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Reviews Thu Jan 10 2013

Review: George Saunders and Adam Levin at Lincoln Hall

On Tuesday night, acclaimed writer and native Chicagoan, George Saunders charmed a sold-out audience at Lincoln Hall. The event, which was hosted by The Book Cellar and Newcity, featured Saunders reading from his latest, Tenth of December, and engaging with his former student and celebrated author Adam Levin.

There was a surge of publicity for Saunders in the weeks leading up to the event. This isn't necessarily uncommon for a well-known writer with a new release; publishing houses pay their publicity people a living wage to get some time on NPR or some space in the Tribune. Naturally, these pieces weren't the "New Book from New Voice!" type, but they packed a similarly excited punch. In fact, Many placed Saunders way, way up there in American letters, or at least argued that he's The Writer of This Moment.

One piece in the New York Times Magazine entitled "George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You'll Read This Year," more than any other, fully articulated this argument -- and of course, made the point offered in the title.

Whether you agree that Tenth of December is the best book you'll read in 2013, (and how can we be sure? It's not even mid-January yet, Times) Tuesday night was the best reading you could see in Chicago in 2013. Of that, I'm sure. And for those present, it reinforced something long evident; George Saunders is a delight!

After a very kind and light-hearted introduction from Levin, Saunders read from "Victory Lap," the first story in Tenth of December, originally published by The New Yorker in 2009. The story features the dual narrations of two neighboring teenagers -- a girl, tip-toeing around her house, practicing her ballet, waiting for her mother, wondering of her own depth and qualities and future; and a boy, made so impotent by his overbearing (but well-meaning!) parents that he can't even think in coarse language, wandering his kitchen, observing his family's weird bureaucratic mechanisms (Family Status Indicator! Shoe Sheet! Work Notice!). Saunders was game for the narration's affects, gesticulating when necessary and drawing laughter from the captive audience. He left the audience grudgingly delighted on a cliffhanger, as the young woman was kidnapped -- this witnessed by the boy and, yeah, buy Tenth of December and read on.

The conversation with Levin was informal and basic. From their Syracuse days the two share a very close relationship -- which doesn't always lend itself to on-stage banter. When one spoke, the other listened. Saunders paid the city a fine compliment when discussing how his upbringing in the city -- born in Gage Park, later growing up in Oak Forest -- help form his transition as a writer from Hemingway ripoff to the guy many think is The Guy. And as was the case throughout the night, Saunders was candid. When Levin asked him about labels, Saunders shook off the now-common "satirist" thing, finding it too cynical. He talked about having to look up "dystopian" after reading a review of his first book, CivilWarLand In Bad Decline.

The event closed with a Q&A that was enjoyable. Saunders was open to an audience that asked substantial questions (Education -- a pyramid scheme?! Chicago in the 1960s?!) and engaged to our delight.

And just after Saunders thanked everyone, just before we were all going to break into applause and line up for the signing, a voice behind me piped up and begged "just a quick comment!" For this reviewer, no previous reading featuring an anxious "just-a-commenter!" has ever left a pleasant taste. But this guy was suitable. He spoke to Saunders like he'd bumped into him outside the Fullerton El, freely telling him (and us) he'd never heard of Saunders before he read the NYT Mag piece, and then heard about him on WBEZ, so he went to the store and picked up a few books and was enthralled with what he read.

It was like so many of Saunders's endings: slightly offbeat but good and sweet.

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john wawrzaszek / January 10, 2013 1:32 PM

Great article Kevin. I couldn't make it and this piece makes me kick myself for not being able to. Thanks for the report.

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