Literary Chicago


Archive for June, 2011

A Guide for the Grieving

June 28, 2011 By: Lauryn Allison Lewis Category: Book Reviews, Grief and Loss

a review of Ben Tanzer’s novella, My Father’s House

When a loved one dies unexpectedly, their sins are suddenly pardoned, lifelong points of contention are forever set aside, and those left behind to mourn huddle together, able to recount nothing but good times, the joyful highlights of the deceased person’s life. It is a common phenomenon.

But what happens when a person’s death is foretold in low blood platelet counts, a mysterious seizure, a trip to the hospital that ends in a diagnosis of cancer? What happens when a family is denied the grace of losing a loved one quickly, and instead must find a path toward making amends, finding closure, and saying goodbye, all while their father and spouse is suspended in the disquieting limbo between life and death?

Ben Tanzer’s latest novella, My Father’s House, soon to be released by Main Street Rag Publishing Company, examines this conflict and several others others often found in Tanzer’s fiction.

For instance, the narrator of My Father’s House is a social worker by profession:

“I am at work. I work at a drop-in center for the homeless. When people first walk in, there is a ping pong table to their right and a bunch of couches to the left crowded around a television. After that there is a desk where we greet people and I am sitting at that desk, trying to greet people as they come in for lunch and trying my best to answer their questions.”

An oxymoron of marital terms (deeply loving but not strictly monogamous):

“I’m in pain. I’ve got a dying father and this girl has something to offer, something almost medicinal, and it’s okay then, okay, okay, okay, something I keep telling myself as we have sex in the backseat of her car, legs everywhere, and then I walk back to my father’s house, stopping long enough to shower once there before climbing into bed with Kerri and drifting off to sleep, drunk and restless.”

A son driven to make his parents proud, but self-aware enough to admit that at times there were detrimental oversights in their parenting:

“I remember that he and my mom asked me to sit down in the kitchen so we could talk…they sat me down and told me how my father was moving out for a little while, but that things would be the same, and that I’s still see him as much as I ever did. I remember sitting there trying to look nonchalant and unbothered by the news, staring straight ahead the whole time, no emotions, no nothing. They asked if I had any questions but I didn’t say a word, choosing instead to casually shake my head no, focused on getting out and moving on before the tears came.”

Much of this is explored during the narrator’s therapy sessions, amid parallel, nearly-obsessive inner monologues concerning the therapist’s tiny hands. “I’m at the therapist’s. She is looking at me with that curly hair. And those hands, those tiny little hands that I want to suck on.”

Tanzer’s latest work will immediately strike a familiar chord in those who have had the great pleasure of reading his previous novels and collections. Still, My Father’s House is in many ways a stunning departure from the writer’s thematic repertoire. The writing here is incredibly direct, emotional, tender and honest. And again, Tanzer weaves in musical inspiration throughout the novella via Bruce Springsteen, but does not hide behind these references or use them as a catch-all to articulate what his characters are feeling.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly, I beg you not to be deterred by Tanzer’s exploration of one family’s medical crisis. Heavy though the subject may be, this writer is one of very few who possess the ability to balance sadness with humor; dry and self-deprecating, and understated so as not to seem incongruent, his humor is thoroughly appreciated and at times much needed.

My Father’s House is a novella brave enough to strip itself bare and stand before its audience, vulnerable but unashamed. It is one you’ll hold to your heart after reading; a literary light capable of illuminating a story familiar to so many with nothing but utmost respect, love, and understanding.

Quickies! Says, “Good Riddance”

June 27, 2011 By: Mason Johnson Category: End of an Era, Reading Series

Let’s make this quick(ies), I got shit to do.

Heh, get it? Quickies. Like the reading series that just said goodbye to co-host Mary Hamilton cause that ho is moving to LA? Like the reading series I’m reviewing right now, at this very moment?

Oh, go to hell. Puns are cool.


Goodbyes can get awkward. They can be teary-eyed catastrophes where people turn into miserable, blubbering messes. If you’re a pussy, that is. Thankfully, Mary Hamilton ain’t no pussy. She’s one tough broad. She kept the waterworks at bay, which helped her last Chicago Quickies! stand out as something to remember (and not be embarrassed about).

