human beings are near the surface. Just scratch and that is us.”

Kelman’s work is all about this scratching, laying bare the inner lives of men and women in the margins as they have a pint or die alone or watch children build a raft to sail across a lake of detritus in the backcourt of a Glasgow tenement. His stories drop readers into the murky minds of working-class, often nameless, largely Glaswegian narrators who are plagued by intractable troubles that they cannot effectively convey to themselves or others. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?’ by Dave Eggers

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RECOMMENDED yourfathers

Book by book, Dave Eggers has pushed the limit of what he has done before, and then takes one step further. His latest novel may look slim, but it represents another startling leap into new territory.

Here is a tale as tightly wound as an alarm clock. Told entirely in dialogue, it takes place on a deserted military base on the California coast. Thomas, its hero, has kidnapped an astronaut, Kev, and chained him to a post. “I’m a moral man and a principled man,” Thomas assures him.

It’s usually a bad sign when a hostage-taker makes such assertions. It may not be so here. Thomas merely wants to ask Kev a few questions about his past, but then he gets another idea. He grabs another hostage. This victim is a congressman, a double-amputee war veteran who wakes up groggy on the floor. He is kinder to Thomas than Kev, more understanding. He knows this will not end well for Thomas, and pities him: “You’ve got a head full of rocks, kid. And there are a hundred thousand others like you in the desert right now.”

On it goes. Thomas begins conversations and then cuts them short, rushing off for another hostage. He grabs an elementary school teacher; he abducts his own mother. He subdues and kidnaps a police officer.

In the past five years, Eggers has begun writing screenplays and “Your Fathers” yokes the economies of that work—its reliance on dramatic thrust and human speech—to novelistic purpose here. Toggling between his captives, Thomas assembles a kind of explanation for why, as he sees it, the world has forsaken him: it has vacuumed his generation’s sky free of dreams and replaced it with satellites, or “space kites,” as Thomas calls the International Space Station. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Girl Who Was Saturday Night” by Heather O’Neill

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RECOMMENDED thegirl

“The Girl Who Was Saturday Night,” the second novel by Heather O’Neill, follows two years in the life of Nouschka Tremblay. Nouschka and her fraternal twin brother Nicolas grew up as child stars. The product of a night between the irresponsible Quebecois singer Etienne Tremblay, who only raises them when the cameras are running, and a fourteen-year-old groupie, whose only contribution to their upbringing was leaving them on their grandfather’s doorstep, the Tremblay twins’ childhood in the limelight has left them extremely damaged people.

The novel begins when the twins are nineteen and inappropriately attached to one other; they still share the same bed. Nicolas is a petty thief and already a deadbeat dad. Nouschka is an accidental beauty queen who finds herself in the middle of numerous affairs, the next of which might be with Raphael Lemiux, a mentally unstable criminal and former figure skating champion.

“The Girl Who Was Saturday Night” is chiefly about fame. The Tremblays spend the novel dodging the narratives of paparazzi and documentary filmmakers; when Nouschka’s relationship with Raphael flourishes, she vows to “lead a well-adjusted, serene life” to overcome everyone’s expectations for their failure. However, the largest narrative with which they must contend is the one of their supposedly happy childhood in the limelight, when the reality is that it was mostly spent in the squalor of their grandfather’s apartment. As Nouschka says of the reaction of one character to she and Nicolas: “Of course she loved our persona. It was designed to be loved.” Read the rest of this entry »