Nonfiction Review: “You Feel So Mortal” by Peggy Shinner

Book Reviews, Chicago Authors, Nonfiction No Comments »

RECOMMENDED 9780226105277

Peggy Shinner’s new collection, “You Feel So Mortal,” is about the intersection of the body and identity, both crafted by ourselves and forced upon us. In an essay titled “Elective,” Shinner takes on the issue of Jewish identity through stereotype with the nose job she had at sixteen to make it “prettier, more proportional, more marriageable…more, but not too, Gentile.” She reflects that the procedure keeps a coworker from immediately recognizing her ancestry, but similar surgeries weren’t enough to save some Jews from the Holocaust. She writes, “the stakes are high when it comes to the body.”

Shinner jumps deftly between the personal and the academic. Multiple essays begin with personal experiences to introduce a researched topic. In “Leopold and Shinner,” she uses her discovery of a letter from a post-prison Nathan Leopold addressed to her mother as an opportunity to discuss the larger cultural phenomena of ordinary people writing to him in prison. She quotes from archived letters to him, cites the pseudoscientific reports that newspapers published to demonize him and Loeb, and even explicates the implications of the word “degenerate.” It risks coming off as miscellanea, but Shinner always returns to the personal. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Bedrock Faith” by Eric Charles May

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RECOMMENDED BedrockFaith2-533x800

Eric Charles May and James Baldwin share more than skin color and writing passion. They are masters of the complicated operas that unfold in a particular place, of the complexities and frailties of mankind. “Bedrock Faith” is May’s first novel, and since approaching Baldwin is no idle feat, one only hopes he’ll write more.

Parkland is a proud, entrenched African-American community on the far South Side of Chicago, just touching Blue Island. The characters we hear from have owned their homes for generations, pillars in their close-knit community. All of it goes to hell the day Stew Pot Reeves comes back from prison. He’s no average neighborhood terror; in his younger days he decapitated a cat and lit a garage on fire. But now, he’s a Christian—a very devout Christian who has lost none of his old fondness for meddling. In short order the neighborhood, already tense, nearly explodes into uproar. Read the rest of this entry »

Finding Space: An Interview with Ben Tanzer

Author Profiles, Chicago Authors, Chicago Publishers 1 Comment »

1901386_687975724588122_1540003181_n-1By Liz Baudler

“As far as I know, the only people who have read the book are three women, all twenty-five and under, and two of you said, ‘I have no interest in having kids, but I liked the book,’” said Ben Tanzer. The Chicago author, publisher and podcaster was referring to his new essay collection “Lost In Space,” adventures in fathering his two sons, Myles and Noah. “Lost In Space” drips with pop-culture riffs and love letters to Chicago; it’s a book non-parents can wholeheartedly enjoy and actual parents can appreciate. Ben Tanzer and I chatted over Cuban coffees and Latin music about the hard jobs of writing and parenting.

Whenever I’ve heard you read, you’ve focused on relationships.
I am very into relationships. Sometimes it’s conscious, sometimes less so, but I’ve always been drawn to how people connect and how things get disrupted. In our lives, the most confusion’s around relationships, so how do we communicate, what’s real? How we can say things to people that we know are a mistake. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Wolf Doctors” by Russ Woods

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WD_coverRECOMMENDED

Silly, surreal and surprisingly sensitive, Russ Woods’ “Wolf Doctors” points the way toward a rare post-avant-garde accessibility. His associational mish-mashes (dogs, horses, hotels, factories, Netflix fees and human beings seem all interchangeable and spirit-laden in his world) usually avoid stepping over the line of gimmickry in this collection, leaving enough room for his tickling humanity to poke through. Woods’ persistent charm is poised to break even the most logical, most narrative-obsessed of readers—such that by the time you reach the home stretch of these chambers of play and oddity, a line like “Illinois was the best horse I ever had” lands with startling heartbreak. More genuine than Donald Barthelme—a sure influence on Woods and most releases from Chicago-based Artifice Books—”Wolf Doctors” capitalizes and builds upon paths of weirdness forged by its stylistic forebears. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Strange Bodies” by Marcel Theroux

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RECOMMENDED strangebodies

In the preface to Marcel Theroux’s highbrow thriller “Strange Bodies,” Nick Slopen stumbles onto the doorstep of an ex-lover, who’s profoundly confused, and for good reason: Nick died months ago, crushed beneath the wheels of a lorry. The man claiming to be him looks nothing like him, but something—the intensity of his gaze, his mannerisms, his knowledge of her old nickname—convinces her she must be mistaken. Nick leaves behind a revelatory document written during his confinement at the Maudsley psychiatric hospital, the reader is invited to read it. Naturally, we can’t resist.

Nick, a top scholar on the works of Samuel Johnson, has been summoned by music mogul Hunter Gould to authenticate a set of documents apparently written by Johnson himself. The letters turn out to be nothing more than convincing forgeries. When he tells Gould that the seller, Sinan Malevin, should be arrested for selling phony documents, Gould surprises him with a confession: he knows they’re forged. Sinan isn’t selling them; they simply wanted a professional’s opinion. Read the rest of this entry »

From Where I Write: Gina Frangello

Author Profiles, Chicago Authors No Comments »
photo: Shaun Crittenden

Photo: Shaun Crittenden

By Naomi Huffman

I first met Gina Frangello in 2011, when I was an undergrad studying writing at Columbia College; I took a fiction seminar class she taught my senior year. When she introduced herself she talked about her novel, which she was revising, and which would turn out to be “A Life in Men,” released last month from Algonquin. She went on to talk about the books we would read and study that semester (“You guys are going to love Milan Kundera,” she insisted—she was right), and then she talked passionately for several minutes about the books she was reading, written by friends and by writers she admired. Her enthusiasm was palpable; right away, I began to admire her support of other people’s work.

