Nonfiction Review: “The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915-1964” by Zachary Leader

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saul bellowRECOMMENDED

When Greg Bellow’s memoir about his father, Saul, came out in 2013, the Independent headlined its review, “Great author, terrible father.” Between the younger Bellow’s book and the three other biographies, to say nothing of the fact that Bellow’s own fiction was thinly veiled autobiography, what does Zachary Leader’s two-volume “The Life of Saul Bellow” bring to the already-crowded field of Bellow studies?

For people like me, who have to confess they’ve never read much Bellow, there’s the cynical temptation to say that with Leader’s work we don’t need to. Certainly most of the plot points from Dangling Man, The Adventures of Augie March, and Herzog can be found in the first volume: “To Fame and Fortune: 1915-1964.” We see Bellow’s parents’ childhoods in Russia; their immigration to Montreal, where Bellow was born; the family’s move to Chicago; and Bellow’s rise to fame, ending in his arrival “at the pinnacle of American letters,” as Leader writes. Marriages one and two are covered in detail, and his relationship with his third wife, Susan, begins in the last chapter, by the end of which things have not yet gone south. We see the womanizing egomaniac as well as the brilliant writer. Read the rest of this entry »

By Headshot or Heartbreak: Adam Levin’s “Hot Pink” Moment

Author Profiles, Chicago Authors, Fiction, Story Collections No Comments »

Adam Levin/Photo: Renee Feldman

By Eric Lutz

Adam Levin’s debut novel, “The Instructions,” aimed high: Over a thousand pages, with missives on religion, war, identity and Philip Roth. It was an outstanding hunk of fiction, and elicited from critics all the superlatives (and expletives) you might expect a work of such length and power to receive. If there was anything bothersome about the novel, though, it was the slight—yet frequent—sense that Levin hadn’t quite divorced himself from the writers to which he’s been compared and clearly admires.

In his excellent new collection of short stories, “Hot Pink,” Levin hurdles over that problem. While proudly displaying his literary lineage, Levin–who teaches at the School of the Art Institute–also wades out into fresh waters, offering up absurdity, farce and near-academic dissection in an eclectic array of voices, all at once recognizable and entirely unique. Read the rest of this entry »

Reading List: An antidote to bestselleritis by Benjamin Hale

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The Tin Drum
By Günter Grass
(Mariner Books, $15.95)
Kurt Cobain, with characteristic self-loathing, once described “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as basically a Pixies ripoff. If there’s a book to which I would happily acknowledge a personal debt with such groveling humility, it would be this one. “The Tin Drum” is among the strangest and bravest books ever written.

The Adventures of Augie March
By Saul Bellow
(Penguin Classics, $17)
“Henderson the Rain King” is a better book, and I thought of listing it instead, but I chose Augie March because it was the first Bellow book I read, and the one I set out to study, in the way an apprentice chef might try to reverse-engineer a mystery sauce by taking sips and altering ingredients accordingly, trying to discover how the master made it. I lent my copy to a friend recently, who told me I’d apparently circled a certain paragraph and wrote in the margin, “LEARN HOW TO WRITE LIKE THIS.” Read the rest of this entry »

The Elevated City: Jonathan Lethem creates a magical metropolis

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By Tom LynchLethem

Since author Jonathan Lethem caught the world’s attention with his 1999 breakout novel “Motherless Brooklyn,” he’s taken unexpected writing turns, embracing changes of pace that seem to prevent the talent from growing terribly stale. His 2003 follow-up was the semi-autobiographical magical dramedy “The Fortress of Solitude,” about two teenage friends growing up in 1970s Brooklyn. Throw in a short-story collection, a stellar assembly of essays (“The Disappointment Artist”), a MacArthur Fellowship and another novel, a quickfire ode to rock music set in California called “You Don’t Love Me Yet,” and you have a popular writer who’s had various successes in different mediums of writing and who’s most likely not written his best work yet.

For “Chronic City,” his new novel, Lethem returns to New York, albeit a Manhattan based in unreality, to introduce Chase Insteadman, a former child TV star who’s developed socialite celebrity without doing very much. He longs for a girlfriend who’s trapped on the International Space Station, who sends him aching love letters that are published in the paper. The whole city knows the saga. Almost immediately in the book—in the first sentence, in fact—Chase meets Perkus Tooth, an eccentric pop critic whose collection of peculiar suits is only outnumbered by the mass of conspiracy theories of which he’s convinced. Chase is Lethem’s straight man, and Perkus one of the most colorful characters he’s conjured yet—“Chronic City,” which steers us through inventive countercultural sects as Perkus takes our narrator on the great paranoia ride, questions, well, everything, while the two men search for an elusive truth. The book is a buddy tale as much as a clever hipster sci-fi extravaganza, and about halfway through the novel a weight presses upon your chest as you realize that Lethem has only become more skilled at storytelling. Read the rest of this entry »

