Literary Chicago



Down-to-Earth Verse

a review of James Payne’s poetry collection, Austerity Pleasures


Aw, man! Poetry?! LAME.

Just kidding!

But seriously, poetry kinda sucks.

James Payne’s collection of poems, Austerity Pleasures, does not suck though. Before you start screaming, “BUT MASON THAT’S CRAZY,” just hear me out. And please, for the love of God, keep your finger away from the caps lock.

Payne’s poems have all the intellect many similar poetry and chapbook collections contain, the kind of intellect you find in books that may as well come with a required reading list of boring, old, dead dudes, but with more wit and honesty, and therefore, less douche-baggery. It’s really nice to see something so well put together that, at the same time, doesn’t take itself too seriously. And Austerity Pleasures, by the way, is in fact well put together. Literally. A well constructed, little chapbook that’s nice to hold in your hands.

The poems inside encompass that mid-twenties angst that all of us youths are getting sick of. They’re self aware enough to entertain you though, to pull you in, instead of doing the opposite. The book combines all those worries – petty and legitimate – that freeze your mind and turn you into an insomniac. “Poem For Sitting in Panera,”  for example, tackles the future. Throwing worries like “where will I be in fifteen years” into a loudspeaker that exaggerates them comically while, simultaneously, keeping that keen sense of anxiety they initially cause intact. It’s a nice duality.

“Our Rattails” does the opposite, focusing on a better past:

Make my hair
back to when you were punk.
we had rattails, sure
things were fun.

Yeah, everything was fun, but if you read the rest of the poem, you’ll find a subtle undertone of what it’s like to look back: like the bad aftertaste of a great meal. It’s kind of pathetic. And depressing. That’s the impression I got, at least. Buy the damn book to read the whole poem and tell me if I’m wrong.

Many of James’ poems are quite small, practically one liners. He really excels here.  “Books of Love” examines a myriad of things (dating, pleasure, money, class…) in just two sentences. Also, it’s funny.

As a whole, much of Austerity Pleasures feels like it specifically rebels against pretension.  Against the significant others and peers in our lives that measure a person’s worth by the amount of books they’ve read and how smart they sound when they speak about them. Sometimes this rebellion is subtle, other times blatant, but always well written.

Regardless of the writing, battling pretentious jag-offs and heart-breakers is something I can get on board with – especially when it’s funny.

Austerity Pleasures is out from Monster House Press. Check out what James Payne himself has to say at

Mason Johnson and James Payne


Quintessentially American


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 course, weather worn at times, yes, but the characters of Volt also express an overwhelming capacity for emotional insight and depth, psychological complexity and overwhelming 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 are 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

Literary Dynamite

a review of Ryan W. Bradley’s new collection of short stories, Prize Winners



Ryan W. Bradley has fronted a punk band, done construction in the Arctic Circle, and managed an independent children’s bookstore. He is the author of three chapbooks and a novel, Code for Failure, which will be published in 2012 by Black Coffee Press. He is now a freelance book designer and lives in Oregon with his wife and two sons.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will tell you that Ryan W. Bradley is a friend of mine. I will also tell you that I am stone-cold and impenetrable to favoritism and flattery. So if I didn’t think his newest creation, Prize Winners, was literary dynamite, I would not be reviewing it and concurrently insisting you make it your own.

Prize Winners is the first of Artistically Declined Press’ Pop Up Release series, which will, according to Mr. Bradley, “bring fun and surprise to publishing. It’s a project I’m really hoping works out because ideally it will allow us to publish a few more books a year, which would be awesome.” The man speaks golden truths. It certainly would be awesome; Artistically Declined Press has a Midas touch and a keen eye for stellar manuscripts.

Prize Winners is a 112-page collection of eighteen mostly flash-length stories, which is just right, considering the punch each packs – considering the unwavering gaze each levels at its reader, daring one to flinch, daring one to sync up one’s heartbeat with its own pounding pulse.

