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 »
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 »
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 »
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 »
By 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 »
“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 »
By 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 »
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 »
“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 »
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 »