Fall Forward Literature: Granta’s Chicago Issue, Richard Powers and more

Chicago Authors, Comics/Graphic Novels/Cartoonists, Fiction, News Etc., Nonfiction 1 Comment »


Granta, the literary magazine founded by Cambridge University students in 1889, has a long and storied history of publishing political material as well as the work of several writers. It was relaunched in 1979 as a platform for new writers, and reworked again in 2007 with new editor Jason Cowley. Alex Clark, the magazine’s first female editor, took over for Cowley after he left, and when Smith stepped down, the magazine’s American editor, John Freeman, a frequent Newcity contributor, took her position.

Granta’s fall issue, number 108, is Chicago-themed, and the marvelous collection features entries from Aleksandar Hemon, Alex Kotlowitz, Neil Steinberg, Richard Powers, Sandra Cisneros, Stuart Dybek and more. Don DeLillo offers a brief introductory essay to a Nelson Algren piece, and Chris Ware did the issue’s cover. A photo essay by Camilo Jose Vergara is included and provides an intermission to the text. This collection serves as a packaged insight into what Chicago means—how it feels to live here, be from here, exist within a city sometimes difficult to love yet impossible to resist. I chatted with Freeman over email to get some of his thoughts on the upcoming issue. Read the rest of this entry »

Chasing the American Nightmare: Author Marcus Sakey turns Chicago’s shadows into his dream life

Chicago Authors, Fiction, Readings 1 Comment »

By Tom LynchSakey_Headshot_378

Marcus Sakey suggests we meet at the Starbucks at Clark and Belmont, just across the way from The Alley. Late afternoon on a weekday, the place is packed. Nowhere to sit, line out the door. Better idea—wanna get a beer at the L&L instead?

“Now you’re speaking my language,” he tells me, and we head over to the bar. Nobody wants to interview a crime writer in a Starbucks anyway.

Sakey grew up outside Flint, Michigan. His dad worked in the auto industry. He always loved to read and write, but didn’t study it at school. After college he landed an advertising job in Atlanta and spent years in that world, developing skills he jokingly says are “perfect for a crime novelist.” Met a girl at his office, married her.

Remember that scene in “Fight Club” when Tyler Durden turns the car into oncoming traffic and asks the passengers what they wish they would’ve done before they died? Sakey’s asking me. He says that’s what the moment was like when he decided to write books, or, at least, that’s how he would’ve answered that question. He left the advertising and marketing world, moved to Chicago and started to type. Read the rest of this entry »

Goodbye, Updike: Bidding adieu to one of America’s great novelists

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31730_updike_johnIn an era of specialists, he stood alone as America’s last great man of letters. In addition to his nearly two-dozen novels, story collections and a shelf-full of poetry, he wrote on American presidents, the cosmos, science and gadgets. In an era of identity politics, he refused the limitations of skin. Fifty years after he published his debut novel, John Updike—America’s most gifted twentieth-century observer of the currents of this country—is gone.

It is hard to describe the vacuum his departure creates. He sprung into the world fully formed, publishing his first poem in The New Yorker when he was just a senior at Harvard University, following up with a torrent of “Talk of the Town” pieces, and then the glorious string of short stories remembering—and creating in readers’ imaginations—the imaginary Pennsylvania town he called Olinger. Read the rest of this entry »

Books: Top 5 Lists of 2008

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Top 5 Books

“Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape,” Raja Shehadeh (Scribner)

“Netherland: A Novel,” Joseph O’Neill (Pantheon)

“Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, The End of Civilization,” Nicholson Baker (Simon & Schuster)

“Sleeping it Off in Rapid City: Poems, New & Selected,” August Kleinzahler (FSG)

“A Better Angel: Stories,” Chris Adrian (FSG)

-John Freeman

Top 5 Books

“The Lazarus Project,” Aleksandar Hemon (Riverhead Books)

“Indignation,” Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin)

“Lush Life,” Richard Price (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux)

“When You are Engulfed in Flames,” David Sedaris (Little Brown and Company)

“Crime,” Irvine Welsh (WW Norton & Company)

-Tom Lynch

Read the rest of this entry »

Newcity’s Top 5 of Everything 2008: Books

Top 5 Lists No Comments »

