Nonfiction Review: Something Wrong with Her: A Real-Time Memoir by Cris Mazza

Book Reviews, Chicago Authors, Memoir, Nonfiction No Comments »


“Something Wrong with Her” is an arresting chronicle of the personal consequences of an artist’s sexual dysfunction, caused by a medical condition called a weak pelvic floor. The condition can be treated with physical therapy but in Mazza’s case it remained undiagnosed for decades, deepening the isolation of a gifted author trying to understand why she feels pain when others feel pleasure. That this happened during a sexual revolution of the 1970s and eighties only adds to her self-doubt.

Many narrative levels operate in the book. Striking journals of unhappy relations with men are grafted onto a memoir that is being critiqued by the author’s writing group. Arranged “like the barbs on an arrow” are quotes from Mazza’s numerous published stories and novels, her personal emails, dream logs and high-school yearbook inscriptions. The emails are with a tenor saxophonist friend addressed as “MarkR,” who has a lifelong crush on her. Both experience failed marriages while brooding on the past. Interspersed are useful mantras on creative writing, all this arranged as a jazz fake book, a loose-leaf that musicians used to carry to club dates and wedding gigs. Read the rest of this entry »

The Last Frontier: On Ben Tarnoff’s “The Bohemians”

History, Nonfiction No Comments »

thebohemiansBy June Sawyers

When Mark Twain arrived during the waning days of the Gold Rush, San Francisco may have been a frontier city on the rough edge of American life, but it was also fast becoming a literary town with a strong bohemian flavor.

For Twain, it was love at first sight: the Missourian was smitten by the city as soon as he set eyes on it. He loved its rowdy atmosphere, its unpredictability, the feeling that anything could happen here. Twain (still using his given name Samuel Clemens) arrived in San Francisco in 1863, while the Civil War was still raging. Although only twenty-seven, he had already lived a life full of adventure, from piloting steamboats on the mighty Mississippi to wandering through Missouri with Confederate guerrillas.

Twain is one of the four Bohemians in this compelling group portrait by writer Ben Tarnoff. Twain is the best known member by far, but the true leader of the faction, the true literary spokesman of bohemian San Francisco, was Bret Harte, a shy, soft-spoken dandy originally from Albany, New York. The other Bohemians were two now largely obscure figures, author and editor Charles Warren Stoddard and poet Ina Coolbrith. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Blood Will Out” by Walter Kirn

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RECOMMENDED BloodWillOut_r3.indd

Some truths, if fictionalized, just wouldn’t be believable. Walter Kirn’s memoir “Blood Will Out” is of that ilk. Quirky characters abound, none quirkier than the book’s subject, Clark Rockefeller himself. But quirky oozes into sinister and downright evil quickly. Clark Rockefeller is no Rockefeller. He’s Christian Gerhartsreiter, German national and con man extraordinaire (but let’s call him Rockefeller; that’s what he likes to be called). Clark’s fairly unbelievable himself. His grandiose lies—he has the keys to Rockefeller Center, he owns a jet propulsion lab and is close personal friends with J.D Salinger—appear remotely possible to Kirn. The rich are different, they say. But when the effusive yet enigmatic gentleman kidnaps his own daughter, his cover is blown, and even more chillingly, he’s linked to an unsolved eighties murder.

Kirn jumps around in time, interviewing friends of the murdered man, recounting his dinners with Clark, and attending Rockefeller’s trial, where the man acts as if Kirn didn’t even exist. This isn’t an investigation into psychopathy; it’s an appraisal of a relationship. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “The Jesus Lizard Book” by The Jesus Lizard

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RECOMMENDED jesuslizard

David Yow has finally managed to crowd surf his way to coffee tables everywhere. Here is a book whose unwieldy shape demands it be splayed across a flat surface, or pile-driven through it, in veneration of a band whose jump to a major record label actually saw them sell less albums. To the brave souls who bookended that legacy with an actual book, one is astonished by its physicality, somehow both ordinary and extreme.