Several of the stories are preceded by dedications, one to Chicago’s own Lindsay Hunter. “Pubes” begins, “Girls were shaving their pubes now, Donnie knew from his friends and from the internet. And guys were doing it, too. His friend Jeremy said he’d done it. That girls went crazy for it. ‘Plus it makes you look huge,’ Jeremy said. Donnie was standing in the shower running his fingers through his mane of pubic hair. He pulled strands straight, thought why not. After all, tonight he had his first date in months and he wanted it to go well. If his dry spell lasted any longer he might just lose it altogether.”

Yes, sex is a sticky thread winding itself through every story here: awkward sex, hate sex, scared sex, underage sex, even Tom Selleck sex. But do not be fooled, gentle reader, there’s much more to this collection than meets the loins. These stories capture the best and worst of what it means to be a human who slips and sputters along the path toward being. Loneliness, sure, but forgiveness, joy, fear, boredom, and at times, many times, inexplicable love.

Prize Winners wins it. All eighteen rounds. All in a row.

Pre-order your copy at Artistically Declined Press. Ryan promises to sign your copy, and might even draw you a little cartoon.

Related Blog Post
Ryan W. Bradley

The Science of Understanding

a review of Patrick Somerville’s new collection of short stories, The Universe in Miniature in Miniature

BY ALBA MACHADO | November 13, 2010

Last July, the Chicago Underground Library hosted its second annual “Science of Obsurity,” a science fair for writers, complete with dioramas, posterboards, and interactive experiments. In it, local writers found playful ways to present their works in terms of science fair projects: a story about a cantankerous crab, for example, was accompanied by an apparatus for determining one’s level of crabbiness. It was a lot of fun, and eye-opening, too. Through an experiment involving handwriting analysis, I discovered that I was in danger of developing an unpleasant foot problem that could only be prevented by reading Mrs. Dalloway and Jaws simultaneously. This is the magic of mixing imaginative writers and science. As entertaining and enlightening as this year’s “Science of Obscurity” may have been, however, something was missing.

The event was sadly lacking in Patrick Somerville.

The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, Somerville’s third book and second collection of short stories, is just begging to be made into a dozen or more pseudo-science-fair projects, each the kind in which all of the data collected is inconclusive but still illuminating.

Its title story is about three students who are each working on a project for the School of Surreal Thought and Design. Rose, the story’s narrator, seems to have the least consequential, if most amusing, project: she builds models of young boys building models of the solar system–hence the title. Lucy’s project, on the other hand, seems to be far more serious: using eighteen spycams and a “gladiatorial” van, she spies on Ryan, a young man who suffered a fall that rendered him invalid, and she spies on his beleaguered parents, too, so that she can study the “wholesale collapse of a family following major trauma.” And then there’s Dylan, who is “writing a novel about scientists who accidentally destroy the planet earth while trying to devise the perfect carbonated beverage.”

As Rose reveals more about herself, we see that her thoughts are focused not so much on the rings of Saturn and the proportional distance of one planet to another, but on the inner lives of Ryan, his family, and her friends, and on what it means to connect with and understand others, and to be alone. She says, “I sometimes imagine myself totally alone and I enjoy the feeling. And I mean something by alone, something more than the word holds. I mean something black and pure and vacant, plus me.” Her solar system models, then, become more of a representation of her project than the project itself–a perfect symbol for the story and for the entire collection.

Although they seem disparate at first, the tales in The Universe are delicately tied together into a novel-in-stories by recurring themes and motifs, oddball characters, and delightful self-referential moments. As we tour a world in which the sun has gone away, the spirits of the dead fuse together to form monsters, Hitler may be operating UFOs, a man would pay $85,000 to undergo a life-threatening “follicle procedure,” and where extraterrestrials are not all-that-intelligent life forms but, rather, idiots, certain words, images, and incidents reverberate throughout the collection with the power that a butterfly’s flapping wings have in chaos theory. It may take a bit of vigilance on the part of the reader to recognize the subtlest of these echoes, but the overall effect is haunting.

