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Feature Wed Dec 03 2008

2008 Chicago Fiction in Review

al aswany.jpgAs always, Chicago gave us a wealth of new stories and characters to challenge, despise, laugh with and make us fall in love. We were graced with the final works of two literary giants: Richard Wright and Kurt Vonnegut, both of whose books were posthumously published with the efforts of their children. We traveled through Eastern Europe looking for the story of a man named Lazarus with Aleksandar Hemon. We got inside the minds of Chicago-living Egyptian immigrants with Alaa al Aswany. We invoked the city's dead with John McNally. We discovered the truth behind a thirteen-year-old girl's mysterious and dangerous birth with James Kennedy. And, of course, we did so much more. Below is a list featuring some of the notable books about Chicago or written by Chicago authors published in 2008. If you're looking for some gift ideas for family or friends who are local lit lovers, I hope this will give you some solid ideas of where to start.

Chicago: A Novel
by Alaa al Aswany (Harper, 342 pages)
Set on the campus of the University of Illinois Medical Center in a post-9/11 world, Chicago records the social collisions of Egyptian and American lives. Among the cast of characters are an atheistic anti-establishment American professor, an immigrant who has embraced his new American identity but cannot escape his Egyptian roots when it comes ot his daughter, an Egyptian State Security informant and a student poet who comes to America to fund his literary dreams.

The Kept Man
by Jamie Attenberg (Riverhead Books, 291 pages)
Jarvis Miller has been living as a half-widow for six years: Six years ago her husband, an artist whose career was on the cusp of success, suffered a fall and has been in a coma ever since. It isn't until Jarvis meets a group of kept men - men whose wive's are the breadwinners - at her laundromat that the idea of opening up to new changes becomes a possibility. After learning a devastating secret about her husband, Jarvis is faced with having to decide what to do with what remains of his art and of his life. [You can read my full review of this book here.]

The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted: And Other Small Acts of Liberation
by Elizabeth Berg (Random House, 242 pages)
The stories in this book focus not so much on food specifically, but on women departing from convention. They ask what you would do if you left Weight Watchers and spent a day eating whatever you wanted; what would happen if you started a dating service for people over fifty; how you can find comfort in aging or friendship in the unlikeliest of places. They are an exploration of the chanllenges ordinary women face everyday.

An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories: Volume 2
edited by Ivan Brunetti (Yale University Press, 400 pages)
In this second volume of graphic stories, local comic artist Brunetti collects work from well-known artists like Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, Art Spiegelman and Charles Burns, and lesser-known artists like Laura Park and Matthew Thurber. Also included are classic comic strips, related fine art and historical materials.

The Lagoon
by Lilli Carre (Fantagraphic Books, 80 pages)
Carre's debut graphic novel features a family who is seduced by the song of the Creature from the Black Lagoon and details how each member reacts to the Creature's call. The films Creature from the Black Lagoon and Night of the Hunter served as inspiration for Carre's work.

Trigger City
by Sean Chercover (William Morrow & Company, 295 pages)
The case is closed on a woman murdered by her coworker, but has the truth really been found? In this follow up to Big City, Bad Blood, PI Ray Dudgeon thinks investigating what seems like an open-and-shut case will be an easy payday, but what seems routine comes to reveal a double life built on secrets and lies. Ray soon finds himself unexpectedly caught in a war between the private sector and the government that stretches all the way to the frontlines of Iraq.

Diary of a Bad Year
by J.M. Coetzee (Viking Books, 231 pages)
Coetzee's latest novel follows an again author whose German publisher has asked him to record his thoughts on the state of the world. The resulting writings examine a wide range of topics, including an indictment of Bush, Cheney and Blair, and the current states of music, literature, intelligent design and much more. Entering to the writer's life is the young woman with whom he will have a relationship and who, unbeknownst to him, lives with a man who has an interest in his bank account.

Everyday People
by Kevin Coval (EM Press, 91 pages)
This is the second collection of poems by Coval, the founder of the Chicago Teen Poetry Festival and poet-in-residence at the Jane Addams Hull House Museum at the University of Illinois-Chicago and University of Chicago.

