Fiction Review: “The Land Across” by Gene Wolfe

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RECOMMENDED thelandacross

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 »

Silk Stockings and Bootleggers: An Interview with “Dollface” Author Renee Rosen

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By Liz Baudler dollface

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 »

Fiction Review: “The Salinger Contract” by Adam Langer

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RECOMMENDED  05book "The Salenger Contract" by Adam Langer.

If you were a writer, would you accept a deal to write a book that would only be read by one person, in exchange for two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand dollars? Sounds like a no-brainer to me—the only downside is you might write your magnum opus and it would sit in obscurity on a rich man’s book shelf instead of garnering world recognition. In Adam Langer’s new novel “The Salinger Contract,” Conner Joyce is offered this unusual deal: write a book for an eccentric millionaire and never show or tell another soul about it. It doesn’t take long for Conner Joyce to accept and, naturally, it turns out to be a bit of a deal with the devil.

The story is relayed through Joyce’s friend, Adam Langer, much like Nelly Dean conveying the shenanigans of Heathcliff and Catherine down the road. Langer shares many similarities with the author, beyond his name—he’s from Chicago but lives in Bloomington, Indiana, he’s a former editor of a New York magazine that folded, his wife is a professor. There’s something charmingly egomaniacal about the author naming his fictionalized character after himself—as if to prove once and for all that we really are the superstars of our own lives. The character, Langer, is experiencing the tortured luxurious existence of a house-husband whose spouse waits patiently for tenure at Indiana University. He’s a down on-his-luck author, estranged from most of his family who he portrayed in a thinly veiled roman à clef, and is something of a publishing pariah, having also lost his job as a book editor at a Manhattan magazine.  When Conner Joyce swans in with his curious story about his contract, Langer’s feelings barely proceed beyond pure envy. After having distanced himself after his own experience, the idea of writing a book for an audience of one seems ideal. Read the rest of this entry »

Fascinated By Memory: Karen Joy Fowler Recounts Writing “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves”

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By Naomi Huffman  we-are-all-completey-beside-ourselves

Despite the piles of books I encounter as a book reviewer and editor, I’m still often seduced by a book the old-fashioned way: a delightful cover design, a formidable number of pages, a titillating title. With Karen Joy Fowler’s “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,” it was the latter.

But a few chapters in, Fowler seduces with something else entirely, delivering a shock that quite literally changes the “truth” of the story, at least as the reader has come to understand it so far. It’s a trick, but it’s one Fowler deals deftly, and there’s nothing cheap about it. What follows is a story about how a young girl named Rosemary grieves the loss of her sister Fern, and how the memory of that loss has haunted her even into middle age. Rosemary tells the reader what she remembers, but because she was just five years old when Fern was lost, much of the novel pertains to memory and explores how what we remember is often just as important as what we choose to forget.

Karen Joy Fowler spoke with me recently from the road, while touring to promote  “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.” Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Maid’s Version” by Daniel Woodrell

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RECOMMENDED 9781478924579_p0_v3_s260x420

The dark and bloody ground of Kentucky and of the Appalachian highlands have nothing on the Missouri Ozarks of Daniel Woodrell. Here, livings are coaxed from hard scrabble, clans nurse blood feuds into generations, and orphaned travelers alienated from the lush yet stingy land work schemes and swindles that erupt into sudden violence.

The Ozark plateau’s equal-opportunity harshness requires women to be tough and occasionally more dangerous than the men. (Who can forget the scene in Woodrell’s previous novel, “Winter’s Bone,” in which teenage matriarch-before-her-time Ree Dolly must help cut the hands from her father’s corpse so law enforcement can confirm his death? Jennifer Lawrence’s adroit portrayal in film earned her a first Academy Award nomination.) Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Biology of Luck” by Jacob M. Appel

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There are many books that are odes to New York City. There are many books that feature struggling writers and mysterious, footloose, ideal women. There are many books that spin stories inside of stories. There are not many books like “The Biology of Luck.” Why? Because few authors have the hyper-verbal skills of Jacob Appel.

Larry Bloom is a New York City tour guide by day, novelist by night. He has written a manuscript, “The Biology of Luck” (Coincidence? Think not!), and submitted it to a publishing agency. A letter from the publishing agency arrives in the mail that morning the morning the story begins. That night, Larry plans to open it at dinner with the woman he loves, Starshine Hart, a bicycling babe whose manifestos include never doing a job that requires shoes. But first, he has to get through the day. And what a hell of a day. Starshine, hard up for money, beleaguered by overly complicated errands, and inundated by alluring men, is in a similar boat. Will these two even make it to dinner? Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Uninvited” by Liz Jensen

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“The Uninvited” begins with a six-year old child in pajamas murdering her grandmother. Liz Jensen has a way of grabbing the reader by the throat with uncomfortable juxtapositions of children and violence. Although her latest book has the elements of mystery, thriller and even sci-fi, like her other work, it defies easy categorization.