Quickies!, the reading where participants must read their entire story in four minutes or less, had a few differences this time around. Firstly, Lindsay Hunter (1), Mary’s other half, had instructed all the writers involved to read something that had to do with Mary. The topics and themes were quite varied. Robbie Q. Telfer’s honored the Hamilton by speaking about Night Court’s Bull Shannon. (3) Most interesting was Jacob Knabb, who is typically loathed for singing at readings, I mean, really hated, but outdid himself with his extremely enjoyable rendition of Boys II Men’s “End of the Road” (4). What stood out most was Theo Huxtable (5), mentioned in practically every piece, exemplifying Mary’s apparent “perfect man.” (Dyslexic, but handsome, amirite? High five!)

The most entertaining parts of the night came from Mary Hamilton’s whistle (not a euphemism). Typically, whenever a reader hits the four minute mark, Mary blows a whistle to signify that they should get the hell away from the mic. Rules were different this night though. She was free to whistle whenever she wanted to. For example: through all of Patrick Somerville’s piece. I have no idea what it was about, but boy is he a tough li’l soldier for continuing through Mary’s sonic onslaught. Mostly the whistle was used to keep our emotions in check, lest we turn into a buncha fourteen-year-old girls leaking salty water from our eye sockets (Dave Snyder and I turned into fourteen year old girls once, it was awful). If Robyn Pennacchia tried to profess her love to Mary while she read, then she’d get the whistle to put her in place. If Lindsay started to read something she wrote that was actually somewhat sentimental, BAM, whistle. She should know better anyways. The whistle really exemplified what Mary Hamilton is to everyone: a chick who keeps everyone in line. And everyone lets her because everyone loves her. Without Mary Hamilton, where exactly will Chicago be? I don’t quite know, but it’s gonna be real damn depressing, that’s for sure. Thanks for leaving, Mary. You asshole. (6)


  1. Originally, I wrote “Lindsay Hamilton,” combining Lindsay Hunter
    and Mary Hamilton into one person. Big mistake, especially because
    this real life combination would be disastrous. Like the perfect
    serial killer. Our hobo population would disappear. I don’t care what
    you say about hobos, I like them.
  2. This comment has nothing to do with Mary (not everything’s about
    you, Hamilton), I just wanted to point out that footnotes really don’t
    work well in WordPress. Sorry.
  3. This guy! Ugh…
  4. Originally, I thought he had performed “I’ll Make Love To You,”
    which is another great B2Men song. I was wrong. Again. I was wrong a
    lot in this review. Also, Jacob’s real high point that night was when
    he and I picked up two glasses of beer, both from strangers, and drank
    them down. The story to that exists below in the comments section.
    Matt Rowan corrected my use of “peaked,” pointing out that I was
    looking for “piqued.” He’s peaked my interest in punching him in the
  5. I originally wrote “Huxely” instead of “Huxtable.” As if the
    handsome dyslexic were really a lame sci-fi writer who liked LSD.
  6. Nothing has been pointed out as incorrect in this paragraph… yet.
    Give it time I suppose. I think I learned something from writing this
    review. Mainly, writing a review of a reading two weeks after it
    happened, on your smart phone as you ride the train, is a bad idea.
    Especially when you were half sick / half tipsy at said reading,
    sitting in the back where you couldn’t see the readers and could only
    hear half of what they said. Whoops. Sorry for being a failure. <3


Related Posts
You Don’t Know How It Feels To Be Pulled Inside Out: An Ode To Bull Shannon
(story by Mary Hamilton published in PANK Magazine)
Reader Meet Author (interview with Mary Hamilton in What to Wear During an Orange Alert?)


Quintessentially American

June 16, 2011 By: Lauryn Allison Lewis Category: Book Reviews

a review of Alan Heathcock’s new collection of short stories, Volt

If you haven’t yet read Alan Heathcock’s debut book, Volt, published recently by Graywolf Press, it’s about time you do. Volt is a stunning collection of stories linked by one prominent commonality: the imagined town of Krafton, a place wholly unto itself in terms of geographical features, as well as the type of person Krafton seems to produce—hard-working, hard-earning, hold-no-punches, and God-fearing. They are coarse, weather worn at times, yes, but the characters of Volt also express an overwhelming capacity for emotional insight and depth, psychological complexity and poignant tenderness.