You Must be This Happy to Enter
by Elizabeth Crane (Akashic Books, 250 pages)
Crane's third collection of short stories includes a husband and wife discussing what they world take to a desert island, a photographer who time-travels and is arrested for being happy, a suburban zombie who's become a reality TV star, a woman who waits for her adopted child to arrive and more. The story "Donovan's Closet" was originally published as one of Featherproof's downloadable minibooks.

Songs of Insurgency
by Spencer Dew (Vagabond Press, 108 pages)
Dew brings us a collections of short stories featuring a woman who erases history books, a groundskeeper who drags bodies of out lakes at a suicide camp, a driver who continously drives west only to pass the same landmarks time after time. The stories evoke fear, paranoia, alienation and numbness for a view of our post-9/11 world.

My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead: Great Love Stories, from Chekov to Munro
edited by Jeffrey Eugenides (Harper, 587 pages)
Edited by the author of Middlesex, this anthology compiles some of the greatest love stories ever written. Included are pieces by James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Lorrie Moore, Miranda July and many more. Proceeds from this book benefit 826 Chicago.

This Will Go Down on Your Permanent Record
by Susannah Felts (Featherproof Books, 183 pages)
Set in Nashville, This Will Go Down on Your Permanent Record follows two girls who form an unlikely friendship and spend a summer together. The relationship intensifies when they each become the subject of the other's efforts - one experimenting with art and the other experimenting with social situations. The book is a coming-of-age story that captures the feeling of growing up in the South and testing adolescent limits.

Travel Writing
by Peter Ferry (Harcourt, 304 pages)
Inserting himself as the narrator of his own novel, Ferry writes himself as a Lake Forest English teacher who witness a car accident that kills a beatiful woman. Ferry becomes obsessed with finding out how the accident happened, if he could have prevented it and even whether it was just a figment of his imagination concocted to demonstrate the power of story to his teenaged students. More importantly, he questions what his obsession with the woman means for his relationship with his girlfriend. Travel Writing is the Book Club's November 2009 selection.

Creatures of a Day
by Reginald Gibbons (Louisiana State University Press, 79 pages)
This poetry collection offers intense encounters with regular people in different historical and social contexts of ordinary life. The poems focus on memory, obligation, love, death, celebration and sorrow. Creatures of a Day was been nominated for the National Book Award.

One Nation, Under God
by Keir Graff (Severn House Publishers, 250 pages)
It's election time and the presidency may be decided by one seat in Tusla, OK. It's here that meth addict Seth Stevens is trying to keep his life together, but his decision to campaign for the candidate the church is supporting forces him to ask himself what you do when following your faith means breaking the law.

The Fifth Floor
by Michael Harvey (Alfred A. Knopf, 277 pages)
A follow-up to Harvey's 2007 novel The Chicago Way, The Fifth Floor follows a murder in present day Chicago and traces it all the way back to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. PI Michael Kelly is hired to keep track of an abusive husband, but his investigation leads him to an old house on the North Side that contains a body and perhaps the answer to who started the Great Chicago Fire and why.

Easy Innocence
by Libby Hellman (Bleak House Books, 396 pages)
Former cop Georgia Fisher is hired as a PI to investigate the death of a young girl and what she finds is must darker than the crime at first suggests. It seems that the these prep school girls on the city's North Shore have learned to sell their innocence to businessmen, but at a cost that few have truly expected.

The Lazarus Project
by Aleksandar Hemon (Riverhead Books, 294 pages)
In 1908, nineteen-year-old Lazarus Averbuch is shot while trying to deliver a letter to the chief of Chicago police. A century later, a young writer in Chicago named Brik becomes obsessed with Lazarus's story and retraces his journey from Eastern Europe through pogroms and povery to present-day Chicago. Also an immigrant from Eastern Europe, Brik finds his life becoming intricately entwined with Lazarus's story.

