Tag Archives: Jess Millman

Staff Q&A: Our Most Anticipated Books of 2015

2015 PICKS

What book are you most looking forward to in 2015?

Danette Chavez. Aleksandar Hemon’s The Making of Zombie Wars (May 12, 2015). I was lucky enough to attend his talk at the Humanities Fest, and he read an excerpt from his next novel, which he promised is a “roller-coaster ride of sex and violence.” The protagonist, Josh Levin, is an ESL teacher and flailing screenwriter so the action is interspersed with script ideas, each worse than the last. Josh gets more than he bargained for when he tries to inject some of that melodrama into his real life.

Sophie L. Nagelberg. Visitants by Dave Eggers from McSweeney’s (March 10, 2015). I surprised myself by choosing a travel writing book, but then again, it is Dave Eggers and this non-fiction collection chronicles his experiences with people and places across the globe from Saudi Arabia to China to Thailand, Sudan, and Croatia, to name a few.

Todd Summar. Get in Trouble by Kelly Link (February 3, 2015). Link is one of my favorite fabulist writers. Her stories are at once funny, quirky, sad, creepy, and surprising. She has developed a cult following by creating worlds and styles all her own within the confines of the short story medium. Though I’d love to one day read an entire novel from her, it’s been far too long since her last story collection. The exaggerated conceits at the surface of her work – hurricanes, astronauts, evil twins, bootleggers, Ouija boards, iguanas, The Wizard of Oz, superheroes, the Pyramids—are grounded with her unique take on human frailty.

Julia Fine. Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (March 3, 2015)—the first novel in a decade from a master of the craft, set in mythical, post-Arthurian England. I’m also eagerly awaiting A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (May 5, 2015), a follow-up to last year’s Life After Life, which I loved and highly recommend to anyone who hasn’t yet discovered it!

Brian Zimmerman. The Strange Case of Rachel K by Rachel Kushner (February 10, 2012). I loved The Flamethrowers and I’m eager to see how Kushner’s fiction operates in shorter forms. Also, because this is a collection of stories that predates her first novel, I think it will be interesting to track the trajectory of her prose and storytelling capabilities.

Daniel Camponovo. The First Bad Man by Miranda July (January 13, 2015). Though I’m usually wary of artists crossing mediums, July is one of my favorite filmmakers, and her previous collection of stories No One Belongs Here More Than You was a fantastic distillation of her aesthetic. The main criticism I’ve heard regarding her story collection (that the stories are too narratively similar, with little tonal variation in voice) is, in a weird way, one of its strengths—July has as singular and distinctive an artistic voice I’ve heard in years, and I can’t wait to see how it flexes and develops over the course of a full novel.

Jess Millman. Would it be gauche of me to second Todd’s praise of Kelly Link? Her prose is snappy and transformative, her settings are lush, and all that’s combined with the high talent of not taking the literary genre’s crustiness so damn seriously 100% percent of the time. I’m also all for Roxane Gay’s Untamed State (which goes international early this year). Her short stories aren’t just accessible to a wide variety of readers, but they’re as real as it gets—delicate, sometimes spindly prose partnered with genuinely harrowing scenes. I am awfully grateful to an author who can disorient me in such a way. That, and Bad Feminist should’ve been added to every required reading for American college freshmen, yesterday. OK, one more: Jon Ronson’s newest release, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (March 31, 2015). I wasn’t altogether fond of the sensational Psychopath Test, but I am quite fond of Ronson’s narrative voice, which teases readers, in the way of the good old mystery yarns, to beat the writer to his own conclusions.

Alba Machado. I want all of your picks on my shelves, particular Hemon and Link. For mine, though, I’m gonna have to go with Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet (November 3, 2014—new enough, right?). She’s new to me, but she’s been around long enough to have published thirteen books—and to be a finalist for the Pulitzer—and, you guys, there’s big-time humor, social commentary, wacky magic, and stylistically adventurous prose. All my favorite things. Mermaids in Paradise is about a couple from a romanticized Middle America (“modern day pioneers” who are “somewhat mythic” and “love cruises”) who are forced to spend their honeymoon in the Caribbean helping an ex-Navy SEAL and a hipster save a mermaid and her coral reef from being turned into a freak show at a theme park. Did I mention the Pulitzer thing? Nothing more exciting to me than a serious—and funny—writer dealing in things like mermaids, taking the absurd and turning it into something real and meaningful—without losing the humor. Karen Russell is quoted on the book cover as saying, “I laughed so hard all over town,” and I’m really looking forward to doing the same.

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Please Don’t Move This Chair: Nina Sankovitch at The Book Cellar
by Jess Millman

Letter Writing

NINA SANKOVITCH. PHOTO COURTESY OF CTPOST.COM.

Banana bread, root beer, and weekday night readings – you’re probably at The Book Cellar. If you were there last Wednesday night, you’d have been sitting with me in the tight, country kitchen geometry of their café, listening to Nina Sankovitch (author of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair) read us bits and bobs from her newest book, Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing.