Carefully plotted, “The Uninvited” thoughtfully imagines the repercussions of a world where children turn on their elders. The main character is Hesketh Lock, an anthropologist who solves corporate mysteries for a PR firm. As a “behavioural pattern expert,” Hesketh is investigating a series of sabotages followed by suicide. He suspects a connection between the children’s murders and the acts of sabotage well before anyone else. Hesketh approaches most of his work with emotional detachment; his ex-girlfriend called him a “robot made of meat”—a phrase that he periodically revisits and rebuffs. Hesketh has Asperger’s syndrome and has various obsessions that help him create order: origami, which he builds, sometimes just in his head to calm himself; languages, which allow him to easily travel around the world; Venn diagrams. Reading from Hesketh’s unique perspective is a fascinating adventure. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “To the Chapel of Light” by Joshua Young

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Joshua Young’s second book, published as part of Mud Luscious Press’ Nephew imprint series, is a screenplay-in-verse. Young is no stranger to blending poetry, prose and playwriting; his first book was “When the Wolves Quit: A Play-in-Verse” (Gold Wake Press, 2012). Divided into three acts, “To the Chapel of Light,” is obsessed with storytelling and portrays a surrealistic, almost dystopian version of the southern United States. Nephew specializes in “linguistically jagged, pocket-sized titles that redefine language” and boy, this book delivers outstandingly on that principle. Read the rest of this entry »

Drama Review: “‘The Glass Menagerie’: Deluxe Centennial Edition” by Tennessee Williams with an introduction by Tony Kushner

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Even if “Stella!” is all you know about Tennessee Williams’ plays, a new edition of “The Glass Menagerie” coinciding with the late Mississippian’s hundredth birthday should persuade you that something monumental was occurring in theater in Chicago on December 26, 1944.

That evening—while on the other side of the world German combat divisions were hurling themselves at the battered and beleaguered U.S. 101st Airborne at Bastogne—the Civic Theatre was mounting the premiere of Williams’ pre-war-set, very interior drama “The Glass Menagerie.”

Just as the face of the world would be changed by the ensuing rollback of the Nazis’ last desperate military offensive, “Menagerie” marked a quieter but nonetheless dramatic shift in theater. Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”) reports that not only was “Menagerie” Williams’ first great success, but argues indisputably that it raised expectations for Williams’ work and for American drama. Read the rest of this entry »

Bird of Peace: Minnesota-born novelist Louise Erdrich offers a different “Plague”

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By John Freeman

A glance at the “E” section of your local bookstore would probably not give the impression that Louise Erdrich is a woman willing to wait. Since 1984, the year she debuted with not one, but two books, the Minnesota-born novelist has published more than twenty volumes of poetry, prose, fiction and children’s literature. She also raised four daughters and started an independent bookstore in Minneapolis. This spring, however, Erdrich unveiled proof that she has patience—when she must.

“The Plague of Doves,” her twelfth novel for adults, has landed to rave reviews. “Her most deeply affecting work yet,” wrote New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani. The book has been with Erdrich since the early 1980s, though, whispering to the author while she worked on other books.

“I knew this particular incident was going to be part of it,” says the 53-year-old novelist. “I just didn’t know how I was going to approach it.”

The incident Erdrich refers to was a brutal one. On November 13, 1897, a mob of forty men broke into a North Dakota jail and lynched three American Indians—two young boys (one of whom was named Paul Holy Track) and a grown man—who were among a group being tried for the murders of six members of a white family.

In “The Plague of Doves,” she brilliantly re-imagines this event, bringing to life an entire fictional North Dakota community and tracking how the crime filters down through subsequent generations. The quest for justice is diluted as families involved in the hanging intermarry and mingle. The tribal members keep the story alive through folklore, the whites try to pretend it never happened.

“In the beginning, the whites had all the power,” Erdrich says, by way of explaining the difference in how the crime is dealt with, “but as one reviewer put it: the Indians have the history.”

Although she is often compared to William Faulkner, whose own fictional Yoknapatawpha County is the closest comparison to the world Ms. Erdrich has conjured in North Dakota, her books are not nearly so blood-soaked.

Erdrich says part of this comes from her upbringing. “I lived a very sheltered childhood, a very sweet childhood,” she says, referring to the years she grew up one of seven kids in rural North Dakota.

“It’s against my nature to believe how evil people can be—I didn’t see cruelty a lot, so I didn’t understand it. When it became apparent that the world was different, that the world was different from what I had known as a child, it took me a long time to understand it.”

Her father, who is German, and her mother, who is Ojibwe, were both school teachers and encouraged her to memorize poetry. “I was lucky to have grandparents around, too,” she says—she listened to their stories, and asked questions, something she continues to do. “I still feel like I listen more than I tell.”

Clearly, it’s an inspiration. Like all of Erdrich’s novels, from her National Book Critics Circle Award-winning debut “Love Medicine” to the recent “Four Souls,” this book is full of dozens of memorable characters, whom Erdrich conjures in just a few deft strokes each. Most of Erdrich’s novels take place in a fictional town called Argus on the edge of an Indian reservation. Characters appear and reappear throughout. “The Plague of Doves,” however, ventures slightly outside this terrain and features an all-new cast. So the voices of the main characters—a recent college graduate, a judge, a grandfather and a doctor—came to her over time, at odd moments, their stories in shards.

“I can’t quite know I’m making a book,” Erdrich says. “If I really knew I had to put this all in beginning, when the voices came with such resonance, I really don’t know where they come from… I just feel like I get to take down what they’re telling me.”