This is the tale of the Jesus Lizard, just a regular rock group who managed to take the four-fold ingredients (bass, drums, guitar, vocals) endemic to the genre and exploit their banality with an alchemy that both alienates and entices. Removed from the sweaty setting of concert halls worldwide, split from the speakers that siren their songs, the reader is pushed to consider the band on abstract terms between bounties of anecdotal praise from music industry veterans of every stripe. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “You Feel So Mortal” by Peggy Shinner

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RECOMMENDED 9780226105277

Peggy Shinner’s new collection, “You Feel So Mortal,” is about the intersection of the body and identity, both crafted by ourselves and forced upon us. In an essay titled “Elective,” Shinner takes on the issue of Jewish identity through stereotype with the nose job she had at sixteen to make it “prettier, more proportional, more marriageable…more, but not too, Gentile.” She reflects that the procedure keeps a coworker from immediately recognizing her ancestry, but similar surgeries weren’t enough to save some Jews from the Holocaust. She writes, “the stakes are high when it comes to the body.”

Shinner jumps deftly between the personal and the academic. Multiple essays begin with personal experiences to introduce a researched topic. In “Leopold and Shinner,” she uses her discovery of a letter from a post-prison Nathan Leopold addressed to her mother as an opportunity to discuss the larger cultural phenomena of ordinary people writing to him in prison. She quotes from archived letters to him, cites the pseudoscientific reports that newspapers published to demonize him and Loeb, and even explicates the implications of the word “degenerate.” It risks coming off as miscellanea, but Shinner always returns to the personal. Read the rest of this entry »

The Oddest of Couples: Nancy Horan on Robert Louis and Fanny Stevenson

Biography, Book Reviews, Nonfiction No Comments »

underthewidestarryskyBy June Sawyers

Gypsy, vagabond, nomad, bohemian dandy, consummate storyteller. Robert Louis Stevenson was all of these, and more. He is both familiar and yet strangely unfamiliar. We may recognize the name but who was the person behind the famous moniker? Even the most casual reader knows that he is the author of such literary classics as “Treasure Island,” “Kidnapped” and, most famously, “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Unlike other iconic literary figures of the nineteenth century though—Poe, Dickens, Wilde, to name a few—Stevenson, for many, remains a cipher.

Before she started researching her new novel, “Under the Wide and Starry Sky,” Nancy Horan didn’t know much about him either. “I probably read ‘Jekyll and Hyde,’ ‘Treasure Island,’ and ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’ in high school, possibly ‘Kidnapped,’” she told me. “That was about it. I thought of him as a boy’s adventure writer.” Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Little Failure: A Memoir” by Gary Shteyngart

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RECOMMENDED garyshteyngartlittlefailure

Gary Shteyngart has cornered the market on the fairly useless modern invention: the book trailer. Along with his famous lil’ buddy, James Franco, he’s managed to go viral more than once. He was one of the first authors to popularize the book trailer for “Super Sad True Love Story,” also featuring Franco, with Shteyngart as an immigrant writer who could barely read or write English. The trailer for his memoir, “Little Failure,” features Franco and Shteyngart as a couple in pink bathrobes, where Franco overshadows his lover with his own recent memoir, “Fifty Shades of Gary.” Aside from yet another opportunity for Franco to play Is He or Isn’t He? the trailer really does showcase the humor contained in “Little Failure,” but what it doesn’t hint at is the quite serious approach he takes to examining his own role as a male Russian immigrant to New Jersey and how that has informed his writing and his development as a person.

