Category Archives: Book Reviews

Chicago Live Lit Makes Books

Hotshot in the audienceIt’s a scene we all know. Some young hopeful needs a major pep talk backstage, because tonight, there’s a hotshot in the audience, someone who could catapult you to stardom overnight. Usually, the young hopeful is a wannabe movie star or rock star and the hotshot is a famous critic or music producer. But live lit has made it possible for us to imagine a future in which writers are discovered by publishers not just in slush piles, but also in bars, cafes, libraries, bookstores, and even concert venues. Whether or not this is even more improbable than the rock star fantasy, public storytelling is a great way to develop your writing chops—and it can sometimes lead to publication. Just take a look at these local kids who made good. Here are five books that grew out of live lit in Chicago.

BARE-KNUCKLED LIT: THE BEST OF WRITE CLUB | Edited by Lindsay Muscato and Ian Belknap | December 16, 2014

Bare-Knuckled LitI’m a religious fanaticism survivor. The church I grew up in, it was of the “God-hates-fags” variety and I’m a better, happier person for having escaped it. But there are things I missed: the ritual, ceremony, fellowship, and passionate language that can sometimes lead to a sense of spiritual transcendence. More than a decade later, I still felt the loss—until Write Club. For me, this live lit series is like church, only without the bigotry and intolerance. And Bare-Knuckled Lit, well, maybe I won’t go so far as to say it’s the Bible, but it’s a damn good book.

In it, founder, host, and “overlord” Ian Belknap lays out Write Club’s genesis story, rules, and mission in the introduction, training the unversed: each installment has three bouts of two opposing writers on two opposing topics. But, unlike most real ministers, Belknap quickly steps aside to share the pulpit with some of the best “combatants” who have graced the Write Club stages of Chicago, Atlanta, and San Francisco, each presenting a short, lucid, and compelling persuasive essay. Leaving out the photographs, sidebars, and pull quotes one might expect from a book about such a raucous, popular show, Bare-Knuckled Lit makes it clear that, in the end, like church, Write Club is about beliefs—only, the ones we figure out for ourselves.

— Reviewed by Alba Machado

UGLY GIRLS: A NOVEL | Written by Lindsay Hunter | November 4, 2014

Ugly GirlsPerry and Baby Girl are fake-ass thugs. They blast tough music; they joyride through their double-wide, poverty-saddled rural town in a stolen red Mazda; they are teenage girls who aim to raise hell.

Let me put it out there: as one of the nerdy, stay-in-at-night good girls these two despise, I was ready to hop in the backseat and blaze off after Lindsay Hunter’s partners-in-crime. But Ugly Girls is not a glorification of the wildchild days. This debut novel from one of the founding hosts of the now-defunct Quickies reading series struck me, beyond all else, as a study in claustrophobia, where every environment has its own chokehold—from prison walkways to truck stop donut stands to quarry drops—and each character rides out flight-or-fight instincts, looking, not always hopefully, for a way to get free.

The prose combines gristly fragments and vicious dialogue; Hunter writes with a clammy realism and tough, punchy swagger I ate up in two sittings. She doesn’t deny it; the ugly girls are headed for disaster. But knowing that made the final lap of their race no less of a heartbreak—a violent, upsettingly abrupt ending that left me feeling, like Baby Girl, perturbed, itchy, and disgruntled. And maybe like I ought to try sneaking out my bedroom window some night.

— Reviewed by Jess Millman

ONCE I WAS COOL: PERSONAL ESSAYS | Written by Megan Stielstra | May 20, 2014

Once I Was Cool with BordersThere’s a certain intimacy inherent in this collection of personal essays. Honed, perhaps, from Megan’s time on the stage, where she stands, or sits, as comfortable as silk. But also in the way in which she opens the compendium of her life to show strangers: “This is who I am, and this is how I got here.”

For period of time—I don’t know how long it took to read Once I was Cool, I read slow, reread multiple essays, did everything in my power to prolong the experience of this book—I had this partner in crime. I was the passenger in the journey of her life. The Robin to her Batman, except with pants. The short-round to her Indiana Jones, except slightly taller, by like an inch—seriously I am so short. Megan made me feel like an important fixture in her life. This almost seems absurd to type, but the blend of her voice on the page with the structure of each essay made me feel as if we had always been friends.

After the last page had been read and the book was shut I found myself a little heartbroken.

— Reviewed (again) by Scott Eagan
(for his full review, see “The Power of Story“)

MEATY: ESSAYS | Written by Samantha Irby | Released October 1, 2013

MeatyI’m always a little confused whenever I read that Samantha Irby, Bitches Gotta Eat blogger and live lit performer, has only a cult following. That’s because I feel like everyone I know is a fan of Sam’s. But maybe I’m just lucky in my friends.

Irby wrote Meaty, a hilarious and poignant collection of essays in 2013 that is still cracking me up this year. I was turned onto her blog by fellow LC staffer, Alba Machado, a few years ago, and that was it for me—every week I hit up BGE for Irby’s multi-hued (and often ALL CAPS) posts covering everything from “manecdotes” to reading lists (she’s as much a hermit as a charmer).

