Fiction Review: “The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins” By Irvine Welsh

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Irvine Welsh

Irvine Welsh/Photo: Jeffrey Delannoy

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When we can’t stop stuffing our faces with junk, drinking more than we should, wasting hours on end in front of the TV or computer screen, staying in that dead-end job, or continuing to long for that person who is just not into us, what is it that will jolt us out of our funk, turn things around, move things forward? Self-help books? Life coaches? Phone apps? Extreme ruts often call for extreme measures. In Irvine Welsh’s new release, “The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins,” employing unorthodox means seems exactly what’s needed to catapult the main characters out of their vicious cycles. Read the rest of this entry »

Comedy, Tragedy and Combatting the Ultimate Void: Aleksandar Hemon Discusses His New Novel, “The Making of Zombie Wars”

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Aleksandar Hemon - headshot

Aleksandar Hemon/Photo: Velibor Bozovic

By Amy Danzer

Aleksandar Hemon brings the funny in his new novel, “The Making of Zombie Wars.”

After giving us “The Question of Bruno,” “Nowhere Man,” “The Lazarus Project,” “Love and Obstacles,” and “The Book of My Lives,” he now presents us with a comical story that centers around born-and-raised Highland Parker, Joshua Levin, an ESL instructor who compulsively comes up with script ideas that never hold much promise, with the exception of “Zombie Wars.” According to just about everyone in the novel, his girlfriend is too good for him; his relationship with his family is pretty average-if-a-bit-strained; and his army vet landlord, Stagger, has an absolute lack of appreciation for boundaries. Everything in Joshua’s world moves mediocrely along until he plays a dangerous game of seduction with his Bosnian student, Ana who is married to a Bosnian war vet. Thereafter, misadventures ensue like a Coen Brothers film. Though its pace is swift and the mishaps ridiculous, there’s no shortage of poignant subtext. Hemon recently entertained some questions I had for him about his new novel at his shared writers’ space on the North Side of Chicago. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Principles of Navigation” by Lynn Sloan

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Chicago photographer Lynn Sloan’s debut novel, “Principles of Navigation,” opens with a photograph, a crystallized moment at Rolly and Alice Becotte’s wedding: “We are perfect here, aren’t we?” Rolly observes. A closer look reveals the disarray of life with the intrusion, at the right edge of the photograph, of the padded hip of a wedding guest that neither can identify. It is the imperfect unknowable that drives this domestic drama.

Theirs is a dynamic marriage with ever-shifting goals, longings, and moral high ground; they are united only as long as each exercises “a reserve, as if… they were asking each other for forgiveness.” As this fragile courtesy inevitably crumbles, each Becotte reveals more of their internal complexities. Alice is pliable, a bit superstitious, but she is a relentless logician in calculating her fertility. Rolly dreams of the world beyond their rural college town, constructing canoes that carry his imagination to the world beyond, but he is surprisingly uxorious. Read the rest of this entry »

Pleasure, Art, Ambition: Christine Sneed Discusses Her New Novel, “Paris, He Said”

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Christine Sneed/Photo: Adam Tinkham

By Toni Nealie

Making art is tough, whether you are a writer, a musician or a visual artist. It’s hard to keep going when there are bills to pay if you are not gaining traction in your career. How do you balance commerce and artistic sensibility? Who defines your success? What part does environment play? How much of an artist’s success depends on luck? How much should one give up in order to make art? Newcity contributor Christine Sneed explores ambition, beauty and intimacy in her new novel “Paris, He Said.”

The central character Jayne has been out of art school for eight years and is stuck in a low-paid rut in New York when her wealthy, older lover Laurent invites her to live with him in Paris so she can paint. He’s a successful gallery owner and an urbane pleasure-seeker who doesn’t curtail his dalliances with other women once Jayne moves in. New York is dreary and hard work. In contrast, Paris is a sensual city of light. Jayne escapes the American grind for something rather more delightful. On the surface, “Paris, He Said” is an entertaining romantic fantasy, but Sneed has crafted a literary work concerned with trade-offs. What do people give up for their various passions and how do they get comfortable with themselves? Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “God Help the Child” by Toni Morrison

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RECOMMENDEDgod help the child

The last living American (and sole black woman) recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature now offers “God Help the Child.” Like all of Toni Morrison’s novels, this one also runs “narrow but deep” as she once spoke of her widely acknowledged masterwork, “Beloved” (1987).

Enter Bride, who at birth profoundly repels her light-skinned mother, Sweetness, because of her “Sudanese black” skin. Bride aches for attention to the point of plotting to misbehave to earn spankings and at last, feel Sweetness’ touch. The closest she gets to this involves her testimony in court which sends a teacher to jail for fifteen years on child abuse charges, but even that isn’t enough. Enter Booker, who is haunted by his brother’s savage death and falls for the grown cosmetics mogul Bride, then leaves her after a brief but intensely carnal period, claiming that she is “not the woman…” Read the rest of this entry »

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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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 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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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 »