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 »

Fiction Review: “Belzhar” by Meg Wolitzer

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belzharRECOMMENDED

After her first love dies, Jam Gallahue’s parents enroll her in a school for the “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent” teen to recover from her emotional distress. So begins Meg Wolitzer’s new young adult novel, “Belzhar.”

So deeply in love was Jam that she’s not able to function as she did before. “Reeve was different from the boys I knew—all those Alexes, Joshes, and Matts. It wasn’t just his name. He had a look that none of them had: very smart, slouching and lean, with skinny black jeans hanging low over knobby hip bones.” Wolitzer fans dubious of forays into young-adult literature should breathe easily: that sentence doesn’t end with “and he was a vampire.”

While Wolitzer seems like the quintessentially adult writer, from the sharp wit of “The Wife” to the ambitious, decades-spanning “The Interestings,” she’s acutely aware of that that teenage soul is nothing if not fraught with drama. More like her fairy tale-ish “The Uncoupling,” Belzhar treads fearlessly into fantasy. Jam’s school isn’t an institution, this is no “Girl, Interrupted,” although that is close to what’s happened to our young heroine.  Every student in the school is dealing with emotional problems and, presumably, has very wealthy parents to bankroll their child’s emotionally sheltering private education.

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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 »