She worked with Curbside Splendor on the raucous and bittersweet array of personal tales, including “My Mother, My Daughter,” the devastating story of caring for her mother from a young age. Meaty’s the culmination of years of shocking and awing on her blog and taking her incisive storytelling on the road: Irby has slayed at Write Club, and founded her very own live lit show, Guts & Glory, with Keith Ecker. It’s also raised the bar on personal narratives.

— Reviewed by Danette Chavez

BRIEFLY KNOCKED UNCONSCIOUS BY A LOW-FLYING DUCK: STORIES FROM 2ND STORY | Edited by Andrew Reilly and Megan Stielstra | Released November 12, 2012

Briefly KnockedIf I had to pick a Chicago reading series for my first-ever live lit experience (and I sort of do), it would be 2nd Story. Hands down. No other series better prepares its writer-performers for a show. Committed to the mission of “building community” and using stories to “connect people to one another,” members of its large staff work for up to four months with each storyteller, editing content, directing delivery, and coordinating sound and music. And the care and attention each story is given is as apparent in this collection as it is at their shows and in their podcasts. This is personal narrative at its best.

Although I might be somewhat biased here, since scanning the table of contents gives me a this-is-your-life-in-Columbia-College’s-creative-writing-program-so-THANK-YOUR-LUCKY-STARS feeling (thank you, STARS), this line-up would impress the hell out of anyone who follows the Chicago literary scene: Once I Was Cool’s Megan Stielstra, The Bradbury Chronicles’ Sam Weller, Bedrock Faith’s Eric Charles May, The Temple of Air’s Patricia Ann McNair, and a number of others who have made names for themselves as inspiring teachers and powerful live lit performers. But even if these names mean nothing to you, these stories, they’re ours, they’re the stories of what it means to be human. Inside each of them, you’ll see, there’s a story of your own waiting to be discovered. That’s why they call it 2nd Story.

— Reviewed by Alba Machado


Ugly Girls Author Lindsay Hunter Reads at the Hideout,” Chicago Magazine 

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There Are No Saviors Up In Here
by Danette Chavez

BOOK COVER - Up In HereWhen I started Mark Dostert’s Up in Here: Jailing Kids on Chicago’s Other Side, I confessed my skepticism of the book’s subject matter to my editor. I’m generally leery of these ersatz ethnographies, wherein the difficulties that a people or culture encounter are glimpsed through the prism of (usually white) privilege. The less offensive iterations are of the “white savior” variety (see Kathryn Stockett’s The Help), but then there are the outright racist publications such as the 1959 Golden Book Encyclopedia, which intended to teach (again, white) children about “the Negro” in what was, at the time, presumed to be a post-racial America.

Moving forward with my reading, and my bias, I initially placed Dostert’s memoir in the former category after reading his introduction. While an undergrad at the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, he volunteers as a Bible study instructor at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, which is the nation’s largest such facility. It was best known as the “Audy Home,” referring to the Arthur J. Audy Home of the early 20th century, which itself was once the largest juvenile jail in the country. After completing a graduate degree in his home state of Texas, Dostert returns to Audy Home as a “Children’s Attendant” in an attempt to minister to the incarcerated (mostly African-American) children and teens. Continue reading

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Her Priceless Advice: Jessie Ann Foley’s ‘The Carnival at Bray’
by Julia Fine



Ninety-nine year-old Dan Sean O’Callaghan, the most famous resident of a fictionalized County Wicklow as presented in the novel The Carnival at Bray, still makes yearly pilgrimages to Catholic holy places. Maggie Lynch, the book’s sixteen-year-old protagonist, makes a different sort of pilgrimage, following her favorite band across Europe to find her own version of enlightenment. And Jessie Ann Foley, the author of Elephant Rock Books’ upcoming novel, makes the pilgrimage daily to her writing desk.

Foley, who holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago, wrote The Carnival at Bray (coming October 2014) after she graduated from the program and returned to her full-time job as a high school teacher.

“I came home every day after school, and I wrote,” she said. “I knew I had to. I could complain about my job, or I could pursue my passion.” Continue reading

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Mood Surreal: Boris Vian’s L’Écume des Jours
by Julia Fine



Boris Vian’s 1947 novel L’Écume des Jours (either Froth on the Daydream or Foam of the Daze in English, depending on your translation) has been called unfilmable, but on July 25th Michel Gondry’s recent cinematic adaptation will open at the Gene Siskel Film Center at 164 N State St. (Take note: friends of Literary Chicago can get a discounted ticket by using the code “LIT.”)

Despite its reputation, this adaptation actually marks the novel’s third appearance on the silver screen. In 1968, French director Charles Belmont released a version called L’Écume des jour, and a Japanese adaptation by director Gô Rijû, called Chloe, came out in 2001. This time around, Gondry is using the English title Mood Indigo—a textual deviation, but a fitting name for a whimsical story that plays across the page like jazz music.