Take for example this excerpt from the collection’s opening story, “Staying the Freight,”

“But the grace of Krafton came with the seasons, sowing, reaping, breeding an understanding that last year has no bearing on this one; this crop might be better, or worse, and regardless there’ll be another and then another. In this there was only the future and diligent work, and not emotion but movement, just as the rain falling or crops sprouting was not emotion.”

“Staying the Freight” tracks the panicked, fleeing movement of Winslow, a man desperate to escape a memory he cannot bear to confront. He is haunted along his journey away from home by a “freight man.” Whether this man is a spectral manifestation of Winslow’s unexplored pain, or an actual being, Heathcock’s delivery leaves pinhole openings in which readers must settle many of the collection’s gripping mysteries for themselves.

Like “Staying the Freight,” each of the stories included here is written in a beautifully sincere, wide-eyed and open-faced manner. Heathcock wastes no time mincing words or meanings; his style is beautifully unfettered, quintessentially American. Volt is a novel woven of nature’s elements, human nuance, and heartrending honesty.

Volt sets a new standard to which all other fiction collections must now measure themselves. I sense it will be a long time before readers find anything worthy of close comparison, unless Alan Heathcock decides to publish another book, and soon.

Related Blog Post
An Interview with Alan Heathcock by Weston Cutter at Bookslut

Two Cookie Minimum (With No Maximum!)

June 14, 2011 By: Mason Johnson Category: Reading Series

Like Clark Kent, John Warzazek has an alter ego. Unlike Clark Kent, John doesn’t find his way into a phone booth to change costumes, or take his glasses on or off, or really do anything to disguise his true identity while acting as alter ego Johnny Misfit. He just kind of switches names at will, never bothering to protect his true identity from enemies that might hurt his family, which makes sense. I can’t see John having any enemies. He’s a nice guy, and what’s more, a decent host for the stomach-filling reading Two Cookie Minimum.

The first thing you should know about Two Cookie Minimum is that there are, in fact, cookies. Usually held in a bakery, they tend to be plentiful. June 7th’s reading took place at the Hungry Brain, a great bar for readings; the kind of place where people both listen attentively to stories, but also feel comfortable enough to playfully heckle anyone on stage, which is a nice combination. Plus, one of the bartenders, Dan, knows me by name now. A positive peak of alcoholism.

Mr. Misfit opened up the night by reading a piece he wrote that was both quick and clever. The story, about a man taking a good, ol’ fashioned poop, really showed how vulnerable we can be as human beings. (Not really, but it was funny.) This piece was a good start for the night, setting a tone of great stories from both zinesters and writers alike (as if a distinction needs to be made between the two). Georgi Johnston charmed the crowd next with her innocent act, claiming to have never done a reading before as she read a letter she “received” from a pen-pal who lives in a cave and is totally real. This was one of the high points of the night, watching as Georgi played with form and genuinely made everyone laugh. Another high point of the night was Chris Terry, who also made everyone laugh. Chris’ story, Hairzilla, took the audience on a trip through adolescence with a well written 2nd person narrator. The night continued to be a blast with Dave Snyder pondering about Jesus’ virgin birth as compared to a turkey, Behnam Riahi reading what one might describe as a shitty story (in a good, albeit disgusting, kinda way), Ben Spies not being afraid to end his story on a sad note, and Dave Roche entertaining us with his asides as much as he did with his piece (about Penguins!!!).

The part about Two Cookie that inspires me most, which John was nice enough to point out, is that it’s a combination of writers and zinesters. This wouldn’t seem significant, in that, well, a writer is a writer, except for the fact that all too often, especially in a city like Chicago, we tend to divide ourselves into as many groups as possible. Too many damn cliques. Which seems a bit off when you consider the fact that, despite the great amount of readings, writers are kind of a minority. While I like my friends, I get tired of going to readings and knowing the majority of everyone there. It’s nice to have events like Two Cookie Minimum where artists from circles I might not typically interact with show up. Makes me feel all good inside. Thanks, Johnny Misfit, for making me feel good inside.