Shteyngart excels when he steps back to examine the cultural and familial pressure he’s under to succeed. The book is filled with some frankly stunning images of the artist as a child, with all the fear and anxiety written plainly on the younger version of the face we know from those book trailers. In one rather bizarre image, he’s climbing what appears to be an indoor jungle gymit turns out his father built a ladder in the living room for him to conquer his fear of heights, and he was encouraged to climb a bit higher every day. He writes about the casual violence he suffers as a child at the hands of his parents, swift blows to the head and neck, the sort of thing that goads him through his teens and adulthood. He never names the relationship he had with his parents as abusive, but calling out his parents for their behavior drives most of the book. “Little Failure,” for example, is a pet name his mother called him, translated from the Russian. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking” by Olivia Laing

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RECOMMENDED triptoechospring

Reading “The Sun Also Rises” at age twelve, I counted the cocktails and the beers and the absinthes and realized Hemingway had a problem. Around that same age, Olivia Laing woke up to her mother’s alcoholic partner screaming and shortly found herself barricaded with the rest of her family in a bedroom. Like the rest of the world, I turned my experience into a punch line involving writers and alcohol, but Laing alchemized her brush with darkness into a book. “The Trip to Echo Spring” is an examination of some of America’s best writers and notorious alcoholics, a subject that ordinarily exemplifies cliché. But Laing’s dazzling prose and fervent dedication banish the vultures of cliché from circling in a work of literary analysis that should thrill the curious amateur and delight the picky scholar.

Take the title, from a line from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” where Brick refers to a liquor cabinet and its contents. Laing dissects all the levels on which “the trip to echo spring” works as a metaphor, but the sheer fact that she highlights it as a metaphor already bodes well for the book’s originality, even if the subjects are familiar ones. Tennessee Williams, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Cheever, Carver and Berryman (Laing apologizes for not including women writers, feeling that would hit a little close to home) are the subjects of a meandering pilgrimage the British writer takes through America to see their places of inspiration: New York, New Orleans, Key West, Chicago, Washington State. It’s a journey only the keenest of fans would take, the sheer stretch of land insurmountable. And with the writers chosen, the catalogue might as well be too. Laing, though, picks the works of her muses delicately. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the March Up Freedom’s Highway” by Greg Kot

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mavisstaplesOn the radio, Greg Kot is a congenial guy. WBEZ, after all, is not a station dedicated to music programming, and this fact forces “Sound Opinions” to extend their reach beyond music fans, something Kot and co-host Jim DeRogatis accomplish with expertise, luring in listeners more likely to stay tuned for talk radio than to turn the dial in search of actual songs. In print, this broadening approach backfires, as Kot has the uncanny ability to evaporate behind his prose, a skill both enviable and alienating, offering the author a backseat ride through his own book.

The occasions that call for critical analysis are many in “I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the March Up Freedom’s Highway,” though Kot seldom takes advantage. The Staple Singers were a remarkable gospel group who transitioned into mainstream fame during an era when they were confronted by both religious and racial orthodoxy; yet life events that call for greater reflection in the wake of this context, the suicide of young Cynthia Staples for instance, or Mavis’ divorce, receive no such treatment. How is it possible for the gem of gospel groups to endure sacrilege? The question is left unasked. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Meaty” by Samantha Irby

Chicago Authors, Essays No Comments »


A lot of “Meaty”’s reviews can be summed up this way: “lol omg this girl is talking about how she craps her pants she’s so awesome.” Reading reviews like this, one gets the idea that all Samantha Irby talks about is shit. This is very off-putting if one does not want to read about shit. And it’s very unfair to this slim essay collection, reducing it to a defecation bonanza. So perhaps it’s a good thing Newcity is late to the reviewing feast upon “Meaty.”

Most people would be annoyed, eyebrows raised, a knowing smirk, if upon meeting someone for the first time, they mentioned within five minutes that they wanted a MacBook Pro, they vomited on the train three times in the past eight months, and they needed some more friends. For some reason—her utter lack of guile, perhaps—Irby comes off as charming rather than spoiled or demanding. And eventually, the reason for this tone’s revealed. A girl who grew up taking care of an invalid mother, who accepted her lack of good looks at an early age, who liked hanging out with the moms at parties, who never had anyone to show her how to balance a checkbook: this girl cannot be spoiled. It’s just not possible. At the risk of armchair psychology, her past might be why Irby is so into spoiling herself.  Read the rest of this entry »