Reading List: An antidote to bestselleritis by Benjamin Hale

Reading List No Comments »

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 »

Vividly Pale: How David Foster Wallace Made Me A Better Person

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Illustration: Phil McAndrew

By Monica Westin

F. Scott Fitzgerald once remarked: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” David Foster Wallace (it’s nearly impossible to separate the man from his writing—more on that later) embodied this last sentence more than any popular contemporary fiction writer I can think of: one who knew how profoundly degenerate social life had become, yet in every piece of his writing was determined not to give into easy irony and hip nihilism. “Infinite Jest” proved him to be a master satirist and serious novelist; in his essays he anatomized the absurdity of contemporary America; and “The Pale King,” his posthumous novel about achieving transcendence through drudgery, anchors his place as the consummate “postmodern” writer who cared far more for earnestness than sarcasm, and about being good and being human, whatever that means now, than being edgy. Other contemporary writers like Jonathan Franzen and George Saunders attempt to restore morality and humanism in their fiction, but nobody has done it with as much ambition, as much deadly serious enthusiasm in the face of despair. Read the rest of this entry »

Newcity’s Top 5 of Everything 2009: Books

Chicago Authors, Fiction, Top 5 Lists 3 Comments »

Top 5 Bookschronic_city
“Chronic City,” Jonathan Lethem (Doubleday)
“War Dances,” Sherman Alexie (Grove Press)
“Generosity: An Enhancement,” Richard Powers (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux)
“Ruins,” Achy Obejas (Akashic Books)
“Inherent Vice,” Thomas Pynchon (Penguin Press)
—Tom Lynch

Top 5 Local Books
“Ruins,” Achy Obejas (Akashic Books)
“Her Fearful Symmetry,” Audrey Niffenegger (Scribner)
“How to Hold a Woman,” Billy Lombardo (OV Books)
“The Way Through Doors,” Jesse Ball (Vintage)
“The Adventures of Cancer Bitch,” S.L. Wisenberg (University of Iowa Press)
—Tom Lynch Read the rest of this entry »

The Elevated City: Jonathan Lethem creates a magical metropolis

Fiction, Lit Events No Comments »

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 »

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 »

Fiction Review: Inherent Vice

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Some early reviewers of Thomas Pynchon’s seventh novel took its easygoing 372 pages as light diversion, an Elmore Leonard-style caper in the drug-high early 1970s, something Steven Soderbergh could splinter into a feature film. Passages of melancholy and imaginative conversational style are weightier than that. A funny, convoluted counterculture detective story, “Inherent Risk” follows Doc Sportello, a P.I., or “gumsandal,” in search of a missing woman. A welter of side characters materialize, conspiracies emerge, there’s something called the Golden Fang that seems to mean something different in each observer’s eyes, like the latter-day shape-shifting of something called “Al Qaeda.” Philosophy wriggles from the ashes of roaches. Pynchon presages much: The glisten of technical promise in describing a room’s mess of cables and IBM punch-card chads and Gestetner copy machines: here is ARPAnet. The Internet birthing in the uninhaled haze. A joke, as always to avert the gaze. But: “does it know where I can score?” The result is a gentle sadness.

Pynchon’s trademark paranoia is worn lightly, held in the lungs a breath too long, rather than working in maze-like fashion in his heftier books. Still, there’s an atmosphere of sinister innocence, Read the rest of this entry »

Head Case: Andrew Levy crafts a literary migraine memoir, “A Brain Wider Than the Sky”

Book Reviews, Memoir 4 Comments »

andrew_levyBy Brian Hieggelke

I forgot to ask if he had a headache.

I’d been fairly circumspect so far, rather than inviting Andrew Levy to grab a beer, or arbitrarily assuming that a coffeehouse was appropriate for our meeting—migraine triggers come in many forms, as his book, “A Brain Wider Than the Sky,” makes exceedingly clear. But somehow, I forgot to ask him if he had a headache, right now. So too, curiously, had the moderator of the discussion he’d just had at the Printers Row Lit Fest, Paula Kamen. But Kamen, herself author of a related memoir, “All in My Head,” always has a headache—a constant presence—unlike the chronic “nerve storms” that foment Levy’s migraines, so perhaps she just considers such queries redundant. In any case, I forgot to ask.

Levy’s such an easygoing presence—calm, articulate, friendly if not effusive—that it’s easy to forget the tempests that rage inside his brain. But boy do they rage. It was late summer, 2006, as he started a sabbatical from his job—he’s chair of the English department and director of the Writer’s Studio at Butler University in Indianapolis—to work on a book about Mark Twain, that the colossus set in. Four straight months, he suffered a daily migraine, dawn to dusk. “That’s why I wrote the book,” he said very matter-of-factly at the Lit Fest, about the migraine memoir that replaced the indefinitely shelved Twain tome. And it’s a book with the potential to connect to a lot of lives since, as Levy points out, twenty-three percent of all families have a least one member who suffers migraines. Read the rest of this entry »