Literary Death Match Returns to Chicago

June 08, 2011 By: Alba Machado Category: Reading Series

Hosts Todd Zuniga (foreground) and Dennis DiClaudio (background).

In April of 2010, I saw Todd Zuniga give a lecture on the future of publishing at Columbia College Chicago (see “How to Trick People into Reading”). The founding editor of a stylish, funny, and cutting-edge literary magazine called Opium, Zuniga was scheduled later that day to host an installment of his popular reading series, Literary Death Match. I’d never been, but I opted instead for an evening in front of my computer, writing about his lecture. I thought, I’ll catch Literary Death Match next time. Big mistake. Because Chicago shares Literary Death Match with 33 other cities around the world, including Beijing, Edinburgh, Paris, Dublin, and Amsterdam, it wouldn’t return to us until over a year later.

At long last, Zuniga is back at the Hide Out for Literary Death Match’s 152nd show. Sporting a black bow tie and a shiny, elaborately-patterned blazer, he stands beside his co-host, Comedy Central’s Dennis DiClaudio, and says apologetically, “We haven’t been in Chicago in fourteen months because you guys have the most amazing reading series in the world.” He has a point. Each of tonight’s contestants and judges has participated in one local reading series or another. In fact, Ian Belknap, tonight’s champion, has developed a degree of notoriety by regularly being the “Minister of Veracity” or “Fact Checker” at The Encyclopedia Show, the “Dean of Mean” at The Paper Machete, and “The Overlord” at Write Club – a series he himself created and hosts (see “Fighting Words at Write Club”). These excellent reading series are listed among others in Literary Chicago’s left-hand sidebar (see “A Year of Essay Fiesta” and “Encyclopedia Show for the Metrophobic”). Zuniga is right to suggest that we have not lacked for good literary entertainment and enlightenment in his show’s absence, but it’s still great to have it back.

Literary Death Match’s “about” page says that it “marries the literary and performative aspects of Def Poetry Jam, rapier-witted quips of American Idol’s judging (without any meanness), and the ridiculousness and hilarity of Double Dare.” Alan Black, author of Kick the Balls, calls it “the magic mushroom of Planet Lit,” and who among us on Planet Lit doesn’t need a good magic mushroom from time to time?

Judges from left to right: Steve Gadlin, Kate James, and Claire Zulkey.

Tonight, the magic mushroom consists of readings by Johanna Stein, Samantha Irby, Amy Guth, and the aforementioned Ian Belknap; and judging by Claire Zulkey, Kate James, and Steve Gadlin. Zuniga determines the order of readings by throwing “projectiles” into the audience (tiny rolled-up pieces of paper that resemble spit balls) and by flipping a toy gun. Following is an overview of each of the readings and highlights of the judging.

Round 1:

Johanna Stein versus Samantha Irby


After lamenting the fact that no school has invited her to give a commencement address to its graduates, JOHANNA STEIN cues the Pomp and Circumstance and delivers one to us, beginning by saying, “If I can impart one piece of advice to you, it is this: don’t be an asshole.” People who are assholes include those who ask, “So, what do you do?”  and Stein’s dog — who’s gay, in love with her husband, and hypercritical of her lovemaking. She ends her speech by flipping onto her back, legs in the air, and squealing, “We represent the lollipop guild!” (It totally makes sense in context.)


Claire Zulkey: I like the timeliness of Johanna’s piece. I went to a school full of assholes, so I appreciated that.

Kate James: You flipped and we saw nothing — except magic.

Steve Gadlin: Hearing you talk about assholes, all I felt was shame for me. But I liked that feeling.