The Order of Odd-Fish
by James Kennedy (Delacorte Press Books for Young Readers, 403 pages)
At the age of 13, Jo Larouche and her Aunt Lily are mysteriously driven from their home in California to the strange world of Eldritch City. Here men and women are knights, teenagers serve as their squires and three-foot cockroaches wearing monocles and top hats work as extremely proper butlers. It is here that Jo must learn the truth of her birth and what her return to Eldritch will mean for the city and the people living there.

Ellington Boulevard: A Novel in A-Flat
by Adam Langer (Spiegel & Grau, 336 pages)
In this novel, Langer takes his focus to New York where Ike Morphy and his dog Herbie Mann stand to be evicted from their apartment on Duke Ellington Boulevard. Centering around the New York real estate boom, the characters include the newly Jewish, alcoholic, womanizing landlord; an out-of-work actor turned real estate broker and his boyfriend; the buyer who falls in love with the tenant; the buyer's husband and the buyer's husband's girlfriend.

Pieces of the Hole
by Tony Lindsay (Third World Press, 178 pages)
This collection of short stories are as different as can be but are linked together by the hip-hop culture on the south side of Chicago. Encompassing vivid scenes of gang violence, drug use and prison life, Lindsay juxtaposes the harshness of urban life with the softer preoccupations of adolescence, romantic possibilities and moments of ordinary family life.

The Norman Maclean Reader
by Norman Maclean (University of Chicago Press, 304 pages)
Maclean published only one book in his lifetime - the wildly popular A River Runs Through It (our February 2009 selection) - but he left behind several works that have been collected here. Included are personal essays, letters and interview excerpts. The Reader also includes pieces from River and the posthumously published Young Men and Fire.

Ghosts of Chicago
by John McNally (Jefferson Press, 228 pages)
In this collection of short stories, McNally evokes the ghosts of some of Chicago's most famous inhabitants - John Belushi, Walter Payton, Nelson Algren and even Richard J. Daley. While some stories focus on resurrecting the city's dead, others tell the stories of ordinary people who deal with their ghosts, both figuratively and spiritually.

Demons in the Spring
by Joe Meno (Akashic Books, 272 pages)
In a limited hardcover print, Demons in the Spring collects twenty new short stories by Meno and illustrations by twenty notable artists including Charles Burn, Archer Prewitt, Kim Hiorthoy and more. The stories explore depression, loneliness and the insanity of the world while incorporating supernatural elements. A portion of the proceeds of this book go directly to benefit 826 Chicago.

The Senator's Wife
by Sue Miller (Knopf Publishing Group, 305 pages)
Miller follows the parallel lives of Meri, a newly pregnant and newly married woman, and Delia, the wife of an adulterous two-term senator, to examine what keeps people toegether and how compromise and disappointment can bring about healing and grace. Both women must learn to navigate the contours of marriage, one working through many complicated years and the other just at the outset of this part of her life.

Bleeding Kansas
by Sara Paretsky (Putnam, 448 pages)
Set in Paretsky's hometown, Bleeding Kansas follows two farm families, the Schapens and the Grelliers, whose shared history dates back to the 1850s. The Schapens keep a close eye on their neighbors and maintain their feelings of religious superiority when their cow gives birth to a Perfect Red Heifer while the death of the Grelliers' son in Iraq forces change not only in the lives of the Schapens, but in the lives of the entire neighborhood.

Boring Boring Boring Boring Boring Boring Boring
by Zach Plague (Featherproof Books, 285 pages)
A book mysterious book goes missing; revenge is plotted against The Platypus; the Punk shows up with a new sex drug; an art terrorism cell threatens an implosion of the White Ball. All this and stylized, graphic text can be found in Plague's debut novel, a satirical skewering of the art world.

by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin Company, 233 pages)
In the second year of the Korean War, Marcus is beginning his sophomore year of college and dealing with his father's obsession with the dangers adult life poses for his son. While his mother insists the fears come from love, Marcus finds that he can live with his parents no longer and starts his new life far from home at a Midwestern college. The book is a coming-of-age story, following Marcus's run-ins with love, difficulties with his school's administration and troubles with his parents' meddlings in his life.

