A Complicated Citizenship: José Orduña Explains in “The Weight of Shadows”

Memoir, Nonfiction No Comments »
Jose_Orduna_Photo_Laurel Fantauzzo

Photo: Laurel Fantauzzo

By Kate Burns

José Orduña’s engrossing memoir chronicles his journey to becoming a United States citizen. “The Weight of Shadows: A Memoir of Immigration and Displacement” blends Orduña’s personal narrative with an examination of identity and racism. Orduña brings the reader close to situations many people don’t see every day—President Obama dining discreetly at a posh Chicago restaurant where Orduña used to work; the class divide he experienced at Saint Ignatius College Prep; encountering young migrants on the border who come from his mother’s hometown; witnessing mass sham trials and deportations of unsuccessful, tired and dusty migrants back to Mexico. This book comes at a time when global migration is center stage. Following is an abridged version of our email conversation.

Did you have to naturalize to stay here or could you have remained a permanent resident?
9/11 happened right around the time I was in high school. Through the tightening of civil liberties and intensified xenophobia after 9/11, I felt more visible as an immigrant, which meant more vulnerable. While I was going through the process of becoming a citizen (known as naturalization) I felt a lot of anger that the rights granted to citizens aren’t granted to everyone. Once I got my citizenship I also felt a sense of relief that I had eliminated some of the vulnerability I’d lived with for so many years. Read the rest of this entry »

Poetry Review: “Who’s Afraid of Helen of Troy” by David Lazar

Book Reviews, Chicago Authors, Essays, Poetry No Comments »


If you are smart and you like to have a chuckle while you read, then please do yourself a favor and don’t read David Lazar’s clever new book “Who’s Afraid of Helen of Troy: An Essay on Love” in a quiet public place. This erudite romp through romance is to be relished out loud, in the comfort of your own bed or train car—either alone or with some lucky other. Selections might even find themselves on your ex’s voicemail. If you aren’t a scholar of Greek mythology, you might want to keep your aged college texts (or Google) nearby, because you are going to (re)learn a lot. Greek tragedy, after all, has given readers their first roadmap of love. Read the rest of this entry »

The Journey, the Perceptions and the Fakery of Nostalgia: Discussing “The Miles Between Me” with Toni Nealie

Author Profiles, Chicago Authors, Chicago Publishers, Essays, Genres No Comments »
Photo: Bruce Sheridan

Photo: Bruce Sheridan

By Amy Danzer

This month, Newcity’s literary editor Toni Nealie releases her debut collection of lyrical essays, entitled “The Miles Between Me.” The essays investigate family mythologies from India and England to New Zealand, Canada and the United States. They explore the range of emotions Nealie experiences as she navigates new landscapes, neighbors and family dynamics, as well as different ways to pass the time, measure distance, travel post-9/11 and deal with loss. Nealie, spurred by her journalistic instinct, infuses the essays with delicious morsels of fascinating facts; her unique vantage point offers fresh perspective on the familiar; and her love of language makes the essays a sheer pleasure to read. I recently had the chance to ask Nealie several questions about her essays via email.

Can you say a little something about the inception of “The Miles Between Me”—what informed the framing of the book?
Moving with my family from Aotearoa New Zealand to the United States weeks before 9/11 flipped my life topsy-turvy. It upended every idea I held about society and myself. All my scaffolding was gone. As a journalist, I had told other people’s stories, but reportage couldn’t get to the heart of my questions. Essaying allowed me to make sense of political and private events. Personal and lyric essays led me to reflect on home, journey and migration. I could ferret out disruptive ideas about parenthood, marriage, race and family history—poking at imagined truths and scratching away at unreliable memories. I could digress and meander and explore without being forced to take a position. Distance and isolation gave me an opportunity to ponder ideas about our flimsy construction of self and our deceptive sense of control. Read the rest of this entry »

Unionizing College Football: Ben Strauss Discusses “Indentured”

Author Profiles, Nonfiction, Sports No Comments »

strauss headshot

Even after researching and writing “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA,” a searing indictment of college sports’ governing body, author Ben Strauss still can’t resist the power of the bracket. “March Madness is still a lot of fun! But at the same time, it’s hard to watch with the same passion as when I was younger knowing that the system is so fundamentally flawed,” Strauss says.

Those flaws are painstakingly catalogued in “Indentured,” co-authored by Joe Nocera. It charts the NCAA’s long history of funneling the spoils of college sports directly to coaches and administrators. The star athletes who generate the estimated $13 billion a year are unpaid “amateurs” and can have their careers taken away for the slightest violation of their amateur status or daring to speak out against the system.

