It’s been a deadly year for Chicago writers, with the passing of Roger Ebert, Richard Stern, David Hernandez and, just last week, Father Andrew Greeley. Not to mention the dead-woman-walking status achieved by Rachel Shtier, whose ill-conceived New York Times Book Review takedown of Chicago turned her into this city’s most universally disliked resident since, perhaps, John Wayne Gacy. So a sense of what we’d lost pervaded the creation of this year’s Lit 50, this time around celebrating not so much the writers who occupy the center stage, but those who operate behind the scenes to make sure the stage itself exists. The process, as excruciating as it is, always renews our optimism for the literary Chicago that carries on, bigger and better every year, even diminished by its inevitable losses. This year’s increasingly long short-list reached new magnitudes, with 360 folks under consideration for just fifty nods. Needless to say, a slight tilt in another direction, and an entirely different Lit 50 could have been created. But so it goes. (Brian Hieggelke)
“Through the whole process, I was getting rejected by agents and publishers,” says Stephen Markley, describing his attempts at getting his first novel published. “It was a lot of ‘We don’t think this can work’.” Then, Markley went “meta-fiction” and wrote “Publish This Book,” a detailing of the trials of trying to get a novel published. “It’s about finding an agent, writing a book,” says Markley. “It’s also a memoir about being out of college and finding out what the next step is.” This Friday, Markley will read from “Publish This Book” at the Book Cellar. While the idea of the actual text is often times boggling—“That kind of fight to shape it [the story], ended up being a big part of the book,” says Markley—there are larger themes at work that he assures will make this a book for readers and writers alike. “It’s definitely something that speaks to people in their twenties,” says Markley. “For people just getting out into the world.” (Peter Cavanaugh)
Stephen Markley reads from “Publish This Book” March 26 at Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln, (773)293-2665, at 7pm. Free.
John McNally writes funny. He writes sharp. “Swift” is a term often used to describe his work. His breakthrough book, “The Book of Ralph,” was a charming ode to youth in seventies-era Chicago. A few years later, with his short-story collection, “Ghosts of Chicago,” McNally injected life into Chicago’s famous, notorious and epic characters. His new novel, “After the Workshop,” seems close to the author’s own experience—hero Jack Sheahan graduates from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, publishes a story in the New Yorker and works on his novel for years and years, only to become a media escort while the manuscript sits under his bed. McNally did Iowa, worked as a media escort. A fictionalized memoir, if you will. “After the Workshop” develops much like McNally’s other work; striking, witty observations, satirical comedy, moments of abundant heart. While his narrator is surrounded by writers practically at all times, the misadventures are endless, and McNally’s casual style lends the book a quick, fun-loving pace. Tonight, Sam Weller and Brian Costello also read from their work. (Tom Lynch)
John McNally reads from “After the Workshop” March 4 at Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln, (773)293-2665, at 7pm. Free.
My first year of college was probably the unhappiest time of my life. At Illinois State University, I went from living eighteen years in the great city of Chicago to being holed up in a dorm room in Normal, with no friends and a witless weightlifter roommate. I took the bus home on a lot of weekends, if only to be around the record collection I couldn’t cart with me. While I don’t regret anything, if I had to do it over again, I definitely wouldn’t have chosen that path. The heroine in Claire Zulkey’s young-adult novel “An Off Year,” released this past summer, decides not to go to college her first year after all, and watches her friends do so with varying degrees of success. (Her parents wind up sending her to a shrink.) Zulkey captures the confusing, unique tension of the time, when a teenager faces leaving home for the first time to either fulfill some goal or, more often, live up to some expectation, as it’s often not considered deeply enough the emotional difficulties of being just post-high school. Zulkey knows that kids don’t grow up at a snap of the fingers, nor at the reception of a diploma on a stage. (Tom Lynch)
December 17 at Book Cellar, 4736-38 N. Lincoln, (773)293-2665, at 7pm. Free.
Great Wisconsin poet John Koethe, winner of the Frank O’Hara Award for Poetry, has for years taken inspiration from both his beloved home state and masters like Proust and William Wordsworth. A significant and largely revered contemporary poet, Koethe published his latest collection, “Ninety-fifth Street,” last month, a thrilling assemblage of blurry-eyed glances to the past. Koethe’s strongest attribute has always been his ability to reach a larger audience—through both his matter-of-fact use of language as well as his willingness to insightfully detail common themes. Everyone has a past that’s viewed wistfully with equal amounts of pride and regret, and as Koethe grows older, it seems his appreciation for his walks down memory lane grows as well. Now in his mid-sixties, thoughts of mortality have taken residence in the poet’s mind and heart, and he invites us along for the modest journey. Lovely work from Koethe, as always. (Tom Lynch)
October 9 at Book Cellar, 4736-38 N. Lincoln, (773)293-2665, at 7pm.