Top 5 Books
“Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape,” Raja Shehadeh (Scribner)
“Netherland: A Novel,” Joseph O’Neill (Pantheon)
“Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, The End of Civilization,” Nicholson Baker (Simon & Schuster)
“Sleeping it Off in Rapid City: Poems, New & Selected,” August Kleinzahler (FSG)
“A Better Angel: Stories,” Chris Adrian (FSG)
John Freeman

Top 5 Books
“The Lazarus Project,” Aleksandar Hemon (Riverhead Books)
“Indignation,” Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin)
“Lush Life,” Richard Price (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux)
“When You are Engulfed in Flames,” David Sedaris (Little Brown and Company)
“Crime,” Irvine Welsh (WW Norton & Company)
Tom Lynch

Top 5 Cookbooks Featuring Chicago Chefs
“From Our Hearts to Your Table: Favorite Recipes From a Greek American Family,” Dorothy Bezemes (N/A)
“Cooking with Les Dames d’ Escoffier: At Home with the Women Who Shape the Way We Eat and Drink,” Les Dames d’ Escoffier (Sasquatch Books)
“The Parthenon Cookbook: Great Mediterranean Recipes from the Heart of Chicago,” Camille Stagg (Agate Surrey)
“Alinea,” Grant Achatz (Ten Speed Press)
“Market-Fresh Mixology: Cocktails for Every Season,” Bridget Albert with Mary Barranco (Agate Surrey)
Veronica Hinke

Top 5 New Recurring Reading Series
Windy City Story Slam,
The Parlor Reads,
Sappho’s Salon,
Lovable Losers Literary Revue,
Robert Duffer

The Future of Words: How Barack Obama’s Presidency Will Change Literature in America

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By John Freeman

Presidents and novelists are storytellers both, but it is a rare day in America when their narratives collide. It nearly happened in 1963, the year Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy hired (at the recommendation of William Styron) 37-year-old novelist Richard Yates as a speechwriter. The hard-drinking, chain-smoking author of “Revolutionary Road” did well in his first weeks, so well he was given a shot at drafting JFK’s first major civil rights speech.

Yates’ words may not be read verbatim, he was warned, but the President would use some. The night Kennedy was to deliver the speech, Yates tuned in to watch with friends. As Blake Bailey’s biography describes, “It was clear each line struck him with a fresh disappointment. At one point he suddenly came alive—‘There! I wrote that!’—but it was a false alarm, and when it was over Yates seemed embarrassed.”

For the past eight years, with George W. Bush at the podium, America’s novelists and poets and historians have at least been spared such false alarms. These were not their words. But they have experienced Yates’ embarrassment. Bush’s super-narrative of the US as a vengeful, all-powerful nation beyond treaties or conventions recycled the old tropes of a nation founded on frontier “justice,” and unleashed them upon the world. Backed by a multi-billion dollar publicity campaign, the so-called war on terror was like the worst kind of bestseller. It received endless newspaper coverage; its syntax was absorbed into speech; it marched across the globe like a Dan Brown novel in translation.

But will Obama’s election have some impact on literary culture? The bare-bone facts bode well. Obama does not just respect language: he is an accomplished writer. His two memoirs are remarkable for their craft and complexity. More importantly, Obama’s story—the biracial son of an immigrant raised partly in Indonesia, educated at Harvard, proposing social reform—will, briefly, but triumphantly, become the nation’s own. He could radically return the country’s narrative back to possibility and promise, and away from punishment and division.

“I’ve been thinking daily about the significance of an Obama presidency,” says Charles Johnson, author of the National Book Award-winning novel, “The Middle Passage.” “He will be the most powerful black person in human history.” He adds: “I think American writers… will want to join so many in the world as they celebrate a Camelot moment for the early twenty-first century, and pray he will succeed at addressing the staggering economic and international dilemmas he will inherit.”

If literary culture can be said to include the stories people tell one another about America, this blurring of private and public narratives—and the hullabaloo over this election—is not a new thing. “It is difficult to describe the place political concerns occupy in the life of an American,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1840. “To have a hand in the government of society, and to talk about it, is the most important business, and so to speak, the only pleasure an American knows.”

This has been doubly so since the Bush administration, often at the expense of fiction. Since the 2000 election, the fastest-growing areas of book sales have been politics and current affairs, tome after tome dissecting, praising, debunking and chronicling the Bush administration. Our political culture nearly became our literary culture.

Novelists from Paul Auster to Philip Roth and John Updike have hewed ever closer to the zeitgeist to capture a nation adrift. “The Plot Against America” brought Roth back onto bestseller lists, as did “Terrorist” for Updike. For many other novelists, especially those who have climbed into the cockpit of op-ed pieces and blog postings, breaking away from this watchful resistance to life under Bush will be a relief. “Many of us have expended a lot of energy on resisting Bush and his policies,” said Jane Smiley, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Ten Days in the Hills,” “and it has been exhausting, at least for me.”

