Review: “Where To? A Hack Memoir” by Dmitry Samarov

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I wish I’d had a taxi driver like Dmitry Samarov when I immigrated to Chicago. Our driver got lost on the way from O’Hare Airport, pulled over on a dark, midnight road by the Des Plaines River so we could check our map, then crashed through roadwork and over a bunch of orange traffic cones. Samarov seems a more careful driver, a meticulous observer of people and a sharp storyteller.

“Where To? A Hack Memoir” is a series of linked vignettes that are wry, hilarious and sometimes melancholic. Samarov, the immigrant “progeny of Soviet intelligentsia and an art school graduate,” describes the cab driver as a passing presence who sees the ugly, the beautiful and the inexplicable. Cab drivers are frequently immigrants, former professionals, now “forced back down to the bottom rung of the societal ladder.” They contend with a gritty city and ruthless cops. The bureaucracy is a time-sucking revenue collector, its authority figures despotic. Passengers are lovelorn, snowbound, disabled, drunk, sweet, amusing, obnoxious and sometimes famous. We glimpse it all. 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 »

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

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

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“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 »

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: “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: “Mother Daughter Me” by Katie Hafner

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Katie Hafner could have whined her way through this book. In her new memoir, “Mother Daughter Me,” she meets past parental estrangement head on when her aging mother moves in with her and her teenage daughter Zoe. That’s in addition to the anguish already suffered eight years earlier when her husband Matt dropped dead of a heart attack, leaving her a sudden single mother. Yet Hafner’s tone is never pitying or sappy. Nor does it stray into clinical. A better word for it would be “journalistic,” but the warm journalism of a profile, rather than a detached third-person account. It’s worth noting that the book slides seamlessly between present and past tense, a tool not just for clarity, but almost as a grammatical way of coping.

Hafner writes like she must elucidate the audience to a singular life, one filled with her mother’s loving German sometimes-boyfriend and father’s austere British wife, a sister who becomes a mother to Katie and then a pariah to the whole family. She does it with detail and even-handedness, writing of her mother’s alcoholism, “I believed then, as I do now, that my mother had no intention of being the agent of sorrow and hurt, that she was doing the best that she could, that she wanted to take care of her girls but got tripped up.” Another place this equanimity serves her well is when she discusses Zoe, who one moment is buying flowers for grandma and the next locking her in a bathroom during an underage drinking party. The only pitting of characters against each other is done by the characters themselves, not Hafner. Read the rest of this entry »

Necessary Means: “The Diary of Malcolm X” and the Fight for an American Legacy

Chicago Publishers, Memoir, News Etc. 1 Comment »
Photo: Marion S. Trikosko, 1964

Photo: Marion S. Trikosko, 1964

By Jeff Gilliland

On April 15, 1964, a passenger jet touched down in Cairo and a tall, lean black man stepped out into the glaring sun. His travel documents read “Malik El-Shabazz,” but to many of those who glimpsed their reflection in his horn-rimmed glasses that day, he was known by another name: Malcolm X. The famed black nationalist and civil rights leader was fresh off his contentious split with the Nation of Islam, which he had helped grow from a small religious sect headquartered in Chicago to a nationwide movement for economic and social empowerment. Now he was on his way to make the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that marks one of the five pillars of Islam. Though he may not have known it at the time, the voyage Malcolm began that day would profoundly alter his religious beliefs and racial philosophy—bringing him out of the shadow of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, and establishing a legacy that continues to this day. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living” by Nick Offerman

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RECOMMENDED  paddleyourowncanoe

He can fashion you a walnut cigar box with dovetail joints and white oak inlays but you can’t (figuratively) put into it what Nick Offerman is. The life story behind his success as the modern he-man personality, self-made woodworker, Chicago-hewn thespian and, of course, Ron Swanson on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” has been neatly packed into his new memoir-cum-MANifesto titled “Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living.” A hilarious walkabout full of the deadpan jackassery that we’ve come to expect from his famously mustached baconhole, this book reveals how one man’s journey led a corn-fed boy from Minooka, Illinois to become, among other heroic titles, the entertainer that People magazine named the Sexiest Man Alive 2012: Mustache Edition.

We know Offerman too easily as “Parks and Recreation”‘s leathery department director Ron Swanson, whose puffy-eyed, coal-miner stare and distaste for anything weaker than a rotary saw delightfully complements the character of comedic queen Amy Poehler. “Paddle Your Own Canoe” is here to convince us that there is more to the man than Swanson, that “despite some loose popular misconceptions, [he] did NOT in fact drop from [his] mother’s womb wielding a full moustache and a two-headed battle-axe.” Convinced we are. What follows are pages of tales, anecdotes, sketches, love poems, opinionated monologues and “well, I’ll be damned if that’s not spot on,” brilliant life advice that walk, or paddle, you through a biographical narrative teeming with tasteful vulgarity, self-deprecating hilarity and a most humble wisdom bordering on sage-like. Read the rest of this entry »