Things Fall Apart: Kathleen Rooney on Sexism, Politics and “O, Democracy!”

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By Brendan Tynan Buck

Kathleen Rooney’s fifth book cost her job as a senate aid for Dick Durbin. An essay in “For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs” mentioned a flirtation with her boss, the Chicago office district chief, and when that got back to Washington, she was fired. (He wasn’t.) Rooney’s recent novel “O, Democracy!” examines the firing of Colleen Dugan from the employment of “the Senior Senator of Illinois” during the climax of the 2008 election. Though based partly in autobiography, Rooney stresses it’s best to engage her book as standalone fiction. I recently had the opportunity to chat with Kathleen about structuring her novel, sexism in politics, and the presidential election of 2008.

How did your experience as a senate aid inform the creation of the novel?
Writing the book, I tried hard to use my experiences to create something that was definitely fiction, the reason being that I wanted events to be more interesting and logical than real events are. This is my first novel, even if it’s my seventh book. I’ve written memoir before, but I didn’t think that would be the best shape or form for the story that I wanted to tell. The separation between my actual self and my protagonist exists because I wanted to avoid the critique of self-absorbed navel gazing that memoirs often get. I wanted it to be a story that’s not just about one individual, but about a bigger system. Read the rest of this entry »

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

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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 »

Fiction Review: “A Better World” by Marcus Sakey

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ABetterWorldAfter all the time Marcus Sakey spent creating a stratified, believable world of gifted and normal races, all he intended to do was knock the blocks over. Pour the bucket of water on the sand castle.

Let’s back up. Last summer Sakey released the thriller “Brilliance,” where about one-percent of the population had strange talents, like the ability to anticipate body motion, count large numbers in seconds, or see computer code. “Brilliance” was a marvel of total immersion. The world felt fully explained and realized partly because almost every character the protagonist Nick Cooper (at the time a “gifted” government agent) encountered was dimensional. Every place fully drawn and realized.

“A Better World,” the sequel to “Brilliance” carries none of that over. For one thing, it likely wouldn’t stand alone if encountered first on a bookshelf. Compared to how thoroughly “Brilliance” delineated the systems we all encounter, “A Better World” just requires a lot of swallowing and accepting. Characters so pivotal and fascinating in “Brilliance,” like a financier gifted with supreme probability analysis, barely seem familiar here. The main characters—Cooper, his love interest Shannon, his ex-wife Natalie—don’t reveal any more of themselves. Read the rest of this entry »

Lit 50 2014: Who Really Books in Chicago

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Photo: Joe Mazza/BraveLux

When we began work on the 2012 version of Lit 50, there were some 200 published writers on our long list. This year, there were 437. As always, trimming the list to a mere fifty writers required a certain kind of agony (and a few sleepless nights), but we’re proud of the list we gathered here, and we feel it celebrates the wealth of talent and diversity of Chicago’s literary community.

Close followers of Lit 50 will know this year’s list celebrates writers across all forms: novelists, essayists, poets, graphic novelists, playwrights. Our call to local literary folk yielded a wealth of celebratory news: overseas teaching offers, sealed book deals, hard-earned fellowships and awards. It also introduced dozens of writers that were not already known to us. We’re proud that this year’s Lit 50 includes seventeen writers who are making their first appearance on this list, including Chris Abani, the Nigerian-born writer who escaped a death row sentence in 1991 and now teaches graduate students at Northwestern University. We’re thrilled to add Lindsay Hunter, Cristina Henriquez, and Kate Harding, women whose voices we’ve long admired and whose forthcoming books we’re impatient to read. We’re also eager to welcome a handful of poets, including Roger Reeves, Parneshia Jones, and Roger Bonair-Agard.  It’s our crazy hope that in 2016, the “short” list will have doubled once more. But someone’s going to have to bring us some whiskey. (Naomi Huffman)

Lit 50 was written by Liz Baudler, Brendan Buck, Brian Hieggelke, Alex Houston, Naomi Huffman, Megan Kirby, Micah McCrary and John Wilmes