Sleeve the cheese off the title; the veal inside is good. Signed, Sealed, Delivered is not a simple letter collection reprint or a preachy lament about the lost art of honest-to-God handwriting. Sankovitch has written a memoir interlocked with a historian’s desire to discover people by reassembling – piecemeal – their words, memories, ink blots, and willowy penmanship. The book (and Wednesday’s talk) began with the story that in turn began the book: a steamer trunk of old college letters found inside a writer’s new home. She read us passages from inside that trunk, mostly consisting of a homesick freshman’s thoughts to his mother in the early 1900s. They are the peacefully mundane stuff of daily life: someone is cavorting, someone will study tomorrow, someone is about to receive a tuition bill. But one of those keepsakes, not more than a scribble on a loose page, stands out: “PLEASE DO NOT MOVE THIS CHAIR.”

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Staff Q&A: From Page to Screen

In this regular feature, we ask our staff a literary question that we’re dying to have answered, and we also want to hear from you! Please use the comments section to tell us about your literary tastes, recommend some reading, or even call us out on something if you disagree.

books-vs-movies

PHOTO COURTESY OF PRINCEOFTHEUNIVERSE.WORDPRESS.COM

This time, we want to know:

What is your favorite book-to-screen adaptation? What book-to-screen adaptation is the absolute worst?

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Staff Q&A: Our Favorite Rereads

In this soon-to-be-regular feature, we ask our staff a literary question that we’re dying to have answered, and we also want to hear from you! Please use the comments section to tell us about your literary tastes, recommend some reading, or even call us out on something if you disagree.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

PHOTO BY ALBA MACHADO

This time, we want to know:

What book do you find yourself returning to despite all of the other reading you’ve got on your plate?

Julia Fine There are so many books I find myself coming back to, but right now my most indulgent reread (if only because my copy is 846 pages long) is Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. Jane Austen meets Harry Potter meets the Grimm Brothers meets European History in this sprawling tale of magic’s return to 19th century England. It’s like Clarke read my mind and combined all of my favorite things into one, crafting a tome that is alternately hilarious and terrifying. It’s hard to believe this is her first novel, the voice is so strong and her hand so deft. A lovely book to curl up with during crazy summer thunderstorms, or to lose yourself in on the CTA. I’m on my third read (not counting a listen to the fabulously creepy audiobook), and I foresee many more to come.

Karen McKinley Wonderful, weird book! I loved it. How about Michael Crichton’s Timeline? A great story about going back in time, and the problems of money and technology and arrogance. The foreword always gets me when he says that as you read the novel and consider whether time travel could ever be possible, you should think of all sorts of technology that would have been considered ridiculous science fiction 100 years ago, including the concept of people traveling to the moon, which now seems commonplace. I reread it again last summer.

Danette Chavez Hard Times (or For These Times) by Charles Dickens. I’ve been reading it about every two years since high school. Its critiques of a utilitarian approach to education and the abysmal conditions of workers caught in the wheels of progress (i.e., the Industrial Revolution) could easily be confused with contemporary works. The Coketown education model championed by one of the main characters has found its real life successor in the Common Core. And oh, those Dickensian names: Gradgrind for an educator and Sparsit for an old gossip, to name a few.

Daniel Camponovo I have a bunch of books I return to far too often (including The Red Pony, every year on my birthday, for 19 years running), but the book I just returned to was The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald. The book, split into four narratives each focusing on a German emigrant’s relationship to the narrator, is a stunning meditation on memory and belonging and collective guilt and the reverberations of war, felt even among those who left the country before it was destroyed. Sebald’s voice is clear and level, and he weaves in these beautiful black-and-white photographs, wrapping the text around the images and incorporating them so they become as much a part of the narrative as the words themselves. If I ever got a tattoo it would be a #3 for Allen Iverson, but if I ever got a second tattoo it would very probably be “There is mist that no eye can dispel.”

Jess Millman A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid. I’ve combed through the essay with a highlighter and a No. 2 many times, but these days I prefer to pretend I’m a virgin reader and let her knock me out. I like the reality check and the clean, rolling rightness of Kincaid’s anger. I like the one hundred-page microburst of being made to look at and feel the rot of a wrong that is so plainly indefensible. Her lessons on imperialism continue to be relevant as exotic-destination beach tourism becomes more popular across different areas of the middle-class spectrum. The trivialization of people who live in these so-dubbed “exotic” places and the cycle of devaluation is a kind of disgrace I, as a beneficiary of this racist system (no matter how compassionate I am, how concerned I am, or how much I try to educate myself) can only come close to fully appreciating by having someone sear me with it. Her prose shakes me and it does it every time. So, for me, there’s no blue like Kincaid’s Antigua.

Todd Summar One of my favorite novels, and one that I return to every so often, is Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. It just celebrated its 25th anniversary, so I took the occasion to reread it recently. I discovered this novel in high school, at a time when my fascination with David Lynch, William S. Burroughs, and all things weird was just beginning to develop. There’s nothing worse than when you return to something you loved when you were younger only to find that it didn’t quite retain its luster. I was happy to discover that Geek Love holds up, and that it is crafted in a much more complex and three-dimensional way than I was originally able to appreciate as a teenager. Not just the gimmicky genre story of a family of circus freaks, Geek Love is rich with character development, morally ambiguous characters, and expertly woven language—at times gruesomely poetic, and at other times harsh as a slap in the face.  The only shame is that Dunn has not written another novel since.