Read the rest of this entry »

Gaining Gay Power: Timothy Stewart-Winter Discusses “Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics”

Author Profiles, Chicago Authors, History No Comments »

TSW photo_1
By Toni Nealie

Stonewall and Harvey Milk were exceptional, but Chicago’s story better represented the nation’s path to gay power. In his first book, “Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics,” Timothy Stewart-Winter combines oral history and archival records to tell the local story of activism and politics. By email, he told me that the movement was shaped by the fear of being exposed by law enforcement, then losing your job, family or both.

I was unaware of the alliance between black civil rights activists and the gay liberation movement. Was that news to you? What was surprising?
It surprised me that black politics gave birth to gay politics, not just by offering a template, but by forging a liberal coalition that questioned the police, the machine and a business elite that favored boosterism over marginalized folks. We hear a lot about black straight homophobia and white gay racism. They both mattered, but they were never the only part of the story. Read the rest of this entry »

The Need to Be Rational: Debra Monroe on Her New Memoir, “My Unsentimental Education”

Memoir No Comments »
debra monroe close up

Debra Monroe/Photo: Suzanne Reiss

By Amy Danzer

In her new memoir, “My Unsentimental Education, ” Debra Monroe—author of “On the Outskirts of Normal, ” “Shambles,” “Newfangled,” “A Wild, Cold State” and “The Source of Trouble,” whose work has won numerous awards—uses her characteristic dry wit and stylish prose to give us glimpses into pivotal instructive moments in her life. She takes us through different stages in her edification by way of formal education, jobs, career and relationships—from her working-class roots in Spooner, Wisconsin to where she now teaches writing at Texas State University, San Marcos. As she navigates these different terrains and phases in her life, she learns much about the influence people and places can have on a person, but also the power of one’s own wanting. Read the rest of this entry »

Found In Translation: An Interview with Aviya Kushner about “The Grammar of God”

Nonfiction No Comments »
Aviya Kushner (c) Gur Salomon

Aviya Kushner/Photo: Gur Salomon

By Toni Nealie

The Bible is a holy text for many and a work of literature and cultural resonance for all, so Aviya Kushner’s obsession with the book’s translation is eye-opening and captivating. Growing up in a Jewish, Hebrew-speaking family, she was startled to encounter the English version when she took a Bible literature course with writer Marilynne Robinson at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Kushner discovered that much of what she understood about the creation myth, slavery and the Ten Commandments were rendered very differently in various translations. Read the rest of this entry »

Race and the Silver Screen in Chicago’s Loop: Gerald R. Butters on his new book, “From Sweetback to Superfly”

Chicago Authors, History No Comments »

gerald butters iiBy Toni Nealie

Chicago’s Loop was once a lively area of movie theaters, the second most important cinema market in the country from the 1920s through the 1970s. By 1990, all eleven venues were gone. Film historian and Aurora University professor Gerald R. Butters has written a thoroughly researched and absorbing book, “From Sweetback to Superfly: Race and Film Audiences in Chicago’s Loop,” examining the clash of community, entertainment and business interests in Chicago. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Slaughterhouse: Chicago’s Union Stock Yard and the World It Made” by Dominic A. Pacyga

History, Nonfiction No Comments »


“Roses are red, violets are blue, the stockyards stink and so do you!” begins Dominic Pacyga’s account of Chicago’s Union Stock Yard. At the stockyard’s zenith, fifty-thousand people were employed there and in the adjacent Packingtown just south of Bridgeport. Pacyga, a historian whose Polish grandparents lived in Back of the Yards and worked in the meatpacking industry, weaves together a deft social, ethnic, business and labor history and story of the place. “The Stockyards were Chicago,” he says.

The Union Stock Yard represented modern capitalism and the industrial factory system applied to food for the first time. Companies such as Swift and Armour centralized and unified meat markets in the nation. Previously it took almost a day to butcher a steer, but Chicago’s packinghouses took only thirty-five minutes. The spectacle of killing and processing thousands of animals each day drew 50,000 tourists each year, from around the United States and around the world. Politicians included it on their campaign trails. Rudyard Kipling wrote, “They were so excessively alive, these pigs. And then they were so excessively dead, and the man in the dripping, clammy, hot passage did not seem to care.” Read the rest of this entry »

Reassembling and Contextualizing the Past: “The Lost Landscape” of Joyce Carol Oates

Memoir No Comments »

Joyce_Carol_Oates 2By Amy Strauss Friedman

“Here is the paradox of the memoir: its retrospective vision, which is its strength, is also its weakness,” Joyce Carol Oates warns in her new book “The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age.” “The fact is–We have forgotten most of our lives. All of our landscapes are soon lost in time.” With this challenge in mind, the prolific Oates works cautiously to reconstruct what is lost through the muddied nature of memoir, exploring her childhood on a farm in western New York and the ways in which her upbringing has shaped her writing life. In fact, this memoir is composed largely of reprinted essays written between 1986 and present day, indicating the discontinuous, cyclical nature of recall. “Our memories seem to lack the faculty for chronological continuity,” Oates correctly suggests. Read the rest of this entry »