You might never shake the feeling that you chose the wrong path at that fork in the road a decade or two ago. The stories in Catherine Lacey’s “Certain American States” will lure you out of your head and put you in someone else’s, who—like you—is trying to figure out how they got here. Lacey, a lauded novelist, reflects on baffling behavior about family and messy relationships, rendering them humane and hilarious. “Violations” starts with a sentence so long and Escher-like you must read it aloud to hear the suffocating rhythm of a couple’s failed relationship that cleverly continues on the page. Lacey’s writing is literary baklava—a layered pleasure, even as it leaves you feeling the same carnival-ride nausea the characters seem to experience. In “Family Physics,” a black sheep cautions that cutting your family out of your life is often more trouble than it’s worth, “like any short haircut— some kinds of obliteration required constant upkeep.” The soundtrack to these stories of loss, grief and absurdity ought to be performed by the Handsome Family, no strangers to the psych ward flipside of civility.
Another collection that grapples with one’s place in the world comes from Donald G. Evans, founder of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. “An Off-White Christmas” uses the eponymous event as the View Master through which to behold the loneliness, regret and dysfunction the holidays highlight so well. It ranges from the title story about Nelson Algren-era family members trying to outdo each other with crummy gifts and mangy Christmas trees that have “tinsel hanging like snot from a kid’s nose,” to a tone-deaf gal hell bent on getting married even if it’s to an unemployed putz who lives with his Osmond-like caroling family. With offhand grace and humor, Evans captures the characters’ burning desires to escape from in-between stages of their lives and their disappointment at the outcome. Illustrations by Hannah Jennings throughout the book resemble ornaments that could hang on a Christmas tree.
“Certain American States: Stories”
By Catherine Lacey
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 190 pages, $26
Catherine Lacey is in conversation with Laura van den Berg on October 10, 7pm at Women and Children First Bookstore, 5233 North Clark, (773)769-9299.
“An Off-White Christmas”
By Donald G. Evans, illustrated by Hannah Jennings
Eckhartz Press, 194 pages, $20
Donald G. Evans’ book launch is on October 18, 6pm, at Cliff Dwellers, 200 South Michigan, (312)922-8080.
Kate Burns is a writer, musician and voiceover talent living in Chicago. Her voice haunted the elevator in her gynecologist’s building until by chance the practice moved. She taught preschool Spanish for three years and, like a bartender, grew to rely on the security of having a guitar, or a bar, between herself and the patrons. It’s only a matter of time before she succumbs to her family’s lobbying for a dog. You may see her walking this dog on Chicago’s wintry sidewalks with a leash in one mittened hand and a tissue in the other. She enjoys knitting rectangles in large font while binge-watching TV. She rues the fact that she hasn’t been to a movie in several adjacent seasons, but give her a book and she’s golden. She likes gardening. Plants are quiet. Her one and only child challenges her daily like the Mack truck of karma. Her favorite animals are seahorses and hummingbirds and her favorite food is popcorn. She decided on these as a teenager and hasn’t revised her opinions.