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 »

Seven Minutes and Semi-Drunk: Write Club Brings Bare-Knuckled Lit Brawls to Your Living Room

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Lindsay Muscato and Write Club Overlord Ian Belknap/Photo: Evan Hanover

Lindsay Muscato and Write Club Overlord Ian Belknap/Photo: Evan Hanover

By Adrienne Gunn

Write Club, Chicago’s pre-eminent storytelling brawl that pits two writers with opposing themes against one another in front of a live audience, has collected its funniest and most badass bouts into a new anthology, “Bare Knuckled Lit: The Best of Write Club.” The live show, taking place in Chicago on the third Tuesday of every month at The Hideout, prides itself on high-intensity, no-holds-barred matches. How does “Bare-Knuckled Lit” compare? Write Club founder and “overlord” Ian Belknap says, “It’s the difference between hunting on a game preserve, and hunting in the wild; between a fencing match, and a fistfight in a gas station parking lot.” Read the rest of this entry »

Comics Review: “Sex Criminals, Volume I TP: One Weird Trick” by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

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RECOMMENDED sex-criminals-vol-01-releases

It’s a story as old as civilization itself: A young woman who stops time when she has an orgasm meets a guy with the same thing. Brought together by the whims of circumstance, they fall for each other, and in the throes of a new relationship start robbing banks.

Think “Tristan and Isolde” filtered through Philip K. Dick and you’ve got half of the idea.

The other half is a smart and sex-positive take on the romantic comedy. Suzie (she’s the girl) acts as the narrator for the series, bringing the smutty shenanigans and the sci-fi to a personal level. What makes her and Jon (he’s the guy) so compelling as a romantic pair is the sheer amount of honesty between them. It’s downright refreshing to see adults talking so frankly and intimately about their sexual histories, not as an arousing enticement but as an intimate disclosure. Past partners, masturbatory habits, even musical preferences are shared between them and with us.

It’s a bold approach to sexual comedy, and some of the best work by Matt Fraction (he’s the writer). Largely known as a prominent writer for Marvel Comics, one of his strengths is playing around with multiple levels of plot and mood. He knows when to place a joke about fleshlights and when to spin out lines of near-poetry, as when Suzie describes her first experience with post-climax timelessness: “I was enveloped in silence and color.” Read the rest of this entry »

Cartoons Review: “Point Your Face at This” by Demetri Martin

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A picture is worth a thousand words—it’s true, and also makes difficult work of reviewing a book of cartoons. Take, for example, Demetri Martin’s drawing of a mountain view with a sign in front that reads “Scenic View” with braille underneath. It’s certainly less funny when I describe it, but really does contain all the fun of flipping through a book of Gary Larson’s “Far Side” comics from the 1990s. Martin’s comedy is very charming. Like Ellen, or Jerry Seinfeld, he reminds us of the absurdity of everyday life—like the phrase “training bra” or self-flushing toilets. Judging by his too-short-lived television series, he’s got a fondness for paper and pen. Martin displays nothing short of glee as he stands next to a large pad of paper flipping through image and word combinations. One-liners from his comedy routines (“If I owned a copy store, I would only hire identical twins to work at it”) are the sort of thing that translate easily to book format.  Venn diagrams, Q&As, graphs and illustrated mechanisms are all fodder for his simple but ingenious drawings. He’s not above the occasional fart joke, so there’s nothing too precious going on, despite a cartoon or two about the perception of fame in New York versus Los Angeles, or how the ubiquitous sight of planes and helicopters around a city resembles flies around a pile of shit. Practically every page is a showcase for his particular wit, a moment to examine, pause, smile. Or, if you’re more cynical, each page says, “Ha, ha, ha!  Look how clever I am!” Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Write More Good” by @FakeAPStylebook

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To avoid any possible confusion, “in all fairness” (see chapter 13), “Write More Good” is NOT a sequel to David Sedaris’ “Me Talk Pretty One Day.” Instead it is intended by the Twitter coterie at @FakeAPStylebook as a tongue-in-cheek antidote to the transgressive practices of our 24/7 media that is so galling to both the public and to those journalists who are in fact part of the problem but would like us to think that they can’t really do anything about it.

Their effort gets a mixed review but passing grade. (Who am I but a solo byline, against a committee of more than a dozen wiseasses ready and willing to use their bullying Twitter pulpit?)

As a print journalist with the usual prejudices against both broadcast reporters and the whippersnappers unable to diagram sentences or consult dictionaries, I was perhaps lulled into false expectations by Roger Ebert’s collegial foreword that the authors might join me in Strunking-and-Whiting such miscreants. Read the rest of this entry »

Reading Preview: Demetri Martin at DePaul University Bookstore

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“This is a Book” is the first book by comedian and actor Demetri Martin. An ingenious wordsmith, whose stand-up routines often feature a giant pad of paper that he uses to flip through drawings and words, Martin’s comedy translates nicely to book form. This book recalls the prose collections of Woody Allen—they share a common shtick—absurd stories, terrific one-liners and fairly intellectual comedy that allows the reader to feel just as clever as the writer.  Martin has the ability to create a whole story in just a line, like Hemingway’s famous six-word short-story (For sale: baby shoes, never worn.) only hilarious.  “I have been called many things,” he writes, “Like ‘Hey you’ and ‘Get out of the Way!’ and ‘Look Out!’ And then, some time later, ‘Plaintiff.’” A two-and-a-half-page palindromic story is nothing short of amazing. A diary written completely in acronyms amuses. Martin seems to find particular pleasure in playing the character of the douche-bag—the kind of guy not afraid to insult a pregnant wife, insult an elderly woman, or get into a fist fight. A chapter about a cat calendar for people who hate cats is not cool. Not cool at all. (Kelly Roark)

At DePaul University Bookstore, 1 East Jackson, for a signing on May 12 at 6pm.

