Writing What? Essaying Megan Stielstra, Essayist of “Once I Was Cool”

Author Profiles, Chicago Authors, Essays, Memoir 1 Comment »

megan stielstra

By Liz Baudler

Megan Stielstra’s writing career is forever changing. She tells me this as we sit on couches in the office space for her new nine-to-five job, and it looks like a sushi bar, all square lines and pale stripes of wood and white blocks. The walls are whiteboards and she can’t wait to take a marker to them.

Stielstra’s writing career has never been about the best-selling novel she hoped to write. It took shape as she scrubbed floors in Florence and read a lot. When she went to Columbia College, she walked out of her first class feeling like she had smoked everything there was to smoke, so high was she from the excitement of writing.

The writing career detoured when a trusted professor asked her if she’d ever thought about teaching. Yet she can’t stand in front of a classroom without writing, or else she’d violate some incredible trust with her students. It still amazes her that they trust her with first drafts: she would balk at handing over hers like that. Read the rest of this entry »

A Mockingbird Sings? A Conversation with Marja Mills about her Controversial Memoir of Her Onetime Neighbor, Harper Lee

Author Profiles, Memoir No Comments »

marja_millsBy June Sawyers

In 2001, reporter Marja Mills met up with Harper Lee, or Nelle, as she is known, and her older sister Alice Lee, in Monroeville, Alabama, while on assignment for the Chicago Tribune after the Chicago Public Library had chosen Lee’s classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” as its One Book, One Chicago selection. Mills went back and forth to Alabama—and in 2004, she even moved next door to the sisters—and struck up a friendship with the two women. The story of the unusual camaraderie is the topic of Mills’ fascinating, touching and, it must be said, respectful, memoir, “The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee.” In the following email conversation, Mills recalls the first time she read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which is set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, as well as the recent controversy over Lee’s very public disavowal of the memoir.

Do you remember the first time you read “To Kill a Mockingbird”? And your reaction to it?
Yes. I was in the West High Library in Madison, Wisconsin. I felt as if I were in Maycomb, Alabama, walking those dusty, red clay roads. Harper Lee drew that world so vividly. It was transporting.

Can you say a bit more about how you were feeling when Alice Lee invited you into the house for the first time? You indicate you were surprised, thrilled and even a bit regretful. Is there anything else that you care to add? 
She was so gracious, and here I had made this petite woman with the walker and raspy voice get up and answer the door. I kept telling myself to remember every detail of every room, because I wouldn’t be there again. But she seemed to enjoy the conversation, as did I, and it became the first of many. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “The Other Side” by Lacy M. Johnson

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RECOMMENDED theotherside

Lacy M. Johnson’s new memoir “The Other Side” tragically details her experience of getting kidnapped and raped by her former boyfriend. Nothing about this is necessarily strange—Johnson isn’t the first to write a memoir in order to render a personal trauma. What is strange about “The Other Side” is that despite its difficult subject matter, it is pleasurable to read. Johnson isn’t a victim of a crime who has become a writer in order to work through the physiological repercussions of that crime, but rather, she is a writer first and has the powers to render these events in a virtuosic prose that is simultaneously horrifying and admirable.

The book opens just as Johnson is escaping a soundproof room where she was raped and slated to be murdered. From there Johnson’s narrative is in constant nonlinear motion, racing back and forth between self-confessed naiveté and hard-fought empowerment. Although most of what is contained in “The Other Side” is reflected off of the crime at its center, Johnson is smart enough to use this horrific event to reach for higher truths and new epiphanies. What her audience is left with is a powerful, but often quiet, meditation on memory as it pertains to the physical body. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking” by Jordan Ellenberg

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RECOMMENDED hownottobewrong

Jordan Ellenberg starts off his mathematics paean by invoking, of all things, sports. Much like math, it’s not as bad as it sounds. Not everyone’s going to be a professional soccer player, he says, but pickup players and World Cup defenders use the same skills. So is it with math. It’s more than just the passing drills of multiplication tables and quadratic formulas. “How Not To Be Wrong” is the logical continuation of Ellenberg’s classroom teaching, and Slate’s “Do The Math” column. For years he’s been working to inspire not just math literacy, but respect and wonder too.

The stories Ellenberg tells—and he is a storyteller—refuse to insult his reader’s intelligence. Whether it’s the bullet-riddled planes coming back from the front or the dead salmon that seem to show a thought process in an MRI, things are not always what they seem. To the mathematician, math is a curious process of assumption and provocation. “How Not To Be Wrong” is part exposé—concepts most of us are never privy to are explained along with obvious surprises we just need to hear over again. (Numbers are fudged, findings inconclusive. If we had a logically mathematical voting system, we’d have elected President Gore.) A truly gifted professor, Ellenberg includes diagrams, proofs and poetry to illustrate his points. His utility has been clearly maximized by the telling of mathematical yarns. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “The Animals: Love Letters Between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy,” edited by Katherine Bucknell

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theanimals

RECOMMENDED

The most enlightening part of “The Animals” is the introduction. Without it, there would be simply no way to tell what letters Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy had exchanged in times of strife. Isherwood and Bachardy are among the most eminent of historic gay couples: right up there with Stein and Toklas. Isherwood—famous for writing the stories that formed the basis of “Cabaret!” and the novella “A Single Man”—spied a barely legal Bachardy, who would become a portrait sketcher to the stars, on Valentine’s Day in 1953.

“The Animals,” which collects a large sum of the letters the two sent each other, starts three years into their relationship, and soon the lover’s lexicon creeps in. The middle-aged Isherwood is Drubbin, an old wise horse perpetually one trot away from the glue factory, while the frisky young Bachardy plays a snow-white Kitten longing for Drub’s cuddles. As they transcribe their sweet nothings, their hands become paws or hooves, their domiciles baskets or stables.

Aside from each letter’s rather fulsome beginnings and endings, theirs is a pragmatic, chatty love of the day-to-day. It’s odd to discover that Bachardy and Isherwood have similar voices. Both are quick to cut down a boring dinner companion. There are digressions about unpaid bills or slow mail. Theirs is a world of rented apartments, trips to England and notable names: Cecil Beaton, W.H Auden, Glenn Ford. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists” by Hillary Chute

Chicago Authors, Comics/Graphic Novels/Cartoonists, Nonfiction No Comments »

RECOMMENDED outsidethebox

As the medium of comics continues to grow in both artistic legitimacy and creative diversity, the question arises of how we will handle an inclusive definition of such an eclectic collection of forms. Does an open and encompassing parameter for graphic narrative allow us to recognize works such as Jim Davis’ Garfield strips and the latest run of Marvel’s X-Force series as using the same language, albeit for entirely different purposes and audiences? Can the same terms we use to discuss Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel “From Hell” work for examining Theodor Geisel’s propaganda cartoons?

It’s because of these questions that University of Chicago professor Hillary Chute is becoming such a valuable voice in the suddenly-no-longer-ironic field of comics scholarship. “Outside the Box” is her third book on comics, following “Graphic Women” and her collaborative work with Art Spiegelman on “MetaMaus.” Chute is such a unique voice largely because she never read comics until well into her graduate school studies, where she experienced Spiegelman’s “Maus” and was immediately taken by it.

As a result, her passion for the medium comes not from any nostalgia but from a scholarly appreciation and understanding. Read the rest of this entry »

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

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RECOMMENDEDSOMETHING-COVER-FRONT

“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 »