Nonfiction Review: “Two” by Melissa Ann Pinney

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two

RECOMMENDED

“Two” is a compelling book of photographs by Evanston photographer Melissa Ann Pinney. Edited and introduced by Ann Patchett, interspersed throughout are ten essays on the theme of twoness written by some of our best contemporary writers, including Barbara Kingsolver, Edwidge Danticat and Richard Russo. Read the rest of this entry »

Memory and Guilt: Ryan Spooner Talks About his Essay Collection “Regret”

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By Toni NealieRyan Spooner

A young man argues about how to make a martini. It’s a performance, both in the bar and on the page. The man’s friend says, “Look at yourself. Look at how you’re acting.” So the writer does, commenting: “Young people have a flair for, a tendency toward the tumultuous.” In “Regret,” his first prose collection, Ryan Spooner examines ideas about selfhood, social class and masculinity, the male gaze and the tumult of becoming adult. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948 by Noah Berlatsky

Chicago Authors, Comics/Graphic Novels/Cartoonists, Essays, History No Comments »

wonder womanRECOMMENDED

The reason I know a smidgen about comics: I hang out with a lot of geeks. Feminist, sex-positive, queer-friendly geeks. They told me the backstory of Wonder Woman’s creator, William Marston, radical psychologist and happy polyamorist. Jill Lepore explored Marston’s home life in “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” but Chicago-based culture and comics writer Noah Berlatsky took a deep dive into the marriage of psychology and artwork that is Marston’s enduring pop culture impact.

Even comics skeptics find Wonder Woman unique and titillating. As Berlatsky rightly points out, she’s been a feminist icon for decades, and among certain circles, a kinky queer one. (Lasso of truth? Ladies-only island? Hmm…) Berlatsky illuminates how Wonder Woman—of World War II inception—nods at that era’s values yet still espoused female superiority and pacifism, slyly winked at lesbianism and even may have stood traditional rape and incest narratives on its head. He also focuses appropriately on the artist, Harry Peter, as well as Marston, and shows how even Peter’s idiosyncratic perspective and anatomy bolster the argument that the series was ahead of its time. 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 »

How Pain Defines and Defies Us: Leslie Jamison Discusses “The Empathy Exams”

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Leslie Jamison

Photo: John Freeman

By John Freeman

Newspapers may be dying, our publishing industry is at war with Amazon, but a bright spot remains in U.S. letters: the literary essay. In the past decade, writers known for other books and other work have begun working in the form that gave birth to the New Yorker.

These new essayists—from John Jeremiah Sullivan to Elif Batuman, Aleksandar Hemon and Daniel Alarcon—don’t come from the same boys club as the writers of the last heyday of the essay. They are unglossy, smart, deeply stylish and, with her debut collection of essays, “The Empathy Exams,” Leslie Jamison proves she will probably write her way into their company.

Jamison is hardly an underdog. She grew up in Los Angeles, the daughter of a prominent economist, niece to the psychotherapist Kay Redfield Jamison. She attended Harvard and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is currently studying for a Ph.D. at Yale. Her debut novel, “The Gin Closet,” the tale of three generations of women and their tortured family history, received high praise when it appeared in 2010.

And yet it did not prepare readers for “The Empathy Exams.” Written over a period of many years, the book examines how pain both defines and defies us, and meditates on its role in empathy. The title essay recalls a period that Jamison spent as a medical actor, faking ailments in scenarios meant to test doctors of their diagnostic skills and their ability to demonstrate empathy. “Empathy isn’t just listening,” Jamison writes, “it’s asking the questions that need to be listened to.” Read the rest of this entry »

Critical Force: Make Way for Roxane Gay and Her “Bad Feminist” Self

Author Profiles, Chicago Authors, Debut Novel or Collection, Essays No Comments »

roxanegayBy Amy Beth Danzer

It was this year’s AWP Conference in Seattle when I first came in contact with the tour de force that is Roxane Gay. After an evening of readings, publishing-house parties and general carousing, a crew of us found ourselves in the lobby of one of the main hotels hosting the conference, where the likes of Tobias Wolff or Richard Bausch could be spotted waiting for an elevator. As we made our way toward the hotel bar, my friend Adrienne stopped and gasped, “Oh my god, that’s Roxane Gay! I love her.” There she was in unassuming jeans and t-shirt, the ubiquitous culture critic who Flavorwire declared one of 25 Women Poised to Lead the Culture in 2014, Roxane Gay. I knew about her, but was not yet intimate with her work. Adrienne on the other hand was a confirmed admirer and devoted follower. As soon as an opportunity arose, she jumped at the chance to discuss with Gay the very important matter of Juan Pablo Galavis, the then-new Bachelor, and his romantic interests, Ferrell and Crawley. Though not a fan of the show myself, I was thoroughly entertained by the conversation and thoroughly impressed by Gay, who was clearly an intellectual, informed and sophisticated, yet still able to speak vox populi—a combination I dig in people, especially in writers. I needed more of a fix, which was all too easy to satisfy; she and her work are everywhere. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

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: “Meaty” by Samantha Irby

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meatyRECOMMENDED

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 »

The Place We Call Home: Examining Public Housing in “High Rise Stories”

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By Erin Nederbo highrise

Growing up on Chicago’s Northwest Side in the 1990s, I heard plenty of stories about the city’s projects. The tales were passed down like a game of telephone, the storyteller and audience never really knowing what was fact and what was fiction. My mom told me about former Chicago mayor Jane Byrne’s brief and failed attempt to combat gang violence by moving into Cabrini Green. How the mayor slept under a mosquito net to keep the cockroaches from crawling into her bed. My grandma recalled days long gone, when one or two of her Irish and Italian friends called Cabrini Green home. My dad, who had worked in the Cabrini neighborhood and checked the pipes in one of the high rises, said he remembered the cockroaches the most. “They were at the doorstep, before you even stepped inside the building,” he said. That and the neighborhood convenient stores sold year-old expired baby formula.

For better or worse, Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, and what that often means is that residents don’t leave the eight-block radius that surrounds their home. This was the case for me as well as for many of the project residents interviewed in “High Rise Stories,” a collection of eleven first-person narrative accounts about residing in Chicago’s public housing system, from McSweeney’s Voice of Witness series, edited by Audrey Petty. Read the rest of this entry »