The summer after I graduated from Columbia, I was hired by Gina and her husband David to nanny her twin daughters Madeleine and Kenza and their friend Siena, who were then eleven years old. I picked them up three days a week from their home in Roscoe Village, which has the kind of beautiful slatted hardwood floors, gaping windows and dark wood trim I’ve come to associate with old Chicago houses. There was often some sort of minor tragedy unfolding when I arrived at their home those summer mornings—a misplaced shoe or transit pass, a forgotten lunch box, teeth or hair that needed brushing. I don’t know what she did when we finally left, but I liked to think of Gina writing, savoring the new quiet of the house, working in her small office just off the main rooms of the house, which does not have a door.  Read the rest of this entry »

Author as BFF: Jen Lancaster’s Brand of Literary Celebrity

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By Megan Kirby TwistedSisters

Jen Lancaster signs her books with neon bright Sharpies: yellow, orange and hot pink. Women line up in the Theater Wit lobby with books pressed to their chests, some sipping champagne from plastic flutes (a glass came free with ticket purchase). When it’s their turn with Lancaster, the author asks them about their haircuts, their jackets, how far they drove to get to the event. “I’m so glad you could make it!” she says again and again, like a gracious hostess—and somehow it seems genuine every time. When anyone holds up an iPhone and asks for a picture, Lancaster always agrees.

Everyone wants to be Jen Lancaster’s best friend.

In February, the New York Times bestselling author signed books and answered questions at Theater Wit’s screening of “Freaky Friday” (“The most excellent version with Jodie Foster, none of that Lohan bullshit,” she teased on her blog, jennsylvania.com). The Book Cellar hosted the event in honor of Lancaster’s newly released body-swap novel, “Twisted Sisters.” Since publishing her first book in 2006, Lancaster’s written ten books total (seven memoirs and three novels, all generally labeled “chick lit”), and she’s turned a cult-like following into major mainstream success. Read the rest of this entry »

Our Minds Work Against Our Hearts: Rachel Louise Snyder on Writing Suburban Crime in “What We’ve Lost Is Nothing”

Author Profiles, Chicago Authors, Fiction No Comments »
Photo: Jocelyn Augustino

Photo: Jocelyn Augustino

By Ted Anton

In “What We’ve Lost Is Nothing,” former Oak Park resident manager and journalist Rachel Snyder tells the story of what happens when two high-school girls stay home to try ecstasy the same afternoon their street is rocked by a series of home invasions. The neighborhood suspicions threaten to rip apart Oak Park’s suburban veneer of race and class harmony. An assistant professor in creative writing at American University in Washington, Snyder has written for The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine, and has appeared frequently on National Public Radio. She published the investigative “Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade” in 2007. “What We’ve Lost Is Nothing” is her first novel.

So what was the inspiration for “What We’ve Lost Is Nothing?”
I was accompanying an American military MIA mission in Vietnam, writing for a magazine, and a friend there told me this story of these robberies all in one night that happened in Georgia. The story stuck with me. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Last Days of California” by Mary Miller

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RECOMMENDED lastdaysofcalifornia

There are plenty of apocalyptic young-adult fiction books these days, but Mary Miller’s debut novel, “The Last Days of California,” has a fresh approach to an end-of-days story. Jess and her family are driving from Alabama to California for what her father believes is Armageddon. Based on the prediction of a prophet from their unspecified church, Jess’ father envisions a scenario of bodies floating up into heaven, as in the “Left Behind” series of books. Fifteen-year-old Jess wavers in her belief as they travel across the country, not quite sure if she’s about to experience the rapture, or even whether she believes in God or the teachings of her church at all.

Sitting next to Jess in the backseat is her sister, Elise, newly pregnant. Although only a few years older than Jess, the world-weary Elise is cynical beyond her years and firm in the belief that the end is nowhere in sight. Her only fragility is her inability to acknowledge her pregnancy, aside from telling her sister and then seemingly forgetting about the topic entirely. Miller’s pacing of the novel is really important, considering what is practically the closed set of the family car and a few motel rooms. While she’s unfolding Jess’ relationship with her family and her evolving ideas about religion, she’s rather brilliantly tied the awakening of a young girl to a ticking clock in the background. Read the rest of this entry »

The Oddest of Couples: Nancy Horan on Robert Louis and Fanny Stevenson

Biography, Book Reviews, Nonfiction No Comments »

underthewidestarryskyBy June Sawyers

Gypsy, vagabond, nomad, bohemian dandy, consummate storyteller. Robert Louis Stevenson was all of these, and more. He is both familiar and yet strangely unfamiliar. We may recognize the name but who was the person behind the famous moniker? Even the most casual reader knows that he is the author of such literary classics as “Treasure Island,” “Kidnapped” and, most famously, “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Unlike other iconic literary figures of the nineteenth century though—Poe, Dickens, Wilde, to name a few—Stevenson, for many, remains a cipher.

Before she started researching her new novel, “Under the Wide and Starry Sky,” Nancy Horan didn’t know much about him either. “I probably read ‘Jekyll and Hyde,’ ‘Treasure Island,’ and ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’ in high school, possibly ‘Kidnapped,’” she told me. “That was about it. I thought of him as a boy’s adventure writer.” Read the rest of this entry »