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 »

Nonfiction Review: “American Savage” by Dan Savage

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RECOMMENDED AMERICAN-SAVAGE

If the only time you’ve encountered Dan Savage is through his Savage Love sex-advice column or podcast, you’re missing out. Savage has always been a gifted cultural critic and philosopher, a side of him that doesn’t get to fully shine through all the talk about butt plugs. Some of his best work has been for the public-radio program “This American Life,” and excerpts from a few of those pieces show up in his new essay collection “American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics.”

Particularly moving are Savage’s meditations about family—the death of his mother, his relationship with his father, how gay parents with a straight son interact with the world. The essay that ends the book, “Bigot Christmas,” about the time Savage invited Brian Brown, head of the National Organization for Marriage (a traditional marriage organization), over for dinner and debate, is both a remarkable scene and exposure of the other side. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and our Favorite Dinosaurs” By Brian Switek

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RECOMMENDED Brontosaurus

If you’ve ever wondered how a great dinosaur and a backyard hummingbird could be related, or dreamt of seeing a gangly pterodactyl fly, then Brian Switek’s “My Beloved Brontosaurus” is for you. A sometime researcher and National Geographic blogger with a T-Rex tattoo, Switek shares the latest news about these most well-studied of extinct creatures, peppering his humorous style with controversies that reveal many of our common dinosaur beliefs to be totally wrong.

“My Beloved Brontosaurus” is a rich hybrid of science, memory and travel writing that makes a love song to the forgotten and hidden. Drawing on journal articles, social media discussions, conventional reporting and personal road quests, Switek takes us to the quirky edge of discovery, both about prehistory and ourselves.  “I was once a dinosaur,” he writes, as he stumbles across a dinosaur toe in the Utah badlands and shares an inside joke with an illustrator at a conference presentation. Throughout, Switek channels a childhood dinosaur obsession into a moving meditation on life and death. Read the rest of this entry »

Breaking Ground Again: The Second Resurrection of Samuel Delany

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By Greg Baldino Delany_encyc

There was a time when experimental science fiction could sell a million copies. It helped that at the time science fiction (having acquired a reputation just slightly better than that of pornography) was sold in cheap mass-market paperbacks off the spinning wire racks of grocery stores, pharmacies, newsstands and who knows where else. They were readily accessible and reasonably inexpensive; and though genre fiction might still have been seen as declassé by some, a slim paperback was easily concealed in a jacket pocket, or cradled in concealing hands on the morning commute.

The market changed, everything changed, and now you can no longer walk into a 7-Eleven and pick up a Samuel Delany novel for pocket change. Despite this, his work is both still relevant and celebrated. His groundbreaking science-fiction novel “Dhalgren” remains in print and was adapted for the stage in 2010. Authors from Neil Gaiman to Junot Diaz have cited him as an influence and inspiration. Delany spent two decades away from the genre that launched his literary reputation, but returned to science fiction last year with his novel “Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders,” which Roger Bellin of the Los Angeles Review of Books called “a book worthy of his career full of masterpieces—and a book that no one else could have written.” As philosophic as it is pornographic, the book chronicles the life of two gay men who, meeting in their late teens in 2007, forge an open and committed relationship that spans sixty-to-seventy years into the future. It is the first time a newly published Delany book has sat on the SF shelves since Knopf-Doubleday reprinted five volumes of his science fiction in stylish trade paperbacks back in the early 2000s. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “American Honor Killings: Desire and Rage Among Men” by David McConnell

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RECOMMENDEDAmericanHonorKillings-330

One of the many awful aftershocks of a violent incident like the Boston Marathon bombings is the tendency of public figures to say terrible things while trying to make sense of what happened and why. Among the unproductive statements made recently, unfortunately by quite a few well-meaning people, is an idea that “there’s no explanation for what happened.” Sure, I will grant that there’s no justification. But “there’s no explanation” indicates that we just don’t want to understand. This is an understandable, but regrettable, impulse. It is  an impulse closely related to the constitutive element of hatred: the refusal to understand. When we refuse to understand, we turn the object of our misunderstanding into a potential object of hatred. We must recognize that there are explanations. They may be illegitimate, awful and evil but there are explanations.

In “American Honor Killings: Desire and Rage Among Men,” David McConnell presents a thoughtful and well researched, if uneven, alternative to the silence impulse. He writes about violence perpetrated by men against men who are either gay or perceived to be gay—mostly what could be referred to as “hate crimes” (a label McConnell discards: “admitting ‘hate crimes’ looks like criminalizing motive, and that looks like criminalizing thought”). Instead, “I settled on the exotic-sounding words ‘honor killings’ in the book title, because, incredibly, that’s what these crimes resemble.” It’s a good observation. The murders he describes are all revenge killings for perceived violations of normative, heterosexual masculinity. Like other murders we call honor killings, the motivations for these murders clearly fall on the dark end of a spectrum of human values. They are twisted understandings of honor and pride, but their relation to what we, the normal, would call honor and pride, are what make them both repulsive and fascinating. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal” by Mary Roach

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gulpRECOMMENDED

Acclaimed science writer Mary Roach fell in love with human anatomy in her fifth-grade science class when Mrs. Claflin introduced her to a “headless, limbless modeled plastic-torso,” and got her hands on model organs that “fit together like puzzle pieces, tidy as wares in a butcher’s glass case.” This introduction, along with the findings from a 1968 study on humans’ intolerance to bacteria-ridden food and an evident personal curiosity for the scientific taboo help lead to “Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal,” Roach’s latest book.

Roach’s witty and conversational voice allows “Gulp” to read like a novel rather than a science book. Instead of being taught about our digestive system we are told about it. And, for anyone who’s ever flunked an exam on the periodic table or failed to locate the pancreas of a dissected frog, there’s a huge difference. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “This is Running For Your Life” by Michelle Orange

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thisisrunningyourlifeRECOMMENDED

Canadian-born writer/film critic/pop-cultural savant Michelle Orange launches “This Is Running for Your Life” with a meditation on youth and taste and nostalgia (also, Ethan Hawke’s face). She then moves on to a close reading of the Hollywood dream girl, Marilyn Monroe through manic pixie, an essay on her grandmother’s life and death, collected observations on the city of Beirut. She writes about photography, about brain-imaging, about San Diego and Hawai’i and Halifax. The result is a collection that’s original and engaging and weird and very, very smart.

Each essay is a kind of narrative patchwork, with disparate pieces assembled and artfully laid out for consideration. “War and Well-Being, 21° 19’N., 157° 52’W,” for example—arguably the centerpiece of the collection—considers the experience of being in Hawai’i, the state of modern psychiatry, shopping, World War II and the DSM-IV. The product falls somewhere between long-form journalism and collage: sprawling and brilliant and offering the illusion that only the best craftsmanship can—that you’ve crawled inside Orange’s mind, which happens to be gorgeous and funny and a marked improvement on your own. Read the rest of this entry »