In the past few years, the more carefree and playful fictional characters of our youth have grown up. The film industry is at the forefront of this movement, slapping the grins off the once-campy James Bond and Batman, but authors like Andrea Jones are also participating in these reimaginings. Published last month, the local writer’s first novel, “Hook & Jill,” takes place inside the world of Peter Pan. “It’s a new vision,” Jones says. “It’s my own story masked in metaphor.” Inspired by the current state of our society, this Neverland is much darker and more severe than J.M. Barrie’s original. “What I’ve done is to bring Peter Pan into the twenty-first century,” Jones says. The reader gets a sense of what is at stake by the novel’s second line, which reads: “What appears to be good may prove otherwise, and what seems to be evil…is irresistible.” “The moral is learning to think,” Jones says. “What I’m trying to say is don’t take things at face value. Look at the facts and make logical, rational decisions.” Be on the lookout for Jones’ second novel, titled “Other Oceans,” which is a continuation of “Hook & Jill.”
The author reads from the book at Book Cellar on August 19.
By Tom Lynch
Early Sunday evening and Logan Square’s hipster hotspot The Whistler is sprinkled with patrons, some sipping the bar’s unique summertime cocktails, others just a PBR, please. The Orange Alert Reading Series takes place here roughly every third Sunday of the month and tonight’s lineup consists of “How to Hold a Woman” author Billy Lombardo, plus Andrew Farkas, Tim Hall and West Virginian Scott McClanahan. Founder and emcee Jason Behrends takes to the stage and thanks the modest crowd for coming. “I know it’s hard to come out to a bar at six on a Sunday,” he admits into the microphone. A handful of uninterested drinkers respectfully head out to the patio as to not disrupt the reading with their conversation. For the next hour, the only sounds you can hear are the author’s expressive voices and the air conditioner kicking on and off. Even the bartenders mix the drinks quietly.
“I’m definitely optimistic about the landscape in general,” Behrends says of the current place of literary events in Chicago, a day later over the phone. Behrends began his Orange Alert venture in 2006 with a Web site, orangealert.net, featuring interviews with writers, musicians and artists, then launched Orange Alert Press in March of 2008. The reading series began last November. “There are a lot of reading series in town,” he says, “but even though there are ten or twelve that I know of, I felt that there still could be one more.” Read the rest of this entry »
The book is titled “I Am Going to Clone Myself Then Kill the Clone and Eat It.” Do you really need to know any more? Sam Pink’s oddball little book is filled with first-person passages and rants that begin with mundane reality and often finish in bizarro fantasy, usually with some element of violence, disgust or aching simplicity. Some are short stories, others poems and plays. Pink’s disjointed snippets give the reader a view into the mind of a literary madman. It works; Pink’s ridiculous humor rubs off by the middle, as you’re thinking to yourself, “Yeah, if I tripped and lost an eye and someone laughed at me I would hold them down and allow my spewing blood to flow into his mouth too. Serves ‘em right.” Pink’s treacherously funny, as long as you don’t mind feeling a little dirty after swallowing this thing down. Another memorable admittance: “The best way to avoid getting murdered is to hide in your closet at night. I mean, so far, so good.” (Tom Lynch)
Sam Pink discusses his work July 24 at Book Cellar, 4736-38 N. Lincoln, (773)293-2665, at 7pm. Free.
Toronto-based author Derek McCormack’s terrifically fun “The Show That Smells” whips by with the speed of a bloodsucking vampire bat. A hodgepodge of hillbillies and classical horror yarn, McCormack weasels in real-life characters like Lon Chaney, Joan Crawford, Coco Chanel, the Carter Family and, most astutely, Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, in a fictional, phantasmagorical account of bloodlust, passion and a world of creeps. (Fumbling through there is a dying country-music singer and his wife, who, in an effort to save him, sells her soul to the devil. The devil is a fashion designer, of course.) It’s gothic fun from Akashic Books, a vivid and giddily cynical view of Hollywood and high-end culture, so off-center that even Guy Maddin blurbs the book on its cover. “The Show That Smells,” a literary homage to a circus freakshow, features poetics to spare, and its brevity works to its advantage. McCormack plunges the stake right through your heart. (Tom Lynch)
Derek McCormack discusses “The Show That Smells” July 18 at Book Cellar, 4736-38 N. Lincoln, at 7pm.
By Tom Lynch
The Counter Intelligence Program, or COINTELPRO, was a series of elaborate covert and sometimes illegal operations managed by the FBI to disrupt and fracture dissident political organizations. Formally, the projects took place between 1956 and 1971; common methods included dirty tricks such as using forged correspondence, legal harassment and even vandalism and violent assault. COINTELPRO targeted groups as wide-ranging as communist and socialist organizations, the Black Panther Party, those associated with the women’s rights movement and the Ku Klux Klan.
Chicago author Barry Schechter met a man many years ago who claimed he was a target of the COINTELPRO; the conversation stuck with Schechter and planted the seed for “The Blindfold Test,” his first novel. Jeffrey Parker, his protagonist, attends an antiwar rally in the 1960s, and following that one brief afternoon, his life is a cascading nightmare. He can’t keep a job. Women frequently split. It’s not just bad luck, it’s the worst luck. It doesn’t occur to him that his misfortune might actually be a government plot, until it does, and Schechter’s part-comedy, part-thriller takes shape. “The Blindfold Test” is blanketed with paranoia, quite Kafkaesque in its dark, sometimes mean humor, as Parker attempts to sort out his mess of a life. It’s also set in Chicago and the surrounding areas, and the authenticity adds to the suspense in surprising ways. Read the rest of this entry »