George Saunders, the New Yorker magazine’s resident satirist of the tortured logic and language of right-wing triumphalism, hopes he can go back to dreaming in fiction. “I know it’s always more satisfying for me to write a story about completely invented people, who I kind of love, than to nail something or somebody in an essay. Only sometimes, like with the recent Palin piece… it just feels like it has to be said or my head will pop off.”

Two-time Booker winner and New York resident Peter Carey points out that these activities—dreaming up a better future for the nation and creating new works of art that can stand within and outside it—proceed from similar impulses. In the nearly two decades he has lived in America, he has noticed the country becoming ever more enthralled with statistical determinism. He comments that “you turn on the news and hear, ‘No one has ever won the Presidency who didn’t win Pennsylvania.’ That was then!” The fact is, he adds: “Ideally, what you want to do as an artist is to do something that’s never been done before. And so, if this comes to pass—this thing we shall not name—it’s going to be of enormous importance.”

Dave Eggers adds: “We’re about to elect a guy who pretty much arrived thirty or forty years sooner than most people expected. So maybe we’re being catapulted forward into the future in a way that our imaginations will need to catch up with.”

One can already feel Obama’s shoulders heaving. He has a host of issues to deal with immediately. “We have never seen a time like this,” Amy Tan writes, “an African-American president, republics crossing partisan borders like refugees, rampant racial hatred, contagious religious hatred, economic panic spreading like the bird flu pandemic that never arrived, not to mention so many possibilities vying for first in destroying the Earth.”

Obama is going to need more than a good story. Saunders believes now might be the time to bring novelists back into the fold. “Although a few old lions like Vidal and Vonnegut and Mailer had their [very valiant] say, generally artists were treated by the Bush administration like… Sub-jester treatment, I guess you could say. This was stupid and costly, because any novelist could have imagined the invasion of Iraq and the aftermath better than Bush, et al, did.”

Yet American writers are already worried America’s biggest problems go far deeper than any one candidate can fix. The gap between the rich and the poor, for instance, is greater than it’s ever been in the nation’s history, and it has often fallen to outsiders, like Booker Prize-winner Kiran Desai, or emigrants, like Junot Díaz, to point it out in the literary culture. “The horrific violence of our current economic system, which kills more people daily than our wars,” says Díaz, who won a Pulitzer for “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” “will not change one jot under an Obama administration. Right now these elections are all about who plays the music at the party. Doesn’t change the fact that there’s a massacre going on. No US election is going to change that. And any writer worth a damn might be in the party but what he’s really listening to, bearing witness to, in small ways, in elliptical ways or flat-out head on, is the violence and terror and inhumanity that reign beyond the party’s walls.”

Obama’s promise then holds out a golden bough to writers and the nation’s literary culture—language may be respected again at the highest level; writers might be brought back into the fold; our president may actually read E.L. Doctorow! It will be safe again, as Geraldine Brooks jokingly put it, to raise one’s head at an overseas literary festival as an American. But by breaking down barriers, Obama may highlight one that remains still standing—and writers, at least some of them, feel the call to return to the center of literary culture a certain questioning of America’s capitalist project, as was done during the stock market crash of the twentieth century, when John Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis and Katherine Anne Porter were publishing. “It has been a long idealist dream that someday society life on Earth would evolve in such a way that dissident writers and intellectuals would no longer have to be dissident,” wrote Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and publisher of City Lights, which fifty years ago last year published Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” one of the biggest critiques of American capitalism. “There are similarities between Obama and John Fitzgerald Kennedy, but they do not point to any real political or social revolution. JFK was not a revolutionary, and he would not have turned into one if he had lived.

“Obama too is no revolutionary, even if Abraham Lincoln is his role model. Unbridled capitalism has recently proved to lead to economic disaster, capitalist triumphs often being achieved at the expense of the poor. This leads to the conclusion that such a predatory system is an enemy of true democracy. We might very well have a Camelot Moment if Obama is elected, and we will certainly heave a huge sigh of relief to have someone in the not-so-White House who is an honest thinker and not a rogue President. But don’t expect global corporate capitalism to be morphed into some kind of benevolent system in which the gulfs between Haves and Have-nots no longer exists. There may be a Camelot Moment, but dissidents can only hope the new President will succeed in humanizing capitalism, if not taming, and thus might a Camelot Moment become a Camelot Epoch.”

Perhaps someone can get this 89-year-old poet a shot at writing speeches come January.