Cheered on by fans of her blog, Bitches Gotta Eat, SAMANTHA IRBY explains why and how she wanted and then, subsequently, didn’t want to “fuck a midget.” “When I saw 5’2″, I thought, ‘Finally, my opportunity to legally fuck someone who’s not allowed to ride on a roller coaster . . . ‘I thought you’d be slimmer,’ he said. Yeah. The midget.” In the end, Irby decides that she can’t “in good conscience make love to a human the size of a My Buddy doll.” There isn’t a moment free of laughter throughout Irby’s entire reading.


Claire Zulkey: We knew right away that this was going to be about fucking a midget.

Kate James: I don’t know you, but I already like you. Based on what you said and based on the fact that someone back there is holding up a Bitches Gotta Eat sign.

Steve Gadlin: Roller coaster. There’s a vaudeville routine that sums this up for me: “Would you like a Hershey bar?” “Yes, I would like a Hershey bar.” “Well, I don’t have a Hershey bar.”

Samantha Irby

• • 

Round 2

Amy Guth versus Ian Belknap

Now a Chicago writer, AMY GUTH paints a vivid picture of herself as the cool New Yorker, unimpressed by celebrity sitings such as that of Cyd Charisse – until the day she spots Morrissey holding up a Squeeze album at a music store. “Let’s be very clear about this. I love The Smiths . . . I planned a couple of dates on my book tour around where Morrissey would be touring . . . Despite everything I’d been taught my entire life (about being a cool New Yorker), I wanted – nay, NEEDED, to talk to Morrissey.” While she may stand by her decision to approach him, she will forever regret her decision to “wing it.” Without a plan, she ended up holding her finger out to the Squeeze album “like E.T. reaching for Eliot” and making a sound “something between a pterodactyl and a horn.” Years later, an editor would deny her the opportunity to interview Morrissey because of this moment.

Claire Zulkey: I love stories about celebrity sitings. One time I got in line behind Jon Stewart in an airport McDonald’s, even though I didn’t want to buy anything.

Kate James: You’re a storyteller, not a performer . . . I love that you rested on Morrissey – that, of all people, it was him that made you lose your cool. This is a story your children will tell your grandchildren, and your grandchildren will say, “What’s a CD?”

Steve Gadlin: Who’s Cyd Charisse? Wonderful. Fifty percent of us had no fucking idea who you were talking about.

Entitled “My Persistent Difficulty in Obtaining Corporate Sponsorship,” IAN BELKNAP’S reading is an open letter to Nell Newman, daughter of late Hollywood legend, philanthropist, and organic foodstuff extraordinaire, Paul Newman. After requisite condolences, Belknap proposes that Newman’s Own Championship Cookies serve as sole corporate sponsor for his one-man show. In return, he will demonstrate his enthusiasm for their product by eating it on stage, then “pooping into a bowl,” then eating the resulting poop “while they’re still warm.” Because Nell’s father had “a real bug up his butt about helping sick kids,” Belknap also offers to fake the disease of her choice. “For a thousand bucks, I’ll throw up whenever you want.” His voice cracking wildly, he explains that such measures have become necessary for “hardworking Americans.” “I hate my job like syphilis . . . Every hour I don’t kill myself is a miracle.”


Claire Zulkey: Wow, Ian, you really took me on a journey tonight. Sometimes…I resented you. I don’t like thinking about eating poop. But I understand why you did that and there was not a word wasted. You talked a lot about cookies and that made me hungry.

Kate James: Big fan, first time caller. You are the most ridiculous person I know and I know a lot of people. I’m scared of you. I never know what to expect. When you started, I thought, “What is this about?” And then here we go, we’re shitting in a bowl. The levels are Escher-like. Lots of cookie imagery. Tonight we’ve had two celebrity encounters — our first two readings were sexy time and the second two were celebrity fucking.

Steve Gadlin: I’m surprised that cookies stand out for you two. Most of us will be haunted by the bowl of shit. That was beautiful . . . I just wish you send that letter to Nell Newman and that there will be a second piece about her response.

Ian Belknap

• • 


Samantha Irby versus Ian Belknap

In keeping with the series’ commitment to absurd physical contests that are only peripherally literary — or maybe, as Zuniga points out, “more literary than anything” — our finalists must face off in a game of Down with Book Burners! DiClaudio holds a small basketball hoop and Belknap and Irby throw as many crumpled-up photographs of known book burners into it as they can. In a 5-4 win, Belnap becomes the champion of the 152nd Literary Death Match by dunking a picture of Max Brod.

