“The giddy Poles,” as a Ukrainian author called them, are a freedom-loving people, yet they have lived under tyranny for most of three centuries, most severely punished in the last. In World War II, Poland’s Jewish population was virtually exterminated, and millions more perished. This tragedy was followed immediately by a Communist rule that afforded little opportunity for shedding ghosts.
In his brilliant major novel originally published in 1984, Wieslaw Mysliwski has by accretion, “Stone Upon Stone” as in its title, demonstrated how one man—if imperfectly—rebuilt his life under such circumstances. (Of the novel’s English translation in 2011, this reviewer wrote in Newcity, “As for this ‘Stone,’ you will not want to put it down.”)
Now comes Mysliwski with a compelling new novel—his second to win the Polish Nike Prize for literature—again adroitly rendered into English by Bill Johnston, in which he reveals not just the layers of a man’s life, but those of a nation’s memory and history, by unwrapping it; hence the title “A Treatise on Shelling Beans.” Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Shaun Crittenden
By Naomi Huffman
Last winter, I interviewed Christine Sneed about her then just-released “Little Known Facts,” a novel about an aging Hollywood heartthrob named Renn Ivins, and the effects of his celebrity on his relationships with his children, ex-wife and his much younger girlfriend. It was one of my favorite books of the year, and other critics seem to agree: Booklist named it among the Top Ten First Novels of 2013, and in addition to profiling the novel, Kirkus Reviews included it on their Book Gift Ideas for Avid Readers list.
In October, Sneed, who teaches creative writing at Northwestern and co-hosts the Sunday Salon reading series, was awarded Chicago Public Library Foundation’s 21st Century Award. We caught up around Thanksgiving in her workspace in her Evanston condo to talk about her writing process, journaling, and her forthcoming novel, “Paris Gare St. Lazare.” Read the rest of this entry »
By Liz Baudler
Pardon the 1920s jargon, but Chicago author Renee Rosen is the bee’s knees. Rosen’s the author of “Dollface,” the story of Vera Abramowitz, a nice Jewish girl who ends up falling in love with a gangster from the North Side and one from the South Side in Chicago’s heyday as the crime capital of America. Vera and her best friend Evelyn sashay through the city until the going gets tough, and then they toughen up. Rosen, who launched “Dollface” with 1920s aplomb—complete with speakeasy, gangland tour and submachine guns—talked with us about how the time period and its lady characters are more than just a passing craze.
You always felt like you had a book in you. Why this one?
This has been a ten-year-love affair for me. When I started working, there was no “Boardwalk Empire,” no remake of “The Great Gatsby.” I started to research, and became so enamored of the characters that walked our streets. I knew there was a story that could come out of this era. I just had to dig and find it.
Why do you think the twenties are back in style?
We’ve all been struggling since about 2008, and the twenties was such a prosperous time, such a happy-go-lucky time, and I think that’s a perfect escape for us now. We’re tired, we’re weary. And I also think people love the fashion. Mary Janes, cloche hats are back in. People are having a lot of fun with it. Read the rest of this entry »
By Megan Kirby
Take the bus to Navy Pier on a dreary afternoon. Buy an overpriced ticket for the Ferris Wheel and ride alone to the top. Look out over the lake and imagine it drained and muddy, a stretch of grey marshland. Look back toward downtown and imagine the buildings cracked and broken.
This is the Chicago of Veronica Roth’s massively popular teen dystopian trilogy, “Divergent.” Roth grew up in the Chicago suburbs, and went to school at Northwestern University in Evanston. After orbiting the city her whole life, she set her series to the rattle of El cars in the shadow of the Willis Tower. At only twenty-five years old, Roth released the final installment to her trilogy: “Allegiant” went on sale October 22.
Combined sales for “Divergent” and “Insurgent,” the trilogy’s first two titles, passed a million last summer, and both books spent significant stretches on the New York Times Best Sellers list. A “Divergent” movie, filmed largely in Chicago, will be released March 21.
Roth is one of the latest success stories capitalizing on an end-of-the-world trend—these days, grim, survivalist covers dominate the YA shelves. Most of these books follow similar setups. Some vague tragedy occurred in the past, war or sickness or famine, and survivors must build in the aftermath. Totalitarian governments rise up. Conformity and obedience are rewarded; rebellion is severely punished. Through this wreckage, a hero rises from the youngest generation. Adults are to blame for corruption and betrayals; past generations have failed. Salvation lies in youth. Read the rest of this entry »
When I consider buying poetry for other people, there are two main groups I typically shop for: those who have not studied poetry but have an interest, and those who have. Neither group is particularly easy to shop for: the newbies need something that can be read on the surface, yet possibly has greater depths, while buying for the vets requires knowledge of their particular taste: did they study critically or creatively? Do they like narrative with their poems or are they all about sound? Do they like experimental poems or do they find them pretentious? The joy of discovering Mary Jo Salter’s new collection, “Nothing By Design,” is that she has given me a book I can give to both groups without fear.
For the newbies, Salter should be a revelation. Her poems feature easily defined narratives, some of which arc between poems, such as the ones in the section, “Bed of Letters,” which mediates on the divorce of the speaker. Poems throughout the collection deal with universal topics and themes ranging from infidelity, war and death. Read the rest of this entry »
By Micah McCrary
John Freeman’s “How to Read a Novelist” contains fifty-six illuminating profiles of some of the most-acclaimed writers of our time, including Toni Morrison, Jonathan Safran Foer, Joyce Carol Oates and A.S. Byatt. Each of these profiles contains both wisdom and idiosyncrasy, certainly sides of some writers that we don’t see in their books. In a conversation with John Freeman, the former editor of Granta and sometimes Newcity contributor, we get a little bit of his idiosyncrasy.