Alba Machado Mine is both canonical and made into films presented on late-night TV with rubber chickens and mustachioed skulls. Growing up, Frankenstein was the big, green guy with a flat head, hemorrhoids, and bolts sticking out of his neck, the guy we hang on the door at Halloween. And that was fun. But then in high school I read the story, and discovered the story behind the story—and I never tire of either one. Often cited as the first science fiction novel to be written in English, Frankenstein explores big, important ideas about the ethics of scientific discovery that are relevant to this day, nearly 200 years later, while still giving its readers one hell of a thrill ride. Despite its flowery language, it feels modern, too, far ahead of its time, given its layers of text forms: letters, journals, inscriptions, and courtroom accounts. And how great is it that it was written by nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley in a scary story competition against literary giants Percy Shelley (her husband), Lord Byron (the cad), and John Polidori (the guy who wrote the first published vampire story—the first, but not the best)? I think it’s safe to say she won that one.

Scott Eagan The two books I’m chronically rereading now are Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and Hey! Wake Up! (Like five reads a day, and that’s a lie because it’s more like seven.) A novel that I come back to frequently, and there are several, is Catch-22.have this love affair with science fiction, and while I know Catch-22 has nothing to do with that, Joseph Heller utilizes the paradox so masterfully in this satirical anti-war polemic that it resonates in everything. It is, to date, the funniest book I’ve ever read, coupled with some of the most complex and batshit crazy characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction. However it’s not one note. There’s variance. It’s very somber at times, very tragic, but also poignant, beautiful, and terrifying. The non-linear structure is so complex, yet is packaged in such a way that the reader never feels lost in time. I love it.

Sophie Nagelberg Almost No Memory by Lydia Davis. It’s full of these concise little stories that leave you thinking. Gigantic by Mark Nesbitt is one I’m always recommending. It’s another short story collection with a powerful voice and these down and out characters that you really root for. Finally, Flannery O’Conner is an author I’ve long been drawn to, perhaps because of our shared Georgia roots, and her infamous use of the grotesque.

Do you have a question that you’d like us to answer in a future installment of Staff Q&A? Let us know in the comments!

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One Thread: Writing like Watchdogs
by Jess Millman

WatchdogBodies boiled out of the Tribune tent on a Sunday summer evening. You could’ve counted sundresses and Velcro visors stippled through the siege of jean capris, which made the suit jackets behind the table look more uncomfortable than your typical Casual Friday. There was a brief mic failure and the journalists onstage laughed it off. Worth the stickiness, the technological blips, and the intermittent elbow tag with a jittery camera guy was an hour at the Chicago Tribune’s Watchdog Panel, where writers broke off the newspaper eggshells to lay open some of their latest stories.

Bit of a topical stretch, you suspect, for a literary magazine? You might think so – and in most circumstances, that gut feeling might’ve shot me in the foot – but the Sunday pack jostling beneath that tarp would find the Printers Row discussion differed from a mundane Meet-the-Writers brunch. It differed in a vital, author-minded way. To this panel, random trivia, “how did you ever read all that research?” and “what’s your favorite book?” were less important nuggets than questions like these: how do you go about composing your truth? what are your goals as a writer? how do you find a story to tell? Continue reading

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Writing (Wo)men
by Jess Millman

For sale at www.thatcompanycalledif.com.

For sale at www.thatcompanycalledif.com.

In the third year of my fiction degree, a writing professor flattened one hand on my desk, broke out a sheepish, sidewinding grin, and observed this: “Your female characters would be strong if they weren’t male characters.”

When you’re in a mood to chew over humanity, watch contemporary litcrit discuss gender. You will hear hip, catchy, piecemeal phrases hammered around age-old ideas. Strong female characters. Beta male. Metrosexual masculine. Modern woman.

Years later, I am still asking myself: what the fuck does this all mean?

A darling question of literary interviewers, hurled at male and female authors alike, is “how did you write such believable woman characters?” Or, worse, why – as though multidimensional women are unusual, foreign, inflammatory fare. A precursory Google search will land you discussion panels, writing “tricks,” classes, and handbooks numbering in the hundred-thousands about how to think like a member of the opposite sex. In these forums, we view different people like different planets, each requiring us to strip off our own identities and devise a wild plan-of-entry, inverting everything we know to be normal, simply to see like the opposite sex.

But the issue of writing cross-gender is more nuanced than flinging Bukowski quotations, debating Franzen fiascos, and starting fistfights over Hemingway’s fetishized Indian Venus. It is bigger than just those writers; it outstretches the unabashedly misogynistic or misandristic authors whose characters are not so much free-standing people as they are vehicles for patriarchal stereotypes. Writers of all sexes and genders can, and do, undermine their protagonists in this way without intending to. These subtle briers of sexism are often more harmful than overt attacks, as they sneakily riddle the prose, the diction, and the concept itself with a primary inequality – they spread the sham notion that our approaches to writing women and writing men must be fundamentally different, based on the belief that these two groups share little common ground.

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