“This Is A Book”
By Demetri Martin
Grand Central Publishing, 288 pages, $24.99

The Other Ass Cheek: David Sedaris has a midlife crisis

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By Selena Fragassi

David Sedaris wants you to have more sex.

“That’s what I was telling kids last night,” he says when we meet for coffee during a tour stop for his latest book, “When You Are Engulfed in Flames.” “There was this girl that came through the line and as we got to talking, I gave her some advice and said, ‘You should have sex with as many people as you can.’ And then the woman behind her goes, ‘I’m her mother!’ So, I turned back and said, ‘Well then, you should blow as many people as you can.’”

His advice reflects a regret Sedaris has grappled with since suffering a self-admitted midlife crisis upon turning 51 this past December.

“There were people I didn’t have sex with and the opportunity was right there,” he laments between sips of coffee. “Years ago, I was taking a train through Italy in this, like, cattle car. I didn’t have a seat and I was standing next to this guy from Beirut, and it was like meeting Bambi. He was my age, about 25, and he was so beautiful. We fell in love over the course of twenty minutes and stayed in love for like two-and-a-half hours. And then he said, ‘Get off the train and stay with me for awhile.’ And I didn’t do it…I will always regret that. Who knows? I could’ve wound up living in Italy.”

Instead, in the two-plus decades since his failed European union, Sedaris has become one of today’s greatest humorists with six collections of essays that have sold more than seven million copies, a Grammy Award nomination, frequent contributions to esteemed publications like The New Yorker and Esquire and numerous plays and appearances on “This American Life.”

“I do think of myself as fortunate in that way,” he says, cocking his head and pondering the idea. “Because this is more than I ever dreamed I’d have when I was 50 years old. If I hadn’t published a book yet and I was 50, I’d probably be a bitter person.”

While not bitter, Sedaris’ work often leaves the reader with a strong aftertaste of lessons learned in comedic narratives that are engrossingly honest. “When You Are Engulfed in Flames” keeps the tradition, albeit with an often darker perspective as Sedaris comes to terms with the end of all things, including the ultimate death of his smoking habit. His longest short story to date, “The Smoking Section,” journeys through different months and countries and features actual journal entries—something he is often not apt to reveal.

“[My journals are] all under lock and key because I would die if anybody ever read them,” he says, giving me an exclusive look at the cover of his latest notebook that he has been carrying around in his front shirt-pocket. “I have thought about [publishing them], but just the good bits. Not the bits where I’m talking about how hurt I am by something, or how angry I am at somebody. I would die because that’s the real me.”

As he looks out the window to the businessmen and tourists traversing Michigan Avenue, Sedaris recalls the city he called home in the years he studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

“It was a really good place to become confident,” he says. “And I don’t think I’ll ever have as good of friends as I have here.”

His first apartment cost $190 a month and was on the south end of the Uptown neighborhood at Irving Park and Sheridan where he saw lots of girlfriends with black eyes, insane, sedated residents of a halfway house next door and rodents for sale at his local grocery store.

“There was a Butera and they had a raccoon for sale,” he says. “At least I think it was a raccoon…or something with claws in the meat section.”

Those years have long passed him, he admits, echoing the thoughts of a man still in the throes of his midlife crisis. But, as we transition from talking about friends’ houses where you could get high until four in the morning to the pitfalls of fatal elderly falls, it’s evident that Sedaris’ beloved sense of humor leaves him, and us, with many more years of good storytelling.

“I met this nurse recently,” he says. “And I asked her, ‘Have you seen any good accidents lately?’ And she told me about a woman who was 69 and had this huge lawn and was waiting for her grandson to come mow it. Well, she decided to mow it herself except she had one of those lawnmowers where you had to pull a trailer behind you and it had many blades. She fell backwards into it and it cut off both her legs, an arm, a breast and one of her ass cheeks. She didn’t mean it as a funny story, but I was laughing and wondering ‘Why is this so funny?’ I really think it was the ass cheek that did it. I tried to picture her in a wheelchair, moaning, ‘If only I had that other ass cheek.'”

David Sedaris reads his work October 13 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 East Congress, (312)922-2110, at 8pm.

Tip of the Week: Christian Lander

Humor, Readings No Comments »

The immensely popular blog Stuff White People Like, created by LA-based writer Christian Lander, was spawned from a Internet-conversation he had with a friend about “The Wire.” Only a short time later Lander’s satiric site had thousands of hits, presumably attracting the liberal white people that Lander was so cleverly, and at times hysterically, dissecting. Read the rest of this entry »