The first thing I’m interested in here is the issue of intimacy. “It was a breach of everyone’s privacy when a reader turns to a writer,” you write, “or a writer’s books, for vicariously learned solutions to his own life problems. This is the fallacy behind every interview or biographical sketch, to tether a writer’s life too literally to his work, or to insist that a novel function as a substitute for actually living through the mistakes a person must live through in order to learn how to properly, maybe even happily, survive.” However, I’d argue that this is part and parcel of the act of reading: we hope that reading will be a conversation, so what’s wrong with a little theft of shared or similar experience?
I think what is intimate and what is personal are often confused in America. We anecdote-share in conversation, pass the bucket of trauma back and forth until the scale is roughly equal. So we often crave intimacy even though we are way past the point of too much information. This is why a good novel, a really good one, is so powerful. It provides a different framework for intimacy: one of the mind, rather than of details. And in the end, the mind has control of everything anyway, from how we feel to how we make sense of the world. This is why that title of Jonathan Franzen’s first essay collection—“How to Be Alone”—felt like a stroke of genius. To be intimate and yet alone with a good book is an extraordinarily liberating thing. It can shatter the boundary between you and another in a way nothing can, except maybe love. Read the rest of this entry »
Top 5 Books from Chicago Authors in 2013
“Little Known Facts” by Christine Sneed
“Don’t Kiss Me” by Lindsay Hunter
“Chicago By Day and Night” by Bill Savage and Paul Durica
“The Distancers” by Lee Sandlin
“Raven Girl” by Audrey Niffenegger
Top 5 Live Lit Series
The Paper Machete
Guts and Glory
—Naomi Huffman Read the rest of this entry »
“The Best American Comics” is unusual in two respects. For one, it’s more egalitarian than any other volume of the Best American Series. Grant Snider’s introspective webcomics stand deservingly by Alison Bechdel’s excellent and complex graphic novel “Are You My Mother?” But alas, the comics content is less likely to stand alone. The pieces that work best in the 2013 edition are the ones that are either self-contained, like a daily newspaper strip, or make the reader want to rush out and buy the whole work.
Comics’ best attribute is their ability to tell simultaneous narratives with words and images. And they’re like any medium where words are secondary: there are people who groove with a song’s melody, and people who only care for lyrics. The excerpts from “Rachel Rising” and “Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller,” both with captions, had just enough story arc to make this reader pencil down their names for future, full-length purchase. Language-less strips have a special challenge, and less ways to clue the reader into the context. It’s easy to give up on them and just skip ahead while vaguely admiring the art. About one-fourth of Best American Comics feels like this, but a beautiful exception is “Grainne Ni Mhaille” by Colleen Doran and Derek McCullough, which tells an Irish immigrant family’s trials via Doran’s gorgeous super-hero style illustration. Read the rest of this entry »
Once a year, the Best American series descends from the heavens holding in its pages what its editors, and guest editors, have determined are the best writing in sports, nonfiction and short fiction from the previous year, among others. This year, the series drafted “Olive Kitteridge” author Elizabeth Strout to edit the “The Best American Short Stories: 2013,” a strong pedigree to be sure. But did Strout and series editor Heidi Pitlor choose wisely?
The answer is largely dependent on what you think the purpose of a year-end anthology is. If you’re someone who thinks that anthologies should focus on finding and promoting new voices, “The Best American Short Stories” probably isn’t for you. The anthology features many of the usual suspects. Of the twenty-two stories in the collection, three stories are from Granta, six are from the New Yorker, and the vast majority of their authors have been published in one publication if not both. Strout, when discussing her choices in the introduction, praised the distinct voices of three authors most will recognize immediately: Junot Díaz, George Saunders and Alice Munro. But it’s not as if these are the wrong choices. “Train,” Munro’s contribution, displays the chops that won her a Nobel Prize; Saunders, a writer renowned for baking unique voices into each one of his stories, lends the anthology what is probably his greatest novella, “The Semplica-Girl Diaries.” And while perhaps Díaz relies a little too much on his perennial narrator Yunior, he does so with good reason: Yunior is one of the strongest voices in contemporary fiction, and more importantly, one unique to Díaz. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Shaun Crittenden
By Naomi Huffman
Charles Blackstone’s new novel “Vintage Attraction” chronicles the relationship between Peter Hapworth, a bored adjunct writing professor, and Isabelle Conway, a prominent sommelier and host of a local cable access show that shares the book’s title. Their story closely mirrors how Blackstone met and fell in love with his wife, local restaurateur and former host of “Check, Please!,” Alpana Singh.
The book was released this fall to mixed reviews, but Blackstone, who also serves as managing editor of the online publication Bookslut, says, “I appreciate the time that all reviewers spend with this book [….] I know that there will always be some who will jump to conclusions based on a quick read and overly simplistic assumptions. I don’t really consider that book reviewing, though. There have been a lot of reviewers—and readers—who have responded very deeply and intelligently to the book, and I’m grateful for that.”
I had the opportunity to speak with Blackstone in person at his home in the Gold Coast, and later over email. We talked about wine, pugs, the pressure to be a prolific writer, and the line between memoir and fiction. Read the rest of this entry »