Continue reading

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Not All Who Wander are Lost: Finding an Honest Guide in Ben Tanzer’s “Lost in Space”
by Jeff Toth

Lost in Space

“So you also look for signs to provide you some kind of roadmap for where things might possibly be going, because even a sign that is hard to read or navigate is better than none.” — Ben Tanzer, from the essay “The Boy with the Curious Hair”

Full disclosure: despite what may seem like a daunting title, Ben Tanzer’s Lost in Space: A Father’s Journey There and Back Again is neither hard to read nor difficult to navigate. It is, instead, an incredibly honest take on the joys and fears every parent experiences, sometimes long before their children are even a part of the picture. With a blend of humor, inventive structuring, and sometimes sobering truth, Tanzer explores the wide array of influences and instances that continue to shape his journey as a father and as a man. As signs go, Lost in Space is everything a person in need of a guide through the uncertainty of adulthood, manhood, parenthood, personhood, could hope for. At least that was the experience of this reader. I’ll explain.

I first encountered the author and his latest collection of essays in Seattle of all places. We set out separately from our respective homes in Chicago in late February to attend the annual conference for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP)—Mr. Tanzer, no doubt, kissing his wife and two sons goodbye before setting out to share his work with the literary masses, while I was taking the last trip I would ever take on my own before becoming a father myself. Then again, it wasn’t so much a “trip” for me as it was an exploratory mission. Continue reading

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The Power of Story
by Scott Eagan

Once I Was CoolI have an admission I’d like to get out into the open before moving onto Megan Stielstra’s wonderful collection of personal essays, Once I Was Cool. I know the author. I mean, we’re not besties or anything. There was this time, not so long ago, when I decided, on a whim, to take a class taught by Bobby Biedrzycki and Megan Stielstra called Story and Performance—an experience I hold as one of the high points in my pursuit of an MFA degree at Columbia College Chicago. (Bobby makes a very powerful appearance in Once I Was Cool, in the essay “Dragons so Huge.”) For fifteen weeks I got to learn from Megan, while being exposed to fragments of this collection. Of course, I didn’t know it at the time. And every so often, as I read this book, these small moments would sweep in and leave me with this sense of familiarity, because I heard a part of the story, like with the first line to the essay “Those Who Were There.” Or like with this striking bit of insight on the nature and importance of story, which I highlighted then promptly wrote down in my journal:

Story—when done right—can help you find yourself in others, share realities that can’t possibly be real, and show a person or people a world that you never before imagined.

Here’s the thing: writing, like anything else in life, is a process. Even this review—the approach of which is a bit unorthodox, but who the hell says a review needs to be orthodox—is part of a process. A presentation of my opinion on Once I Was Cool with the intent to persuade—totally the case with this book—or dissuade—not the case with this book—the reader. But, and this is the important part, I need to first understand why I think Once I Was Cool is so good. Is worth both your money and time. Accomplishing that is not just about pinpointing the things that I liked, or admired. It’s also about the distillation of the work into those themes that resonate the strongest with me. And sometimes that can be tricky. So I’m going to walk you through the process I underwent in order to find those themes. Continue reading

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Living Stories in Poetry and Pedagogy
By Daniel Camponovo

My Apartment in Chicago by Jack Murphy

“I am the magic marker’s missing cap,” Jack Murphy asserts in the first line of his new collection My Apartment in Chicago. He also calls himself Derrick Rose, Bob Dylan in 1963 or sometimes 1972, your grandmother’s lampshade, pink Starbusts, and a scratched off lottery ticket, among other miscellaneous objects. Drawn in by that first line, and intrigued by the writer the Chicagoist says “encapsulates avant-garde literature in all of its aspects,” I decided to take the poem’s title (“Hey There Stranger, Come Sit Down And Get To Know Me For A While”) to heart and meet the man at the West Loop’s Jupiter Outpost.

Jack Murphy, it turns out, is not Bob Dylan or root beer fizz or Derrick Rose (though he is a Chicagoan, through and through.) Jack Murphy is a 26-year-old teacher and writer, a graduate of DePaul University’s Writing and Publishing MA program, and an avid, rabid Bulls fan and self-proclaimed Derrick Rose defender. He is an iced tea drinker (see: “The Summer of Iced Tea”) and a former girls’ basketball coach. He is approachable, funny and insightful, able to alternate between pedagogy and Tom Thibodeau’s defensive system on the fly. Above all else, he is passionate about his work: the writing and the teaching, which he views as inextricable from each other. Continue reading

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A Good Book with a Bad Cover
by Sophie L. Nagelberg

Green Nails

A review of Green Nails and Other Acts of Rebellion: Life After Loss by Elaine Soloway, due to be published on September 16, 2014

This may sound harsh, upfront, but bear with me because it gets better. I’ll go ahead and say this: based on the cover design or title of this book alone, I never would have picked up a copy of Green Nails and Other Acts of Rebellion (She Writes Press). The pink font, the green smudge of nail polish, and the title in itself — it all feels trite, like something you might pick up in the airport gift shop and toss after the returning flight. I might expect some gossip-ridden drama based loosely on the life of an interchangeable author. We’ve all seen memoirs like this, right? Maybe it’s even thrown into that genre called chic-lit, which is a whole other topic I ought not to get started on. Ugh. Continue reading

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