Ian Belknap

Let’s hope that the next Literary Death Match for Chicago is not fourteen months away. We need it about one-tenth as much as Amy Guth needs to talk to Morrissey, which is saying a lot.

Related Blog Posts
How to Trick People into Reading by Alba Machado
33 Cities and Counting by Todd Zuniga


The Beauty of Losing Someone

June 05, 2011 By: Alba Machado Category: Grief and Loss

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Leo Tolstoy, in Anna Karenina

Something similar to déjà vu occurs when I return to the Loop Room at University Center for a second panel discussion during this Saturday’s Printers Row Lit Fest. It’s not just that the room is the same or that both of its discussions are conducted by women –  four in the first, three in the second. It’s that all of these women are talking about loss. In “Missing in Action,” moderator Mairead Case talks with Hannah Pittard, Anna North, and Lesley Kagen – novelists whose books each revolve around the disappearance of someone important, someone close. In “My Family, My Memoir,” moderator Kathleen Rooney talks with Zoe Fitzgerald Carter and Cornelia Maude Spelman – memoir writers whose books center on the unusual deaths of their mothers. The two discussions could have been called “Loss, Part 1: Fiction” and “Loss, Part 2: Nonfiction.” One might imagine that with so much talk of loss, the air would be heavy with grief and sadness. It’s not.

Certainly, there is a great deal of gravity in the room when Cornelia Maude Spelman begins “My Family, My Memoir” by holding up a copy of her book, entitled Missing, and declaring, “This is my mother at the age of sixteen, and this [on the cover] is her diary writing. She was not missing, but she did die when I was 28 years old. Witnessing her decline was like watching her lower herself into boiling oil.” Like her mother, Spelman herself is a diary writer, as well as a meticulous archivist, and she quickly reveals to us how research and writing for this book helped her to investigate the mystery of her mother’s death. Her voice is somewhat clinical, perhaps reflective of her background as a therapist, as she describes her first forays into the hospital records that describe her mother’s mental illness: “The prognosis is extremely grave. No potential for rehabilitation.” But the tough exterior cracks a bit as Spelman considers the possibility that her mother may have been right and not “delusional” in believing that Frank, her brother and her mother’s son, was intent on killing her. Later, in answer to an audience member’s question about research, the author says, “In every family, there are those untold stories, or hints of stories, and those are often the most interesting . . . You can go on a marvelous treasure hunt.” Although hers was a search that may have been too painful to describe as a “marvelous treasure hunt,” one does get the sense that it yielded a great wealth of insight and resolution.

“Even in the midst of difficult situations there are often moments of beauty,” says Zoe Fitzgerald Carter, by way of introduction to the passage she reads from her book, Imperfect Endings. It is about how her mother, after having struggled with Parkinson’s for 20 years, decides to end her own life and have her daughters at her side when she goes. Few situations could be more difficult. As anyone who’s experienced the passing of a loved one knows, reality itself can appear to take on different shapes and colors in the moments before, during, and after death. But Carter’s work suggests that these shapes and colors needn’t all be sharp angles and icy grays. She doesn’t read to us about needles and bedpans and hospital gowns, though these things may indeed be mentioned in her book; she reads to us instead about the memory of a stormy Fourth of July. Her mother lay in bed, and she and her children wait for the rains to pass so that they could light fireworks. When the noise of the storm convinces one of her kids that their house is falling down, she says, “That’s what thunder sounds like, like something breaking. But it’s really just two clouds crashing into each other.” Carter tries to get her mom to corroborate, but she’s begun to doze off. Finally, the storm passes and she’s lighting fireworks, “each an ephemeral umbrella of light.”  In a line reminiscent of Dylan Thomas’ “rage against the dying of the light,” she says, “I’m so intent on keeping the sky alive with light and color and glory.”