All photos by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux on location at Spertus Institute/Venue SIX10
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A Writer of Place: Chicago Icon Stuart Dybek Returns With Not One, But Two Books at Once

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sdybekBy Brendan Buck

Stuart Dybek is a Chicago writer, through and through. He grew up on Chicago’s South side in the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods in the fifties and sixties, and holds graduate degrees from both the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Loyola University. He is the author of two collections of poetry, “Brass Knuckles,” published in 1979, and “Streets in their Own Ink,” from 2004. Dybek is best known for his contributions to the short story form. His collections include the “The Coast of Chicago” from 1990 and “I Sailed With Magellan,” from 2003. These collections and the stories within laid out new rules for the short story. Call it flash fiction, call it micro fiction, call it brevity. Dybek is a master.

When I called Dybek, he was in the middle of rewriting a piece for  Lucky Peach, the themed food and writing quarterly magazine. During our chat we discussed flash fiction, the importance of place in his work, and the two collections he has out this June, “Paper Lantern: Love Stories” and “Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Stories,” both published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Read the rest of this entry »

Comics Review: “Sex Criminals, Volume I TP: One Weird Trick” by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

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RECOMMENDED sex-criminals-vol-01-releases

It’s a story as old as civilization itself: A young woman who stops time when she has an orgasm meets a guy with the same thing. Brought together by the whims of circumstance, they fall for each other, and in the throes of a new relationship start robbing banks.

Think “Tristan and Isolde” filtered through Philip K. Dick and you’ve got half of the idea.

The other half is a smart and sex-positive take on the romantic comedy. Suzie (she’s the girl) acts as the narrator for the series, bringing the smutty shenanigans and the sci-fi to a personal level. What makes her and Jon (he’s the guy) so compelling as a romantic pair is the sheer amount of honesty between them. It’s downright refreshing to see adults talking so frankly and intimately about their sexual histories, not as an arousing enticement but as an intimate disclosure. Past partners, masturbatory habits, even musical preferences are shared between them and with us.

It’s a bold approach to sexual comedy, and some of the best work by Matt Fraction (he’s the writer). Largely known as a prominent writer for Marvel Comics, one of his strengths is playing around with multiple levels of plot and mood. He knows when to place a joke about fleshlights and when to spin out lines of near-poetry, as when Suzie describes her first experience with post-climax timelessness: “I was enveloped in silence and color.” Read the rest of this entry »

Translating Performance to Page: An Interview with Story Club Magazine’s Dana Norris

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By Naomi Huffman

photo: Evan Hanover

photo: Evan Hanover

When Dana Norris founded Story Club five years ago, it was an open mic reading and she was “just trying to figure out how to do this thing.” In the years since then, Story Club has launched monthly shows on Chicago’s South Side, and in Minneapolis and Boston. In February, she introduced Story Club Magazine, an online journal that publishes stories performed at reading series in cities across the country.

Just before Story Club Magazine’s second issue went live in early May, I had the pleasure of talking with Dana about Story Club’s success, the struggle of translating performance stories for print, and Chicago’s dynamic storytelling scene.

Tell me about Story Club Magazine.
I’ve been running Story Club for five years, where we’ve had all of these performers going up on stage and just killing it. But sometimes readers would just vanish as soon as the show was over, and I wouldn’t get a chance to tell them how good they were. So, I started doing an audience vote at the end of every show so I could publicly reward their boldness. Winning’s nice, but I also wanted to reward performers by publishing their stories on the Story Club website. We did that for a couple of years, and then started the Story Club South Side show, then Story Club Minneapolis, Story Club Boston. I wanted to publish great stories from those shows and from shows around the country. I wanted a central resource for live lit in print, video and audio so you don’t have to be in the room when a performance is happening to reap the benefits of the story. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Young God” by Katherine Faw Morris

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Regarding her brutal, minimalist masterpiece “Play It As It Lays,” Joan Didion has said that she wished “to write a novel so elliptical and fast that it would be over before you noticed it.” Many have mimicked this literary wind-knocking technique, but where others have produced accidental parodies, Katherine Faw Morris delivers a brass knuckled gut-punch with her debut novel “Young God,” a piece of pure, uncut psychobilly fiction. Writing with a narcotized numbness and rawboned brevity reminiscent of early Bret Easton Ellis, Morris follows the travails of Nikki, the most hardcore thirteen-year-old you’ll ever want to meet. After her mother’s death, she barely bats an eye before breaking into—and quickly dominating—the narcotics trade in her rural southern town, which is captained by her father.

