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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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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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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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 »

Nonfiction Review: “Traveling Heavy: A Memoir In Between Journeys” by Ruth Behar

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You may have never been accused of giving the evil eye to a baby in Mexico or learned the importance of packing toilet paper and Tupperware in a suitcase for your trip to Cuba, but Ruth Behar has. An award-winning cultural anthropologist, Ruth has traveled the world to study other people and in this memoir, takes the time to study herself. “Traveling Heavy” is a memoir that unfolds like a trip to another country, where we are dropped in the unique world of Ruth Behar, a Yiddish-Sephardic-Cuban immigrant who has spent her life traveling in order to find her own sense of home and belonging.

Behar’s life is marked by her travels, so it’s appropriate that she starts her memoir the way all journeys begin: by packing. The beginning essay is of Behar taking stock of her life as she prepares to fly out on her next trip. She makes sure she has two pieces of jewelry with her: a Turkish evil-eye bracelet to celebrate her Jewish roots, and a necklace from a Santeria ceremony in Cuba, which represents her homeland. When Behar prepares to make her way to the airport, she double-checks she has her house keys, a reminder of a Sephardic-Jewish legend of when the Jews were driven out of Spain and they kept the keys to their home in hopes of returning someday. Read the rest of this entry »

Beauty and Thought: Dan Beachy-Quick on “Wonderful Investigations”

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dan-beachy-quickBy Micah McCrary

His author’s bio reads: “Dan Beachy-Quick is the author of five books of poems, most recently ‘Circle’s Apprentice.’ ‘A Whaler’s Dictionary,’ his celebrated collection of meditations on Melville’s ‘Moby-Dick,’ appeared from Milkweed Editions in 2008. Beachy-Quick teaches at Colorado State University, and lives in Fort Collins.” The Chicago-born Beachy-Quick, most recently the author of “Wonderful Investigations,” is an author willing to scrutinize his interests—both academic and aesthetic—in a way that many writers of nonfiction seem afraid to try.

Beachy-Quick spoke about his “Wonderful Investigations”—about his willingness to look deeper and closer and further into the things that make him want to read and write. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “After Visiting Friends: A Son’s Story” by Michael Hainey

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GQ deputy editor Michael Hainey, Chicago-raised and educated, is known to friends and professionals as a very good guy in a glamorous, sometimes cutthroat field. For years Hainey has helped run the show at one of the hottest men’s magazines in America, all the while keeping a dark family secret dating to his childhood and the heights of Chicago journalism. In “After Visiting Friends” Hainey finally turns his reporting skills to the riveting mystery of his news-editor father’s untimely death. Chicago Sun Times newsman Bob Hainey was found inexplicably DOA in the middle of the night on a North Side Chicago street in April 1970, when his youngest son was only six years old. But the details did not add up.

The younger Hainey pressed his mother for more about the tragedy that left a haunted, silent family. None came, either from her or Uncle Dick, the feared Chicago Today executive editor, who first telephoned his mother of the death. As the son rose in his own career, he strove to match the absent father’s reputation, dreaming of him, pondering the conflicting obituaries and seeking answers. In a magnetic style reminiscent of Capote and Elmore Leonard, Hainey details what he found next. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Heroines” by Kate Zambreno

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The word to describe “Heroines” is “chameleonic.”  You know there’s a book in your field of vision, you hold its spine in your hands and caress the pages. But just as the eponymous lizard disguises itself to blend into the patterns of tree bark and rock face, so too does Kate Zambreno’s first volume of nonfiction masquerade in a number of patterns and motifs. The author of the novels “Green Girl” and “O Fallen Angel” began the work that became “Heroines” in 2009 as the blog “Frances Farmer is My Sister,” drawing together parallels between her own lives as a writer, a woman, and a woman writer. “Heroines” then falls into the newly burgeoning tradition of literary-history-as-memoir, joining such recent texts as Alison Bechdel’s “Are You My Mother?” and Grant Morrison’s “Supergods.” (The chameleon shifts, climbs down from the exposed tree root and sets foot on a slab of cracked dirty granite.)

Or it didn’t. Now it’s a work of literary analysis and historiography tracking down the shadow lives of Jean Rhys and Zelda Fitzgerald in the pages of Stop Smiling magazine and the Rain Taxi Review. (The movement of the tail gives it away as it slides into the apple-green grass.) Read the rest of this entry »