Despite her strength and success as a memoir writer, Carter herself doesn’t enjoy reading memoirs much. “I like novels better. I don’t really understand the importance of it being truthful. There can be just as much truth in a novel, only it can be more free-wheeling.” She may have appreciated the “Missing in Action” panel discussion, then, because the more “free-wheeling” approach of the novel is exactly what its authors have each taken with regards to the subject of loss.

As a matter of fact, “free-wheeling” may be a good word to describe Hannah Pittard’s approach to life, and not just literature. She explains during the discussion that she has a habit of rewriting history, telling her own life’s stories to herself and to others for maximum effect rather than accuracy. Her revisions are often so vivid that she herself sometimes has trouble remembering whether or not they are true. A case in point: in her book, The Fates Will Find Their Way, she writes a scene in which boys get in trouble for masturbating in their school auditorium. She hesitated to include this scene, not because of its obscenity, but rather, because she believed it to be based on a true story from her childhood. When she shared her work with former fellow classmates, however, none of them recognized the scene, and it wasn’t until a former teacher came forward to substantiate it that she stopped questioning her own memory. The Fates will Find Their Way is actually about the disappearance of a 16-year-old girl from an unnamed mid-Atlantic town and, more specifically, the effect that her disappearance has on her family and friends – those who never completely let her go, even after graduating, getting married, and having children. It is written in the very unusual first-person plural point of view (“we believe”), which may lend it a sense of otherworldliness.

Anna North’s book, America Pacifica, goes to far greater lengths in establishing otherworldliness. It takes place after a second ice age, on the title island, which is one of the last places on Earth to be habitable. Loss here is epic. The lines that stand out in North’s reading include “I’m sorry that it’s come to this but we’re going to have to eat the children” and “Wait, Daddy, don’t eat us. I have an idea . . . ” Despite the extreme, fantastic, and far-removed setting of this book, however (maybe not that far-removed, given global warming), she explores issues of an ordinary and universal theme: coming of age. “I was interested in this process of making a new self, an adult self.”

Lesley Kagen shares this interest, although her characters are set in 1950s America. “It was beautiful and not in the way that many people think it was. There was a stillness . . . a tactileness and a sensuality.” Perhaps it is Kagen’s attention to the five senses that allows her to imagine worlds so precisely that she develops actual affection for her characters and is sad to stop “seeing” them once she’s finished writing her novels. Jokingly, she says, “People ask me, ‘So what happens after the book ends?’ And I go, ‘Really? It’s pretend.” But she’s moved to tears when she recounts the time during a reading in “Podunk, Wisconsin” that she spotted a woman in the audience crying and holding up a tape recorder. This woman told her that she and a friend both loved her work because it was set in the 1950s, when they grew up, and that she was recording the event because her friend was dying. The two of them would lay next to each other on a hospital bed the next day, listening together. Kagen’s tears are the only ones that surface during the two events about loss. Maybe that’s partly because in this memory she is able to see that, as Carter puts it, “even in the midst of difficult situations there are often moments of beauty.”

From Left to Right: Mairead Case, Hannah Pittard, Anna North, and Lesley Kagen.

Mairead Case is a member of the Dil Pickle Club, nonfiction editor at Another Chicago Magazine, and volunteer coordinator for the Louder Than a Bomb youth poetry festival.

Hannah Pittard is the author of The Fates Will Find Their Way and the recipient of the 2006 Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award. She teaches fiction at DePaul University.

Anna North is the author of America Pacifica and a staff writer for Jezebel. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, where it was nominated for a National Magazine Award.

Lesley Kagen is an actress, restauranteur, and the author of Whistling in the Dark and two other novels.

From Left to Right: Zoe Fitzgerald Carter, Kathleen Rooney, and Cornelia Maude Spelman

Zoe Fitzgerald Carter is the author of the memoir Imperfect Endings: A Daughter’s Story of Love, Loss, and Letting Go. She has written for numerous publications including the New York Times, Salon, and Vogue.

Kathleen Rooney is the founding editor of Rose Metal Press. Her most recent books include the essay collection For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs and the poetry chapbook After Robinson Has Gone.

Cornelia Maude Spelman is a writer, an artist, and a former social worker. She is the author of the memoir Missing, as well as picture books for children.