At the City's Edge
by Marcus Sakey (St. Martin's Minotaur, 312 pages)
When Jason Palmer returns from Iraq, he finds adjusting to regular life difficult and wants nothing more than to spend time with his brother and nephew. Jason learns of his brother's involvement in an anti-gang community organization after his shocking murder and, with the help of sidelined cop Elena Cruz, Jason must put everything he's learned as a solider into this war on his home turf. [You can read my full review of this book here.]

Good People
by Marcus Sakey (Dutton Books, 326 pages)
Tom and Anna Reed are struggling to become parents and their failed fertility treatments have drained their financial resources. When their downstairs tenant dies and they find $400,000 hidden away in his kitchen, they leap to the opportunity to have the life they've always dreamed of. But the tenant's shady past as a criminal with a rocky history with some of Chicago's most dangerous men forces the Reeds to realize that dreams are never cheap.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames
by David Sedaris (Little Brown and Company, 323 pages)
Sedaris produces yet another collection of semi-autobiographical, semi-truthful, fully amusing essays. Named for the essay in which Sedaris recounts his travels to Tokyo to quit smoking, the book also includes recollections of the author and his sibilings banding together to battle their babysitter, musings on sitting in a doctor's office in his underwear and a record of the more notable mistakes he's made in his life.

Dream City
by Brendan Short (MacAdam/Cage, 375 pages)
Every little boy wants to be a hero, including six-year-old Michael Halligan who imagines himself as "Mike Steele," a righter of wrongs and a friend to memorable comic heroes. But when his mother dies and he's left in the care of his gangster father, his belief in the power of good over evil begins to waver. The book follows Michael's later efforts to track down a copy of his favorite comic book and recapture the comfort that was once his childhood.

When the White House Was Ours
by Porter Shreve (Mariner Books, 280 pages)
As the country prepares to celebrate the bicentennial, Daniel Truitt and his family head to Washington D.C. to start what will become "Our House," an alternative school run by Daniel's parents, his uncle and his wife and the man she is now sleeping with. The school's egalitarian spirit is meant to encourage the students to take control of their own education, but it's what will eventually do them in and deepen the cracks in the Truitts' already tenuous family.

Windy City: A Novel of Politics
by Scott Simon (Random House, 419 pages)
The mayor of Chicago is found murdered in his office, facedown in a pizza box, wearing only his underwear. Though opinions on the mayor vary, the city mourns his loss and over the course of four days, police scramble to find his killer while politicians vy for his throne. At the center of the story is the 48th Ward Alderman, an Indian immigrant who's tiring of politics, but must serve as the interim mayor and figure out what's best for his two teenage daughters.

Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine
by Ben Tanzer (Orange Alert Press, 180 pages)
Tanzer's second novel follows four New Yorkers and the relationships they build with each other. Jen and Geoff suffer the emotional dysfunctions of their families and try to figure out if they can make their relationship work while Paul and Rhonda's rocky start allows for their unexpected connection. Using pop culture references, the characters try to make sense of the confusing lives they lead. [You can read my full review of this book here.]

Armageddon in Retrospect
by Kurt Vonnegut (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 232 pages)
Published after Vonnegut's death in 2007, this collection of writings focuses on the opposing ideas of war and peace. The pieces range in focus from a non-fiction recollection of Desdren during World War II to a short story about three soldiers fantasizing about the perfect first meal at home to a story about protecting our children from the temptations of violence. This collection also includes an introduction by Vonnegut's son, an assortment of Vonnegut's artwork and his last speech.

by Irvine Welsh (W.W. Norton & Company, 344 pages)
Detective Inspector Ray Lennox of the Ediburgh PD has suffered a breakdown after his involvement in a child murder case. While placed on mental leave, Lennox spends some time in Miami with his fiance where he descends back into his old habits and finds himself the potential savior of a 10-year-old girl who's being targeted by a ring of pedophiles. [Check out parts 1 and 2 of Alissa Strother's interview with Welsh.]

A Father's Law
by Richard Wright (Harper Perennial, 320 pages)
Posthumously published, this is the final book from accalimed author Richard Wright. It follows a black Chicago police officer who has been appointed the police chief of a rich suburb after the current police chief is murdered. The themes of race, class and family dynamics are explored throughout the story.

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