This kind of bumpkins-behaving-badly premise might sound a tad familiar. Recently, America seems to have turned to backwaters, bayous, and trailer parks for entertainment fodder, gorging itself on books, shows, and movies spanning every strata of taste, from the high (“True Detective”), to the middle (“Hunger Games,” “District 9″), to the low (“Duck Dynasty”). But this is something different. Rather than merely riding the coattails of her best predecessors (or becoming borderline exploitative like the rest), Morris ups the ante. In her world, good is not pitted against evil. There’s not even moral ambiguity. Years of isolation, addiction and deprivation have obliterated bourgeois decency, and life is nasty, brutish and short unless you fight like hell for no one but yourself. Nikki is no Katniss Everdeen. She’s a new breed of heroine who reeks of authenticity. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “We Were Liars” by E. Lockhart

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In “We Were Liars,” Cadence Sinclair and her mother go to the Sinclair’s private island, just as they’ve been doing for years. Her mother’s sister, her grandfather, and her cousins converge on this private paradise, each family to their own manor house. The oldest cousins and a friend of the family, Gat, are best friends and are known as the Liars. The younger cousins are The Littles, not yet involved in the intrigue of teenagers. This summer is different from before because seventeen-year-old Cadence is recovering from a memory loss that occurred on the island two years ago. She woke up without her clothes, on the beach with a head-wound and no memory of what had happened. Since then she’s felt abandoned by her friends and at a loss with her stiff upper lip family.

Written by E. Lockhart, a Printz honoree and National Book Award finalist, “We Were Liars” is a young adult book that will appeal to both teenage and adult readers. Lockhart’s characters are thinly disguised figures from “King Lear.” Cadence’s mother and two aunts stand in as Lear’s daughters, squabbling over who has the largest beach house and which grandchild is likely to get the largest inheritance. Cadence’s grandfather is the King Lear figure, growing ever more senile and infirm. If reading about wealthy, white New Englanders isn’t your cup of tea, consider, at least, that it’s based on Shakespeare. Cadence’s propensity to refer to her mother as “Mummy” does grow tiresome. But her affaire de cœur with the unrelated Liar, Gat Patel, brings a much-needed balance to this story. Gat’s sense of social justice doesn’t allow the Sinclairs to forget that their carefree summer vacation rests on the shoulders of their tireless servants or that he, as the brown visitor, is never fully accepted by the patriarchal figure. Read the rest of this entry »

Slow Books: Nina Barrett Revives Indie Bookselling in Evanston

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By Naomi Huffman

Nina Barrett and her husband, Jeff

Nina Barrett and her husband, Jeff Garrett

Nina Barrett has always followed her passions. After earning an English degree from Yale, she worked as an editorial assistant at St. Martin’s Press. She was then offered a leading position at the Literary Guild that required she read five to seven books a week, typically whatever was hitting the best-seller lists. After years spent studying nineteenth-century literature at Yale, the job experience provided Barrett with what she describes as an  “incredible grounding” in popular American literature.

Barrett came to Chicago in 1985 to attend the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She spent a year pursuing a culinary degree, a change of course that she’d intended to cap with opening a restaurant. Instead, she began working as a food reporter for WBEZ.  “The pull of words in me is strong,” Barrett says.

There’s possibly nothing that could prove this more than Barrett’s newest endeavor: Bookends & Beginnings, the independent bookstore she plans to open in Evanston in June, in the space formerly occupied by Bookman’s Alley. Barrett and I spoke recently about her plans for the store and the so-called independent book renaissance she finds so vital to our culture. Read the rest of this entry »