Everything comes together in the collection’s final story, “The Machine of Understanding Other People,” in which a broken man inherits a helmet that allows him to inhabit others, psychically and emotionally. Built as a weapon to fight Germans during World War II, the helmet is fitted with elaborate antennae and sensors, and seems to be a Victorian imagining of futuristic inventions, fanciful and romantic, like H.G. Well’s time machine. It is another fitting symbol for the collection, merging old and new, magic and science, and although far more sophisticated than Rose’s solar system models, it too is a means of achieving perspective and understanding. And it would have made a spectacular artifact for the Science of Obscurity.

Thankfully, Somerville is a Chicago guy being published by one of Chicago’s most promising independent presses, featherproof, and that means that he will be celebrating the upcoming release of The Universe at our very own Hideout this Thursday, November 18th, from 8pm to 11:30pm. He will be joined by writers Benjamin Nugent (American Nerd: The Story of My People) and Hannah Pittard (The Fates Will Find Their Way), and there will be music provided by DJ Fabulette. This won’t be your typical release party, either. Guests are encouraged to come dressed as their favorite aliens. There will be a contest with prizes and the first fifteen aliens will each receive a free copy of Somerville’s book. It sounds like this release party will more than make up for the author’s conspicuous absence at the science fair. After all, what could possibly be more fun than Patrick Somerville and dancing aliens?

Related Blog Post
Largehearted Boy’s Book Notes about Somerville

The Rigelians are here!

(and they are not Jewish)

a review of Evan Mandery’s new novel, First Contact: Or, It’s Later Than You Think (Parrot Sketch Excluded)

BY ALBA MACHADO | June 29, 2010

Some people have reacted to the cataclysms of the last ten years by reexamining their understanding of international policy, religious fanaticism, nuclear proliferation, global warming, and the depletion of our natural resources. Others have taken refuge in the pages of popular series fiction, especially that involving vampires. The magic of Evan Mandery’s second novel, First Contact: Or, It’s Later Than You Think (Parrot Sketch Excluded), is that it will make you feel like you have gotten far, far away from it all even as it leads you to ponder the most profound and complex questions of the day, all without the benefit of sexy bloodsuckers.

Ralph Bailey is the attaché to the president of the United States, which is really just a fancy way of saying that he fetches sandwiches and searches the globe for the perfect pair of underwear. His job becomes considerably more exciting, however, when he’s charged with the task of announcing to the president that aliens from the planet Rigel-Rigel have made contact with Earth. Failing to understand the historic importance of this communication, the president, believing the aliens to be Jewish, decides that hosting a Jewish-themed dinner party to welcome them to Earth might help him demonstrate his commitment to Israel—and, consequently, get him reelected. Ralph has his work cut out for him when he discovers the real purpose of the Rigelians’ interest in Earth: they want to prevent the Earthlings from destroying their planet. While he does what he can to save the Earth, he also falls in love, and we meet a diverse array of colorful characters, both human and Rigelian.

As others have pointed out, Mandery does an excellent job of channeling Kurt Vonnegut, presenting readers with a barrage of jokes that run the gamut from wacky and juvenile to graceful and sophisticated. His narrator indulges in a good number of digressions, too, as when, after a passage that describes the many ways in which Theodore Roosevelt “sucked the juice out of life” (itself a digression), he says, “By coincidence I am eating an orange right now, which I am doing by sucking out the juice but discarding the remains. This is how I like to eat oranges, though it seems like a waste and gives me some pause about the whole live-life-to-the-fullest thing. Any physician worth his salt will tell you the pulp is where the fiber is.” But Mandery’s wit and charm make readers oscillate between wanting to know what happens next in the story and wanting to hear more of the narrator’s wandering thoughts.

Take this book to the beach for a light, entertaining read or introduce it to your book club for a spirited discussion on ethics, objectivity, and existentialism. This is serious literature that reads like guilty pleasure.

Related Post
Interview with Evan Mandery at Literago by Alba Machado

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